Billy Cobham: Song and Influence Interview By: Liam Sweeny

Written by on July 29, 2021

Everybody has a favorite band. Well, if you like music enough, you have a favorite band. You may have worn their record or tape or CD to death, if you’re of an age to have had those things. My band was Mahavishnu Orchestra (MO), a jazz fusion band of amazing talent that lasted just a handful of years. They were addictive if you were into their sound, a true supergroup.

Bill Cobham was the drummer for Mahavishnu Orchestra. He’d also worked with Miles Davis, and spearheaded his own band, Spectrum. He’s taught drums online, and continues to tour the world.

I sit down with Bill and we discuss sonic decoupage.

RRX: I was so influenced by Mahavishnu Orchestra, when I discovered you all, I didn’t listen to anything else for a whole year. How did Mahavishnu start? Was it formal, in the sense of everyone was recruited, or were you all musical friends that got together one night and saw that you had something?

BC: The MO was conceived by John McLaughlin. He invited me to help him play a few themes that he was working on. Since I was not working much I had the time to commit to assisting him. A few days after we were getting comfortable working on these tunes, John brought in Jerry Goldman to join us. This collaboration led the three of us to Electric Lady Land studios for the recording of My Goals Beyond. We recorded with bassist Charlie Hayden. A few days later Jan Hammer and Rick Laird joined us. All in all, I think it took the band about two weeks to finally be “road worthy”.

RRX: You were one of the founding members of a truly groundbreaking jazz fusion group. You all were first among equals. I could ask you what it was like to work with John McLaughlin, or just as easily ask John McLaughlin what it was like to work with Bill Cobham. You also worked with Miles Davis. Were you ever able to just take that all in?

BC: Working with other artists is a learning process. So, one of the main elements that I found to be important is that I make those in my immediate social sphere of influence feel comfortable being around me. The way that I did that was to be punctual, prepared to play, be quiet yet secure in my actions. It worked for me.

RRX: Three years and done. I had read that Mahavishnu imploded due to just getting so big, so fast. I bet you have a better explanation. Do you all, or any part of you, still talk? Do you think supergroups can really last a long time when they’re continuing to get better with every album, like Mahavishnu (yes, my opinion.)

BC: I think there might still be a Moody Blues. I might speak with John on a rare occasion…. The rest even less.

RRX: I asked Mahavishnu questions because the band changed my life, but you were playing with Miles Davis before that, and you went on to found Spectrum after that. Did it ever dawn on you that what you were doing meant more than just the sounds you were coming out with? Did you feel the history you were creating?

BC: No, I was just focused upon the task at hand. I believe that the ego takes a back seat to everything else that goes into playing the music.

RRX: In 2001, you were in the 25 Most Influential Drummers by Drummer magazine. And so, I guess this goes to the previous question. But in particular, you’ve influenced drummers by the way you set up your kit, and the use of Chinese cymbals. Are there any things you do, kit-wise, that most people, most drummers, don’t really know about?

BC: I will add an additional snare or more in certain performance situations. I might use a field snare drum for certain effects. I will incorporate a Cajun with a special bass drum pedal. As well. There’s more, of course……… but, I leave them.

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