Exclusive Interview: Bobby Z

Photo by Joshua Pickering

Prince’s Percussionist
By Michael Aubrecht

It is the dream of every professional drummer to play on a hit record that reverberates forever. Some drummers wait their entire career to achieve such heights. Other drummers find themselves in the right place at the right time. One drummer in particular, performed on a multitude of classic songs that are still resonating to this day. His name is Bobby Rivkin (aka “Bobby Z”) and as a member of The Revolution, he backed one of the most celebrated songwriters of all time. Prince was an innovator and an accomplished drummer himself. He created multi-layered drum parts that revolutionized the way drums were recorded. By pushing the limits Prince needed an equally passionate drummer to perform the complex parts live. Bobby Z was that drummer. Bridging the gap between acoustic and electronic playing Bobby was able to create a wall of unique sounds behind the band. His tasteful style allowed him to punctuate the beat while maintaining time. Playing behind a legend, Bobby Z played the perfect role as a musician. Play what is needed – when it’s needed.

Like most fans I first saw Bobby Z in the Academy-Award winning film “Purple Rain.” Although the stage lighting makes it difficult to see, you know he is there. Presented as “The Revolution” Prince’s band was the perfect complement to his transforming stage presence. This was a role that they fulfilled both on the screen and off. I was immediately taken by Bobby’s performance as he was able to pull off intricate drum parts while participating in the choreography with the band. I was also fascinated with his drum sound. It was so unique I couldn’t tell how it was accomplished. (Thanks to this interview) I learned that it was an experimental bridging of drum machines and triggers. Whatever it took I am still in awe of it. Equally impressive was the style in which Bobby used it. From the splashes of color in “Purple Rain” to the infectious groove in “Pop Life” the drums were spot on. In 2015 I found myself experimenting with sample pads and triggers after being inspired by Bobby. Nothing I programmed even came close to the sound they were able to capture back in the early 1980’s. It had already been done. Following the untimely death of their leader The Revolution is still touring while bringing the sounds of the past into the present. Bobby took some time away from his touring schedule to discuss drums and drumming with us.

MA: I know that you have done a lot of interviews over the last couple months promoting The Revolution’s tour and I thought it might be refreshing for us to focus on the drums.

BZ: Sounds great.

MA: For our reader’s sake, can you tell us what brought you to the drums?

BZ: In the 1960’s my brother David, who we consider the “Godfather” of the “Minneapolis Sound,” was a producer early on. The Minneapolis scene was thriving at that time and a lot of records were being distributed here. Amos Heilicher had a label called SOMA which was his name spelled backwards and they had all kinds of successful groups. My brother David was in one of them. The drummer in that band called the Chancellors was John Hughes and he happened to be a real serious drummer. He had done some studies and knew the proper rudiments. Now Ringo was the next huge force for all of us but John was a very technical drummer. That got me interested in real drumming by watching a real drummer. That is why I first started. I was six at the time. I played professionally at the age of eight and never stopped. I played with my brother Steve, imitating bands while working all the way up until high school where I got a break playing with Kevin Odegard & The KO Band. He played on Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks.”

MA: That is amazing that you were successful at such a young age. Who would you say were your main drumming influences when you were coming up?

BZ: As a young kid your influences are obviously different than when you grow up and begin to learn more. Ringo and the British Invasion had a huge impact on me. The Dave Clark 5 was very influential. That was because Dave Clark was the leader of the band as well as the drummer. That had a special meaning for me. To this day I still look back on that band performing on Ed Sullivan when I identified with Dave as the drummer. Of course there was John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Bill Bruford of YES. The art rock music hit me pretty hard. Bruford’s style of playing with YES and beyond is still something of legend to me. Bonham taught me what he taught us all…power, control and that booming sound. The goose-bumps that his intros and fills give you still stick with me. The production on Led Zeppelin records is a testament to what can be done with the proper drum sound. Deep down in my soul I wanted to play those kinds of fills. I practiced and practiced and practiced and fortunately I got to make my version of some of those fills in songs like “Purple Rain.” I am forever grateful for that journey as it was a big reason why I was able to get to that moment.

MA: I absolutely agree. I’ve done a lot of interviews with a lot of drummers and the name that always comes up is John Bonham. His influence goes well beyond his style and play but also his sound. No one had a sound like he did. His tuning and recording techniques definitely set him apart.

BZ: Jimmy Page as the producer had a lot to do with that too. All of those Led Zeppelin albums sound amazing. Those experimental techniques remind me of what Prince did. They were putting aluminum foil inside the kick drum. They learned how to compress the cymbals so they have that ring out like in “Stairway to Heaven.” Prince was always experimenting with unorthodox ways of recording too. That was especially evident in the drums all the way up to the drum machine. He was using tools like that when nobody else was. Prince was a huge innovator in the drum world pushing the boundaries right when it was turning. Right when Simmons and the LINN were coming out he took that technology and made it happen for his music.

MA: How did you become the drummer for Prince?

BZ: I was working in a studio at Moon Sound. He was recording in Studio A when I first heard him. I heard glorious sounds coming out of that room when he was in there working. It immediately had an impact on me. The vocal range he had and his ability to play the piano was amazing. I became friendly with him when I walked by every day. He wasn’t the most personable guy at first. I had to break the ice with some jokes. Eventually I got him to loosen up and I would watch him record. He would lay down a drum track first all by himself. I was like “What is going on here?” He is hearing breaks and he is stopping and starting on time. Then he would pick up the bass and that would make sense. Next he would grab the guitar and then a keyboard and end it all with singing. Within an hour or so he would have a finished song. It was mind boggling. I was blown away and I knew I wanted to be his drummer. By the time it got to that point he had gone through the whole Champagne band with Morris Day as his drummer and Andre Cymone and the whole north side of Minneapolis.

The way I look at music is if you’re a musician after high school you’re in a different group. I consider myself as a musician…a serious musician and I know he did too. That is what takes you to studios like Moon Sound where you gravitate to where you can record and be with other musicians. That was the melting pot of music. The other side of that is I was working for Owen Husney as a runner and Owen became his manager. He had an advertising business and I did all kinds of runs of proofs around town. Later my job became to drive Prince around town. I was with him morning, noon and night. There was a six to seven month period where we were inseparable. I don’t think it ever occurred to him to hire me on the drums so I kept pushing it and pushing it and eventually got him to see that I was potentially right for the job. He would talk about Mother’s Finest and Drumsticks on Fire and all this stuff. It took a while for him to see that the Mick Fleetwood-Charlie Watts style was what he really wanted. Then it was “bam” I’m the drummer. Once he committed I was committed and we stayed together for close to twelve years.

MA: When you talk about Prince’s recording techniques you illustrate that you were ahead of the curve, especially when it came to the drums. You were trend-setters. Did you have to find ways to develop your own technology?

BZ: Yes. We did. There were components but it was like they were just lying around. Simmons was just coming on the scene. We even had that prototype pad. LINN of course had come out. It was extremely smart in building all those outputs. By having all those outs in the back we gave our brilliant tech at the time Don Bats the ability to create an interface that ultimately allowed us to hook up early triggers to the back of the LINN drum machine. That created the ability to strike an object, activate the trigger and then the drum machine would fire. That kind of technology did not exist at that time. It was one of those unbelievable “Radio Shack” projects that was wired up. By doing it that way it became unique and for a while there, certainly on the Controversy Tour, no one had ever seen anything like that. It started out there and then the interfaces started being produced and the machines started showing up on the shelf. There was a short period of time when we were alone in the desert but then the whole drum world turned to electronics. Everyone was experimenting then.

MA: You were definitely breaking new ground and had such a unique sound. I’ve always been interested in those four drums that you used in place of a rack tom. Did you have to physically build those?

BZ: No. That already existed. That was one of the “secret sauce” products which was the Pearl Syncussion. Those little pads hooked up to the drum synthesizer. It was absolutely fantastic. One of the best uses of it was on “Sexuality.” Those sounds were uniquely created from those pads and the brain of that drum synthesizer. It was total genius that in its scope and algorithm literally allowed you to have a full drum synth at your fingertips. You could sweep on the fly. The cymbal crashes on “1999” were open sweeps. The bombs all came from that box. In “Little Red Corvette” the back-and-forths were coming from this Syncussion device. The combination of the LINN and the Syncussion was the sound for me. I just really took to it and some of those live shows in those days were electronic. Some of those fills were incredible. When I hear “Electric Intercourse,” the live ’83 version, I hear some of the coolest electronic drum fills I ever did. It was just part of the kit and I really embraced it. To this day there are similar products but there is nothing like it.

MA: I also love the opening fills that you guys did on “Take Me With You.”

BZ: That’s Prince in there using his ability for “trick photography” which is what we called it back then. He dragged a set of roto-toms to the mastering session to record that part. There were no limits to him. He loved to incorporate percussion and he was a very accomplished drummer.

MA: I would imagine that when you guys were in the studio you had a unique hybrid set that was a cross between the acoustic and electronic drums. Can you tell us about that?

BZ: The hybrid part of it was there. The first part was the acoustic drum set with a couple pads. Then it became all pads. And then it became a combination of both. It was a little unplayable when it was all pads, especially with the snare being a pad with triggers. It had kind of a double trigger and an awkward feel. When we put the real snare in its place with a trigger that was it. We got the sound and playability that we were searching for. When we did “Purple Rain” live on the American Music Awards (Watch Here) I used a black Pearl kit with a Ludwig Black Beauty and the proper electronics. That was the set that was comfortable and effective. You could do fills on top of the LINN pads. I could get “Purple Rain” to really move every night because it was playable. At that point everything had come together quickly.

MA: I think it is amazing how you were able to mirror the studio sound while playing live on stage. How was that accomplished?

BZ: It was conscious. With everything Prince, not only do you mirror the studio sound but you take it up a notch live. He would never be satisfied with just a beat alone on the record. He wanted full percussion and another pattern on top so he created intensity with the live arrangements that even brought them with more heat and if you watch some of those old videos you can definitely see that. His drum parts were layered and when you get in a live situation he wanted more action on them.

MA: I remember seeing some film where the band was doing a lot of choreography on stage. This required you to play the drums standing up while making the syncopated moves with the rest of the band. How was that?

BZ: Yeah…playing while standing was part of the choreography, similar to the movie that we did. I could play some of it live if I let the pattern go on the foot for a minute I could stand up and participate. Some of that stuff required me to do choreography while sitting down. That was really the amazing stuff. He would get us to do all kinds of movements. In the Syracuse video (This video is available in the Purple Rain deluxe package) that came out years ago we were playing and he calls out “Move it from side to side!” and the whole band breaks into a left-right motion that is just perfect. It’s hard to believe that a band would be that tight but we rehearsed that much and were that cohesive. With Prince’s choreography we could break out at any moment in any song.

MA: I saw a very rare video online of the actual show when the band recorded “Purple Rain” (Watch Here). I believe your brother was the engineer on that recording. Can you tell us about that moment?

BZ: That is correct. It felt so right…like it had a real impact. Prince was so convinced that we were going to create history that night. I drank a lot of Kool-Aid with Prince and I believed that moment was special. It was. You can hear it in the performance. It’s one of the most confident performances I’ve ever done. I played what was in my heart against that amazing guitar solo. It’s just one of moments when you’re truly alive.

MA: Your tasteful placement of the open hi-hat in that song is brilliant. I know that Prince was interviewed one time and he stated that no other drummer could capture the essence of “Purple Rain” like you did. What a great compliment.

BZ: It really is and he was kind enough to tell me that often. I’m extremely grateful that I was part of that song and film. The high point of that movie was a down tempo ballad called “Purple Rain” and the drumming in that song is what really makes your heart beat. It’s a privilege to have played that for the listener and I appreciate you saying that.

MA: Some of the songs from the soundtrack were recorded live. What was it like to be in an environment that required that kind of performance?

BZ: All I can remember is that was so hot and smokey. People could still smoke back then. It was like 89 degrees in the venue. When I got to the mobile truck with my brother, I remember opening the doors and getting hit in the face with the air conditioning. At the time that was all I cared about [laughs]. We were so exhausted and we gave away everything that we had. The look on his face when he said “You guys were really great.” tipped me off that something was up. We had captured it. We played with a special kind of passion that night. When we played the American Music Awards a year later (Watch Here) we were able to recreate that feeling. That song “Purple Rain” belonged right where it sat. For me, everything drum related, the drums, the hats, the cymbals fit seamlessly and that is where it still sits today. It is an incredible feeling as a drummer to play on a piece of music like that.

MA: The film is one amazing musical performance after the other, by both Prince and the band. When you worked with Prince both on film and in video it always seemed like you were doing something creative. In “Raspberry Beret” you have a Simmons pad mounted directly behind your head that you trigger claps with. How did The Revolution fit into Prince’s artistic vision?

BZ: I think The Revolution fit into that role perfectly. I can tell you because I was in every Prince band up until that. It was always a plan to go in many different directions. We were a rock band. Then we were different with Wendy and Lisa. We were like a Fleetwood Mac. We had a Joni Mitchell influence. He was always inspiring us to be band he was looking for. We were the people that were hand-picked by him to become The Revolution. His lead up to the movie was part of his legacy. It almost felt like he was doing all of this in a pre-ordained manner like it was supposed to happen. It was an incredible feeling to watch this man close-up creating this world. It’s a world that we are still talking about today.

MA: Prince had the reputation of being a perfectionist, how did you, as his drummer, handle it?

BZ: He had perfect pitch, perfect tune, perfect time on all instruments. It was astounding. It was pretty hard top compete with that. Especially with him being such an accomplished drummer. We were always wrong. His musicianship was impeccable. He would put his parts down and then work with you on them. That was the process. Some of those arrangements, especially the live ones, were absolutely amazing. People would always perceive us as being so spontaneous when we had so many options at any given measure. I would liken it to a professional sports team where you have different options to use. At any given moment we were there. We had worked so hard it looked natural. He made us perform perfect because he set the example.

MA: Do you have a favorite song that you performed live that personifies you as a drummer?

BZ: Of course “Purple Rain” for the reasons we discussed. It is the dream of every musician to play on a song that becomes a standard. Some of the early songs like “Let’s Work” was always fun to play. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” was another one. That was really good for me as a drummer. “Uptown” too. There are so many that have such great drum parts and great fills. He definitely knew what each instrument needed to do for their parts on these songs. Drums were very important. He was a beat master. It was incredible to play those parts.

MA: Prince and The Revolution created a unique sound that was copied all over Minneapolis and beyond. When did you realize the influence you had on other drummers?

BZ: That whole part of it is hard to believe that you influence anybody. It is so wonderful and gratifying to know that someone, anyone, was touched by your playing. I know that the shows that Prince put together were designed to take no prisoners and smash everyone’s hopes and dreams because he wanted to have the baddest band in the land. He worked us hard to get it. I can understand Prince’s influence on the world and I’m just a cog in that wheel.

MA: I think that you are an important cog. Prince had several other bands (New Power Generation, Third Eye Girl) that were very good but no band backed him better than The Revolution.

BZ: Thank you. I appreciate that.

MA: I want to be sure to talk about your foundation. It’s a very important cause. Tell us about “My Purple Heart.”

BZ: It started with some serious heart issues that I had in 2011. I had a pretty severe heart attack. I learned a lot after that scare. Some misconceptions are how you react to a heart attack. Most heart attacks are not like a “Hollywood style” grab your chest experience. My heart attack signals were in my elbows. It was completely easy to miss and I am sure that many people have died missing it. Education was the idea that spawned things. I recognized the need to teach people to recognize their symptoms. Also to maintain your health by getting your blood and cholesterol checked. The main education is to present the two aspects of heart disease which is the “plumbing” and the “electrical.” The plumbing is the heart attack because the arteries can’t pump because they are clogged with cholesterol. The electrical is the cardiac arrest when out of the blue anybody at any time has electric impulses that cause the heart to difibulate. There really is no explanation for it and it is very hard to prevent. Family history is also a warning. That is why it is essential to keep an eye on things.

MA: Let’s talk about the tour and any other projects.

BZ: I still have a label distributed through Entertainment One, a Toronto-based company. I have a band that is coming out on July 28th called Moonrise Nation. They are from Chicago and very talented. I’m playing with The Revolution and of course I’m very excited doing that. I have some blues stuff coming up in the future.

MA: How does it feel to be out on the stage performing Prince songs with The Revolution?

BZ: It feels great to be on stage with them. There is a lot of trust and it’s a safe place to be if that sounds strange. It’s an escape from everything else. It’s creating that music with them and presenting it to the people. When you hear “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Baby I’m A Star” or “Purple Rain,” even without him you can feel a little of what it was like to hear these songs live. It is a very rare thing to do in the history of Prince. It was a very short time that these songs were played live by The Revolution. It’s a lot of fun and it’s our way of both mourning and celebrating the life and legacy of Prince. As Wendy has said, we all need a place to land.

The Revolution Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/therevolution/

The Revolution Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/therevolutionmusic

1 Comment

Filed under Drums and Drumming

One response to “Exclusive Interview: Bobby Z

  1. glad him and the rest of the Revolution are still here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s