Billy Cobham: Birds Of Fire

By Robert Santelli

(Reprinted from Modern Drummer: January 1992)

When John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, his first choice to play drums in the experimental band was Billy Cobham. McLaughlin was well aware of Cobham's penchant for cross-rhythms and intricate, unconventional time signatures-not to mention the sheer power and intensity Cobham displayed, both on stage and in the studio. Prior to Mahavishnu, McLaughlin and Cobham had both worked with Miles Davis, and the two musicians quickly developed a mutual respect for each other's complex instrumental techniques and musical visions.
In addition to McLaughlin on guitar and Cobham on drums, the Mahavishnu Orchestra also included bassist Rick Laird, violinist Jerry Goodman, and keyboardist Jan Hammer. Together, this quintet mixed McLaughlin's growing interest in Indian music and philosophy (inspired in part by Sri Chinmoy and John Coltrane) with jazz and rock-the result of which helped spark a brand new genre called "fusion."
The Mahavishnu Orchestra recorded two classic studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame [1972] and Birds Of Fire [1973], before personal, philosophical, and musical conflicts caused the demise of the original group in 1973. Birds Of Fire, which perfected the startling musical ideas introduced on The Inner Mounting Flame, was popular enough to make it into Billboard's Top-20. According to Billy Cobham, that album also contained his best drumming while a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

RS: How did you get involved with McLaughlin and Mahavishnu?
BC: John and I started discussing the possibility of working together back around 1969, when we were working with Miles and on other projects to help us keep food on the table. We had a small school of musical philosophy going-as painters or photographers would have. I'm talking about John, Chick Corea, myself, Larry Coryell, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter. All of us worked for Miles at one point or another. We also worked together at a small recording studio in Greenwich Village, doing demos and things. It was a pretty exciting period. This was before Weather Report and before Miles did Bitches Brew.

But to get back to your question, John told me in 1969 about the commitment he had made to this Indian sect and a guru named Sri Chinmoy. Rick, I recall, had his own thing going with another Indian guru at the time. But John really needed to be into it at the time, and when John believed in something, he went whole hog. There were some good things about that organization, but, philosophically speaking, I didn't understand a lot of things they were into.

RS: Did Sri Chinmoy become your guru?
BC: No, I embraced the by-product of him and his organization, which was the music. I didn't exactly understand how the Indian philosophical concept worked; I still don't to this day. But having been to India since then, at least I have a better understanding of what it was all about. Actually, while I was there, I took a few lessons from musicians who taught John.

RS: If you didn't understand the philosophical ideas behind the music of Mahavishnu, why did you stay with the band?
BC: I felt that it was important to try and hang in there and maybe not analyze things, because, at that time, I didn't think I was capable of understanding and absorbing what was behind the music.

RS: Is it correct to consider Birds Of Fire a religious or spiritual album?
BC: For John, not for me. I was coming from just playing the drums. At that time, the ultimate religion for me was going up on stage with that band and playing. But we also had down days. When that happened, it was a case of the music not being as good as the night before. That could be depressing, because, as musicians, we became spoiled. We really believed that what we were doing could only get better. When we found out we had limitations, that was a big problem. We could only go so far based on the concept that was in place. We needed more input. The concept had a strong foundation-which John created. But his mistake was not allowing us to participate openly and freely and-with his support-to develop more material for the band. He wanted it all for himself. That's what sent it down the tubes.

RS: At the time of Birds Of Fire, what drummers were you listening to for inspiration?
BC: I guess I was still embedded in Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, and, of course, Tony Williams-that school of drumming. Those were my people.

RS: What was the studio vibe during the recording of Birds Of Fire? BC: Very, very clear. The reason why The Inner Mounting Flame wasn't exactly clear was because the music was so avant-garde. I remember saying that if we got any live dates, I wouldn't be surprised if they were opening for Marion Brown or Archie Shepp. I really couldn't figure out where we would fit in-or if we would fit in. I didn't expect anything to happen with that first record. It was a lot of fun to play and to let out all of my emotions, but I didn't know back then about finesse. It was, "Yeah, let's play and have a good time."

RS: How old were you at the time?
BC: I was about 27. I wanted to learn about finesse and how to play dynamically-not just loud and soft, but more dimensionally dynamic. But that comes with experience.

RS: Are there any songs on Birds Of Fire that you are especially fond of, or that contained your best playing?
BC: It's been a long time.

RS: Let me read off some of the song titles: "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters", "Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love", "Thousand Island Park".
BC: [laughs] Man, I still don't have a clue as to what those song titles meant. Once we made that record, I put it away. I do, however, remember live performances, and I remember them by the material we played. But those song titles [laughs], they sound so contrived. They feel false now, and they felt false back then. To me, the titles didn't feel like they should be the titles of the songs that are on Birds Of Fire. The title piece was a very very strong piece for me. That I remember. And "Open Country Joy" and "Resolution" were beautiful. We used to do a song called "Binky's Beam". Later the name of the song was changed. It might have been changed to "Sapphhire Bullets Of Pure Love".

RS: The amount of drumming that's heard on Birds Of Fire is almost equal to the amount of guitar you hear coming from John McLaughlin. Was there ever a competitive thing going on between the two of you?
BC: No. My objective was always to be supportive. I played the way I did because I thought Mahavishnu needed a percussionist. But we didn't have one, so I ended up being the drummer and the percussionist. That situation forced me to took for ways in which to make all the pieces fit together. At the same time, I still had to keep time and support whatever else was going on musically. In essence, that approach helped me to develop a concept that took me to where I am now.

RS: Which is where?
BC: Well, I'm looking to work in a big, rack-mounted percussion environment that includes drums, exotic percussion, sequencers, computers-the whole bit.

RS: Was your musical relationship with Rick Laird the standard drummer-bass player relationship?
BC: Rick chose the position that he took. I often wondered what would have happened to my playing if Rick had been another Stanley Clarke. I would never have had to play so much. But Rick left a lot of space in a very definitive kind of way. His patterns were always there rhythmically, but one had to, well, get through it and fill in those spaces. And that's what I did.

RS: When you look back on the fusion concept, do you think it worked? Was it a viable hybrid music form?
BC: Yeah, it got evervbody's attention. But the thing was, fusion is cerebral music, and, generally speaking, people don't want to think when they go out to enjoy themselves. Most people want to go out and groove. Eventually they'll get tired of that, and they'll want to think. But musicians who make cerebral music will always be in the minority.

RS: A lot of people consider Birds Of Fire a classic album. Do you?
BC: Oh yeah. I thought it was the cleanest album the Mahavishnu Orchestra did. The live album [Between Nothingness and Eternity, 1973] was good, but not great.

RS: Why was that?
BC: Because it was something that we put out in place of what we had originally intended to do, which was to make another studio album. So Birds Of Fire stands as the most refined of the three albums we did with the band's original line-up.

RS: On the other hand, some people feel that it sounds dated today. Do you think that's the fault of the times or of the music?
BC: It's the fault of the music: It didn't have enough dimension or depth to it. Back then, the Allman Brothers were happening. That band had this very organic thing happening, and it's still there. The music the Allmans made represented their social environment, and it had a much deeper base than anything that Mahavishnu did. Mahavishnu was a temporary aberration. The timing was right for it. Hendrix had died and John became the Great White Hope of Guitar.

RS: Did you or anyone else in Mahavishnu contribute to the songs on Birds Of Fire?
BC: Absolutely not. But you see, everybody enjoyed playing the music John wrote so much that the music the other members in the band wrote sounded like John's. That's why I never wrote anything for the band, and why I came out with my own solo album, Spectrum. I wanted to do something that did not reflect the heavy influence of John McLaughlin in such a major way.

RS: What about the music? Did the Mahavishnu Orchestra accomplish what it set out to acheive on Birds Of Fire?
BC: I don't know. Personally, I know I played the drums on that album the only way I knew how. It was one of those things where you could definitely say that the ideas for what to play came from the heart-and only the heart. There was no way to analyze what we were coming up with. The presentation was a radical one, and maybe that's one of the reasons why the whole thing went over so well. I mean, we had two guys on stage wearing pure white. The band had an Indian name, and everybody thought it was an Indian acoustic band. Then along come these other people-one with real long hair, a black cat, and one guy from Europe. The whole concept had very strong marketing appeal. Had we not had that combination at that time, I doubt whether the band would have succeeded the way it did.