Talking pictures with drummers Billy Cobham and Chris Maas

The two musicians discuss their passions for photography and percussion and how one inevitably impacts on the other

Two of the finest drummers in their respective fields, Billy Cobham (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra and more than 40 albums as leader) and Chris Maas (session player and live drummer for Mumford & Sons) share a passion for both music and photography. Here, they talk about the relationship between the two pursuits in their lives.


My photography ties into everything I do when I play. I started shooting when I was in the army in 1964 and never really stopped. I had a little box camera and they liked my photographs. Some cats got a gun, I got a camera. Well, I had to get a gun as well, but all my shooting was with a camera.

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After the army, I photographed Horace Silver when I was in that band – I took my first album cover photo for his Blue Note album, Serenade to a Soul Sister, in 1968 – as well as Count Basie, Miles and Gil Evans.

When I was with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, on the road for two years, taking photographs gave me some time alone to gather my wits. I mean, some musicians just don't tie into it at all. John McLaughlin, I think he just used a compact camera for snapshots, while I was there with my Leica with a 150-280mm zoom with all the bells and whistles and he'd look at me like I was out to lunch. I still have that M3, but now I am purely digital – a Leica M8 or the S Typ 007.

When I see a photo, it becomes three-dimensional to me – I can picture what it represents and what I imagine its background is. And all these things come out in my playing. For me, taking a photograph is like capturing an instant in my life, like a single cell in an animation, a frozen moment of my time on this earth. It also takes my primary mind away from what I'm thinking musically and gives that part of my brain a rest for a minute while I do something visual. I'm still being creative, but in a different way. Then, when I come back to the music, it has more meaning.

(Image credit: Christophe Maas Photography)


I'm not sure where my photography and my playing fit together. Not yet. I started playing drums when I was four years old; I only began really getting into photography five years ago. You know that Malcolm Gladwell theory that you only get good after 10,000 hours of practice? Well, I've got the hours on the drums, but not on the camera yet, so I don't consider the level of my photography to be anywhere near the level of my drumming – for the moment, at least.

For me, photography began as a way of documenting life on the road, so I could look back and see where we had been, and as a way of filling the hours before you actually get to play. People think of being on the road as just those two hours on stage every night. They forget about the other 22 hours. And taking pictures has changed my life. I get up earlier to try and capture the light and if we're in the middle of nowhere – in Australia or America ­– then I know there will always be something to find, maybe an old sign or a building. You just look at places differently.

I guess there is one aspect where photography complements my drumming. When you're a session player like me, you're hired to play a particular way or with a particular sound, so it's really an expression of someone else's ideas. With photography, that's my own thing. I go out with my Leica M6 or the compact Q and I have nobody telling me what to do, what or how to shoot. It's a personal creative outlet, a freedom that I don't always get from the drumming.

So there's room for both in my life. All I know is, I'm going to carry on taking photographs. Even if the whole world turns against my work, I'll still be taking pictures.

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