Bill Rieflin, a multi-talented drummer and percussionist who played with a wide variety of rock and industrial bands over a three-decade career, has died at age 59. In a statement to Billboard his family confirmed that Rieflin died after an eight-year battle with cancer, passing a year after the cancer-related death of his wife of 27 years, master painter Francesca Sundsten.
“Seattle native and life-long resident, Bill was a world-class musician who was at home on the drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards,” reads the family statement. “He was also an accomplished composer and producer who possessed a sophisticated ear, a depth of rare talent and complete dedication to his craft. Known for much of his career as an extraordinary drummer, Bill performed with a wide range of artists and bands from Swans and Ministry to R.E.M. and King Crimson and many more.
“His refined manner, brilliant mind, eye for the ironic and legendary sense of humor defined him as a man of discerning taste, palate, and company. We will miss him terribly.”
The news was announced by King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp, who wrote in a Facebook post, “A call from Tracy Rieflin in Seattle. Bill Rieflin flew from this world c. 18.50 Pacific, 18.50 UK. Tracy [Rieflin’s sister] told Toyah and me that the day was grey, and as Bill flew away the clouds opened, and the skies were blue for about fifteen minutes. Fly well, Brother Bill! My life is immeasurably richer for knowing you.”
Rieflin worked with everyone from R.E.M. and Crimson to a number of industrial metal/dance bands over the years, including Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Lard, KMFMD and Pigface, as well as experimental act Swans and Nine Inch Nails. He helped fill in for departed drummer Bill Berry after the R.E.M. time keeper retired in 1998 and performed with prog rock icons King Crimson from 2013 until shortly before his passing.
Born William Frederick Rieflin on Sept. 29, 1960, in Seattle, the drummer played with a variety of local bands before teaming up with industrial standard bearer Al Jourgensen in Revolting Cocks, and appearing on the landmark third album from Jourgensen’s Ministry, 1988’s The Land of Rape and Honey.
He recorded a number of albums and singles with German industrial/techno band KMFDM from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, providing percussion as well as vocals and keyboards.
His versatile nature made him a frequent go-to studio and touring staple in a number of all-star acts in his Seattle hometown, including Scott McCaughey’s The Minus 5 — which included R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck from time to time — in addition to multi-instrument contributions to albums by Swans leader Michael Gira, Robyn Hitchcock and The Humans, which featured Fripp’s and his wife singer Toyal Willcox. He later served as R.E.M.’s touring drummer for several years beginning in 2003 and played on their albums until the group called it quits in 2011.
Willcox wrote in a post that Rieflin died in Seattle from an undisclosed cancer. “He wasn’t alone but the virus meant no one other than patients where allowed to enter the hospital,” she said. “Bill’s sister, Tracy, determined that Bill would not pass away without his family by his side stood outside on the pavement till the hospital allowed her in. The wonderful staff at the Oncology unit gave access to Bill’s mother Olive and young brother Fritz to be at his side. The pain this extraordinary man has endured in the past 9 years has been unbearable to witness, not only was his body being destroyed by cancer but he also had to bare the cruellest twist of them all, the loss of his beautiful wife Frankie on the 9th March 2019.”
A number of Rieflin’s bandmates posted loving tributes, including R.E.M. bassist/vocalist Mike Mills, who wrote, “Bill Rieflin was a gentleman and a gentle man, but he could beat the shit out of a set of drums. A musical polymath, deeply intelligent and very funny. I’ll miss sharing his darkness and his laughter. Words really don’t suffice. R.I.P., Spill Brieflin.”
Hitchock wrote: “The great Bill Rieflin has changed hotel rooms for the last time – after a long battle with cancer he checked out and left us today. Musical genius and bleak perfectionist, Bill graced me with his drumming, harmonies and laser-sharp insight between 2005 and 2013.”
See some of the tributes to Rieflin below.
Bill Rieflin (1960-2020)
It is with heavy hearts we acknowledge the death of our dear friend and consummate drummer, Bill.
— R.E.M. HQ (@remhq) March 25, 2020
The great Bill Rieflin has changed hotel rooms for the last time – after a long battle with cancer he checked out and left us today. Musical genius and bleak perfectionist, Bill graced me with his drumming, harmonies and laser-sharp insight between 2005 and 2013. RIP dear boy.
— Robyn Hitchcock (@RobynHitchcock) March 25, 2020
Bill Rieflin was a gentleman and a gentle man, but he could beat the shit out of a set of drums. A musical polymath, deeply intelligent and very funny. I’ll miss sharing his darkness and his laughter. Words really don’t suffice. R.I.P., Spill Brieflin.
— Mike Mills 🎶🍁🏈🦃✌🏼 (@m_millsey) March 25, 2020
Saddened by the loss of great musician Bill Rieflin, who performed with scads of divergent bands: Ministry, King Crimson, Lard, nine inch nails, R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock, KMFDM, Robie Williams, Minus5. Here he is drumming for R.E.M. with Bruce Springsteen: https://t.co/MEE0snXloH
— Lance Bangs (@lancebangs) March 24, 2020
— Toyah Willcox (@toyahofficial) March 24, 2020
— KING CRIMSON (@DGMHQ) March 25, 2020
Today we lost a wonderful artist, tremendous human being and an integral part of Ministry’s developments and success…
Safe travels my brother on the way to your next universal gig.
— Ministry (@WeAreMinistry) March 24, 2020
Bill Rieflin has died. What a kind & generous soul. Spanned the gulfs between Pigface and REM and King Crimson — a truly agnostic drummer, if ever there was one. Safe travels, Bill.
— colin meloy (@colinmeloy) March 25, 2020
Watch Rieflin play Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” at Seattle Celebration Day in 2013.