Seattle musician Bill Rieflin of King Crimson, R.E.M. dies at 59

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1 of 3 Celebrated Seattle drummer Bill Rieflin died on March 24 after an eight-year battle with cancer. (Karen Moskowitz)
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2 of 3 The band Sweet 75 included Bill Rieflin, left, Yva Las Vegas and Krist Novoselic. (Barry Wong / The Seattle Times, 1996)
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3 of 3 Celebrated Seattle drummer Bill Rieflin died on March 24 after an eight-year battle with cancer. (Karen Moskowitz)

Veteran Seattle musician Bill Rieflin has died at age 59. A celebrated drummer and multi-instrumentalist, Rieflin’s remarkable career led him to perform with a diverse collection of bands including U.K. prog rockers King Crimson, R.E.M. and industrial metal leaders Ministry.

Rieflin died Tuesday morning after battling cancer for years, his sister-in-law Kathryn Rieflin confirmed. By Tuesday evening, social media was flooded with tributes from fans and Rieflin’s musician friends sharing warm memories of the in-demand drummer for hire, who got his start in the ’70s with Seattle punk bands the Telepaths and the Blackouts.

While the Seattle native had deep ties to the local music community, the bands he was best known for performing with weren’t from the region. After recording an early ’80s Blackouts EP with Ministry founder Al Jourgensen, Rieflin went on to join Jourgensen’s band and became a fixture in the industrial rock scene of the late-’80s and early-’90s, also performing with supergroups Revolting Cocks and Pigface.

Starting in 2003, Rieflin toured and recorded with R.E.M. until the band’s 2011 split. He also played with Northwest alt-rock stalwarts the Minus 5, led by fellow R.E.M. auxiliary member Scott McCaughey.

“A forever memory is decades old,” wrote R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe on Instagram, “when I first met Bill at a late night Policeman’s bar in Seattle, sat at a greasy table drinking scotch, and we listened to ‘Birdland’ off the jukebox in reverent silence and awe. His attentiveness to that song then and there indicated a lot to me about what it would be to work with Bill — which commenced to create some magical and beautiful collaborations and life long friendships.”

While primarily known as a drummer, Rieflin was a versatile multi-instrumentalist and prolific session musician, recording with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to experimental rockers Swans and pop singer Robbie Williams. Most recently, Rieflin had served as a member of King Crimson.

“Fly well, Brother Bill!” King Crimson leader Robert Fripp wrote on Facebook. “My life is immeasurably richer for knowing you.”

Rieflin was preceded in death by his wife of 27 years, accomplished painter Francesca Sundsten, who also died of cancer last year.

Beyond Rieflin’s proficiency on drums, guitar, bass and keys, his family described him as “an accomplished composer and producer who possessed a sophisticated ear, a depth of rare talent and complete dedication to his craft.”

“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,” his family wrote in a statement. “We will miss him terribly. Rest easy, Bill.”

Michael Rietmulder: mrietmulder@seattletimes.com; . Michael Rietmulder is the Seattle Times music writer.