INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo FEBRUARY 2013 - by Mike Barnes
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Robert Fripp's work has seen him traverse the worlds of progressive rock, new wave, improvisational sound and ambient music. In a rare and revealing interview, the recalcitrant musician talks openly about his time leading King Crimson, his collaborations with Brian Eno, David Bowie and David Sylvian, the spiritual elements in his life, and his ongoing battle with the music industry.
"Bugger me! The press are at the door!" exclaims a voice from within as Mojo rings the doorbell of a terraced house in the quiet village of Broad Chalke, a few miles west of Salisbury. The voice belongs to guitarist Robert Fripp. Dapper and smiling, he ushers Mojo into the kitchen of the house that serves as World HQ of his record label, DGM.
"Now, are you hungry?" he enquires. "I can make you a smoothie. And coffee as well, if you like." Fripp is polite and convivial, but his speech is unfailingly precise and measured; nothing he says is ever vague or ill-considered. Before pouring, he expounds on the heat-conducting properties of bone china and why the cups need to be warmed for the drinker to derive maximum flavour from the coffee.
This good-humoured welcome augured well, for in the preceding weeks Fripp had seemed at best ambivalent about the interview. In the end he agreed, but insisted that both myself and Mojo editor Phil Alexander come along to open out the conversation, along with David Singleton, producer and co-founder of DGM. He was keen to prevent it from becoming a generic Q&A, a repeat of questions he had been asked many times before. And if his proposal were not acceptable, he would simply thank us for our interest, for he no longer gives interviews and his quality of life has improved as a result. An entry in his fastidious, almost obsessive, online diary - June 19, 2012, to be exact - states it succinctly: "Personally I have never been happier".
Fripp has retired from public performance and has no intention of releasing any more studio material. His last show in a forty-year on-off career with King Crimson was in 2008 and he played his final solo concert in December 2010. The only way one can see him playing nowadays is to enrol into one of his Guitar Craft courses. His recorded swansong is the recently released Follow, an album made with saxophonist and flautist Theo Travis, but questions about it are deflected somewhat tersely. "Well you must ask Theo about that, because he's the character who runs with it. You see, I'm no longer a musician who is playing in public," he maintains. In time he thaws somewhat, explaining that he wishes he had met Travis ten years ago. "Theo came for tea [in 2011] and I said, Theo, I'm not playing any more. He was upset - well, me too, in a way - but we had enough recorded from the live shows to put the album together."
Initially, the conversation is anything but opened out as Fripp deflects questions or turns them back to the subject of his lengthy legal battle with Universal Music Group. But, as he explains, this is what he is doing now. Speaking to musicians who have been working since the '60s or '70s, or who have a large back catalogue - especially if it includes releases on a number of labels - it's clear that many experience problems keeping track of their royalties. It's not uncommon for their music to be in catalogue, but for the people in accounts to have no idea who they are.
Although Fripp may well have made his decision to retire, it's going to be difficult for admirers of his wide-ranging musical output work to let go. He has been one of the most imaginative musicians of his generation and one of the few guitarists to have a unique, instantly recognisable sound. It's a damn shame that we won't hear his buzzing, sustained single notes, twisting, mercurial lead lines, intricate lattices of picking, or serrated riffing again, or indeed his ambient Soundscapes in which his guitar is subjected to electronic treatments and digital delays. And the genuinely sad thing is that this is less a valedictory riding into the sunset and more a move borne out of necessity. Back in 2007, he realised that was the course he would have to take.
"At that point, Universal owed me more money than I would earn in two or three years on the road," he explains. "I figured I had to end life as a working player in order to deal with Universal.
"Creativity is of the heavens; Universal Music and the Industry is subterranean," he continues. "Appalling. But the industry knows this and they know that if an artist is going to engage directly with a record company on its own terms, their life as an artist is over, and mine was."
Fripp talks about various breaches of contract he is currently contesting, including royalties owed from unlicensed King Crimson downloads. When UMG acquired Sanctuary, King Crimson's contract with the latter stated that control could not be assigned to a third party if they were taken over or acquired by a major label, but that rights would revert to King Crimson/DGM. UMG countered that it was "the same company as before, merely with new owners". No download rights were ever granted to Sanctuary and yet UMG began making King Crimson music available for download. Fripp says when he complained, someone associated with UMG told him, in all seriousness, that a company of its size could not be expected to read or apply the details of every contract of every catalogue it acquires. Emails and letters have been ignored for long periods and so it goes on.
When contacted, a spokesperson for Universal added: "We are still working with Robert to try and resolve these issues and we believe there is good progress being made."
Looking back up to the heavens, Fripp's musical career has been largely synonymous with that of King Crimson. Formed in 1969, the group caused a huge stir in July of that year when they supported The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, a performance that effectively marked the birth of progressive rock.
Although each album from then to their initial demise in 1974 featured a different line-up, with Fripp the only constant, each contained a mix of what were ostensibly ballads or pop songs, Fripp's formal, often severe, instrumental compositions, and flamboyant improvisation. An important factor that set them apart from their prog rock peers was their cross-fertilisation with free jazz players like pianist Keith Tippett and percussionist Jamie Muir.
The group's history is labyrinthine, but they reformed in 1981 and later in 1994, and their last album The Power To Believe, co-produced by Machine, was still in essence a mix of melodic, almost Beatle-esque songs and some typically concentrated rock brutality.
So how, as main writer, did Fripp compose? "Manuscript, pencil, guitar and write it down as it flows by," he says. He nips into the next room and comes back with a sheaf of handwritten scores, which he presents. "Can you remember Red, the opening bars? It was originally part of Blue and it's written here. There are bass parts written out for Red, for strings and overdubbing. Here you have The Battle Of Glass Tears and Cirkus from Lizard. The original parts for Schizoid Man are in here, the fast breaks," he says, singing along.
Sometimes the music would have to be composed in a hurry.
"Going back to 2002, The Power To Believe, up at six in the morning. After sitting, reading, we have two hours' creative time, two hours' rening and then the band come in at twelve, and at four o'clock I was dead. And it would go on like that for three months. It was hard."
A particularly significant release in the ongoing King Crimson fortieth anniversary campaign is their 1973 album, Larks' Tongues In Aspic. It has been remixed by Fripp with Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson for 5.1 sound, together with surround sound mixes, recordings of live shows by the line-up and the original vinyl mix. At a total of fifteen discs, it's the largest box set of any one album (see panel overleaf). Fripp is unabashed about remixing this first instalment in a trilogy - with Starless And Bible Black and Red - of arguably the group's best work. He reckons by doing so he addresses compromises and short cuts that had been made the first time around and claims that the surround sound mix is "breathtaking".
"Crimson was remarkable," Fripp asserts. "For, I think, nearly everyone in the band it was the only place where they could really become who they were. The demands to be true are very high demands. You might have to do things you don't like all the time."
This last line is typically carefully chosen. Fripp has gained a reputation for being demanding or difficult to work with, and has not shied away from criticising former band members in sleevenotes and his online diary, evidently finding it difficult being in a group. Referring to his long-running professional relationship and personal differences with drummer Bill Bruford, his diary entry for March 23, 2012, concludes with: "Everyone likes Bill, and I am one of them. Not many people like Fripp, and I'm not sure it matters."
When I interviewed Fripp in 1997, his attitude towards being in King Crimson, then still extant, had little of the negativity he shows today. Maybe his memories have been tarnished by his recent soul-sapping battle to set the group's finances straight, and that the group he founded has effectively stopped him from playing, but still it comes as a surprise to hear him say, "Briefly, King Crimson, one word to summarise it all: wretched."
"There are four accommodations you can make: one is in the lifestyle; one is in the people you work with; one is in the money; and one is in the music," he continues. "The lifestyle and all the travelling to very cheap accommodation in decaying Holidays Inns at the edge of town, travelling there in modest vehicles - is that the life you want? No.
"Are you prepared to work with people you may not like very much, that may be very difficult to work with, in order to play music? Yeah. Are you prepared to make accommodations in the money and share the publishing when you are one of the main writers? Yeah. Are you prepared to compromise or make an accommodation in the music? No.
"In other words, if you look at your life as an over-all, you can say, This music is as it should be as far as I can get it and everything else is geared towards that. So, did I like it? No. Will I put my hand up for the music today? Yeah."
The Four Accommodations exemplify Fripp's attempts to make sense of the world through an idiosyncratic classification system. He is also a scrutiniser and observer, typically referring to himself in the third person and continuously coming out with aphorisms and epigrams. In the past, Fripp described the signature of King Crimson as "Energy, Intensity, Eclecticism". But this is only part of the story. To the listener, King Crimson has always had an identity, a personality that was somehow larger than its constituent parts, especially in its incarnations up to 1974, when the line-up was in constant flux. Fripp felt this even more so, and explains that the unifying factor was actually something much greater than himself.
"If you go back to Crimson '69, I remember telepathic situations, precognition. Something remarkable was going on in the effect that the band had on people and the effect it had on us. When you move into creative time, everything changes. In the creative world, today doesn't move to tomorrow; tomorrow reaches back and pulls today towards it. So the young players in 1969 didn't come together and form a band in order to make In The Court Of The Crimson King; In The Court Of The Crimson King reached back and pulled those young players towards it in order that it could be made."
Fripp's relationship with King Crimson seems to perfectly mirror this, as it has reached back and grabbed him as its own, and dragged him forward through the group's history. The way he puts it, it seems like the call to come back to the group found him less the group leader than the servant-in-chief to the music itself, which gave him a thrill like no other, despite the accommodations he might have to make in order to realise it. In 1981, Fripp was playing with Bill Bruford (drums), Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals) and Tony Levin (Chapman Stick) under the name Discipline. He explains why he realised the group was going to be the next incarnation of King Crimson while driving towards Bruford's house in Surrey.
"I was aware of the presence in the passenger seat of King Crimson. And what I understood was that King Crimson was available if this band, these four musicians, would accept it. If I read it from anyone else, I would think this character really needs medication, he admits. "I've explained the irrational rationally and it sounds pretty hokey. But nevertheless that was the experience.
King Crimson is not the best place to go and listen to Robert's guitar playing," Fripp asserts. "The best place to go and listen is anything else he did. But the very best is probably with Brian Eno and David Bowie. What David and Brian wanted me to do was to make the best contribution I could - as hot as you like. Can they handle it? Yes, of course they can. My work with Brian and David was very quick, very immediate, very in the moment with lots of laughs. Serious? Well, it was serious play, but it was fun."
When he ended the first phase of King Crimson in 1974, Fripp embarked on an extraordinary career as collaborator, producer and catalyst as a "Small, mobile intelligent unit", which iii put him apart from his peers. Back then he could see that the "bigger is better" " ethos of progressive rockig exemplified by Emerson, Lake And Palmer and Yes was leading into the realm of "silliness", so he trusted his intuition to follow his feet when they go walking".
First they took him into retreat at The International Academy For Continuous Education at Sherborne in Gloucestershire, set up by JG Bennett. The "superb liberal education" he had received in early King Crimson was here succeeded by a programme designed to fulfil individual potential, based on the teachings of Armenian philosopher and mystic, George Gurdjieff. Then his feet took him to New York City. In 1977 a call from Brian Eno (with whom he first collaborated on the proto-ambient 1973 album, No Pussyfooting) took him to Berlin, where Eno was involved in a work-in-progress, David Bowie's album "Heroes". Both Eno and Bowie had made unsuccessful stabs at playing guitar, so it was now time to call for reinforcements.
"Bowie came on [the phone] and said, 'Do you think you could come along and play some hairy rock'n'roll guitar?' I said, Well, I don't know as I haven't really played for two or three years,'but if you are prepared to take a chance, so am I. A first class ticket arrived.
"I got to the studio and said, Would you like to play me something you have been working on? Brian said, 'Why don't you plug in?' So I plugged in, they hit the tape, Beauty And The Beast, as it became, began running and I went (imitates guitar). And what you hear on record is what I played hearing it for the first time without anything being said."
Surely, even for someone of Fripp's technical ability and intuition, that was a risky strategy?
"It was a remarkable time. It was a transition time," he explains. "You had three characters, young Englishmen, all in shifts and transitions in their lives in an in-between place at an in-between time."
Among the highlights of this alternative career were Fripp's producing and playing on Peter Gabriel's second album, and appearing live with him, under the 'pseudonym Dusty Rhodes. Gabriel was another artist who had shifted from his former group role as frontman with Genesis. "Out of the machinery," says Fripp, quoting Gabriel's Solsbury Hill. Fripp also produced Darryl Hall's Sacred Songs, but the guitarist's use of Frippertronics - his guitar looped across two Revox tape recorders - in lieu of strings or horns on some songs was one of the principal reasons the record label deemed it too uncommercial, and delayed its release for three years. "By which time it had missed its point," he says. "You can go back to it thirty years later, but not three years later."
The third album in what he mischievously described at the time as an MOR trilogy was his 1979 solo album Exposure, which featured Hall, Gabriel, old friend Peter Hammill and Terre Roche from The Roches, a female trio he had recently produced. This eclectic record was described in The Wire as an "avant-punk Sgt. Pepper". Fripp describes it thus: "Robert, stand on your feet, and in thirty-five to forty minutes speak on everything that concerns you at this moment in time."
While in this transitional period in New York City, Fripp continued to raise eyebrows when he hooked up with Blondie, guesting on Fade Away And Radiate on their album Parallel Lines.
"I'd come out of my apartment at eight in the morning and Richard Lloyd from Television would be staggering by, going home and say (slurs), 'Hi Robert,'" he recalls. Chris Stein phoned up one day saying would I like to play with Blondie at CBGB's, got a benefit for Johnny Blitz of The Dead Boys, he's been in a knife fight. Sure, all right. Forty-five minutes rehearsal then go and do the gig. It was in the air, it was moving, it was free, it was open, it was engaged, the musicians were working together. Once again, it was the liminal period, it was the in-between."
Fripp first worked with David Sylvian in 1985 and together the pair produced, to Fripp's ears, perhaps the highlight of his career.
"Ah!" he exclaims throwing back his hands. "Wave, from Gone To Earth , remains one of my all-time listeners from anyone, and pieces I've played on. I'd put Wave with "Heroes", even. It's not so anthemic and outward going, but it carries me away each time."
Fripp has often mentioned the notion of hazard when applied to improvisation, and musicians being removed from their comfort zone. This is a man who has been gobbed at while playing on-stage with The Damned and added his guitar to recordings by groups as diverse as The Orb and Grinderman. Yet some of his more unobtrusive, ambient music produced a different hazard - negative audience reaction.
In 1975 Fripp & Eno played their tape loop-based music at Saint Étienne, France, and were eventually booed off. Into the 1990s, Fripp updated Frippertronics, putting his solo guitar through digital delays and synthesizers to produce the shifting ambient patterns he called Soundscapes. It, too, has provoked negative reactions when it failed to meet the audience's expectations. After one 1994 performance in Buenos Aires, included on the album, 1999 Soundscapes - Live In Argentina, some audience members staged a noisy protest, asking for their money back due to what they felt was the poor quality of the performance.
The most recent example came when Fripp appeared as G3 with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai in 2003. "When it came to the jam, I rocked out and I worked and practised very, very hard to keep up with Steve and Joe. They really are phenomenal."
However, Fripp feels that he let them down when he opened the show with a set of Soundscapes. His sense that the audience might be broadminded enough to accept it rather than just craving an unadulterated shred-fest proved to be incorrect.
"At the Royal Albert Hall, the call from the audience: 'You're a cunt, fuck off!' And we had a friend in the audience, who lived down the road, Veronica," he recounts laughing, "who said (in cut-glass tones), "You! DO shut up!"
If you worked the pubs and dancehalls of Dorset in the early 1960s, that was a lot rougher than anything I got with G3," he informs. "One thing I learned from working at the Burdon Ballroom, Weymouth, when the Fleet were in, was that if someone hits someone else the blood hits the floor before they do. It was not a sophisticated world, Dorset in the early '60s."
Fripp was born in Wimborne in Dorset and, although he no longer lives there, has had a lifelong affinity with the place. Indeed, during the course of our conversation he takes great joy in regaling us with tales of Dorset past.
"Dorchester in the 1950s, when your grandmother, her arthritis was so bad she couldn't bend her knee, do you know what they did?" he half smiles. "They got all the friends around to say goodbye to her, they'd carry her upstairs and she'd never come down again. I don't often have the chance to talk about Dorset, but my background has been remarkably grounding."
In fact, at one point the pull of Dorset was such that he left New York after seven years of living there full-time and then part-time because, in his words, "I got homesick because I could only sleep in England and in Dorset."
Interweaved with a sense of place, there has always been a restless, questing element to Fripp's work, which runs alongside his seemingly rational, objective way of looking at the world. While in King Crimson he was interested in Wicca and then later in the teachings of Gurdjieff. He has played Soundscapes in churches cathedrals - to rather more well-behaved audiences - and has said that some of the better concerts he played with Theo Travis were those in churches because they worked as "devotional music"
Some of Fripp's most exquisitely beautiful music can be heard on a Soundscapes album, A Blessing of Tears (1995), dedicated to his recently deceased mother.
"Here's one thing that has never been said before about Frippertronics and Soundscapes; it's active reflection expressed in sound. Not quite meditation, because that's a bit too heavy, but sometimes it says things that can't be said in any other way with an instrument. Like, 'My mother's just died.'"
How would he define this element of otherness in his work. Is 'spiritual' an accurate descriptor?
"Well you can't talk about it in music interviews with journalists from the established music press. In fact, you can't really talk about it with anyone, because it's pretty pratty.
"I think spiritual is a difficult word," he muses. "If you have a discipline to learn an instrument, it's very wonderful, because to play an instrument and play music it has to be in tune. And tuning an instrument would seem to be an easy thing. It's not. If ever I have difficulty tuning a guitar, I think, Where's the difficulty? The guitar's fine, it's a professional instrument, there's nothing wrong with it. Where's the out-of-tuneness? And it's always to do with my personal state, something out of tune with me."
Fripp's ongoing Guitar Craft workshops are more than just teaching students to develop their chops. Instead, he promotes a more holistic approach to playing.
"In Guitar Craft we say, Are we in tune? Are we in tone? Are we in time? And the musical language is a wonderful metaphorical language. Are we in tune? What is our personal state? What is the harmony of the past? And so on. But if you say, What is spiritual? Well, it's a hard one. But if you say, Is this real? Is this true? Is this good? Then you're on the way: this is what it's about."
After deciding, not unreasonably, that three hours of interview should be enough, Fripp makes more coffee and retrieves a large box of cream cakes from the fridge. A general chat ensues, Fripp takes some photographs, and we have the honour of being included in his diary. August 1, 2012 to be precise. Then we take our leave, which, he noted, was at 15.05.
Fripp appears to have enjoyed the interview and smiles broadly, offering a firm handshake as we leave. The feeling that lingers as we drive back is of a fascinating yet enigmatic character. Fripp is an assiduous and at times candid online diarist, yet his precise and measured form of expression seems to hold a lot back. But then again, for his entire musical life, he has pursued the ineffable and the intangible. He is someone who can appear remote and yet delights in company, as befits a man who doesn't give interviews, but has just given an interview.
Clearly, Fripp has spent a lifetime in thrall to music. It feels, to extend one of his analogies, that a Robert Fripp-shaped gap in the musical universe had been waiting awhile for Robert to step forward and occupy it.
But the most interesting aspect of all this is that such a singular and particular character could easily have developed into a reclusive, perfectionist control-freak, working alone in his studio. Instead he became a musician who perennially relished the unfamiliar, the instant collaboration, the notion of hazard.
As this is, perhaps, his last ever interview, would he care to share what his experience as a musician has taught him? Questions this big and this broad can promote prolonged head-scratching, but with barely a pause Fripp answers: "In strange and uncertain times, such as we're living through, sometimes a reasonable person might despair. But hope is unreasonable and love is greater even than this. May we trust the inexpressible benevolence of the creative impulse. There, that's it."
21ST CENTURY SCHIZOID MAN
Six of the best of Fripp's post-Crimson work.
PETER GABRIEL: Peter Gabriel - Producer Bob Ezrin had fashioned Gabriel's 1977 debut solo album into a reverby, guitar heavy and at times grandiose creation. Fripp had played on that album, but now behind the desk himself, he achieved a less adorned, punchier sound more suited to Gabriel's aesthetic. And he pulls off a killer guitar solo on White Shadow.
DAVID BOWIE: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) - Fripp is, he says, "quite impartial" in placing his contribution to Scary Monsters in "the pantheon of all-time great rock guitar playing". His rhythm and lead work are both extraordinary, from the exultant melodic hooks and dazzling, serpentine solos of Teenage Wildlife to the ferocious, high velocity chord-work of Fashion. And not a rock cliché in sight.
THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN: The League Of Gentlemen - A fascinating anomaly in the Fripp canon, The League Of Gentlemen took their name from one of his earliest groups, but were a post-punk dance band with a solid - if four-square - rhythm section, over which his intricate rhythmic figures went head-to-head with former XTC organist Barry Andrews' garish keyboard outbursts.
SYLVIAN/FRIPP: Damage - Recorded live in 1993, Damage is a powerful recasting of the duo's collaborative work, featuring material from that year's The First Day back to 1986's Gone To Earth. Their musical chemistry is enthralling: Sylvian remains unruffled and composed even when fripp's playing metamorphoses from meditative picking to crunching chords and some particularly flamboyant solos.
FFWD: FFWD - The techno generation revered Fripp as an ambient soundscaper as much as a guitar hotshot and FFWD was a one-off collaborative project with The Orb. Despite his complaints that they started sparking in the studio about the time he was ready for bed, the result is an underrated collection of largely abstract mood pieces.
FRIPP & ENO: The Equatorial Stars - After a break of twenty-nine years, Fripp & Eno followed up their groundbreaking ambient albums, No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, with this beauty. One of Fripp's personal favourites of his own work, as its title suggests, The Equatorial Stars consists of gently pulsing dark space punctuated by scintillating, silvery guitar figures.