INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Slash OCTOBER 1979 - by Juan Gomez, Bill Noland and David Wiley
Robert Fripp was brushing his teeth as he opened the door. He looked neat, like he had been up hours before we arrived, considerably more handsome than in his public years with King Crimson. Gone is the beard, the electric hair, and wire glasses. In their place is a modern, continental-looking gentleman. He employs a confident, decidedly British air - extremely articulate but far from being inaccessible. He was the exact opposite of what one would expect from a man who has created numerous "works" of intimate, cerebral music ranging from complex precision to ultimate simplicity. He now works with what he calls "Frippertronics" (basically described as Fripp and Eno minus Eno), applying it to diverse situations. As he indicated several times during the course of our discussion, he rarely has enough time to do the things he needs to. He finished dressing, changed his strings and tuned his guitar (using a tuning fork and assistance) as we spoke.
Do you have ideas about any given performance beforehand?
"It depends on the audience. If the audience really has no powers of concentration and the work is up to me, I don't like it; resent it even. For someone to come along brained, out of their mind, and expect me to look on and say, 'It's really great that you're putting yourself in a furtive, personal situation where you're totally incapable of accepting responsibility for your ears.' How can I agree with that? This rock'n'roll notion - with Crimson it got to the point where we would have to walk on and plaster people back for half an hour, pummel them into a heap. So for ten minutes we would have time, until they regained their composure, to become right again. We would play for these ten minutes then pummel them again and go home. All of this contributed to my contempt. I thought, 'This is not for me. I am not interested in directing the responses of others. I'm interested in a cooperative venture in which people use their ears.'"
In that light what are your impressions of the third Madame Wong's performance (the second night)?
"Very difficult. You see. the man who brought the cassette machine - after the ticket specifically said not to (record) and after I asked those who might have brought one to not use it - was at very least incredibly rude. It showed a complete lack of human decency."
There was a distinct air of excitement. It was so intense it almost ruined the delicate nature of the performance. There were people next to us saying things like. 'He's almost holy' or 'He's a wizard.' What are your impressions of that kind of thinking?
"It's destructive, negative and it robs me of the energy I need to do what I do. It only takes, it contributes nothing. It's also an erroneous view of me and exactly the kind of situation that is wrong and would make it impossible for me to return."
Being interested in innovative music I often run across people who think of musicians in that light. God-like if you will. Very reactionary. Some people thrive on that and some thrive on destroying it. I think we have "pop" and "pop stars" to thank for this exaggeration of egos and talents and then someone comes along that is doing something interesting and who doesn't care about all that and still they're regarded in those terms. It seems out of context...
"I think, historically, there's always been stars. Paganini as a performer or Verdi as a composer for instance. The reaction to Verdi in his day would make Beatlemania seem irrelevant; horses and carriages taking him to the latest opera, dishes of food named after him. Unbelievable! Virtually all the 'good' composers were incredibly successful in their day. It was generally said that Mozart was not but he was a success; he was a turkey with his money, something to do about his wife or whatever. Another point of view says that the way we understand the 'star syndrome' is something very much dictated by Hollywood of the '20s. I think essentially the point of view is that all this particular value approach we've internalised is so much a part of our thinking and behaving that unless we're active within the situation we're stuck with it. This idea of active listening has implications that run very deep. It's almost to the point of worship or be worshipped. We turn up to rock shows and maybe want to get involved but can't. What can we do to change this orchestrated circus, this menagerie of performance in front of us? Nothing. But on the other hand, if we have the opportunity, like last night, we don't expect to because we're so used to doing nothing. So we turn up thinking, 'Go on, be wonderful' and in that situation it's not possible."
What's an ideal response for you?
"When people listen."
And you find that rarely happens? Does it happen more or less often now?
"My observation on this tour would indicate far better response and an effort made by people in different situations, where people find this unfamiliar and often boring music and they're responding very well. Largely. I think, it's an act of faith in me. People turn up having no idea what it's going to be. wondering if it will be a group or something."
Actually, the ad for Madame Wong's said, "with the group Frippertronics."
"That particular situation was unfortunate because (with no disrespect to Madame Wong) it was exactly what I was trying to avoid. It was kind of unfortunate for Madame Wong, whose organisation was somewhat swamped and not really used to dealing with this kind of situation. I would rather not play where food and drink is served unless it's in an ambient sense, supper music. I did it once at a restaurant in Paris that no one knew about. I asked to play unannounced but word got out. The second night people from Bram Tchaikovsky were there. It was Frippertronics supper music. I wasn't allowed to do it. there were certain objections, but I just phoned up and did it. The record company didn't want me to.
We're in a society where we have to use money -"
...And there's nothing wrong with that!"
- Yes. Of course. And since you have to make a living and Madame Wong has to make a living some admission is understandable. Then you were talking how tape machines and cameras destroy the performing energy in a room, do you think an eighteen-dollar cover charge affects the energy?
"It would really piss me off! My contract says five bucks a head. Madame Wong was genuinely distressed with this. Her point of view is this: 'I don't make money on luncheons and I'm charging six dollars for you to have more money.' although my contract says five dollars and my aim in playing there was not really to clean up. Assuming Madame Wong was acting on my behalf thinking 'We'll get Robert a bit more money,' that is. They did try to make it rather nice. They were trying to do me a favour without realising what was happening. She makes money from drinks. So what they did was sell guaranteed tickets to people who phoned up, seventy to eighty guarantees. Six dollars admission, six dollar food guarantee, six dollar drink guarantee. Now my understanding was that there were no advance tickets whatsoever. So when I turned up and someone approached me saying. 'Are you aware that they're selling tickets for eighteen dollars' I went inside and Madame Wong said. Well, this is standard procedure. I don't make money doing this.' And I said. 'But there were no advance tickets.' So, in order to compromise in a working situation, which has its difficulties - this is problem-solving on one's feet - we agreed to a second show at six dollars walk-in per head. I had said for the second night I didn't want food served, meaning I didn't want people to pay eighteen dollars a time. People who already had advance tickets could not get food and Madame Wong declined a refund saying that her compromise here, which I thought was reasonable, was that if someone's food or drink tab wasn't filled up they could come back and use it on another night. I said. You can't have people waiting out there for seven hours and then not get in, we'll print tickets.' There were maybe one-hundred-and-thirty tickets we could conceivably sell so people could queue up, buy tickets and then we would put up a sold-out notice so no one had to waste their time. Madame Wong said, 'People will wait.' I said. 'We're going to print tickets.' So Polydor typed up tickets. Last night was fairly orderly in terms of being outside and disruption in terms of being inside. It was interesting that the first night when everyone, because of the difficult working situation, were in their own way working with the situation. It generated energy which made that particular performance possible. The following night when it was easier and people turned up for entertainment the quality of energy was simply not present. Oh, there was some presence but the overall room was punctured with so many holes it was impossible for energy.
Are you interested in electronics?
"I'm not interested in electronics although I do use devices, minimal devices. The area of electronics I work in, from a technological point, is very small - primitive if you like. Everything I use is appropriate and applicable, nothing superfluous. The musical area I work in is one that depends on the balance between life and material technology. It's a human approach to electronic music or an electronic approach to human music. People approach me with questions about whether or not I'm extending my technology. No one has yet asked me if I plan to improve my facilities as a musician. The technology I possess will handle a lot more music than I'm able to put into it, so the question should not be about whether I can extend my equipment but rather how can I extend my technology as a human being. In terms of electronic music I sense that there are three kinds in the same way there are three kinds of electric guitar. The cello body, the plectrum guitar with metal strings normally used in a dance band. Then, the electric guitar with no consideration for natural acoustic properties. You then have someone like Hendrix, particularly, who turned it into a music of its own. An electric guitar music. Before that people like Les Paul had designed it but looked back on an era that preceded it therefore reflecting what had already been done. With Hendrix you had the electric guitar. The third kind is where it's used as a keyboard for a synthesizer. It's irrelevant that it's a guitar, it simply triggers into a synthesizer. For instance, there's the Chapman stick or the Gitler guitar, which really have nothing to do with the idea of a 'guitar.' There are similar areas of electronic music wherein you have Moogs playing forty-eight preludes of Bach trying to sound like an orchestra. I don't find that of any interest. Then you have synthesizers that don't have to apologise for being a synthesizer so if it sounds like just that, say in a rock group, that's fine: it's a synthesizer. You also have pure sound generators that produce what could be called electronic music "various demonstrative effects. i.e. whizzes and bangs'; keyboards and traditional musical notations are not needed."
Where do you feel you fit in?
"I tend to be in the middle, leaning either way. I have musical background that enables me to understand and play pre-electric guitar music but that doesn't express whatever I am as a human being. I prefer to work with an electric guitar creating essentially electric music because it manages to capture something and, to me, is the best way of capturing it."
Would you describe your current style as improvisational?
"Frippertronics is, yes; there are obvious areas that can be repeated but become different. They're almost compositions but they're not. Textural areas..."
What kind of electronic gear would you recommend for a financially poor guitarist interested in playing processed guitar?
"I can tell you what I use. The Frippleboard. the Frizz pedal board: it's a volume pedal, the very cheapest I could find when I was twenty-one, which I still use - it has no brand name it's so cheap; a fuzz box, a Foxy Lady I think - I have used a Big Muff; and I use a wah-wah. The pedal board I've had less than seven years. That's all I use to modify my guitar. In terms of amps I'm using a Music Man, which is Leo Fender getting back to making good amps. I was actually offered one if I would advertise it but I turned it down. I won't lend my name to advertising."
Do you practice everyday?
"Yes, well, I am at the moment."
What's your approach to practicing?
"I use a metronome. At the moment I have two tricky phrases, which will be on the Discotronics album, that I'm having difficulty with and I work with them so that when I record the album in six months I'll be able to play them."
Do you have any ambitions to teach in a formal setting like a university or a music school?
"I'm presently looking for premises for a guitar school but formal education doesn't work; the last thing it does is educate. So I sense that there are few things I would do which are 'formal' or 'official' in terms of professional aspirations and so on... I would like to get in a situation with the industry that when I decide that this is what I wish to do I will be supported without having to go through yet another hustle. If that's a professional aspiration then I have it. This guitar school, I think, will be my main work in the late 1980s."
Do you find record companies a problem?
"Yes, virtually everything I do is against what 'they' want. The conventional wisdom of the industry is two to five years behind the actual situation so there are a number of interesting implications. If one is band on target it generally means the record company is not going to give you the kind of financial support desired because they don't really want this 'junk.' Like Atlantic turned down The Knack a year ago calling it rubbish. On the other hand, if a record exec does like you it means that you're years behind what's contemporary and that's the kiss of death. So if one is on target you're not going to get a large budget supporting you and vice versa. I would like to think that after ten years people would find my work sufficient enough to know that even if they don't like it they'll understand that whatever's going on is worth backing because Robert seems to have that instinct. I'm considered catalogue instead of chart because the records do continue to sell. Exposure has done seventy-six thousand to date. The company estimate was thirty thousand."
Do you think that now, with all these new bands, all the diversity, that record companies are becoming confused, that they may just begin to take chances?
"No, they're not going to do that. It's exactly the opposite. Unless they can sell a hundred and fifty-thousand units of 'product', that's the current figure, supposedly they can't meet their costs. That kind of thinking keeps them dinosauric. I can see an increase in people doing it whatever way they can, selling records and cassettes off the back of a van even, which I think could become normal day-to-day procedure. In England it's Stiff and all those other labels but in America it's different, it's such a commercially-oriented society; everyone believes the dollar is king. In Europe for example, one sells records between lunch and dinner. Here you have lunch and dinner to sell records. In England it's incredibly difficult to be allowed to work. I really have to hustle for that privilege. Over here I'm worked to death. Different situation altogether. This is a good place to be in the market.
What are some projects in the immediate future?
"There's the possibility of a third Fripp and Eno album in September. My last work with Brian was in New York several weeks ago on the newest Talking Heads album, Fear Of Music. I play on one track in a prominent fashion. Originally when Brian had disappeared to Bangkok and Malaya, David Byrne had phoned up saying they needed a producer. I said, 'Well, I'm off to Europe tomorrow,' and then bumped into Eno who, coincidentally, arrived back from Thailand the same day. He went to New York, then, to produce the Heads.
What are some other bands you like?
"I like Blondie. It's fashionable not to like them now but I do. We're friends who both miss each other because we re both back on the road. I don't listen to records that much. I like The Contortions. The first time I saw them James Chance turned up on his knees and spat in my face. The second time James was throwing himself around and threw himself on a table knocking drinks everywhere. Then he threw himself at a young lady I was with and knocked her drink from her hand. But I like The Contortions immensely. I saw The Clash in New York where it was - as a rock'n'roll performance - the most energetic I had seen in five or six years."
I've read that you don't like the guitar.
"Yes, well I have more freedom now. I simply accept that I play guitar now and having accepted that I have freedom or no choice in the situation. I define freedom as gracefully submitting to the inevitable. I'm a guitarist. I might as well face it. It's what I do best so I'll get on with it. At the moment I'm particularly interested in Frippertronics. I love the sound of it. I think it sounds incredible. I enjoy it so much it must be disgusting."
How has Eno influenced your work?
"Mainly by introducing me to technology and I think he's given me faith in myself as a guitarist. He's always encouraged me whatever I do. A lot of musicians I've worked with haven't liked my guitar playing. They always preferred that I play like Hendrix.
Are you contented with life?
"Contented? No! We all need a level of contentment, we all need a measure of satisfaction, if only to enable us to do the job. I would say that my life has a quality which it didn't used to have, but in a way it's a lot more easy because I have a sense that what I'm doing is right."
You seem to have developed - just from my observation of you as a guitarist, a musician, and human being throughout your history - (especially in the last few years) an approach to presenting yourself.
"I've given myself permission to be myself. About three months ago, in New York I had a very nice afternoon spent with some writers; three writers and myself, and I found that I was as witty, effervescent, and intelligent, and as friendly as they were and I really enjoyed myself and realised how much I'd censored my intelligence for so many years in order to not disturb or upset, and my life simply wasn't worthwhile. So whereas if someone had walked out of a performance five years ago. I'd be heartbroken and wonder what I'd done wrong, if someone walks out of a performance now it's a pity because I feel that what I'm doing is right for me. I'll go on doing it. Not in a callous rough-handed way, and of course there's response and of course part of me is disappointed if someone doesn't like it. But it might not be my fault they don't like it and maybe some people may not be prepared to exercise the amount of work necessary to get into it, or simply it's not their bag of bananas. But I don't take it personally anymore. This is what I do and without worrying about "Should I be doing this? People might not like it," I sense that simply getting on with it is all I need to do."
Do you have much time for reading?
"No. Not at the moment. I'm afraid, although I just had two or three hours the other day to complete a biography on Thomas Hardy, which I was happy about. On the road I like to spend the morning reading, practicing and being human, the afternoon talking to whoever's interested and the evening playing. I like to be civilised and get a feel for wherever I am, the groups playing, etc... My friends all get upset when I don't give them a call but given the option of a fifth hour and a social visit... If I'm going out and giving my full attention to someone it's actually work, yet pleasurable, of course. Sometimes if I work sixteen hours a day, as I normally do, I need the remaining time to simply go to the bathroom, change my strings, practice and press my trousers not to mention sleeping. I do read over a range of topics, though. When I was producing The Roches I went through nine books on Chilean economics and politics. It was at that point I realised I'd have to leave America. It was so insidious. I knew I'd have to go. I couldn't seriously consider staying here after that."
So, where are you going?
"Back to England as a base, a geographic base, and try to found this guitar school, but to commute."