INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Synapse SUMMER 1979 - by David Fricke
The title of Robert fripp's long-awaited solo debut is Exposure, from the song of the same name by Peter Gabriel; and appropriately enough, exposure is the very thing Fripp has enjoyed in the year and a half since he stepped out of a voluntary retirement he had begun with the dissolution of King crimson in 1974. During that retirement, he studied under philosopher-economist J.G. Bennett at the Institute for Advancement of Continuous Education in Sherborne, England, as well as working on his guitar mechanics and touring briefly with Eno in Europe. However, after playing on Bowie's "Heroes" album in August of '77, the English guitarist and avant-garde journeyman embarked on a renewed career as a record producer, overseeing LPs by Daryl Hall, Peter Gabriel, and the singing-song-writing sisters, The Roches. Establishing a home base in New York City, he also appeared in a rare solo concert at a Soho loft (The Kitchen), made spot showings on stage with a variety of New Wave bands (Blondie, Screamers) as well as Gabriel, and completed Exposure.
In this interview - conducted in June and November of last year - Fripp touched on a kaleidoscopic variety of subjects, among them Crimson, Bowie, Eno, his work with Hall and Gabriel, the solo show, the solo album, psychological theory, and the total ineptness of the record business. That ineptness is best exemplified in the circumstances surrounding the non-release of Hall's Fripp-produced album (Sacred Songs) and subsequent squabbles over Daryl's appearance on Fripp's own album. Since the interview, RCA has decided to release Sacred Songs only after the next two Hall & Oates albums, and Fripp had to re-record three Hall vocals on Exposure after RCA and Hall's management objected to the singer's appearance on the record. On the finished Exposure, Hall sings on two tracks, while Englishman Peter Hammill sings the three re-recorded vocals (one in suet with Terry Roche).
"I'm a bit scrappy by nature," admits Fripp, a description that applies perfectly to his dealings with RCA and Hall's people. But Robert Fripp is also a cordial, warmly personal fellow whose determination to make music - his music - on his own terms is not only admirable but inspirational. Sometimes enlightening, sometimes elusive, he is always fascinating. It's good to have him back.
David Fricke: Peter Gabriel was your first real production project in a while.
Robert Fripp: Bear in mind that I did a lot of outside production work in the early '70s - Keith Tippet's Centipede, Robert Wyatt's Matching Mole, and some rather heavy jazz albums that weren't released. But since my more active participation after my three-year retirement and return to work in August '77, what I've done is the David Bowie album "Heroes" which I played guitar on, and producing Daryl Hall's album - which because of the degree of collaboration will be released as a Fripp & Hall album.
What sort of record is it? It must be considerably different from Hall & Oates' more commercial records.
Put it like this. I would like it to be my solo album because I like it so much and there is so much of me in it. It was officially Daryl's solo album, but there's an awful lot of me in it, enough so Daryl is very happy to have it a Fripp & Hall album. It's very, very Fripp. A lot of the songs involve Frippertronics.
What are Frippertronics?
Frippertronics is the name I give to the loop technique I use which I learned from Eno. It's something like Fripp & Eno without Eno. Eno introduced me to the system which I have learned to organise on my own and instead of using it as an extended solo piece, I have developed the technique so I can use it as an accompaniment to songs, pieces, whatever.
Back to Daryl; he is an incredibly good singer. He sang on a piece for my album - Ian McDonald recorded some flute for me, too - and this piece Daryl sang for me is one of the most remarkable vocal experiences in rock'n'roll that I have ever heard. Basically it was a song about... did you ever read Sanity, Madness And The Family by Laing and Esterson? The gist of the book is basically that your parents make you crazy and that there are certain schizophrenic children. It is a wholly terrifying experience, this book. Take for example: a child perceives, he interprets a certain experience as 'A', which the parents then contradict, saying "no, the experience is in reality 'B'." So after fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years of having one's experience contradicted, that person becomes what is technically labelled schizophrenic.
How do you relate this to musical terms?
You must listen to this song. It's terrifying. The terrifying thing is that an experience like that can be translated in a controlled and directed musical fashion so that the vocabulary and the intellect, if you like, is taking all this down without losing any of the feel. And then you hear the vocal. Daryl came in and said that was like primaling." We couldn't believe we quite heard it, so we played it back. It was terrifying. We sat around for five minutes before playing it again because we didn't believe we heard what we heard. It's an interesting blend of pure passion and ruthless control and mental discipline and rigour. For example, when I talk about my own album, I'm in a sate of considerable confusion. I've never recorded a solo album by myself, so when I put my name on it, I'll have to accept the responsibility. With King crimson, King Crimson was never Robert Fripp's band.
It was a collective situation?
Yes, it was.
But with Crimson, you always seemed to be the one stable element.
Few people who know me would call me stable.
A solo album really illustrates the theory of taking responsibility for everything you've done.
In one sense, yes. In one sense, it's only a fully developed man who would be able to accept responsibility for his actions. But unfortunately, we rarely see what the responsibility and the implications for our behaviour really is. If we did, we'd be wholly terrified... but here you get into very difficult intellectual and cosmological ideas that aren't worth getting into.
Do you relate these ideas to the musicians you work with?
Yes, throw them straight in. The quality of the musicians' minds in my experience is generally very poor. One has to go somewhere far more real in them, and the way to have that directness is not through the mind.
Can't be solely through the emotions?
No, no, no. It needs to be far more direct than that. Emotions will do and often, in a practical sense, one has to settle for that. There are a number of different techniques in recording. This comes back to Daryl's and Peter Gabriel's albums, if you like. I don't like theorising.
As a general comment, what I particularly like about rock'n'roll is that it serves as a direct communication, direct link, between the player, the instrument, and the people listening. If one is playing, for example, Mendelssohn's First Violin Concerto, you'll have to play the instrument for a number of years, study very hard, and then communicate what one man thought one hundred and forty years ago to someone else with an orchestra of different sundry talents, a conductor of varying background and experience - none of which was Mendelssohn's anyway. And you end up with something wholly insipid.
And you have this difficulty because of the number of generations you come from - the composer - having to translate it through the mind. For example, if you read music, there is a whole load of associations you have to get by before the music actually gets to the body. For me, for the more difficult things I write, I commit it to paper and then try not to let anyone else see the paper. So the music I do or want other people to play goes straight to their bodies.
For instance, Larks' Tongues In Aspic was pretty complicated until it went into the body and was pretty straight forward. But I refused to record it until King Crimson toured with it, so that the music didn't come from the mind. It was just in the body. We weren't concerned with the callisthenics of playing in 7/8 over 13/8 or whatever it was.
So what I'll do with Daryl Hall is give him the words and say "Right, go and sing it." He'll have no idea of the melody. He'd just go in and somehow find someplace in him that knew what it was about and come up with it - in one take. On his album, where he knew the material, I got five master vocals out of him in one hour, all first takes.
With me, the musicians know that they get three takes, and if they don't get it in three takes, they go into another one or go home. Or else, they beg me to let them do another take because they feel they can get it. With Daryl's album, most of the rhythm tracks are first takes, some of them are second, the odd one is third. And that's it.
You've done Hall and Gabriel records and now you've done your own. Are you voluntarily withdrawing into the free agent position you're in now?
The position I'm in is the result of lots and lots of hard work, trying to maintain the quality of my work. Integrity is not a word anyone with integrity would use about themselves - so I'll use it.
I was always brought up in a business world so working in business with business people doesn't phase me. I find that I'm actually sharper than most of the business people I meet. I have the edge that I'm not really desperate. I don't have to do anything.
What about your record?
I'll be quite specific. All that one needs in this instance is intelligence. My point is that the business world, specifically in America, is not intelligent. It is dreadfully conventional, the wisdom of what one does in rock'n'roll. But with a new approach, one can do remarkable things. And my approach is this. If one wants to make a record, with different reasons, I make the very best record I can. I then say, "Do I believe in the record?" Well, I obviously do or I wouldn't have made the fucking thing. The question of how to sell it comes once one has a record.
You have a very interesting guitar style. It doesn't seem to bear any influences, almost as if you eradicated them.
I was listening with Ian McDonald to a piece of music we recorded ten years ago and you probably wouldn't have said that then. Yes, obviously there are influences. My first was Scotty Moore, closely followed by Chuck Berry and Charlie Gracie.
No, before then. Butterfly was the end of Charlie Gracie's career. Go back to Fabulous and Just Lookin' on Parlophone in England. That was hot stuff.
But when I started playing guitar, I was tone deaf and had no sense of rhythm. The reason I never picked up anyone else's licks was that my ear was so bad I couldn't learn them. And I remember sitting down with a Chuck Berry record when I was fifteen and it was going through my brain - how could this man be playing this thirteenth and this augmented ninth? It took me a couple of years to realise why Chuck Berry took these extravagant notes. Simply because his playing was so appallingly bad it would be wherever his fingers would fall and very few people would dare to play as atrociously bad as Chuck Berry. Except he would do this with an amazing feel. My present situation is that the farther a player is from any kind of intuition or awareness of what he's playing, the more I enjoy it.
Isn't that too random, divorcing oneself from an awareness of what one's playing?
No, on the contrary. You have a direct awareness of what you're playing. What interests me about rock'n'roll is that it is a very direct experience.
You once said in Guitar Player Magazine that as a guitarist, Jimi Hendrix was doing it all wrong, something that stirred up quite a reaction from readers.
I said Hendrix had an appalling technique and that upset a lot of people. My background is this. I was taught to play the guitar, beginning at age eleven, twenty and a half years ago. I worked very hard on a calisthenic basis. I was appalled by the quality of guitar teachers available. As I still am. Quite deliberately, at the age of fourteen, I began to develop my own approach to guitar technique, as contra-distinct to piano playing where there are two or three different schools that you can learn. We don't have that with plectrum guitar playing and I set myself the task at age fourteen to devise one which I have since done. I began to teach guitar when I was fifteen to lesser pupils, then again at seventeen. Al Stewart was one of my pupils was I was seventeen. Then again, when I was twenty-one, I gave lessons out to Yoko Ono's first husband, Tony Cox. Then I didn't start teaching until I was twenty-eight or twenty-nine. And I felt for the first time I had any qualifications for teaching. Guitar mechanics as a subject was a bit more developed and I gave some lessons in England. It was still experimental and for two pupils it had a very strong effect psychologically which was part of the exercises involved.
As a system, guitar mechanics is the most viable form I know of accelerated learning on plectrum guitar. Simultaneously with that, you will note the paradox that all the people who interest me the most would not get near a system as refined as guitar mechanics.
Is it a system that can be put into a little booklet?
At the moment, it's not fully developed in the sense that it's still developing. Yes, I could publish at the moment, two volumes, and it's still growing. But it's a question of time, what's more important at the moment.
What about the guitar solo on Eno's Baby's On Fire? Did you have that planned out according to chord sequence, dictated as it is?
Most of the work I do... first of all, I don't do sessions. But I do play on a few albums of friends or people I admire. And with Eno and Bowie I don't sit and listen to chords. They put the music on and I play. Most of the recorded work for both Eno and "Heroes" is all first takes before I learned the chords. It's an immediate reaction to what I'm hearing for the first time and the technical aspect of it is that one doesn't play over changes - one plays over key modulations. And that obviously involves a little experience.
But that solo seems to reach up into different places...
Yes, but you see, for me, working within the confines of King Crimson, where it seemed to me that all my efforts were made to offer up opportunities for other people and none of the other people were interested in reciprocating and opening opportunities for me. So I felt very inhibited as a player in king crimson and had to accept that the people in King Crimson were simply not giving me any room. They would fill the room for themselves.
Don't you think these people were intimidated by your own musicianship?
No. Nothing to do with that. So with Baby's On Fire, Eno has this capacity which brings out the best in people or he gives them the confidence to do what they might be able to do. To use an analogy - I bring out in Daryl Hall what Eno brings out in me. So Hall has opportunities to do his very best work with me as I had opportunities to do my very best work with Eno. Simply, Eno is the first person I worked with who did not restrict me but help me. And of course, he didn't get in my way because he didn't play anything. Because he worked from an area more interested in terms of process and the whole systems approach...
As for your solo album, when you sat down to do this first one, what sort of preconceptions/ideas/apprehensions did you have?
First of all, I don't have confidence in what I'm doing. You see, if I had to go in and mold the artist - this is a Bob Fripp record featuring Peter Gabriel - all I would be trying to do is get the artist to be the artist. I feel I can get out of the way a lot.
But with Robert Fripp trying to discover Robert Fripp or accepting responsibility for Robert Fripp, that is different. I've recorded a lot of different material, enough for at least two albums, most of which I'm discarding. I have enough for six different artists, each f whom is fairly versatile. I'm beginning to discover the cohesion in what I'm doing. And it's just beginning to settle down into a style and personality of its own.
You've recently come out of a period of self-imposed retirement. Do you feel you're reacquainting yourself with music, the music world?
I didn't decide to come out. It was a gradual process. But retirement for me was always a state where one would use one's time more profitably. And coming back, I felt - doing Bowie, Daryl, Peter - a sense of freedom in the situation that increasingly dissipated towards the end of Peter's album. And as soon as I hit mine, I was back in the morass of confusion which was always part of my life in Crimson.
The confusion in crimson... was that a problem of dealing with personalities, them not giving you room musically?
Yes, but it was absurd of me to expect that they would or could in terms of me being the band leader-figure. I did feel ripped off.
When did this occur to you, at what point in King Crimson's life?
I became increasingly frustrated through 1973. But for me - because I wrote a lot of the music, if you like, influenced the sound, that any satisfaction I received was more in that area - not as a player. And I still have the same confusion in that sense. Very few plectrum guitarists know what is possible from the instrument and I feel I do. To be a virtuoso is something very real in terms of an instrument and the word is often misused. I feel I know what it is. I am not a virtuoso. I know what is possible and how to become a virtuoso except that things take me away from that. For example, I happen to be a very good record producer. I happen to write some excellent music and I happen to be interested in things outside the music world. For me, there has always been the dilemma of whether to follow the possibilities I have purely as a guitarist or to develop as a person in a more general sense.
Being a virtuoso could be very limiting, in terms of trying to attain a certain technical proficiency.
Yes, but to actually scale that height and throw it away demonstrates a very real point for people about values. You see, I feel there are many things I can do that are off-the-wall because I've demonstrated... let me think of a nice analogy... You can only throw something away when you have it.
To attain something, to be a virtuoso and then throw it away is to say I've gotten as far as I can go...
And it gives you considerable freedom because at that point you have no baggage to carry.
Can you really throw it away? Maybe sublimate it?
That's an interesting paradox. As soon as you throw it away and you realise it's worth nothing, only at that point can you begin to do something with it, are you free of technique. Guitarist "A" always has to demonstrate. I can play anything I like. He's limited by his technique. I have freedom from it. But since I do have the technique, I can use it or not. And that's the freedom.
But when you started the record, you say you didn't have any confidence.
I didn't have any confidence in myself as a player or writer or anything. I think it would probably come from the conceit that it is wholly irrelevant whether whatever I do is good or bad. The only thing of interest to me is that I'm making a record so get on and make the fuckin' thing. It will actually be both.
There are some very novel ideas on it. I'll give you an idea. One of the most important things in my life was reading the transcript of the talk I gave on July 18, 1974 and it took the top of my brain off. I was never quite the same person after. And I have a tape of this talk which runs for about forty-five minutes and I wanted it on my album. But I found a way of reducing it to six seconds. I now have that talk completely intact, in code, as it were, using one of the techniques of intergalactic communication. I could take it down to half a second and it would all be intact. It's incredibly obvious... I took that tape up something like five hundred octaves. It's a long way to go, but I could take it up farther... to two thousand, four thousand octaves.
Isn't there a point of limitation?
It's limited in terms of frequencies you can put on the tape. But in terms of what I'm trying to convey, something would still remain. And using this technique, it would be possible for me to put on tape - and hence on the record - a tape recording of every book that was ever written and I could put it on in one second, so that one could experience everything that's ever been read or said in one second... or less. Easily. It's a very simple technique. In fact, it's so simple, it's not worth talking about. This is what you call deliberate mystification.
Your musical appearances have been limited recently, except for the Peter Gabriel tour and your solo concert at The Kitchen in New York earlier this year.
The Kitchen was important, not as a musical event, but as a way of doing things. King Crimson, for me, was always a way of doing things.. Some of the music was good, some wasn't. But it stood up as an event regardless of the music and the music was only the excuse for what happened.
For me, this was an experiment where the audience were as active as the performer and the audience had the same responsibility towards the event as the performer.
I declined to use an elevated platform - I was on the same level as the audience and expected them to put the work of attention and concentration into following what I was doing in the same way I was. I gave them the right that they needn't applaud. I didn't feel that applause was necessary for the occasion.
I had hoped for myself to ask the audience not to applaud since I felt it would intrude. But I was told by Joanna Walton (who performed at the concert with Fripp) that this would be presumptuous, to tell the audience how to react. In the end, the audience applauded very generously. The spirit of the entire occasion was remarkable.
And I'm sure it was not necessary to have a technical understanding of what you were doing to feel what was being created...
You see, my difficulty in taking that concert into a large theatre is that people would come along and expect to be supported and in that event I was in no way supporting the audience.
The feedback I've had from The Kitchen is very much along the lines of... that without being able to rationalise what happened, people felt that something took place without knowing exactly what it was. Something very real happened that day which had nothing to do with the people involved. And the challenge is to find a way of constructing a situation that is not constructed.
In your work with King Crimson, especially in touring situations, did you ever feel that with Crimson you were also trying to break down the standard context of performer and audience? Crimson never seemed to be locked into that "rock star" circle.
Obviously, to a degree, crimson was a way of doing things. It was a way of reconciling incompatibilities in a number of different senses. But increasingly it became apparent that it would be impossible for me to achieve what I wanted to do either in that context or with those people, which is no put down on their musical abilities. But I think probably Bill [Bruford] and John [Wetton] were too good as players to grasp my interest in non-playing.
Too close to being virtuosos?
They were simply very good players. They didn't think conceptually. They thought as very good players would think. I said to Eno, "You obviously have this problem where you can rarely use excellent musicians because you don't feel you have the authority to work with them." If Eno got a bunch of really good players, they would ask him what happens on the fourteenth bar when they hit the "five" foot. Eno doesn't have that background. So generally, Eno works with non-players who are more interested in the process than the technique involved. For me, it's a difficult balance between not being interested in the technique and at the same time using those techniques in a writing sense in a fairly sophisticated fashion.
Do you feel you've come to a point where you can resolve that paradox?
It's a discipline. You submit yourself to discipline and then you jump off a cliff. You have to take that jump.
There is a piece on my new album called Breathless which is basically heavy metal but is heavy metal a la Fripp. The middle has the rhythm section playing 33 and 3/8, the guitar in 9/8... It conveys a feeling. There is a certain feeling conveyed by that which takes a measure of sophistication and intelligence to achieve through writing, and I feel I've achieved it. But when you listen to it, one is only struck by the feeling one gets through this music, not by, "Hey, the rhythm section is playing in such-and-such a time..."
What about the minimalist tag laid on things like the Fripp & Eno records? There are so many definitions of "minimalism"...
Well, if you wish to interpret that in terms of brevity, I would far rather hear three notes summing up everything than one hundred notes.
Like six seconds summing up forty-five minutes?
Yes. You have to have the understanding of what's going on, to have internally the other ninety-seven notes yourself. If you have those, you only need the other three.
People have a tendency to associate punk with minimalism as well as Fripp & Eno, as a compact communication, impact. Do you think any of the punk music has made significant changes in the making of serious music?
I have waited six, seven, eight years to hear what I'm hearing now. At last, young musicians are playing with a commitment and enthusiasm, while the generation I came up with has long since receded into expensive homes, jets, and life-styles. I am so pleased to hear young musicians saying, "What the fuck has happened to the generation of musicians above us? They seem really dishonest." To which I say, you're right. They are, Obviously, a fair proportion of the bands aren't any good. But they're enthusiastic. I'd rather hear something with a little content and plenty of enthusiasm than something with no content and no enthusiasm.
Can you explain the process by which you record with Eno?
The activity that went into No Pussyfooting was that I went round to Eno's house with a girlfriend, had a coffee, and a glass of wine. I said, "I brought my guitar." He says, "Plug it in here." I plugged it in and played for twenty minutes. He wound the tape back and I played on top of it, and that was Side One of No Pussyfooting. With Evening Star, we did Side two in his front room, too. It's a very informal relationship.
Is it an intuitive relationship, where you understand what the other has done and is doing?
We know each other better now, but before we didn't really know each other at all. I like Eno very much, a very interesting bloke.
Why did you release Side One of No Pussyfooting like that?
Well, I didn't like it, you see, at the time. But Eno said three weeks later, "Come around, listen to that, it was good, y'know." So I went around, I think with another girlfriend and I listened to it and it was very good. We fought with our management and record company to get it released and they did everything they could to stop it. They couldn't understand it.
You had quite some problems getting that album released, so I was surprised to see Island's Antilles label put out both Fripp & Eno albums.
In a manner of speaking, they put them out. They were bullied into it. Our management company and Island records did all they could to fuck up Fripp and Eno and only under pressure from Fripp and Eno personally did they actually give in and release them. The idea was since we made it so cheaply at home, we wanted to pass on the cheapness to the public, not saying that the music was cheap. It's just that our costs were low. Unfortunately in America, your discount record system doesn't really exist. So in America, no matter how discounted a record may be in Europe, you have to release full price if you want that attention. Our English record company were not intelligent enough to allow for that.
If you find America and its business techniques, among other things, so horrifying, why did you move to America?
Part of my education. Now I'll probably go somewhere else.