One Two Testing SEPTEMBER 1986 - by Mark Prendergast


Virtuso Robert Fripp can talk about guitars 'til the cows come home. In a guitar fiend's dream marathon interview he covers flutter fingering, synth trigger times and the fact that he'd love to produce Clannad, but no one's asked him. Mark J. A. Prendergast took (copious) notes.

Robert Fripp has been perversely pushing the limits of modern rock music for nearly twenty years and promises no let up. Two albums are due out soon back to back, on EG records which demonstrate his recent obsession with the acoustic guitar. He presently teaches Guitar Craft at the Society for Continuous Education in West Virginia, an organization he is also vice-president of.

Fripp's name has become synonymous with that of the group King Crimson. In their '60s and '70s incarnations, Crimson fabricated an entirely innovative frame of reference for rock music, mixing classical and ethnic styles of playing with theatricality and showmanship. The reverberations of their debut album In The Court Of The Crimson King can still be heard and shortly after their formation in 1969 they were important enough to feature with The Rolling Stones at the mammoth July 5th Hyde Park Festival. Yet with all of this success Robert Fripp was still not reaching his full capacity.

It is little known that Fripp was an ardent jazz producer during the early '70s. Associated with Ronnie Scott he produced albums for Keith Tippett, Robert Wyatt and Spontaneous Combustion. He also recorded two experimental records with Brian Eno and instigated a partnership that continues to thrive. The endless touring and world fame of King Crimson left Robert Fripp disillusioned with the music business and during the mid-'70s he retired to work on the writings of philosopher J. G. Bennett.

Fripp went to live in New York in 1977 and was coaxed back into the music business by a phonecall from Brian Eno and David Bowie in Berlin. Brought in at a critical stage in the recording of David Bowie's "Heroes", it was Fripp's presence which helped give the record the necessary dynamic quality for success. Rejuvenated, he returned to the States to produce albums for Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall and The Roches. His continuously evolving guitar experiments resulted in the use of 'Frippertronics'; a system of linked Revox tape machines which allowed him to improvise with himself. In 1979 he did a solo tour of Europe and America playing 'Frippertronics' in unlikely venues like factories, shops and museums.

After recording the album Exposure and writing several highly lucid articles on the music business he formed the dance-oriented League of Gentlemen which toured widely and recorded all through 1980. Sensing the time was right he hitched up with Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford and formed Discipline in 1981. The music they produced was of such a quality that Fripp decided to rechristen the group 'King Crimson'. He also found time to work with Police guitarist Andy Summers, a collaboration which successfully redefined the idea of guitar duets. Recently Robert Fripp has recorded with David Sylvian, Toyah Willcox and Scott Walker. Having been involved in nearly sixty albums over three decades his experience as a musician and producer conveys a unique vision in modern rock.

A lot of people would contend that Robert Fripp was and is King Crimson, yet you often refer to King Crimson as something outside yourself. Why?

Crimson always had a life and identity of its own. It still does. But because of the way it was structured Crimson was more than a musical experiment. It was also a social, political and economic experiment. It was a particularly English approach and not something that should happen in America. It was for all of the more obviously politically expressive musicians, in a quieter way I think, a more radically political/apolitical effort. Here you had the situation where a band was a form of anarchism - a political movement where there is no leader, where people have a number of roles in a sense and where no one person is in charge of the others.

This requires a fiercesome personal discipline which was probably too much to ask of young people. It succeeded in some ways and failed in others but its greatest success was in the moment. Crimson never really made a record. How could I put this as a kind of analogy: if one is or has been involved in a love affair the most striking moments of that which one recalls will not find documentary evidence to support them. It will be in the moment; a particular evening or particular day or particular time when both of you looked at something or whatever. It won't be in a love letter, the love letter will record something but it's unlikely that'll be what you really remember. It was that with Crimson. There were some gigs where it just opened the doors to something. In 1969 and 1981 it was the best performing rock band in the world.

Yet King Crimson were and still are lavishly praised and you are seen as the person who created the whole thing?

My work with Crimson I think has value but it's really as a guitar player. Yes, Crimson were lavishly praised but for every outrageous article of praise we would have one of outrageous negativity and hostility. It always bounces one way to the other. There's very few journalists or critics who could ever get past their own egotism. In none of the encyclopaedias or history of rock things I've seen, even written by people who were sympathetic, I've yet to find one which is accurate in terms of the details and facts. The point is the Crimson, like anything which succeeds to a degree, succeeds despite what it is. Some people viewed it as such in 1969. It was an unstoppably energetic band, it was so vibrant, it was so positively-negative! That there seemed to be nothing which could stop something that powerful at the time. But in fact you could say the band was only really alive for six months - then the guy would go onstage having had a bottle of whisky and then the other guy fell in love and the focus was dispersed.

Was the '76 compilation Young Person's Guide an attempt by you to get the best moments from King Crimson that you can remember?

Yes. There are very few of the Crimson records which hold up as complete items. I would say that there are probably three - In The Court, Red and Discipline. There are moments of value on others, for example the guitar solo on Sailor's Tail on Islands I think is quite a rare moment.

While in Crimson you ventured out to collaborate with Brian Eno on No Pussyfooting in 1973. What was that like?

There was no discussion. I just plugged in my guitar and played. He had this system of linked Revox Tape recorders which he didn't explain to me. There was no reason why he should. I could hear what was coming out and therefore respond to it, very straightforward. Yet the album was prevented from being released for eighteen months by EG because they didn't want Brian's pop star career to be damaged by his involvement with me. Then they made sure that the American release was on such a dud label that it wasn't effectively able to be purchased in America until the early 1980s.

The record that yourself, Eno and Bowie put out in 1977 from Berlin, "Heroes", was the first time that the things yourself and Brian were doing were injected into the mass market, like put right in front of everybody's eyes. How did you get involved?

My position was that I'd lost hope in the music industry as a means for taking political action however one would want to express that in a personal or larger context. I'd left the industry and gone into retreat, travelled to New York planning never, ever to return to England. My life was in transition and I was going somewhere else. New York was always a personal catalyst for me. When Brian rang he put me onto David but I wasn't sure that I could give him what he wanted. So he said do you think you can play some hairy rock and roll guitar and I said I suppose I could take a shot at it. So I went there not sure how I was playing and walked in and blasted away.

To get away from Eno and get onto Exposure which had a lot of varieties of musicians, voices and other experimental material on it... was it recorded in New York?

Yes. The album itself was lots of fun to make. It was very difficult because the freewheeling way I was working in America meant that if someone asked me to play on a record, fine, I'd turn up, plug in and play. That was it. New York had proven to be a catalyst and had brought me back into music in a different way. (Via the new wave scene of Blondie, Television and Talking Heads). But when it came to reciprocation I had problems from record companies and management of some of the artists I had been free towards because if you are a singer you're a star and if you're a guitar player you're a musician. There were very few problems from the musicians themselves.

Since 'Frippertronics' was part of your evolving guitar technique can you comment on the latter?

On December the 24th 1957 I began to deliberately work on my own guitar method or approach to playing. I was thirteen. It was fairly obvious that there was no system or method of playing the plectrum guitar. It had never been rationalised in the way which piano playing had been for example and the exercises I'm working on now with the guitar students in West Virginia are refinements essentially of the same exercises that I was working on way back then. I began playing acoustic but the acoustic guitar is an entirely different instrument to the electric guitar. The electric guitar is closer to the synthesiser guitar but there is still a lot of difference. The acoustic guitar has its own vocabulary, its own technique and its own lifestyle. An electric player has a different vocabulary, a somewhat different technique but the music he plays is utterly different. So the lifestyles of the player of the electric guitar and the acoustic guitar will be vastly different. The other thing is that with the electric player one has to become accustomed to 'schizophonia'. See with an acoustic player you're present at the source of the sound but with an electric player you're not, there's a distance, there's 'schizophonia'; a distance from the sound you're producing. The repercussions from that are quite considerable.

For the past year and three months I've concentrated on the acoustic guitar because I teach with acoustic guitars.

How were you able to get the varied sounds with King Crimson?

The equipment was very minimal up to 1981 when the synthesiser guitar came in and a whole variety of effects. Each particular effect you use on the synthesiser guitar itself requires a different approach to playing. I played it as soon as it came on the market.

Was this the guitar you used on the Frippertronic/Discotronic systems?

Well some but I was doing a lot of that before 1981. The first time I used a synthesiser guitar was on The League Of Gentlemen album to do a solo on one or two tracks. I really used it ostensibly since March '81 with Crimson. The delay on the synthesiser guitar makes accurate picking very difficult. For example if you're picking semi-quavers 152 beats a minute it means you're playing 10.3 notes per second. If your response from a synthesiser is say .22 of a second it means your always going to be playing kind of two notes behind because of the response of the synthesiser. It takes at least one cycle to be sampled by the synthesiser before it's translated into sound. So your response on the top strings is going to be slightly quicker to the response on the low strings where the cycles, with the lower pitch, are going to take longer.

So when playing synthesiser guitar one's right hand is not going to be as useful as if you're playing acoustic guitar where the tone is produced by the right hand primarily and not the left. Now what I've been working with recently is the Ibanez Midi System. The guitar doesn't drive a synthesiser, it goes into a Midi unit which then is translated and powers a synthesiser. The response is .22 of a second. Well if you're playing notes which last 1/10 of a second they have a delay which is more than twice that then you have to modify your playing which I've been working with and coming up with different approaches. I use flutter fingering that is how I cope with that to a degree and then one can also play ahead.

With a keyboard player the response on a synthesiser is very precise. A guitar string triggering a synthesiser is very imprecise and in addition to that the body of technique which if you like is brought behind guitar players is largely arbitrary. Most keyboard players have been taught and there are systems of approaching how the fingers depress the keys. You don't have that with guitar playing it's all a bodge except may I add at Guitar Craft and in some schools Spanish Guitar playing but even then it's a very limited area and it's never really been applied to the plectrum guitar.

Can you talk a little bit about your alliance with Andy Summers which produced the two albums I Advance Masked and Bewitched.

Andy is a very fine guitar player. I think he underestimates his own abilities. He's spent a lot of time writing screenplays in Hollywood. How we work was to sit down for a week in Arnie's Shack studio, a small studio I use constantly in England and trade ideas on our guitars. Then we would take the best of them and rework them. I Advance Masked is a more complete album than Bewitched. Some of the best guitar playing I've ever done was rubbed off Bewitched because I left Andy and Tony Arnold to mix it. I felt that they spent too long on it but Andy was left on his own and that's very difficult in a partnership where you're left on your own. I was booked out with Crimson so it's Andy's perspective on Bewitched. Mine would probably have been different. Andy is a fabulous guitar player and an underestimated guitarist really and I'd love to go out and play duets with him.

Will you be producing any more albums in the near future?

I'd love to produce Clannad but no one approaches me. I'm now spending most of my time teaching. I did some studio work recently for David Sylvian some of his album projects.

What is your attitude towards modern pop music which relies on synthetics and production for the most part to generate a sound?

Well I wouldn't be quite that critical. It's one approach where studio technology is the instrument and it's valid. My personal interest tends towards being in the moment with the players but that means you have to have good players.

A lot of that kind of music is very much whitewash to generate a star like George Michael or Simon Le Bon. It's all contrived with very little organic quality?

But very little of the progressive rock music of the '70's was organic. It was mostly contrived to vaunt egos. It was loathsome, frankly loathsome. It was wretched and I'm not going to mention names. Rock music still has egotism and conceit and all the rest of it but still how one makes sound is something different. To go the high-tech route is one way and equally valid is to go the low-tech route. Whether the studio is the instrument or the guitar itself is the instrument or the voice is the instrument I don't think is a vastly important point. They're simply different approaches and they're equally as valid.

You now give lectures on the guitar and record in West Virginia. Did not your lectures begin a long time ago?

When I went into retreat during the mid-seventies I edited and still edit the lectures of J. G. Bennett. He died on December 13th 1974 and had established the American Society for Continuous Education of which I'm currently a vice-president and a past president. I teach Guitar Craft there at the moment. One of the techniques I use in the course is to present the guitar student with an appropriate challenge to which he or she can respond. If you have no challenge you have no response, what do you respond to? The students were given a high external challenge - a live radio show on public radio, followed by the making of a record and then playing to a sophisticated audience in Washington. Go! The album Robert Fripp And The League of Crafty Guitarists is all my guitar students, thirty or so, playing in unison. A very very difficult album to record. The forthcoming Lady Or The Tiger album (Fripp, the Crafty Guitarists and Toyah Willcox) is meant to raise funds for the Claymount Children's school. Toyah is reading the story and I did the music behind side one and for side two The League Of Crafty Guitarists played.