INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Wire OCTOBER 2014 - by Mike Barnes
ROBERT FRIPP: KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
After winning his legal battles over the ownership of his music, Robert Fripp has come out of retirement to reincarnate King Crimson. He is also mining his extensive archives to build massive anniversary box-sets of their key 1970s albums. He tells Mike Barnes about his parallel roles as guitarist, label director, archivist and curator of his future legacy.
"You just couldn't keep away could you?" chides Robert Fripp by way of greeting as he emerges smiling, guitar slung around his neck, from a back room of an unassuming house in the village of Broad Chalke, near Salisbury.
This is the fourth time I have met the guitarist since 1997, but Fripp is specifically referring to my previous visit in 2012, when I interviewed him for an article he felt obliged to do, although he clearly would have liked to be doing something else. After all, he had essentially been forced to retire from his role as a professional musician in 2010 due to his ongoing and all-consuming legal battle with Universal Music Group over rights to the King Crimson back catalogue. As he was no longer working in music, he didn't want to keep talking about it, he said. He even declared that the interview we were just about to struggle through back then would most likely be his last.
In September 2013, about a year after that difficult and apparently valedictory encounter, I was surprised to read an announcement that King Crimson were going to reform. I dropped Fripp an email saying that I appreciated a fellow's prerogative to change his mind. "Mike," he replied, "funny how much the end to six years of litigation and dispute can lift the spirits of a sixty-seven year old!" And it clearly has done.
"Thank you for coming to visit our crumbling headquarters," gestures Fripp, leading us into the kitchen of the flamboyantly but accurately named DGM World HO, where today's interview is about to take place. Washing up some King Crimson mugs for coffee, he surveys his rather shabby surroundings with an exaggerated look of dismay. "I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag last night," he lets slip. "How many other company directors would do that?"
He invites his DGM co-director David Singleton to sit in. Standing for Discipline Global Mobile, DGM is the "ethical company within the recording industry" they formed in 1992. "We are a fifty-fifty partnership," Fripp continues. "I could have insisted on fifty-one per cent, kept control, but what sort of working agreement would that be?" As we sit down and switch on our respective recording equipment - Fripp also records the exchange - I say that it's good to meet again in happier times.
"I think that's fair," he nods. "The end of the UMG problem, which rattled on for six years and led me to stop playing, was the end of a total of twenty-three years of litigation, dispute and suffering: six years and seven months with EG, then onto Virgin and EMI. With EMI there was the question: you've underpaid King Crimson royalties of £450,000, would you like to pay it please?
"Then onto Sanctuary and UMG: You put our stuff up for digital download and you have no rights, and are spending more money on a high-powered London lawyer than it would cost to settle with us. Since the end of the dispute, life began again. I've been happy for about two years of my life out of sixty-eight," he adds, with no discernible sign of irony.
Fripp had come to the realisation that he had no other choice than to pursue his action through the courts, even at the sacrifice of his role as a musician. "Creative energy is in very short supply," he remarks, "and for me I found out that it's only available in the morning after a night's sleep. And if that creative energy goes into a response to litigation, there's nothing available for what we would call a creative endeavour. What are the characteristics of a creative endeavour? It's play; it's positive; it embraces joy. What are the characteristics of a legal dispute with highly paid lawyers and the world's largest record company? Endless grief."
Making a sensational appearance at The Rolling Stones' London Hyde Park concert in July 1969 just a few months after they had formed, King Crimson were arguably the first progressive rock group. Fripp has been the only constant in the group's forty-five year story, which has been marked by lengthy hiatuses. These allowed Fripp to pursue a parallel career as a guitar innovator, collaborating with the likes of Brian Eno, David Bowie, David Sylvian, Grinderman, The Orb and even The Damned, while exploring his own take on ambient music via his Frippertronic tape loop set-up and what Fripp describes as his digital Soundscapes. In addition he has been giving Guitar Craft and Guitar Circles classes, and he has played in a number of spin-off groups, including The Orchestra Of Crafty Guitarists, with whom he toured the US West Coast in May.
Through its Panegyric label, DGM has taken on the task of properly curating Fripp's music legacy in its many and various forms. One of its goals is to make all the live performances they own available for download from their website. This exemplifies how much attitudes have changed since the 1970s, when bootleg recordings or even officially released live albums that were poorly recorded or performed were thought of as possibly injurious to a group's reputation.
Fripp has been an assiduous diarist since the age of eleven. In his online diary, he is typically precise in charting, to the minute, the times that incidents occur across a single day. He takes an equally meticulous approach to organising his musical archive. Does he attach significance to everything happening around him, and in King Crimson's case, their every single action and utterance?
"You don't know if it's significant until later," he cautions. "For example, say you have just recorded a number of live performances in Europe in 1973. You have no time to assess it all, but maybe its time will come, so since you can't judge the significance at the time, you archive the material, then return to it in a different moment.
"I received a letter from one character - and I'm paraphrasing this - who said, 'When I first heard An Index Of Metals [from Fripp & Eno's 1975 album, Evening Star], I thought what astonishing nonsense, and a year-and-a-half later I thought that the universe is changing'. So if you introduce the element of time, the judgments change. At the time your judgment is unsound, but maybe later one can come to an impartial view."
The Broad Chalke house contains two mastering studios, an office, some living areas and an archive room. The archiving already carried out by DGM/Panegyric has yielded some spectacular box-sets. Fripp compiled the four CD set, Frame By Frame, in 1992, out of fear of losing the Crimson catalogue when EG, the group's management company, had collapsed and were in the process of being taken over by Virgin. But the serious business started in 1997 with Epitaph, a four CD set showcasing King Crimson's original 1969 line-up. It featured some of Singleton's frankly astonishing restorations of seemingly unsalvageable live recordings. "Audio necromancy" is how Fripp describes Singleton's process.
Then came The Great Deceiver box set in 1992, featuring four CDs of live performances from 1973-74, which Fripp reckoned helped rehabilitate the group at a time when progressive rock was something to be sneered at. In 2010 their 1969 debut In The Court Of The Crimson King belatedly came out as a fortieth anniversary box set containing the original vinyl transfer, the original CD mastering, a new 5.1 surround sound mix, live material and demos.
At six discs, that was a pup compared to the expanded version of Larks' Tongues In Aspic (1973), which covered the same range of formats plus video footage and weighed in at fourteen discs. This was surpassed by the twenty-four discs of Road To Red, featuring a stack of concert recordings from the US and Canadian tour that preceded the release of the original Red album in 1974. The upcoming Starless box centres on Starless And Bible Black, also from 1974, which was mainly comprised of edited live recordings made at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and the Glasgow Apollo in 1973. In its expanded form it is likely to run to twenty-six discs, principally consisting of live material recorded in the USA and Europe in 1973-74.
Some may roll their eyes at the idea of monumental box-sets hyper-inflating the importance of certain albums by bulking them up with concert material, most of which will be made available as downloads from the DGM website, if they haven't already been released as live CDs. For his part Fripp claims that he is not a completist. "I would like to hear the key performances of Miles Davis with Tony Williams, for example. I don't need to hear everything he ever did, although there is value in that."
In fact, there is a sound logic to DGM's archive mission, as Singleton explains with reference to a particularly impressive King Crimson show in Mainz, West Germany in 1974, previously documented in their Collectors Club CD series. Recently he mixed together the previously available 'sterile' board recording with an audience bootleg to great effect in both surround sound and stereo versions.
"The recording you will get in this box-set is much better, as the box-set has a budget and therefore allows us to present all twenty shows," he explains. "So you end up with a fascinating box for completists, but it also has the best versions of the nuggets. For the box-set I have a licence to clean up the very good shows, like Mainz and the Concertgebouw. But a budget for just the Mainz show would not justify doing that."
DGM sets the bar high with the loving attention to detail that goes into the box-sets. "I think that's one of the reasons why we keep vaguely commercially successful at this," says Singleton. "I have been told that there are other bands who have taken on this idea, but they just put out box-sets of bootlegs and they sound terrible. This industry can work fine as long as you are prepared to put in the effort."
"An interesting twist is that DGM/Panegyric is actually expanding its release base although the industry is shrinking," adds Fripp.
Of course none of this would mean anything if the music wasn't so deserving of so much extra attention. At their inception, King Crimson epitomised progressive rock in its truest sense, in that they were an eclectic group restlessly trying out different styles and combinations. They strove to be different and the results were far removed from the idiomatic blues rock that was the great leveller of the day.
In the late 1960s, Fripp was of the feeling that "there is only one musician in the world speaking in various dialects, but music is one. So it would be Crimson playing [London rock venue] The Marquee in '69 with John Surman, or playing with Keith Tippett. These young characters came from different backgrounds but there was no contradiction in them working together."
By 1970, Tippett was the group's pianist, at least in the studio, although he declined to become an official member. King Crimson also collaborated with trumpeter Marc Charig and trombonist Nick Evans from Tippett's group, and orchestral oboist Robin Miller, on melodic songs with grand, faux classical sweeps of mellotron, abrasive rock and spells of jazz-inflected improvisation that sounded a lot more European than American.
Fresh from a three-year stint alongside Derek Bailey in Music Improvisation Company, percussionist Jamie Muir joined King Crimson in 1972, playing on Larks' Tongues In Aspic before leaving in early 1973. His tenure might have been brief, but he was a catalyst whose untrammelled approach to a vast array of percussion buffeted Fripp's more austere and intricate compositions, while opening up the group's musical horizons. He especially had an enormous and lasting influence on drummer Bill Bruford's playing.
"The overall thing is: why catalogue this?" asks Fripp rhetorically. "Well, if live shows were hot dates and albums were love letters, Crimson was always better in the clinches. So to present an accurate view of King Crimson you present the live performances. There are key albums, but they were always superseded by the band performing live, although the record of a live performance is clearly not the live performance. Nevertheless it gives a better sense of what the band is. My view is that King Crimson is.an important band in its field, and a band which has a very unusual trajectory and process, which is continuing."
At the outset of progressive rock in the early to mid-1970s, record companies spent a fortune on this new thing. But of course all that money spent was recoupable from the artists. So many a commercially successful group ended up in debt to their record company. Fripp winces when he recalls one journalist likening King Crimson to stadium acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a group with whom he felt almost nothing in common, despite bass guitarist and singer Greg Lake being a former Crimson member. The working model Fripp had in his mind was on a smaller scale, more along the lines of Miles Davis's groups.
Fripp also notes that one of the reasons King Crimson have continued on their particular trajectory is that they always managed to break up before they became so hugely successful for their music to become compromised by record company pressure to keep on milking it. Indeed, Fripp ran counter to the currents of the time by breaking up King Crimson in late 1974 to become, in his description, a "small mobile intelligent unit", which left the progressive rock big hitters to slug it out among themselves.
The most striking feature of King Crimson's live performances from the 1973-74 era, as featured on the Road To Red and upcoming Starless box-sets, is their wide-ranging improvisational approach and the subtle differences it brought to even their most formally written and arranged pieces. "The finest quality of improvisation is spontaneous composition where it lands fully formed," declares Fripp. "An example would be Trio at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, with King Crimson in 73." He's referring in particular to an exquisite song-like few minutes of viola, mellotron and bass guitar that made it onto Starless And Bible Black.
On the same album, you could also cite a version of the old warhorse 21st Century Schizoid Man, recorded at the Palace Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island in 1974. Fripp pulls out all the stops, his playing at once technically dazzling and thrillingly visceral. His solo starts off on the edge of feedback, with long bent notes, wide intervallic leaps and sudden plunges, and lavish high velocity pull-offs.
Nothing about the song's instrumental section is predictable. Fripp passes the baton to violinist David Cross, but he's so obviously fired up that, as soon as he's got his breath back, he decides he's not finished yet and re-emerges with a frantically strummed, dissonant chord swoop up the fretboard. As his fingers gradually climb higher, Bruford suddenly launches off, adding to the mounting tension by playing four across the 6/8 rhythm. This chord is held for a number of bars, until Fripp shifts up to the top of his fretboard, before a dead stop and into one of the song's main themes. The performance is so intense its conclusion is met with a cacophony of yelling and screaming.
Another 1974 track, Providence, recorded at the Palace Theatre, Providence, Rhode Island, is avant rock avant la lettre. The mercurial rhythmic relationship between Bruford and John Wetton's bass is such that they play across each other in a kind of implied momentum, even as its apparent instability adds an extra frisson, while Fripp buzzes and squalls ominously over the top. By this 1974 US tour the group's live sound had become louder and heavier. Still, Asbury Park, recorded at the town's Casino, is more of an improvisation than a jam. The rhythm section lock into a taut sub-funk groove. Wetton's monstrous bass sounds like something digging up the pavement outside your bedroom window at 8AM, while Fripp utilises a sulphurous fuzz guitar sound, with long sustained notes and quicksilver flurries.
"You can hear me shout 'F!' at the start," says Fripp. But does he remember playing improvisations like these? "I remember shouting 'F!'", he laughs. "All you can really say at the time as the player is if you enjoyed it or not. You might have had a sense that there was something going on here, but if you listen to the tape, what was going on might have been in the atmosphere rather than the notes. The audience, the musicians and the music can come together in a way that is very special, so key performances were not necessarily the best played, but there was something in the atmosphere that made them stunning. Hyde Park, July '69," he recalls, for example, "there was something in the air."
When Fripp began his solo guitar performances in the mid-1970s, he devised a layering technique using two Revox tape recorders that Brian Eno had introduced to him on the duo's loop-based, proto-ambient albums No Pussyfooting (1973) and Evening Star (1973) - an idea he borrowed from Terry Riley's Time-Lag Accumulator. This month DGM and Eno's label Opal jointly release another brilliantly restored three CD box-set, formerly available as a download, called Live In Paris 28.05.1975, which was mixed together from an audience recording and Eno's stage tapes and loops. It's hard to imagine how extraordinary yet shocking this often beautiful music must have sounded to audiences at the time. It starts with Water On Water, which is basically a loop left to run for five minutes accompanied by the noise of a restless crowd. Fripp silences them with some intense - and very loud - soloing, but once they realise their desired mix of Roxy Music and King Crimson will not be materialising, the audience revert to whistling and catcalling. Evidently Fripp and Eno's take on minimalism at the height of progressive rock grandstanding was positively intimidating for some. When the duo played in Tunbridge Wells, they were billed as "a superstar show". Perhaps the Parisian audience's expectations had been similarly raised by promotional hype.
Later on Fripp moved to a digital delay system called Soundscapes, using a MIDI interface that gave him a greatly enhanced sound palette. When I interviewed him in 1997, he mentioned a Soundscapes performance at the disused Green Park railway station in Bath, which, in his words, was curtailed by public demand. The idea for the event appeared to be modelled along the lines of Eno's Music For Airports: creating environmental music to sooth and entertain people passing through a particular space without distracting them from their destination. Fripp judged his participation to be a failure. So what went wrong?
"It was at the 1997 Bath Guitar Festival," he recalls. "I arrived at lunchtime to find out that it was an eight hour performance. I set up and began playing, and an old man was soon leaning over the barrier saying, 'Please turn down'. Apparently one of the stallholders threw up as a direct result of the music, and then they asked me to stop. As the team were packing up I did my shopping in Sainsbury's and drove back home."
In concert, Fripp's Soundscapes method of improvisation - or instant composition - seems like a relaxed way to go about things, but its success is hard to gauge. "In live performances, your judgment at the time is pretty well subjective," Fripp says. "I remember playing in a church in Tatu, on the Churchscapes tour of Estonia in 2006. I remember at the time - and this was always an ordeal for me with live Soundscapes - thinking what should I play now? And every time before I walked on, I had no idea what to play, even though I had done this before. And during the performance in Tatu I was stuck. I had absolutely nothing I could think of, and the only strategy I could contribute was to persist, and subjectively it was awful. All I wanted to do was run from the stage.
"But listening back to it, it was other," he continues, "it was very different. You could hear the development. So subjectively there is only persistence, but musically there is a sustained development."
A decade earlier, during the 1996 Now You See It event on London's South Bank, Fripp improvised four eight-hour performances on consecutive days in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer. The best part of his performance, released on a DGM compilation called Sometimes God Hides: The Young Person's Guide To Discipline, came right at the end of his residency. "One of the strategies of improvisation is to perform for an extended period like eight hours or ten hours, because you run out of everything you could think of playing or could possibly ever have played. You are there in a moment of necessity in front of an audience and there is nothing like a live audience to galvanise the attention. You are exposed. Go out and face the public humiliation of having no idea what to play whatsoever now."
These Soundscapes form a significant part of the DGM archive but Singleton and Fripp have yet to establish a proper archiving system for them, particularly for the DAT recordings of performances prior to 1993.
Now that Fripp's litigation with UMG is settled, he is enjoying an unusual spell of happiness. But as we talk, he agrees that one hallmark of his role in King Crimson has been a degree of restlessness. Having tasted retirement from making music while carrying on his court case, he has determined that simply relaxing and putting his feet up is not for him. "It's like paradise," he ponders. "But the limitation to paradise, wonderful as it might be, is that nothing happen. It's just a lovely place to be..." He pauses to relish the thought. To break the silence I ask, does he need other stimuli to keep his life in balance? "Paradise is mainly a condition we earn through many years of application," he reprises, "whether it's struggling with music companies or other musicians in order to produce a body of work or a repertoire. But once you've reached paradise, if you have a taste for reality, then it's time to pull out the pointed stick. You don't engage with your creative process if you are comfortable."
During our conversation the one subject he is touchy about is the way his music is portrayed in the media. For the most part, The Wire has been broadly supportive of Fripp's music in all its forms. As well as many positive reviews, Joseph Stannard penned a King Crimson Primer in December 2009 (The Wire 310) and I wrote a profile back in 1997 (The Wire 159). But Fripp obsessively harks back to a comment made in a 1992 issue that "King Crimson were only ever a poor man's Black Sabbath, nothing more or less". I counter that it was one writer's point of view and didn't necessarily reflect the magazine's editorial policy. In response he coolly brings this topic to an end.
But this was a minor blip. When he agrees to interviews, Fripp certainly gives them his undivided attention, although he has a precise way of answering questions with rhetorical questions and aphorisms that draws interviewers into his world, while keeping them at a distance. This may sound like a description of an arch-rationalist trying to impose a predetermined template over the conversation, but it feels more like one man's attempts to make sense of the world. Ask a more searching question and he will close his eyes for a while as he mentally assembles an answer. Occasionally he will stop and look over, eyebrows raised above his wire-framed glasses, inviting me to finish the sentence with my own viewpoint.
Now then, Mike, you must have a question you really want to ask me, something you feel passionate about," he suddenly exclaims. As a matter of fact I do. I'm interested in Fripp's notion of King Crimson as an actual entity that is discreet from, but also part of, the group. "That's right," he declares. "On my way to rehearsals in Ewhurst in 1981, there it was, King Crimson sitting next to me in the passenger seat." Fripp was then in a group called Discipline, and he was wondering whether this unit could become a new version of King Crimson. "King Crimson was willing to incarnate in these four people," he continues. "Would you like to know the last time it happened? At the Ibis Hotel about 8:15AM in my shower unit. Ibis is a modest motel in Elstree. It was on the Wednesday during the first batch of rehearsals four or five weeks ago [in early July 2014] and I was aware that King Crimson was in the building; that King Crimson had arrived. Here were the musicians rehearsing and the presence of King Crimson was there. Also with Tom Redmond, a pal in America who was doing what one could call personal security on the last King Crimson tour in 2008. Tom could clearly recognise when King Crimson was in the building during performances. And while we were playing Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Two in Chicago Park West, I recognised that King Crimson was here between the notes.
"If I speak to musician and artist buddies and painters and writers, none of this raises an eyebrow because that's what it is. So there, I've explained the irrational rationally and it sounds pretty hokey. But nevertheless that was the experience."
But is 'King Crimson' a completely benign entity? When Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left after a US tour in late 1969 they did so feeling that the group was permeated with paranoia and evil. "In a sense that's an abstract question, but on the other hand from my experience in the band it's a concrete question. In terms of Mike and Ian, this is a question best addressed to them and I think today they would agree that leaving was a mistake," Fripp says. "But the pressures those young men were under at the time were fairly enormous. But yes, it is benign. This King Crimson is more concerned with joy. Well, that's a change isn't it?" he concludes with a smile.
That said, Fripp agrees that there was something intimidating, even scary about King Crimson's music, which holds true now, be it the group's naggingly repeated riffs or motifs, like the grotesque mellotron fanfares of Cirkus (1970); the dense, airless, near heavy metal of Red (1974); the cold articulations of Thrak (1995); or the inexorably ascending repetitions of Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Two (1973). The music's tension, like a boxed in ferocity, reached its peak on the pitilessly brutal Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part IV from The ConstruKction Of Light (2000).
"What is scary about King Crimson is that there is something real about it, and when we come up against something real, a real intelligence, a real presence, it can be overwhelming," he says. "The world conspires against creative endeavour, because it can be profoundly unsettling. Since most of the world is governed by inertia, the creative element is always disturbing. It's unsafe."
Having lain dormant since 2008, the entity that is King Crimson is once again reanimated, with a new line-up of Fripp, Tony Levin on bass, Jakko Jakszyk on guitar and vocals, Mel Collins on saxes and flute, plus three drummers, Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and Bill Rieflin, who also plays guitar and keyboards. Any surprises about the new group?
"Three things," he replies. "We gave a performance to friends and guests about ten days ago [at Elstree Studios] and the band sat down and watched the performance, and what struck me is that all the band has to do is play the music and if that's all the band does, it's eighty-five per cent there, bearing in mind that every performance is more than merely about the music. But we don't have to leap across the bandstand, our legs snapping like whipcords, dressed in spandex.
"The second is it's a band of equal members. Conventionally the singer is in the foreground and the focus of attention. In this King Crimson, Jakko is one equal member within the band. Everyone is equal, but the drummers are the stars, the three in the front line. Wonderful!
"The third thing that struck me is how little Robert does [Fripp often refers to himself in the third person]. I was surprised by that. But I would add that he does little very well. It's very hard to do nothing. There are three primary roles for the professional musician. One is to solo, the second is to accompany, the third is tacit: do nothing. But doing nothing is very hard to do."
Fripp once said that in the beginning being a member of King Crimson was an excellent liberal education for a young man. How does he view being in King Crimson in his sixties? "It's an excellent liberal education for an older man," he shoots back. "The process of education is ongoing.
"It's interesting that in relearning the material, King Crimson music is a minefield and it's deliberately constructed so that if you think you know where you are, a mine will go off with a big bang," he explains. "l was learning some parts in the past two days that I had only played once in 1974 in a studio in Barnes, never live, going inside the mind of that young guitarist and how he was thinking, and I saw how he did it. And the principle was: this does not exactly repeat. It just appears to, and if you forget what you are doing you're fucked."
Fripp is so busy right now that there is no need for any prodding from that pointed stick. He has been meaning to write some new material, but hasn't had the time. There are no plans for the group to release new material, but Fripp hasn't ruled out the possibility.
Whatever happens to this current incarnation, Fripp and DGM codirector Singleton are committed to establishing that group's legacy through their ongoing mission of organising and structuring Fripp's musical archive.
"Maybe at the time of the fiftieth anniversary we will have been able to do the work to present an overview of the fifty years of King Crimson," Fripp postulates. "If you would like to make a judgment, positive, negative or shades in between, you now have enough material or evidence on which to base your judgment, while for many years, comments on King Crimson were really received opinion.
"We're effectively making a musical biography of King Crimson," he concludes. "As the band is still alive we can't really have a biography. So we are at least preparing chapters before it all flies away."