April 1997 interview with Robert Fripp

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Date Submitted: 16-Sep-1997
Submitted By: Matt George (bmgeorge at pacbell dot net)


Robert Fripp Disciplined
By Elizabeth Rose

Upon the release of King Crimson's Epitaph, Robert Fripp, the singular force to have propelled this band since its first incarnation in 1968, sits down for a conversation at "exactly the middle" of his career as a musician, as he characterizes it. Released on his own label, Discipline Global Mobile, Epitaph is a double-boxed "official bootleg" CD set that contains previously unreleased studio sessions, live highlights, and a conplete concert by the original 1969 KC line-up, which includes Fripp (guitar), Greg Lake (bass, lead vocals), Ian McDonald (woodwinds, vibes, guitar, keyboards, Mellotron, and vocals), Michael Giles (drums, percussion, vocals), and Peter Sinfield (words, illuminations, and other things).

In a linear sense, Fripp's career has witnessed the tribulations and euphorias one might expect of a progressive rock musician in the public eye for 30+ years. Drawing from these experiences, Fripp has sculpted an affirmative personal vision, eventually creating DGM from the ashes of his Phoenix-like experiences. DGM, according to its founder, is to be "a model of ethical business in an industry founded on exploitation, oiled by deceit, riven with theft and fueled by greed." For Fripp, music is a benificent presence which exists beyond our limited concepts of linear time. This is not music "of my past," says Fripp of the Epitaph release, "but of my ongoing present."

The present incarnation of King Crimson is a double trio in which Adrian Belew joins Fripp on guitar, Tony Levin and Trey Gunn play bass and Stick, and drummers Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto complete the rhythm section. Perpetually on the move, the 51-year-old musician is also set to tour with G3, already in its second rev and featuring guitarists Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and the 20-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Pushing the musical envelope, as always, Fripp will be opening solo for G3, performing in his unique tuning, and playing in the atmospheric guitar stylings he calls Soundscaping. And though he's often labeled by journalists as a somewhat diffident eccentric, this writer found Fripp a gentle, honest soul in whom the path to his heart swings open from the gate of his considerable intellect.

Are you starting work on a new King Crimson album with the double trio?

If you are asking me to present my current resume, I'll give you the background, then we'll go into the detail. As a performing musician, my work falls into three categories: one with King Crimson, secondly as a solo guitarist--Soundscaping-- and with that I'm out on the G3 tour for the American leg. They asked me to do Europe, but I'm actually playing in England in Salisbury Cathedral in the beginning of June. Thirdly is my work as a contributor and collaborator with various people. I'm flying to Seattle to work with Bill Rieflan--the drummer in Ministry--and a few other musicians of his choice, including Trey Gunn in the current KC. So, that's my current activity as a playing musician.

My other work as a musician includes Guitar Craft courses around the world, which are ongoing. Another hat I wear more frequently nowadays is as a small mobile unit within Discipline Global Mobile, this artist-friendly record company. A lot of my time in addition to that is spent with builders and architects renovating my home in England, which is my very happy marital home. And last on this list, but not least, is the time I would like to spend with my wife [Toyah Willcox]. Most of the time she or I are in different places working. She is an actress and a singer with a very rich and wide career which even I am never quite up on, she does so many things.

Logistically speaking, for a Crimson rehearsal, do you book a studio for, say, a week, bring everyone together, and then work out the music?

It's not even that straightforward. I'm planning Wednesday to present the outline of two or three major pieces I'm working on for the moment, even though the full group isn't together. Bear in mind, not only are the logistics horrific with six people but it costs $30,000 to put those six men together in a room with equipment. But in terms of the business plan, that's something else. Crimson, as a musical identity, has to have a business plan which is sympathetic and subordinate to the musical and personal interests of the musicians involved.

Coming back to the writing, I fly into Adrian's roughly every two months for ten days, so the writing process with Adrian is an ongoing dialogue. Trey flies in at the end of a week there. We work as a three-piece, then we go away, maybe another six weeks of thinking, whatever. Meanwhile, Tony Levin has flown to stay with Trey for two days to work on the quarter-tone double-Stick pieces. Or Trey goes to see Pat and they work on ideas. So there is an ongoing dialogue--trialogue--between the different small units in the band. When we meet together, there is something of significance available to be addressed, but not so pinned down that we know what we're doing, either. The aim at the end of the live work, say in March or early April of 1998, will be to have enough material for a full album.

I'd like to go out and do Lollapalooza next year. We've been invited to Lollapalooza this year. My own sympathy with the established performance conventions is now at an all-time runout. I would rather KC play as part of Lollapalooza or a package. KC is currently around $100,000 a week to put on the road. It means if you play in 2,000-seat theatres, probably you're going to lose money. As a working musician for one night on G3 on my own, I earn what it takes me to earn in King Crimson in two weeks.

What was the genesis of your joining the G3 tour?

I'd been approached by Wayne Forte, who's the agent for G3 and in the 80s was the agent for KC. Would I be interested in G3 Soundscapes? I said, "Yes, wonderful." You see, in England I can't give Soundscapes away. In order to play this music, I play it for nothing. The last time I played it, last November in Bath, they so hated it they asked me to stop. So I stopped. Suddenly an approach comes in: Would I like to play this to larger numbers of people for six weeks? Yes, please. How much will it cost me? Oh no, we give you money. Even better, I say. I phoned Wayne Forte up and said, "Do the guys know what I'll be playing, all the beeping and droning sounds?" And he said, "Well, I think probably they do, because Joe [Satriani] said to me with a kind of smile, 'How will that affect the jam at the end?'" So I'll go on as the doors open and I'll play through people walking in, 15 minutes into the supposed lights-down. Then Kenny Wayne Shepherd will come on.

You have created a unique guitar tuning: CGDAEG. I call it "Crafty Guitarists Do Always Eat Good"--bad grammar but easy to remember [he laughs]. The inner strings are tuned like a violin; add the C on the bottom and you have a viola. With the high G, you are able to drone easily in G. It also makes for some interesting slide playing.

Oh, yes, that's good.

But, why this tuning?

I ask myself the same question. The tuning flew by when I was sweating in the sauna of the apple health spa on Bleecker and Thompson [in New York City]. I think it was September 1983. It was about half past ten, I was dozing gently, sweating, and then the tuning flew by. A few days later I flew to Adrian Belew and I put the tuning on, but I took it off again. I didn't quite get my answer--why this tuning--although I did have a vague dissatisfaction with EADGBE. I still didn't really see the place for this tuning. Then after KC ceased to exist in 1984, I went into retreat to allow the future to present itself. At the facility of the American Society for Continuous Education I was asked to give a guitar seminar. I said no. I've been giving guitar lessons since I was 13. I gave Al Stewart guitar lessons when I was 17, and Al ignored everything I said, much to his credit, and went on to success. I had no interest in giving guitar lessons again. Then I was asked again, and at the same time that I was asked, this tuning came to mind. It was a click. And I used that tuning for that seminar. We put one seminar in, and the response was so great we had to put three in straight away. The responses to those were so great, we had to have eight courses in the first year. It developed from there...and now we have guitar courses on four continents for about 1,200 students. So that's why the tuning, because there was a particular resonance between the seminar and the tuning, and I stayed with the tuning as an opportunity to, I suppose, assume an innocence.

With regard to the release of Epitaph, John Lennon said that every time he listened to his old mixes, he'd want to go back and fix them.

The beauty of this, because it's official bootleg material...you have no alternatives, you have nothing more to mix. It's a given. I look back on the young Fripp with an affection for a person close to me but with the same distance--and hopefully, forgiving affection--which I would hold towards a man of 50 who bears the same name. For me, the music is not part of my past, it's part of a larger present. When Discipline was brought into being, the first half of my career as a musician was over. I felt exactly in the middle, looking backwards and looking forwards to my death. And the music on Epitaph is for me a part of the continuum--one moment on a clock, maybe 50 years ago. But experientially, just as part of one moment. So it's not for me historic, as such, on a personal level. Although as Discipline Record Company we would say this is part of our past.