Interview with King Crimson in Musician

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Date Submitted: 24-Nov-1995
Submitted By: Jim Price (JPRICE at TrentU dot ca)



Crimson: Organizing Conflict in Time and Space

by Freff

Musician Magazine, August 1984

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There's this place.

Call it the Court, if you can stand the past reference. Even if you can't; enough argument and testimony goes down there to justify the name - and maybe enough judgement, too.

It isn't like your usual place, this Court. Not like New York or Dorset of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (though it has manifested itself in all of those locales). It's a -quality- of place, bound by not by the laws of physics and three-dimensionality, but by the laws of finance and the relative fragility of its current vessels/vassals. It's the ground beneath itself and the air above, but not the space between. It just...is.

And what it is, is King Crimson. Not the band. The thing that lives -behind- the band. The fire that reaches out through the medium of the Fripp Animal, grabs hold of a confusing, contradictory collection of musicians, and then makes them beat each other creatively silly in order to give Crimson a voice in the world.

No joke. Look at them: Tony Levin, a session man's session man (hell, he brought Steve Gadd into the business); Bill Bruford, a technique- obsessed drummer with no interest in keeping time; Adrian Belew, a mad mix of Kerouac and Hendrix and Huck Finn; and Robert Fripp, an unfulfilled, often unhappy, and ultimately unwilling apex of the Crimson pyramid. This is not a band, this is a passionate case of possession. More than that - it's the biggest gamble happening in modern rock. If these guys could get it together fully, magnifying all their strengths and canceling out all their weaknesses, they could crack the whole music industry like a whip.

The gamble has got lousy odds. Axiomatic in the relationship between the Court and the Real World is that the closer the Court comes to busting through, the more pressure both sides put on the point of nexus. In Crimson 1, it punched hard with it's first effort, "In the Court of the Crimson King." What other record can lay legitimate claim to simultaneously siring jazz-rock, art-rock, and heavy metal? But that band trailed off into nothingness, so it regrouped and hit back with Crimson 2, leaner and meaner by far, and precisely strong enough so that as it was about to become the biggest thing in Europe, the pressure valve gave and blew the top of Fripp's head off. Like kicking in a TV screen, -that- was. Lots of sparks, a loud -whump-, and no more picture... until years later, and Crimson 3. The current lineup, arguably the best ever: two Yanks and two Brits, each a master of his instrument. Crimson, having pulled a good hand in the game, is laying out four solid aces to cover the bet.

Only it's not working. Or at least, not working yet. Not on the level it could. It's the stablest Crimson of them all, in terms of personnel, and as wonderfully thunderous and magical on-stage as ever - but it keeps releasing records that are good but not great, and which sell like it.

Why? Conflict. The disorganized kind. Over space, over time, over trust.

All the pieces of Crimson are there, but they're in the wrong place. Space isn't shared; it's fought for. Time isn't kept; it's ground out, in a claustrophobic patter of synthesized guitar arpeggios, because Fripp needs the beat of rock and Bruford is offering only the flow of jazz. The rhythm section in this band isn't bass and drums - it's the bass and the lead guitar! And Belew, who would normally fill the rhythm guitar slot, is busy soaring. Somehow, out of all this, they keep making music. It's a hell of a struggle.

And maybe the Court likes it this way. Nobody ever said a great calling had to be benevolent.


-LEVIN

-"This is very unusual, that you'll see instruments here in my apartment. Usually there's just a bass sitting in the corner ready to go out to a session."

-"I'd never listened to King Crimson. Wasn't influenced at all by the band, and here I am in it."

-"Crimson live is better. Live is the thing. You say Robert says that, too? You mean we agree? Are you going to put this in the article- me and Robert agree?"

-"Yes. And no. I don't know. And I know better than to predict."

That last is a fairly typical Tony Levin answer to an interview question. It's no dodge, it's just that the average rock 'n' roll interviewer asks about things that Tony has never actually thought about. Which, mostly, means music. And bands. And what the hell holds Crimson together, anyway?

"Beats me," he smiles.

But ask him about his Scrabble dictionary, or the art on his walls, or about the new Radio Shack 100 computer he's using to go on-line with the world, and it's a different story. Tony Levin -appreciates- the things he likes. He'll go a long way for them. He loves taking pictures while on tour so much that he finally self-published a delightful collection of candids called "Road Pictures" (which he hawks, of course, while on the road). He loves opera so much that for several years he tried to schedule his tours so they wouldn't conflict with the season at the Met. He shifts with equal fascination from discussing the joys and convenience of electronic mail, to boxing, to how overwhelming he found his visit to the Rodin museum in Paris.

So he talks, and you talk, and gradually his opinions about Crimson's problems and pleasures come out to test the air.

Crack in the framework #1, conflicts in Time - and a growing tension between Bruford and Fripp (at least from Fripp's point of view). That's why Tony is busy programming a Sequential Circuits DrumTraks to use on the upcoming tour. The polarity between Bill Bruford's jazzer-approach to drumming and Fripp's demand for drumming that keeps time had reached a peak on "Sleepless." In the end Bob Clearmountain and Tony wound up creating a whole new drum track for the song by taking the sounds of Bill's snare and bass drums and electronically cutting them back into the track in a straightforward, rock steady backbeat.

"We had tried recording that song before. It was slow and moody. But we ended up giving up on the song in June, in England. When we reconvened in Woodstock, in December, I was in a different mood with my playing, and I did the opening as a slapping part instead of using a pick, as well as playing it much faster. It just took off to a different place then, for no reason; it was just very much in the air. That happened with quite a few of the songs. On this album, more than the others, we would get together and work hard and... fail. In Woodstock we breathed a collective sigh of relief, because about half of the album just suddenly, magically came together.

"I don't know what was different. I don't know what was wrong the other times. -Nothing- was wrong. It's just that a band is a very live thing. It has a mind of its own. I mean, we're four pretty intelligent guys and we can't any of us push the band in any direction, even though we try.

"I can't analyze Robert any better than you can. But I think he really feels better about the band than he says he does. No, Bill -isn't- an American-style drummer on this album, but I do think this is the one where he is no longer fighting being that kind of drummer. I think this is the album where the American and English influences are finally equal. I'm a very strong player, so I would have counteracted Bill's English style. But I didn't. Instead I actually went through quite a bit of anguish about what to do with this new style of playing, and a funny thing happened - I grew. I changed. I said 'that sounds interesting, I can do that.' In a sense I deserted Adrian and left him with the pop element of the band. I went English. I went busy. But that was years ago and I've done as much in that direction as I can, so I've fallen back to playing with a strong pulse, which the music hasn't really had before this. Or needed.

The pulse may be strong, and direct, but the latest method of creating it isn't. Tony's new experiment is in mixing electric and synth bass as tone colors, by playing both at the same time. "I've got a little Moog Source, and within one bass part or track I'll be playing back and forth from it to the Stick, or my Music Man bass, just alternating notes very quickly. Sometimes the same notes, so it's just alternating timbres."

Which brings up crack in the framework #2, conflicts in Space. Tony, by grace of his position in the band's sonic spectrum, has the least trouble with it... but it's still a problem.

"Both Robert and Adrian, when they create a song, create the whole basis of the song. Which doesn't leave a lot of room for the other guitar player. And they usually have bass parts in mind, and certainly a drum part, and it's not easy for them to see those go... and sometimes it's not easy to make them go. There's a lot of thrashing about.

"When we first started rehearsing this album, in Illinois, I was intent on it being a bit more of a dance album. Not dance like some albums... but as King Crimson goes, anyway. I made up my mind not to play the top of the Stick on the album, and I had a vague notion of this back-and-forth style playing. By the time we were working in England another idea had become popular, of having it be an 'industrial' album. I envisioned at one time doing a whole album like 'Industry.' Warner Bros. wouldn't have been happy at all."

Nor would they have been happy, one suspects, with another approach that Tony brought into rehearsal: King Crimson Barbershop Quartet.

"I've always loved barbershop quartets, ever since high school. So one day after everyone had finished in the studio I multi-tracked four vocal parts, and the next day I said, 'Right, guys, seriously, I've got something here I think is pretty good and that we could do.'"

>I'm Tony/ I'm Billy/ I'm Bobby/ I'm Belew...
>We're here to sing and play for you/ We're the King Crimson band...

"And Robert said, 'Let's put it on the record.' Except for that I think it was a pretty good laugh."


-BRUFORD

-"At the end of my band, which was running almost concurrently with Robert's League of Gentlemen, I think he and I arrived at a similar place. We both wanted the society of people who no longer needed instruction, or whom you no longer wished to instruct or to show things to."

-"It's easier to be in Crimson now than it ever was. Much easier. Robert and I are both a lot calmer, in my opinion."

-"I'm a classic Englishman. I sort of garden like crazy. Physical labor balances musical activity beautifully."

-"I love jazz, what can I say? I still listen to "A Love Supreme" all the time. In that record I find just about everything I respect about music."

The way Bill Bruford tells the tale, it's all quite comfortable these days. Life is good, life is direct, life is simple. He has his family and his gardening. He has an acoustic piano/drums duo with Patrick Moraz that allows him to explore the little things in drumming, and he's got King Crimson to let him paint the rhythm in big, increasingly electronic strokes. Rounding it out, he's earning at least as much as if he'd stayed at University and become a corporate economic advisor for British Airways, or something of similar ilk.

If there's trouble in paradise, maintains Bill, it's strictly Standard Operating Procedure.

"Creating Crimson's music," he explains, "is just about everything that the general public thinks it isn't. I think that they have this idea that Robert comes in with this huge stack of manuscript... but it's not like that at all. It's argybargy. It's give and take. I mean, the music's hardly composed, anyway. 'Composition' is a nice, flattering term that's sort of devolved down from the Western classical school, and we'd all like to think that our better rock groups -compose-... but Crimson sort of -scuffles- for it's music. It's down there somewhere on the rehearsal room floor, and it scrabbles and gets it's fingernails dirty and people resent certain things that are going on in the music, then come to live with them, and finally find something good to do with the things they initially resented. I'm quite an irritant at rehearsals because I don't settle. What used to be the deal was that the drummer settled his part immediately, so that the rest of the group could go on changing theirs. And a drummer was also what everybody else invariably overdubbed on... which is a bit like being shat on. I've come to really resent this idea that somehow the drummer has to be a carpet, putting all these notes into place irrespective of any musical sense at all. So I've been retaliating by deliberately changing my part, day in and day out, which really gets them going... no, that's an exaggeration. It keeps them on their wits, though."

Easy for Bill to say - but then, he's got the advantage of a lifetime of getting to hit things in public. It's quite a release. Take "Sleepless," for example. Does what happened to his original drum track faze him?

"I mostly played the tune as I thought it should be played, leaving out great sections of drumming. Which were then put back in. But you see, I'm quite happy to sort of provide some drumming noises and then let other people rearrange them as they see fit on certain tunes. I quite like that. There used to be an incredible, insufferable preciousness with music, where the -note- was a precious item."

Well and good. Still reasonable... but there's a drum machine looming in his future, and that concept prickles. In lots of places. "Drumming, for me, doesn't really occur with a machine... well, I'll put it this way. It can take away some of the chore of keeping time. Drummers used to keep the time. Remember that idea? And it was held that other musicians -couldn't- keep time, so they employed this guy called a drummer to do it for them. This is all a farce, of course, and we have to assume by now that Robert Fripp can keep time. And if he can't, well, that's tough. But timekeeping is also something we need for the audience. The machine can handle it, leaving me free to stand and play a vertical rack setup of Simmons SDS 7s, embroidering the top.

"Look, when you play a note, and I play a note, I quite like both of them. But music really occurs in the distance between the two. It's the minute human differences that make the music for me, and these are increasingly known as errors. Take the history of the rattle; a good kalimba player will leave the rattles on his instrument. Rattles are essential flack around the sound. But in the West we spend thousands of dollars getting rid of every conceivable harmonic distortion, and then of course spend thousands of dollars putting it all back in again. At some point I put up my hand and say I can't hear any music here anymore, just binary code going past. In this oscilloscope mentality, music is supposed to abide by some mechanized rhythmic formula. Rhythm has never really been like that. Rhythm, to me, is about Tony Williams coming and going like the breeze, like a storm, rather than the thing that military bands went to war with. Which is called beat. Rhythm is pulse, as opposed to beat."

Threr'll be plenty of both, on the tour. Tentative plans are for there to be four different drumkits on the stage, in addition to the drum machine. The vertical Simmons rack already mentioned, a Simmons set to be used on "Waiting Man" and several other tunes, Bill's standard hybrid electronic/acoustic set, and a small, solely acoustic one. There is another drummer in King Crimson, after all: Adrian Belew. Bill feels that it is important for the band to exploit that.

"God - Adrian, what can I say about Adrian. When people speak through their instruments they lay themselves wide open. I think what Adrian has realized is that he doesn't have to please anybody else. And the most pleasing he will be to me is when -he's- most pleased. When he's found his thing.

"I think a lot of his life he's had the traditional entertainer's idea that you are indebted to the customer, and must supply what the customer wants. Jon Anderson and I always had arguments about that back when I was in Yes. I used to say, 'Good God, man, Charlie Parker never worried about what the audience thought!' And he'd say, 'Who's Charlie Parker?'"


-BELEW

-"I feel, personally, that I'm getting further and further from wanting to do the normal pop song, the kind of thing I think I was brought into the band to do."

-"I think about the future of the band all the time"

-"I think of myself as not a very articulate person. But I do study the dictionary a lot and read lost of words, because I think it's part of being a lyricist to understand words."

-"My two favorite drummers of all time were Ringo Starr and Bill Bruford."

Well, that last rather settles the issue of Time, at least from Adrian Belew's special and highly intuitive corner. He's changed on the topic. Earlier on he was leaning with Fripp, trying to get Bill to simplify. But that, he feels, was in a period when the songs were also leaning in that direction. Now he senses his own pace and pattern changing as success pushes the years of "Holiday-Inn-itis" into the past. He's less inclined to stomp on someone else's inner path when he's just beginning to dust off his own. Like the lyric says - dig me...but don't...bury me.

"I'll be straightforward with my emotions here. I feel that Bill should be playing as Bill plays. Because I love it, and think it's him and there are plenty of drum machines that can play a straightforward pulse if that's what you like. In keeping with my new directions I prefer Bill being Bill, which implies inventiveness and pretty much placing the beat all over the place."

Of course, if Bill plays that way it's guaranteed to irk Fripp...

"I haven't found any solution to this basic dilemma yet. Right now we're starting to arrive at a style where Bill and I play together with me functioning as the beat drummer, which I'm pretty good at, and Bill functioning as the random schizophrenic jazz drummer (or whatever you would call it; the guy who is doing the orchestration of the drumming). I think that might be an answer. If a song requires a beat drummer, we should have a beat drummer - me, or a drum machine, or maybe we should bring somebody else. I know this problem really bothers Robert. And I don't really know what to say about that, because it doesn't bother me any more."

At the moment, Adrian is far more concerned with technical matters concerning the upcoming tour. He's eager to get on the road, and especially to get to Japan. It's a special place for him. But before that, he has to figure out just what he's taking. Since the last King Crimson tour, the entire band has acquired new and elaborate equipment. Making it all work together will be quite a chore.

Top of his list are the old standbys: a Foxx Tone, an Electro- Harmonix Frequency Analyzer, not to mention a variety of small compressors, flangers, delay chains, and 10-band eq units, all running through his favorite amp, one he's used on nearly every recording he's done, an early Roland Jazz Chorus 120. But the current pedalboard is going, because of slow switching and an unstable microprocessor. And he won't be taking the stereo amplification and the three volume pedals that linked into it to help him control the effect. ("I'd have to send different delays to different amps at different times, which gets pretty complicated for my little feet. Especially for these songs, which are complicated enough.") He will be taking the fretless Roland synthesizer guitar that was features prominently on "Model Man," and "Man With an Open Heart."

Some tough choices are going to be made before the show pulls out of rehearsals in Champaign, choices dictated by the changes in the band's music.

"I'll tell you one difference I think successfully managed. For a long time the band had talked about playing more freeform style, actually -not- playing together. It was suggested at one point that we go into the studio and really not pay attention to each other, but still try and go in the same direction, if you know what I mean. That's how a lot of the industrial sounding stuff came about, by just going in there and trying to make an 'almighty noise,' as Robert calls it. Where it really works for me is the thing I'm happiest about on the whole record, "Dig Me," where I told the guys I wanted to lay down this very awkward guitar part and then have them play to it, but in a way that would sound like we're really not playing together as often as we are. The song sounds like it's falling apart."

Not unlike the car that is the song's protagonist; and also not unlike the tons of new tech piled around the room, still not quite working right.

"We were talking about this the first day we were here. We got all this stuff set up and we were looking at it and saying 'Gee whiz, look at all this.' and I said 'Y'know, boys, we should just go back to Stratocasters and Super Reverbs.' And Tony and Bill and I were laughing about that and we just shook our heads and said, 'Yeah, man, we'll have a garage sale.'"


-FRIPP

-"Music is the cup that holds the wine of silence. Sound is that cup, but empty. Noise is that cup, broken."

-"I feel intimidated by recording. Not always... if it's 'my record' I feel limited, I feel a responsibility. But if it's someone else's record I don't worry, because -they're- picking up the pieces."

-"The Giles Brothers were looking for a singing organist. I was a nonsinging guitar player. After thirty days of playing and recording with them I asked if I'd got the job or not - joking like, you know? And Michael Giles rolled a cigarette and said, very slowly, 'Well, let's not be in too much of a hurry to commit ourselves, shall we?' I still don't know if I ever got the job."

-"I never thought Crimson would happen again... speaking strictly as a human being, I'm sorry it did. Because it is excruciatingly painful."

Robert Fripp is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a guitarist. He's the common denominator in Crimsons 1, 2, and 3. He's the channel, the conduit, the big bay door between the Court and here. But he's not an equal member of the band. He may not even -be- a member, in the traditional sense, any more than the gesso ground spread on a canvas can be said to be part of the painting done on top of it.

The other band members take the space easily, without thinking. But Fripp's sense of responsibility holds him captive to the vision. He -knows- what Crimson needs, and if they won't provide it, he'll subvert or betray his own playing style to try and fill the gap. He lays himself out, nerves bare and screaming, and lets them get away with it.

Bill talked about the drummer having to go in and be the carpet; but Fripp, from his point of view, is forced by his perception of Crimson's needs - which are definitely not identical with his - to be the floor beneath the rug.

"That is exactly what I do. I construct a field on which other people can find themselves. But in finding themselves, it doesn't occur to them to extend the courtesy to me. And that you -can- print. Because hopefully they will then read it and the penny will drop. Dear guys, if you're reading this: your guitarist is frustrated!

"Why,then, do I continue to do it? Because, obviously, there is something there worthwhile. No other band is doing what King Crimson is doing."

But at what cost? In all the rattle and bang of the Crimson creative process, some vital element is being constantly misplaced, and I think it's Robert Fripp's instincts. The hotline to the Court, if you will. Fripp doesn't play on Crimson albums anymore, not really -play-, the way he has on Bowie's albums, or on the Roches' "Hammond Song," when a more playful and adventurous Fripp comes out from behind his fastidious facade. On a Crimson album today he plays a lot like he talks, which in turn has a lot in common with the way Bill drums -in that it is overly intellectualized, certainly- so small wonder there's a Time conflict between them. And small wonder that there's a Space conflict between Fripp and Adrian, what with Fripp locking himself into a self-imposed Iron Mary of arpeggiated cross-rhythms just so that Adrian can have room to soar. (Adrian, by the way, doesn't think it's that way. "I see Robert wailing a lot," he says.)

"I can understand Bill not wanting to be the timekeeper in a band, because I'm not interested in being a rhythm player... which is an entirely honest, worthwhile, interesting role. But it's not one I go for. Now, my response to Bill's not wanting to keep time is that I don't mind him not keeping time for me, because I can keep my own. What I object to is his -disturbing- my time. It's Tony Levin who is buying a drum machine, programming it, and operating it, because Tony realizes that to me, time is now a vital issue. My personal pulse is being disturbed so often, and so frequently, for so long, that I'm not going to handle it any more."

It's sad. Just that. Sad because, given Fripp's sensitive personality and the nature of the Court, there can probably be no solution to the problem. As his friends well know, he is simply too much the gentleman. Another guitarist would reach out and fight for some space in the band, but Fripp is constitutionally and fundamentally incapable of resolving the difficulties. Not without cranking the pressure to the certifiable danger point, and he is unlikely to do that. It is easier to withdraw. To separate. To hold the Fripp Animal in one hand, and his consciousness in the other, and to feel the flow of Crimson like a knife placed between them.

Conflicts in Space and Time... and Trust. They prevent him from bringing what -he- is to the band, so that he gives it, instead, only a measured response.

Admittedly, he has reasons for the approach he takes. Tons of them. He has more reasons, and schemata, and situational analogs, than anyone in the band has notes. Which keeps him perfectly happy when he's sitting in a coffeshop, but has only secondary relevance to the moment of fire that exists when the line from the Court to the audience is drawn, straight as a rule, through the three disciplines he chooses to isolate -head, hands, and heart- in his thoughts.

Surely this frozen storm, this nuclear struggle, can't go on forever...? "Well, if you put it another way, if you ask me whether I could envisage a future in which all I did was to stay at home in the village where my family goes back for three hundred years, with my friends and my family around me, and I didn't tour endlessly with musicians that irritated me, I didn't have to deal with pressures that people normally never have to deal with, I didn't have constant discontinuity as part of my everyday life, I didn't have to do interviews, stand naked up in public all the time, be hit on everywhere I go...could I handle that as a future? The quick answer would be yes. Could I handle it well? The answer is, phenomenally well. Me and a book is a party. Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy."

Until the next time Crimson calls, at least.

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