Interview with King Crimson in Trouser Press

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Date Submitted: 8-Feb-1995
Submitted By: Stephen Arthur (sarthur at lutece dot rutgers dot edu)


By David Fricke


Where's Fripp? Where the hell is Fripp?" Five minutes into King Crimson's opening-night late show at New York's Savoy, a bug-eyed post-hippie rock 'n' roll yahoo (distinguishing marks: tousled, black shoulder-length curls, graying Genesis T-shirt, blue jeans that could probably walk by themselves) bursts through the club's door, races through the foyer without giving the bar a second's thought, and stops on a dime at the back of the hall. A few inches shy of six feet tall, he cranes his neck every which way to see the stage beyond the heads and shoulders of several hundred other Crimson freaks who got there before him.

"Where's Fripp?" he howls, unable to spot the guest of honor. His friend, standing next to him and a good head and a half taller, explains calmly that Robert Fripp is playing his guitar seated on a stool at stage right, just below his sight line. "Holy shit! He's sitting down," the yahoo repeats (obviously unaware that Fripp has never performed in any other position); awe and worship resonate in his cracking voice just as it does in the hoots and hollers of "Crimson!," "Bruford!" and "Fuckin' A-a-y!" echoing throughout the packed house. To the progressive/art-rock cultists, battered by the scornful winds of punk!those who witnessed the hard-fought artistic victories won by Crimson, Genesis et al. in the early and mid-'70s, since coopted by pop hacks like REO Speedwagon and Styx!King Crimson lives again. Long live the King.

But the return of King Crimson is not just a celebratory experience. As with all things Crimson and Fripp, there are lessons to be learned, preconceptions to reconsider. The odds are that the majority of fans at the Savoy are of the original (pre-punk) Trouser Press variety: passionate Anglophiles who wear their Crimson gear!buttons, vintage T-shirts, even one denim jacket handsomely painted with the grinning red sun from the inside cover of In The Court of The Crimson King!like badges of honor. They pay loud, genuine respect to the physical expertise and imagination of drummer Bill Bruford, whose previous exploits with Yes and the old Crimson already comprise a sizable chapter of art-rock history. They probably know bassist Tony Levin from his work with Peter Gabriel and on Fripp's own Exposure. They may even be passably conversant with founder Fripp's forays into ambient music and art-punk via Discotronics and the short-lived League of Gentlemen.

All, however, share the conviction that that this is no idle cash-in reunion. These paying customers always admired King Crimson not only for what it played but what it stood for. Thus guitarist Adrian Belew (whose credentials with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and the expanded Talking Heads probably don 't carry much weight with this crowd) gets the same enthusiastic reception for a string-bending wipeout as Fripp does for a stirring psycho-solo. The audience hears the same commitment in material from the recent Discipline album and new, as-yet un-recorded pieces that they recognize in live reprises of "Red" and "Larks' Tongues Aspic, Part Two."

For all the stick they get from a sniggering; press which considers them diehard nostalgic sheep, this audience is built on trust. They are willing to trust what they may notentirely understand!either in Fripp's music or his copious philosophies that accompany it. And they trust King Crimson because has never let them down.

The day after the Savoy show, Bill Bruford, 32, tries to explain that trust. "What I've noticed from the audience is that they're perfectly happy to accept us and our music," he says in that cheery British manner which contrasts so starkly with Fripp's dry academic wit. "Obviously we brought back those old fans by using name King Crimson. [The band was originally dubbed Discipline, hence the LP title.] And it will take time, I think, for the ideas to work through. But I don't think the old fans I met were disappointed. They seemed to like it.

"What they are responding to is an effort by us; they know this is not a reunion as such. Those are the two main points of this tour!that it is a real effort and not a cheap reunion. And that is a good place to start."

Fripp, as usual, has a few words on the subject. "There is a new possibility for a positive relationship between performer and artist that hasn't been for about 12 years. We're finding a lot of people that don't bear the scars of the excesses of the '70s, that are young enough [or just willing enough?] to start over. Our very best reactions are coming from those people who have no idea who King Crimson was or is."

The ones who do have an idea aren't just responding automatically. "I thought when we played the States," Bruford continues, "there would be a lot of shouting for 'Schizoid Man' and all that. There hasn't been. I've heard a lot of cries of 'Bruford' and 'Frippertronics'!you know that crude animal instinct an audience has!but nothing like a 'Schizoid Man.' I'm pleased about that. I think people are underestimating our audience. They are not sheep.

They do possess remarkable intuitive abilities. In the Times Square subway station after the Savoy show, a group of hard-core Crimson fans dissect the set; as their train pulls up they agree it was an unqualified success. "You know," one of them announces as he steps into the subway, "Fripp is back where he belongs."

Fripp could not agree with him more.

Robert has said repeatedly this is his dream band," says Adrian Belew, lead-off batter in a full day of Crimson conversations at Island Records' New York office. "He's been dreaming about it for four or five years. "

Belew has been dreaming about it for a lot longer than that. An affable America with an Eno-esque hairline and chipper chipmunk face, Belew is a King Crimson freak of long standing. "To suddenly be part of it," he raves, "was like joining the Beatles or something."

His recruitment into the band was sudden enough. He and Fripp met at a Steve Reich concert in New York, where Belew was cutting Lodger tracks with David Bowie. They hit it off, and Belew's Ga-Ga band opened five New York shows for the League of Gentlemen. Then when Belew passed through London with Talking Heads early last year, Fripp popped the question. Bruford says he and Fripp had been together as a "band" for two days when Belew entered the picture.

Fripp claims Belew had reservations about joining the band. Belew describes the situation as simply a crisis of confidence. "When I came into this band, I was insecure for the first time in my 21 years of playing music. I thought everything I was doing was a load of crap. I couldn't write songs and I began to feel maybe I wasn't a singer. I honestly felt It didn't have an artistic contribution to make, and I knew this was going to be a heavy responsibility!to be singer, Lyricist, and share guitar responsibilities with Robert."

Fripp and Bruford's encouragement only complicated matters since Belew held both in considerable awe. The turning point came during rehearsals, by which time the group included Tony Levin, who sacrificed lucrative session work to join. Belew had been rehearsing with a Roland guitar like Fripp's, trying to adapt his style of playing!a rubbery, feedback-heavy sound compared to Fripp's liquid distortion and staccato peal-outs!to an unfamiliar instrument; he was grappling with lyric writing as well. By the third week Belew was a nervous wreck.

"Then I realized, 'Hey, I'm not playing my guitar. I'm just basically sounding like Robert. Where's my voice in this?' So I picked up my Stratocaster, restrung it, and everything changed.

"The next move was vocally. When I started making my sounds and doing my thing, everybody kept saying, 'Yeah, Adrian, you're finally into the band.' I only came into my own in the fourth week, just before the live concerts started. "

It comes as no surprise that Belew!a loose, friendly guy!welcomed the name change from Discipline to King Crimson. He draws a parallel between Fripp and previous employer Frank Zappa, both disciplinarians of slightly different mettle.

"Frank spells everything out for you; Robert is only giving a shape and an outline, and everyone is free to make their own parts. But the kind of approach you have to use to perform the material is the same. " Compare, for example, the tracks "Discipline" and "Indiscipline" on the new album. The former started out as a very Frippian guitar figure in 15/8 overlaying a kinetic 17/8 Bruford time signature. All Belew did was map out his part with Robert and get it down pat.

" 'Indiscipline' started out as a vehicle for some pretty erratic drumming. Originally it was almost a throwaway, a drum solo with a riff hung on it. Eventually I came up with a little melody, Robert came up with a line for himself, and at that point we thought no, it's still not enough.

"I knew what it needed was a vocal, but I couldn't think of anything to sing. So I thought of doing these talk sections throughout the song. We did that the very last day of recording. I took a letter my wife had written me about a painting she had done. I just took all these lines out of context without specifically naming what the subject was, then added a few lines of my own. It's a very undisciplined song." (Belew has psyched out Crimson freaks who may have already memorized those lines by adding to and subtracting from them during performance.)

Another example of Belew's spontaneity is his impassioned relating on "Thela Hun Ginjeet" (an anagram for "Heat in the Jungle," the song's working title) of two close encounters!first with an angry mob of blacks, then a couple of oppressive bobbies!outside the London studio where the band was recording. He ran in immediately after, "so shook up and excited," and told his story to everyone in the studio. "Then Robert sneakily turns on the tape recorder and asks me to repeat the story for several other people. And that's what you hear on the record . "

Asked if he subscribes to any of Fripp's Gurdjieffian small-mobile-intelligent philosophies, Belew (whose own solo album has just come out on Island) admits that heavy statement is not his style. "I like to leave things open, make a little fun out of it. I didn't know if that would be accepted here. Fun didn't seem like the right thing for King Crimson."

The Warner Bros. party line is that Robert Fripp is not doing any formal interviews this tour. The 35-year-old guitarist had already undergone shock interview therapy a few weeks prior to Discipline's release. In addition, his recent tell-all diary in Musician Player and Listener leaves little to the imagination, explaining everything you wanted to know about the new Crimson but may have been afraid to ask. As for old Crimson stories, refer to the three-part Frippiad published in early issues of Trouser Press.

Fripp does consent, however, to a brief chat to clear up a few previously unexplained points!like the real nature of the experience" (as he put it in Musician) by which he came to recognize Discipline as King Crimson. "I can expect it if people want to be cynical and say Fripp's a charlatan. But will; we began rehearsing just as a three-piece [before Levin joined I was simply aware of this quality of energy which was the iconic aspect of King Crimson available to this band if we wished to plug into it.

"It's a subtle experience but it's entirely real all the same. I don't feel I have to apologize or explain what the band is. For me, it 's entirely real. My sense is that this band is King Crimson. To me, it's painfully obvious, and anyone who comes along to see it knows. You can't form King Crimson; you can't reform King Crimson; you can't form a band and call it King Crimson. For that band, it is not possible. This is a special band because it's so ordinary."

"Ordinary" is not the word most people would use to describe original lyricist Peter Sinfield's dazzling but ultimately hammy imagery and the rich, high-decibel classicism of In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, and Lizard; the moody baroque drift of the hauntingly beautiful Islands; the primal shriek and heavy-metallic improvisations of the great Fripp/Bruford/David Cross/John Wetton quartet on larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and live U.S.A.; or Red's last evocative gasp. No, Crimson is no ordinary word. But as one of the original art-rockers couldn't King Crimson be held partially responsible for the subsequent excesses of rock in general (and art-rock in particular) Fripp has railed against in recent years?

His reply is a flat-out no. "The movement of which Crimson was a founding member !some will say the founding member! went off course. Crimson was partly to blame because we continued to be a part of it, but when the time came to stop we were the only band to stop. That proves one point about the band's credentials. "

And what does Fripp consider the essential difference between the new and old Crimsons or between this band and the short-term projects (League of Gentlemen, for example) of his recently-completed Drive to 1981?

"This," he declares, "is the very first band I've formed where I've said I wish to determine the parameters of the band's action. Not to be a dictator, but more like a guy saying, 'This is the sports field; now go and play sports and I'll play sports with you.' It's initiating a situation so you can concentrate energy.

"There have been reservations. Adrian's reservations about getting involved with this band is an entirely accurate observation. I had reservations about getting involved with this band. It's not a band to take lightly. It's a commitment."

At this point Bill Bruford enters the room, ready to join the fray. Fripp and Bruford have had highly publicized differences in the past, and Fripp's diary mentions friction early on in Discipline. What were Bruford's reservations?

Fripp suddenly jumps up out of his chair. "It is time I must leave," he announces. "Robert, there's no need to leave," Bruford insists, assuming the question has caused some discomfort. "No," Fripp says, flashing one of his enigmatic smiles, "it is not that I want to leave, but that I must. I think I'll go out for some chocolate cake." And that was that.

I was the jilted lover before, the lover of King Crimson," Bruford continues; his boyish, animated face reveals his enthusiasm for the subject. Bruford joined King Crimson in late 1972, leaving a lucrative association with Yes to follow Fripp's errant path. "There are a number of groups, a fewish number," he said at the time, "but a number of groups that are on the precipice in a way, beyond which there is a blackness, a kind of void, and they're Peering into it hoping that it may go this way, but knowing that it may not go this way at all, it may be completely wrong. I feel that King Crimson is now one of those groups."

Crimson spent the next two years peering into that void; when Fripp ordered a retreat in 1974, Bruford was crushed. "I was just getting emotionally involved!although intellectually I know I shouldn't have!and when Robert broke up the band, I was the jilted lover. I wanted to keep it together. When Robert asked me to do this, my only suspicion was that I didn't want to be jilted again."

Having led his own band for the last three years, Bruford actually welcomes the opportunity to butt heads with Fripp. ("I probably give as good as I get," he admits.) During Discipline's first days, though, Bruford says he and the other band members dealt gingerly with Fripp, fearing the wrong word or note might cause him to abandon the project.

"He was returning to the battlefield and I don't think anyone wanted to scare him off. Some people still ask me why the first group stopped and I still don't know. I've got my suspicions, but I'm no great psychoanalyst."~ For all their little spats, Bruford and Fripp go together like yin and yang. To use his sports-field metaphor, Fripp describes a cricket pitch but Bruford throws it. Or, as Bruford explains it:

"lt. starts out as a stream of negatives first off, which cracks many a lesser man. 'Don't do this, don't do that, and I suggest you don't do this. By the way, I also recommend you don't do that.' You're in a prison and you've got to find your way out of things. I quite like that. I must be a masochist or something, but I don't feel right unless I'm imprisoned and told to find a way around it. That's the challenge." In other words, discipline (according to the inscription on the back album cover) "is never an end itself, only a means to an end."

What concerns Bruford among all this towering babble about first-division bands, crises of confidence, the quality of Crimson energy, etc., etc. is that King Crimson make music first, talk second. For someone with the gift of gab, Fripp can be a man of few words. Bruford originally joined Crimson when Fripp came to his house for dinner one night, carting his guitar and amplifier along with him. After dinner Fripp suggested they play together for a bit. That was the audition.

Ditto the new band. Fripp stopped by Bruford's house "and did the usual thing: asked me, 'What would you do if I did this?' I'd say I'd do something and he'd say " 'Wrong, try something else.'

"We didn't talk about it all that much, although you wouldn't know it from all this talk. When musicians get together they to play their instruments more than they tend to play their instruments more than they talk.

"You see, I enjoy playing," Bruford continues. "It's FUN. I just hope we look at the cheerful, optimistic side of this and don't take ourselves too seriously!just play some music and don't get too carried away with discussion. I don't want people to feel they need a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences to understand King Crimson. It's not like that ."

Bruford smiles, almost bashfully. "It's just a pop group with some good ideas. The more we remember that, the more everyone will enjoy it." Talking Heads probably don 't carry much weight with this crowd) gets the same enthusiastic reception for a string-bending wipeout as Fripp does for a stirring psycho-solo. The audience hears the same commitment in material from the recent Discipline album and new, as-yet un-recorded.