Interview with Robert Fripp in Reflex Magazine
Submitted By: Dave Mandl (dmandl at panix dot com)
Robert Fripp, interviewed by Dave Mandl
(Interview conducted on February 5, 1991 - originally appeared in Reflex magazine).
It would probably be only a slight exaggeration to say that _In the Court of the Crimson King,_ King Crimson's debut album, changed the face of rock music. Appearing (in 1969) at the tail end of the psychedelic era, the record almost single-handedly ushered in the era of British Progressive Rock. King Crimson combined blood-curdling dissonance, spacy free improvisation, and majestic, woodwind-and-mellotron-laced orchestral passages with stunning virtuosity and extremely high volumes; the brains behind the group, guitarist/composer Robert Fripp, coaxed strange and terrifying sounds out of his instrument, and was widely admired for his blinding speed, technical precision, masterful control of feedback and distortion, and studious noncompliance with the blues-based norms of the day. In the band's relatively short but productive lifetime, Crimson recorded eight LPs, survived innumerable personnel changes (famous alumni include Bill Bruford, Mel Collins, Boz Burrell, and Greg Lake), and saw its influence and following grow considerably.
In late 1974, Fripp, the only remaining original member, decided to disband the group once and for all. The ensuing nine years saw Fripp participating in a multitude of projects. He collaborated with Brian Eno on the minimalist crossover LPs _Evening Star_ and _No Pussyfooting_ and contributed to or produced records by everyone from David Bowie (most notably the exquisitely understated guitar lines on "Heroes"), to Peter Gabriel, to New York folk group The Roches, to Daryl Hall. He also recorded several albums of his own, developed the tape-loop system "Frippertronics," and (in stark contrast to most other former Progressive Rockers) eagerly picked up on the new energy and musical forms of Punk, forming and touring with the quasi-new wave band The League of Gentlemen (which included former members of The Gang of Four and XTC). Mainly in reaction to the unwieldy beasts that big rock groups had become, he also conducted low-key solo tours as a "small, mobile, intelligent unit" with nothing but a guitar or tape recorder. In the early '80s, he reformed King Crimson, reincarnated this time as a more lyrical, even dancable, ensemble. Several tours and three LPs later, he again split the band.
Since 1985, Fripp's time has been devoted almost completely to Guitarcraft, a unique guitar instruction program designed by Fripp himself; he has also performed extensively (and recorded a live LP) with The League of Crafty Guitarists, a group of nineteen students hand-picked from the Guitarcraft courses. After seven years out of the public eye, Fripp is now "returning to public life as a working musician." His return is heralded by no less than three new recordings: _Show of Hands,_ the second League of Crafty Guitarists release (a studio recording this time); _Kneeling at the Shrine,_ by his new band Sunday All Over The World; and _Ophelia's Shadow,_ by Toyah (Fripp's wife, and also a member of Sunday All Over The World), which he contributed to. Far from the dark, aloof, and reticent figure that he has been rumored to be, Fripp was cordial and open when I spoke to him recently . . .
DM: I've always liked to refer to King Crimson as the greatest heavy metal band of all time.
RF: "Schizoid Man," [from _In the Court of the Crimson King_] for me, was intelligent heavy metal. It was very very hard to play (in its time--technical standards have come forward now, of course). It was so hard to play, and it was so terrifying. In early 1970 I saw Black Sabbath doing _Paranoid_ (and this is without in any way criticizing Black Sabbath--they were excellent in their field), and it didn't frighten me. And I had thought that this new breed of music, with Black Sabbath, would viscerally affect me in the same way that, for example, "Schizoid Man" did. And I was not moved in the same way. I think "Red" [from the Crimson LP of the same name] was a beautiful piece of Heavy metal--in 5 [the unusual time signature 5/8]. I mean, I hadn't heard heavy metal in 5 before, but for me that was it.
DM: I always found King Crimson _much_ more terrifying than the music that was supposed to be.
RF: The interesting thing about the heavy bands is that the weight is in the volume. For me, the weight is in the structure of the music, the tension in the music as it's written and played. And if you _then_ add enough volume so it's visceral, it doesn't have to be deafening to rip you in two places.
DM: The stylistic range of the music you've made is about as extreme as it gets, from New Music and "serious" composition all the way to the "heavy metal." When you first started, at the time of the first King Crimson record--1969, 1970--it's hard to imagine people listening to both genres; they would have been two completely separate audiences. Do you find that there are now a lot of people showing interest in both?
RF: If you go back to 1969, the business was not so much a business, and the audiences were very open to all kinds of music, so if you'd go to a "rock music festival," you would have a number of categories (as they'd now be seen): folk, rock, progressive rock, hard rock--they'd all be there. And what you would now call New Music would then be New Music, and the audience would take the whole gamut--lots of different artists, lots of different backgrounds. In 1969, if you went to a festival and you found them all on there, there would be the same audience. However, rock music [eventually] became more of a profession, more of an industry--between 1968 and 1978, the rock industry had growth charts that no other industry compared with. So things got a little more organized, strait-jacketed.
DM: More specialization.
RF: But for me in 1981, King Crimson was as eclectic as ever, and my work today is as widely spaced as it's always been. I do believe that we don't give audiences--we don't credit them with the intelligence they have.
DM: I was curious about your views on the record industry. You're in the enviable position of doing music that's commercially successful, and then having the freedom to do things like the League or _No Pussyfooting_.
RF: I have the same limitations and restrictions as anyone else at all. Part of my return to public life--I'm representing three albums at the moment as a return to public life. The first of them is _Ophelia's Shadow_. If I just briefly tell you what the albums are, we'll then talk about why it's no easier for me than anyone else in the position. _Ophelia's Shadow_ by Toyah: I will express a personal interest in this--this is my wife. I helped her mix it and I played guitar and helped write a couple of the tracks. The musicians on this record are almost the same musicians on Sunday All Over the World, except the guitarist is different. The guitarist on this is Tony Geballe, who is one of the more experienced Guitarcraft students. Which segues us into the third record, The League of Crafties. The difficulties we've had making it--Sunday All Over the World, and this record [Toyah]--are the difficulties any young band faces. The budgets on these things--the budget for this album [Toyah] is the same as a mainstream single.
DM: A single? A 45?
RF: Right. The budget for this CD is the same as for a single in England right now.
DM: So it doesn't matter to them how successful [King Crimson's] _Larks' Tongues in Aspic_ was.
RF: No. You would not know that listening to it. It means you have to rehearse more, work quicker, a lot tighter, and the guy that has the studio got in the spirit of things--Tony Arnold--and gave us breaks because he was involved, in a way that you wouldn't otherwise get from most studios. But no, we have the same difficulties and the same restrictions as anyone else. In terms of the record industry, I haven't really been very involved for the past seven years, so I can't give you a detailed, up-to-the-minute concern other than: getting these three records together was not easy for anyone.
DM: So you do think that audiences are no more or less open--do you find that having done music that's more accessible, people are more inclined to pick up things like the League, _No Pussyfooting_--more extreme stuff that they wouldn't have otherwise?
RF: Would you call _No Pussyfooting_ accessible or not?
DM: Honestly? I probably never would have noticed it or picked it up if I hadn't been exposed to your and Eno's more "pop" stuff.
RF: The release of _No Pussyfooting_ was delayed for a year and a half by the record company and the management, who thought that Eno's associations with me would damage his commercial credibility, and that the record would spoil his commercial career. It was then released in America on Antilles, which is the next best thing to burying it. So the release of _No Pussyfooting_ was actually delayed for a year and a half, nearly two years, and effectively delayed for nine years in America. In terms of Crimson and so-called accessible music, every album which Crimson brought along we were told "This is not accessible." _Every one_. [The Crimson LP] _Discipline:_ "This is not accessible." Now you look back, and you say "Oh, 'Elephant Talk' [from _Discipline_]--that's accessible, whereas the League of Crafties is not accessible." All I can say is, everything I've ever done I have been told, "This is not accessible," until it's still selling ten years later.
DM: So the record companies just generally underestimate the audience.
RF: I would say yes. It's not underestimating the band, because generally the people I work with and the work I do have a measure of respect within the industry. But I do believe, yes, the audiences aren't given credit. I will say that Crimson is not going to match the figures of lots of bands, but it's certainly going to be on the high side of professionally respectable.
DM: To a certain extent you mix different elements--King Crimson was not a straight "rock band" by any measure--but there does seem to be a pretty clear separation sometimes between your rockier material and your more experimental material. Do you see it that way? Do you consciously focus on one direction or the other? Or do you go out of your way to try to mix elements and blur the lines between the different worlds?
RF: It's more to do with "This is what the music demands." It's not a question of sitting down and pre-figuring out a whole potpourri of different styles. It's, "In order to express this idea, that's what it has to have." Some ideas have to have drums and bass, and some ideas cannot have drums on them. You cannot use the League of Crafty Guitarists with a drummer. There may come a time when we can, but the percussion is so built into the instruments that the timbre would [be destroyed]. So it's what the music needs in order to serve the music. Do I miss playing with Tony Levin and a rocking drummer? You bet! That's part of what I need as a player right now. It's not _everything_ that I need as a player, but it's part of it.
DM: I'm sure you've heard all kinds of opinions, positive and negative, about the League. The way that the League operates, the way your gigs are organized, seems very unusual, even controversial--no talking to the audience during shows, everyone sitting down in unison. Why have you organized the band the way you have?
RF: First of all, Why the League of Crafty Guitarists? The Guitarcraft courses have been running for six years, in America (both coasts) and England, where we had a house for three years. I've just come from the thirty-fourth American course, we've had courses in France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, with more requests to go back and have courses than I can actually deal with. Most of the training of young musicians [normally] is away from the public. But a musician plays an instrument to play music, to play music to people. So in Guitarcraft, learning the instrument, and learning music, and learning to play to people occur simultaneously. A musician's problem is the same as an actor's when finding work: you can't get work until you have experience, and you can't get experience until you have work. So, the League of Crafty Guitarists is a means of gaining performance experience. The League of Crafty Guitarists is a performance vehicle for the students and Guitarcraft in a professional context, which most of them would not be exposed to for a while. So that's [the background]. Why do we not talk to the audience? Well, sometimes we do. It varies. Sometimes, I feel it's helpful or useful to talk to the audience, but generally I would rather not, because I would rather the music spoke. But sometimes, a few words help, so . . . Why stand and sit together? Because a group, a real group, is one individual in a number of bodies. So Guitarcraft training is aimed at developing a sense of the group. Brilliant individuals probably would find this very restricting. But we're very good for people without very much in the way of musical talent.
DM: Do you see the League as some sort of model or paradigm? Would you like to see more people doing this kind of thing? Do you see it as a good model for future training or performing?
RF: The quick answer is yes. In terms of, would I like to see other people doing it: that one doesn't bother me. So far, about a thousand people have been through Guitarcraft or related courses---
DM: Are you the only person who teaches?
RF: Some of the more experienced students help the newer students. But if you said, "Am I the only Guitarcraft instructor?" in the way in which I believe you are the asking the question, yes, although we have Alexander teachers who would have an equal authority in their field, and we have now some experienced Guitarcraft students who in their own background are professional teachers and players, for whom I have considerable respect. But in terms of Do I want to see more people take the courses?, that isn't the question for me. Guitarcraft is a response to a need: When I was first asked to give Guitarcraft seminars, I said No--
DM: So the initial spark for the idea wasn't yours?
RF: No. When I was asked six years, seven years ago to give a guitar seminar, I said No. But I was asked again, and this time I said Yes. And the program as such has been a runaway success. It's reached the point now where I don't have enough time to actually go to all the countries that want me to go back and do it. Were I able to, I probably would, but now after seven years of not really being a working musician, I must play music again.
DM: So you're just taking a hiatus completely from the League?
RF: No, it's not so much that I'm not doing Guitarcraft anymore, but that I'm returning to public life as a working musician. And putting the onus on the Guitarcraft students to continue to practice and develop their discipline, so that with them having greater experience, there may come a time in the future when, if I continue to work [at] my own discipline, perhaps I can help them again. So I'm not leaving Guitarcraft as such; it's just that I'm returning to my life as a public musician for the next period. If there is a need in the future, [I may return to Guitarcraft]. But this isn't something I'm selling.
DM: The slogan "Discipline is not an end in itself, just a means to an end" is printed on the back of the album _Discipline_. It seems to me that there's an obvious connection between that and the approach you take with the League.
RF: You're quite right.
DM: So you place great importance on discipline?
RF: The word in our culture can sometimes have a pejorative feel to it. [But] to me, discipline is liberating; it's not constricting or restricting at all. Discipline is the capacity to be effectual in time. That is: we can make a commitment, we can say "I _will_ do this," and know it will be done. And this is a remarkable freedom. Because if you make a commitment, it will be honored; and if you're working with other people who say, "I will do this," and you can bank on it, [a lot] becomes possible and your life takes a quantum leap. So it's liberating, not constraining or restricting.
DM: What you're doing with the League seems to be almost the complete opposite of your idea of the Mobile Intelligent Unit, where you sometimes just sat and chatted with the audience and played very little, you played in tiny venues . . .
RF: I played in record company canteens, offices, record stores, rock clubs, galleries--just about everything. I would say that the League of Crafty Guitarists is probably one of the smallest, intelligent-est, and most mobile large performance ensembles I know. For the number of people involved in it--generally an entourage of about twenty--it's remarkable efficient. So to me the League of Crafty Guitarists is not a dinosaur at all.
DM: Not all that far removed from the Mobile Intelligent Unit.
RF: No. It's actually a specific demonstration of that idea.
DM: What sort of music have you been listening to lately? What do you find to be some of the most interesting things that are being done now?
RF: Because I've been out of public life, and working with the students for so long, I've just come back to listening again. And my preferred listening is always in a live context. I don't _really_ like records. I like to see a musician at work. I like to see what happens when they make a mistake and how they get out of it. And that's when you can tell a [great] musician. It doesn't matter to me that a musician makes mistakes; that can lead somewhere. But how do you recover from the mistake? That's how you see someone really on the ball. But because of where I live in England, my live music capacities are limited. Here's examples of people I've been listening to: Keith Tippett and Andy Shepard (because I've just produced an album for them). [Tippett is a] superb guitarist. Living Color--Vernon Reid and Steve Vai both excite me tremendously. I've been listening to Joe Satriani, Chick Corea's electric band, Bartok Violin Concerto #1, the Bartok String Quartets. What I've also done is buy in CD format the music that excited me twenty years ago, and see how it is now to me. Joni Mitchell _Blue,_ Mayall/Clapton Bluesbreakers, Hendrix _Electric Ladyland_. All that and quite a bit more besides. So my listening is as always fairly eclectic.
DM: What do you think of the idea of "World Music"? Is the term becoming meaningless? The world is becoming so much smaller, and parts of the world that were seen as "exotic" in the past seem much closer now--it seems that there was more of a distinction before (like the separation between rock and non-rock that I suggested before). Do you think this is all changing now?
RF: I first heard what we call World Music around 1975-76. Now, in my subsequent listening, part of what I would call World Music would be Thomas Tallis, sixteenth century England. Which to me is not far removed from Japanese classical Koto playing. Since I'm the character that I am, with very broad interests in music, I welcome the term "World Music" because a greater diversity of sound and formal approaches of music becomes available to the ordinary person. So, in 1972 you didn't have access to that palette. Now you do. Now, Javanese and Balinese gamelan are not strange stuff. My concern is that the formal contribution of America, which is in rock and jazz, is not somehow being revitalized. Something is perhaps missing in terms of our body of music, so we have to--not quite steal--to me it indicates there's a poverty in our own culture. Well, that's fair enough, fine.
DM: So you think it's a good thing?
RF: By and large, yes.
DM: Just a natural cycle. Things are drying up here, so we'll just look elsewhere for new ideas, inspiration?
RF: Yes. If your own music isn't setting you on fire, you tend to look elsewhere. And I would suggest one practical reason why this might be: In 1968 and 1978, the record industry was _the_ growth industry above all others. And the common cultural musical product available to listeners in America is governed and decided by a very small number of people--it's called "format." It's like Hollywood movies, it's like American television.
DM: And radio.
RF: Sure. I would suggest that if you wanted emotional fulfillment or life, some kind of experience, you're not going to get it as readily available; you have to go look. You're going to find it in rock clubs, you're going to find it in jazz clubs. You're not going to find it on radio, television, or on records very easily. So the obvious thing is you look somewhere else. You don't look to your own cultural product. So for me, that would be a large explanation for the interest in so-called World Music. What you then get, and I think this is what you're suggesting, World Music becomes something which is merchandised and packaged, and restricted in the same way. But, at least now you do have a whole body of music which is available and artists travelling internationally--the WOMAD festival in England was a very new thing in its day. So by and large, I think its a good thing.
DM: So you think that in general, people will always get itchy and look for new things, new places to find new inspiration and ideas.
RF: I think how it goes it this: Music tends to move in seven-year cycles. '56: Presley, rock 'n' roll; '63: Beatles; '70: progressive, psychedelic; '77: punk/new wave; '84: on one hand, New Music, on the other, World Music; 1991: something is going to happen, we don't know. But there is a need for something new, which as a musician I have a sense that something is about to emerge. I can only trust my musician's bones.
DM: Any idea what it might be?
RF: No idea, other than: when it appears, it will be quite new, and we'll say "Where did that come from," and then, immediately as it's appeared, we'll say, "Well, that was obvious, it had to happen like that." There'll be this sense of inevitability. Before the Beatles, in England, as a young musician playing covers of Cliff Richards and The Shadows, you knew it had run out of steam, but we didn't know what was going to happen next. Then, one year later, there were The Beatles. How could that not have happened? "She Loves You": it _had_ to be like this. So I think people that listen require a nourishment from their music. After a period of time, it runs out, and they begin to look for more nourishment, whether it's within their own culture or coming from somewhere else.
DM: Without even realizing it. It just happens.
RF: Yeah. You don't think, Let me consult another culture for musical satisfaction. And there'll always be characters who lead the way: Allen Fried with rock 'n' roll, Andy Dunkley was a DJ in London at the end of the sixties who'd always say: "You should listen to this. You should listen to this." And you have these characters whose antennae [tune in] to the currents, and there'll be a character in New York who says later this year, "We should be listening to this."
DM: Which of those revolutions you mentioned was the most exciting to you?
RF: They're all exciting. In England, when I first heard--I was ten--Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore, Little Richard--Jerry Lee Lewis! I couldn't believe it! [Lets out a scream] And at ten and eleven I'm not going to articulate what it was.
DM: It's probably still hard.
RF: Then, when the Beatles appeared--[screams again]--it was the same. And then when I was part of that particular movement--[scream]--it was alive. And then when I came to live in New York in 1977, and there was punk and new wave, it was alive! So, it's always that sense of, one has come to life with this music. It's always that feeling of being alive.
DM: You were one of the few people from the "progressive rock" or "art rock" world who grabbed on to what was good in punk/new wave and used it, did something with it. A lot of the others just fell by the wayside, disappeared. You seem to have seen it pretty early on--
RF: It's a question of what nourishes you in music, what is alive. In terms of eclecticism, musical form is secondary. The sense of being alive in that creative moment is the primary experience. Now, as a guitarist working, making the transition from 1969 and its formal aftermath, and 1977, there was one formal characteristic which you had to learn in order to play that music with those musicians, and it had to do with time and timing. Firstly, where you place your note in relationship to the beat moved from just behind the beat to exactly on top of the beat [imitates metronomic punk beat]. That was to do with timing; the second part of it was the actual tempo was faster. And unless you grasped that formal expression of how music was reflecting that vitality in that period, you were not with that movement.
DM: You've been producing records for as long as you've been playing on them (though your production work has received less attention than your work as a musician/composer). What do you think makes a good producer, or a well-produced record?
RF: There's an American approach to production which is quite different from the European. In America, the producer is the ally and the extension of the record company. The producer is the man who will guarantee the record company that they will have this product to this budget regardless of what the artist does. And if the artist is a problem, they'll make it without them. The producer is more or less an expression of the record company's intentions.
DM: And it will sound more or less within the parameters that the record company wants?
RF: That's right. The European approach, certainly as far as I'm concerned, is that the producer is the employee of the musician. Quite clear distinction. My approach to production is: This is an album which reflects the musician, and the producer should be invisible to all intents and purposes.
DM: A midwife.
RF: Yes. The producer enables this to happen, as far as possible. And to do that is very hard. A good producer is as hard to find as a good performing and recording artist, and I am not, let me say, putting myself in that category. But to me it's quite clear that the record is not my record, as producer. It's the musician's record. And some of the producers I've worked with it's quite clear that the artist is the excuse for them to make _their_ record. Quite clear.
DM: A lot of producers working with bands see the studio as their instrument, and the roles are almost completely reversed: the final product is theirs, and the musicians are helping them deliver it.
RF: But recording an album is a process, it's dynamic. You can't guarantee the end result. If you _do_ guarantee the end result, it's going to be dead. If you say "This is what's going to happen," the end is given. There's no process. It is not creative. A creative event, by definition, involves something new, so it's not going to be format, it's not going to be playing by numbers. So, you may notice that I don't produce many chart-breaking albums. The album should reflect the artist and mirror them, mirror the music they're playing. The Keith Tippet/Andy Shepard album, I'm very proud of my work on it, because you can't see or hear me. There's no producer in the way, so the music is transparent. one hundred percent live and improvised. They didn't talk, they didn't say "What key should we play in?"
DM: How do you see your role in a situation like that? There are no overdubs, very little processing, or Production with a capital "P."
RF: Quality of recording, enabling the process to keep moving, discriminating and feedback, so if the musician says "Is this happening?" you say yes or no. "Is that any good?" Yes or no. And then mixing. But mixing it in such a way that the proportions and the geometry of the event are mirrorred in the sound. And you can't draw that up on a graph, you can't read that out on an oscilloscope, you have to use the seat of your pants and your bones. If your back tingles, you know it's right. For me mixing is a visceral event, and when a certain geometry and a certain architecture in sound falls into place, there's a resonance which you know is right. When a group works together, a lot of the most effective creative work is not functionally expressed. In other words, you have one character sitting in the room, present in a certain kind of way, and they may not be seeming to do very much. For example, the way Eno works. Eno may not be doing very much. Good. A good producer will do as little as possible. But it doesn't mean that the contribution is not as much as a person who appears to be physically busy.
DM: Did you ever use the Oblique Strategies [oracle cards] when you worked with Eno?
RF: Actually, no. When I worked with Eno and Bowie on _Heroes,_ they'd pull out Oblique Strategies, but I can't remember actually using Oblique Strategies in my work with Eno. It's quite possible that he pulled them out or he had them going--
DM: unbeknownst to you--
RF: but I can't recall actually following Oblique Strategies. The difference in approach is this: Eno doesn't have a background in musical thinking. His background is in the fine arts. And his set of procedures is different. His set of procedures is not as formally defined as a set of procedures which a musician would use. Which is one reason why Eno is very refreshing to work with. Musicians tend to know what they're doing, and sometimes that's terrible. So Eno's approach would break up the associations which a musician would use, and because I'm the character that I am as a musician, I was very happy to work with that way of doing things.
DM: He wouldn't be inclined to say "Wait a minute, you can't play that chord there . . . "
RF: I once said that to Eno, actually, on a chord which came out on _My Life in the Bush of Ghosts._ And he was very distressed that I told him "You can't use that chord." To my thinking, the chord was not a musical chord, because I was thinking musically.. Eno had a different approach, not governed by musical thinking; in his parameters, "I can play any notes I like in this chord."
DM: Do you ever wish that you could shake some your pre-conceived ideas as a trained musician? Do you ever feel that they restrict you from trying things that "aren't right"?
RF: I'm torn between not knowing enough and knowing too much. So, I hope that I know enough to be useful, and not enough to get in the way. But the player in me, if an idea is getting in the way--not blossoming--the player in me rejects it. Because if you're playing music which has a formal satisfaction, there's an ease of playing, however difficult the music might be, and the player in me recognizes that there's something wrong with the idea.