Robert Fripp Interview -- Part 1
Date: Wed, 30 Sep 92 18:24:30 BST
From: Toby Howard <toby at cs dot man dot ac dot uk>
Subject: Robert Fripp Interview -- Part 1
[[[ Here is part one of an interview with Robert Fripp, by Dave Mandl.
The Interview conducted on February 5, 1991, and it originally appeared in
PLEASE DON'T re-post this interview onto the net, or anywhere else,
electronic or other. Thanks for your cooperation. Part two will be in the
next issue of Discipline.
-- Toby ]]]
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? q 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
DM - A single? A 45?
RF - Right. The budget for this CD is the same as for a single in England
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
[[ END OF PART ONE ]]
[[ Once again, please do not publish the interview anywhere else.
-- Toby ]]