A little while ago, Michael Black kindly forwarded his transcription of an interview at Virgin in NYC on Wednesday 22nd. March, 1995. Yer tiz, very lightly proofed and edited by both Michael and myself…
ROBERT FRIPP: Round Table Interview
Wednesday 22nd. March, 1995
Virgin Records, NYC.
2017 note from the interview attendee/transcriber Michael Black
These words are my interpretation of RF’s words, when I was writing for a small NJ based music newspaper in 1995, visiting the Virgin NYC Headquarters.
RF is often misquoted in interviews. Some of his aphorisms seem counter-intuitive, so, they are transcribed exactly the opposite of what he meant. RF mentioned this occurring on several ‘lesson’ articles he wrote for a major guitar publication, Guitar Player.
Also, this was a tough time for RF. The pressure was on, he was being asked to spin a lot of plates. Virgin Records was just about to release to the public the first major KC album in over a decade. The Double Trio was a radical idea at the time. He was also still involved in dispute and lawsuits that even I am not fully aware of, but he was in litigation with several people, and/or labels, he admitted in interviews and his online diaries. Not the best of times.
He was also being asked to give interviews. Robert is not reclusive, at all, exactly the opposite, given the right venue, you can’t shut the guy up. To the press, well, it was clear some who were present had *no* idea who RF was, or that the band was even touring, so you had people from that, to Vic Garbarini at the table, known as one of the best music writers around, period, and wannabes like me in between writing for small music papers, yes, music paper were still alive in 1995.
Again, Robert will tell you almost everything, if you shut up and listen. This was a roundtable, so RF could lose himself and not direct his answers to a single person, which led him to being much freer in his responses, he does not censor himself.
Some of this takes the form of [interviewer asks X]. That’s because we all had our little pocket recorders, mostly analog cassette, and it was difficult to hear exactly what was asked, so I did the best I can].
But, in this tension, a tired, semi-willing but enthusiastic RF held court, and had the table often exploding in laughter. As is the case, he quickly began to take off with some of his answers, going where his mind took him.
His voice is *very* dynamic in tone, and rhythm, for specific reasons, much of this does not come through the transcription, but if you see an exclamation point, it might not mean so much an exclamation but of him leaning forward and saying: this part is important…
I do not think this has appeared in print except for my *heavily* edited version that appeared in my paper. That was 800 words. This is over 8,000 words.
RF: Alright. As a quick background, why the press conference? Well, firstly, this isn’t the time for me to be doing interviews, and without wishing to be precious about it, at this particular point of, shall we say, my artistic process, this is the time for me to be quiet rather than to speak.
Nevertheless, Virgin are just about to release the first major King Crimson studio album in 11 years, and, um... I’m showing “willing” as best I may. When I returned to England in early February, from the Guitar Craft course in California, and performing a week of solo Soundscapes all up and down the California coast I was so full of the joy of music that I sat down and began to write the next King Crimson album. Then Virgin began making requests, fairly forcibly, for interviews, and I put my guitar down and I haven’t picked it up since. Because the concern for promotions as such took me out of that place where I was available to music, in other words, any possibility of the next King Crimson studio album has just moved backwards by at least two years.
Now from my position I would say that that was really dumb! But then, major record companies are really dumb. Virgin are really stupid, but, they are no more stupid than any other record company, and they’re more human.
Now you would say does King Crimson have to be with a major record label? The answer is no, but that’s another question with the establishment of Discipline Global Mobile. However, since I was taken out of a place where music was there waiting to speak, and speaking...
Q: Concerning act of writing about music, of being a reviewer.
RF: The difficulty with being a reviewer, or critic, is that the very act of what you’ve described puts you outside the place of where the action is going on. In other words, you’re talking about something, about an event, that you’ve shut yourself out of.
Since I’m doing a very small number of interviews, most of the people that I would actually like to speak to don’t come into the category of major interviewers of major magazines. The answer to this was to put together a press conference for anyone who was willing to come, regardless of background, or clout of the magazine, or otherwise, and that was my interest in asking for it.
Q: A member of the conference mentions that he is a law student.
RF: When legal firms in the process of law have little or no regard for either the provision of justice nor the establishment of truth, ordinary people will seek natural justice in their own way. This is dangerous. Since legal institutions are not concerned with either the provision of justice nor the establishment of truth, let us sound this as a warning.
When political institutions lack credibility and belief, when legal institutions lack credibility and belief, when financial institutions have been distrusted, the last remaining pillar of the culture of a society, in my view, is our artists. Now at the point at which an artist will lie to their public for money, the civilization has just died. So, ask yourself this question: did John Lennon lie to you for money? Did Jimi Hendrix lie to you for money? Did Dylan lie to you for money? And go down the top twenty albums, and ask: which one of these singers sings to me true, despite any financial or other pressure made upon them? You might be as concerned and worried as I am. Because if you don’t provide me with justice, nor tell me the truth, I will seek justice and truth in my own way, and that will necessarily be outside the process of law. And that is dangerous.
Q: Regarding who owns an interview.
RF: In terms of who owns the interview, well, who’s interview is it? On DGM (Discipline Global Mobile) Records, you see that DGM quite specifically refuses to own the copyright to its artists works, but it maintains it, and administers it on behalf of the artists.
What normally happens is this: The record company advances a sum of money, say, a quarter of a millions pounds or dollars, to make an album. This is recouped from the artists royalties, and if it’s going to be at all successful it will be recouped in the first year. The record is then owned by the record company. So the artist pays for it, the artist makes it, and it’s owned by the record company. Now this seems inexcusable to me, and in terms of what I’ve been doing for the past four years, I’ve actually been in litigation and dispute with my former managers, and two of the largest music groups in the world, BMG and Virgin as it happens.
An artist works, and pays for the privilege of working. One can never own music, but one might own the record of it. So in terms of who owns this interview, I do. But if you wish to use any part of it, that’s fine by me! Any contribution you make is yours. That’s fair, isn’t it?
Q: What’s going on with the new universal tuning that you’ve been working with since 1986?
RF: I’m still working with it.
Q: When will you publish it?
RF: It’s been published for years.
Q: What is the tuning?
RF: Going for the sixth string to the first: C G D A E G
Q: How did you arrive at this?
RF: Lying sweating in the Apple Health Spa, on Bleeker and Thompson one September morning in 1983. I was sitting there luxuriating, sweating profusely, half asleep, and the tuning went by, flying over my head going from right to left over my head.
Q: Do you use this exclusively now?
Q: How is it practical? What does it do that the others don’t?
RF: It goes higher and lower
Me [Mike Black, blurting out something I had heard elsewhere, probably RF himself…]: It makes you start over, from step one.
RF: Yes, Michael, this is a good one. You can’t lie back on cliché. I’m still working with it. I began working with it in 1985.it takes you seven years to do what at age eleven you could do in six or seven months. So it’s still very slow. The tuning has a resonance about it which I trust. E A D G B E is arbitrary. It’s arbitrary! Well I mean who came up with a tuning like that? Why?! Probably because if you tightened it any more the gut strings would snap. Or silk couldn’t handle anything better than that.
Q: Can you tell something about the current lineup?
RF: They terrify me. (Pause) Alright! Why a Double Trio? Because it was another one of these; in Guitar Craft we call it A Point Of Seeing. The music began to fly by about 1986-87, and I made a personal commitment for King Crimson to return in the second half of 1990 but the details of it were unclear at the time. It became more clear when Adrian Belew came to see me in the summer of 1991 and said: “King Crimson, let’s do it.” But, with litigation and dispute just getting underway, it was a very difficult time to do anything but litigate and dispute.
But driving to Salisbury, along the Chalke Valley one afternoon in 1992, considering the practicalities of how to provide a body for King Crimson to come back into the world, suddenly driving by the church, church on the left, school on the right, there it was: a Double Trio. I’d kind of gotten as far as a five piece, but two drummers? Whew. So this was not what I wanted to see, not what I wanted to do, it terrified me, but there it was. So I found Bill Bruford, and Bill Bruford was then still managed by EG, managers whom with I was in dispute. So I phoned Bill and said, “would you like to change your managers?” and he said no, and so I didn’t phone him for another 15 or 16 months.
But! There it was. There was the picture of the band. And, the response to these Points Of Seeing: there are criteria for judging whether they are more or less likely to have, if you like, a content for you. And the first is surprise: “How could this have happened?!” And the second is a sense of inevitability: “How could this not have happened?” So here is a Point Of Seeing, here is King Crimson as a double trio. WWHAA!!! NO! Not that! And then Yes! Of course it has to be like that. So I trusted it. But next it was how to move towards it. So it’s been very long and hard to actually get the group together. Interesting points: it costs $30,000 to get all six members of King Crimson together in one room with their equipment. That’s what it costs: $30,000. Well, whose going to put the money on the table is the next thing. Well since no one else was, actually bringing the band together involved or implied at least some kind of business policy and strategy.
And then it moves on into other interesting things, because if a band works together anything it does, whether in a purely business sense or in the way in which it works together, it has to reflect its musical nature, or else it’s out of tune. So then you move forward into business harmonics, in other words, the ethical practice of business. Very interesting stuff. And you begin to see immediately that we begin to get into deeper waters. Because if music, if art is only business: will our poets lie to us for money? Sad to say, some of them will. So: how to be true, and yet, walking through the mire of the music industry, which has about as much concern for the provision of music, as legal institutions have to do with the provision of justice or truth.
Q: Did everyone jump on board right away? You envisioned a double trio but was it with the current members specifically in mind?
RF: Were they all keen to get on board? The quick answer is yes. Why those particular people? Well, I just mentioned that I’d called Bill, and Bill was happy being involved. At the time I hadn’t met Pat Mastelotto, but the other aspect of the two drummers; I was working with Jerry Morotta whom I’ve known since working producing the second Peter Gabriel album, and we’d always expressed an interest in working together. So, the first player in that area was Jerry, and we began rehearsals as a five piece, and this was before Bill was no longer managed by EG, in Woodstock in January 1994, and it was fairly obvious, straight away, that working with Jerry would have been a good band, but it wouldn’t have been Crimson. I love Jerry’s drumming and, I mean, he’s a friend of mine, and it was me that suggested Jerry did the Sylvian/Fripp album, so it wasn’t a question of “Jerry wasn’t a good drummer”, which is absurd. I mean Jerry’s a monster drummer. It was a question of the band which was rehearsing with Jerry was not KC. It was as simple as that. And if you say, “well, how do you know that?”, I can only say “well, how can I not know that?”.
Adrian had first come to see me in the summer of ‘91, and said “let’s do Crimson.” So I flew to see him to discuss how it might be. And he said he had a few difficulties with my role, this was in the 1980s. But he resolved it for himself when he realized that Robert’s function was as quality control. That was Adrian’s words; quality control. Now, I look at quality as not the question of being good or bad or shades in between, but, more to do with recognizing a specific nature, characteristic, or [RF’s emphasis]: quality. And when Crimson is around I know. I know! How could I know? Well, after all this time how could I not know? I mean,I t’s Crimson.
So, with Jerry, phenomenal drummer doing amazing things, it would have been a great band, but it would not have been King Crimson. And since at that particular time the commitment was to King Crimson rather than the monster band of your choice, I had to ‘phone Jerry, very hard phone call, and say “look Jerry, it’s not gonna be this one.” Meanwhile I had been working with Pat Mastellotto, with Sylvian/Fripp, and when obviously it wasn’t Jerry I called Pat and I called Bill. They were the two drummers. So then we came together on April 18th 1994, the day that Bill Bruford’s resignation from EG management hit the desk, and VROOOM was recorded two weeks later.
Q: What experience did you have with producer David Botrill at Real World?
RF: He’s very bald! He has no hair on his head at all. For some photos we took outside the studio for VROOOM, and for fun we had Tony Levin in some, and for others we had Dave Bottrill standing there exactly in the same place, with just as much hair as Tony, but the sad thing is no one would know! I very much enjoy working with Dave.
Most engineers are not actually producers, but most good engineers are co-producers. Producers are a very, very rare breed. In America what they do is promise the record company that they will make a record which hits the demographics and is brought in on budget whether or not the artist was actually there during the recording or not. They’re a kind of quality control for they will insure the record is recorded. I really don’t like American record producers, with one or two rare exceptions, and I must say that American record producers really don’t like me either. I’ll give you an example. I was working not long ago in one city in America, and I can’t be more specific than that at the moment, and I said to the record producer “if you know what you want, I’m really the worst guitarist on the planet for you.” And he said: “no, we don’t know what we want” and then went on to tell me what he did want. He really didn’t like my guitar playing. But he pretended to. American producers are very polite; they lie very well.
Then there was the time about three years ago, in the same city that I won’t mention for now, where I had eight bars in which I was asked to make a solo. And my solo was a modest contribution within the spirit of the piece; not that many notes. And I played my eight bars and then there was a deafening silence. I said “how was that?” to him. The producers voice came back from the control room; “there was too much information.” That is a quote. And I said: “you mean too many notes?” “No! No! No! Just...too much information.” So they whistled the tune which I might like to play. And I played it.
But basically the European approach to record production is to put the artist on record. Basically the American approach is to use the artist to make the record that the producer wants to make anyway, in association with the record company.
Q: Trent Reznor was asking me about the Bowie albums, and how all of this was done. Also U2 were in Berlin, trying to catch the same thing on Auchtung Baby. What instructions were you given when you walked into the studio by Eno and Bowie?
RF: Well what happened, I said, “Would you like to play me what you have done?” And they said, well “plug in”. So I plugged in, and then they played it, and I responded to it as the tape was running, as I was listening to it for the first time.
Q: You played “Heroes” live with Blondie at CBGBs, did you actually have to relearn it?
RF: Yes I did, actually. Chris Stein said he’d driven around Europe, listening to Heroes in the van, “would you like to play with us?” I said, “Yeah, but I have to listen to it.” So, we got together for an hour and a half and rehearsed a few tunes and then went down to CBGBs. I played Heroes with Blondie at the Hammersmith Odeon in January 1980, and they released it on the B-side of Atomic I think it was, a 12 inch single.
I also played with The Damned, actually at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982 or ‘83, because Crimson had done a television show in Munich with them, and I stayed behind to see the show. Wonderful! They came on (throws head back, laughs to himself) they came on and said (imitating Captain Sensible RF edit): “Right! This is for all you c…s what likes disco! (imitates huge spit at the audience). Ugh! Then the spit and the gob started flying back from the audience, this is on television! Ugh! Terrible! (resumes Damned vocalists voice) “Right! This is for all you c…s what likes disco!” (imitates fast staccato punk guitar chords) Yak-kak-kak-kak-kak! and I thought it was great! I sent them a bottle of champagne afterwards (everyone laughs) and went back to say hello and they said, “Oh! we’re doing a photo session, come on in!” So they grabbed me into the photo session. There I was having my photo taken with The Damned, as they were singing (again imitating) “It’s springtime for Hitler, and Germany!” Ahhh!
But anyway, I liked them enormously and they said “Would you like to be on with us” and I turned up for the sound check. And then they were called back for a second encore, and Captain Sensible said, “Do you want to do them?” and I said “sure”, and I had never heard them. I said “what keys” and he said “The first one’s in E, the second one’s in E” so I said “fine” and we went back out, and there on the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon I was wailing away on these tunes I’d never heard before, but both were in E. As, and I must say, this was the part of the punk movement that I really didn’t like, as the gob was flying up from the audience, and there was Captain Sensible, who at the time had his shorts on, and splot! splat! plop! And I’d set up twelve feet from the front thinking no one could gob further than twelve feet. I can tell you they can! They can! It was really disgusting! But fortunately no one in the audience had any interest in me at all. So it simply flew past my pedal board and landed beyond.
But the key to it all was, working in this way, I didn’t have time to really think about what I was doing very much, and coming back to the comment earlier, if you know what you’re doing, the problem is, you do. That’s as far as you go. So if you’re working with very, very good musicians, who know what they’re doing, how do you get them to a point where they don’t know what they’re doing.
Now, this is the difference between a professional musician and a really, really good musician. In traditional cultures it would be called a master musician. A craftsman would be a musician who would know what they were doing and be able to do it. So that’s as far as they’d go. But a master musician can go further than that, and if he were to say, “Please describe a master musician”, I would say to you: a master musician is one who works with the assumption of innocence within the field of experience. In other words, they don’t know what they’re doing within a context in which they do. So when we begin, we don’t know what we’re doing, so there’s a remarkable discovery; we lose our virginity. Remarkable! And then for a period of time, we really don’t know what we’re doing, and neither do we have the power of innocence. And then in time we might be able to move beyond what we know, to a point where we rediscover the original moment where there is the assumption of innocence, acting as if we were innocent, but within a context of experience and skill. So for the musician, the musician is utterly unable, it is not possible for the musician to play music. Not possible. All the musician may be able to do is: play your instrument. At that point, music can play the musician.