ROBERT FRIPP/KING CRIMSON PRESS CONFERENCE/INTERROGATION
by Jason Gross (April 1997)
from left: Fripp, Giles, Lake, McDonald- photo by Matthew Martens
'We are, as I am, prog-rock pond scum. Our hopes for the future are to bum you out'
A little context first: this was arranged to announce a new record company Discipline Global Mobile along with the release of Epitath, unreleased live recordings of the original King Crimson line-up. Recently, a second volume, The Night Watch, recorded by Crimson in Amersterdam '73, was released. DGM will be release more Fripp/Crimson-related projects.
So... right off the bat let me say that for a long time, I've thought that art-rock was a goddamn curse that's left the world poorer for it. The question that my mischievous side wanted to pose to Robert Fripp and the rest of the original King Crimson line-up (Greg Lake, Ian McDonald, Michael Giles- Peter Sinfield was too ill to make the trip) for their New York press conference was 'are you sorry for what you've caused and how will you repent?' I had enough tact not to ask that but Lake was very unapologetic about it when the topic did come up. 'I'm really proud of what we've done,' he admitted. He even had enough honesty to roll his eyes when he remembered about recording with ELP: 'it only takes three minutes to play/record a three minute song and that should be it. Take it from someone who's spent countless amounts of money and time doing this.' Fair enough.
The other reason I wouldn't have asked my question is because I have a lot of respect for Robert and KC. I've liked most of their albums for years and it's not fair to blame them for all of the trash that followed in their wake. Robert even acknowledged this as he scolded someone from the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame who was there. 'I remember speaking of you,' he said pointedly. 'Tell everyone what I told you when you asked if you could have something from King Crimson to include in a exhibition for progressive rock,' he demanded. The guy was suitably embarassed. 'Well Robert,' he admittedly sheepishly, 'you told me that you didn't think it was appropriate because you didn't feel that King Crimson was really a part of this music.' Fripp went on to explain 'I passed on the idea because our raison d'etre was very different and so it would be inappropriate for Crimson.' Hey, you can call that arrogance but I'd call it pride- the man's done much better work than ELP or Yes so why the hell should he be lumped together with them? One company that didn't want to be associated with HIM was Island records: 'Did you know that they held up the release of No Pussyfooting (his collaboration with Brian Eno) for two years because they thought it would hurt his (Eno's) commercial standing and even then it was only available as an import here (in the States)?'
As much as I enjoyed hearing Robert theorize about music, he seems to have an unpleasant run-ins with critics. He pointedly went after Robert Christgau (who wasn't there) remembering saying that he was a 'jerk' (which is true) and meeting him later, asking him about this (which Christgau denies). Even worse, he chided a writer from a magazine whose editor had complained that Robert would sit on a stage, looking like he was waiting to take a crap. The writer had to spend a while apologizing and distancing himself from his boss. On a lighter note, we did get to share some drummer jokes with him, which he already knew. Q: what do you call a drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend? A: homeless. Q: how do you know if a drum riser is equally balanced? A: Because the drool comes out evenly of each side of his mouth. Q: Did Robert ever tell Bill Bruford these jokes? A: 'He already knows them.'
I gathered this is why Robert isn't too fond of interviews. He began the conference by saying 'You all know who I am but I don't know how you are. Let's go around the room and you'll introduce yourself and tell me why you're here.' 'I feel like I'm at an AA meeting,' the guy next to me grumbled. In truth, it took me three passes to finish a question with Robert because he didn't dig my semantics. He did answer everything thoughtful and sometimes passionately, even standing up and shouting. God, I thought, would I love to do a one-on-one with this guy. A one-on-one with Robert is more than a discussion of course. Robert reads A LOT and especially articles about himself. I won't be surprised if he says to me someday 'you're the one who wanted me to apologize for my music, aren't you?'
The way that the whole event was organized was interesting. Robert, along with series compiler David Singleton, battled with us for an hour or so then there were some photo op's with the whole Crimson line-up then Lake, McDonald and Giles came back in to answer questions without Robert. It almost seemed like it was a seperate meeting. 'First, we have a question for you,' Giles announced. 'What did Robert say about us?' They went on to talk about what they thought made the first Crimson so special/unique- Giles explained that 'we had no idea what we were doing, we were doing what we thought was right at the time' while Lake said that 'it was music made of the time and the music itself really did the talking: it had a force of its own. The live recordings especially captured the 'dangerous' side of King Crimson. It's really spontaneous.'
McDonald and Giles admitted that their leaving the band was foolish and premature. 'Crimson went from total obscurity, living off seed-money from a relative to world-wide fame in six months time,' McDonald explained. 'I was young then and it was too much for me. If I took some time to think about it and gather my thoughts, I would have done things differently.' With McDonald and Giles gone, Lake saw that the band was falling apart. 'If it was only one of them, I could have seen the group staying together but with both of them gone, the group really seemed like it was over,' he explained. Keith Emerson had the same idea about the Nice when they shared a bill with Crimson and the rest is history (sad to say).
As I said, Robert is a really interesting theorist/philosopher when it comes to music so it's worth quoting him at length. In any case, it wasn't half as funny when Robert asked a crowd at a signing party 'do you have any pertinent, burning questions?' A stoner asked 'Did you have any idea how many minds you were going to blow when you did "Devil's Triangle"? A: 'Well, the simple answer to that is blu-blu-blu-blu-blu!' Robert stated calmly as he ran his finger up and down his lips like a pre-schooler. Truly a great moment in rock history!
FRIPP: The question would be 'why release this box set of King Crimson material from 1969 now?' Firstly, there were preconditions. Some things had to be necessary. First of all was a suitable and appropriate record company. It's an absurdity that a musician has to start a record company in order to release music. The primary function of a musician surely should be playing the music. However, if the music business is as appalling as some would suggest it is then sometimes the industry conspires, directly or indirectly, to prevent music from being played. So the creation of Discipline Global Mobile is to enable recorded music to come into the world that otherwise wouldn't. So that's the first precondition.
The second (precondition) is technology. Within the past nine to twelve months, the technology has been available to actually present this on CD in such a way that it is an enjoyable experience to listen to.
Thirdly, the particular people were necessary. Particularly, David Singleton, who for four months, with unpromising sonic material to discover and reconstruct the music that lay very beneath conversation and extraneous noise.
And then fourthly, 'does the music stand up after a period of 27 years?' I don't speak for you but for my part, most of it does. Some of it is of the period but a lot of it seems to move and reside in a particular time. It's not music of my past- it's music of my ongoing present. So there are the four necessary preconditions. The company is available to do it. The technology is available to do it. David is available to utter rights and necromancy over the tapes. Finally, the music is sufficient to stand and sing on its own behalf.
So here is Epitath which is a recording of King Crimson from 1969 from thirty eight mintues (on the debut) to roughly four hours and thirty-eight minutes in one particular go. To give you an idea of some of the material such as 'Drop In,' with the BBC sessions, the BBC in 1969 didn't really like young musicians playing rock and roll. The engineers were hostile. And since the music was 'worthless' anyway, as soon as it's recorded, they proceed to record other people on top of it. The BBC doesn't have much of the 1969 material. We were able to find a recording of a broadcast recorded in Italy, recorded with a microphone held in front of a radio, with a conversation going off on the side. A common feature to all of these tapes, and may I say with my recording career generally, is that the recording stops when the guitar solo begins. So on this version of 'Drop In,' there isn't a guitar solo. You will find that with the final recordings at the Filmore West with our roadie, Richard Vickers, operating the recording machine, also the guitar solos to turn over the tape. As I said, this is an ongoing feature of my professional life so I accept it without being overly offended.
Q: What led to the decision to make CD's 3 and 4 mail-order only?
DAVID SINGLETON: The decision was actually made a while ago for two reasons. We felt the general quality of them wouldn't be good enough for the general marketplace. Also, because they are available already on bootleg, they would be of limited appeal to anyone who already owned these. We didn't wish to force anyone to buy two CD's to then buy four. Because if you actually put it together at a four-CD box price, people might feel ripped off that they were buying more than they wanted to buy. You can buy the first two and if you're a great fan, you can also buy the other two.
FRIPP: David is currently probably the finest necromancy merchant in England in terms of operating the savvy and sophisticated equipment to make unlistenable music listenable. For the CD 3 and 4, the sound quality was so appalling that we felt we just couldn't finish it. However after that, David's techniques improved. We actually found out that the playing was more probably better and more interesting and the sound quality was better on volumes 1 and 2. We held onto that for a period of time. But the beauty of being an independent company is that we had more leeway and mobility than if we were based with a major. So in Japan, volumes 3 and 4 will be released in shops because we really don't have an operation there. It may be that in time, volumes 3 and 4 are sold in shops in America.
Q: On the 10th cut on the first disk, is that a sample from The White Album ('Bungalo Bill')?
FRIPP: Yes, and you'll notice that there's a small witicism as Ian McDonald is playing the break on mellotron, the guitarist (me) is playing the same break. When they made tapes for the mellotron to be fitted originally, they ran into restrictions from the Musicians Union so they went to Holland and used Dutch players to record the original tapes.
Q: Do you still have a lot of other unreleased material collected?
FRIPP: Yes, I already have significant archives. On some of them, we're working on five different bootlegs. It depends on where the bootlegger is standing in the hall with a tape or the level the ambient conversation going around. Michael Shore for example, of MTV news, has a number of Crimson bootleg tapes where he's more interested in the conversations going on in the audience. One of the people there says 'hey man, these guys suck.' Someone responds 'why don't you quiet down and open your ears.' And so on. But David worked from several sources that were available. In some cases, (he) took some bars from one and some bars from the others.
For upcoming archive releases, which are mainly governed by time, we'll be accessing all the Crimson archives from '69 up to date. We're currently planning a boxed set, Vroom, Vroom, Vroom, which will rerelease Vroom and Vroom Vroom which is the audio track from the video plus Vroom Vroom Vroom which is the live recordings at the Wilshire. We have the Long Acre Theatre (recordings) as well. Plus we have live tracks from the last shows that Crimson did in 1984- two nights at a club in Montreal. Plus we have tracks of Crimson from '82 to '84. We have video material of Crimson live in '82 and '84 in Japan which will come to us when the final consent order on six years of litigation is stamped today or next week. All these archive materials are available but they're hugely time consuming. It may be that some bootleggers aren't prepared to put four months of time in and invest in very sophisticated, expensive equipment in order to sell a few thousand copies of the material. If we're going to do, then we're going to give it our best shot. Which means that David will be going home very late at night.
Q: After Frame by Frame came out, I heard that the idea was to release three live boxed sets. I'd heard of plans of material from the Wetton-Bruford era and the Belew era as well. Is the Boz Burrell era going to be part of this?
FRIPP: Oh yes, this has already begun.
DAVID: There proves to be more '69 material than we knew about at the time. We actually collected a lot of this material over the Internet. We put out a bootleg amnesty and we were basically interested in any 1969 material that people had. If they would send us their bootleg, we would just copy it to DAT and send it back again. In that way, we were able to significantly increase the amount of 1969 material that was available. So much so that a box of just the 1969 material became possible whereas previously...
FRIPP: This is part of an ongoing offer. Various people write into Elephant Talk and various newsgroups and say 'I have a wonderful show of Crimson that I've never heard anywhere' and sends the tape. If it can be of help to us, then we'll certainly work on the sound and when we have the time, we'll make it generally available.
Q: Of all the incarnations of Crimson, what stands out about the first one?
FRIPP: The utterly other nature of music. I don't know how many of you read books on the sociology of music, the psychology of music, music as social product, the philosophy of music. I read a good lot of them. If you're looking into studies on musicology, Indian studies on musicology are very different than Western studies on musicology. If you're looking at the anthropology of music, an awful lot of musicians and audience participants would say 'what?' in the cultural language of your choice. The earnest tones which seek to explain the meaning of music from a Western point of view, none of them have described or explained to me my own experience which is... (takes a deep breath). And then what do you do?
My sense is that a lot of professional musicians come into music because of this otherness. When music flies by and your life begins and then when that moment has passed, what happened? How can I get back to that moment when my life was alive. Many professional musicians, in my judgment and experience and conversations and so on, go into the life of the professional musician in order to re-experience that moment when music flew by as if it was a gift and involve themselves in a way of living which slams the door shut, puts the bolts on and nails up barriers where that experience can never be recaptured. My anecdotal expeience will endure the humiliation for several years and if that experience doesn't come by again, then generally they go into a different walk of life or take drugs or drink too much or get cynical. But if somehow music comes alive then they keep going.
And on May the 16th this year, I celebrate my 30th year as a professional musician. On December 24th of this year, I celebrate my 40th year as a guitarist. I am not yet cynical.
So we come into this query 'what was it about the first Crimson?' I've had the experience before them (of) music speaking to me, but always as a listener. When I was 20, I worked at a hotel in a dance orchestra, playing weddings, bar-mitzvahs, dancing, cabaret. I drove home and I was also at college at the time. Then I put on the radio (Radio Luxemborg) and I heard this music. It was terrifying. I had no idea what it was. Then it kept going. Then there was this enormous whine note of strings. Then there was this a collosal piano chord. I discovered later that I'd come in half-way through Sgt. Pepper, played continuously. My life was never the same again.
Then there was Hendrix, more or less the same time. 'Can you remember where you were when you heard the opening bars of "Purple Haze"? Then there were the Bartok string quartets. My experience was of the same musicians speaking to me in different dialects. One musician speaking in different voices.
The first King Crimson for me was the time when I had that experience but as a player. The members of the band at the time referred to 'our good fairy.' We couldn't do anything wrong- there was 'our good fairy.' As I heard it expressed later and even now, it was as if the music took over and took the musicians into its confidence. That is by no means the last time I felt in that position somewhere between heaven and earth. But that was the first time. As one loses one's expereince, loses one's innocence, and acquires experience, it becomes harder (from my point of view) to re-experience that instance again. How many times can you lose your viginity? You begin with innocence then when you lose your innocence, there's no competence to replace it. So how to get back to that point, where innocence is present? For me, this is the characteristic of the... I don't quite like the word but 'master musician.' I mean, what is the 'mistress musician'? Our language is so...
Q: It's neutral. It's the English language. There's nothing we can do about it.
FRIPP: Well, I'd like to think we could but here's the point... What enables us, I suggest, to recognize a master musician (Pablo Casals for example) is the capacity to assume innocence in a field of experience. When Casals played, you KNEW this was the first time Casals had played this. Why? Because they came to it fresh. It was discovery each time. This is why I find it very hard to work with a good professional musician. The characteristic of a good professional musician is that they know what they're doing. The disadvantage is that they don't do what they don't know that they're doing. So either have to accept that you are continually upsetting what a good professional musician knows what they can do or you work with musician of a sufficient committment that they are trying and perhaps succeeding in going beyond what they know they can do. In Crimson, this is referred to as 'train wrecks.' The music is littered with mines. Crimson music is a mine field. Even pieces that we may play on a regular basis are constructed in such a way that the slight lapse of concentration and when everyone begins on C#, Tony Levin begins on an F. This has its own interest and appeal. One of the archive plans for the future is... the sonic minefield that Crimson is re-discovering of challange.
Q: Would you recommend that other artists go back like Crimson has and put out their work from their first year?
FRIPP: I can think of some artists that I would ask not to. (everyone laughs) But generally I decline to comment on the work of other artists unless they specifically ask me for my advice. Then I would note that very, very few people who ask me for my advice really want it. So I can only reply by saying, to quote Keith Richards, 'dunno.' This answer was actually cited by Ian Hunter as being a pivotal learning experience in his own life. Very taken by this answer Richards gave in an interview so I quote it here.
Q: Could you talk about this sense of 'something other' that surrounded the band? What's the nature of this and how could you prepare for this?
FRIPP: Well, the answer to the second question is that you could sign on for one of my guitar craft courses. That's not because I wish for anymore guitar craft courses or students but that is my own personal and practical response to that question.
'He who binds himself to joy/Does the winged life destroy;/But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity's sun rise,' Blake ('Eternity'). If we grasp for it, we miss it. On the other hand, just wait around? Well, that might not happen either. If music is like the wind that blows, how do we raise the sound? For me as a young player/guitarist, tone death and with no sense of rhythm, I was nevertheless able to recognize other players that were musical. They had it and I didn't. I practiced my instrument and my aim later as a teenager was to become good enough that good musiciains would ask me to play with them if I hold my part of the field. My idea was that if I could get near enough to musicians, maybe I could learn how and what they were doing. I also figured at age 17, that I'd have to get to be about 23 before I had enough life experience and maturity to have something that might actually be worth saying. Though the young Fripp wasn't very musical, he had enough Dorset street sense to see what was good for him. So I practiced and practiced and practiced and when the wind blew by, I had my sail up and running.
Working with a musician like Michael Giles for example... Remarkable man. I mean, what a drummer! Phenomenonal! I learned huge amounts just by being near McDonald and Giles in Crimson. Very musical characters.
So in terms of the otherness of music, prepare to remain available. We could wear a hair shirt. We could sit on a pointed stick. But the problem with the hair shirt is that after a while, you get used to it, it becomes comfortable. Even a pointed stick... There are two prime techniques for dealing with that- keeping yourself alert so that if the music flys by, you're there with it. One is shock but the difficult with that is... if there's no shocks, maybe you sleep on. If you become reliant on external shocks anyway, you lose your own powers of initiative. The other one is to build in shocks to your own system, like a challange where you regularly set yourself some particular challenge which requires of you that you go beyond what you're able to reasonably respond to.
Q: If we talk about being in the presense of music as being in the presence of something other, it's reasonable to assume that there's ways to be able to make yourself 'available' to music like you'd be able to make yourself 'available' to ESP.
FRIPP: The books I've read on the sociology of music never quite get to the subtly that I'm interested in. The qualitative aspect of music is unconditioned. Music is a quality, organizing sound and time. In a sense, music is the cup that holds the wine of silence. Normally, we fill it with Coca Cola. So you always have this conjunction between the conditioned and the unconditioned, quality and quantity, the ineffable and the material. But one can train oneself to be in a position when the wind blows, you respond to it. Perhaps.
See Part Two of this interview
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