Uncut AUGUST 2020 - by Michael Bonner


Robert Fripp has a new solo series to promote, Music For Quiet Moments. But as Michael Bonner discovers, his candour knows no bounds. To be discussed: "Crimson metal", advice from David Bowie, how to avoid provoking armed police officers, and why you should never, ever have a band meeting...

Most mornings, you'll find Robert Fripp in his garden. "Every day I can walk out of the door and see the season change," he says. "It is the first time in the life of a touring musician that I've been able to do that."

For Fripp, lockdown has presented a number of unique opportunities. It's not just his daily perambulations round the grounds of his home in Worcestershire - or the home movies he's made with his wife Toyah Wilcox, "one of which I'm in a tutu at the end of our garden dancing to Swan Lake. And in another one I am in a bee costume with my wife, also in a bee costume, running through our garden." Critically, though, the enforced postponement of King Crimson's North American tour has allowed Fripp to take stock of his considerable archive of music.

"The life of the touring player isn't so much what you do, like pack your bag, get in the car or bus and go, it becomes a state of mind," he explains, sitting behind his desk in his wood-panelled office, dressed impeccably in a grey three-piece suit. "So my computer bag is currently open and ready to go, even though I'm not really going to need that for another year and two weeks. My life is a complete mess of contingency and preparation. You don't quite unpack because next week you're going to pack. So it's a constant in-between, a liminal space. This, for fifty-one years. But for the first time I am at the desk in an ongoing way with a measure of continuity. I can actually plug in my hard drive and know that tomorrow it's still here."

Fripp, who recently turned seventy-four ("I'm in the endangered species category") is currently overseeing a new weekly series called Music For Quiet Moments. These will be drawn from his vast archive of improvised, instrumental pieces stretching back to his Frippertronics experiments in the late '70s. A tape-looping technique, Frippertronics and its successor Soundscapes took the concept of the solo performance to new and unexpected places. Both "deeply personal, yet utterly impersonal", they have presented Fripp with a rich career outside King Crimson - work enjoyed as a solo artist but occasionally in the company of fellow travellers including Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Theo Travis.

Fripp promises fifty instalments of Music For Quiet Moments, which are available from his website every Friday. It is a fierce commitment - but then such discipline has influenced everything Fripp has done, since his earliest days in King Crimson. As the current incarnation of Crimson are due to reconvene in 2021 for those North American dates - followed by a Japanese tour - he is happy to consider their own heroic achievements. "The conventional wisdom is it takes any one band or solo artist three albums to get to their point," he claims. "Crimson did it in one, In The Court Of The Crimson King. But anyway, we're now digressing..."

Unlike a lot of other guitarists who came of age during the late '60s, you weren't adherent to the blues, were you?

Yeah, that's true. Whereas, for a comparison, Brian Eno's background was art school, mine was as a player learning an instrument. Touched by early rock'n'roll, Scotty Moore with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, all this aged ten and eleven, then trad and modern jazz. And then at seventeen, more classical, conservatory-based, European music. From seventeen on, working in Bournemouth hotels and dance bands, working with some superb jazz musicians. My aim was to be able to play anything which anyone asked me to play.

What happened next?

Moving to London at age twenty-one with a remarkable explosion of all these different forms of music: conservatory-based, Bart&ogacute;k, Hendrix, Beatles. All these different forms of music - but as if it were one musician playing them. So although not a conservatory-trained player, nevertheless as a musician beginning to work in popular culture with a fairly broad range of the vocabulary of music and different styles. But that's on the surface. Below the surface we all have a musical impulse, and although loving Hendrix, essentially blues-based but far beyond that, early Clapton with Mayall's Bluesbreakers, All Your Love... stunning! But we still have our own musical voice which leads us and we follow. When King Crimson began breaking up and continuing to break up, inevitably the response was that my personal voice began to speak and probably Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Fracture, Red, all these came from my personal voice, Robert's personal voice. Although they were very metal, Crimson metal, the vocabulary was more European than Afro-American.

Who did you consider your peers in the late '60s/early '70s?

Just about everyone. For example, going down to the Marquee in autumn '68, seeing The New Yardbirds. The young characters are the same age and my sense of it was not only we're all in it together - but a sense of that also with members of the audience. Fundamentally, if all these musics are one musician speaking in a number of dialects, so music, musician and audience are the same person in some way within the act of performance.

Was that a very optimistic time for you?

Yes. Then money began coming in and managers and record companies began coming in and then things began to seize up. I didn't get quite that same sense of open engagement until I moved to New York in 1977.

When did you begin to develop an interest in long-form, exploratory music?

Going back to 1967-1968, having just moved to 93 Brondesbury Road with Peter and Michael Giles, carrying my fuzz box with me, the guitar seemed to be a relatively limited musical palette. Multi-tracking with Peter Giles on an early Revox was about as far as I can move move in the technology until about July 1972 - when I bumped into Brian Eno in the EG office at 63a King's Road and he invited me round to his apartment. I don't know why, but I took my guitar and pedalboard. I arrived and Eno said, "Would you like to come next door and plug in?" That was the beginning of Fripp & Eno. We recorded The Heavenly Music Corporation at home, in forty minutes. Then came (No Pussyfooting).

After you disbanded King Crimson in 1974, you presented yourself as a "small, independent, mobile and intelligent unit", free to pursue experiments with Eno and others. That must have been quite appealing. Fewer people to disagree with, presumably?

Oh, that's a wonderfully positive outlook on that one! Well, how about including members of the audience? Are they all going to agree with you? I can give you quite a few examples. Whenever you walk on stage - maximum hazard! - you can never control an audience, and thank you for that. Increasingly, with technology in the '90s and '00s, artists, particularly in stadia events, have sought to control the performance of event - and some of it I understand because you have anywhere between ten thousand and eighty thousand people getting pissy. It can be dangerous and I speak from experience of working in Italy in '73 and '74.

Why? What happened?

We were in Milan, in a stadium. The Maoist contingent in the audience smashed down all the glass entrance to get into the event, because music is free and for the people. The following night, because King Crimson were not about to give an encore, the Italian crowd, very angered, pulled out all the electrical cables and the police appeared at the front of the stage with machine-guns. King Crimson return to the stage. This is the adage of what do you do in a difficult situation, you keep playing - we will do an encore, crowd happy, hooray! Police with machine-guns leave the stage, Bill Bruford counts in, "One two, three, four, bish." However, let us remember the power has been pulled out. So all you have in the auditorium is an acoustic Bill Bruford, playing on his own whatever the encore piece might have been. In case this seems far-fetched, this is an everyday event in the professional life of King Crimson.

It's the expectation of the audience. "I paid for my ticket, therefore I expect you to play In The Court Of The Crimson King..."

You wish to engage in creative and critical goodwill with the audience, but as soon as money exchanges hands it becomes problematic. Like, what do you do when the beer bottles fly towards the stage? Do you know what Greg Lake would do?

Play on..?

No. First, Greg would duck. The second thing he would do is hurl the mic-stand back. In The League Of gentlemen in Winchester Lido in 1964, supporting Dave Dee & The Bostons before they became Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. When the fights broke out, boom, all around the lido, fists flying, bodies hurling and then - terrifying - working towards us, the default position was keep playing. Greg's was, "If they're throwing stuff at you, you throw stuff at them."

After Crimson, you went into a spiritual retreat in Sherborne, Gloucestershire. In what ways did that influence your attitude towards Frippertronics?

It reshaped and redirected my personal and professional life. My professional life, you can look at it in a number of ways: Robert as guitarist, Robert as solo guitarist, Robert as a member of King Crimson. My musical life extends beyond the professional categories and my most important and proper work in musical life at least is work with the guitar circle and guitar craft. Sherborne changed everything.

After Sherborne, you worked with Peter Gabriel. How important was Gabriel in your return to the music business?

When I returned, I was never going to return to the music industry. I got to know Peter in 1974-75. Peter came round for supper in my place in Putney, then with Steve Hackett. Peter was doing his solo album, would I play on it? So I went to Toronto in 1976. I think I was there more or less as a support than a guitar player. The producer Bob Ezrin really, really didn't like me. Didn't like my thing, didn't like anything really I represented. Fine, he was the producer. The next step after that was, would I tour the album with Peter? I went to live in New York in February 1977 en route to going live with Peter, from I think March and April '77. So, the important part of working with Peter was it brought me back into the world of public music. From that, would I produce Peter's second album? So, once again bringing Robert back in and incorporating Frippertronics within Peter Gabriel's second album. But I wasn't the ideal producer for Peter. Essentially, only Peter can produce Peter.

On the Frippertronics tours of '79 and '81, did you ever miss the camaraderie of being in a band?

Which camaraderie are you discussing, please?

A band as a collective with shared aim...

So, here you are - does the group share the same aim? And if not, then how do you continue the creative process and engagement with the others? One practical example, you embrace ambiguity by never, ever having a band meeting. If your band is going to break up, it is more likely to do it when having a band meeting. Quick thing, this is it, you've got music, musician, audience and industry. Robert's role as, if you like, facilitator or convener within King Crimson; Robert is the only person within King Crimson that deals with all these terms, he's in the middle.

Working within a group can be problematic. But what about the adrenaline, the excitement and the joy you share with people?

Hang on, hang on. So here is all this joy to share, yeah? Suppose one person thinks it's all because of them? This is their joy because it's all about them. And suppose two people in the band at the same time think it's all about them... you see? In another context, though, working in a group with Eno, Bowie and Visconti, something is possible. But they don't take it on the road. You go on the road, it's very different.

What's the best piece of advice Bowie ever gave you?

It was on the Scary Monsters session. The sessions began around midnight and I think it was Up The Hill Backwards. I said to David, "Any suggestions?" David said, "Think Ritchie Blackmore." I knew exactly what David meant. So my playing was nothing like Ritchie Blackmore, but I knew what David meant - that was a direct piece of advice.

Now, here's another one, a wonderful piece of advice in the Bowie/Eno context. Overnight flight from New York to Frankfurt - First-class - then on to Berlin. Turning up at Hansa Studios at about quarter to six in the evening, with board and guitar. I said to David and to Brian, "Is there anything you'd like to play me?" Brian's advice was, "Plug in." So, having heard nothing, no words, plugged in, tape ran, one, two, three, four, and that was Joe The Lion. I've worked with other people who've said "plug in" and rolled the tape and expected me to work on t he same level with them as I'd been fortunate enough to do with Bowie and Eno - and the result is not the same. Robert is, shall we say, the same, so what is different? Brian and David and Tony Visconti bring something to the party that not everyone does.

Can you define what that was?

A certain quality of presence and energy to the occasion.

Improvisation has always been a key component in King Crimson. How important has it been to Frippertronics and soundscapes?

Just below the surface of our everyday judgement lie riches. So to get to the riches of any creative undercurrent it's not really going to be on the surface. On some occasions I would perform in the foyer of the Southbank [Centre] for eight hours, between two in the afternoon and ten o'clock. Why? Because any good experienced player will be able to keep going for an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours and then you're in the great divide. You thought of everything you could possibly think of, so you have to play what you cannot possibly think of because you've utterly run out of juice. So you have to move away from this and access a part of yourself which a reasonable, experienced person can't do in quite the same way.

You have to take the audience with you, presumably?

One of the primary defining aims of Frippertronics - as stated, I think, on February 5, 1978, at the very first public performance of Frippertronics at The Kitchen in SoHo in New York - was to engage with the audience. Now, if you engage with the audience it's a very, very hazardous undertaking, and I learned that some members of the public would come to get him. Yeah? They would come to get you.

If we go to 2004, in G3 [with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai] throughout Europe, for six weeks, I was booed off every night. Every night. One of the Quiet Moments coming up is a seascape from the Arrow Festival at Lichtenvoorde. What you can't hear when you listen to it, because it's not on the recording, is the consistent loud booing. What happened after ten minutes of soundscapes, there was a lot of restiveness, and after twenty minutes the booing began and after thirty minutes the booing was consistent and ongoing. What did Robert do? He kept playing, he kept going.

Was that demoralising?

Yeah, after six weeks. What do you do? You keep going. Why? One of the main concerns for me was I felt I was letting down Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Joe, a very broadly based and opened musician, I believe had hoped that the G3 audiences would accept Robert as an improvising player - but in fact the reasonable expectations of the G3 audiences were that all the guys were going to come on and shred.

As the Quiet Moments series progresses, do you anticipate patterns emerging or unexpected revelations about your working practices?

If I expect anything to happen, it won't! You have to be very careful where you begin, then be very careful about the end and then be very careful about the middle. With a good beginning, we begin to get a picture of the end and then the difficult point will be about fifteen, sixteen or seventeen Quiet Moments in, when there'll be a pattern that's begun to establish. Are we going to get stuck with that or...? Will we then go back to 1978? Will we go into 1981? Will we go into the very latest Soundscapes as they appeared with King Crimson in 2018-2019? That we won't know, but the process will begin to speak to us if we engage with it.

When did Frippertronics become Soundscapes?

In 1991 began working with David Sylvian, and David introduced me to a digital technology and Eventides. A significant development in what became Soundscaping. There is Bringing Down The Light, and there are other Soundscapes at the same period in the same studio I have been listening to recently. That was a reflective period, working with David. But there are a lot of terrifying Soundscapes from that period. You also have Threnodies. These are a reflection on the Holocaust, which is something since age twelve - when I came across a book on a Saturday afternoon jumble sale, in the British Legion Hall in Wimborne, The Scourge Of The Swastika by Lord Liverpool - that remains with me today because it is still beyond my powers of comprehension. So what do you do when words can't express it? We learn the instrument, then we begin to learn the musical vocabulary, and then we move forward to speak the unspeakable. Charlie Parker: learn a new instrument, learn music, then throw away all that shit and just play.

It's at the root of everything you do, isn't it?

This is an aim and an aspiration, but first of all it comes back to - and this is the fundamental - life is only real, life is only beginning to be real, when I'm present. When I walk down the garden and I am present, something is different. I notice a blossom I didn't notice yesterday. I notice a bird singing. Or I notice three wild geese that flyover a couple of days later; I wondered where the third was. Can I explain it? No, but I don't have to. What I do have to do is notice it.

It's being present in life.

Yeah. That, and other cosmic horseshit!


Five of Fripp's best Frippertronics and Soundscapes albums

FRIPP & ENO No Pussyfooting [1973] - The first collaboration with Eno. Fripp plays guitar; Eno creates ambient loops and layers with two Revox tape recorders. Evening Star (1975) and The Equatorial Stars (2004) refined their diffuse beauty.

ROBERT FRIPP Let The Power Fall [1981] - Fripp's third solo album. By now, Fripp had mastered the tape-looping technique known as Frippertronics: the six tracks here (each one representing a year, beginning with 1984 and ending with 1989) are hypnotic and profoundly moving.

FFWD FFWD [1994] - A collaboration between Fripp and ambient pranksters The Orb demonstrated the enduring power of Fripp's early experiments. See also Fripp's work with Future Sound Of London.

ROBERT FRIPP Love Cannot Bear [2005] - Recorded live in America between 1983 and 2005, this is an excellent primer for a contemplative branch of Fripp's Soundscapes called Affirmations. The title track finds Fripp reciting a poem through a vocoder.

TRAVIS & FRIPP Thread [2008] - First outing for one of the most enduring of Fripp's duo projects with Theo Travis - the saxophonist and flautist best known for his work with Gong and Soft Machine. High-achieving ambient improv.


Fripp on working with Eno

What impressed me when I first met Brian? He's so much fun! I don't know the popular conception of Eno, but my assumption and presumption is it has to do with Brian as an intellectual operating in the public domain. However, for me it's the sense of play that characterises Brian. He engages, he has fun, he plays, he laughs. Characteristic of recording "Heroes" in Berlin - Visconti, Bowie, Eno, Fripp - what do I remember? Laughter. Having fun. In 1972, Brian's instrumental capacities were not so developed, hence Brian is not a musician. What do I remember about Brian as guitarist? Brian had a snake guitar. So here he strikes an open string a set of notes tuned to a chord I remember Brian striking these strings with a look on his face. It was the joy of a child playing with this wonderful new toy. And then what did Brian do? He moved his finger here and hit it agai. So yes, I am aware of engaging with Brian's more thoughtful processes- but for me Brian's inner child continued to act and have fun, now with the body of a seventy-two-year-old man. It's the sense of play.

"When Fripp & Eno were about to go on the road in May 1975, I popped round to visit him. We had a cup of tea in the kitchen at the back while Discreet Music was recording itself in the front room. One of the early versions of this was that Brian was generating some music that Fripp & Eno might use in a week of five performances in Europe. Eno said in his first manifesto on ambient that his work with Robert Fripp - this is a paraphrase - 'was close to ambient, but it wasn't quite ambient'."