Interview with Robert Fripp in Best
At the end of October  I received a phone call from Robert Fripp himself, who declared he was ready to do this interview in the following days. Be it an album, a concert, a jam session or an interview, when Fripp does something, he does it well. So we met one Friday afternoon in his Village apartment and talked for about two hours. Our conversation went far beyond Robert’s musical activities: we spent long moments discussing all sorts of issues, among which a few common interests. So Robert suggested we continue this conversation eight days later. The following is a translation back into English of the French translation of this second two-hour interview. As far as personal impressions go, I want to emphasise the fact that Fripp is certainly one of the most charming and intelligent musicians I have ever met. After reading these lines you will have understood, or so I hope, how much Fripp is in control of his professional activities. Finally, Robert asked me to send him back the tapes of this interview for the purposes of a book on which he is planning to work soon.
Jean-Gilles Blum: The other day, you explained to me that it was getting more and more difficult for you to work in the USA. So why have you decided to live in New York City?
Robert Fripp: I want to keep a base camp in New York. I’ve got to reach a balance between having my own house and preserving a certain mobility. I still need a place to keep my books, my guitars, my tapes, and to get some rest. I also want to keep a continuous contact with the people I’m getting to know here in New York. I think, however, that the American industry is becoming more and more fixed and formal. The choice it presents to the public has become limited. The most evident symptom of this remains the fact that for the last two years my best recordings have been denied publication. I like to work with American musicians. For instance, I jammed with the Screamers last night and with the B-52s the other day. This circle of musicians reflects the development of an organisation that is parallel to the industry’s dinosaur structure. The main purpose of this circle is having fun.
JGB: Do you do jam sessions only to have fun?
RF: I don’t earn money by jamming. No, I really miss playing with other musicians. Putting up a group to take the road entails enormous difficulties. I am against the idea of putting up another dinosaur. Playing with other musicians is valuable from a creative point of view, but it’s also a lot of fun. I had to beg the Screamers to let me play with them. Same thing for the B-52s. I met Lenny Kaye last night; he told me that, had he known, he would have invited me to play with Patti Smith. I hope rumours are beginning to circulate on the New York scene that Fripp feels like playing with other musicians and he is not the lonely and irritable grump he is reputed to be.
JGB: How do you explain such a reputation?
RF: When I got out of the school where I had retired, I felt like changing my name because I had become someone different. Moreover, I was tired of the associations made with the name Robert Fripp. On Peter Gabriel’s first album, we had agreed on my using an alias, but the producer refused. So I finally compromised and used my own name. Today I still am Robert Fripp. Although the name has remained, the person has changed a lot.
(Robert explains the origin of the name King Crimson, which leads him to talk about Pete Sinfield)
JGB: What do you think of ELP in general?
RF: They are part of rock industry’s dinosaur structure. I went to see their three concerts at Madison Square Garden last summer. I was hoping to meet again with Greg Lake. When we were kids we were very close to each other. He was my best friend and vice versa. Unfortunately, with King Crimson, professional relations came in the way and, for several reasons, after the first King Crimson split up, we lost contact. I was really hoping to see him again last summer, but, apparently, he didn’t feel like it.
JGB: Have you thought recently about touring with your own group or as a guitarist as you have done in Peter Gabriel’s first American tour?
RF: I would only go on tour if I was part of the group’s creative process. Bowie asked me to play with him on his last tour. I declined, because he was not in a position to leave me enough creative space. I would only have played old guitar parts, which would have been a total waste of time. I think I’m worth too much to be a backing guitar player. This does not mean that I’m not interested in working in the long term on other people’s compositions. For example, I recently tried to persuade Television to regroup with me as a third guitarist. Unfortunately, it did not work. For now, it is out of question that I go on tour with my own group. I have too much to do with my other activities. Moreover, touring means engaging in enormous financial responsibilities. Keeping a group on tour for a year represents an investment between 100 and 200 million dollars. Same thing for recording an album. In 1974, King Crimson did not earn money by touring. When we split up, expenses disappeared and we kept on cashing royalties. Only then did we begin to earn money. I’ve always thought that the American approach that consists of creating a hit and capitalise on its success is a stupid idea. On a commercial point of view, I prefer to aim at a valuable catalogue instead of the ephemeral success in the charts. So I prefer to make albums that succeed in earning me money in the long run. It is very important for me to be independent financially in order not to compromise my standards in the face of the American industry. What’s more, besides my musical activity, I need money to support certain projects I am working on. These projects include: 1) establishing a farm in England; 2) moral and financial support to Claymont Court, a United States school affiliated with the International Academy for Continuous Education, where I have spent 10 months of my life; 3) the publication and marketing of the recorded speeches of J.G. Bennet, founder of these two schools.
JGB: What kind of education did you receive in these two schools?
(The next 15 minutes or so are a conversation on the school’s organisation, goals and origins. Robert describes classes and student life.)
There was no hierarchical structure. Every day we had classes in cosmology, psychology, meditation, physical exercises.
Of course, the teaching of Gorgiev’s moves was very important. We also learned some manual crafts and languages such as Japanese. Life in general was very hard, but the experience was very valuable to me. Readers interested in these schools may write to Bennet and Gorgiev and read their works. Life in school was for me both physically painful and spiritually terrifying. During the 10 months I spent there, 20% of the students had to leave the school and 3 winded up in an asylum. It took me a whole year to readapt. Only recently have I reintegrated everyday life, I think. Life in school was cold, physically and morally. The kind of cold that freezes the soul.
I didn’t think I could play there, so I hadn’t brought any instrument with me. Some people had brought guitars and I played. There was a concert about once a month. I played at 3 of those concerts. Peter and his wife came to the second one. By the way, Peter Gabriel and his family came several times to visit me.
JGB: After this period, your first musical experience was with Peter, right?
RF: In a sense, yes, and in a sense, no. Robert Fripp was not really present on Peter’s first album. I didn’t contribute much. I only accepted to be on the tour on the condition that I would be playing in the dark without being seen by the public. My imaginative part was really limited. Bob Ezrin, the producer, was the one in charge of everything. Of course, my creative part was much more important on the second album. In fact, the difference between these two albums is Fripp. The production styles are totally different. It has been said that the compositions on the second album are weak. In fact, they are better than the ones on the first album, even though these were already absolutely remarkable.
JGB: You seem disappointed with the first album’s production.
RF: I do not like the first album’s production at all. It is vulgar, it lacks subtlety, it is too American and, most of all, it totally misses the essence of Peter Gabriel. At the time, Peter thought it was a good thing to do. Today, he admits there are problems. He lacked confidence at the time and Bob Ezrin gave him some. Peter’s second album is a much subtler proposition that tells a lot on the production side. I think it is impossible to judge unless one has listen to it at least a dozen times. Peter was afraid of using me as a producer. He knew that my production would not be "commercial", and he was right. I was not guaranteeing any hit. What I wanted was to record him faithfully. I could have produced 2 or 3 cuts only and let Bob Ezrin do the others. So it was with some reserves on Peter’s commercial interests that I was chosen to produce the album.
I left the Academy for Continuous Education on 21 July 1976. My first true musical activity occurred in Berlin for "Heroes" with David Bowie. David had loved "No Pussyfooting" and had contacted Eno. I was in school when he asked Eno if both of us would come and record at the château (Hérouville) where he was working with Iggy Pop. It so happened that David and Iggy had a dispute and the project was postponed. Bowie worked with Eno on "Low" in 1976. In August 1977 I got a phone call. There I was, leaving for Berlin without having really played for the last 3 years. I lacked confidence, but I had accepted because I wanted to work with Bowie. His 1972 Rainbow concert with Roxy Music had thrilled me. So I winded up there, still suffering from the jetlag, and I immediately attacked "Beauty and the Beast". We worked very fast. All through the recording I never quite knew what I was doing. It was, however, an exhilarating week. David took me to Berlin East for tea in fascinating places. I came back to New York via London, where my management was going through a very serious financial crisis. We worked together on the organisation’s new structures. My management is part of the parallel organisation I’m trying to create. The commercial aspect of my activities must be governed by the same principles as the musical one. My management is the small, portable, intelligent unit fighting the dinosaur. They give total freedom to the musicians with whom they work. Obviously, Eno, Ferry, Manzanera or Fripp have no need for a musical director. Their policy is to leave their musicians free to engage in creative processes in the company of other musicians. The interruption of these interactions, such as was the case with Blondie or Daryl Hall, can only hurt everyone in the long term. The Fripp-E.G. Management relationship is absolutely special. My official contract has not been invalid for 4 years. It is an oral contract. E.G. controls all my finances. In 1971, the egocentric manoeuvres of one of their musicians I will not name almost drove them to bankruptcy. I supported them morally and financially. This does not mean I always agree with them. I was very critical about them last year. But they are honest, good-willing and probably the most efficient in Europe. So, after Berlin, I went back to New York via London and I produced Daryl Hall’s album for RCA. This album has been completed for over a year. RCA refuses to release it before three new Hall and Oates albums have come out. Daryl is a remarkable singer and his solo album is fantastic. It is too bad RCA is limiting the scope of his career. As for Hall and Oates, they are a very professional group. They limit their format and possibilities on purpose, as part of a commercial compromise they accept.
THE CRIMSON SOCIETY
JGB: You have never accepted this type of compromise.
RF: I accept it for the sake of a good friend. In my own case, I think rock’n’roll is a particularly interesting medium. I would like to communicate through a huge commercial success, but I make absolutely no compromise in order to reach this success. Daryl is part of a gigantic organisation. He has endure considerable pressure, which I have always taken care to avoid. Were I to form a group, I would undoubtedly endure with the same pressure.
JGB: Did King Crimson endure this kind of pressure?
RF: In a way, yes. However, I never let King Crimson fall into the success trap. Several times we went very close to having a gigantic commercial success. I have always instinctively tried to avoid this success. Brian Eno is doing the same thing as I do. The worst thing that can happen to a creative artist is obviously to know the success he is hoping for. Of course one needs success, but it has to be limited to financial independence. I prefer my position than Daryl’s. King Crimson was huge in Europe, particularly in Italy and France. France is an enormous market. The sales of "In the Court of the Crimson King" are the same in France than in the USA. King Crimson has never paid enough attention to Europe, however. If we hadn’t split up, King Crimson’s European market would have exploded. Ian McDonald was ready to come back, so Fripp, McDonald, Wetton and Bruford would have regrouped for a tour in the fall of 1974.
JGB: So why did you split up?
RF: I decided it was time to stop. Crimson was working in the USA while it should have been more often in Japan and in European countries such as France and Italy. We should have concentrated on the countries that were the most interested in us. I was becoming more and more frustrated. Crimson had stopped evolving both in a commercial and musical sense. This reflected a lack of strength in the music. If our music had been incredibly good, we would undoubtedly have had a huge success. Such was not the case. With "Red", we were in the middle of a transition. I think we were finally reaching a new musical form. At this point I had a very strong personal experience that gave my life a direction totally outside the musical world.
King Crimson was not my band. It was a democratic organisation. I have never really controlled King Crimson. Of course, I influenced it and I composed, but it was a democratic organisation with the usual difficulties that come with it. The possible existence of a true democracy is one of the most common political debates.
(Follows a lecture on the structure of a democracy and the Marxist argumentation.)
To me, King Crimson was a microcosm of our society. King Crimson was a true society. In 1972 I did No Pussyfooting with Eno because I needed to express myself musically. Crimson was and would still be valuable as a means of musical expression. I would really like, just for fun, and maybe for a 3-to-4-week tour, to play again with Bill (Bruford), John (Wetton), and maybe Eddie Jobson, to play old tunes as well as new compositions. The music we were playing 3 to 4 years ago hasn’t really gone out of fashion. It probably is more important now than it was then. Of course, I would never do that as my sole musical activity.
This personal experience I was referring to earlier gave me a new prospective. I realised the world needs a different form of organisation. We have to go from a dinosaur structure to a small, mobile, intelligent unit. King Crimson, for example, had too many constraints as an organisation. The education I got from my 6 or seven years with King Crimson was certainly valuable, but it was becoming limited within the epoch. I needed something new and wanted to be part of the world, at a macrosociological level, in a more direct manner. The old world was dead. How could I be part of the new one? That was my problem. It was a very fast flash that kept on reverberating for 3 days and put me out of phase for nearly 3 months. Recording Red was very painful for me.
It is hard to isolate yourself when you are part of the structure of the rock’n’roll industry. There is always a reinforcement of your own ego, this vampiric relation between the audience and the artist and the personal disillusions, not to mention media, record companies, management, and so on. My experience put me out of phase. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to isolate myself and start a new life.
JGB: Let’s start back from the album with Daryl Hall. In a chronological order, what have been your musical activities?
RF: I went to the Netherlands to produce Peter Gabriel’s new album. We also worked in England and in New York. It took 4 months altogether. Then I rested and worked on my solo album for which I had already spent much time composing. Meanwhile, I did a solo concert in New York on February 5, 1978 at the Kitchen Video Arts Centre in Soho. There was no publicity for that concert. On a winter night at 4 a.m. in 12 inches of snow, there still was a queue four blocks long. We had to add another concert. I was alone on stage with the Frippertronics Eno had taught me to use. This had nothing to do with a rock’n’roll concert. We passed around tea and cookies to everyone and we had to confiscate cameras and tape recorders. The event was designed for the present, not for the past. It was one of the best days of my life. I was disappointed to learn that some people had nevertheless succeeded in taping the concert; that was a violation of the concert’s spirit. There was a real interaction between the audience and the artist, and some people wanted to steal because barriers had fallen down. This behaviour is so American…
JGB: Wouldn’t have the same thing happened in Europe ?
RF: Not with the same approach. It would have been someone impassioned with music, who gives it all his money and energy. It is sad that, the next time I do this, I will have to have the people searched before they come in. I met Paul Alessandrini last night. We’ve arranged the same style of concert in Paris in a 300-seat theatre.
JGB: When will that be ?
RF: My plans have been delayed by six months due to RCA’s refusing to let Daryl Hall appear on my solo album. So I will start my world tour around March. I think I will be in Paris around May. Europeans do things on a smaller but more intelligent scale. Europeans make a record and then they spend their energy selling it. Americans spend their energy on market studies that eventually tell them what kind of records will sell. When the record makes the charts, then they say it’s a good record. I prefer the European way. I do a good record and then I deal with the promotion. My album will come out in March, my tour will span all America, North and South, and all Far-East. I will be alone and willing to speak with whoever wants to, from simple audients to journalists and major record company CEOs.
JGB: But when the readers of Best will read this, many will want to go and see you and probably hundreds of them won’t be able to go because it will be sold out.
RF: Then I will play three weeks in Paris. In London, for instance, I will be playing in a pizzeria seating 80-90 people. Eno is interested in music for films, for airports. I’m getting interested in music for restaurants. The audience and the artist have got to find a nonvampiric way to communicate. It may be a secret, personal event, or even a true communion. It doesn’t have to be serious. I can give a concert or play in a pizzeria. Why not do both? That’s the difference between the dinosaur and the gazelle. The Rolling Stones, for their part, have tried to play in smaller venues. Phil Collins founded Brand X, and now he works with Eno and Fripp on his new solo album. (Follows a discussion of the book "Small Is Beautiful", written by the American economist Schumacher, whose work Robert admires. The discussion then moves to Stan Milgram’s book "Obedience to Authority", which is very popular in the United States. Robert leads off on Milgram’s discourse and discusses at length its rapport with fascism.)
JGB: Let’s come back to your solo album and your work with Blondie.
RF: My album was completed around August. Back to New York, I learned that RCA was refusing to let me release the 17 minutes with Daryl Hall. At the same time, Chrysalis was forbidding Blondie to come and play on the same album, while I had played on Blondie’s album. I had met Blondie at the CBGB. We had jammed on 5 songs, one of which was by Donna Summer and the others by Iggy Pop and the Ramones. Lots of fun. That’s when they asked me to play on their album. I played on two songs, one of which I thought I had done well, but the producer erased my guitar part. So here I am today with 30-40 % of my solo album to do all over. I thought I had already got to the point where I would never get nervous anymore over certain commercial decisions. I have been very depressed, though. I can’t even express my contempt for the people at RCA who are responsible for this decision. I am presently negotiating to use Daryl Hall only on one or two songs.
JGB: What other projects are you presently working on ?
RF: I am producing a new group, the Roches. They are three sisters from New Jersey. Their songs are very feminine and remarkable interpretations and compositions. The album will soon be ready. It avoids all the record industry’s stereotypes. It is a superb job and one of the most exciting experiences in my life. It will be released by Warner Brothers in January. My other projects are as follows. Chris Stein from Blondie proposed a movie part to me. I will be starring with Deborah Harry in a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. It is a project that I would love to do and I said yes immediately. We will also work on the movie’s music.
I am also writing music for an American edition of Laing’s poetry. R.D. Laing is one of the greatest psychologists of the sixties.
Fripp and Eno are thinking about making a videogram. I also want to work on my ambient music for restaurants and a method for teaching guitar called "guitar mechanics", on which I’ve been working for a long time. Moreover, I want to write a book and I’m thinking about beginning writing very soon. So I would like you to give me a copy of the tapes of our conversation. In the short term, I play with Peter Gabriel tonight. Later in the night, if I’m not too tired, I will join the Screamers for good rock’n’roll. Next week, it’s Blondie’s turn at the Palladium.
JGB: Your method, "guitar mechanics", what is it ?
RF: When I was eleven, that is twenty-one years ago, I understood that the conventional methods for teaching guitar were poor. Good rock’n’roll guitarists have always refused to take lessons. This symptom proved that guitar manuals were inefficient. At 13, I was teaching guitar. At 14, I drew my own exercises. I gave Al Stewart lessons, he has always ignored my recommendations. I taught until age 21. I have never been a good teacher, by my exercise system, I believe, works very well. There is still a lot of work to do, but I hope my method will be ready in two years. It is, in my opinion, a giant step forward in teaching a musical instrument. this method will first and foremost save time to someone who wants to learn seriously to play guitar, not as an amateur but as a real guitarist.
a conversation with Jean-Gilles Blum
New York City, November 1978
published in Best, January 1979
translated by Louis Courteau
(loco at caractera dot com)