Interview with Robert Fripp by Dick Tooley
This interview was conducted on August 9, 1979 by Dick Tooley on a college radio station in Winnipeg prior to a Frippertronics performance at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Dick Tooley: First of all, I'm keen to find out what you've learned about your fans during this tour, what you've found out about them.
Robert Fripp: Oh... I think that they're prepared to work with unfamiliar and sometimes boring music or introduced with a set of ideas which are perhaps difficult to deal with straightaway, but have a go with working with them as an act of faith.
DT: You have mentioned in the past that you prefer the active listener to one who sits passively. To me, a listener is a listener. Maybe a little bit of differentiation there?
RF: Yes. A person who listens exerts an act of attention. A person who hears is a passive listener, if you like. A passive hearer. It's the difference between being a human being and being a vegetable.
DT: The tour so far in Canada has taken you to three of our cities in the western part of the country. It continues on into the east to mid-August or so. Have you had active listeners in Canada? Are you satisfied with the people who've attended your concerts? I get the feeling that you have preconceptions about your audience.
RF: No. No, this is not so. I have some expectations, but this is inevitable. But I try and keep open, and I've been open to a surprising degree which has surprised me. How have the audiences in Canada been? In Vancouver the first night was difficult. The people came with certain expectations which I didn't meet. Not in the sense that I think I disappointed necessarily, but it simply wasn't what had been expected. And if anyone had said what did you expect, oh we don't expect anything. The second night where there was a sense of what was happening, it changed. People came along who were prepared to get in regardless, and the third night was a mixture of the two. People were prepared to get in, but had expectations. Then in Edmonton it was difficult because the majority of the people had come expecting rock and roll, but I would say the evening was seven out of ten, that something came together regardless. And last night in Calgary there was some rock and roll element. A number of gentlemen turned up drunk, ready to cheer and shout at the slightest excuse, and part of this tradition is to shout out a series of irrelevant names of different musicians and pieces of music which one has been associated with. And sometimes "all right" and "boogie, boogie, boogie" and words of this nature. But nevertheless the crowds in all three towns so far have been remarkably generous and have worked with, as I say, unexpected music in a very, in a sense of remarkable good will.
DT: Now you mentioned you, you say unexpected music, there's an element of surprise involved in it for both you and the listener, I imagine. Different each night for you.
RF: Oh yes. For example the way in which I'm presenting Frippertronics is completely different to how it was being presented a week ago. Completely different.
DT: It evolves as the tour goes on.
RF: Yes, and it has to adapt to particular situations. Playing in record shops for free on the floor is entirely different to performing in a rock and roll venue like the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco or Madame Wong's in Los Angeles. And Madame Wong's serving food and liquor while I'm performing, improvising, is a very difficult atmosphere. Mabuhay Gardens was far better managed and organized. But the traditions of that particular building are rock and roll traditions, that one expresses oneself with a measure of bodily movement. In the situations in Canada so far, a cinema in Vancouver, a museum in Edmonton with, may I say, the people involved in administrating the small auditorium in which I played in the museum, their behavior was characterized by gross bad manners, complete lack of cooperation, and the desire to offend as far as possible all the young people in the auditorium and myself. And the situation last night which was in a small auditorium as part of a planetarium, these places have traditions of so-called art, that one goes along and this is serious, this is "art." And our idea of art is that we lock it up in museums and galleries to make it available to adults of consenting age during daylight hours. Frippertronics is not a serious venture like this. It's wholly informal and a far more off-the-cuff situation. So for me somewhere between the atmosphere of a rock and roll club and a serious art auditorium would be the best. I simply have to work to confound the expectations and traditions in each kind of establishment.
DT: Can I ask you about the development of Frippertronics? Was there a day, a certain time when you were sitting playing your guitar and realized what I'm making is Frippertronics? Or was it an evolution as you talked about?
RF: I was first introduced to the technique, the actual way of using two tape machines together by Brian Eno seven years ago this month when we recorded side one of No Pussyfooting. A purely unofficial off-the-cuff informal meeting when for the first time I visited him socially at home in London. And the story behind this is Bryan Ferry auditioned for King Crimson in December 1970, and I turned him down but I suggested he go and visit David Enthoven, the manager of King Crimson, the "E" of EG, which he did, and consequently Roxy Music went into EG, and Eno was part of that establishment. So I bumped into Eno in the office a couple of times, and he invited me round. And I went round with my guitar and pedalboard for no reason that I can recall. In fact I had no idea why then. And he said, "Well, plug in." So I did. He didn't tell me how it worked. I simply intuited what was happening, and that was side one of No Pussyfooting. Then I began to work with it for myself around May 77 in New York. And originally Joanna Walton and I had this idea of entertaining friends at home in our lounge. Her with puppets or some performance piece and me with this series of tape improvisations. And we decided that since we would probably be evicted if we did it at home we should do it in a public situation, which was the Kitchen Arts & Video loft. And in order to find an appropriate name for the event, and this was only a one-off on a Sunday brunch concert, I came up with the name Frippertronics. Mainly because it was silly.
DT: Frippertronics is the name of the second album in the trilogy to the Drive To 1981?
RF: The name of the album is Music For Sports.
DT: Oh, you've changed it?
RF: Well, Frippertronics Volume One: Music For Sports. Probably be a double album. There is also Music For Palaces & Kitchens, which may well be incorporated into that particular double album. But I anticipate it will be a whole series of albums.
DT: And that album is already recorded due out late this year, I take it?
RF: Well since Frippertronics has been developing so remarkably since it's been on the road since the end of April I'm in fact going to update my notions and listen to all the tapes from the tour and probably choose music from that. So this will probably now be January instead of September since Exposure is still well alive as an album.
DT: I'll bet, yes, particularly here at this station. I'd like to ask you about Exposure, a couple of questions. You like to have control at this point in your life and your career, you like to have control of what is happening to you.
RF: Well, I don't like to be manipulated by people whose motives I distrust. If those two equate, then yes.
DT: The rest of that was: did Exposure turn out then the way you intended it to?
RF: In the sense that it's such an excellent album, yes. In the sense of is this how I anticipated it sounding, no. I had no idea what it would sound like. If one can actually predict the outcome of any particular venture it's probably not worth undertaking. In terms of specifics, that if one is hoping for a certain spirit to enter the occasion then that's a different thing. In terms of specifics, if we can predict the outcome it means we're in a mechanistic and therefore entropic situation. So one makes the commitment to begin and then lets the situation develop organically. Which is what Exposure was.
DT: The statement that it isn't really an album that makes one particular statement, it's a combination of elements: rock and roll, Frippertronics, all manner of things are involved in the album, you seem to paraphrase a lot of musical ideas in it. I'm just kind of giving you my feelings about the album.
RF: Well if we agree with Socrates, the poet doesn't understand his own poetry, so probably your reaction is at least as good as mine. What it is for me is a three-level autobiography in which Robert Fripp is only symbolic in that he represents anyone else. And it presents a number of contradictions and paradoxes which if one approaches the album simultaneously on the three different levels it's not that the answers appear to the paradoxes, it's that the paradoxes go away. Something like in a three-dimensional world one has this problem of tying a knot. In a four-dimensional world the problem goes away. Simply not possible to tie a knot. The string always escapes into the fourth dimension. So something like that. So some people come up to me and say "Look, this is an awfully bitty album." It's not bitty at all. Life is like that. Life presents lots of different facets. But it's an organic record as I think life is an organic situation.
DT: It was originally thought to be part of a trilogy which included the Sacred Songs album and the second Peter Gabriel album.
RF: That particular trilogy was seen as being an investigation of the pop song. From three different points of view and three different projects in which I was intimately involved. But then of course with the objection of RCA to the release of Daryl Hall's solo album, and the latest official statement of position on this came in two weeks ago from the vice-president of business affairs for RCA in New York...
DT: Can't wait to hear it.
RF: He said that on the completion of Daryl Hall's Sacred Songs, the decision was taken by Daryl Hall's management and RCA Records not to release the album. However, we are now happy to release it whenever Daryl should wish. Which would seem to be December. Now that's the mooted release time for it, following a considerable amount of pressure. Now may I say that everyone in the industry knows if you wish to kill a record you release it in December. The second point is Daryl Hall was contributing to seventeen minutes of the Exposure album, the second project we did together. RCA also objected to that. In fact I had to remove Daryl from some fourteen minutes of it. So the trilogy as originally conceived was obviously not on. So I simply, in order to, if you like, cover a sufficiently wide area to give even an outline of what I'm trying to do, I thought well let my own trilogy be then. Exposure for rock and roll, Frippertronics for ambient music, and Discotronics for disco.
DT: Tell me about Discotronics. I read somewhere that you had talked about politicizing disco.
RF: Oh, disco's already politicized. I don't have to politicize it any more. It's fundamentally an expression of two socially disadvantaged groups, the blacks and the gays. And since the industry is not renowned for liberal attitudes, it was looked upon as the music of "niggers and queers." But since in England, where there's a particularly tight social structure, which if any relevant or pertinent social critic pops up, the so-called "angry young man," this rigid social structure opens marginally, a hand comes out, beckons to him, entices him in and then the structure closes, having effectively silenced the critic. In America there's a different tradition. We simply buy them up. And this is of course what has happened to disco. My sense however is that disco is a quite valid form of social political expression, and musical, and the musical vocabulary is more than respectable. It enables musical possibilities which simply can't happen in rock and roll. So I'm very happy to incorporate if you like the disco vocabulary into the mainstream of rock and roll. This is essentially discotronics. Discotronics is defined as that musical experience resulting at the interstice of disco and Frippertronics. "Rosco" is a word I happen to like, rock/disco.
DT: Heard it before, yes. You didn't coin it?
RF: No, I didn't. It popped up in New York.
DT: Is there a recorded piece now that represents Frippertronics? Something that you've done since...
RF: Well, there are Frippertronics on Exposure, pure and applied. The most impressive ones, I think, the applied Frippertronics. They made their debut actually on Sacred Songs, which is one of the reasons I sense why RCA didn't release it. There was one exquisite moment, exquisite moment where a Frippertronics loop in E minor and a Frippertronics loop in G minor collided beautifully. An exquisite interstice. Oh, what a sweet tension that was, over a sixteen-bar drum break on Babs And Babs, a song of schizophrenia by Daryl Hall. I think RCA called it strange. Oh, a wonderful moment, a sublime moment that was. At any rate, the Frippertronics in its most developed sense is not yet released other than if one comes along tonight of course or sees Frippertronics live then the latest state of the art will be there.
DT: In the background I've been playing some of Evening Star, the Wind On Water side. Would that figure as Frippertronics?
RF: The technique was the same. Either side one of No Pussyfooting, a considerable amount of side two, a considerable amount of side one of Evening Star and all of side two of Evening Star is the same technique. But it's not Frippertronics because Eno is involved. And Eno, of course, being a good man, always puts his stamp on whatever situation he finds himself in. Now I sense at the moment, if I were listening at home, I would be bored with this prattling. Why don't we play some music for a moment? I would request either North Star from Exposure or the title track Evening Star from Evening Star.
DT: Before we get into listening to North Star, I have to make a comment on the words to the album. Joanna Walton contributed the words, getting into some conceptual things, making the differentiation between the doorway and the door, the hallway and the hall, the window and the wind. Marvelous words.
RF: Remarkable woman, remarkable woman. When I first met her, she was not prepared to put up with too much nonsense from Robert or as she used to say, "YOU SEXIST LITTLE PIG!" And yes, it was an experience which enabled me to grow emotionally and catch up on some seven years of emotional hibernation as a member of a touring band in which one is generally prevented from experiencing oneself since it makes oneself more liable to manipulation by parties not really interested in one's personal development. So I had a short time to catch up quite a lot, and Joanna as I say in this particular fashion certainly helped me. Remarkable woman, she spent five years at Harvard doing philosophy and theology under Galbraith and all the Harvard heavies of the early sixties. Then left to become an actress, working quite a lot with Harvey Keitel. But when Harvey became successful and Joanna could have been, she in fact went to England and became a therapist, and founded a body called the Women's Free Arts Alliance. She moved to New York with me at the beginning of 1977, she's in fact a native New Yorker, and one level Exposure has to do with the kind of way a man and woman relate to each other in a contemporary situation, trying to be free of all the archetypes and so on. And how difficult that might be. So You Burn Me Up, I'm A Cigarette is my love song to Joanna. I May Not Have Had Enough Of Me, But I've Had Enough Of You, Chicago and North Star are her love songs to me. North Star, that point needed, that orientation needed in a relationship between man and woman. This is the very first time in his life Daryl Hall had ever sung these words. It's substantially a first take, he didn't even rehearse it. The backing track was recorded, I said, "There's the tape, there's the microphone, here's the words, go sing." And he sang.
(North Star played)
DT: That is North Star from the Exposure album, Daryl Hall doing vocals. Would that be typical of the Sacred Songs album, is it similar to the material on that?
RF: No. Yes and no. It's similar in that Daryl and I work on Sacred Songs in a very comparable fashion. Albeit, it's from Daryl's perspective. But catching Daryl in a very direct way without the polishing and honing which essentially castrates any creative artist. In my opinion. If you can't get on with it and do it quickly, you don't know what you're doing essentially. And as soon as you start rationalizing it, so that you do think you know what you're doing, that part of you which is really knowing is too slow. My sense is that if one stands up and delivers it's possible to have a direct and immediate kind of insight into what one's doing that simply isn't available if one does eighteen, twenty takes.
DT: So it's the spontaneity for the most part.
RF: It captures a certain directness and spirit, in my experience.
DT: What's the significance of September 1981?
RF: Well, that's the end of the Drive To 1981. On September 11, the three-year campaign halts, in fact it completes. And then, on that same day, the second three-year campaign begins. This is the decline to 1984. But why September 11? Well, it's three years after the original mooted release date for Exposure which of course was delayed for some eight months because of RCA. September 11 because it's a very symbolic date in astrology. I'm not personally awfully fluent in astrology, but it's the day when the planets line up in the solar system and would therefore seem to be symbolic and appropriate, and because I sense in the autumn of 1981 we're going to see a watershed in some particular way. I'm not sure which, there could be many possibilities. It could be for example the abolition of the motorcar as a form of viable transport. Or petrol rationing so severe that the same is effectively the case. It could be the slide of the dollar, it could be any number of different reasons in a complex world. But it would be enough to bring home to a middle-aged waitress that her cultural milieu has irrevocably changed.
DT: It'll be that startling?
RF: Yes, I sense.
DT: In the decline to 1984, do you want to talk about plans for that now?
RF: Well, yes, what I'm doing at the moment is looking for premises for a guitar school. One of the senses of the Drive To 1981 is the establishment of small units getting into position. That if one has intelligence one can act upon an appropriate idea. The other alternative is to act through necessity. Now I sense we will be acting through necessity, certainly after a period of five years. For the next 2 1/2 years it's possible for small units to get in place. For example if you're looking for premises for a guitar school, the land values in Wimbourne are increasing by 50% a year, and property values by 25%. So this particular small unit doesn't have very much time. Then the Drive To 1981, if we see this as a period of establishment, is followed by a period of consolidation, during the Decline To 1984. So that we're actually in a position to make this transition into the eighties and nineties in a situation of increasing external instability in our social situation. For example, by 1987 I think we'll have to accept responsibility where I live for our own sewage disposal, garbage disposal, education, health services and entertainment and cultural life. For anyone involved in that community, they will need to make some kind of response to that demand. For me it would seem to be obvious that in addition to digging ditches or shovelling sewage or whatever would be appropriate, I should be involved in the entertainment and cultural life, and I sense a guitar school would be a good way of doing this.
DT: You see both of those as being equally important, the idea of digging ditches and making music.
RF: Oh certainly. Digging ditches... there's no qualitative difference between the two. I might as well be a professional ditch-digger as being a professional musician. The fact that I'm a professional musician is at least, well it's considerably more absurd than I should be digging ditches. I began playing guitar with no sense of timing and tone-deaf. So it's wholly preposterous that I'm a professional musician. It should give hope to anyone, frankly.
DT: Ken Olson is with us this afternoon, and he has a couple of things he would like to ask.
RF: You have 1 1/2 minutes.
Ken Olson: Oh dear. Well, the direction this interview has been going is into the future, and I would like to go back into the past if you wouldn't mind. I think many people who are interested in Fripp music are, I was introduced to Fripp music through King Crimson, your vehicle for many years, and I was wondering how you feel about much of the music that was produced back then. I'm especially interested in an album that was special to me for one reason or another, which you didn't include any material on on the compilation album Young Person's Guide, and that's the Lizard album.
RF: Well, there were a number of questions there, which would you like me to proceed with?
KO: Well, in general, how do you feel about the music that was produced by King Crimson?
RF: I haven't listened to it for quite a while, many years in fact. I was visiting a radio station on the eastern seaboard of the United States about a month and a half ago, and the gentleman there played Cirkus. And I listened to it, and I thought, "Good Lord, people were playing music like this nine years ago, that's incredible." And he played a bit as we were driving in to the station listening to the car radio, he played a part of Sailor's Tale, and I didn't recognize it because I didn't hear the beginning. And I thought, "Wow, this is pretty hairy." And then of course it picked up and I realized what it was. So I was impressed. Why not Lizard? Lizard was a particularly difficult album for me because it characterized the breakdown in my relationship with Peter Sinfield, and the album was made in conditions of strong personal animosity.
KO: Really, and yet at least to me, it's some of the most powerful and interesting music that came out of King Crimson.
RF: Well, another reason it's not included on the King Crimson album is that it's to a large extent a Fripp album rather than a King Crimson album.
KO: I think we're about out of time, I think my minute and a half is up.
DT: Thank you very much, Robert, for...
RF: Look, I'm sorry to have to rush away.