Music Interviews

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King Crimson

Interviews by Joy Williams & Mark Hoffmeister
published in Artist Magazine, San Francisco

Robert Fripp/King Crimson c Ed Colver/Artist Publications

Robert Fripp
photo © Ed Colver/Artist Publications
digital processing © Joy Williams/Artist Publications


In those days in English bands, you didn't play with anybody else; nobody jammed around, nobody. The idea was basically that you formed a group and you slit your wrists and mingled blood and you were soul buddies for life until you either made it or died.

--Bill Bruford

King Crimson first took hold January 13, 1969. That lineup included Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Greg Lake, Michael Giles and Peter Sinfield, and they recorded the ground-breaking LP, In The Court Of The Crimson King.

By December of that same year, this first version of the band had fallen apart. A somewhat mutated version stuck it out long enough to record the follow-up, In The Wake Of Poseidon. Mel Collins, the new reed man on this record, remained in the band with Fripp and Sinfield through the next three LPs (Lizards, Islands and Earthbound). Then, after a grueling tour of the US, King Crimson called it quits. For a while.

July of 1972 saw a new King Crimson arise. This time, it was Robert Fripp, John Wetton, David Cross, Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir, and it was a very different King Crimson. Violin had replaced all of the horns and reeds of the previous versions, and the departure of Peter Sinfield allowed the group to compose more open and flowing works than ever before. With only slight personnel changes, three studio LPs were recorded (Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red), and one live album, U.S.A.

Though success appeared to be just around the corner, in September of 1974 Fripp decided to call it quits once again; this time it seemed it would be for good. Robert Fripp went about his way working with the likes of Brian Eno, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Darryl Hall. He recorded records featuring his "Frippertronics" guitar method, making use of stereophonic tape loops. He studied and traveled, lectured, and came to play in record stores and even stranger venues.

Finally, in March of 1980, Fripp re-emerged with a new band, The League of Gentlemen, with Barry Andrews, Sara Lee and Johnny Too Bad. The instrumental dance quartet played 77 gigs and recorded one LP before disbanding in November. The members of the League each went their own way, with Fripp's direction leading him to Discipline. Robert Fripp never wanted King Crimson to happen again. It just did. He had an idea to form a sort of cooperative unit featuring members from both the US and England; it was to be called Discipline, but it ended up being "King Crimson #3." This group, comprising Fripp, Adrian Belew on guitar, Tony Levin on bass and Bill Bruford on drums, was the most unlikely King Crimson of all.

With a lot of give and take from each member, this improbable quartet managed to find common ground long enough to actually make music. But not just any music. It is the most challenging, engaging and sometimes even beautiful music that King Crimson ever made. And the resulting record, Discipline, is the most successful Crimson recording ever.

BILL BRUFORD by Joy Williams

Bill Bruford
Bill Bruford, San Francisco

photo © Chester Simpson/Artist Publications

Bill Bruford is, to many, the quintessential rock drummer. His bands have consisted of Yes (beginning when he was 20 years old), Genesis (briefly), and King Crimson (twice). As such, he has influenced probably thousands of drummers over the past fifteen years, though that seems to be neither his concern nor his aim.

He is a totally unaffected person, polite, charming and very upper-class English delightful. After the Greek Theatre show in Berkeley, I complimented him on the marvelous drum solo, the only one I'd ever seen that I actually enjoyed.

"Oh, really," he remarked with surprise, "but didn't you find it rather boring, actually?" I assured him that his delicate, complex style of playing both the trap set and the vertical rack of electronic drums mounted behind him was most refreshing. "Anybody can—and seemingly does—bash away like a madman," I remarked.

Earlier that same afternoon we had met in his room at the hotel in San Francisco for a talk which ranged over his role in King Crimson and his development and role as a musician. I began by asking him why the first version of King Crimson that he had been a member of had dissolved in 1974.

BILL: Robert had had enough of it. The whole thing was turning into what he didn't think it should turn into, a kind of static monument that went round America, forever playing the same tunes and forever being applauded for doing not very much.

Q: You needed a breath of fresh air, a break from it?

BILL: Certainly for Robert, yes. I was happy. I had been with the band two to three years by then, done three albums, and was just getting somewhere. I take a little while to get into things, and I'd changed my style for that band, which is part of the reason you join a King Crimson. You have to change yourself within it, and you expect to be different by the time you leave it. I thought that was what you expected your musicians to do. When you paid them, I thought that was the deal. See, "progressive" is like a tautology to me. I thought that's what music did, always progressed. On Monday there were certain things you couldn't do on an instrument and on Tuesday you figured out how to do it, and on Wednesday you played it.

Q: And then you went on.…

BILL: And you found more problems that you couldn't do and then you developed them.

Q: You're the artist up against himself, basically, pushing your own limits.

BILL: I'm basically in it for myself in that sense, yes, in the best sense. I have this relationship with a passive instrument.

Q: After Crimson broke up, and Robert Fripp went off to study Gurdjieff, what did you do?

BILL: Well, by that stage I had only been in two groups, Yes and King Crimson, which meant I knew a total of eight musicians, which isn't a lot for….

Q: You didn't meet others through King Crimson?

BILL: No, no, no! In those days in English bands you played in a band, you didn't play with anybody else; nobody jammed around, nobody. It was entirely exclusive. The idea was basically that you formed a group and you slit your wrists and mingled blood and you were soul buddies for life until, you know, you either made it or died. A lot of Americans used to do the opposite thing, which is to float in and out of bands all the time. Today, they're becoming more Anglicized and a lot of the English are becoming more Americanized, since the two countries have the better musicians crossing the Atlantic back and forth all the time. They've adopted each other's habits. And now, for me, I'm a musician and I choose to play with certain people at certain times and for certain specific reasons.

Q: But did you find that around King Crimson there is still a certain exclusive aura?

BILL: I'm too close to it; I don't really know what the aura is. Well, in a way I know it's there, and it's not entirely false. Robert's a fairly dry sort of personality and he didn't go around laughing that much and smiling that much on stage and it all looks very precise and well thought out and.…

Q: It is, though.…

BILL: It is bloody well what we are! I mean, it's not entirely a falsehood, that. It's just that we're not very much like other rock groups, I don't think.

Q: So why was King Crimson resurrected?

Robert Fripp c Chester Simpson/Artist Publications
Robert Fripp

photo © Chester Simpson/Artist Publications

BILL: Well, both Robert and I had been running our own bands under our own names for three or four years and three or four albums apiece. Again, the specific reasons: He wanted to have some people where he'd just say, "You do this." You know, the reason you run a band is so you can have some people and get them to do what it is you want them to do without bargaining, negotiating or anything else. That's fine; that's one way of running a band, and it's a good way. But, another way of running a band is where you are a part of a democracy and you kind of hope you'll find something.

Q: King Crimson is more democratic?

BILL: This is entirely democratic, and considered to be among the four people. They respect each other as being individuals; whereas usually in the Frank Zappa method you have a band leader and he hires some minions off the street and they then do what he tells them [to do]. So Robert and I [each] had that type of group for three years. I was trying to write some music I wanted to hear. I would say that it was a worthwhile experience. You want to hear certain things and want to see how you perform under certain circumstances, so you put yourself in new situations.

Q: Did you find that when you came back together in King Crimson after having done your own thing for awhile that it was easier to deal with one another?

BILL: Yeah, a bit. But then, we're a bit older, too. It may be that we've come to live with ourselves a little bit better. Most of the arguments in bands…. They're horrible, you know. All I can remember in my first five years as a musician is the intense bloodletting backstage, awful arguments, with people being very heated. I think ten years later it's just that you have a better understanding of yourself and what's possible and what isn't. It's something to do with a [greater] ability to live with other people and take them for what they are, rather than continue trying to change them.

Q: How, then, does your music come about in King Crimson?

BILL: In every possible way. If you have a method, tell us and we'll use it, because in the last 26-odd tunes we've recorded over the last two to three years, we must have employed 26 methods. We don't have a system.

Q: But it's great if you have the freedom to come in with either a full-blown idea or just a fragment of an idea and then work it out.

BILL: Absolutely, absolutely! It's very seldom anybody comes in with a complete idea or two. We're interested very much in sound and the texture of the sound, the feel of the sound, as much as the notes of the sound, melody and lyric. In fact, quite often the melody and the harmony and the rhythm are just excuses by which you can use or employ some textures. So, it's not that important that G7 follows F or that F follows G7. Many a time with King Crimson, the sound and what's going on with the instruments may be more interesting than the tune itself. To write these things is very difficult. If I can get a stave of music paper and write G7 and ask Adrian to play it and Robert to play it and Tony to play it, it will all sound entirely different. And we have to stipulate more than that if we're talking electronics here: G7 to the graphic here or to the echo there or delay here, or what?

Q: Since you're all superb musicians, though, once you enter the recording studio, does it go fairly rapidly?

BILL: No, no. This is fairly agonizing. This is quite slow. If we systematized this and we had Lennon and McCartney and the drummer was quiet and behaved himself and shut up, and the other guitar player didn't say that much, then presumably you'd produce your product off your assembly line faster. With us, since we have no method and we can never seem to find one… or perhaps we're not looking for one.…

Q: You do a lot of exploring just for sounds to use, then?

BILL: Yes, a lot of exploring for sounds. That's all a rehearsal is, it's some guy getting some sounds together and another guy making another sound to match it. You look at the combinations of sound.

Q: When I was playing synthesizer, I would go into the studio and just start looking for something, till I could say, "Oh, wow, that's neat!"

BILL: Exactly. A lot of it is that. A surprising amount of it; and very little of it is anything to do with ordinary fingers moving on the frets.

Q: Now, the translation of all this inner, artistic searching onto the stage must present certain problems. After all, you have an audience that expects to be entertained. What goes on there?

BILL: Well, actually, very little. Basically, we figure out something we like sound-wise and its probably recorded first and the record comes out, and then we go stand on stage and do the same thing. There's no difference, no change in attitude toward the stage. I wish there were more. You're now talking to the guy in back who would wish there were more. There are one or two tunes that happily translate well to the stage and have dramatic content which allows some interchange with the audience, which I like a lot. I'm also the guy who would probably be interested in the way you position the instruments, who stands where, when and so forth. I'm about the only one, [though] Adrian is remotely interested too, in stage presence and stage setting and being on a stage as distinguished from being off a stage. I don't think Tony and Robert are interested at all.

Q: They perform just because it's part of the job of being in a band?

BILL: I don't quite know why Robert performs, really, [except] that it comes with the job. Yeah, I think so. I don't think he actually is bothered whether there are 300 people or 3,000 or 30,000 out there, while I actually quite like the fact that we'll be in San Francisco tonight and that there'll be 5,000 people and it won't be Seattle, it'll be San Francisco! It'll be different. I actually quite like the nightly thing. We've got every possible condition covered in the band, every shade, and all attitudes are covered.

Q: That can often create problems.

BILL: Yeah, it can. You need the right amount of creative tension, don't you, to keep you going—but too much, and you don't have the group anymore.

Q: What do you see happening for yourself now; where are you going?

BILL: I reckon I'm a drummer, and I don't mean that facetiously. I'm getting used to the idea that I probably will come to the San Francisco area once every 18 months and play drums until I'm 60, and then I'll stop and go and do the garden—which needs a lot of work right now. I think that it's an admirable thing to do. I enjoy playing my instrument very much. Now, of course, in rock this isn't really of much interest. People aren't interested in the idea of longevity; it doesn't go with rock'n'roll at all.

Q: But it can be important to the artist.

BILL: Yes, it can be; it can be, and is. I need time to get better at my instrument. I think I've gotten better at my instrument consistently in the last 15 years. I see that as progress.

Q: It's depressing to be otherwise.

BILL: Oh, yes, it is! But I think lots of people are otherwise. I mean, 99% of the musicians are working in some environment which they don't terribly care for, musically.

Q: So, how did you manage to get where you are, doing what you want to do?

BILL: It's having a sense of your own worth. I don't mean commercial, financial worth, I mean your artistic worth in relation to other people. It's trying to be with people who have some affinity with you and with whom you have some affinity. It's knowing when the project's gone stale and when it's time to move, which I think you should do. You keep moving, but at about the right speed for your own development, which is the prime issue.

Q: That's hard to know.

BILL: It is, [but] lots of people know what they can do and can't do, or at least in music you should, you ought to know pretty soon. It doesn't help if you're operating in a cloud cuckoo land where you think you're something you're not. It helps if you have a fairly accurate sense of your use and value of work as a musician and can be with people for awhile who will help you extend it, which is what I do. So, you sort of step from one thing into another. At times I'm in a terrible position, I've got no work at all or I'm not happy with the work. I played with Genesis for a while and I didn't like that much. But that was my mistake, not really their fault.

Q: How did things get started for you? You began with Yes.…

BILL: Oh, that was quite easy. There was a newspaper ad in Melody Maker—one of those things, you know. It became big—not for a long time, though. I had had enough after five albums. Same thing; I got something I really liked out of it, and I didn't want to blow up the copy book, but….

Q: You are restricted after awhile, it's the same three other people, and perhaps you've exhausted the possible interplay.

BILL: It depends on how quickly they develop and how hard you go at it. If you're going to do 200 concerts in 250 days, like young rock groups do, obviously that's insane; and if there ever was a creative spark, you're going to kill it right there. You watch these guys playing on stage and they're physically and mentally asleep. I get tired, too, not so much physically, but tired of trying to make music appear out of an amplifier.

Q: Actually, though, it must be very nice to make a living and still be able to do what you want.

BILL: It's terrific! I mean, I'm absolutely amazed at the number of records we sell when you consider you're asking people to buy an album of free form songs, or very, well, industrial. I mean, this is not exactly sweet music, so it.…

Q: It takes a little effort.

BILL: Yes, it takes a little effort, and so I'm constantly surprised by the fact that there will be 5,000 people there tonight, for example. I think it's something terrific for the kind of music we do. It's a balancing act; too far one way and we're bored and they're bored, too far the other way and the record company, you know…. The politics do exist, so somehow you've got to exist with dignity all around. It can be very difficult. If you just want to be top of the charts, then there's a whole road to follow to that, that's elementary. If you want to be a kind of British Arts Council-sponsored "artiste," well, you can do that, too. But to operate in the commercial marketplace without any subsidizing, like King Crimson does, and at a profit so that it doesn't collapse… You know, these tours are amazingly expensive.

Q: So what is it that brings people like you and Fripp and Tony Levin and Adrian into rock'n'roll? For a lot of people, it's believed that rock is meaningless, pop-culture trash.

BILL: I think I can do the things I want to in rock'n'roll. Tony Levin is an Eastman School of Music graduate, plays Stravinsky's Rites of Spring, is going to be quite a hotshot player on string bass, and then he says, "To hell with this, this is rank snobbery." So he goes into jazz. Well, jazz at those levels is rank with snobbery, too. "To hell with it, I'm going to be a rock musician." He's arrived, finally. It's rock'n'roll because it's kind of now, it's of the moment, of the present. It's immediately of value or immediately of no value. It's immediately of use to you or of no use, but it's immediate.

Q: And I think you're probably less restricted than in any other medium.

BILL: I think that may be true, funny enough. For all the restrictions there are, I think it's probably easier for me to be crazy on a drum set on a rock'n'roll stage than in a jazz situation. I can do what I really want to do. But I know what you mean, that somehow rock is not the legitimate place for anybody who is supposed to have any instrumental talent, really.

Q: I don't think that's true anymore at all, though. I think rock is the place where a lot of artists go to express themselves.

BILL: That's right. It's also the place where people gravitate who have been modestly successful at anything. The minute you become slightly bigger than the jazz club will hold or the little theater place that you're playing will hold, as soon as you exceed that you are, ipso facto, in the rock'n'roll scene. You're getting big, you know. In that sense, Miles Davis is a rock act. He's got to play the 5,000 seaters, otherwise there'll be trouble in the cities.

Q: Early on, when you had gone from nobody to huge success in Yes, mentally and developmentally didn't you sometimes find yourself out of whack, not growing at quite the right speed?

BILL: It was crazy. We were no one and suddenly we were #4 on the American charts with just Sinatra above us. Different people react differently. To me, a lot of the fun had gone out of it. To me, it was all suddenly like a bank heist. If I sat around thinking, "We've done it, we've got it," then what? [It's] as though you just robbed a bank. My reaction was: "Well, that's the job done, then. Now, then, do something else." If you've got there once, that's it. And you know the next one will get there, and obviously the one after that, and so forth. It seemed that the job had been done.

Q: Hmm, that's an unusual attitude in this business... So, what's your background?

BILL: I came from a very secure, professional background. My father was a veterinary surgeon, which is a highly respected character in England, and it was just assumed that whatever I did would be OK. It was not entirely helpful. It was assumed that whatever you do, you would make a success of, which I resented a lot. At public [private] school, more of that was [drummed] into your brain. And, more or less, that system works. It produces an elite.

Q: As you were saying earlier, you get where you want to go by stretching yourself, by pushing yourself. You don't get to the top by going with the lowest common denominator.

BILL: No, I don't think you do. But people who aren't in a good musical environment… I worry about them, you know. I worry about 20-year-old drummers. What are they going to do at 35? I'm 35 and I know exactly what I'm going to do.

ADRIAN BELEW by Mark Hoffmeister

Adrian Belew
Adrian Belew

digital effects © Joy Williams

Q: You mentioned last time we spoke that writing lyrics for King Crimson was a trying experience. On this record (Discipline), you seem to be going for a "simpler" style.

ADRIAN: Yeah, I was trying my hand at distilling the lyrical content a bit, trying not to say too many words. For example, "Model Man" is just one verse and a chorus. That was all on purpose, and it was at the suggestion of Bill Bruford, actually. I do feel quite a responsibility writing, especially lyrically, for King Crimson—this heady group of people.

But I think it's actually the same with my own records as well; when you put words on something, you also in a sense take away something. You take away some of the imagination. If you have a song like "Industry" that has no words, it's pretty much open territory for the listener's imagination. It can be whatever landscape you like, really. But once you put words on something, you define it.

Q: How did songs like Industry and No Warning come about? Were they rehearsed, or more spontaneous?

ADRIAN: The idea really came up, I think, through my suggestion to try to go into the studio and not play together—with simply one sort of direction in mind, that being industrial sounds. We wanted to go in and sound like a giant factory, but without really listening to each other. I think we got about forty minutes of industrial bashing and crashing and then we edited it down to a couple of bits, which we then started calling No Warning. The song Industry was a lot more pre-planned. Bill had the idea of the orchestral snare drum. Robert and I developed all the guitar ideas very carefully—the harmonies and things. It's supposed to give you a feeling of walking through a factory.

Q: What about "Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part 3"?

ADRIAN: That's Robert's baby. It comes from guitar lines and things that had been haunting him for some time. The original piece of music had a lot of different sections to it, so it was a matter of the whole band picking out what they like best.

Q: What's ahead for King Crimson? Will there be more albums?

ADRIAN: Well, I would like to devote a lot of time to a few solo projects, but I don't think that it supersedes King Crimson working on another record together, or even touring again. I'd like to see the band play together more; that's about all I can say.

Q: How is your "Guitar" EP project coming along?

ADRIAN: It's become a real dear friend of mine and I don't even think it's going to be an EP anymore, as I get more ideas and material—like Ballet for a Blue Whale. I'd like to do some sound painting, things that you can maybe just relax and listen to. I've got so much material right now, it may become a whole series of mini EPs. I want them to be packaged differently so people know what to expect. You know, not another version of Adidas in Heat, or something. In fact, I have the contracts right here in my bag.

Q: What about the making of the video for Sleepless, was that an enjoyable experience?

ADRIAN: For me, it was a wretched experience—but that had nothing to do with the people involved, they were very nice. It was done in England, and the problem was that I got sick while making it. You know the scene where my face goes into the water? Well, that tank of water had sat there all day and when I finally got into it and we started filming, it took well over an hour. Well, I got cold and caught a chill and got pretty sick from it. So, the next day of filming happened to be the day that I had to do the singing and all the important close-ups, and I was feeling quite ill.

Q: Sleepless could be called King Crimson's first real dance record. How did that come to be?

ADRIAN: The way it came to be a dance track has more to do with Tony and Bill. We brought in some people to advise us, but I really wasn't part of all that. I'm dead sick of boom-chucka-boom-chucka-boom-cha. It fits that piece of music all right, but it wasn't the original intention. Two different producers did outside mixes, but during those mixes, Tony Levin was the only member of the band present. The best mix of Sleepless, for my money, has never seen the light of day. That was the mix we all agreed up on at the end of making the album. What happened was that Bob Clearmountain did the single remix and then someone at Warner Brothers decided that the LP version should match the single version. So, how's that, folks; even the songwriter doesn't have any say anymore!

Q: How do you feel about the video phenomenon in general?

ADRIAN: I'm getting kind of tired of this video thing. It's starting to get to be just so typical. So much of what I see being done with it is just bad commercials for your music. Which is acceptable to me, but I don't know if I have $40,000 of my own money to spend on something like that. I don't really know if it will sell more records in the market that I'm in. If I had forty or fifty thousand to spend, I'd probably rather record or release ten new songs than take the chance that my video will see the light of day on MTV.

Q: What sort of equipment are you now using with King Crimson?

ADRIAN: I have actually reverted to the setup I originally had when we started King Crimson. I've gone back to my own pedal board and a lot of my old effects. I've found that to really play "Thela Hun Ginjeet" or "Matte Kudasai" properly, I really need that. Last time I toured here for the Twang Bar King LP, I had a lot more complex setup than I do now. It involved stereo amping and all sorts of echo effects and what not, but it's way off base from what we are doing in King Crimson these days. So I think it will be a little while till I get the new Roland GR700 guitar synthesizer that everyone is raving about. You'll probably see evidence of that on the next record.

Q: Now that King Crimson has completed three LPs, do you feel that the band has accomplished what it intended to do?

ADRIAN: At times I feel that, overall, it's been a really successful, fruitful endeavor. It's a thought-provoking band, and everyone in it offers a lot of different things. I think our music at times has really done great, and then at other times has fallen short. I feel also that you can't really accomplish that much in terms of changing music in a three-album structure. A band just starts getting really cranked up by that stage.

I feel it's a very healthy thing to have music of this sort. I look forward to the day when the adventurous music gets more airplay. But it's not a problem for me, I'm not looking forward to becoming a household name. I kind of enjoy having a discriminating audience. My outlook is that you do what you do over and over and you offer the best you can at all times. Then gradually you increase your audience. I don't think King Crimson or Adrian Belew's records are very contrived. I just couldn't write that way.

Backstage with King Crimson next


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