“My life has improved so much since I stopped doing interviews,” Robert Fripp says. So why is the prog rock legend and guitar maestro giving us his first print interview in seven years?
One reason is that he’s a reader: FT Weekend is the only paper he takes. The other reason is more complicated. The King Crimson leader is in a period of professional turmoil. He has stopped making music and doesn’t know when he might resume. “My life as a professional musician,” he tells me, “is a joyless exercise in futility.”
Our meeting takes place at the headquarters of Fripp’s music company Discipline Global Mobile, which, despite sounding like a skyscraper-encased corporation from BladeRunner, is actually housed in a dull pebbledash building in a village near Salisbury, south-west England. His business partner lives up the road and Fripp used to live nearby with his wife Toyah Willcox, the 1980s pop star, before they moved to Worcestershire in the West Midlands.
We talk in the kitchen where Fripp, 66, makes me tea in a King Crimson mug. He wears round spectacles and tweeds and has a manner that is at once razor-sharp and unworldly. At almost 45 years’ remove, this is recognisably the same Fripp as the young man from a country town who turned up for an early King Crimson gig in a maroon pullover and grey flannel trousers. A horrified bandmate whisked him off to Portobello Road to score a Paganini-style cloak and top hat: much more proggy.
King Crimson, with Fripp on guitar, were formed in London in 1968. Jimi Hendrix saw them at the Marquee and declared them the best band in the world. Their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, announced the arrival of prog in 1969. Over the next 40 years, they set a benchmark for rock that has rarely been surpassed, combining imposingly high standards of musicianship with a bold (if often fraught) urge to experiment.
Fripp has been a prolific musician outside King Crimson, too. He was David Bowie’s sideman on Heroes, played with Blondie and Talking Heads and has collaborated with fellow rock boffins Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. He even has a toehold in rap, through being sampled by Kanye West, who based his single “Power” on Crimson’s 1969 classic “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
The “Schizoid Man” sample is a chapter in the story of Fripp’s current professional difficulties. The fact that West’s song notched up 1m hits on YouTube before Fripp was approached about the use of the sample, and that he had to speak directly to the rapper himself to OK it, is one of a number of grievances he has with the world’s largest record label, Universal Music Group.
His complaints stem from Universal’s acquisition of the various labels to which King Crimson were signed. The main contention centres on CD sales, downloads and digital streams of Crimson tracks that he claims Universal had no right to allow. The acrimony has rumbled on for almost five years.
“This is very old ground,” says a Universal spokeswoman when I put the claims to her. “We have been working with Robert for some time to try to clear up some issues that he has raised with us and believe we are very close to completing that process.” Fripp, however, has no confidence in Universal’s goodwill.
“I couldn’t concentrate on music,” he says, sitting in the kitchen, where his business and musical partner David Singleton has joined us. “So I made the choice to give up my career as a musician in the frontline to deal with the business.” The retreat has been gradual – I saw him perform with his wife Willcox in her band The Humans in 2009 – but he is now in a state of artistic shutdown. “It’s too debilitating,” he says.
It is a depressing situation for one of rock’s finest guitarists. Fripp is the art-rock equivalent of the blues worshippers who dominate Britain’s pantheon of axe heroes. His playing goes from intricately picked jazzy runs to thunderous heavy riffs – sometimes within the space of a single song, as with the title track to the 1973 Crimson album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. For him to say he’s stepping back from music is like Eric Clapton deciding to hang up his Fender.
The run-in with Universal isn’t the first time Fripp has rubbed up against the music industry. From King Crimson’s earliest days, he tried to avoid the major record labels, fearing that they stifled creativity. He set up Discipline Global Mobile as an independent label in 1992. It currently concentrates on releasing King Crimson live recordings and reissues, with a remastered version of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic due in the autumn.
Despite his avant-rock background, Fripp is, at root, a romantic. “The quality of artistry is the capacity to assume innocence at will, the quality of experiencing innocence as if for the first time,” he says. “Do you believe that Rostropovich was playing a cello just for a living? Do you believe that Hendrix was playing for money?”
In Fripp’s view, a narrow focus on sales turns the artist into an automaton. “The greater the success, the greater the pressure to keep repeating yourself,” he says. When I point out that the music industry couldn’t survive by being anti-music, that it exists precisely to bring his and other musicians’ songs to as wide an audience as possible, he demurs. Since the late 1960s, when the likes of King Crimson were given the creative space to do whatever they wanted, it has, he claims, “moved from a symbiotic relationship to a parasitic relationship”.
Ambivalence about success prevented King Crimson from keeping up with peers such as Yes and Pink Floyd. They had a habit of imploding at crucial points in their career, as when Fripp scuttled the band just after the release of their powerful 1974 album Red in order to enter a spiritual retreat in his native Dorset. The band’s history is studded with line-up changes and hiatuses: the most recent Crimson fell silent in 2009. With 18 musicians passing through the band as full members, Fripp has been the only constant presence.
“It’s an interesting strategy for keeping the music moving in the direction it goes – that whenever you get close to success, the band splits up,” he says drily. “But it’s a strategy that does work. Though it’s one that you won’t find in ‘How to Succeed in the Music Industry’. And I can guarantee it will piss off people who are looking forward to having a good career.”
Many of his Crimson bandmates have found him hard to work with. “I’d say nearly all of them!” Fripp says. He has a sly sense of humour but he’s also exacting and focused, a stranger (unlike certain former colleagues) to rock’s distractions of drink and drugs. He fetches several large leather-bound volumes filled with carefully notated musical scores: the original notebooks in which he wrote King Crimson’s songs in their 1970s prog pomp.
“Going back to the early King Crimson, the remarkable explosion of the creative impulse in popular music, mainly in rock music, came from these young men who didn’t know what they were doing, yet were able to do it,” he says. “What has changed in 40 years? It’s very simple. Forty years ago there was a market economy. Today there is a market society. Today, everything, including ethics, has a price.”
Fripp has so far rebuffed attempts to reform any of King Crimson’s more celebrated line-ups. While his contemporaries revisit their past on the reunion circuit, he strikes me as attempting a more difficult task: that of staying true to the free-spirited ethos of Crimson’s origins.
Why, then, squabble over money with the world’s largest record label? The answer causes Fripp to grow agitated. “Music is a language in which we can express our struggle with what it is to be a human being,” he says. “Going back to ’69 and Crimson, this is at the centre of what created King Crimson. And today” – he breathes out heavily, breathes in, his voice breaks a little – “I remain responsible for that. How can I lie, to that? Because if I do, I cease to be human.”