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Eyes Wide Open
Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew''s Vision of the New King Crimson
By Barry Cleveland
King Crimson blew the minds of many a happy hippy with the release of In the Court of the Crimson King in 1969. The record skillfully melded hard rock, jazz, folk, classical, and other at-the-time almost entirely disparate musical idioms into an astonishingly coherent and potent amalgam. Thirty-four years later, after numerous personnel changes and two lengthy hiatuses, King Crimson has released The Power to Believe [Sanctuary]—a record that successfully fuses Crimson’s complex interlocking time signatures, bruising power chords, high-voltage solos, and otherworldly ambiences, with rhythmic and synthetic elements more characteristic of electronica and modern metal than so-called “progressive rock.”
The current incarnation of King Crimson (“Lineup VI,” in official Crimson nomenclature) is a quartet consisting of guitarist Robert Fripp, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, Warr touch-style guitarist Trey Gunn (who plays bass and harmony simultaneously), and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The quartet was formed in 1999 after the demise of the previous sextet or “double-trio” lineup that included drummer Bill Bruford and bassist Tony Levin.
After releasing The ConstruKction of Light to lukewarm response in 2000, the quartet spent three years touring the world while simultaneously writing, refining, and eventually recording new material—a process which Fripp says involved intense effort and even “suffering,” but which culminated in Gunn and Mastelotto’s redefining the Crimson rhythm section.
“It’s a comment on the masterful nature of The Power to Believe that, when I listen to it, I am unable to detect the effort in its making,” proclaims Fripp. “One of the signs of a masterful statement is that it is one of effortless effort. If it sounds hard, you’re not quite getting there.”
I spoke with Belew and Fripp separately, and the interviews reflected the marked contrast in the two guitarist’s personalities. Belew comes across as friendly, easygoing, and exceedingly forthcoming. Fripp projects an air of sphinx-like inscrutability that might reasonably be interpreted as pompous self-absorption—and he was somewhat evasive at times. But while Fripp may be wily, he is also a sincere and sensitive individual possessing piercing intelligence and an understated sense of humor that is frequently leveled at himself.
Robert Fripp: The Enigma
To what do you attribute the longevity and success of your partnership with Adrian?
We’re very different. Adrian is American, and I’m English. Adrian is outward-going, and I’m inward-going. Adrian is wonderful company, and I’m not the person I would invite to my own party. Adrian is all that you could ever ask for in a front man or as a rhythm player, and you would seek me for neither.
Your system of guitar playing consists of numerous very clearly defined concepts and principles—many of which extend beyond technique to the way in which one leads one’s life. To what extent have you shared those ideas with Adrian?
Not at all. Adrian doesn’t come to me with any of that in mind, and I don’t go to Adrian with any wish or need to present it to him. Adrian is his own person with his own background, and he doesn’t need any of my advice as to what to do with his life.
What have you learned from working with him?
I continue to be astonished by what he can do. The energy and power he brings to bear are utterly astonishing.
Let’s move on to some standard Guitar Player questions.
I’m not the person to ask.
By “standard” I just mean the kinds of things that Guitar Player readers are interested in.
Well, I’ll tell you what—if they interest me, I’ll answer them. And if they don’t, I won’t. Is that a deal?
Fair enough. Now, in terms of your equipment…
I’m not interested.
How about recording techniques?
I loathe recording.
There’s nothing enjoyable about it for you? I thought you were keen on engineering and producing.
You won’t catch the live energy in recording, and even a recording of a live show cannot present that to you—it’s an entirely different medium. The analogy I use is that it’s the difference between a love letter and a hot date. Obviously, over many years, I have had some experience with recording, but it’s not my chosen medium. What I do like about recording is that there are opportunities to play things you’ve never played live. But the difficulty in recording a considered statement of a particular group at a certain point in its life is that it’s like writing an essay. The material is mainly a given, and it’s a question of recording it in as accurate a fashion as possible. As a player, I don’t enjoy that.
Can you describe the compositional process for The Power to Believe?
A lot of it began with me presenting sketches of varying degrees of development to the other players, who then ran with them. The other members may well have different views—and I don’t speak for them—but my sense of it is that, for this album, I had to drive the writing process.
Many of the compositions are, as usual, in odd time signatures.
On this album, it would seem that 11/8 is currently the determining signature. Why? We don’t know, but 11 would seem to be under investigation at the moment. We explore 5, 7, and 11 because they’re vital and energetic signatures. There’s a forward motion which can’t be resisted.
You have expressed strong views on the responsibilities of the performer and the audience in live situations, and you’ve walked off stage when an audience member flashed a camera in your face. Can you comment on that?
I am profoundly disturbed at anything that undermines what I see to be fundamentally a sacred act—a form of communion, if you like— and, in some situations, perhaps an act of worship. So, to have mobile phones held in front of my amplifier, or for flashes to go off, or to have video cameras being surreptitiously pulled from bags—all of this undermines what is possible and available in that event.
You recently did a mini tour with Tool. What, if anything, do you feel King Crimson has in common with their music?
The Crimson tour with Tool is one of the two most enjoyable tours I’ve ever done. The first was with G3 in 1997. I happen to be a Tool fan. The members of Tool have been generous enough to suggest that Crimson has been an influence on them. [Tool guitarist] Adam Jones asked me if I could detect it in their music, and I said I couldn’t. I can detect more Tool influence in King Crimson, than I can hear King Crimson in Tool.
Was the Tool tour also an attempt to attract younger listeners?
I don’t quite think of it in those terms. I will be very happy to have younger listeners, not because of the age group, but because they will tend to listen to King Crimson with less expectations and preconceptions than those who have been listening for a long time. Long-time Crimson fans are sometimes somewhat fixed in their views.
Adrian Belew: The Twang-Bar King
Can you detail the collaborative dialog between you and Robert?
Robert and I share a certain commonality in terms of musical preferences, guitar playing, writing, and what we’re trying to achieve in the band called King Crimson. So while our contributions to Crimson are strongly different from one another, they’re exactly what the other person needs.
I asked Robert to what extent his very defined system of guitar playing had affected you and he very quickly stated, “Not at all.” Would you agree?
I try to keep my own voice as my contribution to King Crimson. But you can’t help working with a guitar player like Robert without picking up a thing or two. It has been a great experience for me to be around Robert’s playing. I think he has done something extraordinary, which is develop four or five areas of playing that he can rightly say he invented. But Robert knows he can come to me when a piece of music needs something that I’ve got that in my back pocket. Between the two of us, we’re one heck of a guitar player!
Robert plays in his “new standard” tuning— (low to high) C, G, D, A, E, G—and you play in standard and various open tunings. How does that work from a practical perspective?
In the ’80s, I did all the odd tunings and Robert was in standard. Now my tunings are almost standard, and his is pretty odd. It’s not a problem because we don’t look at each other’s fingers to see what the other’s doing. What I do often is just tune the guitar slightly differently. For example, with the last two King Crimson records I tuned the D to a C—a very small change, but it’s right in the middle of the guitar, so it does tend to mess up everything [laughs].
Working with Trey and Pat as a rhythm section is a different experience, I’m sure, than working with Tony and Bill. Can you describe how each unit affects the music?
The rhythm section affects the writing that Robert and I do. For example, Pat has a very bombastic, rock-drummer attitude, whereas Bill’s was more of a skittering jazz attitude that involved playing around the beat. Trey plays touch-style bass just like Tony, but Trey brings more of a guitar-player mentality to it, with lots of effects. So when we were writing the material for the new album, we started with the idea of guitar-riff music. As a result, songs such as “Level 5” or “Facts of Life” are not built around chord changes as much as they revolve around a basic riff that keeps alternating and changing.
Do you share Robert’s enthusiasm for The Power to Believe?
Before we started making the record, I said to Robert that I’d like to do things his way, and make the record he’d like to see King Crimson make. I am pleased with the record in the sense that it’s exactly that. I also like that it sounds very futuristic and cutting edge, and that’s hard to do with a band that has been through six incarnations in 34 years. When you hear The Power to Believe, it shows that this band has something new to say.
There’s a huge “prog” contingent that c ites King Crimson as their primary inspiration. Do you guys feel any kinship with prog at all?
When I think of progressive rock, there’s an era that comes to mind, and it’s an era that I really enjoyed. King Crimson does have some kinship to prog, because that’s where the band came from, but I don’t believe the label really fits what we do now. Did you ask Robert that question? I think he really hates that reference.
And yet, Robert said that the band’s recent outing with Tool was one of his most enjoyable tours ever. Did you have a good time, as well?
I did have a good time, but it was also kind of funny. For example, I was doing promo in Poland and the interviewer said, “Is it true that King Crimson opened for Tool?” When I said “yes,” he responded that people in Poland didn’t understand that. For them, King Crimson opening for Tool would be like the Beatles opening for Oasis.
Power Tools: Robert Fripp
Guitars: Fernandes Monterey Elite Sustainer, 48th Street Eclipse (a Les Paul-style guitar with dual humbuckers).
Guitar synths: Roland GR1 and GR30.
Amplifier: None (goes direct).
Effects: Roland GP100, Eventide H3000 and H3500.
Power Tools: Adrian Belew
Guitars: Hand-painted (by Belew) Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters with vintage-style necks and rosewood fretboards, Lace Sensor pickups, a Sustaniac pickup, a Kahler tremolo, Sperzel tuning keys, and internal controls for Roland GK-2A synth pickups.
Guitar synth: Roland GR30.
Amplifiers: Johnson Millennium 150 (2).
Effects: Boss CE-1, Tech-21 Comptortion, DigiTech Whammy.
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