Robert Fripp became a rock star without acting like a showman. As the guitarist and leader of King Crimson — the band he founded in 1969 — Fripp, 76, has written music that’s barbed, visceral, complex and ambitious, seizing the vanguard of progressive rock yet reaching a broad audience.
King Crimson’s catalog has found multiple generations of admirers among musicians, including the Rolling Stones, the Clash, the Mars Volta, Black Midi and even Kanye West, who sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” in the song “Power,” which has been streamed more than 135 million times. (The deal involved is still under litigation.)
Fripp’s guitar riffs are saw-toothed and dissonant; his solos lines slice and sear. But onstage, he has always been the picture of an introvert: seated, taciturn, entirely concentrating on his guitar.
“Some players can put on a really great show playing guitar. I can’t,” Fripp said in a rare video interview from Long Island, where he was preparing to teach one of his Guitar Craft seminars. His white shirt, vest and tightly knotted tie were a sartorial contrast with his hair: a gray, upright Mohawk. “I have to focus and pay attention very closely. I have no room for jumping around or symbolic gestures. So the excitement isn’t in what the player is doing in terms of his gestures. It’s in terms of the music which is appearing.”
But during the pandemic, Fripp has showed a new public face: droll, chatty and unpretentious. He and his manager, David Singleton, are on a speaking tour called “That Awful Man and His Manager,” promising to discuss music and business and to answer fan questions; it comes to City Winery in Manhattan on Friday. (The “awful man” designation teases at Fripp’s many disgruntled former bandmates and business associates.)
Spurred by his wife, the pop-rock singer Toyah Willcox, in 2020 Fripp started co-starring in a charmingly homemade weekly series of YouTube videos, “Toyah and Robert’s Sunday Lunch,” that has them attacking pop and rock hits from Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” to Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” often in costumes and makeup. The couple has also danced — both in tutus — to “Swan Lake.”
Outside of King Crimson, Fripp has made ambient music using Brian Eno’s “Frippertronics” looping setup; added indelible solos to songs like David Bowie’s “Heroes”; produced albums for Peter Gabriel, the Roches and Daryl Hall; written voluminously in an ongoing online diary; and taught Guitar Craft seminars, where he seeks to instill the same technical and philosophical discipline — an important word for Fripp — that he brings to his own playing.
He has repeatedly dissolved and reconfigured King Crimson to his shifting but exacting specifications. “When there is nothing to be done, nothing is done: Crimson disappears,” Fripp has said. “When there is music to be played, Crimson reappears. If all of life were this simple.”
A documentary, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” appeared at festivals earlier this year, and Fripp completed a book, “The Guitar Circle,” with the lessons of his Guitar Craft seminars. He is about to release a collection of his long-accruing aphorisms about music, ethics and creativity in three sets of 78 cards each, the same number as a Tarot deck. Leaving no merchandising opportunity unturned, he also offers personalized, handwritten, metal-leafed versions of his aphorisms.
A chat with Fripp invariably spirals outward, from the particulars of guitar tunings to what he jovially calls, with an expletive, “cosmic” horse manure. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What makes a man go on tour with his manager?
Probably to present our work to the world in a way that doesn’t quite get across in social media, in the same way that performance, for me, is really the only place where you connect with music. When you meet someone face to face, you can engage. And a key part of the so-called speaking tour is likely to be the Q&A.
During the pandemic you became very active on social media. Did YouTube change your life?
Yes, very much indeed. The main change in my life, following lockdown, is I got to spend time with my wife for the first time in 34 years of marriage up to that point. And I loved it. I have a wonderful, dear wife, but I kept leaving her. For me, lockdown was an opportunity to address some subjects of interest to me, including catching up on my academic reading in music. But there is my dear wife thinking, “This old character is losing it — I’ve got to get him going.” So then out came the tutu and “Swan Lake,” which was something of a turning point in my life.
You’ve been more performative on YouTube than you have been for 40 years in King Crimson.
I think that’s probably true.
Is that going to change you when you go back to performing concerts?
I don’t think I can look back. I think the future has now shot off on an entirely different trajectory. A personal interest for me is kicking received opinion. Because if you were only seen in a certain way, there is a richness in life which is somehow closed to you. A question: Have you seen Toyah and Robert live sitting in with the Trevor Horn band at the Cropready festival?
Yes, you played Lenny Kravitz and tuned your guitar in the standard tuning, E-A-D-G-B-E, for the first time since 1984. You broke your streak. But most of your lockdown songs were probably written in standard tuning.
That’s right. I’m learning to play in E again. And after spending nearly two years working very hard, translating classic rock riffs into a C pentatonic tuning — that’s C-G-D-A-E-G — to actually tune to E is a lot easier, but it’s also a challenge.
How did the C tuning start?
I was in the Apple Health Spa on Bleecker and Thompson back in September 1983, in the sauna at half past 10 in the morning, almost asleep, and the tuning flew over my head. At the time I couldn’t understand what it was for. I was asked to give a guitar seminar at Claymont Court in December 1994, to raise funds for the running of the estate and the children’s school. There was a click and I realized the tuning was for the guitar class. So at that point, anyone who came into a Guitar Craft seminar was pretty much on the same page. Whether you had experience or not, you have a new tuning. Including me.
Which has now led to the book, “The Guitar Circle.”
It’s pretty much what, as a young guitarist, I would have liked to have known. The aphorisms are probably the most useful part of the book.
What unanswered questions do you still have?
I know pretty much all I need to know at this point in my life. But it’s a question of engaging with it. And I hesitate because it’s so easy to get involved in cosmic horse [expletive]. An understanding is what you can take onstage that’s entirely practical.
Speaking of the stage, the most recent version of King Crimson turned the typical setup inside out, putting the drums up front and the other musicians in the back. Why did you do that?
It’s a very simple story. I think maybe it was July 2013 — Toyah and I were visiting chums in Vauxhall. I was sipping gently on prosecco, and for some reason I asked the question, “If King Crimson were to perform tomorrow night, what would it be?” And then it appeared: three drummers at the front, the conventional front line at the back. It was what we call the point of seeing, and I trust points of seeing in that way. And then I knew what King Crimson would be if it formed.
But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to take that up because King Crimson for me is grief. Nothing else in my life can happen when King Crimson is in go mode. It is such a responsibility. The background to King Crimson is in the counterculture. And we probably wouldn’t use the term today, but the aim was to change the world. Can music change the world? Well, back then, all the young players and probably most in the audience would say, “Of course it can.” But moving 53 years later, we’d say, Well, that’s horse [expletive]. But for me it’s not. It’s still an ongoing concern and a responsibility to the originating intention within King Crimson, which is something that is always possible when music is available. That is a continuing theme and a continuing imperative.
Isn’t there some pleasure in performing?
During the rehearsals, as we were playing the notes, I felt the music move into the notes. There is a quite distinct experience of King Crimson as an individuality in this thing, entirely apart from whoever is playing it, moving into this certain place onstage. And for me, that is validation. But if, for whatever reason, a performance doesn’t meet what is possible, it is an acute suffering for me.
People can recognize your guitar tone from a single note. What do you want that tone to be?
True. That’s all.
The actual sound of the note may change, like if you’re sustaining or whatever. But that’s the criterion. Is this note true? And I remember with King Crimson, I think it was in Preston — it might have been Darby — in the autumn of 1972. And I threw off a lick. And it was awful. It felt like I was lying to my mother. It violated conscience for that one lick. I was lying to music and that was appalling. And it still irks me to this day.
What have you learned from all the pop songs you’ve been playing on YouTube? When I heard “Toxic,” that sounded like a Crimson riff.
Some of the riffs, I think, “Hmm, maybe we supped at the same table.” I love playing classic rock riffs. They are relatively easy, providing you’re alert when you’re playing them. It was a privilege playing in Crimson, but it was a very specific repertoire. As a guitar player, it’s like the Olympics of guitar, phenomenally difficult lines, and it required two to four hours of practicing a day. Now, King Crimson is not in go mode. I can step back from it to a certain extent and move my attention into learning E tuning.
You’re touring with your manager, and you have an aphorisms deck called Finance. How does having to earn a living affect your music?
I have no problem singing for my supper. My sense has always been: Present your work to the public. Some people change their work to meet what they believe their public is. Well, that might work for a while, but I have no idea what my public will want, so if I hear something, I follow it. If I see something, I follow it and present it to the public, trusting that there will be a sufficiency in order for a supper to arrive. And historically that’s worked. Some times have been better than the others, but riches and popularity have never been on the top of my to-do list.
I’ve learned to trust the music, trust the process. And it’s important that the audience should know they are as important as the musician. If the audience is present and engaged and listening, the relationship is qualitatively different. When that happens, the moment becomes actually real. And there is a profound satisfaction in there. And then you go back, you get on the bus and you drive overnight to the next venue and it all begins again.