Fred Frith
Interview by Dan Warburton, March 19th, 1998
British-born guitarist Fred Frith, founder-member of mythic 70s progressive rock group Henry Cow, erstwhile collaborator of Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt, and major figure on the New York scene since the 1980s (Material, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, Naked City) paid two visits recently to the Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, a recently-opened venue for new music and art in the bleak suburbs of northern Paris.

On the menu for those who braved the trip into what the French like to refer to as "the zone" were four fine concerts (three duo and one trio) of improvised music, Frith inviting old friends such as cellist Tom Cora [who sadly passed away of cancer at the time of this printing - Editor, April 9, 1998] and percussionist Chris Cutler but also new acquaintances, Czech violinist/vocalist Iva Bittova (whom readers may know of from her appearance in the "cult" Frith documentary-movie "Step Across the Border") and British guitar pioneer Keith Rowe, founder member of pioneering improvising group AMM (with Cornelius Cardew and Eddie Prevost), now resident in France.

The concerts were all recorded, but Frith wouldn't be drawn on whether he was planning to release them (though a similar duo last year with Jean-Pierre Drouet did come out). Curious readers may like to check out Fred's website (see below) for further information. Our conversation took place in the dressing rooms at the Laboratoires, and was accompanied by twitters from baby pigeons nesting in the roof, as well as bangs and crashes from Chris Cutler's sound check next door.

Do you "rehearse" for concerts such as these?

No. With improvising, a rehearsal is all you've done in your life up to date. The only things you need to do are make sure the technical side is working, make sure you can hear each other right, that the sound is nice, and then just.... go for it.

Had you played with Keith Rowe before?

Once, in about 1986, I think, though I've known him longer than that. The first time I saw him play, he was playing revolutionary songs, during that period of composer Cornelius Cardew's life when he'd abandoned all improvising as not being "politically correct". They were playing left-wing songs, and I was very disappointed because I was expecting to see this guitarist everyone had been telling me about, and he was playing C, F and G. It was a bit strange, but not in the way I was expecting! I heard AMM's first record when it came out, because, at the time, Elektra was a new label, and the first record they put out that I heard was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and I loved that record. In those days, you didn't know what was coming next, so I figured anything on Elektra was going to be interesting. The next thing they put out was The Doors.... I thought that was pretty far out, and then suddenly out came AMM! (Laughs)

What else were you listening to back then?

About everything, as you can tell! Anything that was coming out....

I read in a recent interview that you were trying at that time to be a "normal" blues-based guitarist... Do you think in that sense you actually succeeded?

As I look at it now I probably should have answered the question a bit straighter, but it is true that Henry Cow started as a blues band. That's what we were doing. I met Tim Hodgkinson in a blues club. We evolved into other things simply because, at that time and in that place, so much was going on that we discovered new things almost hourly. I can remember a day when I heard "Big Pink" by The Band, and the first Beefheart record, and Frank Zappa all on one afternoon. You know, that's a lot of input. And in all three cases those were things that became profoundly important for me. So all that happened one afternoon, but there were many afternoons like that...

Did you have a traditional musical education as such?

Semi-traditional. I come from a relatively musical family; my father was a pianist-not professional, but he played a lot-and we all liked music, so I started violin lessons at the age of five, kind of abandoned it at the age of thirteen when I changed schools and didn't like the new teacher... I'd become more interested in the guitar at that point. My eldest brother was very much into jazz, so at home I could hear Django Reinhardt, people like that. My next brother was a total pop fanatic-and still is-and so I could hear Johnny Ray, and whatever was going on in the Fifties pop world, and my father was listening to Bartok, Delius and Debussy. He was very much into early twentieth century classical music, but also very curious about whatever was going on in the classical world. I was taken to see Yehudi Menuhin when I was very young, and I also saw Britten's "War Requiem" in York Minster, which made a deep impression on me. Being somewhere between those three polarities, I took a little bit of everything.

How did your family react to your own subsequent musical development?

They were always totally supportive. I think they probably thought I was a bit reckless-my father worried about my career-but they came to concerts, and still do. I think I've been very lucky with my family; they've really been behind me without ever letting me get big-headed. My sister's very good with the dry humour; she uses my records as ashtrays!

You played viola on the last track of Robert Wyatt's "Rock Bottom". How did that come about?

It came about because we were signed to Virgin records. I'd known Robert before; when I was a student I used to call him-I was a student with somebody who happened to be his next-door neighbour, so I had Robert's telephone number-I used to call him and say: "Why don't I come down and join The Soft Machine?" (Laughs) He was always very friendly, if a little cautious-!-and so we knew of each other. He got very interested in Henry Cow, because he came to see a couple of gigs, and we were both signed to Virgin records, and, well, that viola session led to all kinds of stuff actually, because as a result of my working with Robert, Ivor Cutler asked me to play on his record, and then after that, after the "Guitar Solos" record, Brian Eno asked me to play his stuff. It was a period when doors were opening for me.

Any particular memories of those Eno sessions?

I just think it's incredibly funny that I was banging a guitar with drumsticks in a rhythm section with Phil Collins! (Laughs) I wonder if he remembers it at all! I thought it was wild.

Was Eno already controlling the small details back then?

No, I had total freedom of input. I mean, the whole thing about Eno's studio approach was not that he was controlling people at all; he was creating a situation in which we could do what we did, as far as he could see to our best advantage, and afterwards manipulating it. I had no control whatsoever of what he used of mine, how he used it, or what he did with it. But in the studio session I could really literally do whatever I wanted. I recently came across an interview Bill Laswell gave back in 1981 to Downbeat magazine, and one of the questions was: "Who are your favourite employers?" and he replied: "Fred Frith and Brian Eno because of the freedom they give me." From my point of view, with Eno that was certainly the case. It was the first time somebody had trusted me to do what I do, which is a little leftfield, in the context of what was ostensibly some kind of pop music.

But you had the same kind of freedom in Henry Cow...

But it was a very different kind of orientation, and also it was a collective and everything was discussed, and so for me-and I think we all feel the same way-the weakness inherent in a lot of Henry Cow's material (and there are strengths of course, and I'm not trying to negate those), the frustration was that everything that came into the group ended up being watered down as a result of the collective process, rather than strengthened. It was as if no idea was allowed to be tried without discussion first. I'm probably exaggerating this with hindsight, but I think this it was a big mistake, and a lot of our best ideas may not have been fully realised as a result of it.

Now that even the Sex Pistols have reformed, may we look forward to a Henry Cow reunion concert?

(Laughs) Forget it! We're all much too busy.

You still keep in touch with them all, though.

Yes, we've all actually played together over the years. I was in a quartet with Lindsay Cooper, Gianni Gebbia and Lars Hollmer a couple of years ago, I've done tours with Tim, and I do a lot of work with Chris in one form or another. It's very sad that Lindsay has multiple sclerosis; this has been a big preoccupation for all of us lately, since she decided to come clean about it; it puts things in perspective, to say the least... I admire the way she's handling it tremendously.

Is there anybody you still haven't collaborated with that you'd like to? I shouldn't say "still", should I? It sounds like you're at the end of your career!

Yeah, it's all over now! (Laughs) Yes, lots of people. I've worked with some great musicians, I've been very lucky. I would love to work with Robert again at some point in my life. I would like to do something with somebody like Henry Threadgill, for example, or Oliver Lake, people who for me are more what jazz is about now-as opposed to Marsalis and so on-people who are on a quietly radical front. I think it'd be interesting to work with people like that, speaking as a non-jazz musician.

Do you think you would have developed differently musically if you hadn't gone to New York when you did? What would you have done?

God knows. I have no idea. All I know is that going to New York was a profoundly liberating experience for me; for the first time I felt that I could be myself and not try to live up to what I imagined people were thinking about me. This was definitely my problem-getting out of Britain helped me work this problem out; I no longer felt there was a weight pressing down on me. (Pause) I felt a lot of weight all the time in Britain. I still feel that a lot of musicians in Britain are stuck, partly because culturally Britain is incredibly stingy. Of course there's a very important music scene-in terms of commercial music it's fantastically vibrant, and because of that people tend not to notice that there are a whole lot of areas where it's not. As a vibrant pop music centre, Britain has obviously exported pop music all over the world, it's very successful-PRS is a very big organisation-and so if you say: "Music is not successfully promoted in Britain," it sounds a bit perverse. But in all other European countries, Canada, Australia, I see there's a level of support for other kinds of music that simply isn't there in Britain.

Is there any particular reason why you've settled in Stuttgart?

That's where my wife's family comes from, so it's practical. There's no cultural reason to be there whatsoever. Actually, I think of myself more as an American than a European.

Really? In what sense?

I emigrated to the States, I lived there for 14 years, I go back there every year, a lot of my friends are there, I feel that I'm a part of that community... I think of myself as a kind of ex-patriot American. I can see myself moving back there, sure. Absolutely.

What do you think of the New York scene nowadays? We seem to have a new release on Tzadik every week... (Laughing) Is it the same vibrant scene that there was in the early Eighties, or have things... matured?

Matured meaning what? Got better or got older? (Laughs)

Probably the latter...!

I think it's still in a state of flux, and for sure, it's not going to be my generation that decides whether it's vibrant or not... In a way, a lot of the people who, at the beginning of the Eighties, were considered to be in a big and energetic and innovative scene have all moved on, consolidated and are doing important and interesting work, but the younger generation are finally out from under that shadow, so we'll see what happens.

No pangs of nostalgia for playing in draughty lofts with John Zorn?

I still play in draughty lofts! (Indicates the surroundings of the Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers) I mean, what is this? (Laughs) No, I think it's funny to look back and think of playing with John in his apartment in front of five people, while at the time it was ironic that the English musicians were complaining that I'd gone to the States and was making lots of money, being really successful, while I was just doing exactly what they were doing except I was in New York and not Britain.

Why did your group Massacre with Bill Laswell and Fred Maher split up so soon?

There was a whole load of politics going on. I don't even remember the details, to tell you the truth.

Any regrets? "Killing Time" has since become a sort of mythic album...

Yeah. We've tried occasionally to do stuff, and I was never really happy with it. Actually, about a month ago, Bill and I and Charlie Hayward recorded a trio record, which we're now in the middle of editing and selecting material for. That'll come out eventually, and that's probably the closest to Massacre that I've felt since then, though there are twenty years and several lives in between, so it's nonetheless a different feeling.

Why did John Zorn choose you as bassist in Naked City, and not as guitarist?

Well, first of all Bill's a much better guitar player than I am! (Laughs) No question about that!

So why you on bass and not another bassist?

Because I was the only one of his circle that was actually coming from a rock background, which is kind of interesting. Kramer could probably have done most of it... Basically John wanted to explore music which had a very broad cultural range, from film music, and jazz, as well as pop and rock, and the musicians he knew and was playing with tended to come from jazz. There was nobody there who had a kind of rock capability, as a result of which I was thrust into this position where I had to play walking bass, which I'd never done in my life, and playing Mingus covers and stuff, it was really intimidating...!

Mingus covers with Naked City?

Well, we did a Mingus tribute, which is not quite the same thing... But at the same time I was giving them a sort of rock heaviness that they probably wouldn't have had... It was a lot of fun.

I have to ask you about the night that will live in infamy for Parisians, Zorn's "Houdini/de Sade" in 1992.... [Zorn's "opera" featured not only an all-star cast of New York Downtowners, but also two video monitors showing uncut hardcore porn that would have been much appreciated by the late Marquis-Ed.]

No comment! (Bursts into laughter)

Did you know in advance what was going to be on those video screens?

No comment! (Chortles uncontrollably) Talk to John!

What do you mean? You know he doesn't give interviews!

Well, there you go...!

I believe Bill Frisell was overheard saying: "Zorn's gone too far this time..." (Frith Continues chuckling) He certainly didn't set foot in Paris for some time after that!

I don't know what happened after that. There was probably a "period of reflection", as the Italians say. (Laughs) That was the beginning of a Naked City tour, and we did another couple of tours after that. Basically John had an idea of the project, and "Houdini/de Sade" wasn't really part of the Naked City tour, it's just that we happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was a one-off.

I remember going to see it with a would-be girlfriend...

How long did that relationship last?

Anyway, on to other things... tell us about the new band.

Tense Serenity? It's actually the name of a piece I wrote for string trio and trombone that was performed by members of the Arditti Quartet with Uwe Dierksen from the Ensemble Modern, and it represents for me a certain aesthetic which I like, and I decided to call the band after it. I'm interested in putting together an improvising group which is fundamentally quiet. Basically quiet playing. (Pause) And also to see if I can make the same kinds of structures that I do with the Ensemble Modern, which is to try to use written cells and conduct a piece in which the musicians don't know if or when the cells will occur... it kind of gives a certain edge to the performance. Nobody really knows until the moment it happens what's going to happen. I wanted to see if I could do that with a small ensemble instead of with twenty people. We've done one concert so far, and it was promising, so we've decided to make a tour.

What's the position with the Ensemble Modern? Are you still working with them?

We've got a big project coming up in June; we're playing in four cities doing a piece called "Traffic Continues" which is a continuation of what we've already done, precisely in this direction of mixing four different worlds, one of which is completely improvised, one of which is completely scored, and the other two of which combine kinds of cued material which is both fixed and contains other elements which are not fixed. So it involves quite a lot of rehearsal just to learn the signs. What's important in an improvising situation is that you react fast, but on the other hand reacting fast and playing something precise is not always easy.

Learning the signs... is this is a kind of Butch Morris hand language?

Yeah, sure, there's an aspect of that in it, a kind of "conduction"-we can't use that word of course-but in fact I've been working with this kind of cued language for quite a long time, using graphic scores in rehearsal and also as a workshop tool, and actually it's something that I first saw used by Frank Zappa in the Sixties when he used hand signals with the Mothers. It's something which has been around in various contexts-it's interesting to me to think that it began in a rock context, although this is now totally forgotten. When I went to New York it was to work on Zorn's game pieces, which is a whole other version of sign language. Miya Masaoka told me she was so confused working with different composers whose signs are the same but meanings different that she'd like to propose a standardised system! I hope she doesn't succeed!

Your last album was a set of homages (as it were) to contemporary "classical"-for want of a better word-composers, including Cage and Feldman... Do you spend much time listening to that kind of music?

I spend less time listening to it now, but I listened to it a lot in the Sixties and Seventies. It's very much part of my blood, and since Feldman died there's been a lot more of his music available on record, so I've been able to hear things which I hadn't heard before, which are very interesting.

In writing these pieces did you go as far as embracing the open indeterminacy of Cage, or did you still choose to have an elemental of compositional control, structural backbone?

Well, these three pieces are all very much geared towards the kinds of soundworlds that these composers create, although they're written by me so they have my own preoccupations in them as well, but structure of the Cage piece on "The Previous Evening" was largely generated by chance methods, for example, and a lot of the material within the structure is also aleatoric.

Did you yourself play experimental music back in the early days?

I played some of Cardew's magnificent "Treatise", so I've always been attracted to the graphic score world. As a student I was also very much interested in Terry Riley, Steve Reich, that kind of nexus, back in the Sixties. Cage I found much more arresting as a writer than as a composer, but that's also because there weren't many opportunities to hear his music; at the time when I was reading him, there weren't many Cage concerts about. I wasn't a Londoner, so I wasn't living where everything was happening, you know-I was out in the sticks... It wasn't so easy to get to hear stuff.

How much time do you have now to sit down and listen to music?

These days not much, but I produce a radio programme which gives me the chance to hear new stuff, and I have a CD player in my car, so I can try to catch up like that. But it's true that if you spend a large amount of time listening to your own music, as one does simply for reasons of composing or editing or whatever, the last thing you want to do when you've finished is sit down and listen to somebody else's music. You want to listen to nothing.

Not even your old records?


Do you have any favourites?

I think "Winter Songs" is very interesting; compositionally I like it very much. "Gravity", still... I like "The Technology of Tears". They all have their qualities. I've done remarkably little that I've regretted, which is usually a good sign. There are things I wish I hadn't done, but we don't talk about those! (Laughs)

Do you have a large record collection?

I've given away several large collections. I guess I have about five hundred CDs or something, but when I moved to the States I probably gave away three or four hundred LPs, and when I moved back I gave away at least as many again. I'd rather people were listening to them than they sit in my room doing nothing.

OK, I warned you before, but we're serious at PNMR about this: your apartment's on fire, the wife and kids are safe, and there's just enough room in your suitcase to bring along your ten all-time favourite records.

Ten records, off the top of my head? Tomorrow it'll be ten a different ones. (Pause) I'd say... "For All We Know", Billie Holiday. (Pause) "Kind of Blue", I guess. Miles. Can't really avoid that, can you? (Pause) Glenn Gould playing Bach. Just about any of it. (Pause) "Rothko Chapel", Morton Feldman. (Pause) That piece of Messiaen, "Des Canyons aux Etoiles", is it?

An interesting choice... I don't normally associate you with Messiaen, harmonically speaking.

I'm a big Messiaen fan, structurally also, very much. Probably ten years ago I'd have chosen the "Turangalîla Symphony"; now I like the later things. (Pause) That's five, isn't it? Five to go... (Laughs) The second record by The Band, the one with "The Night They Burned Old Dixie Down" on it. (Pause) Erm... this is when it gets hard... I'd say Asha Bhosle singing Ghazals from Indian film music. (Pause) Julian Bream playing the music of John Dowland.

English roots?

I guess. It connects me to something folkloric as well as anything else. (Pause) Charles Mingus "Live at Town Hall" 1964. (Pause) And probably Kostadin Varimezov, a gaida (bagpipe) player from Bulgaria. I used to have a pen pal in Bulgaria, who used to send me lots of old LPs of Bulgarian bagpipe playing. If you really want to understand some of the things I do as a guitarist, you should go listen to the gaida, because there's a lot of it in it.

There's also a website, Do you run that yourself?

I don't run it but I provide them with the material. It became necessary because if you look up my name in a search, you only get to the website after about thirty entries. Everything else is other people putting out information without my authorisation, without necessarily checking their facts. It's very nice, they mean well, but a lot of the time there's stuff out there which is incorrect. So I thought it was a good idea to have a website to make sure that somewhere at least there was a reference to information that was at least correct.

What about the use of technology in your playing? Are you not tempted to use live sampling now?

Before they were called samplers I was using that kind of effect; with Skeleton Crew we used to do a lot of that kind of thing, at the beginning of the Eighties. Sampling has become so much a part of the current vocabulary that I'm very cautious about it. I use it in the studio when I need it for specific reasons, but on stage I find that it's just too easy to do the same things everybody else does, so I'd rather do something else. It all depends of course on what you sample in the end, and what you do with it. I hear so much really boring sampled stuff that it hasn't really drawn me into it. "Technology of Tears" was a sampling record, and that was in 86. I did things that interested me to do with sampling back then, and sampling hasn't changed substantially since that time. There are people who are doing fantastic things with samplers, like Bob Ostertag, but they're basically not really acknowledged and not well known outside of a very small group of people.

And yet that group seems to be getting larger all the time, especially over here, where kids of 23 are running round buying Derek Bailey records!

Yeah, it's great. (Laughs)

I put this point to your friend Heiner Goebbels, but he thought the situation was just as depressing and miserable as it always was.

So speaks somebody who's signed to a major label, wins countless prestigious prizes and is touring all over the world with the Ensemble Modern! (Laughs) He should come and join the rest of us in our little ghettoes! No, I think it's great what's going on. France, these past two or three years, has been really exploding with interest, and I now I get a lot of frustration expressed by people because the music isn't as available as they'd like it to be. Finally there's a distribution network that's making things more possible, and there's an interest on the part of journalists. Yesterday there was a guy from France Culture who decided he wanted to do a feature on this kind of music, while it was only two months ago that a certain person from Radio France wrote a very nasty insulting letter saying that I was a totally unsuitable person to be broadcast on French radio! (Laughs) So I guess there's a little movement somewhere.

When will we be seeing you again in Paris?

I'll be back later in the year for six more concerts.

Who with?

A-ha! Wait and see...! Jimi Hendrix, maybe...

Interview by Dan Warburton in Paris, Spring 1998... Thanks for visiting Paris Transatlantic. If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in reading our talk with Misha Mengelberg, Amsterdam jazzer and avant-garde pianist/ composer/ improvisor. To hear more about the New York scene, check out our Lincoln Center Festival reviews, or try our so-called "Downtown" CD section. Link to Fred Frith's Website