Fred Frith is the thinking musician’s guitarist. Best known for his strange and beautiful guitar improvisations with the 70’s Avant-garde bands Henry Cow and Art Bears, Frith has navigated a long and prolific career that has fearlessly flown below the music industry’s radar. Always unconventional and frequently controversial, his unique music continues to appear in numerous productions with surprising variety. Employed by filmmakers, choreographers, universities, producers and musicians alike, Frith’s “guitar re-inventions” continue to adorn, influence and spread throughout the world. For unconventional and “non-conforming” musicians, Fred Frith represents the very best of what an artist can be. Fearless, genuine and always on purpose. My interview with Fred was an inspirational jolt and may also come as a sign for other artists who struggle with self concepts of success. There are no odds to beat, no secret connections, no great strokes of luck coming from above. Only destiny. Success is purely a matter of creating what you feel you must create and then taking it directly to your audience and out into the world. Look no further than Fred Frith for an example of exactly what this means. Just plant that sense of purpose in the world and watch what grows!
On Theory & The Creative Process
TM: I’ve read about some of your thoughts on the relationships between space and sound and how they relate to your compositions. I find the conscious employment of these creative elements irresistible. Do you also use imagery when songwriting?
FF: Not sure what you mean, clearly texts can evoke images whether they are actually concretely present in the words or not. At the moment I’m interested in your question more in my work with dancers, to try and understand the correlations between physical space and musical space, and also when performing with my partner Heike Liss, who improvises with live computer drawing and video. Since the visual is primary, it’s hard to perceive an image as a response to a sound, for example, and very easy in the other direction. So “space” becomes an important tool, assuming we can define for ourselves what we mean by it!
TM: When an idea for a song or album comes to some artists, they will go right to paper, others to the tape recorder. How does the songwriting process begin for you?
FF: Almost always with words which I then set to music. That’s where I’m most comfortable anyway, that’s how all the Art Bears material was composed. With Cosa Brava there have been some cases where the music came first and then words emerged later, but that’s unusual for me. In the end the process is also a matter of creating a sound world, so I always end up honing a song in the studio, that’s where a lot of what would normally be considered “composing” actually takes place..
TM: Would you say that there is a link between spirituality and music?
TM: Is public perception and acceptance of your music important to you?
FF: It’s always very nice to receive compliments, or indeed feedback of any description really, to help me understand that I don’t exist in a void. But it’s not something I have any control over, and being realistic the vast majority of people have never heard of me, so I can’t really say it’s important, no. I’m trying to get on with my work as best I can, and I’m already thinking about the next project as soon as the last one is done. That’s a pretty privileged life from my perspective. I get to do what I love in the company of people I love, people I can learn from.
TM: Do you find the availability of good quality home studio equipment liberating, or do you think that the “studio days” had an advantage?
FF: I think home studios are a mixed blessing, always have, still do. It’s great that you can do so much in a laptop now, and the ongoing learning curves which made home studios eat money and time just to stay abreast of the technology back in the day, that’s changed for the better obviously (which doesn’t stop the pressure from companies constantly trying to sell you stuff you probably don’t need). When it comes to editing and sequencing it saves a lot of time time and money doing stuff at home. All that. But for me recording is also a social activity, I LIKE having someone take care of the engineering, first because it frees me to focus all my attention on what I am trying to do musically, and second because I positively need someone to have a dialog with during the process, someone who can tell me I’m out of tune or out of time when my mind is elsewhere. I’ve tended to work with a small handful of engineers over the course of many years because in the end it’s more fun, and gets rid of having to explain stuff all the time, or trying to figure stuff out all the time if you’re at home. Hats off to Tom Newman, Etienne Conod, Oliver DiCicco, Myles Boisen, Peter Hardt, couldn’t have done it—couldn’t do it—without you…
On The Industry & Concepts of Success
TM: It seems to me that audiences of popular music were more receptive to avant-garde music forms and experimental works back in the 70’s and 80’s. The fact that commercial labels like Ralph Records could survive as long as they did is amazing in itself! Have you noticed a shift or change in your audiences since Internet marketing and streaming media dominated the industry?
FF: No, because the “industry” doesn’t exist anymore at the artist end of the equation. I had more income from advance sales of Speechless, my 2nd Ralph LP, than I’ve had from the total Internet sales of all of my available catalog put together, and I’m much better known now than I was then. My audience continues to grow, I’m very happy that my concerts are full of interested people of all ages, who let their enthusiasm be known. That has nothing to do with sales of records or how experimental or not they may be. That has continued without interruption for as long as I’ve been working. Now most people don’t buy physical objects, they either buy tracks via the internet from which companies like iTunes and Pandora and Spotify make vast profits and the artists make more or less nothing. Or else they download the material from illegal sources. It’s axiomatic that if you don’t have to pay for something you will take advantage of the fact, and since there’s not really anything anyone can do about it even if they wanted to do, which they don’t, then that situation is here to stay. So most artists either become cottage industries of one, or assume that they will never be paid for their work as recording artists and just get on with it as best they can.
TM: That you have branded a name and have created a legacy with your body of work could certainly be viewed as successful. Do you feel successful? Do you feel that there were other avenues your music could have taken, or are you exactly where you want or intended to be?
FF: I think I’ve already answered that question. Inasmuch as I ever think about brands, legacies and success, which I confess I don’t.
TM: A fair amount of your music has been featured in film. When you compose for film, how does the process differ from studio or live works?
FF: It serves the film. That is the obvious and essential difference. I’d like also to distinguish between music which “has been featured in film” of which there is a lot at this point, and music specifically composed for film, which is a completely different situation. Anyone can ask me to use some piece or other of my work, they do all the time. I just say yes or no. Composing for film is something else, which requires different skill sets, a different approach to melody, to time, to color.. And the ability to add to the film what isn’t already there, to work with the director to realize her vision. There’s nothing I enjoy more.
TM: Has the musician’s strategy for making a living changed over the past decade or so? It seems artists now rely more on live performances for income than the sale of albums.
FF: To survive in the current climate you’d better have a diverse skill set and a thick skin.
On Style & Technique
TM: You have a long list of successful collaborations with some really interesting artists. When you begin a new musical relationship, is it important to define the roles of each member to avoid chaos? Unless you want chaos.
FF: I’m not aware of trying to define anything. A new musical relationship is like any other kind of new relationship, it begins with listening and developing awareness, and then seeing what happens. I suspect our definitions of chaos might be different? I enjoy not knowing what’s happening and treating it as a challenge. Improvisation always exists at the axis of what you can control and what you can’t control. Good improvisation embraces that contradiction with cheerful abandon.
TM: In what ways does working with other musicians help to define your own style?
FF: Without trying to fit into this way of talking about myself (define my style?) working with other musicians helps me to understand myself better and further develop listening and other musical skills.
TM: At what point did you see the potential to use the guitar in unconventional ways? Were there specific influences or did you just become aware of a gap in the evolution of guitar playing?
FF: I wasn’t thinking about the evolution of anything. I was trying stuff out because I was curious. That’s how things usually happen, no? What significance or importance or historical nuance any of it has is for other people to figure out later, people who are trying to figure stuff out because they’re curious, if you catch my drift!
TM: Invariably, I think most audiences and critics will look towards the devices to define the music. But to my mind, your music is much more conceptual than mechanical. In what ways do you believe your audience is internalizing your music?
FF: I hope those who listen to my music won’t be trying to define anything – I prefer it if you get lost in the music, feel it in your body, your heart. The music may or may not be borne out of ideas, but at the point of its performance (and of its reception) it is spirit, not mechanics.
TM: What kind of notation do you use to document sound events?
FF: I think there may be a mis-perception here. Documenting sound events is quite different from generating them. You can document them by writing a review, for example or by scribbling in a notebook (I always have one handy). But if you’re talking about ways of notating sound so that others can realize my ideas, it really depends on the context. Conventional notation is a powerful tool that communicates quickly and effectively across languages and cultures, so that’s what I use most of the time. I also use different kinds of sign language, graphic scores made from photos, written instructions, whatever makes sense at the time..
TM: What new projects are ahead for you?
FF: Making a new Cosa Brava record next January, which means composing a new Cosa Brava record before that.. Continuing to perform here and there with friends old and new. Touring with my trio in Europe next February (our record Another Day in Fucking Paradise just came out)
TM: If you imagined another life for yourself, what things besides music would you make a career doing?
FF: Haven’t given it much thought. I’ve been rather deeply involved in music since I was 5. When I had to think about such things (in the 1960s) I wanted to work in Forestry Protection, or go to sea.
TM: What are some of the things you really enjoy doing?
FF: I’m a lifelong birdwatcher and listener, and I get out and watch birds whenever I can. I like getting out on a bike in Basel and riding by the Rhine. I read a lot. I go to movies. You know. Nothing especially exotic!
TM: As a musician and an individual who has lived and worked through many years in the industry, do you ever feel nostalgic about certain periods in your own history?
FF: I have lived and worked through many years of collaboration with a lot of fabulous colleagues and friends. I don’t give a shit about the industry and I don’t even know what that means. And since I’ve worked with many of the same people since I was much younger I don’t feel much nostalgia about anything, I prefer to live in the present, and honor the many friends and mentors who are no longer with us—Lindsay Cooper, Tom Cora, Lol Coxhill, Derek Bailey, Butch Morris, Lars Hollmer, Hans Reichel to name a few—by not wasting my time and by having as much fun making music (and teaching) as I can.
TM: How would you outline your creative milestones?
FF: I wouldn’t.
TM: I know I speak for all Fred Frith fans when I say thank you for so many years of beautiful and exotic music. Your sounds have been rocket fuel for my own creative process. Is there anything you would like to put out there for the readers and fans?
FF: Thank you – kind words are always welcome, and I appreciate them. What would I put out there? Stay awake! Vote!
For more information about Fred and his projects, please visit his hub at FredFrith.com