As the fate of live music has been up in the air for the past year or so, many music fans are welcoming the return of musicians and bands to local stages. One of the more thrilling Tampa Bay dates comes from none other than groundbreaking, genre-stretching prog rock pioneers, King Crimson, which is kicking off its U.S. tour in Clearwater.
Thursday, July 22, 7:30 p.m.
$53.25 & up.
Ruth Eckerd Hall. 1111 McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater.
Although the band has gone through dozens of lineup changes and iterations since its inception and the release of its stellar debut album, 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King, founder and mesmerizing guitarist Robert Fripp assembled a version of the band that was poised to tour the world when the pandemic and worldwide lockdown occurred.
As rehearsals were about to begin, I had the chance to speak to one of the band’s three drummers, Pat Mastelotto. A member of the band since 1994, Mastelotto served as a studio musician and has played on albums from artists ranging from XTC to The Rembrandts. Additionally, he was a founding member of ‘80s hitmakers, Mr. Mister.
What we can expect here with the tour kickoff right here in our backyard?
Well, this tour was actually booked about a month or two before or pre-COVID. It's hard to get to Florida for Crimson, you know. I think it's been like 10 years or more since we've been there. So, we'll start there in Florida, and we'll have our rehearsals there. We were supposed to go over to England to rehearse this month, but it didn't work that way with the quarantines and all that kind of stuff. So, we'll do all the rehearsing there in Clearwater. Robert (Fripp) has presented about 35 songs; he wants us to have up and running.
Including you, there's three of you drumming with the band, is that correct?
Yeah. Gavin Harrison and myself and Jeremy Stacy. Jeremy also plays keyboards. In fact, he's a very, very good piano player, so his piano chops were more realized during material like “Bolero” or “Last Skirmish” for instance. The awkward part about this is that Jeremy loves to play drums, so he's willing to play piano but to a degree to a certain balance, you know, if that makes any sense. Think about this for a second: you're going to play ferocious drums on “Lark's Tongue,” or something and then, a second later, you're supposed to turn around and quietly introduce and play piano on a ballad like “Islands.” I can just imagine, you know, his muscles are still in drummer mode!
That's multitasking right there!
He’s also set up pedals, like, organ pedals, so, besides his drum kit with high hats, he's got a series of pedals down there. He's marked and color coded each so there's a lot of homework, he put in a lot of homework into this.
Are there times when the three of you are playing drums simultaneously on stage?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally simultaneous drumming and a lot of that is very coordinated, very scripted. So, we sort of interlock or interweave with each other. We do play some unison parts, in fact there’s a newer one of Robert's compositions we’ve been playing for a year or so now called “Radical Action,” which has been changing as we tour. The song was presented one way a few years ago and now it's almost not that at all. There are other fragments that have grown up around it and overtaken it. But that piece has become almost like a marching, military section where we play unison snare drum, which is something we avoided the first couple of years—double and triple drumming, we tried to avoid playing unison snare drum parts.
You mentioned some of the material that you're rehearsing that you'll be doing, and I noticed that a lot of times you all kind of delve back and cover pieces from the whole catalog. How is it decided which songs from which albums or which compositions you all will be featuring for a live tour or a live show?
Well, really, Robert decides. We had a core of material when we started in 2014 and then just continued to add to that. And as I mentioned, once Jeremy joined us in 2016, it took about a full season there before Robert realized the piano talent he had in the band. So, I think it was in 2018 that we started to add some songs like “Islands,” which is really based around the piano. And Robert’s playing a little keyboard as well. He plays mellotron. When we were an eight-piece band with Bill (Rieflin), it was just such a magnificent full sound. When Bill passed away, I started to think I could fly some of his samples in from pads but then we decided that almost all of them have been dispersed among the other guys now.
So, it sounds like the material that's going to be featured on this tour stores kind of kind of hinges on the skills and the talents of the current band members.
Yeah, that's true, but the actual particular material we play each night, Robert chooses on the day of the show. I've been with him for 25 years, so it's the same, it's the same routine. He'll start at breakfast. Composing a set list and running order for that night's performance. He will take into account the venue, he looked at to see if we played here before or three years ago or seven years ago. He’ll look at what we played then. So, if we're coming right back to an area that we may have played a year earlier he'll try to play some different material. The tricky bit is the actual connecting of the songs. Not just the running order, but sometimes there's what I'd call “connective tissue” that’s put between the songs. They could be called cadenzas or solos or just ways to keep the flow. So that's a lot of what Robert is thinking about when he's putting the set together.
That sounds like a lot of work that goes into it.
Yeah, there's a pair of songs we played together. I believe it was “Larks’ IV” into “Islands” and they changed the chords for the last couple of three notes of “Larks’” (demonstrates sound) to set up the first entry of the piano, and, ah! It was fantastic. And we’ve never done it since like that—that was just that one time. I think it was in Paris. And even my wife who was in the audience that night said, ‘What happened there?’ It’s like you just like you get covered in goosebumps by a chord change, you know, it's pretty magical. I’d almost say we've never really played the same show twice, and I'd have to go back. I hope I'm not wrong about that.
I have to imagine that keeps everybody fresh and engaged and, on their toes, going about it that way.
Certainly, and in some of the other versions of the band we did a lot more improvising, especially in the 2000 band, and it was just a four-piece with Trey Gunn and I. Robert, at that point, didn't want to play any of the old material. Trey and I joined the band in ‘95 when we made a record called Thrak and, at that point, Robert didn't want to play any material earlier than that. So, this is quite a turnaround since this version of the band started. With this version, Robert, from the very beginning, felt that we were going to play the classic material that's never really been played often.
That's a nice luxury to have that huge of a catalogue of great music to choose from.
I mean it's an old joke that (former drummer) Bill Bruford used to laugh about when people would come up after the shows and say, ‘Why you no play “Schizoid Man?”
And I’m sure he heard that a lot!
Yeah, but now we do give it to you! It's a great feeling. It's a real celebration. It was 50 years in 2019 and we did a 50-year reunion tour. It's beautiful. We had the audience at Royal Albert Hall singing “Happy Birthday” to the band.
Speaking of the audience, I was reading something where one of you was alluding to the fact that there's a lot of young people coming to the shows. How do you characterize the King Crimson audience?
Well, it's pretty spread. I mean, you know, the black T-shirt brigade of heavy metal kids. They identify with us so there's a lot of that. There's a lot of, I don't know, more cerebral folks. You know, what's kind of interesting is so many of the Crimson people were drawn to the band I guess from the intellectual side of the band. So, it’s just a very wide audience that can include teachers from universities, but one of the strangest ones to me is a nun. There's a nun that comes to our gigs in Scandinavia and she’s a hardcore Crimson fan. There's a priest and I’m trying to think where he’s from, but I see this guy, and I think he might be some place here in America, I forget. But what Robert took note of is that the audience used to be more hardcore guys and it's spreading into more couples. The easiest example is as soon as you go south of the border, Mexico, South America, Chile and Brazil, we did “Rock in Rio” last year, those shows were 50/50. It's not like in America where throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the audience was very bearded, bi-spectacled dudes but it's changed. Honestly, it's changed.
I can attest to that. I for many years managed a record store and I still do a lot of record shopping and I often see younger folks walking around holding a stack of records they're going to buy, and I'll see them holding a King Crimson record and I'm so drawn to that. I just have to ask sometimes how they got into the band and it's just fascinating to see how many younger people are discovering King Crimson music for the first time.
Well Tool and Nirvana and a few bands like that had mentioned Crimson before, so I think that had a lot of people say OK, well, we'll check them out.’
Are anxious to get back out there? Or do you have any anxiety about it or not? Some people are ready to get back to normalcy, whatever that is, but some people are still a little hesitant about it.
I'm not hesitant about it. I think we got a great crew and they're ready to get back to working. It's been tough on everybody. I get emails and letters and phone calls and contact from people who are really craving music and for Crimson in particular to get back on the road and hoping that we’ll go ahead and tour again this year. But, on the other hand, I'll have to say, I really enjoy being home.
I got in a van when I was about 15 years old to play rock and roll and I've been doing this six nights a week for a long time, so, actually to have a year off is unbelievable. In my own bed, with my own dogs and with my wife? It’s been unbelievable.
That's fascinating. I think you're the first person I've talked to who has expressed that joy, or that kind of elation about being home and having a little break.
It's just been fantastic. I was scared as shit when the pandemic hit last March. I was just coming back from Japan, and I was thinking ‘This could be really, really bad’ and it was bad. And it is bad. There were a lot of dark, depressing times there last spring.
You mentioned, your wife a minute ago and I wanted to bring up, because I thought this was really interesting, I was reading about the album that you and she did, The Romantic Guide to King Crimson, and I read something that alluded to the parts of the female vocals kind of changed the feel of the songs. How did you all come up with that concept? Was that a collaborative idea that you had or was that your idea or hers? Or how did you both decide to record that album?
Well, the idea has floated around forever, not just from me or Deborah but from others talking about it. We, Deborah, my wife and I, started to talk about it a couple of years ago. Deborah kind of explained it in a recent interview we did. She said she had the same experience with me when we started to date around 2006 or 2007 after I was divorced. I turned her onto Crimson, she was not a Crimson person and it didn't take. She didn't get it; she didn’t enjoy the records. And then, when she came to see the band in 2008, she came to Chicago and saw the band live and particularly seeing (guitarist) Adrian (Belew) singing “Walking On Air,” when we had a woman come up out of the audience that security tried to clear and Adrian said ‘No, no…let her come up here’ and he was right at the edge of the stage and he sang the song to her, that's when my wife, after the show, said, “I get it now” and she got it about Robert then, too when seeing Robert live. She said he's an “emotional manipulator” because he's playing soundscapes and you’re crying. Like how does he grab me like that? Well, so we just started to think more about it and then we started to actually do it. Just before the lockdown, we Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and myself, do a camp up in the Catskills and there's some fantastic artists or musicians that come up there, and I started to realize that there was enough of them to help me flesh out my ideas for how to do these songs in a softer, gentler fashion, and that's what the record is.
What’s been the response you’ve gotten for that record?
Mostly it's very, very good. I got a wonderful note from Richard Palmer- James, the lyricist on some of the songs written with John Wetton. He wrote “Book of Saturday” and some of the other songs that are on the record and, and he commented immediately. He, in describing the juxtaposition of singing that song from a woman's point of view, and how it changed everything, described it as “an improvement (and slightly lascivious).” And, right away, the first song on the album, “Two Hands,” it's sort of told from the perspective, the lyric of the painting in the wall of the hotel, perhaps, as a lonely figure, but when a woman sings it, it's so lonely. It's, it's more of an expression of endearment and …I’m not expressing this right. You need my wife here! (laughs) She’s much more literate than I am.
I’m getting that her delivery gave those songs a different perspective or feel.
If anything, I can hear the production through her, as we worked on it, and she would quite often say, “Just keep it pretty” and that's usually not what we say when we’re working on Crimson music. That’s not necessarily on our agenda.
But you knew what she meant when she said that.
Oh, absolutely. And one more thing, because this show is the first show of the tour, Robert has a saying, and it's true, the first shows are always very powerful because they're the first show. So, they’re going to get something special there in Clearwater. This is the first show when really, it wasn't sure that there’d ever be another show.
I think that's what makes it so special; all this time of not knowing what was going to happen and then here we are, with this fantastic band kicking off their tour right here. So, it's a big deal for us.
And it will be for us, too.
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