Fred Frith Interview
touring FF Trio, Henry Now, others, plus 2023 Opera
Fred Frith is touring again in 2022. Back in March he did several shows in Europe with Jordan Glenn and Jason Hoopes in the Fred Frith Trio. This trio has been playing together since 2013. COVID got in the way, of course, but the group still managed to release a double live CD in 2021 called Road on Intakt Records.
The FF Trio is back on the road in June/July for a short US west coast tour. They kicked this off last Thursday at The Ivy Room in Albany CA (near Berkeley). I got to see this show, and I will be writing about it soon as part of my video interview with Jordan and Jason. For now, let me just quote a friend of mine at the show who turned to me after the trio finished their first number and simply said “WOW”! They’ve added compositional elements to their work which give the improv sections more punch than I remember from previous performances. Their entire set seemed much heavier … more rockin. More of what I love. There are only a few more chances to see this for yourself, so don’t miss these remaining shows:
2022-06-24 Los Angeles, Zebulon FF Trio
2022-07-02 Portland, Kelly's Olympian FF Trio / TWANS
2022-07-03 Seattle, Royal Room FF Trio / Sheridan Riley-Wayne Horvitz-Neil Welch
Fred Frith Trio at The Ivy Room 16 June 2022
The day before the show at the Ivy Room, Fred and I spent some time exchanging email about his plans for the rest of 2022. Enjoy the interview below, and you can always find updated concert information for Fred at his website.
RR: How did the Trio tour back in March go?
FF: The tour was great, but intense (12 concerts in 14 days in 9 countries, so a lot of travel) and Jordan tested positive for Covid on entry into Tel Aviv, so he ended up having to stay there for a week while we carried on without him which was pretty frustrating. He was ably replaced by Sam Dühsler and Tom Malmendier who are both good friends and great drummers, but it’s not the same, obviously. We had started to prepare some composed material for the first time and that kinda went out of the window until the very end of the tour (we’ll be presenting it on our West coast tour coming up). But looking back it went remarkably well, with the beginning of the Ukraine war casting a long shadow and friends I expected to meet having Covid at the last minute, and all of that. Jesus. Interesting times to say the least…
RR: Also during COVID, the Trio released a live CD. How did that come together, and how was the process different because of COVID?
FF: Yeah, covid did afford us the time to do a lot of things that would have otherwise been on the back burner - I did a lot of digital archiving of old files for example, and created a database of every concert I’ve done since 1973! And I took the time to listen to a vast number of cassettes and create a double live CD of Skeleton Crew (1982-1986) - would never have happened except through lockdown! So by comparison the live Trio double CD was not a lot of work - we had excellent recordings, including with our guests Susana Santos Silva and Lotte Anker, and it kind of compiled itself really! But the most important answer to your question about Covid, is , I believe, that it has meant we’ve all listened a lot more, and hopefully become better listeners, and learned how to look and see and listen and hear. This has been hugely inspiring.
RR: One last thing about COVID.
Did you enjoy any "free time" or was it mostly dread about an unknown future? Did you receive much support, from government or elsewhere?
FF: I absolutely enjoyed the slowed down pace, the chance to do things I never got around to before, the weekly bird walks on the coast, and the kindness and presence of friends, the deepening of friendships. Also of course dealing with losses and goodbyes. And the general unraveling of sanity. I did receive some support from various sources, when I was truly in need, as many of us did, I believe. I have been touched by the generosity of all kinds that I have experienced during these last two years.
RR: Back to the Trio ... how does this upcoming short west coast tour in June/July feel different for you. Is there something you look forward to the most, or the least? Has your bond with Jason and Jordan changed given the "interesting times" of your March tour?
FF: It’s different inasmuch as organizing a string of gigs in the USA is always challenging, conditions here being so much inferior to just about anywhere else we visit! At least there’s never any question that this will be about money! This is all about love, and the chance to play for audiences we cross paths with relatively seldom. And about emerging from our covid cocoons. We’ve been rehearsing every other week. It feels good, always. We are nothing if not road warriors! The thing is, Jordan and Jason are very busy people with their own wonderful projects, which means a) I’m delighted they have stuck with me all these years and b) I’m very excited always to hear what they’ve been up to.
RR: Any other plans with the Trio after this tour?
FF: We’ll be back to Europe in March 2023, all things being equal. And always open to suggestions! I’m gone for the rest of this year, composing and rehearsing my opera among other things, so we’ll be on hold for a while.
RR: Let's talk about the Henry Now gig coming up later this year in Italy. A reunion?
FF: Not really. We are all in contact in various ways, and have been since the group’s demise. Chris and Tim and I have played together in many different contexts and guises, and I’ve joined forces with John here and there too, Chris and John are in several ventures together. Plus we try to follow each other’s work, which is tough because all of us have been endlessly busy with all kinds of projects in all kinds of contexts.
RR: A one-off?
FF: Well, there was a gig that was cancelled because it’s Italy and they never know until the last minute if the funding will come through, or the venue, or whatever. But our friend Max is not one to take that, so he organized his own concert in Piacenza. Right now it’s a one-off, but who knows?
RR: Old songs? New material?
FF: No old songs, no new material, it will be improvised. But the point of Henry Now, is that it could develop into whatever we feel like and with whomever is available. So anything could happen in the next period as long as we’re all still here!
RR: And of course I would also like to know of any Giorgio Gomelsky connections in the history of all this. (Note: I’m working on a book called “The Gomelsky Recordings” about his influential work in avant-music in London, France, and NYC.)
FF: As of now, none of this has anything to do with Giorgio. His connection to the history was as manager of Magma in the 70s, which is when we met, and later in the early New York years, when Chris, Peter Blegvad and I all took part in his Manifestival in New York in 1978, which led to my connection with Bill Laswell, Fred Maher and a host of other people. But that was after Henry Cow had broken up!
Frith Greaves Blegvad, Zu House Live 1978
RR: Can you share with us your thoughts on the 2019 book on Henry Cow called "The World Is A Problem"?
FF: Well I’m glad it happened, it was important to be taken slightly seriously. I learned a lot about memory in the process of working with Ben, how we each remembered things differently, concrete things, not emotions or atmospheres, but facts! In the end, though, inevitably I’m left with the feeling that with all of those meticulously martialled and researched “facts”, the exhaustive and exhausting exploration of everything Cow, something is missing - it doesn’t feel like us, a lot of the humor is missing, the surreal escapades, the extraordinary generosity of folks who remain close friends to this day. And a lot of that is probably to do with what people chose to share with Ben and what they didn’t. So kudos to him, and the other story will have to wait until someone else takes it on.
The Henry Cow Box Redux
RR: You will be doing some large festivals in Europe later this year. The Meakusma Festival in Belgium looks like a massive 4 day event. Have you played it before and can you describe it for us a bit?
FF: No I haven’t, it’s a bit off the beaten track travel wise, but “massive four day event” describes literally scores of music festivals throughout Europe, these are the places where I have been able to develop my work with constant encouragement and support since 50 years. There simply isn’t any equivalent here outside of a few exceptions like Other Minds.
RR: The New Now Festival looks even bigger.
FF: Another of these big city sponsored festivals that you find everywhere in Europe.
RR: A group you'll be playing with is called Clearing Customs. What's the story of this band?
FF: Clearing Customs was a project sponsored by German radio in 2007 for their venerable New Jazz Meeting series, which has been bring together musicians from Europe and the USA since the 1960s. Since then it has expanded in many directions. I used it as a way to bring together musicians who I knew from different contexts and different cultures and spend a week working together - everything was recorded and then we did three concerts. The musicians included Marque Gilmore, drums and electronics, Wu Fei, gu zheng, Anantha Krishnan, mridangam, Tilman Müller, trumpet, Daniela Cattivelli and Patrice Scanlon, electronics. We were invited to revisit this project in 2020 but Covid put an end to it, so now it’s finally happening with a slightly smaller group (with Susana Santos Silva replacing Tilman Müller, and no electronics). We’ll spend a few days putting something together and perform in Essen and also in Gent in Belgium.
RR: And the other shows in 2022?
FF: Playing concerts with people I love, welcome to my world!
RR: I understand that you’re also working on an opera?
FF: The opera is called Truth is a Four Letter Word, and will premiere in Paris in February 2023. I’m working on it every day for the foreseeable future!
Here’s a synopsis:
In the very near future, society has become ultra-global, ultra-fluid, ultra-mobile, everything circulates and transforms, nothing has time to settle, no truth can take root. The population appears to be asleep, every individual expected to remain flexible, without any fixed thoughts. A man called NARCIS has become the most powerful person on the planet thanks to a new application called Me-Dream. Convinced that he has been sent by aliens—that he comes from the stars—NARCIS proposes to people to dream their lives and to give reality to their dreams on Mars, where he plans a transfer of humanity. Activists, concealed under the name ECHO, try to prevent him by infiltrating his network and his soul. Situated somewhere between the science fiction of the near future and the Theatre of the Absurd, Truth is a Four Letter Word explores a world in which anyone can believe anything. Through the eyes of two protagonists who appear to be in every way antithetical, we learn to question everything. But what is left?
Here’s the line-up:
Music composed by Fred Frith (GB/US)
Libretto by Julie Gilbert (FR/CH)
Scenography: Heike Liss (DE)
Video: Julien Ribot (F)
Rupert Enticknap, countertenor (GB) & Clara Weil, contralto (FR)
The International Occasional Ensemble
Fred Frith, electric guitar, electronics (GB/US), Zeena Parkins, harp, keyboards (US), Ikue Mori, electronics (JP/US), Lotte Anker, saxophone (DK), Xavière Fertin, clarinet (FR), Tilman Müller, trumpet, flugelhorn (DE), Ada Gosling-Pozo, violin (DE), Garth Knox, alto (IE), Paula Sanchez, cello, voice (AR) , Karoline Höfler, double bass (DE) , Alexandre Cahen, piano (FR), Gabriel Valtchev, percussion (FR) , Camille Émaille, percussion (FR)