Talk to Bill Rieflin about the current state of King Crimson, the legendary rock band in which he served as one of three drummers on its surprising return to activity in 2014, and one word pops up repeatedly: “unprecedented.” The term certainly suited the rejuvenated group’s striking stage configuration, which featured Rieflin and fellow percussionists Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto out front, backed by founding guitarist Robert Fripp, veteran saxophonist Mel Collins, seasoned bassist Tony Levin and a newcomer, singer/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk.
By the time he enlisted, Rieflin, a versatile multi-instrumentalist and producer, boasted a résumé that included stints with R.E.M., Swans and Ministry. He had worked with Fripp in the Humans, an idiosyncratic combo fronted by vocalist Toyah Wilcox (Fripp’s wife), and Slow Music Project, an ambient improvising ensemble that included R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. After touring with King Crimson through 2015, Rieflin stepped away for a sabbatical, the precise nature of which he declines to reveal. (“I’ve never made my personal life a part of my public life,” he tells Rolling Stone. “If there’s anything interesting about me, it’s what I do with music.”)
Drummer Jeremy Stacey, who has worked with Noel Gallagher, Ryan Adams and Steve Hackett, among others, assumed Rieflin’s role for King Crimson’s 2016 European tour. Heroes, a new EP recorded during that run and due in June, includes an impassioned cover version of the titular 1977 David Bowie song, to which Fripp had provided the signature lead-guitar line. “King Crimson performed ‘Heroes’ at the Admiralspalast in Berlin as a celebration, a remembrancing and an homage,” Fripp wrote of the recording on his Discipline Global Mobile website. “The concert was 39 years and one month after the original sessions at the Hansa Tonstudio overlooking the Berlin Wall. This is released in the Fortieth Anniversary year.”
Now, as King Crimson prepares to embark on a North American summer trek that starts in Seattle on June 11th and ends with five nights in Mexico City in July, Rieflin has rejoined the band, focusing on Mellotron, keyboards and “fairy dusting” in a new eight-member roster. “What pointed stick might administer a sufficient poke to the Crimson trajectory to keep the group alert and engaged, honouring the Creative impulse that brought it into existence?” Fripp wrote in an online diary entry from February. “Perhaps adding an Eighth Member? Now that’s going to shake things up!”
Reached by telephone at home in Seattle just after tour rehearsals in London had concluded, Rieflin spoke about his return to duty, his new function in the band and the unprecedented nature of King Crimson.
Were you concerned when you stepped away from King Crimson that the band would move on without you?
No, I have to say I wasn’t concerned. I think there are two things to look at here. One was that in the initial formation of this incarnation of Crimson, Robert had a vision of something that was very person-specific, and if any one of those persons were unavailable to do the project, then the whole thing would be called off. It wasn’t that he wanted something; what he wanted was this. When he asked me to join the band, he said, “This is who I want in the band; if any one of the members of the band don’t want to do it, well, then we just won’t do it.” And then he said, “By the way, everyone has agreed to it.” [Laughs] I think I spent about half an hour trying to talk him out of it, asking him questions like, “Are you sure? Do you have any idea what I actually do?”
By that point, the two of you had worked together in the Slow Music Project, in the Humans and on two records of your own.
That’s right. We’ve known each other for a long time. We’d worked together. So in fact, he does have a pretty good idea of what I do. He assured me that there would be [a place]. But also, I won’t say it didn’t matter, but the important thing was that the band do what it needs to do in order to continue and flourish and be creative. If ultimately that means that I’m out of the band, well, fine – so many times I’d wondered, only half jokingly, why I hadn’t been kicked out of the band already.
This gets to something I’ve been thinking about: What is there left to say about King Crimson that hasn’t been said in the last 48 years? I have to say, very little. But one thing that keeps coming up for me came out of a recent conversation. We had a very fun Easter break during rehearsals. Robert went home, and I had been staying at his place, so I went up with him. Then Tony and Pat joined us, so along with Toyah, the five of us sat around one evening having a really, really fun time, eating and drinking and conversating. And one of the things that kept coming up was the word “unprecedented.”
There are a lot of things about Crimson that are unprecedented, and one of the things that I think is unprecedented is that I needed to take some time off, and rather than basically set me adrift, they said, “That’s fine; you do your thing, and when you come back we’ll make room for you.” They had obligations, so they got Jeremy to come in and essentially fill my role, which was the drumming and the keyboarding stuff. And he’s outstanding. I was preparing charts for him, and just the keyboard stuff alone I think would be enough for one person. But then he had to learn these very specific and complex drum parts, and he didn’t have a lot of time. That’s extraordinary.
So now Jeremy, who originally filled the “Rieflin role,” is a member of the band. The question is, well, what am I going to do? There was a question of four drums up front, which is still in the world of possibility. However, for this tour, I said, “Why don’t I just play keys?” My skill level is not at the highest, but I’m capable. And so we said, “Yeah, sure, do that.” Basically, I’ve made my own job after my other one was taken over by the exceptionally capable Jeremy Stacey. It’s unprecedented that I was brought back in, and unprecedented again that I now fill a completely different role.
Apart from when the jazz pianist Keith Tippett was a consistent guest in the early Seventies, King Crimson has never had a dedicated keyboardist before. Nor is it a band that ever featured keyboards in the florid Keith Emerson–Rick Wakeman prog sense.
You’ll never get that out of me. I just don’t play like that, and I’m not interested in playing like that … although I love Tippett’s playing.
What is your function in the band now?
[Laughs] Let’s say that, just operationally, I play keyboards. As for the actual function of me in the band, I think that’s something slightly different.
I ask because part of your role is designated as “fairy dusting,” Does that refer to the kind of soundscape-oriented elements that Fripp himself often plays? Or is it something more metaphysical?
I would never claim that for myself. However, I can give you my interpretation: The way I look at the job of fairy dusting is to use sound in order to open up space. It’s not a specific thing, in terms of things that sound like soundscapes. I like using unexpected sounds, or sounds in an unexpected way. One of the things I like about music is when it inspires or generates new feelings. I like using sounds that you would never think would work, ever, in a piece of music, and making it work. And in doing so, what happens is that the sonic subtext of the music changes.
I was listening to the [1971 King Crimson] song “Islands” recently. … The drums on that song, at the end, are very weird. They’re very insensitive: just bash, bish, bosh, coming in after this really lovely piece with this angelic singing. I said to Robert, “I don’t know why the drums are that way on that song, but what I do know is that they are completely anti-genre.” The drumming on that song is utterly anti-genre [laughs]. It has no place in that music at all. Partly because of its unexpected nature, it sort of pulls the rug out from underneath expectation. In terms of your question about what I do, I like to pull the rug out from underneath expectation.
I think pulling the rug out from underneath expectation is one of the primary currencies of King Crimson, and so I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about King Crimson being classified as a “prog” band. This gets to the absolutely bullshit nature of … I don’t know if you would call it classification or description in music.
Categorization, there you go. I don’t want to sound insensitive or mean, but it’s lazy, and in terms of Crimson, it’s inaccurate. Look at what prog music means in 2017; it actually has a meaning, which is different from if that term were to have been used in 1970. So if you look at the history of Crimson, you move through the records: They defy easy classification and categorization. And then you move on to the early Eighties and you have a record like Discipline – I mean, Discipline defies genre completely. King Crimson doesn’t play genre, it is its own genre.
“The individual forces within the band might be predictable, but the interactions between them generate a rich, dynamic complexity.”
So you look at this incarnation of the band, and you think, “Well, they’re just sort of rehashing old material.” Well, that’s not true, either, because a version of Crimson like this has never, ever existed. So again, it’s unprecedented: It stands in the middle between the past and the future. The individual forces within the band might be predictable, but the interactions between them generate a rich, dynamic complexity. What we do is absolutely singular, and so that makes it quite exciting.
The concept behind the rejuvenated King Crimson taking up repertoire that spans decades was that everything would be treated as if it were new. One of the reasons stated for past incarnations ending was that the music became too familiar. Does your re-entry into the group in a new capacity help to prevent that?
If that’s true, then it’s the result of two things. One is simply that I’m putting in things that haven’t been there before. I’m putting in parts that we simply didn’t have enough hands to play, or I’m writing new parts for pieces that have never had parts before – which is pretty fun for me, I have to say.
I also think it’s within my approach to music that if you work with me, one of the things that I will do is I will annoy you by asking you to do something that you don’t want to do, because what you’re doing is already good enough. I like keeping things in motion. It’s difficult to generalize, because everything that I might say can be easily contradicted by a different example: I like changing things and mixing things up, and on the other hand, when we play “Starless” I play the Mellotron, and I play it exactly the same every night, because that’s the best thing for the song.
The new EP, Heroes, comes from the 2016 tour, so you wouldn’t have been there for its recording…
I actually do have a presence on the song “Heroes.” There’s a sort of magic sound, a pulsating sound that goes through the song. That’s me. Early on in rehearsals, when they said they were going to play “Heroes,” I said, “Oh, good, let me supply some context for you.” So that’s my sonic context for that song.
Is the song being retained for the 2017 tour?
Are we going to play it? We’ve rehearsed it. We’ll see what happens on the set list.
In his diary online, Fripp revealed that in honor of John Wetton, songs from his era in the band, like “Exiles” and “Fallen Angel,” have been added to the repertoire. Any other new developments that you can talk about?
There will be surprises. Unfortunately, after our first show there won’t be any more surprises. It’s sort of like the first time I saw Alien – I didn’t know anything about the film, and I was at one of the first showings, so no one knew anything. However, after that first showing, everybody knows. It’s hard to keep it secret – spoiler alert – that this thing pops out of John Hurt’s chest, which is an utterly shocking thing to see if you have no idea that it’s coming.
So there’s new material, and at least one audience will be surprised by it.
That’s exactly right. I’m afraid you’ll know everything by the evening of the 12th of June.
Fripp’s journal also revealed that there’s a new piece in the ongoing “Radical Action” series. Is there any momentum toward a new studio recording?
I will say there’s no momentum toward a studio recording. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a recording of new material, but we might be looking for a different way to achieve it.
That idea isn’t unprecedented. Much of Starless and Bible Black, from 1974, was recorded live.
Yes, Starless and Bible Black, a lot of it was recorded live, and of course you don’t really even know that until years later. A live recording gets shined up and tweaked a little bit in the studio. So we might take that approach. I don’t think Robert would hesitate to say that he doesn’t enjoy going into the studio, and certainly that’s based on past experience.
I personally believe that if we went into a studio, one, it would be good, and two, it would make a good record. But I don’t want to work hard to convince someone to do something they don’t want to do. Robert has said for years and years – and I don’t think anybody entirely believed him – that Crimson is a live band. The power of the music is to be found in performance, with the convergence of musician, music and audience, and bringing them all into relationship.
In a recent diary post Fripp stated that his goals include “redemption and completion.” Given that, and with King Crimson’s 50th anniversary looming in 2019, do you sense that there’s an end in sight?
I can’t, won’t and don’t speak for Robert. I can address the things that I understand as King Crimson, and I can address my personal views of things. I think the comments you’re citing are personal aims of his, and so in order to elaborate on those, you’d need to talk with him. As for an end in sight, well, there’s always an end in sight; the question is whether or not you take that path. The options are to end or to continue, and I think right now we are in go mode.