“To make a film about King Crimson you really have to engage with Robert Fripp and that’s a very complicated process,” says Toby Amies as we sit down after the Sheffield Doc/Fest European Premiere of his new documentary In The Court Of The Crimson King.
The film captures the band 50 years on from their formation and on tour, with Amies following them around up close and personal, often seemingly to their great frustration and exasperation. Despite the current expansive line-up being based around three drummers, musically everything is in complete orbit around Fripp. His influence and power over the band hovers ghost-like in almost every scene, with members constantly looking over their shoulder before talking to camera in case he’s in ear shot.
The “complicated process” that Amies speaks of is evident throughout, as Fripp glides endlessly between being deeply funny, impatient, grumpy, pithy, indifferent, angry and various other states, in between his rigorous daily four to five hour guitar practise routine. His complexities, contradictions and complicatedness make being in his company endlessly absorbing, curious and enticing but you are also left constantly trying to figure him out. However, Amies realised very quickly that this wasn’t the healthiest way to approach Fripp and the film, “It’s not for me, or my sanity, to try and work out what’s going on in Robert’s head,” he says. “I think that it’s wise not to try and spend time doing that.”
The result is a film that is much, much funnier than you may associate with the deeply serious prog titans who strive for streamlined, note-perfect, deeply complex – and often exhaustively indulgent – music. There’s almost a whiff of the Metallica documentary Some Kind Of Monster about it, in that you have a fascinating and deeply funny study of the dynamics of an ageing group, as many members – both past and present – wrestle with their position in the band, and ultimately with Fripp.
There’s a deft balancing act in the film between sandpaper dry humour and genuine emotional weight, with themes of time, death and mortality all ever-present throughout. As well as plentiful splattering’s of Fripp’s self-described “cosmic horseshit” and plenty of bone-shaking riffs, and noodling galore, from live shows as many diehard fans look close to combustion as they watch on. Here Aimes talks more about the process of making a film with the most challenging interview subject he’s ever dealt with.
So Robert Fripp commissioned this film himself – what did he want to achieve in doing so?
Toby Amies: He says to better understand the nature of King Crimson. I also think that they were aware there was a demand for a film about them and they’d been approached by a lot of the usual suspects but Robert referred to the classic BBC Four nostalgic music documentary as seeing “the dead brought forth, but they remain unburied”. There’s no sophisticated play on time in the film in the way there’s this sophisticated play on time in their music but I was acutely aware of the importance of time as a theme of the movie and this idea of being present in the moment. I wanted the audience’s experience to be immediate and I also wanted, as much as I possibly could, to have the old timers talking about their experience as if it were present. So you’re not looking at King Crimson as a timeline, you’re looking at King Crimson as an experience.
Did he leave you to your own devices when making the film?
TA: Absolutely. One of the things that he said to me is that King Crimson is not a band, it’s a way of doing things. Although I am such a chaotic individual in terms of my own practice that there was almost a near collision with those two approaches.
Do you think he intentionally sought a bit of chaos out in you?
TA: It would not surprise me. I can’t work out what’s going on in his head but he’d seen my first film, The Man Whose Mind Exploded, and my family is from the same town, so my dad and he were basically the most interesting old men on the street. So I met him through that. I was not a King Crimson fan and that’s one of the reasons I got the gig because I didn’t know anything about them – he wanted to introduce King Crimson to people who don’t know them. There were a couple of times I was like, “So I’m thinking I’m doing this, do you think it’s a good idea?” And he was like, “I don’t know, you’re in charge.” I made two versions of the film and the only thing he said with the first version is he wished it had a bit more music because I’d focused on personalities and that was a fair critique. On the second version, I still think it could have more music, although we do have an entire concert that we recorded so that’s all available if people really wanted more music.
How would you describe your relationship with him making this?
TA: I’ve known Robert socially for quite a long time now, and so it was something of a shock to see how different our interactions were when I was filming him on tour – he was being very distant, possibly even antagonistic. Initially I was very frustrated because I felt like I was being denied access to the subject matter but simultaneously it made me all the more aware of how seriously everybody involved took the work. The advantage of my warts and all style of filmmaking as well is that those times where there was conflict between Robert and the bands’ need to concentrate on their work, and my professional need to gather material for the film, is that conflict was recorded, and it gives the audience a strong idea of how much is at stake.
What went wrong with the first version?
TA: The initial cut of the film was all of the good bits I had filmed in a row that Gavin Harrison [King Crimson drummer] called “a patchwork quilt of shite”. It was joyous and eccentric but needed to be more coherent to be watchable so I remade the film from the ground up. The original editor had to go off and work on another film and then I spoke to the editor, Ollie Huddleston, and we started to change some things and I was like, “Let’s just fucking remake it. Let’s just do it properly and watch everything again.” So then I had to write a begging letter for more money. But Robert also then agreed to do a sit-down interview, which we did for eight hours over three days.
How was that?
TA: I’ve interviewed the Sex Pistols, Pavarotti, Tricky on LSD and Liam Gallagher at his most intimidating, but I would say that Robert is probably the most difficult interview subject I have ever had. Also one of the most worthwhile. It’s not so much that anything was off-limits, more that there was a tremendous amount of ground to cover. I’m not sure either of us particularly enjoyed speaking to each other for eight hours, but the important thing is that we gained the material necessary to finish the film, and it opened a door to the ‘otherness’ of King Crimson, the metaphysical nature of the band or at least some of the ideas that underpin it. And that is to me at least, a lot more interesting than finding out what pedal was being used on what track.
He seems to command a certain amount of fear in people around him. Is this healthy? Does it add to the band or can it result in unnecessary cruelness?
TA: This is something that the film explores too, the issue of whether you still bear responsibility to someone if they drive themselves crazy in the process of doing the best that they can in the space you have created for them to work in. My sense is Robert doesn’t really tell anybody what to do per se, rather he expects them to bring their best endeavours to King Crimson, so you could think that any negative repercussions are more to do with an individual’s personal circumstances rather than any instructions they have received. How much responsibility he bears for creating that space is for the audience to decide.
I got the sense that he holds practicing and playing as quite a sacred thing, and he mentions at one point that your presence impacted on his playing. Did you get the sense why that was?
TA: One of the advantages of the filmmaking process is that you can record this material and present it in a way that leaves it up to the audience to decide. I’m not interested in making films that tell the audience what to think, I’d rather present them with versions of the dilemmas I faced in working with King Crimson, in the hope that it might go some way to giving them a sense of what it might be like to be in King Crimson. But I think it’s fair to say that is what matters for all of the band on tour is the music, and everyone is keen to avoid encountering obstructions that get in the way of the music, whether that is some arse with a camera asking them irritating questions or someone’s ego, or a hangover. What struck me about all of the people in this band, is that they had been in the game long enough to know what was important. And that is the music.
Having spent time with Robert, and band members past and present, why do you think he has burned through so many members? Seeing all these bruised people he’s left in his wake, you lean towards viewing him as kind of like the Mark E Smith of the prog world.
TA: When I’ve seen MES walk round on stage fucking with the settings on people’s amps it always seemed like an active malice. I didn’t see any of that in my King Crimson experience but Bill Bruford did describe Robert as a cross between Josef Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi and the Marquis de Sade. There are some comparisons for sure especially with the changing membership but with the band still being the band. Though I think the better analogy for the King Crimson personnel policy is more akin to Trigger’s Broom. Which was one of the early title ideas I had for the film.
Speaking of other titles, the film was initially called Cosmic FuKc right?
TA: Cosmic FuKC, Prog Rock Pond Scum Set to Bum You Out was a more experimental or experiential attempt at describing King Crimson. Cosmic Fuck was the title of a San Francisco sex cult someone on Instagram told me they’d started based on a tattoo of the star of my previous documentary had.
Are you much more of a fan of the band now? If so, what changed that for you?
TA: I am a huge fan of the live performances I witnessed. Heavier than Metallica or even Loop at their peaks but with an infernal foundation that feels like a deep deep tissue massage of the soul. It’s unique in my experience but the closest analogy would be with a magnificently performed opera or a Swans show.
Do you get the sense Robert is happy with the film? Or at least has any further grasp on the meaning of the band?
TA: He has said publicly that it doesn’t tell him what King Crimson is, but I am not sure if that is for anyone to define and as King Crimson fans know better than anyone, prog is a genre with genre-specific rules and boundaries, whereas change is inherent in the idea of progression. It’s important to state that Robert loathes the term prog and he dislikes the term progressive. But at least with the term progressive is that the idea of change is implicit. The irony of calling bands prog is you know exactly what they fucking are – and they are almost literally pickled in aspic. So that notion of change is really significant. One of the fascinating things about the band is that it is both consistent and in a state of flux. Good luck defining that.