Peter Frampton - The Indispensible Guitar Man

Rock Guitar icon Peter Frampton’s new album starts with the title track, a musical homage to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressing Frampton’s gratitude for his father surviving World War II. No Frampton the elder, no Peter Frampton. spoke with Peter about the new album, guitars, recording, songwriting and the music business. How did you pick the 11 songs that ended up on the record?

Frampton: It’s a gut feeling that I’ve got for the stuff that I choose.  Once I’d written ‘Thank You Mr. Churchill”, it became the first defining track of what this album was going to be about. It ended up directing the rest of the material lyrically  - and in an autobiographical and a “how the world affects me” direction.

It’s not always easy to choose which ones. We let go by the wayside the actual 13th track -there are 11 tracks and 2 bonus tracks - because I got the call saying “We need another bonus track.” The way things are promoted these days with different vendors, one vendor might need something special and you have to make sure everybody gets something a little unique.

I said,” Everyone’s gone home, (engineer) Chris Kimsey’s left… but I do have one track that we had decided was not going to work, called ‘Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele’”...which is now one of my favorite tracks on the record! It just had drums, bass and a vocal on it, so I finished it off myself and mixed it myself and presented it as the second bonus track. When everyone listened to it, they agreed that it was a strong track and it made it on the album. Sometimes things happen for a reason. I was watching an old “Midnight Special” clip of “Show Me The Way” and was struck by how big the sound was for a 4-piece. How did you get such a big sound?

Frampton: I don’t know! (laughs).  I’ve always realized that things tend to sound “bigger” with less. Even though now we have a 5-piece because I enjoy playing with two guitars, and even three guitars, bass and drums because (keyboardist) Rob (Arthur) plays guitar as well. The more pieces you have, the more important the arrangement of not where the song goes, but where the parts go. It’s all about leaving the spaces. What do you think, as a musician, of the rise of social networks like Facebook?

Frampton: I think it’s a great thing, actually, because it puts the power back in the musician or the artist. I’m coming up to 130,000 people (fans on my Facebook page). And it is me. A lot of people don’t believe it’s me, which makes me laugh!

I believe it’s the time of the musician again. Record sales are way down, but I love to play live. People will always want to see live music. I’m able to reach a lot of people every day and say “Hey, I’m playing so-and-so if you want to come and see me”.  Before I had to rely on advertising by the promoter. There’s no excuses anymore…the excuse will be mine because I’ve got my hand on any number of people that I can contact and say “Look”.

There are people on my Facebook page that say, “Wow, I’m so thrilled to see you’re back!” That makes my point: it’s awareness. If (in the past) you didn’t have a big hit album, your promotional budget wasn’t that much because they didn’t expect to make that much money on you. So now, I can do that for nothing, just by a ”click”, you know? We’re in what could be called the Golden Age of Home Recording. How do you use programs like Garageband to write?

Frampton: I’ve used Garageband for demos and I’ve also used it just to “test” a solo… and then realized I can’t do it (during the actual recording session) as good because the passion was there at that moment in time, so I lifted it and put it in Nuendo. I get quite a bit of the pre-production done and I write with a click track so that as I’m writing, I’m actually making the template of the song. I’ve yet to do that on a plane, (laughs) but I’ve edited and mixed on a plane through headphones. I’ve saved so much time by doing it on my laptop in Cubase wherever I was…at the gate waiting for a plane, in the back lounge of the bus. It costs so little to make really good sounding music these days, as long as you’ve got a decent mic and recording at 24 bit. Many of the great Rock guitar players of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s came from the UK. What was it about the musical climate in Britain that produced such individual and unique styles?

Frampton: I think my generation of players had so little radio in England, but all we wanted to listen to was American Blues, R&B and early Rock. Everything American is what we wanted to hear. They were trying to feed us this insipid Pop music that we just didn’t like. Our generation was the first where we didn’t have a Vietnam. We were the first British generation in at least 30 years that didn’t have to go to war. We were able to get into stuff like music and there was something so seductive about American Blues and R&B and Jazz. It was more of an underground thing that was something we all looked for and we couldn’t find on the radio. We came back to America, playing American-type music the British way. Some historians credit the British Invasion with saving Rock and Roll from being the “fad” it was supposed to be. 

Frampton: B.B King said that without Eric Clapton and others he wouldn’t have a career. The British Invasion reminded Americans where their music came from: They invented Jazz; they created the Blues… this beautiful, beautiful music… because of the growing pains of this country. We were just there to pick up the pieces and reminding you not to forget about it! How do you incorporate your Jazz/Django  influences into Rock?

Frampton: Anybody whose passion is a specific instrument will then go, in the very early days of learning it, and try to listen to as many different styles as possible. From Segovia to Chet Atkins, Django Rheinhardt to all the Kings – B.B., Albert, Freddie, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass.  George Benson when he was very young; when he played with Jack McDuff. All these different players influenced me.

I think you start off learning their licks or trying to…you never sound like them because you’re not them. You can play it your way. After you’ve taken in so much, what I hoped was that one day I’d wake up and I wouldn’t be playing bits from here and bits from there…I’d be playing me. Your vocabulary gets to a certain point and listening to all these people gives you a more varied vocabulary when you’re coming to write or when you’re coming to solo.

For example, in Humble Pie, we all influenced each other incredibly in that band. I learned so much from Steve Marriot. He taught me diversity in music – what he was into: Country, Blues, Gospel, he loved it all. Just don’t be closed-minded and one day you’ll wake up and have a style that is your own. Your son Julian sings lead on “Road to the Sun”. Does he keep you up with the modern bands?

Frampton: Oh, yeah. He reminded me to get the new Alice in Chains and I’m so pleased I did. It’s so weird when we both discover bands separately. Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Audioslave, we’re fans of together. He keeps me up to date and my daughter Mia, who’s 14, does too. I love new bands because of the angst and the emotion. When we mature musically we get more refined and sometimes it disappears, that “rough edge”. Like in Humble Pie – we had rough edges. Your acoustic playing is as developed as your electric playing. Who were your influences there?

Frampton: The most exciting player for me is Leo Kottke. I cannot play like him, but he definitely got me into playing bottleneck on acoustic. The first record with the armadillos on it– that’ll slay ya! I might not be able to approach that, but it all goes in and is inspiring. What is your recording amp set-up?

Frampton: I use my stage Marshall head for solos and I also use a vintage JTM 45. I’ve got a Vox AC-15 that I love using and a pair of Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverbs. My all-time favorite amp at the moment is the tweed Deluxe. I have two ‘59s.  That amp can just about handle anything. You turn it down and it’s clean and it’s beautiful. You turn it up over “3”and it starts to distort in a most beautiful way. There’s something about those old amps. What’s your recording chain?

Frampton: An SM-57 into a Neve 1073 into a UA 1176. I will also use a Telefunken U-47 re-issue that is amazing. I might use that or a vintage Neumann U-67.

On that tweed Deluxe, I’ll have the 57 off-axis, and then I might have the 67 or the 47 about 18 inches or two feet away. Moving them around so you don’t get phasing problems, a half-inch here or there makes a huge difference. I have room mics set up all the time, two more Neumanns into an 1178, which is a stereo 1176.  I now have two of them because I love them so much, they’re so warm sounding.

 Sound is my passion. My playing is my passion, but the sound of my playing is the ultimate passion. It’s always been that way for me. I suppose it’s inspirational itself, the sound of your tone.

Frampton: Sound is the inspiring part, and it will make me play, that’s where the inspiration starts. Sometimes I’ll spend all day getting the right sound for a part. I’ve gotten to where I’m so tired getting the sound, because I’m such a perfectionist; I’ll leave it and come back tomorrow when I’m fresh. Now I can spend all the time I want playing it…and it usually happens in the first few takes. Preparation for that sound  -which creates the inspiration - is the most important part. What do you think of digital amp modelers? Have you used them?

Frampton: I have…when I have something that I want to do incredibly quickly, just to see if it works. And they are incredibly good, I have to say. There are some that are brilliant. Once you start getting a sound you like, I’d find it very difficult to say, “OK, well now I want to re-create that”, because the vibe is gone.  That’s why I’ll use it if it’s quick. Obviously if I feel the sound isn’t great I’ll re-do it. If it sounds good enough, I’ll use it, because that sound created the inspiration. Generally, I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy. How did you get the choppy stutter sound on  “Asleep At The Wheel”?

Frampton: I used the Gig-FX Pro-Chop. It’s MIDI controllable, so you can have it linked to a click. We didn’t do the track to a click, so I just fed it to where I wanted it. I just liked the way it’s not quite in and it has an un-nerving sound to it when that chop comes in. What are you using to get the varied electric tones on the instrumental track “Suite: Libertad”?

Frampton: The close stuff is the tweed Deluxe in the control room, very “in your face”. I believe the bluesy sound is a small Marshall, the 20-watt reissue head into a 4x12 cabinet. I was going for more of a “Bluesbreakers” sound with a little bit more room. That’s my ’60 re-issue Les Paul, the close sound is my Peter Frampton Signature Les Paul Custom. It sounds like you are using an open tuning on “Restraint” Is that a Drop-D?

Frampton: It’s both a High and Low E dropped to D. If you were to drop the A string to G, it’s be like an open G tuning. That’s how that ominous riff came, from noodling around in that tuning. At what point do your co-writers, John Regan or Gordon Kennedy, get involved in the song writing process?

Frampton: All different stages. I had the skeletal idea, musically, for “Thank You Mr. Churchill”, not even melodically. Then we got together and worked on it. I said to John, “I woke up the other day, I thought, well, Mom and Dad are gone now...I wonder what would have happened if Dad hadn’t come back from Germany?”. Obviously, I wouldn’t be here and a lot of things would be different. That’s why I used Churchill to sort of signify that period and how lucky people are that it ended up the way it did.

With Gordon, usually I go to Nashville or he comes up and we sit down for three days and talk over what’s on my mind or what I really want to talk about. Once we have an idea lyrically, we’ll go through some of our little noodles and we might marry some ideas together. Or we might just be playing and something will pop out. It’s very rare - with both John and Gordon - that we come to the end of the day and we don’t have something we really like.

My confidence level in my writing goes up and down, and has done over the years. I’ve got my writing legs back to where I want to be. I think my originality is something I forgot to treasure.  Over the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve gotten back on track. Do you edit as you go when you write or do you let it all come out and edit later?

Frampton: I tend to edit as I go. I like to see it progress, like building blocks, lyrically. In general, I just pick and choose which bits I really like. I’m a musician first, I enjoy writing lyrics, but I also like working with guys like Gordon, who’s a wordsmith…and my son, who’s got it all over me lyrically. Do you consciously plan your writing around your live shows?

Frampton: I don’t think so….it kind of just happens. I let things come freely, rather than plan what I want. The only thing involved with the live show on this record is on “I Want It Back”. I did an ad-lib guitar piece solo right before “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and I started ending it up with this riff, and every time I stopped the riff, the crowd would scream. In between legs of the tour I turned it into a song, and in fact we played it out before it was recorded. The Funk Brothers appear on “ The Invisible Man” What was that like?

Frampton: I was asked to induct the Funk Brothers, past and living, into the Musician’s Hall of Fame in Nashville and I got to meet them. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. I am THE biggest Motown fan. I’ve dissected those tracks over and over again. To actually have them in the studio was the same for me as playing with Hank Marvin and the Shadows: this is the reason I am doing what I’m doing, because of these people.

Once I got to play with them at the Hall of Fame show, Gordon and I decided to write a song dedicated to them called “The Invisible Man”, because that’s what they felt they were. Until Berry Gordy allowed the backing tracks for the “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” DVD, all we had were bootlegs of these backing tracks. Once that movie came out, the public became more aware of them.

We cut in John McBride’s Blackbird Studio in Nashville. We filmed it, so it will be able to see all these people smiling from ear to ear. It was a phenomenal day, a day that can never be repeated. I’m very, very lucky that they wanted to do it. It was Detroit Day in Nashville.

Shortly after this interview, Peter lost many of his stage guitars and amps in the Nashville flood.  Our thoughts go out to him and his band and crew as thye re-equip for the summer tour for “Thank You, Mr. Churchill.

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