On the Right Track with Peter Frampton
Peter Frampton with moe.‘s Chuck Garvey (also interviewed by Randy Ray this month) at the 2006 Jammys
The arc of any musician’s career eventually seeks to land in the upper stratospheres of artistic acceptance with either one’s peers, fans, or, preferably both. But what if a musician does, indeed, reach a peak, a commercial landmark position, selling the most copies of any album, and a live one at that, on the planet? What next? Well, if one is Peter Frampton, a musician’s musician who never could have duplicated the mind-blowing commercial success of Frampton Comes Alive! in the late 1970s, one just continues creating music. To produce good work, work that stands the test of time, is to live and breathe with meaning and depth, and the guitarist/singer/songwriter has done that.
However, it has certainly not been an easy road for the British journeyman guitarist. After the colossal chart-topping success of the Comes Alive! album, Frampton’s natural good looks, sunny disposition, and charm put him into an uncomfortable position of being a pop icon and sex symbol. The musician was cast in the theatrical film based on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, along with the Bee Gees, as one of the Fab Four, and the film was a commercial, critical, and artistic flop. Further damaging Frampton’s reputation was a rushed studio album to capitalize on his new-found superstardom. The resulting I’m in You was a competent work, and sold three million copies, but also began the long slide into conflicted categorizations that plagued Frampton for many years thereafter: was he a cultural touchstone, a moment in time, a musician who created a fluke live album that sold platters in every suburb in America, or, worse, did he have his Warholian fifteen minutes of fame, and his sun had set?
To his credit, Frampton’s spirit, determination, technical chops, and pure will power endured, and the musician continued to create vital, yet not exactly popular work, for the following three decades after his 1970s heyday. In 2006, the guitarist released his first all-instrumental album, Fingerprints. The work, a remarkably vital and eclectic roundtable of styles, won the musician his first Grammy award for Best Pop Instrumental Album. The irony was subtle, yet profound—Frampton had finally gained the artistic acceptance he had always aspired to, and he did it the old fashioned way: he let his guitar, along with a host of fine and seasoned musicians, do the talking, and the truth won out.
Frampton returns in 2010 with another phenomenal album, the autobiographical Thank You Mr. Churchill. It is a relief not to have to hype it in any backhanded way—memorable, mature, and magnificient hooks beguile the ear. This time, it is an album that has all of the hallmarks of his classic studio work: sweet, sincere, and charismatic vocals, strong and multi-layered guitar acrobatics, and a solid backing band, including a spot-on vocal from his 21-year old son, Julian Frampton on the boisterous, anthemic rocker, “Road to the Sun.” The album continues the path towards complete artistic redemption for the musician who time has somehow never forgotten. Again, through will and hard work, he has continued to innovate and surprise. Jambands.com sat down with Peter Frampton on the eve of his 60th birthday to discuss that sweet redemption, his current thought process regarding his art and work, and a brief glance back at a past that has not always been forgiving, and yet he has somehow remained steady, regaining his momentum, while continuing on the right track.
Part I – You Can Go Home Again
Well then, the seasons went rolling by, and when the year came, in which by the thread that fate spins for every man he was to return home…
- The Odyssey, Homer
RR: The second album I ever bought was Frampton back in 1975. However, it was the first album I heard which showed me rock music could have melody, hooks, be smart, and have a lot of balls to it. Frampton hit me at the right time as a kid.
PF: I have to say that would be in my…if I had to choose—not that I’m really 100% happy with any album whatsoever (laughs)—that would be there in the list of favorites that I’ve done. So thank you.
RR: I’m pleased that 35 years later, I’m hit with another great Peter Frampton album. Thank You Mr. Churchill is innovative, from a musician’s standpoint, but it is also conceptual in nature with its lyrical nod towards autobiographical material.
PF: I have to say that Fingerprints [Frampton’s first—and only, to date—all-instrumental album released in 2006], and the response to it, and being awarded my first Grammy, definitely let me know I was on the right track, creatively. It is when things happen sort of by accident that I suddenly realize, well, I’m going to continue happy accidents. I try not to make stuff pre-planned; just let it happen as far as trying to chase something.
Who knew [ Frampton ] Comes Alive! was going to do what it did? And that was just supposed to be an interim album for me! (laughter) And Fingerprints was the first delving-into instrumentals for me. Again, autobiographical, in a way, by getting Hank Marvin, and The Shadows to play with me. That was like a dream; it’s sort of surreal, for me, to do that, and have people from the Stones and Pearl Jam play with me. It all came together—all those sessions—and it wasn’t planned. It just happened that all those people were able to do it. So, with this new record, I wanted to continue letting things happen.
I had been writing songs while I was writing instrumentals for Fingerprints, so there were a lot of songs finished. We had a lot to choose from to even cut. Then, I was still writing at the very end. It was definitely very enjoyable. The enjoyment I got out of Fingerprints was immense, obviously, because each track was like a whole adventure, so I continued that way of working. Everything that I did on Churchill was something that I really enjoyed. I’m just very lucky to be in that position. I don’t have any grand pressure on me to follow up a huge selling album like I did once before. (laughs) It’s all…I try to make it new territory by just letting it happen.
RR: It’s interesting because I remember when you were put in a rather large role by the media, and then they pushed you aside. Yet, you’ve always been an excellent musician, and your influential work has endured. Last year, I did a feature with the young British guitarist Davy Knowles. Obviously, you produced his latest album [Davy Knowles & Back Door Slam’s 2009 release, Coming Up for Air ]. In a sense, you are the godfather of his scene, and helped him create a powerful work.
PF: I think the job of producing is, for me, I looked at it as giving as much experience as I’ve got, utilizing that, and giving Davy the benefit of it. First and foremost, he had to have some excellent players in the studio—people that were not frightened in the studio, and had done a lot of studio work, so they can relax. He had a lot of material already. We were going to write one song together, but then he asked me to do another, so we ended up with a couple on the record that we wrote together. Obviously, I didn’t do a lot of playing on it at all. It may be all him. I got the enjoyment of playing on a couple of tracks. But, I got the players, the room, the engineer, and all the stuff behind the scenes that are so important, and then, just let [Davy] be himself. [Author’s Note: Frampton plays rhythm and lead guitar and backing vocals on “Keep On Searching,” and acoustic, rhythm and lead guitars, and backing vocals on a cover of George Harrison’s “Hear Me Lord,” a track which appeared on the ex-Beatles’s debut solo album, the sprawling triple-LP All Things Must Pass, which featured Frampton. The producer also donned the bassist hat on “You Can’t Take This Back,” which, like “Keep On Searching,” he co-wrote along with Knowles.]
Nothing to influence him more. When he needed advice, he came to me for it, but the boy knows what he wants. He’s a real talent, a real big talent. He’s going to be around probably longer than I will. (laughs) He’s going to have a very long career. He’s so talented, and working with him was just a thrill. Being able to bring Benmont Tench in [keyboardist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, as well as an esteemed studio musician], who is actually on my new record, as well (laughs), and bring in these great players, and see him smile from ear to ear because it was such a great experience for him, was also a great experience for all of us.
RR: Going to the other end of the temporal-relationship spectrum, you had a reunion with someone you had worked with long ago, including 1975’s Frampton album, producer/engineer/musician Chris Kimsey. How did that happen? How was the working relationship, after so many years, on Thank You Mr. Churchill?
PF: Well, first of all, the last question first—it goes to prove that you can go back. (laughter) And how. What a wonderful experience it was. We hooked up because I found him on Facebook. (laughs) We got phone numbers, and I got a hold of him. He just called up after a while, and said, “I’m producing this band, Very Emergency, and they need to do one more track for their album. They’re from Lexington, Kentucky. Can we come up, and use your studio? [Author’s Note: Frampton’s studio is in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio]. I said, “Absolutely. Let’s do it.” There’s the connection right there.
So they come up, they cut this track, they get me to play and sing on it a bit, and then, I experienced working with Chris again, with me on guitar, and him behind the controls.
He tends to get stuff out of me that I would either go too far on—he stops me from doing that—knowing when I’m about over, when I’m finished with something, and he also knows when I haven’t reached my potential yet. He’s very intuitive like that, so to have someone push me just that little bit further than I would have gone, and then, I go, “WOW—this was just around the corner, and I had given up!” It was very obvious that we always had…it reminded me of what a phenomenal working relationship, as well as friends…to spend four months with just one other person, and it’s a guy. (laughter) There are very few people that you can do that with. It was wonderful. Chris is just tremendous. He’s got wonderful ideas; we have the same outlook on sound, so it’s great. He’s a great all around engineer/producer.