Tonight at the Lincoln Theater, legendary artist Peter Frampton melds his new inspirations with a time worn, yet still relevant question to his work: “Do you feel like [I] do?” Well, keep reading and let him do what he’s done so well for so long. and “Show [You] The Way.”
As hippie dippy London emerged from the the swinging sixties to embrace the arena rock era of the 1970s, one of the first major “new” champions of that sound and expectation was Peter Frampton. A gifted singer-songwriter, his guitar chops brought him to the table, but with co-signs from everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and more, he soon joined the ranks of those who grew into a solo superstars in one of rock’s most iconic eras.
Fifteen albums and nearly five decades into his rock and roll career, Frampton is a rock and roll survivor, having buffered the blows of a life spent as a superstar when superstar excess equaled chart success. Even further, he still finds a way to remain timeless as a craftsman, honest as an artist and pure in his creative vision so many years later. While you may know him for his 1977 mega-smash album Frampton Comes Alive (now at nearly ten million US album sold), knowing him as well for his most recent release Hummingbird in a Box is important, too.
Framptons’s latest is a more low-fidelity offering done in partnership with the Cincinnati Ballet. However, as always, the songwriting remains personal, yet universal, with impeccable musicianship still key to the overall excellence of the music’s presentation. I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Frampton and examine his legacy from many angles, and contemplate the nature of his current, yet somehow still evolving, creative process. Enjoy!
Regarding your new album Hummingbird in a Box, you’re working with the Cincinnati Ballet. How did this come about, and how was the creative process involved?
Well, it started when the Cincinnati Ballet asked if they could choreograph to four of my recorded songs from Fingerprints, my instrumental album. I said absolutely, and of course I wasn’t in town when they performed that piece, which was a pas de deux (a one woman one man dance). However, I did see a video of it, and I was floored by it. I’d never seen good choreography to my music. Victoria Morgan (the Creative Director of the Cincinnati Ballet) asked if I’d be down to watch them rehearse, which I was, and I got see ballet very close and was intrigued by it. Then, she popped the question if I would ever consider playing live onstage with the ballet, [me at the back and them at the front] the ballet choosing from a few songs for me to play live, and then I’d play them.
It was something so completely different for me, the thought of doing something like that. There are three acts to every ballet, which are 25-30 minutes long. She originally wanted to break the music up into three sets. I countered with, well, if there are three acts, why don’t we do two old songs and one completely new one. She was all over that idea.
I’m always looking for something new, I never rest on my laurels, and I’m always looking forward to what I can do next. [Recording with a ballet] was a wonderful thing for me to get my teeth into.
Hummingbird in a Box is the name of an album and one of the album’s singles. It’s certainly a unique name, and I wanted to inquire as to its significance?
Hummingbird in a Box came from my childhood. Just about every Sunday, my parents would go around to my grandparents. One day when I was very young, my grandfather pulled down this box from Asia – where he had been in the first and second World War in the British Navy – I think it was a Chinese box, that he put down on the table. He said, “open it up.” I went to try and open it, and it was one of those trick boxes, where it looks like there’s no way to open it. I was five or six-years old, and I said, “I don’t know [how to open this box]. I can’t do it. Show me [how]?”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfbs95ZnKmM
There was a secret way to open the box involving sliding a panel up and doing all of this and that, it was very clever how it was set up. When [the box] was opened, there was a little drawer that came out, and he had collected a stuffed hummingbird that was the prize. I always remember him saying, that, “if you make the right moves, you’ll get to see the hummingbird.” I’ve always thought of that as a life lesson, because there are no rules or instruction manual to life, just like how you had to find your way how to open this box. If you make the right moves, you’ll do well.
I mentioned this story to my co-writer of 15 years, Gordon Kennedy, and while we were having a cup of coffee [at the start of a songwriting session], that story came up, and it seemed to be great premise to base that particular song around.
Hummingbird in a Box is your 15th album. After that many albums over such a lengthy career, to what do you owe your continued creative motivation and well-respected output?
I think it’s because I always want to wake up and say, “I’m doing something today that I couldn’t do yesterday.” It’s inherent in my genetic makeup to always want to do something new. It has to do with self-confidence and knowing that you’re not going through the motions. You want to improve yourself and reinvent yourself. I think that’s what inspires me. I never give up. I’ve been through some ups and downs in my career obviously. No career is a straight line graph upwards. The more times you fail, the more inspiration you get out of that.
Sometimes, when writing songs, I’ll write stuff that’s not doing anything for me. I’ll wait for that one piece to come along, but you don’t know what it is. You can wake up and say “today I’m going to write a great piece of music. ” However, I can write pieces of music, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them all great. It has to feel good and feel like new territory for me, and that’s what keeps me going.
Also on Hummingbird in a Box, there’s a song called “Norman Wisdom” that makes allusions to “hip-hop” and “rap.” I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on new music and new methods for musical interpretation. Long before the era of auto-tune, you used a talkbox in the 70s, so I know you’re very well-acquainted with being progressive. Thoughts about the evolution of music and how it effects your own work?
One thing that annoys me is that everyone gets pigeonholed, and not allowed to break out and cross into another area. I find that when people make blanket statements like, “Oh, EDM is here! That is the way! No more guitars!,” [ I want to say] there will always be guitars!” I obviously listen to everything new that’s out there, and I like some of it, but as with everything, there’s some good and bad. I can usually find something good in every different style of music, because I love music. I just find it very hard to hear people say, “that’s dead, now we’re onto something new” and the old is forgotten. I think America’s very good at that.
A perfect example of that was in the 60s when the American blues artists who had invented the genre had been forgotten. By that point, America had sort of forgotten about the blues, until the British blues guys came over and [given that] they were so inspired by the American roots blues that they came over to America and reinvigorated it. B.B. King is the first one to say that if it weren’t for Eric Clapton that I wouldn’t have a career. [John Mayall and] the Blues Breakers and Cream, that sort of stuff made people in America look at their own heritage. Jazz and blues are the basis of all music that we English and everyone else plays. It’s all derived from that somewhat. You know, rockabilly, skiffle in England all of that came and made sort of what is happening today.
Given that you’re the namesake of the now 37-year old iconic live album Frampton Comes Alive, many people associate your career with live performance. I wanted to ask about your thoughts about performing some of that same famous material live now, as opposed to then. A lot of singer-songwriters talk about living both in and with older material, and how the meaning occasionally changes over the years as experiences occur. Is this true of songs like “Show Me The Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way?”
Yes, the feeling changes. The thing about both of those songs that you mentioned is that they’re universal. Sometimes people don’t get the same meaning from the songs that the author did. Bono said to me when U2 were first forming that they did “Show Me The Way.” He loved it because he thought it was a prayer! It’s actually a love song, so I thought that was amazing!
The meanings of the songs don’t stay the same, they change as time moves along. The way we play and perform them change slightly each year, too. They’re lyrically the same, and I told a live crowd a few nights ago onstage that the reason why I enjoy doing them so much is that I see the enjoyment on people’s faces as they sing along. The songs relate to a specific time in people’s lives – I hope it’s a good time! – when they first heard that song, and it transports them right back there.
Some people got married to “Baby, I Love Your Way.” That was the song of their marriage. I’m very lucky that those two songs mean so much to so many people.
I’m a huge 70s rock fanatic, and interviewing you is really exciting. I wanted to ask about the nature of the era back then, with so many great artists not in bands or between bands, playing as session musicians, or otherwise just open to collaboration. What was it like to be in that mix, and what was it like to have such a wide swath of great musicians available? For instance, you had Ringo Starr (who was fresh from The Beatles), as well as frequent Beatles collaborator and solo star in his own right Billy Preston on your debut album? Must’ve been amazing times, right?
It was an incredible period for me and everyone who was a musician during that time. I was very lucky that I was known as a great musician and good guitar player at a very young age. The first person that discovered me was Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, so instantly, when I was 14, I was hanging out with him and the Stones and meeting Jimi Hendrix. It was “swinging London” and Carnaby Street, the most creative place in the world at that time. It was a very small community. Therefore, we did bump into each other a lot, we did play with each other a lot, and even though it was a small circle, it was very creative.
[As a member of the community], I had the ability to play on George Harrison’s (post-Beatles solo album) All Things Must Pass with Ringo, and [bassist] Klaus Voorman. I was able to go around with my little notepad and get a few numbers and, when I asked them to play on my record, they all turned up! It was phenomenal! It was a great period.
My son Julian is a very good musician and I’m working on some tracks with him right now. He said, “Dad, I wish I could’ve been born back then when you were really at it, it must have been so incredible.” Looking back, it was. It was a very special time and I’m glad I got to be there.
Finally, who are some of the modern artists that influence you the most, or some of the artists (from any era) that you find yourself constantly turning to for timeless qualities or inspiration?
There’s so many different people. One of the most creative people that I really admire, – mainly because he reminds me of Humble Pie (The English band that had Frampton as a lead vocalist from 1969-1972) – is Chris Cornell, whatever he does I love. That sort of music for me is very inspiring. But then again, I always go back to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which is the best jazz album ever made. I also love Aretha Franklin. As far as today, there’s so much, but I’m still listening to the old stuff. I never get tired of that.