Interview: Peter Frampton


There’s an element of truth to Wayne Campbell’s declaration in the movie Wayne’s World 2 that “Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive! If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.”

Frampton Comes Alive! was the smash live double album released by Peter Frampton in 1976, which sold millions of copies and established him as a superstar. And while that album was the high point of his career, he has also had other notable successes – before “coming alive”, he had hit songs with The Herd (the UK hit “I Don’t Want Our Loving to Die”) and Humble Pie (“Natural Born Bugie”, “I Don’t Need No Doctor”), and afterwards he released the Grammy Award winning instrumental album Fingerprints and has been on many successful tours, including the Frampton Comes Alive! 35 tour that stopped at the Santa Barbara Bowl in 2011.

This interview was for Frampton’s concert on 6/7/15 at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara for the 5th Annual Notes For Notes Benefit Concert. Notes For Notes has the admirable mission of providing musical instruments, instruction, and facilities to young musicians. It was done by phone on 5/15/15. (L. Paul Mann photo)

Jeff Moehlis: I enjoyed seeing you in Santa Barbara a few years ago when you were here for the Frampton Comes Alive! 35 concert.

Peter Frampton: Thank you. Yeah, that was a wonderful tour.

JM: Was it fun for you to revisit that album?

PF: Yes. It was the first time I had done it in its entirety, ever I think, because even in the days right after [Frampton] Comes Alive!, we never did the whole thing. We left out a number here or there. But we just about did everything, I think, on FCA 35. It was something that I wanted to do, and I also wanted to not just do that. That’s when we did [Frampton Comes Alive!] first, and we just went straight through and did another hour and fifteen of everything that I wanted to do after that. So there was stuff from Fingerprints, and the best of the other records. They got what they wanted, the audience, and then I brought them up to date. I thought it was a very nice way of doing it, and it was a great success.

JM: And a couple of cool covers at the end, I remember.

PF: Yes, exactly. “Black Hole Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – they’ve become big numbers, almost like my own numbers now.

JM: Do you have any thoughts on what the magic ingredients were that made that album strike such a chord with the public?

PF: It’s something that you can’t see, smell, or feel [laughs]. Who knows, really? I can only surmise and put my best effort into thinking about what it could be. I’ve had some time to think about that – like about 40 years.

I think there’s something that happens for me and for a lot of performers, that when they go onstage there’s something that they can’t bring to the studio, and they can’t bring to the living room when they’re writing. So you’ve got the goods – when you’ve got some great songs and you’ve got a great band – then you go and you play them, a lot of acts will want to play them exactly like the record every night. Which I think is great for them, boring for me. So Comes Alive! was that way that one night. The solos were always different every night, and the lengths of the songs changed depending on how inspired was all are, when we play off each other. It’s more of the ad lib side that I enjoy.

But on top of that, I think there’s something in the communication that I have with an audience, that you can hear it and feel it when you listen to that record. There’s something about that record that when you put it on it makes you smile. And I don’t know why. I just get such such a high, and always have, from playing in front of an audience. It’s a privilege to be able to do that. And that they love it so much, it’s a feedback thing. It feeds back more and more and more and more as the show builds. It’s that indefinable thing. I remember when I played it for a friend of mine before it came out, and I just watched him smile as he was listening. He said, “This is really good!” And then a lot of other people said that [laughs]. Then more people than I could ever dream said, “Oh, this is pretty good!”

The answer is, I have no idea [laughs]. I have no idea what it is, but it’s definitely something where my enjoyment shines through. I think that’s what it is.

JM: What can people look forward to at your upcoming concert at your upcoming concert at the Lobero Theatre?

PF: That’s for Seymour [Duncan]’s Notes For Notes. We’ve been trying to do this – he’s asked us every year – and we’d already booked the date. So we told him this time, “Tell us when it is, and we’ll book around you.” So it’s his fifth anniversary. Seymour and I have worked together for many years on pick-ups. I’ve got them in loads of my guitars, and he’s a dear friend. It’s funny because he started his life in Cincinnati, and I lived up there for 18 years. He started on local TV up there in Cincinnati, and ended up being one of the world’s greatest pick-up makers. It’s just been overdue, and I’ve been looking forward to doing this for him for so long. We’re finally doing it. And he’ll come up and jam with us and play guitar with me, and that’ll be so much fun because he’s a dear friend.

JM: On a sad note, we just learned that B.B. King passed away yesterday. I was wondering if you’d be willing to say a little bit about his influence on you as a guitarist and a musician, and what it was like touring with him a few years ago?

PF: In fact, we did another date with him last year as well, so I saw him again last year, very recently. Well, first of all, he’s The King. A huge influence on so many guitar players, and changed guitar playing, I think. And then with his contemporaries, you know, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Albert King, all the Kings, it was something that is undeniably delicious to listen to, his style. It’s very seductive. The blues is. You couldn’t help but be drawn in by his style, which was sparingly great. It’s not how many notes, it’s the notes he chose to play, and how he sang with those notes as well. He definitely was The King of the Blues, and no one will deny that.

And on top of that, when I first had the idea of the Guitar Circus, I was talking with my manager and he said, “What’s the idea?” I said, “We want to get as many guitar players on the stage as possible in every city. Different players everywhere.” He said, “Who would you like to have on the bill?” I said, “Well, obviously it’s not possible, but I’d love to play with someone like B.B. King, but that’s not going to happen.” So he called me up the next day and said, “Guess who said he can’t wait to do it?” I said, “You’re kidding me.” B.B. King was the first person that said yes. We didn’t know if anybody would be interested, and he was the first person to call back and said, “I’m in. Let me do it.”

So I got to jam with B.B. for over a month, every night he would have me come on for “The Thrill is Gone” and sit down with him. It was enormous, and the crowd loved it, and they loved him. And he was 87 or 88 then. So it was an honor to say the least. I’m sure that Eric Clapton has a few words to say today, too. I’d love to hear what he has to say.

JM: One of your signatures is the talk box. What inspired you to incorporate that into your music?

PF: Well, it all goes back to a little session I did once, well, for a couple of weeks of sessions at Abbey Road with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass. I was sitting next to George playing acoustic on about five or six tracks of that album. Then one day he said [PF adopts a pretty authentic George Harrison voice], “We’ve got this pedal steel player coming in from Nashville, Pete Drake. He played on Bob’s album, you know, Nashville Skyline.” I said, “Oh really? That’s fantastic!”

So Pete Drake comes in, sets up like three feet from me, facing me, and plugs in his pedal steel. We did a track – a real nice guy – and then in a slow moment between tracks he got out this little box, put it up on his pedal steel, and then said, “Check this out.” He plugged this pipe into it and plugged something into something, and put the pipe in his mouth and all of a sudden the pedal steel started talking to me and singing to me. I was floored. And I’d heard that kind of sound over the years on various radio stations, they’d use something similar. But this was much more analog, it was much more human sounding. And I said, “I gotta get one of those [laughs]. Where do I get them?” He said, “Well, I made this one. I don’t know.”

So anyway, rumor has it that he gave it to me and I used it on “Show Me the Way”, but that’s not how it happened. I went and found one that Jim Dunlop was making, a slightly more road-worthy one. In fact – we spoke about this a few months ago, Joe Walsh and I – that one that I saw Pete Drake use in Abbey Road, he did lend to Joe to do “Rocky Mountain Way”. Which I still, to this day, think is the definitive talk box solo, and I bow down to Joe for that. But we hold the candle, I guess now that we’ve lost Pete and the guy that used to do the synth with it [Roger Troutman], it’s just the two of us that hold the candle for the talk box as far as using it on solos and stuff. Richie Sambora’s obviously used in on riffs and things. I mean, everyone’s had a go at it, even Steely Dan [laughs]. Eric Clapton has. But I guess we’re the people that are known for it, and I feel lucky about that.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

PF: My advice is always the same. Do not prostitute your vision. It’s more and more difficult to do that these days. Don’t let someone change your music to be like somebody else, because it’s the unique music that breaks through in the end. It might take a little longer, but it will if you get all the breaks. There’s a lot of other things that come into play, obviously, but don’t let them change you. If you’ve got a style, and the record company or the streaming company [laughs] or whoever it is, someone that backs you and gives you money to go and make it in your garage, if they go, “Why don’t you have a song like Sam Smith?” “No, no, I’m not going to do that.” Don’t do it. Just stay true to what you feel is the best thing that you do, and what you enjoy playing, that is your creation. Because if it’s something that you don’t wholly feel right about, then you’re not going to play it right. You’re not going to have the emotion to play it right. But if it’s something that really it’s your gut, what comes from your gut is always something that people will feel.

JM: I didn’t realize this until I read up about you, but you and David Bowie were friends before either of you had your big successes. Way back then, was there any sense that big things were in store for either of you?

PF: No [laughs]. He was ahead of me – he’s three years older. When you’re 12 and he’s 14 or 15, he might as well have been 37 [laughs]. He was always one jump ahead of me until I joined a band called The Herd, which was a local band. We were both in local bands. He was in David Bowie and The Lower Third, and all these local bands. Then he was watching Top of the Pops, which was our sort of Dick Clark show, one day – it was The Herd, my very first band, and I was 16. He looked up at the TV and he said, “That’s Peter! Why isn’t he at school?” [laughs] So, it’s like, I beat him on that. By the time I was in Humble Pie, he became our very special guest, because “Space Oddity” was Number One [laughs] and Humble Pie were Number Two [laughs]. It’s amazing how things sort of took off from there on.

JM: A quick question about Humble Pie. What are some the highlights to you from your time with them? Because you had quite a nice run with them before your solo career.

PF: Oh, absolutely. I credit Humble Pie with giving me the platform to develop a guitar style. It all sort of came together then for me – rock, blues, and jazz all sort of fused together for me, with all my different influences. And I learned so much from the great Steve Marriott.

I think playing the Fillmore East in New York. We were sort of based out of New York when we would come over, because our agency and management were in New York. We didn’t get a lot of gigs, so we had to sort of wait for gigs to come in, when we could open for people. So Bill Graham called up, [PF adopts a gruff voice] “Hey, somebody dropped out. Get me that Pie band. I like that Pie band. Get ’em over here.” So at the last minute we would end up playing on a Friday and a Saturday night at the Fillmore. And then we slowly built up and built up until we were in a middle spot of a three-act show.

The most exciting thing we ever did was open for Grand Funk at Shea Stadium, which was sold out. We were the first band on that stage after The Beatles [laughs]. So that was pretty exciting. Except we didn’t come in a helicopter. We drove in a car. But Grand Funk came in the helicopter, just to beat The Beatles. I think that was the most exciting thing.

But so many things with Humble Pie. Everything was brand new. Everything was a first. We’d never been to America until Humble Pie. Yeah, it was a whole new world, living in England all my life up until that point and then coming to this place that I’d only seen in films, and I realized it really is as big as it looks on TV [laughs].

JM: I saw your name popping up in the news about a year ago – the incident with the cellphone at the concert. Were you surprised by the reaction and how much press that got?

PF: Yes, I was amazed actually. Most of it being positive. You’ve got the people that say, “I can’t stand everyone with their phones in my face, because you can’t see the stage.” Then you get the other people who say, “I paid a lot of money for this ticket, I’m going to take as many pictures as I want.” So I see both sides, you know.

And I see my side, which is that it’s a distraction, and you feel like they are voyeurs rather than being part of the show. I can’t explain it, but it’s very off-putting, and most artists hate it. Cheap Trick, who we’re going out with, they hate it, too. It’s just one of those things. It’s technology and there’s not much you can do about it. But, you know, what we do is we allow them to take pictures for the first three numbers, and then we ask them very gently and very politely, “Would you like to just enjoy the show now?” And we usually get a big cheer at that point, and it cuts it down. But it doesn’t cut it all the way down. And then, you can take as many pictures as you want while we’re taking our bow or whatever.

In the old days when everybody had real cameras, most people wouldn’t bring them, so you wouldn’t have everybody with them. But now, you’ve seen the pictures of the audiences and everyone’s got their phone up in their hand. It’s quite amazing. Who knows what it’ll be ten years from now with technology.

JM: I guess it could be pointed out that for Frampton Comes Alive! nobody had their cellphones out during that. And look how well that turned out.

PF: Exactly, yes [laughs]. As I say to people, there’s no need to make a phone call or text right now. Because they do it right in front of you, in the front row they’ll be texting someone. Probably about the show, which is very nice, or tweeting or whatever. But you lose them. I’m there to communicate with them. It’s like doing a corporate show and they have their backs to you and they’re drinking [laughs]. It’s not quite as bad as a corporate show, but it almost is [laughs].


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