Interview: For Frampton, it’s no longer about the hits, but the challenge
Peter Frampton says two of his albums stand as the most important of his career, and “when all is said and done,” they will serve as “the two posts where everything is strung between.”
One of them, we suspect you can guess.
“Frampton Comes Alive!” was the biggest-selling album of 1976, which made the guitarist simultaneously a staple of FM rock and a teen idol of the feathered-hair era.
The other? You’ll have to think a bit harder. It’s “Fingerprints,” the 2006 instrumental guitar album that signaled the end of Frampton’s rock-star years and the dawn of a new creative era.
“‘Fingerprints’ was a big lesson for me,” says Frampton, 65.
“It was the first time in a long, long time I just sat back and said, ‘I don’t care what anybody wants me to do, I’m going to do this,’ “ he says. “It was overdue, it’s what I felt I needed to do, and as an artist it was very rewarding. My projects have changed drastically from then on.”
Since then, Frampton has transitioned even further into the role of the seasoned guitar slinger whose solos echo the wisdom of the years more than youthful fire.
And last year Frampton released an album called “Hummingbird in a Box,” which went even beyond “Fingerprints” in its esoteric, moody explorations, including an overt nod to another of his guitar heroes, “gypsy jazz” master Django Reinhardt.
Now he’s at work on a solo acoustic album, which will rework both his signature hits and deeper album cuts.
“Fingerprints” won a Grammy for best pop instrumental album. But even before its release, “I just felt this great sense of accomplishment from making it,” Frampton says.
“That inked my MO from then on: I’m just going to do what I want to do. No one’s going to influence me ... and everything must challenge me from now on. It’s got to be a challenge. It’s got to be me pushing myself to do better. Or something new and creative that I feel is new territory for me.”
That’s in the studio, at least. The tour with Cheap Trick finds Frampton on more familiar ground. Both serve up 85 minutes of “chestnuts,” with each “pulling out the big guns and not doing any kind of theme other than what the fans like to hear and what we enjoy playing.”
It continues what Frampton laughingly calls a “bipolar” career that had him for years struggling to be a hitmaker and pop star as well as a guitar god — both the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of his band.
The teen-idol looks and flowing blonde ringlets captured on the gatefold vertical cover of “Frampton Comes Alive!” fueled the guitarist’s ’70s fame. But pop stardom also led down bad roads such as the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie, perhaps the low-water mark of ‘70s disco culture.
The crash of the record industry, along with the guitarist’s aging, eventually brought a welcome end to Frampton’s struggle to remain commercial and relevant, painfully evident in ‘80s albums such as “The Art of Control.”
“There is no pressure to have a huge-selling record because records don’t sell anywhere near like they did,” he says. “There’s a handful of artists the record companies invest in and make happen. For me I’m not competing with anything. For so many years I was competing with myself, or thought I had to.”
Now it’s a different form of self-competition.
Having the biggest seller of one’s career be a live album creates an odd expectation for fans. The shows recorded in 1975 became the definitive version of “Show Me the Way,” “Baby, I Love Your Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do.”
“That was one night, and people expect you to play just like that,” he says. The night before the album was recorded, “Do You Feel” “might have been seven minutes long. That night, it was 12 minutes long. Things change ... it’s not the same yesterday and it’s not going to be the same tomorrow.”
But Frampton’s recordings also stick in his mind. They’ve made the acoustic project vexing.
When he first started breaking down his hits, “I started playing like I do with the band. And then I’d listen back, and go, ‘That’s great, but where’s the band?’ It had to be reverse-engineered back to when I wrote the song. That was the difficult part.”
Something he thought he could knock out in a couple of days still isn’t finished. “I’ve done about nine (songs) now. I want 11,” he says. He’s doing an acoustic tour in October originally meant to promote the album, but he now hopes to finish the recording next spring and tour again.
It’s not just adjusting the arrangements, “It’s the whole approach to the performance. It’s not like I’m standing onstage with an acoustic guitar wailing it out.”
Read more from Mike Weatherford at bestoflasvegas.com or reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Mikeweatherford.