Interview With Trey Gunn…
By David C. Gross and Tom Semioli
Composer, educator, Chapman Stick / Warr guitarist, recording artist, producer, podcast host, video host, entrepreneur, and jujitsu practitioner, Trey Gunn is most known to the masses for his tenure in King Crimson from 1994 through 2003. However, there’s more to Trey than his work with Robert Fripp! Gunn has authored scorebooks and helms a media company in Seattle: 7d, among other endeavors.
From classical piano to punk rock bass to the Chapman Stick to the Warr Guitar and beyond, Gunn continues to evolve.
Witness Trey Gunn’s career trajectory: he was a student of Robert Fripp and then he became a member of King Crimson. He’s collaborated with David Sylvain, Toyah (Mrs. Robert Fripp to you!), and John Paul Jones, to cite a select few Trey has fifteen solo albums under his name and hosts his own YouTube channel which is both instructional and anecdotal.
A maestro of the Chapman Stick and the Warr Guitar – which he plays in a horizontal position – Trey made his mark in the groundbreaking “double trio” incarnation of King Crimson with Tony Levin.
In the present tense, Gunn has embraced digital technology. And he’s maintained a remarkable career outside the mainstream via education and niche marketing by way of his aforementioned media company. Here are excerpts from our conversation…
DG: David C. Gross
TS: Tom Semioli
TG: Trey Gunn
DG: Trey, it’s been thirty years! (Note: David interviewed Trey for the now-defunct Bassics Magazine, which also boasted scribe Tom Semioli among their staff writers). How are you emerging from the COVID lockdown?
TG: Very well, thank you. I’ve been running my record label 7d Media, which is a serious DIY operation. For a little independent record label, we’ve put out numerous releases.
We like to think of ourselves as a ‘genre busting’ platform- as it says on our website. Our artists include myself, of course, and me with my King Crimson bandmate Pat Mastelotto, and other projects I am involved in. Our artists included Crystal Beth, Security Project, Stick Men, Inna Zhelannaya, Markus Reuter, Kwame Binea… it’s an amazing roster that your readers should check out.
I’m ‘coaching’ musicians, which is something I love to do. I’ve been working remote sessions which is fun and challenging. I’m also working on a longer-scale project – which is all on the Warr Guitar. It’s completely scripted, there is no improvisation. I’ve been approaching it akin to a string quartet or a chamber ensemble – only with Warr Guitars. Now I have to play it all, and it’s pretty damn hard!
TS: Why don’t composers write easy music for themselves?
DG: Exactly (laughter).
TS: Let’s discuss 7d Media, your record label. The question that David and I pose to all our guests: is it the best of times or the worst of times? The way we were raised in the ‘80s – if you wanted to put out a record, you had to get a record deal. And the argument in our era was that labels only signed artists that looked or sounded a certain way thanks to MTV. Or they simply followed trends and were beholden to marketing research surveys on what people liked. If it wasn’t for the fact that in the 1960s, record labels didn’t understand what young people wanted and took more chances– a band such as King Crimson would have never been signed.
TG: That’s true. And we used to complain about the old paradigm – which has been completely dismantled. The game has completely changed – no doubt. And musicians have to adapt and rethink their careers. There is no way of going backward…
DG: Now artists have the capability to go direct to the marketplace with their product and distribution. Are things better in the 21st Century?
TG: Well, it’s not too suck-y! (laughter). There are good and bad things obviously.
The good thing is that no one can stop you from putting out music. And the awesome thing about that is that artists can fully explore where their creative vision takes them.
This is opposed to being in an industry where the people in power would say they want to hear something new – but they really didn’t for the most part! With the old record company structure, artists were not allowed full creative leaps. Those creative leaps had to have been within the boundaries and parameters of their ‘known world.’ Which really is not a creative leap. And that hurt the careers of some artists, yet it also prolonged the careers of others as they did not go too far out.
Now on the downside – there’s too much music! There is so much supply that the art form has been devalued. And it’s overwhelming as a listener.
TS: Every musician with a computer is now their own recording studio, record label, and distributor.
However, think about it – when a band or an artist was signed to a label – regardless of if it was a major or an indie imprint– they were only allowed to release a certain amount of music. Let’s say an LP or CD every year or so, and a few singles, which is just the right amount of content for an audience to digest.
The other aspect was that if there was someone in the band that had a musical vision that did not quite fit that band, there was all this internal fighting about whether that music gets to go on the album. Now that musician has the technology to go off and do a solo project. If you have something you think is cool – you now have the platform to do it! You don’t have to smear it all over a King Crimson album (laughter).
Nowadays there is more freedom to explore. For example, I was coaching a client this week and he was running into a thing that we all kind of run into – and that is if you have a lot of various interests that if you put them all in the same pot – it kind of dilutes the entire presentation. And that can make it appear as if you don’t know what you are quite doing.
Now you can make a frame for each idea you have. You can create three band names and three Band Camp accounts! And you can release them all under different identities. You don’t have to say ‘all of this is Trey.” You can present a reggae thing, an abstract thing, a synth-pop thing… stuff that really does not t belong together. But now you can separate that out. In a sense, that gives bands the opportunity to really be what they are. Not everybody in the band is trying to get their own thing squished in there!
TS: As a label owner, you have to tip your hat to such individuals as John Hammond, Lou Adler, and Clive Davis… who were able to discover and nurture talent. They took plenty of chances, and not all of them paid off.
TG: Yes. I was hardly on a major label though. Other than King Crimson, and David Sylvain, who had a lot of leeway with Virgin Records. The important element of the old days of the recording industry is, as you said, ‘nurturing’ talent. Giving an artist seed money and having them go off and write for a year is a fantastic thing. And those people you mentioned worked for the artist because they were making an investment. They want to make their money back. It’s not a ‘grant.’ The artist would grow with the audience. I’ve never had that interaction with a label. And I feel a bit of a loss…a sadness.
TS: If you look at what is considered the mainstream and what is considered the ‘fringe’ – there is more “outside” music available to the masses because such artists can distribute their work on streaming and video platforms. Essentially the ‘underground’ is now surfacing.
TG: It is and it’s global. You see interesting things coming from Norway. I use this app that is a map of the globe – and you can spin it around and go into countries such as Afghanistan and pick radio stations and discover new stuff – it’s really fantastic. There’s a real cool electronic scene almost everywhere on the planet.
DG: The FBI is going to come after you!
TS: With 7d Media tell us how you choose which artists to sign and distribute.
TG: It’s a quirky unusual model. Basically, I had the framework built for myself and a couple of records I was involved with. Believe it or not, we have a hard copy distributor! It kind of grew out of that. However, I can’t afford to invest my money … it’s more of a ‘managerial curation.’ We manage the project. It’s for mid-career artists – people who understand how hard it is and don’t want to do the work of a traditional label.
We also have an artistic vision. If we feel that the artist and their music fit, then we work with them. We still make CDs, and people go into stores and buy them! True, there are not as many stores that sell music – but we find them. And we sell a little bit of vinyl as well. Though we try to talk people out of that because to ship a record to Europe is $52.00! We do it mostly because artists like to sell vinyl at shows.
Vinyl is cool, but man it’s heavy! We had a band called Sonar that did a record with David Torn – and they got Bill Laswell to remix it. I went to my PO Box to get the vinyl and I thought ‘oh, 500 records, no big deal…’ Holy S—t! It was ten heavy boxes. What have I done!!!
DG: Are younger musicians as artistically diversified as our generation or do you find that they are more homogenized?
TG: One experience comes to mind – it was when I was at SXSW about ten years ago. I was walking around listening to bands and thinking – wow, there are 1800 bands here and every single one of them is not just alternative rock – they are a particular ‘slice’ of alternative rock. And I found that so sad.
But I don’t think it’s like that anymore. I find there is a lot more diversity and curiosity. But it’s only a portion of what is put out there. Young musicians still want to be accepted and liked. And successful. And it’s hard not to think that – even if you’re not conscious of it ‘this is what people like – this is what gets a response – this is what I need to play.’
I’ll say this – players are amazing now. What they do with their skills is another story. The level of players that I see – even in derivative music – great bassists, keyboard players…that can blow you away with chops.
To answer your question – musicians are more diversified today – but with so much out there, it’s hard to recognize that.
TS: Players today have the advantage of YouTube! They can study the masters – they can learn hand positions, equipment, and technique at the click of a cursor. We had the advantage of Midnight Special, In Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert…
TG: And we couldn’t rewind it before videotapes were available. Yes, young players have much more tools today than we ever imagined.
DG: You’re an educator. You started out on a classical piano, learning theory and how to read. Is it necessary for a 21st Century musician to get a formal education?
TG: For me, that is the question of the age we live in. You don’t even have to say ‘music’ – you could say that about anything. Should you just start writing fiction or learn what verbs are first? What is the best method? To just look at videos and study how to waterski or just get on the skis?
I don’t know right now; I see both things working. You know, neither works on its own. If I were going to paint the ideal scenario I would say ‘get in the water and start swimming…’ Then when you get out of the water, ask somebody who knows about swimming to watch you – and get some tips. And then very carefully get back in the water again.
I think about this a lot because I practice jujitsu with some really high-level guys who know more than I do – and I learn a lot from being around them.
I practice this little Bach piece every day. It’s a violin sonata. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t get some of the notes together – and the shape of it going. Once you get the shape, then you need to make some decisions. Such as fingering decisions. And if you repeat it enough it starts to get comfortable. You no longer get confused or lost. Eventually, you tie it all together. Then it starts to sound pretty good.
But if you stop there, it doesn’t go very far. So what you have to do is go back in and be flexible. All those decisions, all the repetition, all the work you’ve done – you need to be prepared to undo it all at another level.
Then I find out that some of my fingerings are wrong. Or that I am playing it on the wrong string. But I programmed it in so well on this one string – and a lot of people will say ‘well, it’s good enough…’ And that’s fine. But you put a ceiling there. But if you want to go through that ceiling, you must be prepared to do even more. With new decisions… and that’s kind of the ‘educated’ part.
Getting back to your question – I would not learn to sightread immediately!
My mother was an English teacher. And for years she thought that boys should not learn to read until they were ten. She felt that if she could have taught them at that age when they had already listened and learned stories aurally – she was convinced that they could learn to read in about six months. And she could bring them up to speed – and even be better readers. I don’t know what that would be like, but I do know that my level of sightreading stood in the way of my ability to hear. It’s taken me a couple of decades to catch up. I depended too much on the written note…
DG: How do you apply that theory to your coaching clients?
TG: I get folks who are 50-ish or even their 40s who now have space in their life. These are people who left music behind for many years – or even decades – and now they want to get back in and get serious.
They figure ‘now it’s time to learn how to read music’ – and I respond ‘are you sure? Adrian Belew can’t read music! And he passed a Zappa audition!’ I’m not saying you shouldn’t – but let’s figure out what you want to do. And if you need to learn to read music – then absolutely! And if you don’t well…time is running out on us! You should get to what you want to do!
Notation is awesome. And you really need it to compose. Now, there are stories about how Mozart used to compose ‘in his head’ which we don’t know if they are true or not. Regardless, we’re not Mozart and we need help! That’s where notation comes in – it’s a communication tool. But again, for me it got in the way of learning to hear.
DG: Tell us about your King Crimson transcription books and how you navigated all the alternative tunings.
TG: With the first Crimson book (King Crimson: The Discipline Era Transcriptions) we were able to do the tunings that the players were actually using. We also did tabs.
When we did the Thrak book (Thrak by King Crimson: The Complete Scores) Robert was in his 5ths tuning. Then I am on one stick tuning and Tony (Levin) is in a different one. When you go back to the 80s for Discipline – everyone is in standard tuning. Except Tony does a funny little thing with the Stick on “Elephant Talk” – he tunes the top two notes to a tritone.
I put out another book prior to that of my stuff and we were trying to figure out what to do. Not too many people play my instrument – and a lot of the people that play my instrument do not use my tunings either – they use a standard tuning which is 5ths and 4ths. I use all 5ths. So the solution was to make two versions and I tabbed it out in 4ths and 5ths.
But I’m not gonna do that anymore, man that’s too much work! A lot of the time I had to guess – since I don’t play in 4ths and some things are really idiomatic as to how your hands fall in the 5ths. I had to come up with voicings that were pretty unpleasant! (Laughter) But hey, that’s how it goes with new tunings!
TS: It is interesting that you chose Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair, and Discipline because those are the albums that turned my generation on to King Crimson. We were a little too young to appreciate Court of the Crimson King when it came out. And then we worked backward. Every incarnation of King Crimson was potent – they all waxed amazing records.
TG: Oh yeah. I had a friend whose older brother played me the opening track from the first Crimson record when I was 13 and I didn’t know what was happening to me! For me, it was not easy to go back after hearing Discipline. I was most comfortable with Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973). I love that lean, sparkly percussive stuff.
By the way, we’re going to transcribe all of Crimson– we’re starting to work on the Wetton years.
DG: What does Mr. Fripp have to say about this?
TG: Robert is very happy that its being done. As soon as we finished the first one, I did all the tabs and we had three proofreaders, and we had many arguments about whether it should be in D# or Eb. When it came to the Discipline era the pitches were a lot clearer.
We tabbed all of Adrian’s solos. But nobody knows how those were really done. We looked at videos – but we had disagreements over what was an artificial harmonic, was it a synthesizer? and so forth. As soon as we finished it – we found a few mistakes – most are in the tab. So I wrote to Robert, Bill, and Tony – Adrian does not care – to review. But you can play all those parts now as they did.
It’s really a monumental thing to look inside and see what’s going on. I could not do that at the time. Even when we made the transcriptions, we discovered things that Tony was doing that we had no idea he was doing upper register of the Stick – especially on “Neal & Jack & Me.” My ears had just blended into guitar territory. Really fascinating…
TS: Tell us about studying with Robert Fripp.
TG: It was super unusual and super great! It was the mid-1980s, I was at college at a mid-level university – I wasn’t even allowed to play jazz guitar for credit! It was very conservative. And I thought ‘man if this was 300 years ago – I’d be writing to Bach. I’d have sent him a letter ‘dude I’m coming over for a lesson, can I make you tea and wash your socks for you?’ (Laughter)
So I made a list of all the musicians I wanted to study with -and I wrote to them. And this was before the internet and email. John McLaughlin, Peter Gabriel…. Eno. It was basically a wish list. As I reviewed the list, Robert kept coming to the top and I thought ‘this is someone who I could really learn from.’
Now that’s not to say I couldn’t learn from a David Bowie or Peter Gabriel, but I don’t think they could tell you what they were doing and why. It would be more of an osmosis thing. I thought it would be different with Robert. He could tell me some serious stuff. And I was right!
After studying with him I learned how to play with authenticity. How present can you be when you play a note? You see that with all great musicians. Like Pat Martino – he is just ‘with’ every note. He is conscious of everything he is doing.
And Robert put a lot of emphasis on that. Especially now that ‘chops’ are so widespread. You can’t get away from ‘chops!’
TS: During COVID lockdown Robert Fripp emerged as a comedic video star with his wife, the flamboyant famed singer recording artist Toyah. Who knew that he had such a sense of humor?
TG: Well, I did! It would trickle out here and there. But on those videos, he’s given free rein to go bananas. I played with Toyah, she is a prankster. She definitely eggs Robert on!
TS: After starting out on classical piano, you gravitated to the punk scene. Explain!
TG: It flowed very naturally! I left piano behind to play electric bass. That was probably David Bowie’s fault. I was inspired by Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1977). That pretty much corrupted me! There was a punk scene in South Texas where I was. I love those records and I have such a fondness for Iggy. He was my example of “I don’t even care if you like my record or not!”
TS: How and why did you move to the Warr Guitar?
TG: My first interest was the tuning of these instruments. I had this issue with the guitar that it wasn’t quite working for me because of the ‘blues’ thing that kept coming through. It just didn’t suit me as a guitarist.
Suddenly one day I had the idea that ‘maybe it’s the tuning…because that stuff just comes out of your hands.’ Then I remembered this Chapman Stick is tuned in 6ths and the violin is tuned in 5ths. And then I met Robert and he was using a guitar tuning in 5ths and as soon as I tried that on my guitar I knew I was right! Robert lent me his Stick and said ‘you should think about playing this thing.’ And I tried it and I thought ‘here it is- everything I’ve been trying to do, I’ve just been on the wrong instrument!’
So I played the Chapman Stick for a while then I met Mark Warr who made his namesake guitar which is kind of a cross between a swanky bass and a Chapman Stick. And I’ve been playing it ever since.
Now we have lots of young musicians and the Warr Guitar is the instrument they started on. And that’s pretty awesome.
DG: Bassists and guitarists who play their instrument vertically often encounter physical problems with their back, wrists, fingers…
TG: I now play the Warr Guitar horizontally on my lap. Every musical instrument destroys our bodies! I visited a chiropractor a couple of years ago and he took x-rays and he discovered that my left hip was six centimeters higher than my right hip. That was from standing on one foot and using pedals! And he said ‘we’re gonna fix that!’ What your wrists have to deal with on this instrument is awful. For every position you play in – the angle of the wrist is different. And you are applying all this tension on your wrists in the process. It’s brutal.
Then, I began experimenting with the instrument horizontally. With the last version of Crimson I was in, I used a fretless Warr Guitar. But I also wanted the fretted on. So, I placed the fretted instrument on a keyboard stand so I could grab some chords while I was playing the other instrument and I discovered it was easy to move back and forth. When I got home I started playing horizontally with the Warr. At first, it was scary because I had to rethink a lot of things.
I started out just playing on one string – the thing with tapping is you can’t really play a note unless you clear the string. The whole technique of ‘releasing’ is much more critical than the bass and guitar because your energy is coming from the right hand. In this horizontal way, your energy is all from the tap. It takes a lot of practice.
I’m working with the guys from a progressive – experimental duo called Buke and Gase – Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez – and we’re building a horizontal instrument. It’s going to be a cool instrument. Since there is no ‘behind the neck’ – the neck could be as thick as we want – which you cannot do vertically. We’re going to make pretty extreme fanned frets. We have a lot of interesting options in this configuration. And of course, I’ll be making new music and new discoveries!
Visit online at treygunn.com