Peter Frampton talks Hummingbird In A Box, new Guitar Circus tour
Peter Frampton has never stayed in the same stylistic place for very long. From his earliest days as the blues-rock guitar hotshot with Humble Pie and Frampton’s Camel, right on through his mega-platinum, mid-‘70s phase as the king of AM and FM radio, and as a daring featured player on David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour and throughout the vicissitudes of his ongoing, remarkably diverse and durable solo career, the six-string legend has thrived on exploring new avenues and challenges.
His newest curve ball, Hummingbird In A Box, an exhilarating mini-album of all-original music inspired by the Cincinnati Ballet, might be his most surprising move yet. Frampton sat down with MusicRadar recently to talk about his work with the celebrated dance troupe and how he approached the new record, as well as his summer touring plans, which includes the return of Peter Frampton’s Guitar Circus.
You started Hummingbird In A Box after the ballet company first used some of your music. What did they use?
“That’s right. Cincy Ballet had asked me to if they could use some of my music from my album Fingerprints along with one track the Now record, a song called Not Forgotten. So it was three instrumentals and one vocal. They had done a pas de deux, a two-person male and female dance duet, as it were, and that’s what they used the music for. I wasn’t able to see it live because I was on the road, but somebody sent me a DVD of the performance, and I was just floored. I was so honored that they’d done this beautiful dance to my music. It was incredible.
“Long story short, within the next 18 months I hooked up with Victoria Morgan, the Artistic Director and CEO of the Cincinnati Ballet, and she asked me if I would do a live show with them – three 20-minute segments on stage with the ballet. I said that would be great – it was so different.
“We talked about how to approach it material-wise. At first she had suggested using existing music for three sections, but I thought about it and said, ‘How about we do two sections with old music, and I’ll write 25 minutes of new music that could be used for the centerpiece or wherever you want it to be?’ They were floored that I would contemplate writing new music for it. That’s how this all happened.
“This time last year, we performed it with the ballet live in Cincinnati for three shows. After that, within the last year, I turned it into a studio record. What’s also happened is that, for the Cincinnati Ballet’s 50th anniversary, they were invited by the Joyce Theatre in New York to do three pieces, one of which was Hummingbird In A Box. I went up and introduced them, and they did it live. This time it was without us playing, though – it was just the music.”
On writing for the ballet
Now, when one thinks of Peter Frampton – blues-rock guitar legend – ballet is not the first thing that comes to mind.
“No, it’s not.” [Laughs]
At any point during the writing of this music, did you think to yourself, “What the hell am I doing?” This is very unchartered territory for you.
“Well, it was unchartered territory, but I wasn’t going to write something that didn’t sound like me. To start with, I can’t. [Laughs] But it did give me the freedom with Gordon Kennedy, who wrote 98 percent of it with me, to think a little differently. We didn’t go about the music as always needing a verse, chorus, bridge, solo – we didn’t need that. We could have long sections of instrumental, some could be vocal, or we could bring in the voices when we wanted them to build it up for the dance. It was all so different.”
“It’s funny, because just before I went up to see Cincy Ballet do it in New York and to see it from the front this time, I went to see Ben Folds do his piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony and Ballet. So we’re all doing it, I guess.” [Laughs]
There’s some beautiful acoustic tones on the record. Did you use one main acoustic guitar or a combination of models?
“It’s a combination of three of acoustics. There’s a Tacoma Chief, one of the very first they made – it must have been in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. It’s a very basic acoustic and has and almost Selmer-Django Reinhardt-like quality when you play lead on it. I also used a Gitane Saga guitar, which is a copy of the French Selmer guitar used by Django. I played it on the track Norman Wisdom – it’s that Django Reinhardt-ish sound. And for the rhythm and picking, I used my Martin D-42, the Frampton’s Camel model. So there’s three completely different acoustic sounds.
“Since then, I got the original Epiphone that I had, the one that I thought was completely trashed by the flood. I finally took it in to Joe Glaser – he’s the great luthier in town – and he fixed it, so that’ll be on the next record. That’s the guitar I wrote all my songs on – Humble Pie, Baby I Love Your Way, all of it. That’s back in action now.”
Not that you skimp on the electric soloing on the record, like on the track The One In 901. Bluesy, jazzy leads aren’t what one typically thinks of for the ballet.
“No, but that’s the beauty of it – there’s no rules. The great thing about the choreography and the way that ballet seems to be going – at least I can say this for the Cincy Ballet – is that they’re pushing the envelope. They do the classic ballet, but they’re open to modern dance, so it’s more modern ballet, for lack of a better term. That certainly appeals to younger audiences.”
On his Guitar Circus
Photo: Frampton on stage with BB King during Peter Frampton's Guitar Circus at Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, August 2013.
Were you much of a ballet aficionado before all of this started?
“I guess so. I had seen a couple of ballets in my life, but I’ve seen more ballet since I started this than ever before – that’s for sure. [Laughs] I mean, I’ve always appreciated ballet, but like you say, it’s not the thing that I would necessarily gravitate toward. But having been invited into this arena of dance, I’ve found it really interesting. You know, David Byrne from the Talking Heads, he did it years ago. That was very modern dance, what he was involved with.
“This is something different, you know? That’s always what I want to do when I wake up every day. I imagine most artists feel the same way. You always want to write something that’s different from what you did yesterday.”
Let’s talk about your tour schedule this summer. You’re doing two very different shows.
“That’s right. We wanted to do a little bit of everything this year. Last year it was all Guitar Circus, and I didn’t want to do just that this year, although I did want to remind people that it’s still happening. So for the last bit of the tour, the last couple of weeks, Buddy Guy is going to come out and join us, and we’ll have various special guests, just like we did last time. Robert Randolph is the first to sign up – I know he’s going to do the Hollywood Bowl show in August.
“Some of our two-hour shows will be on our own, because when we do play with the Doobies, and when we do play the Guitar Circus, it’s restricting in the amount of material that people can expect. We don’t get to do as much as we’d like in terms of newer or different material. You know me – I’ll always do the chestnuts, but I’ll also do stuff you’ve never heard before or haven’t heard me do live before. Doing two-hour shows on our own gives us the chance to do all of that.”
So is the Guitar Circus going to become your own version of Lollapalooza or the Lilith Fair, an ongoing thing?
[Laughs] “It’s more like a traveling version of Crossroads. Crossroads is mainly a blues-based event, obviously because Eric started it. It’s phenomenal every time I see it. So this is similar to Crossroads, I guess. Last year, on one night we had BB King, Larry Carlton and Rick Nielsen – now, that is a circus. [Laughs] And it all worked. To look around the stage and see Rick Nielsen and Larry Carlton playing with me and my band, I thought, ‘Where else is this gonna happen?’ And the crowd just went berserk because they didn’t believe it either. We were all brought together by the last number; we all jammed on While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Everyone every night has got their own stamp on that. I love when things turn out different all the time.
“It’s a lot more work, doing this. You’ve got to do new material with each guitar player who sits in. After traveling overnight, we get into the hotel room, sit in my suite, and it’s a rehearsal before the soundcheck, and after that there’s a soundcheck with the new musician of the day. It’s more taxing than a regular tour, but the reward is phenomenal because the crowds just love it.”
Have you played with Buddy Guy or Robert Randolph before?
“No, I haven’t. I’ve played on the same record as Robert Randolph, but we’ve never performed together. And I’ve seen Buddy Guy play, but this will be the first time we get to play together. I’m really looking forward to it. The tour is a little ways away, so we’re still inking other people to join us. You have to work out where people are and where we’re going to be. We like to use people for a couple of nights, if possible, because then we can really dig into playing their material. It's going to be a lot of fun for everyone."