Q&A: Peter Frampton
His hair is no longer blond, nor does it flow past his shoulders, and his days of taking the stage bare-chested are behind him. Aside from that, not much has changed for Peter Frampton. The 67-year-old English-born singer/guitarist/songwriter remains as committed to recording and performing music as he was when he burst on the scene a half-century ago with the iconic rock band Humble Pie. Frampton recently spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Jacob about his summer tour with Steve Miller Band (including a performance at Caesars Palace on Aug. 8), his recent all-acoustic album and why Frampton Comes Alive! will forever be part of his DNA.
You and Steve have known one another for more than 45 years, and now you’re out on this summer tour together. It’s not your first time sharing a stage, though, is it?
No, back in the ’70s, and even more recently, we’ve played together in stadiums, clubs, arenas—you name it, we’ve done it. A couple of years ago we did four shows in amphitheaters with Steve, and it worked out so well and we had so much fun that Steve said, “We’ve got to do a whole tour together.” This is the year we worked it out.
Has there always been a mutual admiration between the two of you?
Well, for me, yeah (laughs); I can’t speak for him! But I’ve been a huge fan of his ever since I first saw him in London in 1970 where he was putting vocals on one of his early Steve Miller Band songs. I was just about to leave Humble Pie, and he was just starting his Steve Miller Band career.
Are you and Steve collaborating onstage during this tour?
Yes! This is the most collaboration I’ve ever had with a touring act, which is great. He got me out (onstage) to play a couple of numbers on the last few dates we did together. This time, we’ve worked out ahead of time what numbers we’re going to do. He’ll bring me out and we’re going to do about two or three songs together, which is very nice of him. But he’s a nice guy—always has been.
Your stop in Las Vegas will be at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. What do you recall about the first time you performed in Vegas?
Oh, gosh. I’m not sure if it was the very first time, but in the 1970s I remember playing the Aladdin (Theater for the Performing Arts). At that point, we were used to playing outdoors and in arenas, so that was change for me. But I remember there was great sound there.
Your latest album, Acoustic Classics, featured stripped-down versions of some of your biggest hits, and you followed that with a tour in which you left your electric guitar in its case. What prompted you to unplug, and how satisfying were those all-acoustic shows?
It took me a long time to unplug! (Laughs.) I just wasn’t that confident that I could pull it off, either a full acoustic album or a full acoustic show. But I always do like a challenge. I was nervous about doing the album until I got my M.O. down, which was like if you were to come over to my house one morning and we were having coffee and I just said to you, “I wrote a song last night, and I’d like to play it for you.” You would hopefully say yes, and I would play it, and that performance you would get would be just out of the egg, and it would be a very passion-filled but not (complete) version of what I would then do onstage later after I recorded it. So I envisioned it as a one-on-one performance, so what I needed to do was strip down (all the songs), take away 40-odd years of what I changed and take them back to square one. I basically did that and really enjoyed it. Then I was asked, “Do you want to try it out on the road?” And I said, “Not really!” (Laughs.) But eventually I bit the bullet and I’m so glad I did, because it’s a 180-degree different way of performing and (presenting) myself live. And it’s not just performing the music; it’s telling the stories about the inspirations, and that’s what people like. I interviewed the audiences after the shows and asked them, “So, which (versions) of the songs do you like better, the acoustic or the electric?” And they said, “Both,” which was very nice.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of your iconic Frampton Comes Alive! double-live album. When you hear that number—40 years—is it hard to believe?
Yes. You know, I have two feet and two hands, and they’ve been with me a long time, and that’s sort of how I’ve come to view Comes Alive! It’s just part of me—part of my life, part of my career. And it changed everything for me, obviously. It’s phenomenal that I’m still here talking about it and that it’s held up so long. I’m very proud of it, it’s a great record, it was a great band and it was a phenomenal night—the main night at Winterland (Ballroom in San Francisco).
You recently released a new song, “I Saved a Bird Today.” What was your inspiration for that track?
A bird—a large bird, actually—flew into the bathroom window of my condo one Sunday morning and fell onto my balcony sort of dazed. I looked out and nothing was moving but its eyes. So I quickly went to Google and I eventually was put in touch with this lady from a local wildlife preserve in Nashville, and she said, “If it’s that big of a bird and its eyes are moving, I’m sure it’s just stunned. Give it a couple of hours, and it’ll fly away.” So I left and did some stuff, came back a couple of hours later and it’s still there. But it’s well now; it’s like peacocking around my balcony, but it hasn’t flown away. So I called the lady back, and I said, “I think we have a problem here. He’s not flown away. He must like it here.” I explained the bird to her, and she said, “Hmm. I think I know what you have. It’s called an American Coot.” I said, “Great! Now how do I get rid of it.” She started to chuckle a little, and said, “The American Coot is one of a handful of birds that only takes off from water.” I said, “You’re kidding me. So I can’t just drop it off the balcony?” And she said, “Oh, no! Do you have any water near you?” I said, “Well, I have the river in downtown Nashville.” She said, “If you have a box big enough, box it up and take it down to the river, let it out and it should be fine.” It was (a struggle) getting the thing into a box; I had to throw a towel over it, all sorts of things. But I drove it down in my new car to the river, took out the box, held it about 18 inches above the water, took the top of the box off and nothing—it’s just sitting there looking at me. So I tipped the box on its side, and it saw the water, kicked the box, kicked me, jumped into the water and then did that National Geographic, slow-motion, bird-taking-off-from-the-water up in the sky, and I just said, “I saved a bird today.” I told the story to Gordon Kennedy, my co-writer, then I got some music happening and I said, “Let’s get together and write a song.” When he came over, of course he’d written the first verse all about the bird. So I knew where we were going. It was wonderful.
You were 16 years old when you fronted the British band the Herd, then came to prominence two years later when you co-founded the super group Humble Pie. At that point, just 18 years old, what was your career plan? What were your expectations?
I had no idea. I knew Humble Pie had been an incredibly successful band for me and probably one of the better rock bands ever, so it was a big decision to leave, obviously. I did start a few rungs up the ladder—I didn’t have to go back to the very beginning. And I had a lot of clout because of Humble Pie’s (success) in America, so I started touring and released my first solo album. I had no idea where I was going. I would just get off the road, write, record another album, go back on the road, and that was it: album, tour, album, tour—until of course the live album hit, and everything changed.
If 67-year-old Peter Frampton could’ve given 18-year-old Peter Frampton a bit of career advice, what would it have been?
Read the contract! And get yourself an independent lawyer and business manager—don’t go along with everybody else! My son is just starting out in his own band—the Julian Frampton Band—and I told him, “You can make your own mistakes, but don’t make the same ones I made.” He hasn’t signed a thing yet—and won’t until I see it! (Laughs.)
What motivates you to continue to tour and make new music? Have you given any thought to retiring?
No, I don’t really have any ideas of retirement. I would still like to do some different stuff within music. But the inspiration is basically, I wake up, see a guitar in my bedroom and I pick it up. I still have the same passion for it today that I had 50-odd years ago. And I’ve found that passion reinvents itself along the way, as well. A lot of artists of my ilk, from my era, have stopped creating new music, but that’s not something I can physically or mentally do. My motto is I want to wake up tomorrow and play something and write something and learn something that I couldn’t do today. That’s what’s always driven me. I’m still trying to be a better guitar player, a better writer and come up with something new, but it is harder and harder to come up with something that really turns me on. But I always do it for me; it’s very selfish being an artist, and that’s the way it should be.
You’ve worked with such legends as George Harrison, Ringo Starr, David Bowie and Jerry Lee Lewis—among countless others. I’m curious: Who is the one contemporary artist you with whom you’d love to collaborate?
Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys. Or Jack White. Either of those guys. I like the fact they continue to change it up and reinvent the way they do things. And that’s what it’s all about. The one thing I do know and tell new (artists) is, “Don’t follow a trend. Make your own.” If a label or a manager is interested in you, it’s because of the way you are now, not what they might want to change you into. So don’t ever let them change what you’re doing. They can advise you on how to make it better maybe, and I would listen to that, try it and if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. But always listen to your gut. And if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it.