By Greg Jones
In the mid-twentieth century, there was a guy who endeavored to study the brain of the late Albert Einstein in the hopes of discovering why he was such a phenomenal genius. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but many shared his curiosity. We all would like to know how great thinkers became the way they do. Was it there at birth? Did it have to do with brain size? Was it excellent parenting? Maybe it was superior coffee?
Many of us who are musicians stand and marvel at the revolutionary breakthroughs of the geniuses who ply their trade in the same arena we do, yet with such remarkable results. What made Frank Zappa so fiercely innovative? Where did Paul Simon come up with those beautiful melodies and timelessly resonant lyrics? Why is David Bowie such an effective mirror to the essence of society in each new cloak he wraps himself in? What makes the inscrutable Robert Fripp such an infallible analyst of his own music and what has caused him to suddenly smile? The answers elude us for now, but perhaps some insight can be gleaned by something they all have in common: all of them chose to work with the supremely talented and boyishly exhilarating Adrian Belew.
In the estimation of his legions of fans and the effusive praise of his peers, Mr. Belew is himself a genius—though he would undoubtedly laugh off such an appraisal in sincere humility. In this interview, he shares openly some of what makes him “tick,” what events sparked and sustained his legendary career, and he gives us an up-to-date status report on what’s about to allow us all inside his brain’s workings: namely, a revolutionary musical listening experience called “FLUX.”
Guitar Connoisseur: I heard that as a teenager, you turned a long absence from school, due to illness, into your chosen career path; could you tell our readers that story? It may inspire a whole new generation of players.
Adrian Belew: Let me start out a little before that: At age ten, I decided I wanted to play drums in the marching band—playing in football games and parades—and for three years I did. When I was fourteen, I moved to another area and instead of getting into the marching band I got into my first teen band. That would have been 1964 or 1965. Obviously, the Beatles were all the rage and the whole British invasion was in force—with great new sounds and great new bands like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. I was a drummer—a singing drummer—and I was very happy doing that, but I kept hearing songs in my head and I couldn’t explain them or translate them to anyone. When I was 16, in my junior year of high school, I was still in the same teen band and I got mononucleosis. They told me: “Look, you’re going to have to stay at home, stay in bed, and just rest; you can’t play drums, you’ll be tutored at home, and you’re going to have two months of recovery.” So I thought: “Oh boy, what am I going to do for two months?”
GC: I should tell our readers that this is all pre-Internet, pre-cable television, pre-24 hour anything on the tube.
AB: Yeah, this was 1966 or 1967 so you didn’t have all the things you can do now. Basically, I was going to have to stay in bed—not very fun. I loved to read, and I did a lot of reading, but I decided maybe I should try and teach myself to play guitar. One of the guys in my band loaned me his father’s acoustic guitar. I just sat there endlessly trying to figure out how to make chords, how to make the notes I wanted, what fingering you would use. I would hear a note and say “Okay, that’s here, so I’ll use my index finger on that. There’s the harmony over there; I guess I could use my middle finger for that,” and I’d sort of make up my own chords and things. I did that for two months. When I went back to my band, by then I had written five songs, and played them the songs they said: “What the heck are those chords?” (Laughs) Because I figured it out my own way. So I joked with them, “Oh that’s a G Demolished.” For many years I didn’t know the proper names of anything, and I’m still self-taught, but the point being, by the time I finished that two months’ convalescence I was on my way toward being a guitar player. At the same time, 1967 or so, you had this explosion of guitar virtuosos that came in, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and that spurred me on to want to be more than just a songwriter, but actually be a guitarist.
GC: I’m from that era myself and I remember it seemed like the whole world changed every time a new record came out.
AB: It’s true, there were so many records that really changed everything—pivotal records—from Sgt. Pepper’s to the latest Dylan album, there was always something coming down the pike that would keep everyone excited. It was the age where people were more excited by music than by anything else I think.
GC: So at some point, did you become one of the guitarists in that band and look for another drummer?
AB: I did not. After 1967, that band stopped playing together (my first teen band); I went through a succession of other bands, still as a drummer, and then finally I got into a band where the drummer also wanted to be the lead singer. So we switched halfway through the night. He would be the drummer for half while I was the guitarist, then he would be the singer and I would be the drummer. Consequently, people realized that I was a much better guitarist than a drummer. So from that point on, I got calls to be a guitarist and that kind of switched me. I still play drums, I still have three sets of drums in my studio, I love drumming, and I think it’s very important; it’s been very important to my career that I have a drumming background.
GC: You mentioned not knowing what to call certain chords; we hear that from a lot of great players about not knowing modes, chords, etc.
AB: I still don’t know that stuff and it doesn’t seem to hamper me. I have such a good ear and I’m well-versed in many things. Frank Zappa said to me when he hired me: “You know this stuff, you just don’t know the names of it.” I asked him: “Should I try to learn to read now?” and he said: “No, it really wouldn’t help you much because you already know it.”
GC: Well if Zappa said it, what better authority are you going to get it from, right?
AB: Right and you have to understand, my first thing I ever did was being discovered by Frank Zappa, and at that time, he almost never had anyone in his band who didn’t read because his methodology was to pass out sheet music every day at rehearsal and that’s how everyone else would learn the music. I didn’t; I learned it by ear and by rote. We rehearsed every week, five days a week, Monday through Friday for three whole months. I learned five hours of Frank Zappa material—very complex, difficult material. And the way Frank did it was: on Friday nights when we’d finish our rehearsal for the week; I would get in the car and go home with him for the weekend. Over the weekend he could prep me, show me what would be coming up the next week, so on Monday morning when everyone else would get their pieces of paper with dots and notes on it, I would at least be on my way to having memorized it.
GC: Wow. That’s amazing. David Bowie said once that you learned to play impossible parts from his records because no one told you that you weren’t supposed to be able to recreate them. For example, as the first musician ever to reproduce the sound of backwards guitar in a live setting, how did you discover that?
AB: Well I always had a penchant for sound. I have such a knack for it. I can analyze a sound somehow; I don’t know how I was able to do that, even when I was a kid. As soon as I heard the first backwards guitar—which was on a Beatles record, George Harrison put a backwards guitar on a song called “I’m Only Sleeping”—it just floored me. I said: “I’ve got to be able to do that; I need to know how you do that.” I started studying, what is it? What is a backwards note? Turns out there are scientific reasons why it happens—you know, envelope decay, release, sustain, all those kinds of things—so I just kept trying to do it with my volume knob and my little finger. Over time I could get something kind of reasonably like it, but not really cuz you need that sort of…there’s a sound that accompanies it, kind of a “whooshing” sound. Eventually though, the companies of the world that make guitar devices caught up with me (laughs). They made a little box—a company called Roland—and they didn’t even advertise it but there was one setting in it that actually would give you about a second’s worth of “backwards.” Whatever you played into it, it would turn it around backwards in one second increments, and that’s why, you’re right, I think I was the first person to be able to do that live, with that device. Nowadays, I can do that on a much bigger scale because with all the digital stuff that’s available now, I have a system in my guitar rig where I just touch a pedal and it turns everything backwards for as long as I play. And that’s a technique unto itself. Back to the David Bowie story though, I will tell you cuz it’s kinda funny: when I went to play with David my first time in the studio making a record was with David Bowie and Brian Eno in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and I walked in one day and they were laughing. I said, “What’s funny guys?” and they said, “You’re so stupid that you don’t know that you can’t play the parts that Robert Fripp played on the records.” Because what they had done with Robert Fripp’s parts was they had taken three or four performances of each song and edited them together in a way that they thought made it impossible to actually play. But you see when I joined David’s band and we started learning all the material to play, no one told me that (laughs). So I figured out how to play the supposedly impossible parts.
GC: I remember years later when he came out with the Sound And Vision record, a compilation of his legacy so far, around the same time you had put out Mr. Music Head, and I saw him on MTV saying Adrian Belew is the first guitar player I’ve had who’s smart enough to time a giant world tour in my band with promoting his own new release.
AB: (Laughs) Well, I would have to say that I wasn’t that smart. It was happenstance. I happened to be working on a new record called Young Lions when David tapped me on the shoulder and said I want you to do this world tour and be my music director. Of course, I could not turn that down, but at the same time I had a commitment to Atlantic Records to do what I could do for my solo record. So David was very generous. He actually came and did a couple things on the record with me. One of them was a song that he co-wrote with me, another was a song of his called Pretty Pink Rose, which eventually turned into a video of me and David. So David couldn’t have been nicer about it. But it wasn’t a plan (laughs).
GC: Do you still get to spend hours with new effects making notes in a little book on parameter combinations you like?
AB: Yes I do (laughs). One thing that has always inspired me is the technology itself, because as I said, sound is what really inspires me—it’s one of my passions. So the idea is to try and make new sounds, try to find a way to increase my vocabulary as a guitarist, and do things no one else has done. So the best way to do that is to try as many new techniques and as many new devices as you have time for. I get a lot of new things from manufacturers and they want me to try this or that out and if I delve into it long enough I can probably get it to do something it’s not even meant to do. And those are the moments I live for because, once I find something like that, it inevitably will turn into a new piece of music or part of a song. It’s very important to me to keep up with the technology and there’s so much of it now that it would actually be impossible to keep up with all of it. You just dive into the pool at different times and try to figure out what are the coolest new things with the most possibilities.
GC: Later I’m looking forward to asking you about FLUX because I have a feeling it’s going to explode peoples’ minds open with possibility.
AB: It is everything I can do, FLUX is, I’ll just say that at this point the boundaries around FLUX and the whole concept is that it’s everything and anything, from a door shutting and you like the sound of that to a piece of music or a song you’ve written or whatever. The only real rule in it is that it’s fast-paced—everything keeps interrupting itself. Rarely do you hear an entire song—you hear pieces of the song—and every now and then you hear the entire song. So the one rule it has is that things can’t be very long, which means other pieces of music and things I do, they won’t fit into FLUX. They’ll still have their own place on a CD. FLUX is a different thing from that.
GC: When I was trying to get my mind around the concept, I recalled being a young musician in the 1970s, sitting around with friends and listening to certain albums again and again; with FLUX I envision players or music fans listening and it will be a new experience every time they revisit it.
AB: That’s the idea—exactly the idea. The way I plan to do it, it’s going to be an app—I had to wait for technology to catch up to the idea of how to make music that is never the same twice. It’ll be a free app, you download it, you can listen to FLUX for free at first, and then decide “I like this, I’d like to buy it”—just like buying a record—and then the music will come to you in half an hour increments. You press a button and each half an hour will be different. In fact, statistically there will be no way that anyone could have received the same one unless they’re sitting there with you. So each time you listen to FLUX it’ll be your own private experience, in sharing with other people, or just by yourself, and no one else will ever hear it exactly that way. It’s made up of lots and lots of little pieces of things, they’re randomized constantly, you’ve got hundreds of things, there’s no way that they’re going to line up to be exactly the same.
GC: I’m picturing millions of film students sending you licensing requests to use their personal FLUX experiences as the soundtrack to make rapidly changing short films with.
AB: Well I hope so; that’s something I’d really love to be involved in. I’m a big film fan, especially of animation. I’ve visited Pixar—they’re nice guys, they like me (laughs)—and that’s something that will blow your mind when you go and see how it’s really done. I think film, cinema in general, is what music was to the ’60s. That’s what film is now; it involves all the different things you can do, from drama and comedy and action and music and computer-generated images—it’s all there. It kinda combines all the art forms, and it’s a natural place for me to want to go at some point. Right now I can’t go there because I’m still in that place in my life where I want to go out and play music live and that take a lot of time and effort to do that.
GC: For any of the readers of this magazine that haven’t had the pleasure of seeing you in a live setting, we’re very thankful that you still do want to go play live.
AB: Oh I love it. I love my audience. They’re a great audience. I feel very fortunate, to be honest with you, because I know that what I do has never been mass-oriented. It’s not how I think and it’s not what I want my music to represent. So to have a good career and still not appeal to the masses is rare. That’s happened for me and I’m very happy about it. I try to give back as much as I can.
GC: Your power trio brought to the public eye the immense talents of the very young Julie and Eric Slick. Why did you choose them and what did they bring to your e album, the concert stage and the resulting DVD?
AB: In the first place, there came a time about ten years ago that I started to work a lot with looping, and I always wanted to have a trio because a trio gives you the most amount of freedom, while at the same time, places the most amount of responsibility on each player. You’re the only guitar player so you have to make a lot of things happen. The problem always was in trios that when a guitar player would take off on a solo, for example, the bottom would drop out. All of a sudden there was no rhythm playing going on there. Once I discovered looping, I started writing music with that in mind. I realized that I could actually have a trio where I looped myself and play along with what I’d looped and in that sense it could sound more like a quartet than a trio. That, and having written enough material at one point, gave me the idea that I wanted to have a power trio. A power trio to me is a band that plays kind of aggressively but also it’s a band in which each member plays a lot. It’s a term that comes from the ’60s with bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. And our fans named it that, by the way. I didn’t have a name for it. So I was looking around for the right people to make this trio with and I went to the School Of Rock in Philadelphia to do a seminar with their current students. While I was there, Paul Green, the founder of the school, said “I have to bring in these two young kids, they’re phenomenal, they’re sister and brother, they’ve already graduated from the school, they’re my best students ever, can I just bring them in to play with you?” So they came in and we played a Frank Zappa song together, and from that moment on I thought this is the band that I should have. The problem was of course that they were 19 and 20 years old, and everyone wondered: how is that going to work? Is that going to be okay to have two young kids in your band? Won’t it make you look old? And I said it’ll either make me look old or it will renew me. And that is exactly what happened as we started playing together. I felt like a kid again, really; it reminded me of being in my first teen band because it was no longer about trying to make it big or trying to make a lot of money, it was simply about the joy of playing together. And it probably wouldn’t have mattered if no one had showed up at our gigs, we were so happy playing together. So then I decided I wanted to write a record for this band, but I’m not ready to write songs for it; what I want is to write a difficult piece of music and try it out with Eric and Julie. I started with one piece and ended up with five, which, when put together equaled one forty three minute piece of music which was called e. You had five sections—a, b, c, d and e—I tried to make it difficult; I tried to make it interesting and aggressive; I tried to feed into the piece itself all the components that I wanted the power trio to exercise in our live performances. They just interpreted it perfectly for me. Some of the time I showed them exactly what I wanted and some of the time they’re playing something they made up for their own part. But the end result is amazing, cuz for a three piece band to sound that way, I was very pleased with it. And then of course I don’t know how many people know this, but a year later I was asked to do it in an orchestral fashion with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam, and that’s also an amazing version of e. It’s very different because all the parts I had in my mind that couldn’t be played by the power trio were now being played by trombones and violins and cellos and so forth.
GC: I’ve got to pick that version up. One of the things I marveled at about the power trio, both on the studio album and the great concert DVD, is you talk about those power trios of the ’60s; I remember how it always seemed that their songs were verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and everyone was waiting for the moment where they could take off and strut their stuff, whereas in e, the composition itself contained the wallop and the power.
AB: It starts right from the get go—that’s the idea. It hits you right in the face and never lets up.
GC: It’s a great record for me to drive with if I’m not awake (it really wakes me up).
AB: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess it’s a record you really can’t ignore. And a lot of it was just the power and the energy that came from, the piece itself is well-written if I do say so myself, but also it’s the power and everything that came from those particular people, working together at that moment in time. That was just a fabulous moment, where all of a sudden you had these two kids who literally before my eyes were every day getting better and better.
GC: Now that you’ve told me that e has other parts that were played by the orchestra, I’m going to pick that up right away. Is that available just on CD or is there also a DVD?
AB: It’s available as both; the CD is a studio recording, it sounds great, you can hear every little part; the DVD is the actual live performance, the one and only time that piece of music was ever performed orchestrally. I would say if you can only have one, get the DVD because you get to see this orchestra and me try to handle this piece of music and it’s scary, it’s actually very good. Everyone there just went crazy, including me, cuz I always had this dream of being able to do something as part of an orchestra, and being a self-taught musician, I never really thought that could happen for me. For me to be up there and being conducted in front of a 60 piece orchestra is really exciting.
GC: It’s like being at the A Day in the Life sessions, right?
AB: (Laughs) Exactly. I’ve always loved orchestral music and ever since I wrote e for the trio I had in mind, wow this would make such a great symphonic piece. You can only do so much with me looping on guitar and three musicians. I love that version, the trio version, and I love the orchestral version equally.
GC: Frank Zappa, David Bowie, King Crimson, Nine Inch Nails—every musician I know would have killed to work with any one of them.
AB: Talking Heads, don’t forget them; and Paul Simon.
GC: Can you tell us just a bit about the different challenges in each of those settings?
AB: First of all, I never planned on any of those things happening; I planned on going the normal path, you know, write songs, put out your own record, be in a band or whatever. I went in the back door by being in Frank Zappa’s band, then a sideman to David Bowie, then a sideman to Talking Heads, then finally getting my own record deal to do my own work and also at the same time joining a band called King Crimson, which would allow me to do everything I wanted: to be the frontman, the singer, the lyricist, a songwriter, etc. So I wasn’t aiming for that target, but it sure was super fortunate for me. I was playing in a band in Nashville at a little club. Frank Zappa had played a concert that night and was looking for somewhere to hang out afterwards, came into my club, heard me play for forty minutes, came up and shook my hand, said, “I’m going to get your name and number, I want to audition you” and that changed my whole life. That started me down the path; my one year with Frank Zappa, which was for me like a crash course in everything you could possibly want to know about the music business and making a film, mastering records and how to run your own business, everything was kind of thrown at me in that one year by Frank Zappa. So I could never say enough about that and how important that was for everything I’ve done since. Frank was a genius and he was very generous to me, and I was like a little puppy dog following him around, trying to soak up every little thing I could. From there, I joined David Bowie’s band, and that was also a surprise. I was onstage with Frank, playing a concert in Berlin, and there was a part of the show where Frank took an extended guitar solo and some of the members of the band, including myself could leave the stage for about ten minutes. As I was leaving the stage, I looked over at the monitor mixer and saw David Bowie and Iggy Pop standing there. So naturally, I went over and shook David’s hand and said thank you for all the music you’ve done, I love what you’ve done, and he said, “Well great, how’d you like to be in my band?” That’s how that transition came about, just one dot connecting right to the next. Suddenly I found myself in that rarified air of superstardom, being around that–private planes, movie stars, and all the things that come with that were all of a sudden part of my daily life as I toured around the world with David. He gave me a platform to grow and really stretch out as a guitarist. That’s what he needed from me. Frank needed me more as a guitarist and a singer. But David needed me as somebody to just go wild on guitar. His music allows that; there are a lot of songs he has where the guitar player’s supposed to go crazy in. That was the role I was handed, and it was fortunate because it was just the perfect timing for me; I was starting to find my own way, my own sound, dealing with new technologies that had just come out, and I loved working with David. Of course I worked with him again in 1990, as we mentioned earlier, that was yet another world tour that went to twenty-seven countries. He’s, as you can only imagine, a very smart, interesting person who has a lot of knowledge about a lot of different things. From there I went into Talking Heads, who were at the apex of crossing into being famous. Everywhere you went in New York City or in Tokyo…you’d go in a bookstore or restaurant, they’d be playing Talking Heads music. I was in that period of their transition where we did a world tour, I did I think five different records with the separate members and two Talking Heads records, did this thing called The Tom Tom Club, which became a huge hit for the drummer and bass player of Talking Heads, all of that happened in one quick year. So the dots once again connected and all of a sudden I was watching what it’s like for people to gain stardom, just having walked away from watching a guy who already was there. The next thing that happened was a call from Robert Fripp asking me would I like to form a band with him and Bill Bruford—both of those players being people that I greatly respected (Bill Bruford being in fact my favorite drummer of all time)—so naturally I wanted to be in that band. We formed a new band. At first it wasn’t called King Crimson but after a few weeks’ rehearsal and writing together, Robert decided we could call it King Crimson. And the rest, for me, is history. I was in that band now for thirty-two years, and just a ton of writing and things. My solo career happened at the same time, the very same year. I was at last offered a deal and made my first solo record called The Lone Rhino and those two things have kind of always lived side by side—my solo work and my work in some ensemble or another, either King Crimson or The Bears or whatever.
GC: I just have to say the effect on every musician of that first King Crimson album you did, Discipline, it’s everywhere to this day. I remember reading John McLaughlin gushing about it in Musician magazine to Robert Fripp in Paris; I remember hearing jazz guys, rock guys, punk and funk players just going crazy over that record; it was so revolutionary and it stands up to this day—it is as current and fresh and forward-looking today as it was then.
AB: Absolutely I think it still does stand up today and I think if somebody said what King Crimson record should I listen to that would be the one I would point at. We always joked that it was kind of our honeymoon record because everybody was so excited to play together and had so many ideas; at the same time all four of us had new technology. I was the first guy to have a guitar synthesizer because I was in Japan when it came out, and they gave it to me (laughs). Robert was the second guy. So we had guitar synthesizers no one else in the world had. Tony Levin, the bass player actually was playing an instrument called the Chapman Stick—twelve strings on it that you tap with your fingers—and Bill Bruford was playing electronic drums, something that, to that point, no one had done. So you had these four monkeys (laughs) all playing with new toys, and I don’t think we even realized what was happening because we were heads down in the work itself. We wanted so badly to do some great music and we had so many thoughts on it. Then the whole procedure was done with and after that, about a year or so later, I began to realize, “Wow, we did something that doesn’t sound like anybody else.” I’m really proud of that; that’s hard to do.
GC: Your working with Paul Simon, I’m completely ignorant of that, so could you talk about that for a minute?
AB: Through my friend Laurie Anderson, who I made three records with and one movie, she told Paul Simon that he should have me play on something with him, because she said, “He doesn’t play guitar, he makes sounds, and you might really like what he does.” So unbeknownst to me, Paul was making something called Graceland, which, once again is a seminal record, so he asked me to come into the studio in New York. I flew there and had four days there, and the first morning I arrived the engineer-producer Roy Halee put up some of the tracks and said, “Here, I’ll let you listen to this.” It was all African musicians playing, there was no…it sounded like the wrong tape, and I thought he’d made a mistake, I thought, “Well this doesn’t sound at all like Paul Simon; what is this?” And he said, “Yeah, Paul’s been doing some stuff with African musicians and you’re the first non-African to play on this.” There were no words; there was no Paul Simon on the record yet. If you can imagine what Graceland sounds like without his voice…
GC: That’s mind-boggling.
AB: It was very confusing at first. Then Paul arrived in the studio and I explained to him my concern and he was like, “Oh, of course, here let me put up this track and I don’t have all of the words but I’ll sing what I have.” So he would put up a track like You Can Call Me Al or Boy in the Bubble, and he would stand right next to me, kind of quietly whisper-singing these songs to me, and it was giving me chills, of course. At the same time I instantly understood: “Oh my gosh, Paul Simon has reinvented himself and this is what it’s going to sound like;” it still gives me chills to think about it. So, we jumped in and there you go; it turned out to be a massive record, re-kickstarted his career, and once again sounded like nothing else anyone had ever done. Not many people know this, but I have to tell people this: there’s a video with Chevy Chase and Paul Simon doing You Can Call Me Al, and because Chevy Chase is pretending to play a saxophone, I think it misled everyone. The song, it has that part that goes, “Duh duh duh dut, dah, duh duh dut” and everybody thinks that’s a saxophone section; actually that’s my guitar synthesizer.
GC: Oh my God…
AB: (laughs) I have to say that now, I’m kinda proud of that, I was in Amsterdam not too long ago, sitting having a beer, when all of a sudden that song came on and I said to the bartender, That’s me! And I never do that, but I just had to.
GC: That’s amazing.
AB: Really I’m proud of that moment, everybody knows that line, and Paul wrote the line, of course; I just played it.
GC: And Nine Inch Nails?
AB: It’s not much longer after that that I played with Trent Reznor; I remember thinking how odd it is to go from playing with Paul Simon to playing with Trent Reznor. I didn’t know Nine Inch Nails records at all. They called and asked me to come by, I was in L.A., and they had rented the Sharon Tate mansion and had boarded it up so it was entirely dark inside and you couldn’t tell what time of day it was. They put a studio in there. The record eventually was Downward Spiral, which once again was a huge record for Nine Inch Nails. I went in and played for two days and just literally never left the place. They kept asking me: “Play something else. Try this, try that.” I’ve done four or five now with Trent, they’ve all been that way. He puts up a track and says: “What would you like to do? Is there anything you can think of to play on this?” Usually I have four or five ideas and I say, “Yeah, I can do this or this or this,” he says, “We’ll, go and do it.” Then after I’m gone, he’ll rummage through all the information I’ve left them with—and that must take a lot of hours, by the way—and they decide what’s useful to the record and put it in. So, even when I get a new Nine Inch Nails record that I’ve played on, I’m not actually sure what I played (laughs). They run it through so many processors it’s like taking what I played and putting it through a meat grinder. Every now and then I can say, “That’s me right there,” but most of the time it’s all one big thing and it’s…I love the way he produces records; there’s an amazing sound there that I like.
GC: From Paul Simon to Nine Inch Nails, from King Crimson to The Bears, from Zappa to Bowie, I think it’s great that you get to be you in all this extremely disparate music.
AB: Somehow my sound, my style, and my sensibilities seem to work in a lot of musical settings. It was not something I planned but you could probably put me in any kind of music, and I could find some way to fit into it. Hopefully add something to it. I prefer that as my “diet”—I don’t like to be just one thing; I like to have different challenges; it keeps me fresh; it keeps me growing. The thing underneath it all is it gives me the confidence and ability to make my own records the way I want to. Over time, I feel that all these experiences have resulted in me being able to make the best music I could possibly make; if I had stayed in one thing only that might not be true.
GC: King Crimson, during your involvement, was really THREE bands: the Discipline / Beat / Three of a Perfect Pair lineup; the volcanic Double Trio; and The ConstruKction of Light / Power to Believe band. Was one of these more satisfying than another and, if so, why?
AB: You know they are separate entities, separated, if by nothing else, than by the years in between, because Robert seems to have a penchant for working together with King Crimson for three or four years and then stopping for seven (laughs), and then starting again for three or four years and stopping for seven. They are all King Crimson in their spirit and in their musical nature but you’re right, they are separate entities. There’s nothing quite like the Double Trio. I now have a band called The Crimson Project, which includes some of the members from that Double Trio—Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, as well as my trio. So their trio (Stickmen) and my trio come together and do an hour and a half of that particular music, and I will tell you: it’s thunderous; there’s just nothing like it when you have two drummers and two bass players—it gets massive, and there I am in the middle, trying to direct the maelstrom. But it’s a lot of fun and that material was specifically written for that lineup. That makes the Double Trio type of music very different—it’s a different brand of music, but it’s still King Crimson. You have bigger pieces of music like Thrak and Dinosaur—more epic kind of sound, that was what we were going for throughout that time and that band. When you go to the last band, which is Pat, Trey, Robert and I, it’s more scaled back, but to me it’s more edgy—in a sense, even more modern again. To me, The Power to Believe and The ConstruKction of Light, those two records are very modern-sounding. There’s, once again, nothing that sounds like them, and ConstruKction of Light in particular I always liked because I think it was most underrated, it was a departure for us. Always in making King Crimson records—in the thirty-two years I’ve been doing it—it takes about two to three years to make a record. That’s because we do it in spurts. Robert and I then refine it, and we refine it some more, then we bring the band in, they add their part, and we refine it some more, and we go out and play all that music live, and then finally, after two years or so, you might actually get to record it. In the case of ConstruKction of Light we did something entirely different: Robert came here to my home—I have a full studio in the bottom of my home, which has a guest quarters, and Robert loves it here. He came and stayed 109 days, during which we wrote and recorded that record from top to bottom without ever playing it live or trying to refine it or anything else. We just worked on it every day, said, “What’s that song, let’s move onto the next one” and there’s something about it; to me, it has kind of an immediacy that other Crimson records didn’t have the chance to have. I’m proud of all of the records, by the way; I think all of them are great. You mentioned in your questions the song Into the Frying Pan, and so I went back and listened to that yesterday and that’s why I’m now so hot on The ConstruKction of Light—it’s the first time I’ve heard that record in years and I realized how very, very good it turned out.
GC: It’s incredible. The title track is, again, a piece of music no one’s ever heard anything like before and probably ever will again.
AB: I would agree with that. When we started on The ConstrKcktion of Light, the track itself, it was a musical piece, a lot of the Robert and Adrian guitar interplay and Trey being involved in it too. We were doing things like playing off of each other—one guy would play one note, the next guy would play the next note in a sequence of notes, doing a lot of interesting kind of techniques that were kind of fresh at that time, and it was a piece of music about five minutes long—and it struck me at some point, well, wait a minute, this double guitar interplay stuff sounds a lot like Frame By Frame and the songs that were so typical of the early ’80s band that we had—maybe I should try to turn this into a song. I quite like that idea that it’s a piece of music for five minutes then all of a sudden it turns into a song (laughs). You don’t expect there’s going to be any vocal, then all of a sudden the vocalist shows up and sings you a song.
GC: It’s the same effect at the end of the album where you have that super-intense, tight rhythm section that Robert is soloing over and then you shift right into the I Have a Dream coda—it’s just such an amazing effect for the listener.
AB: That coda was written while I was in the bedroom above the studio. Pat, Trey, and Robert were playing something downstairs that filtered through the floorboards and carpeting of my house. I could hear some of what they were playing and I sat with an acoustic guitar and said, “Wow, I could play this to what they’re playing.” Then I went down and showed them and it was a whole new section for that piece. What started as I think another Lark’s Tongue ended up having the coda as you say.
GC: I think that, years from now people who maybe haven’t appreciated that record will wake up ten years from now and say, “Oh my God, how did this get by us?”
AB: I like it a lot too, I really do; that was a good band and I’m proud of everything we’ve been able to achieve in King Crimson. I guess, probably you know, that there is going to be a new King Crimson, which I’m not a part of. I just want to make it clear to everyone I’m fine with that; I’m happy about it; from the explanation I’ve received from Robert of what his idea is for this next band, it really doesn’t have a place for me. It’s three drummers in the front, everyone else behind that; it’s more re-doing of old Crimson material, there’s nothing new, there’s not going to be a new record; they’re going to tour for four weeks and that’s it so far. So people are making something out of it, but really it’s just a small chapter. I can’t really imagine the racket the drummers are going to make (laughs); hopefully it will be a beautiful racket. I’m happy about it and I totally support it. Robert and I remain very good friends—lifelong—so there’s no problem with it at all. To be quite honest, at this junction for me, I would have a hard time taking on doing King Crimson because still, as I said, I’ve got the power trio doing tours, I’ve got the Crimson ProjeKct doing tours, and more than anything, I’ve got to complete and launch this big thing called FLUX which I’m very excited about.
GC: You actually produced two songs for the band Jars of Clay, one of which was their hit single, Flood; and I heard the guitar-heavy version of that song that you played on—and loved it! Have you done a lot of producing over the years besides your own albums? Would you like to do more?
AB: Every now and then I’ll find a production that appeals to me on a musical level and the timing will be right. The money will be there to fund it properly and I’ll say, “Yes.” Those are my priorities, the first being that there’s something musically there that I feel I can enhance and add to. What the problem usually is, is the timing. To produce someone’s record, I feel I have to really live and breathe their music during that period of time. If it’s a month of producing someone’s record, maybe here in my studio, I have to turn everything else off in my life and really live their record, their music. So yes, I have done that a few times and I enjoy that process. I feel I’m very good at it, actually, naturally a good producer for certain kinds of things. It’s becoming more and more rare that I can afford the time to do that. In the case of Jars Of Clay, it’s an interesting little story: We moved here to Mount Juliet, Tennessee—which is on the northeast side of Nashville—and for two months we built the studio in the bottom half of my house—which has been there now for nineteen years. My wife’s cousin lived in town—a young girl named Sherry; she knew three young guys in a band who had just gotten a record deal. They were pizza delivery boys (laughs) and they had a band called, The Jars of Clay. They said we have just a few thousand dollars in our budget, we’d love to have Adrian produce just two songs—the two that we think are singles. It coincided with the finishing of my studio, so I thought, “Well this is great, I’ll get to have a whole band in here and just kind of test run the studio, see how everything’s working,” and for four days I produced those two songs. I played pretty much everything on the songs along with the engineer: I played cello, he played violin, and so on. That was done and I thought, “There you go, what will ever come of that?” I feel kind of sorry for these young guys, no chance that anything will ever happen—they’ll just sell these records to their friends and relatives. Next call I got they were at half a million sales. It clocked over and became a huge hit record, two million sales.
GC: I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it for a little while; it was really a big record.
AB: It totally paid for my studio (laughs)—those four days. Isn’t that curious, that’s how things are in the music business; things drop in your lap or they don’t. In my career I’ve noticed the dots just connect sometimes and there you are. Due to my wife’s cousin, I ended up producing a hit record.
GC: For a local bunch of pizza guys.
AB: That’s the music business (laughs).
GC: Both live and on record, whenever I hear you play it sounds like you’re having a lot of fun. The guitar solo at the end of Into the Frying Pan by King Crimson is one of my absolute favorites by anyone. It sounds like you create a single note, hold it in your hand like a lump of coal, roll it around to see it from all possible angles, then squeeze it like silly putty until it’s a diamond, or something that actually comes to life and is trying to get away—like a puppy or a kitten. How do you achieve so much variation with what is essentially one-note? Can you recall the inspiration for that solo and was it as much fun as it sounds like you’re having?
AB: People often mention when they see me live I seem to be having such a great time and it’s true; I really, really enjoy it; I lose myself in it; Time goes by in a flash, especially when there’s a great audience and the band is really hot; It just goes by way too quickly and I’m having a great time. You might have been on the road twelve hours that day through all kinds of terrible things—waiting at airports or whatever—but when you hit that night, those two hours on stage, everything kinda just melts away and there you are—that’s why you’re doing it in the first place. As for putting things on record, it’s the same for me, I just have such a joy playing guitar; it’s almost just an extension of me; I don’t even think about it and little things happen; I can’t even really explain. Like, you ask about that first note that sort of evolves: it’s just a little bit of movement with my tremolo arm that I naturally do, that creates the vowel sound of that note, that causes it to just slightly change a little bit; it evolves, instead of staying exactly the same, and then all of a sudden I know, “Okay, now it’s time to launch off this rocket ship and get playing some other notes and stuff.” Soloing is just an absolute joy for me cuz it really is just instinctive; I just go for it every time and I really love doing that. The thing I found out is, usually from me, my first attempt at recording a solo IS the keeper (laughs). If I don’t get it the first time then I’m doomed to try and make it better for another twenty times before I’ll finally go back to the first time (laughs). So I’ve learned over the years: do it the way you want from the beginning, kind of have an idea of where you want it to go, have a sound in mind that excites you, and just jump in—it’s not failed me very often. I think of something like The Great Curve on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, that’s one of those moments where I just…I knew what I wanted to do and I just jumped in and did it. I guess if you have enough experience with an instrument, you basically live with it, sleep with it, eat with it, drink with it, eventually it becomes such a part of you that you don’t have to think about much, it just happens—your fingers and your mind are so in sync with what the guitar can do. I happen to have a very good guitar now; the Adrian Belew model Parker Fly is, in my estimation, just a perfect guitar—not because it has my name on it but because the creator of it, who took twenty years to create it, and tried to solve all the inherent problems electric guitars have. Ken Parker, he did exactly that—he revolutionized the electric guitar, and I have one and it feels like an extension of my arm.
GC: That’s fantastic.
AB: As for that solo and that note: I get that, I see what you’re saying; there’s a wildness in some of the soloing I’ve been able to do, like that note is waiting to escape and go somewhere.
GC: As though you birthed it, that note, only now it’s awake, has become self-aware, and wants to run amok. I hope you don’t mind my describing it in visual terms.
AB: It’s funny, I think in visual terms a lot with music. When I’m writing or creating, especially in the studio, when I’m producing my music, I’m always trying to paint a picture. It’s not necessarily specific—it’s something that other people could think of their own way and use their own imagination—but I think for me music is a visual thing, it really is. I get that same sensation that you’re talking about: a physicality; that note really is something going through the air, and I can see it, and all of a sudden it’s jumping all over (laughs).
GC: It actually reminded me of the first time I heard the solo in Three of a Perfect Pair. I said well someone just completely threw the rule book away as to what constitutes a guitar solo, and it was breathtaking.
AB: Well, thank you. I remember that one too, that one in particular was a new device that we had in the studio, not even a guitar device, and you could trap the sound as you played it back, little pieces of it, and change the bandwidth of it so…it’s hard to explain…the note could be two octaves higher than what you actually played, then it could swoop all the way down to be an octave lower than what you played—it was real fun to do and just another one of those things where you did it once and said, “That’s perfect, let’s just leave it.”
GC: I just want to say, as someone who grew up listening to The Beatles, and feeling that their constant evolving and speeding into every direction, while simultaneously writing songs that would marry themselves to the souls of an entire generation, I feel like you’re the closest thing we have to somebody continuing in that tradition. I’m not deliberately trying to set up the FLUX question here, but when I hear your music—it’s not that it reminds me of The Beatles, although there certainly are some qualities that are reminiscent of them in some of it—but it’s that constant reaching and at the same time bringing the listener with you into all these different areas, it’s just something that I wish every artist was doing.
AB: Well I really like change. I like moving forward. I think it does have a lot to do with my background. The Beatles were the people I listened to and learned from, in so many fashions. I would learn all the different parts on their records—the drums, the bass, the piano, whatever—and knew what the production was doing and why they used this harmony and all those things. They were my teachers really. They wrote the book on rock music in my humble opinion, and the one thing they did that excited me so much was every new record was different. When they went from Rubber Soul, which was very much a song-oriented, four piece band record, to the next record, which was Revolver—my favorite record, by the way—it was like…I don’t know how to explain it…the first time I heard Revolver I thought, “Now these guys have opened up every different possibility.” There were orchestras, backwards guitar, sound effects, there was everything all of a sudden in that record, you know? They had gone in every direction like you said. It sort of taught me: that’s what artists are supposed to do, keep evolving, and keep changing, and because The Beatles did that I guess that’s why I try to do that too.
GC: I think you have a very long catalog that spans so much and that you can really be proud of.
AB: Well thank you very much. I couldn’t have asked for more or a better platform to live my life on. I’ve had so many great situations and have worked with people I could only have dreamed of. The funny thing is I feel like I’m just getting started still (laughs). I could just do this forever. The main problem I have if any is just having the time to do all the things I want to and to stretch myself as much as I can, which brings us again to FLUX.
GC: Yes, please bring us up to date on your most forward-looking project, to date: FLUX.
AB: FLUX plays right into that theory where I’m trying to put everything I can into one thing, and I wanted it to be everything and anything that I find interesting—so if I hear a sound that I like, it could be in FLUX for three seconds, in between one musical piece and some other song or something; they connect that way. I call them snippets. We’ve got way over a hundred different snippet things. Some of them are common ordinary sounds like someone knocking on a door and opening it; others are guitar moments where I was in the studio and suddenly I blast away some sound that’s amazing and there it is for ten seconds. That’s all mixed together with the songs themselves. There are forty new songs so far and the different pieces of music.
AB: And the beauty of it for me personally is it gives me complete artistic freedom. The fact that most everything is short…let me explain that a little bit: In my mind, the idea that you have a verse and a chorus, and then you’re supposed to write another verse and repeat the chorus, then have another verse and repeat the chorus, is really boring for me now. I’ve always felt that once I’ve sang a verse and the chorus, I’ve probably told you everything I need to in that song and I’m done. So why do I have to keep repeating it from that point on—just because that’s the format that everyone uses? Well I’ve done away with that, and what I’ve done is written songs that are: sometimes a minute, or a minute and twenty seconds long; some of them are three or four minutes long as per normal, but you don’t hear them that way—every now and then you hear them that way, most of the time you hear bits and pieces of them; you might hear the chorus and a verse; two days later you might hear a verse and the guitar solo, or something. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and it really allows me to be so much more creative and quick with what I do. I’ve got well over two hundred things now in FLUX and I don’t plan to stop. When FLUX is launched, it’s going to be, for me, a living, continuing thing. I will keep updating it and putting more new things in there that will also ensure that it will always be fresh. The idea behind it is it’s never the same twice.
GC: I remember when I bought Desire Caught by the Tail; I listened and thought that you had all these great sounds and yes they got grounded to songs and often short ones then too, but that the sounds were so strong they could probably stand on their own. Now with FLUX it’s almost like you’re letting the listener peek into your brain.
AB: Well I love the immediacy of it, it’s been so important to me that I have a studio here, and an engineer, and I can just go for it any time I want; Because there’s no particular format I’m looking at—it can be everything. There’s a little funny song about being a cowboy, for example, not a song you would normally hear from me, not a song I would probably ever put on a record because it’s only thirty seconds long (laughs). That’s just an example. There are tons and tons of different pieces of music: orchestral and otherwise; there are aggressive songs; there are pretty songs; there’s this, there’s that; and some of them are full length but most of the time the whole idea is to keep this fast-paced interruption thing going. So you’re listening to something when it gets interrupted by something, then that changes into something else. In a way it’s almost cartoon-like—not that it’s funny, but in the face of it, like a Bugs Bunny cartoon but doing it with music, if that analogy makes any sense.
GC: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you mentioned people never hearing it the same way twice, that there is a random individual experience quality to it, where I can picture people having FLUX parties the way they used to get together and listen to records.
AB: I had this idea since 1978. There’s a thing on my website—adrianbelew.net—which tells you the genesis of FLUX—where the idea came from. I specifically remember it as almost an epiphany and I’ve had to wait all these years cuz there was no way to actually do it. There was no way to make music that would never be the same twice—you can’t do that on a CD or as a download; you never have been able to do that until now. Finally, I realized that with app technology you could do this. FLUX is a free app; you download it free from iTunes; you get to listen to it for free, and then you get to decide do I want to purchase this just like you would a record of any sort. From that point on, it’s yours and you’ll have hundreds and hundreds of listens to it—and it will never be the same; it’s like getting a lot of records. The way I see doing that is it will be in half an hour segments. So when you say I’m going to play FLUX, it will play for half an hour at a time. In that half an hour, it will be scrambled and randomized to such a degree that you’ll never hear that half an hour again. You’ll hear some of the same components as time goes by, of course—the songs are kind of cut up into components so eventually you do hear everything—but over a long period of time. That’s the whole idea in a nutshell.
GC: I can’t think of another technological or musical concept that has me or people I’ve mentioned it to as excited.
AB: Well I hope it doesn’t let anybody down; it’s still just music. I am going to try to have some visuals, but I’m still trying to work that out. How do you visualize so many random different things? That’s one of the things that’s holding it back from being launched at this point; musically we’re pretty close to having everything we want in it to start from. As I said, we keep adding to it over the years. Eventually, there will be hours and hours of these things, because they’re fun and they’re easier to do than, say, writing ConstrKcktion of Light (laughs). And I’ll still be able to do that—produce CDs whenever I have a piece of music that doesn’t work in the context of FLUX. FLUX has to be fast-paced to work; it’s supposed to surprise you a lot. So there you go, that’s where we’re at with it. I hope it’s good. For me and Daniel—my engineer—we’ve gotten so used to it that I’m like, “Okay, onto the next thing.”
GC: It sounds like the type of thing that people just have to experience for themselves in order to understand.
AB: Yeah, I can’t really explain it. I’ve just tried again and it always falls a little short of what it really is. It’s just a listening experience that’s always different. Hopefully, there’ll be some interactivity in there so you can tailor it a little bit for yourself, choose things that you prefer over other things—it’s just a lot of music pouring out of me; all kinds. I think I’ve opened up a new valve. The other thing I have to say…here’s the way I view things now: In our society, our brains have now been taught a different way of taking in information. With Google and the Internet and all these things, we don’t take in information the way we used to. We now take it in little bitty quick bits and that’s very evident in everything from television to the Internet; it’s evident everywhere, but no one’s changed that in musical terms; we’re still making another CD with twelve songs that are five minutes each and thinking that works into that framework. It doesn’t, really. To utilize the Internet was one of my aims when I first started this three years ago.
GC: Almost like the way they use songs in the soundtrack of a movie; they give you just enough to affect you and move on. I’m a guy who still likes to put headphones on and listen to an entire album, staring at autumn leaves. But this, I imagine, will be like immersing myself in a swirling wind of a million leaves all around me.
AB: What you do get if you listen to FLUX in headphones is a flood of information. That’s why I think half an hour spurts are perfect. As a headphone experience, it’s kind of on the edge of your seat a lot. But still, it doesn’t negate seven minute songs being written by me. It doesn’t negate CDs or anything else. It’s just a new color in the crayon box. I know my fans will like it because one of the records people mention to me a lot is a solo record I did twelve or fifteen years ago called, Op Zop Too Wah. It has that essence about it, although at a much slower pace, where something gets interrupted and it comes back later; there’s a sound effect between the two songs, stuff like that. Knowing that a lot of my fans loved that record I’m pretty sure they’ll like FLUX. But I hope it has an effect even bigger than that, of course. It doesn’t really matter to me, I’m not trying to be a star or anything, but I just think it’s a good idea. If everyone who might like it just had the opportunity to experience it, then I’d be happy. Even if all of them rejected it. (laughs) Cuz that’s what you’re doing as an artist, if you’ve got something you want to communicate, you’d like to communicate it to everybody, and the ones who like it, like it; the ones who don’t, ignore it. It’s hard to do that because there’s so much out there now. There’s such a flood of information out there. It’s fabulous, I love everything about how much you can do on the Internet; it’s amazing how much you can learn instantly; you can talk to your phone and she answers you back, but at the same time, you have, almost too many choices. I’m just hoping that people do at least give this a shot.
GC: To any of our readers that have never bought an Adrian Belew album, would you make a recommendation?)
AB: If you’re talking King Crimson, I’d say Discipline would be a great place to start. As a co-writer of that record, it’s part of my legacy and part of my work. The Bears: I would go with our last record Eureka, which is available at my online store at adrianbelew.net. It really surmises what The Bears are all about: great songs played by four guys, kind of a mid-western pop band that’s in the vein of Beatles-Esque type music. For my own solo work, I would choose Op Zop Too Wah. It’s a very underrated record—it was on a small label, not many people actually heard of it. I remember at the time it had only six reviews in total, but over the years it’s the one people have mentioned to me the most.