By: Rick Landers
The career of guitar visionary Adrian Belew has been an inventive musical odyssey. He has mastered the ability to journey into the avant garde while anchoring his compositions to the fundamental driving forces of pop and rock, often playing along the outer edges of contemporary music in ways that have been punky, new wave, comedic, bizarre, and twisted.
His talent extends from guitar work with King Crimson to collaborations with Joe Cocker, Cyndi Lauper, Nine Inch Nails, Jars of Clay, Mike Oldfield, Laurie Anderson, the Jaguares, Robert Palmer, Peter Gabriel, Crash Test Dummies, Paul Simon, and, another man who’s gone where no man has gone before, actor William Shatner.
While working with musical explorers like Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp, David Bowie and David Byrne helped hone his music vocabulary, Belew’s solo recording career, beginning with the 1982 debut album, Lone Rhino, has seen him add a host of words and phrases of his own.
In 1990, Belew won Guitar Player magazine’s Experimental Guitarist award for the fifth time in a row and in 2000, Adrian was honored by the city of Cinncinati when Peter Frampton handed him a CAMMY lifetime achievement award. In 2004, Adrian’s “Man in the Moon” was selected as one of the “Top 10 songs for Dads” by Better Homes and Gardens magazine, along with John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Always artistically on the move, Adrian Belew has added his support to the young musicians of Paul Green’s School of Rock Music; started the Adrian Belew Power Trio; continued to tour and record with King Crimson; and, found time to record with his long time musician pals, the Bears. Each of Adrian’s latest three solo CDs, Side One, Side Two and Side Three bear cover art created by…Adrian Belew.
Rick Landers: Before you met Frank Zappa was your guitar playing or concept of music more pedestrian?
Adrian Belew: I suppose it was in a sense that I hadn’t discovered how to play in odd time signatures. I have always liked interesting music, especially modern classical music like Stravinsky and Vareze. I even knew about Vareze before I met Frank. and I always liked interesting percussion ensembles. So, I wouldn’t say totally pedestrian, but I’ve been caught up before in pop music, Steely Dan, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, stuff like that.
Rick: Did your musical contributions influence Zappa?
Adrian Belew: I really don’t know. [Laughs] I never had a chance to ask him that. I’d probably say no. I was in a very early stage in my life. Since then, I’ve probably led and mentored and taught rather than impart things. But, apart from Frank, my work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and King Crimson may have inspired others.
The thing with Frank, he really wanted a vocalist-guitarist and so I would say he was less interested in my guitar playing. That just wasn’t what he needed. He was the guitar player in the band and what he needed was someone who could cover his guitar parts when he would sing and who could be both a vocalist and guitarist. Secondly, and more importantly perhaps, he wanted a front man who’d wear funny costumes.
Rick: Did you start out as a guitar player?
Adrian Belew: I started out as a singer and I sang all my life to relatives and anyone else who would listen. I took up the drums at age 10 and joined my first band when I was 14. I was the drummer, but I was a singing drummer. It made me kind of special.
My band, The Denems, was the Cincinnati version of the Beatles in the sense that we played all the classic Beatles stuff from the early ’60s and the British Invasion period before Sergeant Pepper’s and Jimi Hendrix and that second round of the British Invasion.
Rick: What are the highlights of working with Robert Fripp?
Adrian Belew: He was in King Crimson from the get go. He was the founder, along with Greg Lake, Ian McDonald and Michael Giles in 1969. King Crimson is always on tour doing something new.
Working with Robert has the tendency to bring out things that you didn’t know you had in you. He shows you yourself and challenges you to challenge yourself. He’s a great reflector in that way.
My years spent in King Crimson have been really as a partner with Robert in discovering ourselves. What we can do together and what music we can make that no one else will or can make.
Rick: What David Byrne and Talking Heads?
Adrian Belew: I came into the Talking Heads in the period when they were on their rise to fame. It was quite evident. You couldn’t walk into a restaurant without Talking Heads being played in the background. Their music was custom made for what I was doing.
It was really wide open for colorful and wacky guitar sounds and things. Most of their music was in one key, very few key changes, and very funky. So, for a guitar player it was just like a field day. I liked them very much as people. I got on with them really well, and I felt that they were starting something new and fresh. I was happy to be a part of it.
Rick: It seems you’ve always been out there on the edge of guitar playing yet close enough to the mainstream to hold an audience, very edgy and interesting. Do you have some allegiance to basic rock in your work?
Adrian Belew: Yeah, I always had in my background kind of an interest in pop music, well-crafted songs, great melodies, succinct guitar solos, and on other the side, an interest in experimental sounds. The wild stuff that maybe drives you to the edge a little bit more. I’ve forever been trying to combine those two elements. Not many people are interested in doing that so it’s given me my own little audience, as you say.
I think that it’s something that I’ll never stop doing because I think there are always fresh ways to interpret what is called pop music. And I’ve never been mainstream, per se. I never had a hit because I realized what I like to do isn’t palatable to the average listener. I stopped trying. It’s more for the musos of the world. The ones who like to sit around and really think about it and be invigorated by it, not the ones who want to watch American Idol.
Rick: How have things have changed for you in the recording arena from your first solo album, “Lone Rhino,” to your most recent releases?
Adrian Belew: Well, for the last 12 years I’ve had my own recording studio in at home. I was one of the first people to really embrace the idea of putting in your own studio when the digital revolution came along and something like that became more affordable. I stopped spending my record budgets on large expensive studios which were very impressive and fun, but nonetheless too expensive. Instead, I built my own studio.
That’s the main thing that’s happened in my life. I would say that one of the most important things that happened to me musically is the fact that every day I work in my own studio. I have an employee, a full-time engineer, who comes in every day.
Five days a week I’m here. I’m in my studio right now, in fact. It’s a constant generating of ideas even if you only get a little something done each day. The kind of accumulation that occurs allows you to put together three studio albums in 18 months.
Well, number four is slated to be a live record. I’ve never actually made for my solo work a proper live recording. I think I have got a very hot band, the Power Trio, and the material is very well suited to this kind of thing.
What I’m covering right now in my live shows is a little bit of retrospective mixed in with some very new stuff and a good deal of King Crimson done in a trio format for the first time. So, I think overall that would make a very good opportunity for a live record from Adrian Belew.
Rick: When did you discover painting and begin to develop that talent?
Adrian Belew: Well, it was, I suppose, a little over two years ago. I keep saying two years, but it’s probably closer to three years by now. It was an accidental occurrence that caused me to want to paint. I always had thought that when I was a very old person, like 75 or something, that I’d have time to paint. I’m so entirely overwhelmed and busy all the time now. I just never thought about doing it.
But as it turns out painting was a great thing to get into. I love to paint and I approach it the same way I approached music when I first started learning music. I’m self-taught at everything I’ve ever done. And the same is true with my painting. So, I’m constantly discovering things. And it’s so much like music in that you’re dealing with depth and dimension and the colors are just like tone, you know?
And there are so many things about it that relate to music. It’s really another side of the same creative valve. But it’s really blown open something for me – something in my mind and in my heart. I can spend hours and lose myself in painting now.
Rick: Is the artwork on your latest CDs your own?
Adrian Belew: Yeah, all the art work on those were painted by me and put together by me. It was my idea to tie all the three record album covers together thematically by using similar kinds of looks and layouts. We used a tri-color system throughout all the records but they change a little bit from one to another.
We included five or six paintings per record. I don’t know how much interest that generates, but to me it’s one way for people to say to themselves that maybe they should buy the disc instead of downloading it. Many people are like that. I’m like that. I like to have the physical elements, especially if something is unique about it.
Rick: You’re playing and endorsing Parker Guitars with your Adrian Belew Signature Fly Guitartell us about how that came about and the gear you’re using.
Adrian Belew: Well, Parker guitars I’ve loved for 10 or 12 years, since they first came out. I went to Japan and they gave me one when I was there. I just loved the way that guitar played. It made playing so much smoother and fluid and I just loved everything about that guitar. But, I could never play one live because I had, in a sense, kind of painted myself in to a corner.
Mainly because of all the gimmicks I used, especially with all the MIDI devices, the Sustainiac, and things like that, I couldn’t imagine turning myself back in time playing guitar without those things. About two years ago, I finally had a conversation with Ken Parker and asked him, “Is there any way we can do something about this?” and he said that he would build some custom guitars for me.
That is what started the ball rolling that had me switching to Parker Guitars. It’s been something that’s completely changed my life around. It’s made me so interested in guitar again because now I can play what I consider the very best guitar there is. It plays like no other guitar. It makes me play and makes me want to play better. I play guitar now more than I ever did because of the Parker Fly, and I’m not just saying that.
We designed a prototype guitar for me which incorporates all the custom electronic changes I wanted and that’s going to be available at some point. They’re trying to figure out who’s going to build it because it’s so complicated. They have everything including a vacuum cleaner attachment [Laughs] built into the guitar. Right now, I’m playing a Parker Deluxe and loving every minute of it.
Rick: Some Parkers I’ve seen have very deep, rich finishes.
Adrian Belew: I was told when I went through the factory that when they’re done painting them they then spin them dry. That’s one reason they’re so beautiful. The three colors I chose for my guitars are all chosen from custom car color books that I have and they’re twelve-stage paint jobs.
That means that there are six stages of silver paint and then the color you put on top of it. So, when you put them under light, they’re incredible. And they change according to the way the light hits them. They’re very modern guitars. It’s like a Ferrari versus a Chevy. No offense to anyone who owns a Chevy. [Laughs]
Rick: A while back I saw that you were on the road with Paul Green’s School of Rock. How did that come about and what do you do for the school?
Adrian Belew: It came about through Paul Green just reaching us and saying he was interested in “doing something with Adrian”. I participated in a master’s series, where they get someone to meet with their All-Stars. There are fifteen schools and the All-Stars are the top forty students. They have an Alpha Team and an Omega Team with twenty students each out of 1,500 students.
The twenty I worked with learned my music and King Crimson music and it turned out quite well. The school wants its students to learn and be intrigued by two things: Frank Zappa and King Crimson music. They consider those influences to have the advanced elements that they want their students to gravitate towards.
So we learned. Twenty students and I learned a full show’s worth of my material and King Crimson material. The idea was to rehearse with them for a couple of days and then go out and play. I mean real shows, like the Knitting Factory in L.A. and the World Café in Philadelphia. The students run the whole show, including set up and merchandising.
Their music assignment might be to learn five songs or three songs because the band is not a full-time band. It’s a floating band. We also put in a couple of seminars. When we were in New York we went to the New Jersey branch of the school and I did a two-hour seminar.
Rick: Any inspiring or touching stories about the kids?
Adrian Belew: Two of their earliest graduates and most applauded graduate students are a brother and sister team, Eric and Julie Slick. Eric plays drums and Julie plays bass. I met them at a show and they did “City of Lights” and they’re just astoundingly bright kids and eager to do stuff. I thought that this would be an opportunity for them and for me. I like to have people in my band who are fresh and eager to play and malleable in the sense that I want to direct the proceedings, like a teacher, as I’m doing this.
I’m really excited about it and I’m sure they are too. Eric has been playing with Project Object that is a New York-based Frank Zappa tribute band that has some of the players from Frank Zappa’s band. Ike Willis and Napoleon Brock are sometimes with them. It’s an incredibly accurate version of Frank Zappa’s music and Eric’s the drummer.
For a 19-year-old kid to be able fill the shoes of people like Ainsley Dunsbar and Terry Bozzio, you can imagine what he’s like. But at the same time, he’s a very solid person and a very unaffected young kid who just wants to work. It’s so great being around that kind of enthusiasm. It’s a little bit like the Denems’ reunion for me, because it’s putting me back into that frame of mind where I want to work harder and harder to achieve.
I also like being back into that power trio thing because it causes everyone in the band to work harder, you have a lot of room to fill. And if you’re the guitarist in that band and you don’t have another guitar player to rely on, you really have to be thinking on your feet. It gives you a lot of freedom but it also puts a lot of responsibility on you as well.