By: Lelio Padovani
The name Adrian Belew is always linked to Robert Fripp and King Crimson, the legendary progressive band that he’s been playing in for 30 years as composer, singer and of course guitarist. However, a quick look at his short, home-made video “Life in A Nutshell” on YouTube reveals countless collaborations with very diverse artists such as Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Joan Armatrading, Nine Inch Nails, Paul Simon, Tori Amos, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Mike Oldfield, Cyndi Lauper, Crash Test Dummies, Jean-Michel Jarre, Robert Palmer, Artie Traum, Joe Cocker, Sara Hickman, Garland Jeffreys, Jerry Harrison and The Bears.
Belew also has a long solo discography and recently formed a trio with young brothers Eric and Julie Slick on drums and bass respectively, touring the world and doing more recordings. He owns his own record label and recording studio. With a looper, a laptop and some pedals, he creates ethereal, imaginative, unique sounds that leave audiences, both musicians and common people, awestruck. Watching him perform is in itself a lesson in guitar playing and sound design. His deep knowledge of guitar electronics, used extensively but not obtrusively, and the way he manipulates the sound of his beloved Parker signature guitar, as well as his use of the whammy bar, is seamless.
Here’s a chat with a real master of the craft, totally cool even after a day spent on the tour bus with his band and sound man, kind to everybody, with no crazy requests on his rider.
The interview takes place backstage after sound check, after Adrian just changed his own strings, (he uses D’Addarios).
(Seeing my cassette recorder, Adrian goes, “Tape! I can’t believe it! I’ve never seen that, I only know zeros and ones!”)
Lelio Padovani: I would like to begin asking you about your many famous collaborations. What is the most rewarding collaboration you’ve had and also, what is the worst if you can tell us?
Adrian Belew: Well, the best one has to be King Crimson, especially my collaboration with Robert Fripp as guitar partners and as songwriters. That’s gone on the longest, thirty years now, and we’ve created quite a lot of material that I’m very proud of. [As for] the worst, there has been no worst. Pretty much all of my collaborations have been good ones. I mean, I can’t think of any single time in my life that I felt like “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done this.” Mostly I look at the music first, and if the music interests me, that’s what I base it on. Not on the money, it has to be the music first. Fortunately I’ve worked with innovative people, like David Bowie, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Trent Reznor of course, so all of those have been fruitful and good for me, because those are the kind of people who ask you to do interesting things.
Lelio: Do you have somebody you would like to collaborate with but haven’t yet?
Adrian Belew: No one that’s really feasible. I mean, there are people that meant a lot to me when I was young, of course the Beatles. A guitar player would be Jeff Beck for example, those kind of people who would be fun to do something with, but they simply don’t need that! I mean, Paul McCartney doesn’t need Adrian Belew. [Laughs] I’d love to do some music for Pixar, or play something with the Kronos String Quartet. As far as rock music and more popular music, I think I’ve already had some of the best. I still have an ongoing collaboration with Trent Reznor, Les Claypoool, David Bowie if he ever works again. [Laughs]
Lelio: Is there an artist that surprised you lately?
Adrian Belew: I don’t listen to a lot of music other than mine, that I’m working on. I do that on purpose kind of, but the last person that I was introduced to their music by a friend of mine was Amon Tobin. Amon Tobin is a Canadian artist, and the interesting thing about his music is that it doesn’t sound much like anyone else because no one is actually playing it. He samples little tiny bits from all kind of records, especially old jazz records, and he puts them together in just a wonderful way, my favorite record was called Supermodified. When I first heard it I thought it was a real drummer, somebody playing those parts that he had sampled and pieced together so delicately, and I couldn’t believe it. I thought “This guy is my favorite drummer in the world!” Turns out he’s no at all! [Laughs] That’s the most recent one that I can think of. I met Amon actually, and we talked about doing something together, but again his method of work doesn’t really suit someone actually playing something. He’s got a huge record collection. He goes in and finds one little snare drum sound he puts here, puts a cymbal from another record, a trombone from somewhere else and so on.
Lelio: Do you have a list of your favorite albums or that you would advise people to listen to?
Adrian Belew: Well, I would certainly hope they would listen to some of the Crimson stuff, and some of my solo stuff, as personal stuff goes. But you know, of course I’m from the sixties, and the records that meant a lot to me, Revolver by The Beatles, of course Sergeant Pepper’s as well, but Revolver was my favorite. The first Jimi Hendrix record was stunning in a way that, suddenly there was a whole change in electric guitar happening in that one record. Beyond that I would have to think a little more. It would be records like that. New records I don’t know, as I say I don’t have a lot of listening time these days.
Lelio: Do you have any advice for younger players, guitar players or musicians?
Adrian Belew: I have several small pieces of advice that I usually give, one is to listen to all the people that you like and learn as much as you can from them and be true to yourself. Don’t go outside of that. I mean, do what you really think you’d like to hear. After you’ve absorbed enough of that influence from other people, try to figure out something of your own. Because the most important thing is not to be able to mimic other people, but to be able to find your own voice. Your own style. It may just be a little different than everybody else, it may be that if you listen to enough things you can synthesize something from them and that’s, I think, really the sign of a true artist. When they have a recognizable voice on guitar or any instrument.
Lelio: Do you have any advice on playing odd time signatures more easily?
Adrian Belew: We were discussing this in the van today with my drummer Marco Minnemann, who probably can play four time signatures at the same time with four different limbs, and we kind of agreed that really all of it is accenting. If you take a seven, it’s seven 8th notes, and their accenting [Sings dada dada dadada dada dada dadada], so you just have to think of its accents. Because it really isn’t something you should ever count. It’s something you should get your body to feel naturally. So if you listen to the accenting, and learn the accenting, that’s the key to it.
Lelio: Otherwise it stops flowing.
Adrian Belew: You really have to get it it to be natural, otherwise you’ll never get past that state of having to count things, and that doesn’t work at all.
Lelio: Do you have a piece of equipment that you can’t do without, for your studio or your guitar?
Adrian Belew: Well, I’ll tell you this, with the guitar setup I’ve always had a little compressor [in this case a Keeley]. The first thing my guitar always does, it goes into that little compressor, from there goes into the amp or to the rest of the effects or anything else. I really like that. I think it adds a lot of liveliness to the sound. It makes it juicy. It makes kind of come alive and of course it makes the notes sustain better. The other thing of course right now that I’m very hot on is my Parker Fly. At this point I can’t imagine myself wanting to ever play another guitar because this guitar is simply perfect for me. I love everything about it. And it’s really made me play better and made me want to play more. So, when you get a guitar like that, that’s probably it.
Lelio: I see that you’ve shrunk your setup to a laptop and a small rack. Is that because of traveling and customs or it just works better that way?
Adrian Belew: It’s two things. One is the traveling that we’ve been doing a lot around the world and it’s just impossible and unfeasible to drag that much equipment around anymore. it’s too expensive and you never know what’s gonna happen at customs, and airlines and things. The other part of the reason I’m doing it is to move forward and find new things to do. So every five years or so I change all of my gear. All of it. Because I figure that’s the best way to break your old habits that you’ve decided on, and also the best way to inspire yourself, because technology actually inspires me. When I find a new sound or a new technique, usually music arrives with it. Practically speaking, it’s so much better to just be able to carry around a few pieces of rack-mount gear and plug into a P.A.
Lelio: Do you have different setups for different situations, a rack for Europe and one for the U.S. for example?
Adrian Belew: No, I have one setup that I use everywhere, including in my studio.
Lelio: Where’s the music market going in your opinion, or where is it already?
Adrian Belew: Well, I think it’s drastically changed in my lifetime so much it’s unbelievable. 45 singles to downloads. Where it’s going I don’t think it has been determined yet. I don’t think anyone has actually answered the questions that come with all the new technology, like what do you do about intellectual properties and people stealing your music and things like that. I have some advice though. I think you should play live. Because when you play live, people come to your show. They can’t get that for free, they have to pay for it. [If] they enjoy the show they might even buy your CD. I don’t think CD’s are going away like some people say. I think CD’s are gonna be here for a long, long time. I know that I prefer them, and there’s nothing wrong with downloads too. It’s convenient. It’s easy if you want to go online and just pick a song from here and a song from there. But where the whole thing is going overall to me, it’s going into a do-it-yourself business. In other words, what I have right now is a very small team of people and we do everything ourselves. I have my own record label, my own studio, my wife handles all my business, so the smaller you can make it, and make it work out, the better you’re gonna be. Because the days of big huge record labels for most people simply doesn’t exist anymore.
Lelio: Do you have a way of finding inspiration, or is it just day to day playing and recording?
Adrian Belew: I think it’s day to day stuff. Things you read, movies you see, and comments that you hear, all of that. But I really think playing itself is my main inspiration, and as I said just a few moments ago, when I find a new sound or a new technique, that gives me a lot of ideas, so that moves me forward a lot. I think if you just play every day, things come to you. You start connecting the dots in your own way, and every now and then you’ll have a new piece of music or a new song to write and it’ll come out.
Lelio: How did you get the inspiration for the “Life In A Nutshell” video?
Adrian Belew: A friend of mine was visiting me, he is a television producer and he said “ You know what you need on your website? Something that tells everyone all the things you’ve done.” And so we sat down for three days and we made that little video, so [when] some new fans come along and they just discovered me but don’t know anything about me, they look at “Life In A Nutshell” and by the end of it they have a better idea of all the things I’ve done. It’s very good, I’m really proud of it, we did it ourselves in my studio as I said.
Lelio: Do you have favorite websites?
Adrian Belew: I collect cars. Well, I don’t collect cars, I collect information about cars, vintage cars, so I have about a hundred car sites. I have a couple of vintage cars, but I really enjoy the history of cars. I like reading about the designs and things. I know nothing about motors for example, or transmissions, but I really enjoy the history of the automobile. So I have a lot of websites I go and look at cars. I’m always doing that. It’s something that’s just a passion of mine and it’s fun for me. I just go and look at what cars are for sale, look at the interior, the design, and learn more and more and I feel I’m very knowledgeable about old cars now.
Lelio: Favorite newspapers or music magazines?
Adrian Belew: My favorite music magazine died a long time ago, it was called Musician. It was a great magazine. I personally never really enjoyed Roling Stone. I don’t think it represents music very well for me. It’s more like a fashion rag and I don’t like that very much. I would have to say Guitar Player magazine, which has always treated me nicely, it’s a good magazine. If you’re a guitar player you get a lot of information out of each issue. I always kind of leaf through and read things, and learn about new gear and stuff, so it’s a good source for me.
Lelio: Do you have any suggestions about books? Do you read a lot?
Adrian Belew: I read a lot. And I have a lot of books. Probably my biggest hobby, maybe, is reading. And now I’m reading things on my iPad. I’m downloading books and reading them while we’re on tour so I don’t have to bring the books with me. But I do like to collect books. I like to have the hardcover of the books that I read, so even if I read a book in the iPad, I’ll probably go get the real version of it if I like it enough. I like history. I like biographies. As I said I like the history of automobiles, but other histories too. I do a lot of reading in my life. If you’re traveling as much as I am, there’s a lot of times when you’re on planes or in cars and vehicles and you have time to read. And also, I think at night it’s a very nice way to calm yourself down from whatever activity you’ve done. If you’ve done a show and you’re all excited and stuff you might go back to your room and just read for twenty minutes before you go to sleep. It kinda helps you calm down.