Adrian Belew has worked with a wide variety of artists in his nearly 30-year career in the record industry. "Discovered" by Frank Zappa and an integral part of the music of David Bowie, Talking Heads and, of course, King Crimson, Belew has also released an impressive series of solo albums, including the recent Side One and the fresher-than-fresh Side Two.
Jedd Beaudoin spoke with Belew around the release of Side One about his seemingly bottomless well of musical inspiration, his impressive body of solo and group albums (including his work with the very tasty pop band The Bears), his children and the magical musicality of toilets flushing.
Sea of Tranquility: What inspired you to do Side One at this point in time?.
Adrian Belew: Over the last five years I've put most of my time and energy into reestablish the newer version of King Crimson and to a lesser extent the Bears as well. In this period there's been a lot of tours with King Crimson, a lot of records and DVDs, rehearsals and so much activity with King Crimson. That was what we devoted ourselves to and it was in a lesser way with the Bears. We did two new records, a DVD and several smaller stateside tours. In between all of that, though, I managed to be home sometimes. [Laughs.] And when I am home I have a studio, which is where King Crimson rehearses and the Bears record and my engineer is always here with me. So, when I'm home I devote time to my own work. It's about writing things, discovering things, trying new sounds, techniques, new effects, anything I can do to inspire new material. This brought about, over the last four or five years, the discovery of a lot of new things that led me in new directions, where I would think, "This is more suitable for solo stuff than King Crimson or the Bears." I have to compartmentalize it a little bit like that. The things that are more personal discovery-type things, I save for myself.
One of the things that I discovered was a way to play guitar and loop at the same time. In effect, you have the sound of two guitar players. If you listen to a song like "Ampersand" or "Walk Around The World," or "Madness." It sounds like you have a multiple guitar but they're actually done at one time on one guitar. That led me to the belief that this music, this looping thing, would work very well with a power trio. You've got some very busy guitar playing and if you had a very busy bass player and a very busy drummer, that equals a power trio. [Laughs.] I compiled that material into what became Side One. But there was a lot of other material. Side Two is much more in the realm … there's no power trio on it. It's almost a DJ music kind of thing with a lot of drum machines and loops and sparse vocals and long synthesizer pads. It's a more thematic side of the record and in my opinion, as the creator and producer of this, those two things didn't mix very well. To put them together, you could do that, but you'd have a long CD that didn't service the music properly. The proper dose is, "Here's the power trio stuff that leads to the next side that leads to the next side and then you can maybe take the thing as a whole package once you've got it all."
Side Three is more like most of my solo records have been, very eclectic. It runs the gamut of styles and has a few different guests on it and it was the material that didn't fit into the conceptual package of Side One or Side Two. It's still all good material but just deserved its own place as well.
SoT: Some people might see this as a return to things you did with Twang Bar King or Desire Caught By The Tail. Do you feel that this material has a kinship with that era or is different?
AB: It's always the same and different. I think, naturally, that there are commonalities and themes and motifs that carry through. That's just something that I picked up from working with Frank Zappa all those years ago. That's a good thing to have through your music. It puts your trademark, earmark on things. You hear it and say, "This must be something that Adrian likes, it's got a lot of backwards guitar." [Laughs.] There are trademarks––there are animal sounds and that's become one of my things. But at the same time it's much more important for me to approach new areas. I never really have dealt with the drum loop/DJ kind of thing at all. That was brand new to me. I don't think that I've really played in the trio format before but it's something that I've always liked because I liked the idea of the focus that comes with just three people playing and the fact that it makes everyone have a responsibility. You have to almost overplay and you have to multitask a little bit in the sense that you can't just be the bass player, you might want to do something else and you can't just be the drummer, you might want to have some electronics and samples and you can't just be the guitar player, you might want to sound like two or three guitar players. And sing. So, I'm always forging ahead with new stuff. It just comes out of me. I can't stop myself.
There was an article that I read about this record where the writer said that I was like Neil Young, not in the musical context, but for the simple fact that I keep changing colors. That's my nature. I'm a discoverer. I'm always looking for things that will inspire new things. If at the end of it all you look back and say, "There is an overview that all hangs together, call it Adrian's style," then that's great.
SoT: How much do you seek out new technologies and how much of it comes to you?
AB: I try to keep my eyes and ears open to keep in touch with all of it. It's becoming more and more overwhelming as the industry itself has gotten to the point where there's so much new stuff that I don't think anyone can really keep up with it. There's not the time to do that. But overall I would say that it comes to me. I hear about a few things, people will send me something to try out or test or someone will try to interest me in a new product or whatever and I'm very fortunate in that way because I have been, as a member of King Crimson, one of the opinion makers in the world of musicians. It's a nice place to be. Maybe you're not the most popular kid on the block but people are interested in what you're doing enough to come to you with their ideas. It's a hallowed ground to have that. Plus, for me, I have a deep love for trying things like that. Most of the time, if I get a new toy, even if it's just a new box that's $50, it's going to take me in a direction that will inspire something that will turn into a piece of music or a whole new record, at least something to add to my vocabulary. Those things are very valuable to me. They are how I remain self-inspired.
SoT: Were you much of a fan of found sound as you were growing up?
AB: Absolutely. As I was growing up, I was really into interesting orchestral music. It was very influential to me that from the eighth grade on, for the next three years, I would go see the symphony in Cincinnati at the great symphony hall they have there, music hall, and they played some pretty courageous stuff––Stravinsky, things that like. That was bending my ear at the same time as I was growing an appreciation for Motown and Beach Boys and the British Invasion with the Beatles and all that stuff. That really turned my life and focused it on the fact that I wanted to be a recording artist. But I always have held a deep appreciation for oddball music––outside stuff, ethnic music, interesting film score music, modern classical stuff. So, really, making the jump into a band like King Crimson or working with Frank Zappa is not as odd of a connection as it may seem if you're just listening to the pop side of what I do. But if you're really familiar with what I do, it's much more multifaceted than that. I'm really finding that I like musique concrete and I've done a lot of it over my career and there's a bit of it on these three records and that is sort of dissociated sounds that create a musical piece. It could be someone slamming a door, someone flushing a toilet and then someone playing a banjo for 10 seconds. [Laughs.]
But that's what it is. I love that stuff. You can do that with keyboard and guitar sounds and mix it with someone washing the dishes. [Laughs.] Over these three records I keep injecting that and that's a very modern brand of music that very few people appreciate well enough. Actually, when I lived in Champaign-Urbana, near the university, I actually sat in on a course on musique concrete. I didn't have any proper training, just so I would learn the history of it and be able to explore further what I used to listen to.
SoT: What about the animal sounds. Is it the primal side of it that you're attracted to?
AB: I liken it to human things. It's all very metaphorical for me. "The Lone Rhino" featured, at the end of it, a sort of snorting, huffing, puffing guitar that could be mistaken for a rhino. [Laughs.] The way that that comes about is that first you find the sound and I find it really easy to imitate the sound of other things with my guitar. That's something that's always interested me. Early on, I started realizing is that one thing I do that no one else seems to be doing is trying to make my guitar sound like birds or elephants or rhinos. And once you have that, or you've developed that or accidentally discovered it––which is what happens some times––the question becomes, "What do you do with it?" So you can make your guitar sound like a rhino. What do you do with that? You have to give it a musical place to live. In my case it inspired me to write a song about a rhino and, inevitably, it's something that has a humanistic viewpoint of something that could be the story of a human. Instead of it being the story of the sadness of a rhino in captivity it really could be about an old person who feels that way about themselves. Last of their kind, sitting there, no one really cares about them anymore. So, I try to use it in that way.
I'm always discovering sounds, though. Sometimes you can trick yourself into believing, "That does really sound like a seagull chasing a steam roller." [Laughs.] It's just something that's kind of fun for me and early on, when I was working out the mechanics of how to be a guitarist, I sounded like a lot of different guitar players because I had studied how to play like Chet Atkins, or Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck or George Harrison. You have to, at some point, say, "What do I do that's mine?" For me the breaking point was finding car horns and seagulls.
SoT: I'm curious as well about your style of lyric writing. There are albums such as Here and Inner Revolution which are largely autobiographical but then, in the last 10 years, the lyrics have become more enigmatic.
AB: Big changes happened in my life, around the time of Young Lions. That's the record that was released during my tour around the world as guitarist for David Bowie. That lasted for a year and it really changed my life. In that tour, I went through a divorce and found someone to fall in love with that I really loved and married. There were big, huge sweeping changes happening in my life and if you're a songwriter, a creative person at all, I think you're going to reflect that in your work. I think of Inner Revolution and Here both as being love records. A lot of what was going on in my life––finding a new love and making all those changes, some of it led to a bit of wisdom, a bit of reflection, a bit of me trying to say something in a new ways that's been said a million times. And there've been a lot of songs written about falling in love or new relationships or bad relationships, or previous relationships. That's all in those couple of records there.
Following that period, Martha and I were settled in and had started a family and my focused changed about halfway through that decade to, "What else can you say? What else can you talk about?" As a lyricist, it's so important. You're really defining the person's imagination of the song. The minute you start placing a title on the thing and start saying, "Here's a title and here's what it's about," you're sort of closing the doors around it to say, "This is what you have to think about." What I've tried to do in the last few years or so is to open those doors back up by being, as you said, more enigmatic. I've been saying things that are open for interpretation. I'm not being so specific. Maybe I'm not writing a song so much about love but about an emotional thing than can be taken in many different ways. There's an art to do that that I've always appreciated in other writers. With this album, I think that most of that material is stuck in my old way or working. In other words, I don't really feel that I'm working through anything new, lyrically, so much. I believe that it really starts working in the new lyrical attitudes that I have on the second record. That's very sparse. There's very few words and they're repeated. So you have almost a haiku poem that's just got three lines. It comes back, then comes back again later and then again and it's sung a little differently each time, placed a little differently with the musical emphasis. And it really is a break from the traditional form that most of us have worked in––write a verse, then a chorus, then a second verse explaining the first verse. [Laughs.] It's really gone in a different direction and that mostly starts on Side Two. It's a direction that I used that I used to Power To Believe. Say less, sing less, but make it mean the same. Or more.
SoT: What role do your children play in inspiring your work?
AB: It's a fact that in this family, I am the child. [Laughs.] I'm the biggest child in the family and I really think that my children keep me that way. They keep me in touch with that youthful quality. I don't know what it is about being in music and art but I notice that artists tend to stay a little fresher and younger and maybe it's something where they're hesitant to give up all those childish things. I am a responsible person. I have a family, I have a business, I can do a lot of responsible things but I' m still at heart kind of amazed at everything, just like a child would be. [Laughs.] And my kids are really, always, amazing me. They are so impressive. I've been off tour, at home, working in my studio and have had an extra dose of my kids and watching them day to day and seeing all the things that they're learning and how they're changing, all they're going through, and how it all relates to my whole life, my past, my future, their future … it's all pretty fascinating. And you hear yourself saying things that your father said to you! [Laughs.] And you think, "Darn, he was right." [Laughs.]
SoT: Has that bled over into your approach to guitar?
AB: I would say that fascination and discovery are the two key words. I'm still, totally … my tank is still full. I don't think that I've come to the end of my discovery, not even close. I'm still fascinated by all the things that I don't know about guitar and what you can do it with it. I've been so fortunate. Really, I came into an era that just happened to coincide with a literal creative explosion in the world of music. I mean, gee whiz … when I started, you could play a Stratocaster or a Les Paul but you certainly couldn't play a guitar synthesizer. [Laughs.] You couldn't make a record in your bedroom. And all those things are readily available now and there's also so much more. I feel that it's been a perfect time for me in that regard. I like to just sit down and play an acoustic guitar and have a song that's just really nice to play and that's wonderful within itself but I think I'm actually better at trying to make instruments do different things and interact in different ways that are hopefully new.
SoT: How did you find Danny Carey and Les Claypool?
AB: I've seen and known Les over the last decade, mainly through concerts. We've been involved in some concerts together and then he's been to quite a few King Crimson shows over the years. I've always really enjoyed him as a person and knew that he liked my work. I've always felt that Les is one of those unique players and personalities. He has such a strong character that comes through his instrument. It's very unique. I met Danny during the time that King Crimson was sharing a tour with Tool. We played 12 shows together and I instantly thought, "What a great drummer." And he's such a sweet and lovely guy. Once again, a guy who seems well-versed in a lot of things that I've been part of. When I first called Les, the first name that came up between the two of us was Danny. I think that I said something to this effect on the record––I couldn't really have chosen anyone better than those two guys to further the music. I always do things by myself, as much as I can, but when it came time for the power trio stuff, I'd made versions of "Ampersand" and "Writing On The Wall" and realized that I wasn't equipped to do it. I needed better players. [Laughs.] I can take the drums to a certain point but I'm no Danny Carey. [Laughs.] It really worked to take that music to two really strong players. It brought a new energy to it, which is exactly what I hoped for.
SoT: How do you balance your solo work and band records?
AB: Fortunately I've been able to do both things at the same time, almost from the very beginning. When I made the first solo record, 1981, that was also the same time that I made the first King Crimson record. So I've co-existed in a band and as a solo artist throughout my entire career. I've found that that's been really healthy for me. I can be headstrong in certain areas and if I'm doing something and know exactly how I want it to be, I can be very headstrong about it. Those things are best serviced for me just to do myself. [Laughs.] That's where I get to hang myself and do it my way for better or worse. [Laughs.] But I think it's also healthy to get out of that frame of mind and go sit in with other like-minded musicians who have their own ideas and surrender yourself to that, say, "OK, I'm a collaborator now. I'm willing to take other peoples' information and blend it with mine and see what we come up with." Both things work really well for me. I wouldn't want to give up either one. The most fun is to make the solo records but you can't go out and play them by yourself. The most fun playing them is with other musicians. For me, I need a combination of both.
SoT: You'll have three records come out this year but you've always struck me as someone who has his eyes cast toward the next project. Is that true and what's on the horizon?
AB: I always have plans ahead of time. I think one of the things that is maybe not always a great thing, although it's part of my personality, is that I'm always looking toward the next page while I should be reading the one that I'm on. [Laughs.] I do have ideas of where it's going and right now I'd have to summarize it in this way: King Crimson is ongoing and so is the Bears. The Bears … we've almost finished what is probably the best record that we've done. Everyone within our little realm feels like it's best work we've done. We don't know when to finish it and put it out but we do know that we don't want it to conflict with what I'm doing right now. I've got these three records right now. Safely, I'd say that the Bears record could be finished soon but probably wouldn't come out until the end of the year or until early next year. That would give it its own time.
King Crimson is in a crucial stage. We're starting over. It's not crucial in a bad way, it's crucial that we allow it to gradually flourish. Robert [Fripp] is very keen to find some new ways to do business things. He's investigating downloads and archiving of other material––new ways to work together where we don't have to sit and sweat together for six weeks at a time. He's very keen right now not to tour, for himself but, consequently, I'm very keen to tour. [Laughs.] It seems to me that I've got this window of a year or two years where I can maybe come out and do my own thing again. So, I'm putting together this trio that would go out and service this idea that you would go out and put together the best band I can. It's not going to be Les and Danny because they're all booked. [Laughs.] It's going to be fresh young players that I can help develop and take 'em along and do things the way that I hope will work best, play a lot of material in a trio format, which is unique, and I've got a certain amount of time to pursue that. What I'd like to see happen in that time is that we'd make Side Four which would be a live record of this material. That'd be ideal to me. I don't have a live record. As a solo artist, I'm very limited in that way. I've only really toured the United States, even though I've played and toured Europe with King Crimson. I think it's important to get out there. I couldn't tell you how many people listen to my music. Or care. [Laughs.]
In terms of brand new records, though, [voice takes on a childlike sense of wonder] I do have this great idea in a way that I want to make my next record that's an entirely new record and it's entirely new way of making record. It might be called Side 5.1. It's not that it's about the technology 5.1 where you have speakers and things where it sounds like things are coming from behind you, it's more to do with the way that I want to put the record together. It won't really be a record of songs so much as it will be an aural experience. I'll say that much, there you go. [Laughs.]
Photos Courtesy of Rick Malkin