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Adrian Belew: Power Trios and Crimson Heads

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One thing I learned from working with Frank Zappa is motif. Frank told me that is the way you tie your whole body of work together - by having some kind of motif.
Adrian BelewSince 1977, Adrian Belew has been a guitar and songwriting innovator in the cutting edge rock field. Spending time in bands with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Talking Heads, he's also clocked serious studio time with other artists including Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, Tom Tom Club, Tori Amos and Herbie Hancock. He's fronted the various incarnations of perennial art rockers King Crimson since 1981, as well as putting together several of his own solo projects.

Belew has continued his prolific output since 2005 by releasing four solo records just months apart titled Side One (2005) through Side Three (2006), all on the Sanctuary label, and Side Four (Independent, 2007). He has appeared on Nine Inch Nails' Ghosts Part I-IV (Null, 2008), and has been touring extensively with his new power trio featuring the young wunderkind brother and sister rhythm section of drummer Eric and bassist Julie Slick.



Belew has also just completed an August, 2008 mini-tour with a reformed King Crimson. At the two opening performances at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Belew appeared very much the leader, guiding the band through its labyrinthine arrangements with a sure hand and performing with the same confidence he has shown with Crimson for 27 years.

Chapter Index

  1. The Power Trio
  2. Guitar Talk
  3. The State of the Music Industry
  4. Side Four and The Bears
  5. King Crimson
  6. History
  7. Frank Zappa
  8. David Bowie
  9. Talking Heads
  10. Joining King Crimson
  11. Back to Bowie
  12. Back to Crimson
  13. Painting and Improvisation


The Power Trio



AAJ: The 2008 Power Trio did a west coast run earlier this year and a few east coast shows, and now you're starting another tour here in Nashville. Will there be some new songs performed on this tour?



AB: Yes, in fact Eric and Julie, the brother and sister team I have in the trio, are coming here from Philadelphia on Saturday, and we have three days of rehearsal planned to incorporate some new material. A few things that are from my catalogue, a couple of songs I'd really like to try some stuff with, and then one brand new piece of music that's pretty epic, that I'm sure we'll be working on for all three days. Mainly for this whole year I'm dedicating myself to the power trio touring, and a little bit to King Crimson touring too, this summer. Most of August will be dedicated to King Crimson time. At the same time, I'm trying to develop new material for the power trio; I'd like to make a brand new record, half of which would be the power trio and half of which would be new solo pieces that I'll do by myself.



AAJ: Actually, that was going to be my next question: is there a future studio album with the power trio?



AB: Yeah; [for] the next record I'd like to have maybe five major pieces on it that are for the power trio. I've already got three that I'm writing. We're already doing one of them live, it's called "E," and the new one is called "Planet E," and those are both instrumentals, but I have a few songs that I'm working on too, with them, and it's turning out really powerfully and really well. I wanted to get them into the live show before we actually brought them into the studio, but you know we've only done one record together, which was all live. And I'm really anxious to see what we all can do in the studio.



AAJ: The first time I saw you with Eric and Julie was right here in Nashville last year, and I couldn't believe that two players so young could take the Bruford and Levin parts on some of the King Crimson material and more or less reinvent them.



AB: They're very special people and players; they amaze me all the time. They've got to be the best young players in the States right now, in my opinion. I just don't know where you could get a better bassist-drummer duo, and both separately, they're just amazing individuals, really gifted people. You know, everybody refers to them as, "the kids,' but when you're with them all the time, as I am, you see that they're really not kids at all, they're very smart, adult human beings, who have absorbed so much music, more than a lot of grown, mature musicians that I know.



Eric and Julie know all The Beatles' catalogue—everything that preceded that even—and all the Zappa and Bowie catalogues. Their wealth of information came from their father—he had a collection of records and a collection of bass guitars in his living room, and he had their bass and their drums set up there and he just showed them, "Here, try this, learn this, learn that," you know, with thousands of records worth of stuff since they were little kids. So it's their musical background and depth that really amazes me, and I'm really curious to see now what happens when we invent something totally new. Not taking Tony Levin's and Bill Bruford's parts and redoing them.



 

Adrian Belew / Power Trio

Power Trio l:r: Julie Slick, Adrian Belew, Eric Slick

AAJ: I understand you were connected with Eric and Julie Slick through Paul Green's School of Rock?



AB: That's how I met them. Originally, I went up to Philadelphia, the original School of Rock, where the founder, Paul Green, invited me for a seminar with his current students. This was two years ago and, while I was there, he said, "I want you to hear my best graduates, I have these two graduates, Eric and Julie Slick, they were in the all-star band for several years, and they're just the best players that I know of."



So he brought them in and we played together a little bit and that's how it happened. It just so happened that I had really been planning and looking for a long time for a trio. I had tried one or two trios, combinations that didn't work for me, and I had just about given up on that idea, even though I had made all this interesting material for it. I spent a lot of time developing the idea of looping guitars so you have kind of a fourth player and putting that into a trio format, and just about the time I thought, "Well, this is really not going to be a trio, I'm not going to get that to happen." I found them, and it was unbelievable, turned around just on a dime.



AAJ: In 2006, I caught some of your live trio performances with Mike Gallaher and Mike Hodges. How does this compare?



AB: Well, there are two differences with Eric and Julie, beyond anything else I've done. One is the energy they bring. I think that's the main difference that makes the material seem so fresh and new, it's because there's this dynamic energy coming off the stage from them. And, of course, it prompts me to join in, and I feel younger than ever when I play with them. And then the other thing is just their own inventiveness and uniqueness. People just can't believe it when they hear Julie Slick play bass guitar, she's a little girl who plays in her bare feet, and when you hear what she's doing it's so powerful and so correct.



AAJ: She seems, when I watch her play, so serene—almost disconnected from this sound that's so enormous.



AB: Yeah, I know, but lately she's changed that a little bit. I mean Eric is a phenomenal drummer, he's always been demonstrative. You watch him because he's doing all kinds of amazing things. But Julie used to stand there, kind of "the queen of cool," but since she got her new bass, a Lakeland bass that she's always wanted, it really has changed her. I've noticed it on the last tour that we did. She started moving around on stage and she's a lot more animated. I kind of like both versions of Julie.



AAJ: I definitely look forward to this show you've got coming up at Mercy Lounge [in Nashville].



AB: But this is going to be interesting because I rehearse three days with the trio, the next day King Crimson arrives. We rehearse for a whole week here in Nashville in a larger rehearsal place, and then the day that that ends, the next day, we play the Mercy Lounge, so on the 27th [July, 2008] I'll be practicing with King Crimson and on the 28th I'll be playing with the trio.



AAJ: You're going to have to revert your arrangements!



AB: So that's true, they are a little bit different because King Crimson is playing some of the same material that the trio plays, but we play it a little differently, so I'm going to really have my thinking cap on the first couple of nights.

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Guitar Talk



AAJ: So, will we ever see the Fender Stratocaster again, or is it Parker Fly guitars from now on?



AB: I love Strats. I think they're fabulous guitars, I always thought their balance and their playability was just, almost perfect, and then I got to the Parker Fly, and it is perfect. So, I don't know, it's always possible to break out the Strats again. I love Strats and I could see myself playing any number of guitars.



If you run in the next room, you'd see that I've got a lot of different varieties of guitars hanging up on the wall. When I play them—little by little, one at a time—I'll pull out the Gretsch, and I'll pull out the Rickenbacher and stuff, but no matter what I do, I am totally married to the Parker Fly. It makes me play better. That's the best comment I can make. Not only is the design phenomenal, it stays perfectly in tune, absolutely no dead notes, the neck is just incredible, the tremolo arm is fascinating, you could do anything. But, it just makes me play better.



I think it's the smoothness of the neck, see, because what they've done with the Parker Fly that's so unique is that they've cut away everything that's not needed on the guitar which cuts the piece of wood down to four pounds. That's why it's called a Fly. Normally, a neck that thin would just break right in half as soon as you put the pressure of the strings on it. What they've done, though, on the back of the guitar, before they paint it and everything, they bake on a very thin carbon poly-compound that makes the strength of the wood ten thousand times stronger, so you could actually stand on top of that guitar neck, I've been told (I'm not gonna try it) and nothing would happen. So, it's because of that it stays perfectly in pitch, it never varies, it's so thin and beautiful to play. It'd be hard for me to get away from the Parker Flys now. I think I've finally found my muse.



AAJ: I seem to recall seeing you not too long ago, maybe it was a Bears show, and I thought you had Fender amps?



AB: No, I've always pretty much used, in the last few years, this combination—at the top, a pair of Johnson 150 millenniums, at the bottom, a pair of Line 6 Vettas.



 

Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew's guitar collection

When you saw me with The Bears it was probably just with the Johnsons. They do look a little like Fenders. About 80 per cent of what I do comes from the Johnson amps, really. I add the Line 6 in for extra sounds and overdubbing sounds live, and then this Bose setup, which is absolutely fantastic. I love this setup, called the Bose L1, these columns that you see with the bass cabinets on each side, those are for the high fidelity things that I want to use, like my keyboards, my synthesizer sounds, and my loops. So it keeps them separate from the actual guitar. So you have really a quad guitar system there, both of those amps being stereos, with stereo sounds in there, and then a stereo high fidelity system. So really it's like three guitar rigs in one. It keeps my feet busy.



AAJ: I noticed you were having to sit for part of the show.



AB: Well, yeah, well let me just demonstrate since we're sitting in front of my rig. There are many times when I'm doing something with this pedal and I'll have to do this pedal too. This [pedal] is controlling the Johnson and this [pedal] is controlling the effects. You can't do it standing up. So, there are times now when I get to that point I just sit down. Plus, I'll tell you the truth, I've learned sitting down you play a lot better. You have a lot more control over what you're doing. You know, I get excited, I still want to stand up and sing and jump around.

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The State of the Music Industry



AAJ: To change the subject a little bit, I wanted to read you a quote here, that the most recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Billy Joel, said to John Mellencamp. Mellencamp had suffered some heart attacks and was a buddy of Joel's. Mellencamp was getting inducted into the Hall of Fame and Joel says, "Well John, congratulations, not only have you made it through some heart attacks, but you've outlived the music industry." What I'm leading to is, CD sales are down by a large percentage, file sharing is not going to go away, Radiohead and your buddy Trent Reznor have been giving away records or downloads for free. I wanted you to discuss your view of the music industry as it is now. I know you've been selling downloads on your website.



AB: For the last year I've been tempted to restructure what we do by getting more and more involved in the internet and the online store and blogging, and having a weekly download of a rare cut that was never released. That's my attempt at joining in with the new way of doing things. But it's not all that new to me because, since 1992, I've had my own record label, Adrian Belew Presents, which a lot of my stuff came out on because there were no major labels interested in what I did. My music doesn't really do much on radio, it's always been a little too out there, so I've always had a good strong live performance aspect to what I do, and a following because of that. That's where I've been able to sell most of my CDs. All of those trends that are happening now for everybody else, they're not that new to me.



AAJ: So it wasn't a big surprise.



AB: No, not a big surprise. Now, giving away free downloads, that's a different thing, that I think you can only do that if you are somebody like Radiohead or Trent Reznor, who you know you've got a million people there who are going to do something and so you know you're going to get some money back out of that. Now, if you're like me and you sell two thousand records, well you've got to sell every one you can sell.



Adrian BelewAAJ: Is that a typical number, say, when Side Four came out?



AB: I wanna say Side Four sold about three thousand copies, yeah.



AAJ: And that's pretty typical for an Adrian Belew release?



AB: It is now. Not years ago, with eighty thousand records typical.



AAJ: Was that when you were on a major label?



AB: That was when you're on a major label, and the funniest thing is you made no money being on a major label, selling eighty thousand records. You sell three thousand records, and you do it the right way—you go out and you tour and you sell them to the fans who are right there—and you make all the money. And it's a lot more money than you would ever see from the record labels.



AAJ: That's a great irony, isn't it?



AB: It's truly what we all knew—that the whole time everybody was being recorded and put out on these big record labels, we were being screwed blind; everybody knew it. It was the old school way of doing it from the fifties, there are books written about it, saying how everyone is being ripped off, and always have been ripped off, so that's kind of why, way back in the nineties, I said, "Well, I'd rather make all the money, even if it's less sales, and I'd rather have all the control and do everything myself,," "cause I never found anyone in the music business who understood how to market what I do, never once. I mean, I've met a lot of really smart people in the music business, and with many different record labels—EMI, Virgin, Warner Bros, Atlantic, Island, MCA... On all those labels, in various associations I've had—King Crimson, The Bears, my solo records—no one ever figured out how to market what I do. So, I figure, I guess it's just pretty weird and I'll market it myself.



AAJ: When you were cutting tracks on the Ghosts I-IV record most recently, did Trent tell you, "Hey I'm gonna let some of these tracks go for free," did you guys have a discussion of that?



AB: Actually, what I discussed was Trent was very brief, because he said to me, "This is a secret. I don't know what I'm actually going to do here, and I don't know what I'm going to do with the music, maybe it'll be a soundtrack, maybe it'll be a record, maybe I'll use it as downloads, but at any rate I wanna keep it secret, so I don't wanna say much about it, and I don't want you to say anything to anyone about it,, "cause I want it to come out as a surprise." So, I didn't ask any more questions. The nice thing that transpired was that he said, "You know, I feel like you're helping me write some of this." So I had some writer's credit on some of the music and that's usually not the way it works. If I go and I play a lot of wild stuff on Trent Reznor's album, I don't necessarily expect that that makes me a writer. Most of the time you're paid and that's it, but in this case he said no, I'd like you to be more involved, stay here for a longer time and try to write some of it with me.



I really appreciated that, it was the most generous aspect of the offer and for me personally, working with Trent is always eye-opening, I love the way he makes records. His production is phenomenal, and where else do you get to play what I play on his records?



AAJ: Yeah, no doubt. I noticed he did something that I haven't seen anybody do—he had more and more deluxe versions of the record including one on Blu-Ray, you know, that's post SACD and DVD audio, that's as high resolution as it gets.



Adrian BelewAB: It is, and he sent me the box set, which I think sells for three or four hundred dollars, it's just incredible, you know, a lot of artwork, a lot of special things and I think that's the way you should approach it because I look at myself and, on a lesser scale than Trent Reznor, I'm an artist that has a small appeal, you know, small people, but it's a very high-scale thing, so...



AAJ: Niche?



AB: I guess that's the word, yeah. Where you really should offer a lot of versions of what you do, and you should offer it in different scales, you know you should have a three hundred dollar box set or you know a ten dollar giveaway, you know, or a free download, or something. Boutique! That's the word I was thinking of, I'm a boutique artist, as a boutique artist, you're on a different level, you're not out there trying to sell a hundred thousand records anymore, you're trying to do the most high quality presentation of your music that you can. I'm very careful with that. I don't just put out everything that I do and I don't put out anything unless I've done the artwork perfectly and I'm totally happy with the package. I never want to be in a position when I look back and say, oh we kind of slacked on that one, it wasn't as good, you know.

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Side Four and The Bears



AAJ: On the Side Four record, for example, was that recorded in one night or was that picked from multiple shows?



AB: That was all one show. On a very cold, snowy, two foot snow night in Dayton, Ohio in February.



AAJ: Did you plan to record multiple shows?



AB: I planned to record three shows, and we did, we recorded three shows in a row. I actually thought the next night—which was in Cincinnati, where I grew up—I thought that would be the show. But by the time we got to Cincinnati there was a blizzard, so the audience wasn't really there, the show didn't sound as good. The Dayton, Ohio, show, however, had a really nice energy about it, and it was also in a room that just really sounded nice-a nice warm wooden room where you could hear everything, you could hear the excitement of the audience and feel it. The performance was surprising because we didn't know we were being recorded that night. Our engineer John was just trying it out that night.



AAJ: Well he definitely got good sounds. I guess you lucked out.



AB: Well, you see he was getting ready for the next night, which we thought we were going to be recording.



AAJ: So this was more like a dress rehearsal.



AB: Yeah, and he said, "Well, I just turned the tape on just to make sure, to get the levels and see how it was," and that's the nice thing about the trio, it in a way mixes itself onstage because everyone's very aware. You have to be very careful, because you're playing sometimes to loops that I make right then and there, so you have to be very careful, and you can't just play louder than ever one night . . .



AAJ: And you can't change tempo . . .



AB: No, you can't change tempos and things, and you have to really be precise.



AAJ: I heard a rumor that the last Bears tour was going to be the final Bears tour. Is that true? It was so short.



AB: Well you know, what we did with The Bears is we went and we looked at the markets and we went after all the offers and we realized well, to make a whole tour out of it, it would only makes sense to do the Midwest really, these dates here make sense, and we'll come and have some money in our pockets and we won't have killed ourselves. The other guys in The Bears work regular jobs, and they can't just take off a month and go touring around, they can say, "Well, we can do it for two weeks and get a two week absence from our jobs."



Adrian Belew So that's why we hand selected the best dates available in a geographic area. We could have maybe done the same on the east coast, probably not on the west coast, but in the Midwest it seemed the strongest, so we went there. As far as it being the last tour, I would never say that. My relationship with The Bears is: every few years something happens, every three to five years everybody says, "I've got some songs, you got some songs?" "Yeah, I got some." So I never really say, "That's it," there's no reason to.



AAJ: Wow, what a shame people as talented as Rob Fetters and the other Bears would have to work a day job. They should be out playing music all the time.



AB: Yeah, Bob Nyswonger is an incredible bassist who is a real estate agent. He's a world class bassist, and he can play with anybody. And yet, he's not able to make enough money at it. It's sad.



AAJ: The man's bass tone is just huge.



AB: He's a fabulous player. They all three are. They are all great writers. That was the whole idea behind The Bears. Let's get four great songwriters to sit around and focus on writing on certain kinds of songs. Now I will say this: I've lost my interest in writing three minute pop songs. It may come back. But currently, I'm not interested anymore. I feel there's no real place for it in the world. It's already been done. I don't want to do it as I'm a little too old for that now. I don't want to write songs about romance, etc. I want to continue down the vein that I have with King Crimson and the Power Trio, which is exploding music, powerful music. Taking it out there. Making it as unique and powerful as you can. And it doesn't always result in a three or four minute kind of song. These days I'm more excited about what you can do outside of that format.

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King Crimson



AAJ: Let's discuss the Discipline Global Mobile record label. There have been some excellent releases from them lately. There has been Collector's Club Volume 37 (DGM Live, 2008), which is a show from The Pier in New York City in 1982, The Collectable King Crimson Volumes Two (DGM Live, 2007) and Three (DGM Live, 2008), which focus on the 1982 and 1996 lineups, and a smashing 2003 show from Japan recently made available for download. (Two more shows from the August, 1995 tour of Texas have been made available for download along with 2 shows in Atlanta from 1995, plus a show from this year's run in Chicago.) What do you think about hearing performances 20 years later—how do you feel about that?



Adrian Belew / King CrimsonAB: I have mixed feelings about it. I would never criticize it because I know it is the backbone of what Robert Fripp feels he has to do to survive in the music business. He is taking care of the legacy of King Crimson. He takes it out of the hands of the bootleggers. He has broadened the spectrum of what is out there and is available to the fans.



But, being one of the player for 27 years, sometimes I'm embarrassed by them. The recordings are not always as precise and beautiful as I would like them to be. And as you mentioned, I didn't know for example that we were going to use the rehearsals from Woodstock in 1994 as a recording. If I would have known that, I would have been playing on a different level. I was trying to work out things. I don't always like people hearing what I play when I'm not sure of myself.



AAJ: It was a work in progress.



AB: Yeah, that's how I am about my releases. I wait until they are perfected. King Crimson doesn't do that now. We release just about anything. [Laughs] But as I said, I don't want to criticize it. It's not my record label. I have nothing to do with it. Every now and then, I might receive a little money from it. Probably not much. [laughs] But it's Robert Fripp's thing. I don't' want to criticize his thing. I'm glad there is somebody out there watching out for King Crimson's legacy because it's a big part of what I've done with my life. But I mostly watch out for my own private performances.



AAJ: But some of those performances...



AB: King Crimson can have some amazing evenings and some incredibly bad train wrecks too.



AAJ: Well, I don't think he has released very many train wrecks to my ears. I've been listening to some of the releases from the catalog—for example, some shows from 1996, which included six-piece performances of tunes like "Waiting Man" and "Discipline." I know this lineup didn't perform these songs very often, and I found these particular performances very moving and escaping their bounds.



AB: I think it's wonderful, that aspect of it. That the listener can get a bigger dose of what we did than just what was done in the studio. And King Crimson has always considered itself more a live vehicle than a studio vehicle. So on any given night... you never know what could happen.



AAJ: While we are on King Crimson, in 2003, after the departure of bass and stick player Trey Gunn, did you have fears that the band might never play again?



AB: I always consider that it might be the last time. About two years ago, around 2006, Robert Fripp had his engineer, John Sinks, come and get all his stuff out of my studio here in Nashville. He usually keeps a lot of his stuff here. I figured, "Well that's it. Robert's moved all his stuff out of my house so he must be done with me." [laughs] In fact, he told me recently that he thought at that point, that was it, he was done with King Crimson, maybe forever. But he doesn't come right out with it. He never tells you. So you have to kind of guess for yourself. It really kind of left me high and dry. I had planned on a whole year's worth of work. And suddenly, whew, I realized there was no King Crimson.



Adrian Belew / King CrimsonAAJ: Good time to put a power trio together.



AB: Yeah, fortunately I was able to make that leap there. If it hadn't worked, though, I'd probably be upset about it. But I'm not. I know Robert pretty well. I've been working with him for 27 years, and he's got his own mind set about things. And once he decides something, he goes that way. Then, he might undecide it. [Laughs] He is consistently inconsistent.



AAJ: If you know this, what was Fripp's revelation that he could get King Crimson back together for 2008?



AB: He told me that he realized that bringing [Porcupine Tree member] Gavin Harrison as a second drummer would bring new life to the material, and that excited him. Now, whether it has anything to do with beyond that—if he's wanting to make new music, or it's a making money thing, I really have no idea. At this point, I'm taking it for face value that it's time for King Crimson to do a few shows this year and maybe next year does the same.



AAJ: I know you've already had some rehearsals. Robert Fripp keeps the camera going and posts the shots in his web diary on dgmlive.com. How have the rehearsals been going so far?



AB: I guess they've gone okay. We've learned things faster than Robert thought we would. I thought they we would learn them quicker, but he thought it would take a long time. I think Tony and Gavin maybe surprised him a bit because they did their homework and really knew the material. I don't want to say too much, but I'm a little curious about how it's going to come off live because at this point we're only doing material that everyone has heard different versions of the band do. There's nothing new for the most part, maybe some drum duet type things that are new, but nothing else new.



And, it concerns me only that if we go out and really ace it, then that will be great. But if we go out and sound like every other version of the band, then what's the point? So I'm concerned at this point. And if you ask me this in September, I'll be able to tell you. And I think what I will tell you in September is , "Wow, of course we were hot and I loved every minute of it."



AAJ: What has it been like with Gavin Harrison on the drums, so far?



AB: Gavin is sensational. He's a wonderful guy. Fabulous player. Like we said earlier, he really did his homework. Never floundered for one minute. Can do amazing thing with his feet and hands. [Laughs] And, I think importantly for Robert, Gavin's English. Robert felt like he had lost the English side of King Crimson, which I can totally understand because in my experience, long before I was ever in the band, it was a totally English band. AAJ: A very British band.



AB: Very British. Very English in its thinking and terminology and its lyricism, its background, its culture. I know it's been somewhat changed over the years by the infusion of Americanism—people like myself and Tony Levin. But I'm happy to see it go back to the English shores as much as possible, I think that's where it belongs.



Adrian Belew / King CrimsonAAJ: I thought a recent post by Robert on his web diary was just hilarious. He says "Here's Adrian's basement, and here's Adrian coming downstairs to show me my part on, "Level Five."" I thought that was just great—you showing him his part. So, am I ever going to hear "Larks' Tongues In Aspic Parts I-IV" and "Level Five" in the same show?



AB: Wow. I think not, probably just because it would be too much of the same.



AAJ: 45 minutes of...



AB: Yeah, I mean truly—it's the same piece of material being redone different ways. Same tempo area, same scale usage. So if you backed them all up together, would probably be too much of a good thing.



AAJ: I understand. Where did he get "Larks' Tongues In Aspic"? I always wondered... why did he call it that?



AB: Ah.... I don't know. Many of those titles came from Peter Sinfield, the lyricist who was in the band at that point. [Editorial note: Sinfield had left the band by the time of Larks' Tongues in Aspic (DGM Live, 1973). According to Wikipedia, "The title was invented by percussionist Jamie Muir and is meant to signify what he heard in this album's music: something fragile and delicate (larks' tongues) encased in something corrosive and acidic (aspic)."].



Sinfield is the one who came up with "In The Court of the Crimson King." I believe he is the man who named the band King Crimson. I could be wrong about this history, I don't know. Those are things that he claims.



AAJ: And I wonder about "Red." Why was it named "Red"?



AB: Well by then, Pete Sinfield was long gone from the band, so it couldn't have been his idea to call it "Red." [Laughs] Good title. Great album title and a great record.



AAJ: How does King Crimson come up with the set lists you play on the various tours?



AB: I make the set lists, actually. It's down to me. It's one of the things that Robert doesn't really care about doing, and he'd rather say, "Tell what you'd like to play tonight, Ade," and I think up something. I shuffle it around. I've got my own way of designing it to have a certain kind of contour. One night we'll play "One Time" and the next night we will play "Walking On Air," you see what I mean? You substitute one thing for another, but you want to be building a dynamic kind of flow to it. Basically, I like the idea that Robert has mentioned before. You offer a piece of candy to the audience, and when they start to take it, you punch them in the face.



AAJ: Yes, "assaulting culture," he called it. So you start with a heavy instrumental or a rocking vocal piece like "Prozac Blues," then a longer stretchy instrumental like "ConstruKction of Light," then a softer number like "One Time."



AB: Yeah, it's a contour if you look at it. You know when you've reached a peak and you settle back, give the audience a bit of air here. And then you build it back up, and obviously you want to build it to the end to a certain point you'd never reach otherwise.



AAJ: Have you never had the desire to go back and perform some of the John Wetton vocal pieces from the 1970s like "Easy Money" or "One More Red Nightmare"?



AB: Actually, "Easy Money" is a piece that has been mentioned many times. I don't know why we've never done it. I mean, it's come up. For many years, everyone was on our tails to do "21st Century Schizoid Man." We finally did that, and it was good to get that monkey off our back. [Laughs]. I don't know, I kind of feel like it's not really what the band was about. It's about pursuing new things, not redoing old things. I mean, I'm with you, though. I love all those old records. They were very important in my growth process as a young musician. Then again, so were The Beatles, and I don't want to play Beatle music.



AAJ: On the 2000 tour, King Crimson started playing David Bowie's "Heroes." How did that come about?



AB: That was Robert's idea. It was because he felt like between the two of us, we had a history with that song. Robert played on the original thing, and I played on tour with Bowie several times. We just thought that shows a bit of the undercurrent of things that Crimson touches that aren't King Crimson.



AAJ: In a recent interview elsewhere, you stated that there were no plans for King Crimson in 2009. Is that still the case?



AB: I think in 2009, there are no concrete plans. I've heard nothing as in we going to this date or something like that. Other than in my dinner conversations with Robert, where he says "We'll do some of these things next year like we are doing this year." Basically, we feel we are now at a point where we don't want to do very much touring. Just enough to where we will be out there playing, and we want to do more of what we call "hub touring," where you stay in one place—the audience comes to you. So we're playing three nights at Park West in Chicago rather than say Chicago one night, Cleveland one night, Cincinnati another night. We figure the true fans will come to Chicago on one of those three nights.



Adrian BelewAAJ: Well, you've sold out the Belcourt Theater here in Nashville for two nights.



AB: Yeah, I think we'll do well in the three places we've chosen—Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. What I wonder, is where else can you do that? You can't do that everywhere. Where do you do that on the West Coast? Where do you that in the South? Where do you do that in Canada? I know also that Robert has said definitively that has does not want to work outside of the United States.



AAJ: Was the 2003 tour so bad that he swore he would never tour Europe again? What happened there?



AB: I don't know what happened. Nothing happened as far as I am concerned. I thought it was a great tour. But, it definitely turned Robert off to ever touring in Europe again. I'm touring Europe in the fall with the power trio, actually.



AAJ: Was it the customs hassles or something like that?



AB: No, it was nothing like that. No, nothing to do with that. He didn't feel that the music was being served properly in the venues. I don't know. You're asking me, and I don't know Robert's mind.



AAJ: In 2009, will we see more power trio live dates as well?



AB: Yeah, my focus really is on the power trio now, as much as I can do that makes sense financially and otherwise. We have this next leg in touring that takes in Florida and the Carolinas. Then in June we go up and do some festivals in Canada. Should be really nice. Also since we're up there, we're be going to Burlington, Vermont and Troy, NewYork—some East coast things.



Then August is all King Crimson. Just in the fact that includes rehearsals, then playing shows. Following that, on the heels of that really, I am looking at the trio going to Russia. This will be the end of August.



Then in October, we do our real Fall tour of Europe which takes in a lot of places. Everything from Budapest to Amsterdam. It will be great for the trio to get all that experience under its belt before we even do our next record. By the time we do our next record, we will have played several weeks in Japan, in South America, in all of Europe, festivals, clubs, concerts, theaters, as openers, big stages with other headliners. We will be opening for Primus and for Zappa Plays Zappa at festival dates in Canada. So I am really excited to see where this is all leading. I know something is going to come of this, and it's going to be wonderful. If King Crimson wants to go a little deeper, that's fine but I don't think we're going to do a whole lot more than what is already planned.



AAJ: Do you feel like in 2009 there be any kind of new King Crimson record with new material?



AB: I don't. I don't. Robert has given me no indication that he wants new material or wants me to start writing. And it's a long process. A new King Crimson record is at least a two-year process, so if we even started in 2009, you wouldn't see anything until 2011. I really don't think that's where his focus is. I think what we want to do now is a little bit of live playing and just keep the music going.

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History



AAJ: Let's talk about some of your history. I understand you played drums before you played guitar in school?



AB: Well, I started in Junior High school band. I wanted to be in marching band. I wanted to play in parades and go to football games, and that's what I did. I never truly got into the concert aspect of it, so I never got deep into the learning process of reading music. In fact, in my three years [in the] junior high school band, I mostly learned marching cadences and places to be on the football field. When I finished and moved to another area, that happened to coincide with what they called the British Invasion, so I dropped the idea of wanting to be in the school band and wanting to be in a rock band.



I joined my first rock band as a drummer and singer. I'd always been able to sing, so it was an interesting combination to be a lead singing drummer. So that was helpful, and by the time I was a junior in high school, I took up the guitar. By that time, the musician had changed. So fast. Just like it's doing now. You went from 1963 where there are these "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah" songs to 1967 where there are orchestras on the records. And you kind of go, "Wow, how do I do this now?" So it's 1967, which is really around the time I started playing guitar, and you also have the advent of the virtuoso playing. You have people like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton. Drummers like Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon. Wow, suddenly there is more to this than these little pop songs. And that's when I really took an interest in the guitar.



AAJ: Let's flash forward about 10 years to Frank Zappa. You were playing in a Nashville-based cover band called Sweetheart. I'm curious; did Sweetheart ever play any original material?



AB: We did actually start down the road of playing our own material. [Laughs] Here's kind of a quirky story, but I'll tell it anyway. There were three writers in the band—myself, the keyboard player and the saxophonist. They said, "We'd like to do this evenly so we'll do one of Adrian's songs, one of Rod's and one of Brian's." And that's what we did. We did one of mine, one of Rod's and one of Brian's. Then we did another one of mine, one of Rod's... and that was it because those guys ran out of songs. [Laughs]. And I said, "Hold it, I've got 50 more songs here!" So, as I recall, we learned five original songs.

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Frank Zappa



AAJ: So you were playing a gig here in Nashville and Zappa gets in a taxi and says, "Take me to a good show." Is that what it was?



AB: Well, kind of. You're close. Frank played a gig in town. And this was normal for Frank, after a show he'd like to go to a club in town and try to discover musicians and discover music. He asked the limo driver, Terry Pugh. I still remember him very well. He used to come and hear Sweetheart all the time. And Sweetheart really was a great band, by the way. We didn't have very many original songs, but we were a hot commodity. And we looked great and sounded great. We did cover band stuff, but it was high quality like Steely Dan, Wings, Stevie Wonder. It wasn't your typical...



AAJ: I am just imagining you playing Steely Dan...



AB: Oh yeah, I loved Steely Dan. They had an amazing run of guitar players and music. So Frank needed something to do so he loaded up the limo with band members and crew members. They came to where I was playing at this little dank dark bar called Fanny's that was painted black on the inside. It was kind of a biker bar. Lot of motorcycle guys hung there. So yeah, he came in for 40 minutes and listened. At the end of that he came up to the stage, reached up and shook my hand.



AAJ: Did you recognize him at that point?



AB: Oh Yeah. Everybody recognized him. The minute he walked in the whole place lit up. And I tried everything I could do to impress Frank Zappa. And it worked. He said, "I'll get your name and number from the limo driver. I'll audition you when I finish my tour." He said it would be awhile. And it was. Maybe six months later he called. Right at a desperate moment in my life, just when I was about to give up he called. I was three months behind in my rent, and all kinds of bad things were going on in my life. I thought, "Maybe I should forget this and start making pizza for a living." Frank called, and that saved me life.



AAJ: So off you go to California to learn the Zappa material. And man, what a wacky catalogue of music he had. On those tours, he wouldn't play the same set list every night either.



Adrian Belew / Frank ZappaAB: Yeah, we rehearsed for three months before we ever played a show. three months, five days a week. Long rehearsals, eight-to-ten hours a day. By the end of that time, I had learned five hours of Frank Zappa music. Before we ever stepped on a stage, I knew that much of his stuff. And, I worked with Frank privately on the weekends since I was the only musician in the band who didn't read music. He would give me time to learn things by rote which were coming up the next week. So I delved into that relationship and moved into an apartment out there. I didn't even have a car. I just totally drowned myself in Frank Zappa music. Up to that point, I didn't know much about Frank Zappa's music. I had heard a few things, but that was it.



AAJ: So was that you doing the Bob Dylan impersonation on "Flakes" on Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti (Ryko/FZ, 1979) record?



AB: [Laughs] Yes. That happened one night on a weekend when I was sitting with Frank. It has this one section in the middle where... well, you see, Frank just couldn't sing and play at the same time. I found out why. When he sang while he played, he sounded like a bad folk singer. So I started making fun of what he was doing. I started singing like Bob Dylan and he said, "That's It! I want that in the show!"



AAJ: You worked on the Baby Snakes (Ryko/FZ, 1983) film with Frank. Did I read that you were present for the editing somewhere?



AB: I wasn't present for the film editing, but I was there for the filming, of course. I was in the film. What actually happened, by the end of the first year I spent with Frank, I had met David Bowie. David offered me to go on tour with him during the time that Frank would be editing the film. Frank said, "Well, I will be doing this editing for the next three months." And I told him that David Bowie would be on tour for the next four months. So I thought maybe I should go do that while he edited the film. I figured that I would return to the Zappa fold, but things didn't work out that way.



AAJ: Did you ever think about going back to Frank Zappa in the, '80s, after activity with King Crimson died down?



AB: No, I didn't. At that time, when I joined King Crimson in 1981, that was the same year I was able to do what I had wanted to do all my life, which was get my own record deal and make my own records. So, by that time I felt that I was growing on my own as my own artist, and I shouldn't try to be a sideman anymore.

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David Bowie



AAJ: How did you make the transition from Zappa to Bowie? Did Bowie come to a Zappa show, was that it?



AB: Yes, in Germany. What actually happened, in Cologne, Germany, Brian Eno was in the audience for the Frank Zappa show. He knew that David Bowie was looking for a new guitarist for his upcoming tour. He called David and said, "Man, you've got to see this guy who is in Frank Zappa's band." So David came to the show a few nights later in Berlin, accompanied by Iggy Pop. There was a spot in the show where I would leave while Frank played a long solo. Usually I would just go get a drink of water and put on a costume or a different hat or something. This time, I saw David Bowie and Iggy Pop standing over by the monitor mixer, and I decided I was going to say something to David Bowie, because I'm a big fan of his. I had played some of his songs. So I shook David's hand, and I said, "Hi, I just wanted to tell you how much I love your music." He said, "Great, how would you like to be in my band?" [Laughs] That's how it happened. It was a shock.



AAJ: So did you do the tour before you recorded the Lodger (Virgin, 1979) record with David or was it vice versa?



AB: Yeah, the tour was before. We did one leg of the tour before going into the studio. As with Frank, the tours were divided into legs. Back then, you would do two months in United States, take a few weeks off, then do two months in Europe. Then, if you were lucky, you might go to Japan or South America. All that got mixed together, and somewhere in the middle of it we went to Switzerland and did the Lodger album with Brian Eno as producer. That was my first actual studio record.



AAJ: When I looked at your discography, your first album released was the Stage (Ryko, 1978) album with David.



AB: Yeah, that was recorded on that first leg of the tour. The first two records I recorded were live—one being Sheik Yerbouti with Frank, the other being Stage with David. The third was Lodger, the first time I was ever in a studio recording with someone.



Adrian Belew / David BowieAAJ: Is it true that you had to track your parts to those tunes on Lodger without ever having heard them previously?



AB: Yeah, that's exactly right. That was the plan. The record was to be called Planned Accidents. At the time, that was the title that David and Brian had. And their idea was, "Well, let's get Adrian's responses without ever having heard it first." So, the recording room was actually above the control room. There was a camera in the recording room so the people in the control room could see me, but I couldn't see them. They said, "You're going to hear a count off. Then we want you to start playing." Well, I said, "Playing what?" They said, "Whatever you want to play." I said, "Well, what key?" They said, "We're not going to tell you." So, I would fumble my way through the song the first time. The second time I would get a few places {sounding} good. The third time, I would even start knowing maybe what was coming next, but that was it. I was never allowed to play it more than two or three times. And they took the best parts that they liked, and created a composite guitar track. So there are some really crazy parts on there that theoretically, I didn't actually play, at the same time, at least.



AAJ : I found some of the guitar parts—"DJ" and, "Boys Keep Swinging," for example—to be kind of Fripp-esque.



AB: Oh, they probably are. I was following in his footsteps. I wanted to keep in that genre.

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Talking Heads



AAJ: Okay, how did you get from Bowie then to the Talking Heads? Was that through Eno?



AB: No, that was through playing at Madison Square Garden with David. The Talking Heads were in the front row. They saw me, and they liked what I did. Their next tour was for a record called Fear of Music (Sire, 1979). They were touring around the Midwest. I came to three of their shows. On the third show, I played with them. They said, "Would you come up and play with us on, 'Psycho Killer?,'" which was the encore. And that was it after that.



The next time I saw them, I was playing my own show in New York City with my own band, a showcase, trying to get a record deal. When I finished the show, there was David Byrne, Jerry Harrison and Brian Eno again. They took me over into a stairwell, and they said they were making a record and asked if I could stay around and record on it. I said, "I don't know. Let me ask these other people I'm in town playing with if they would mind staying in New York an extra day. I guess they probably won't." So I did Remain In Light the next day.



AAJ: You did that all in one day?



AB: All in one day.



AAJ: Did you play on every track on the record?



AB: Most every track, yeah. I was fast. And I had lots of ideas. And it's always been that way for me. If someone plays a new piece of music for me, if it's Trent Reznor or it's David Byrne, I will say, "Wow, there's five different things I can offer here on this track. Here, I could do this, or I could this, and this, and this, and this." Basically, people have gotten to the point where when I play on someone's record they want me to do my own thing.



AAJ: To do what you do.



AB: Yeah, that's what they're asking. I'm not one of these studio players that show up and you hand me a chart and say, "Here's the chords. Here's what I want you to play. I want you to sound like this guy."



Adrian Belew / Talking HeadsAAJ: When the Talking Heads played you the Remain in Light material before you played on it, did it strike you right away? When I listen to them now, It almost sounds like Remain in Light, [King Crimson's] Discipline (DGM Live, 1980), [Belew's] Lone Rhino (Island, 1982) and [Tom Tom Club's] Tom Tom Club (Sire, 1981) were recorded at the same time by the same band.



AB: Well, it was a small community of the same thought. I would include Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Bowie, maybe Peter Gabriel in that line of thinking, and certainly Robert Fripp, and myself. You have common factors that go through all those things. Brian Eno producing and me playing on a record, Robert playing on a record, then Tony Levin plays with Peter Gabriel—it all sort of connects the dots really quickly. I think it was a time when there was a real interest in African rhythms and certain other parts of music that all of us took to heart and said, "Okay, what can we do with this stuff?"



AAJ: When you first joined King Crimson, well it wasn't even called King Crimson. It was called Discipline. Was that because Robert wanted to separate himself—it was pretty much a left turn from the mellotron driven, hard, progressive rock of the '70s—since the sound of the new group was more groove-oriented?



AB: Oh, it was a totally different brand of music. I think that's why Robert was hesitant to call it King Crimson. At some point, about six weeks into the writing and rehearsing of the music, he said, "No matter what we call it, it has the spirit of and the integrity of King Crimson." Tony Levin and I almost shouted, "Let's call it King Crimson!"



AAJ: You were also on the live double album that has recently been reissued The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (Sire, 1982).



AB: Right. I've never actually heard that.



AAJ: Ha. Well, you should just hear yourself; lots of great Remain In Light material on there, must have been from that tour, on disc two. And on the first disc are tunes from the previous tours before you joined. It was interesting to hear their music progress.



AB: Yeah, well they took a big leap from album to album. They progressed really well. I followed their progression from album to album. Then, I really loved Fear of Music, which was the last album before I joined them. Then, Remain in Light seemed like a real departure. All of sudden, Remain in Light (Sire, 1980) came out of nowhere. I thought up to that point they sounded like a four-piece rock band, they kept their arrangements to that. They didn't have a lot of other parts, all the way up to Fear of Music, it was that way. Then with Remain in Light, all of a sudden they burst out with all kinds of backup harmonies, and extra rhythms and other players. It just took another turn there. It was difficult to do that music live. Because they hadn't planned on that, I think. They hadn't really thought out, "Well, how are we going to play this stuff live?"



AAJ: Had you been listening to Fela Kuti or some of those other African Afrobeat musicians?



AB: No, no.



AAJ: Well, they would've had to. On the reissue of Remain in Light, there is even a bonus track of them just jamming called, "Fela Groove." I guess that was David Byrne who was getting into that.



AB: Or, it could've been Chris and Tina. They were all interested in ethnic music and world music. I mean, Chris and Tina lived in the Bahamas. They worked with a lot of Jamaican players. It could've been any of those things. I know that David and Brian Eno both had a big interest in that. But no, I just kind of walked into that and felt comfortable with it. I didn't really need to go and study those records. I mean, I grew up as a drummer, so rhythms were not new to me.

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Joining King Crimson



AAJ: So what was the transition that took you out of the Talking Heads and into King Crimson?



AB: Basically, Robert offered the position to be in a band with him and Bill Bruford. These were two of my favorite musicians growing up. Bill Bruford was, in fact, my favorite drummer.



AAJ: Were you a Yes fan, back in the day, then?



AB: I was a Yes fan and King Crimson. Of the progressive bands, those were the two I liked the most. And, I really loved Bill's playing, and I knew everything Robert had done. So, for me, that was really a no-brainer. I said, "Okay, I'll do that."



AAJ: Better King Crimson than continuing in a sideman role in the Talking Heads.



AB: As I was saying, in that period, 1981, I was able to break out of the shell of side man and stunt guitarist (as Frank called me). Here I'm being offered to make my own music and make my own music in collaboration with Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford and Tony Levin. So, "Wow! What a big step!"



AAJ: You know, I found it interesting that on one of the Discipline Global Mobile releases, a 1981 show that the four of you performed as Discipline, but even though you were called Discipline, you still performed, "Red" and, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2." It was almost as if King Crimson was inevitable.



AB: Pre-ordained, I think. [Laughs]



 



AAJ: So you played on a Herbie Hancock record that same year—Magic Windows (Columbia, 1981). It's currently only available on CD as an import, so I'm not really sure what it sounds like, but what was it like to record with Herbie Hancock?



Adrian Belew / Herbie HancockAB: It was great. It was just me and him and a studio full of keyboards. [Laughs] Herbie used to come see some of the King Crimson shows in the early, '80s, so he was a fan. He was a really nice person. In fact, he is one of the earliest people to say, "I think you wrote some of this material, so I'm going to give you a co-writing credit." So we wrote one of the songs on that record together.



It was fun to do that, and a little scary for me because I've never considered myself educated in the world of jazz. I listen to jazz, but I find it fascinating that even as a drummer I have no idea was those jazz drummers are thinking or doing. So, to play with Herbie Hancock, a bona fide jazz musician with a name, was a bit scary. I was hesitant a little bit. I said, "I don't know. What do you want me to do?" He just said, "Do what you do. I love what you do with King Crimson. Keep doing it. Do what you do on my record." So we could break through the barrier where you don't have to sit and talk through a piece of music in other language than playing the music. That is the language you use.



AAJ: So you wouldn't describe it as a straight-ahead bebop kind of record?



AB: No, I wouldn't. He was going a lot more outside, using synthesizers and doing other things.



AAJ: He had a lot of success with that type music in the, '80s, with the, "Rockit" single and all. So on top of all the things, you played with one of the great jazz pianists of all time.



AB: And it was an honor.



AAJ: Why did King Crimson only make it up to about 1984 and then disappear for 10 years?



AB: You've asked me so many questions that would be answered by Robert, not me. I found out that the band was over by reading Musician magazine. I didn't have any idea. Robert never called me or anything else. A friend of mine said, "You should look at the new issue of Musician magazine. It says that King Crimson's broken up." So, I don't know why that happened. Robert felt that the band had gone away from his original vision of it.



AAJ: Too commercial? Is that what it was?



AB: Well, it wasn't commercial. It was never commercial. It was never meant to be commercial. Lord help us if King Crimson ever got on the radio. [Laughs]



AAJ: I thought that some of those tunes like "Heartbeat," for example, could've been a hit.



AB: Yeah, I sometimes regret that song being put in the hands of King Crimson, because I was talked into it.



AAJ: So "Heartbeat" was one of your tunes?



AB: Yeah, I totally wrote the song by myself. I was talked into it mainly by Bill Bruford who said, "Let's see what happens if we put a song like this in the mix." And I think that probably is the beginning of Robert feeling like this has gone totally different than I wanted. He runs away from popularity.



Adrian Belew / King CrimsonAAJ: So I've heard. I'm interested in the writing process for the '80s King Crimson—say, "Frame By Frame" and the Discipline album. Did you write that? Did Robert write that? How were those tunes written?



AB: Mostly it's Robert and I who do all the writing. The other players, be it Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto or Tony and Bill come up with their parts, but you have to have the blueprint, which is, "What are we playing here? What is the tempo? The time signature? The changes? The notes we are playing to." That's called writing the music, and that's done by me and Robert. Usually in the room that you're sitting in. Quietly, we don't even plug our instruments in because we aren't trying to get sounds and develop solos.



You mentioned, "Frame By Frame." We started with this riff in 7. [Sings the riff]. Now what would you do with that? Well, I could sing this over that. Where would you go from there? Well, I'd have to have it move up to another key somewhere because I don't want to stay in the same key—we're not making another Remain In Light album. [Laughs] So, that's how it goes. It goes in spurts like that. You start out with a simple—well I wouldn't say simple—idea. And you take it as far as you can, day after day. Then we walk away from each other for days or months, even. Then you come back and you say, "What's happened? Well, I've taken that idea we had and added this to it." Or, "I've got this new thing."



Robert and I just bounce the ball back and forth in that way. A lot of the ideas start with him. And end with me. I've learned over the years working with Robert that the best way to work with him is to have his involvement from the beginning. Rather than write a song like, "Heartbeat" and bringing it to the band, I prefer to say "Robert, let's sit down and do you have any thoughts? Here's something I've been working on, let's work on that." And also, there are developmental times where you have a piece of music, and you just need to find its form. You know what the parts are, you know where you want to take it, but you don't know the best arrangement. So, at that time, you bring in the whole band, and you start trying different ways of playing things.



AAJ: How did, "Larks' Tongues In Aspic" come back in the, '80s and then again on ConstruKction of Light (DGM Live, 2000)? How did you decide to continue what was done back in the, '70s?



AB: Well, musically as I mentioned earlier, they are brothers. They are cut from the same cloth. It just kind of made sense to keep a theme going. It's not my idea, probably Robert's. But I totally agree with it, I like that. I like that idea of continuity. I've always thought with King Crimson over the whole period I've been in it and before, that was one of the things about it. It has its own brand. You don't say, "Well, what's King Crimson music?" It's not jazz, it's not prog rock, it's not rock n' roll, it's King Crimson music. It's got its own name because it's got its own elements. And you use those same elements over and over for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years.

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Back to Bowie



AAJ: You did the Sound and Vision tour with David Bowie in 1990. You were the musical director as well. How did that come about? It had been a while since you played with David Bowie.



AB: It had been from 1979 to 1990. It was a long time. I didn't think we'd ever do anything together again. There was no reason not to, but it just didn't seem like it would happen. He went on and did many other things, and so did I. I think it was because I had video out at the time called, "Oh Daddy," and the video was kind of cute and fun. I think it reminded David of how much he liked me. "Oh, there's Adrian. I love Adrian. I would be great to play with him again." I really think that is all it was. David was reminded of me again. He saw me still out there and doing well. "[I] Wonder if he could be the musical director and guitarist?" So I was.



He called me up while I was on tour for the Mr. Music Head (Atlantic, 1989) album I had just made. He said, "Let's get together and talk about this. I want to do a world tour. I want to do all my best hits, and then I'm never going to do them again."



AAJ: He lied.



AB: [Laughs]



 



AAJ: I'm not sure if he ever played, "Space Oddity" again. Not really sure.



Adrian BelewAB: The challenge was amazing. To play all that variety of music from so many different records and so many different lineups with one band. And you know, a lot of that music had everything from sax sections to strings, orchestras...everything is on that music. David really likes to vary his coloration from record to record. So it was a big challenge for me. What I basically did as musical director was to orchestrate that. Teach the band. Find an arrangement that works for the band and work that out with them. And then it was down to being the guitarist, and how do you cover all those bases. I think we did pretty well with it. There are a couple parts where you falter. I mean, how do you do "Young Americans" without a saxophone? [Laughs] I tried, at least.



AAJ: I was really disappointed that he never put out an official live album or DVD from that tour. I've seen some bootlegs from that tour thanks to YouTube and such, and it was really monstrous.



AB: It was very good. I loved that tour. I had a great time, and I got to know David really well. It was first class all the way. It's the kind of thing you dream of doing once in your life. It was a very special time.



AAJ: You met Paul McCartney on that tour.



AB: I met Paul McCartney. I met my wife! We met after a show in Orlando in the lobby of the Peabody hotel. So that was, for me, a life changing tour. It changed everything. I'm with you though, I'd like to have a record of that.

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Back to Crimson



AAJ: The, '90s King Crimson, how did that come together? After Robert ending the band 10 years previous in Musician magazine?



AB: Well, I kept hearing rumors that King Crimson was starting again. I had not had a call, and I thought, "Well that's interesting. Is it going to be a totally new lineup?" I thought about a little bit, and I thought, "I've invested a lot of time and energy into King Crimson. I really feel that I am a part of it. And, if there is a new King Crimson, I don't want to be standing on the sidelines watching the parade go by. I want to be in the parade." [Laughs]



So it just so happened that I was going to Europe to do some dates. I had enough time to stop in and visit Robert in England. Ostensibly, I was just there to see him as a friend and say "Hi." While I was there, we did a new version of, "Cadence and Cascade." He asked me, "Would you be able to sing this, since you're here?" And "Of course, I'll sing it, I know the song very well." And I did that, then I got around to the subject of King Crimson. I said, "Well if there is a new King Crimson, I want you to know that I'd like to be a part of it. And, if that's not in your plan, that's fine, but wanted you to know that I am agreeable to that." And after that, Robert said that got his wheels in motion, and he really got serious about it. I don't know, he had new material, he had new energy for it.



The next that happened, he came to my house in the United States, and we began writing new material again. Like nothing had changed. I mean after he left he had about 30 seconds of chords changes for what would eventually become "One Time." And we had already started working on other pieces like "VROOOM" and things like that. I had a very clear idea for what he was shooting for musically speaking. It was, in some ways, akin to an advanced Beatles. That was a little bit of what I was hearing. I wanted to hear something like "I Am The Walrus" which turned into a song like "Dinosaur." That's the King Crimson version of that type of music.



AAJ: Was that song lyrically about impressions in the press that King Crimson was one of these old progressive bands going back on tour—the band as dinosaur?



Adrian Belew / King CrimsonAB: No, it wasn't really at all. Actually, it was more of a personal statement. I was tired of people always digging into my life and trying to find out things, you know. I don't know what it was about. Maybe I felt at that point that I was a dinosaur. The music industry was moving so fast and past me, and I knew that I wasn't going to create hit records, and I wasn't going to be on the radio, so I had to change the focus of my career around at that time.



AAJ: So it was sort of a comment on where you were at, at that time.



AB: Yeah, and I never really considered the idea that King Crimson was called a dinosaur by a critic or anything like that. Never even occurred to me. I was also in a big dinosaur phase. I read volumes of books about all the new dinosaur theories. If you remember, that was around the time just before Jurassic Park (1993) came out. I was already studying all the new theories that they had. Especially the one that really struck me was the one that said dinosaur were early versions of birds. And I'm a bird watcher. So for me, that was incredible. It got me going. I started reading everything I could about what was going on there. For a long time, dinosaurs were just these big plodding things, no one knew anything about them or where they came from. All of a sudden, there was this explosion of information.



AAJ: Yeah, I could definitely hear that Beatles influence on THRAK (DGM Live, 1995) and VROOOM (DGM Live, 1994). Especially on the outro of "People." I thought at the time, "Wow, this sounds like something straight off of Abbey Road (Apple, 1969)."



AB: You know, for me, I always thought that King Crimson had that. Even from the very first record [In The Court of the Crimson King (DGM Live, 1969)]. If you listen there is an interesting combination going on that I've always felt was essential to the band. You had the radical instrumental music, dressed as songs, or not, such as, "21st Century Schizoid Man," followed by a very well-written song—the classical, classic rock song, "I Talk To The Wind." Could it have been a Lennon/McCartney tune? Of course. So, they always have that equation. I always felt that was important to King Crimson. Over the years, I've heard people say, "Well, wouldn't it be nice if King Crimson just improvised? Or if they just played the individual pieces of music?" You know what? It wouldn't. You wouldn't have that balance. Without those elements, you would be missing something.

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Painting and Improvisation



AAJ: Before we end here, I wanted to cover two more topics—your paintings and your views on improvisation.



AB: Well, before you leave, I will have to show you some of my paintings. [Points back at his basement studio] This is also my personal art gallery down here, in the living quarters part of the studio. I always thought I would try my hand at painting. I don't know why. I've always noodled around and scribbled and drawn things all my life. But I had no training, I had no reason to believe that I could ever paint. I figured, "Well, when I am 75, I will take up painting." [Laughs] By then, I will be too old to do anything else. It just happened prematurely. You know, there is an event that occurred that caused me to want to paint. That's my first painting right behind you.



AAJ: The first one. Wasn't that one of your album covers?



AB: Yes it is, yeah. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, "Well, if I can paint something that I like well enough, maybe I can use it as an album cover." I really didn't know that I could paint. I went down to an art store. I got a few canvases; I did a lot of questioning. I found about acrylics and all the mediums you can mix in it to make it different textures and liquidities, glossies, watercolor-like. I loved all that alchemy that you could do, so I chose acrylics.



I chose a canvas size, 30x40, that you could reduce down and be a nice artwork for CDs. I had that in the back of the mind. I thought I'd just try this, and maybe I'll accidentally find something that's cool looking. And I got so immersed in it, I did 60 paintings in about a year. I would just paint forever, all day and all night. I just couldn't stop myself. And every painting I made was entirely different. It was strange. I had no idea what I was doing. Just like teaching myself to play music. So I just figured it out. I just combined this thing and that. Now I'm going use a paint brush, now a knife, now spray paint, and I just kept trying these things.



My excursions were always based on abstract painting, so I never know thought, "Okay, I'm trying to make it look like something." I'm not going to do a portrait of someone or a landscape or a basket of fruit, I'm just trying to do something interesting with colors and shapes and geometrics and dimensions. If you really think about it, that's exactly what you do with music. It relates so well. In music, you're creating dimensional things, you're making depth, you're changing colors like you change sounds. You're using harmonies and contrasts. You're using all the same techniques that I was using with sound, I was now using with paints and a canvas. It really was an explosion of fun for me.



Adrian Belew And I'm still loving it. I still don't know what I'm doing. I still don't know how I do what I do or how to repeat it so that's why mostly all of my paintings are one of a kind.



AAJ: Doesn't Robert have some of your paintings over in the Discipline Global Mobile office?



AB: Robert has actually been here many of the times that I've been painting, so he'll get up in the morning and come in the studio. There's a new painting on the floor drying. [Robert says], "Oh, I love that one!" He's really one of the biggest fans of my paintings, I have to say, "Thank you, Robert." I gave him several paintings. And, he eventually asked to buy some paintings so I sold him eight of them, which now adorn his residence and his working place in England. So that's nice that someone of his taste would appreciate what I do. And he knows exactly what I told you, that I'm doing it just for fun, that it's just another way of expressing myself. I'm not trying to be a painter or an artist. It's just something that I found that I can do, and I love doing it.



AAJ: Have you done any shows?



AB: I have not done any shows, and I haven't tried to do anything serious with the paintings beyond using them as record covers. I've given a few away. I've sold a few to Robert. I have not tried to sell paintings. I'd not really be interested in doing that. I read a thing that Paul McCartney said about his paintings. He said, "Well, they are like my children. I don't need to sell them." So I don't want to sell them, and I don't need to. I would make prints and posters of them, but mainly right now, it's just a means of expression to me. Purely that. It's pure expression. You lose yourself in it, and three hours later you say to yourself, "Man, how did I do that?" Or...three days later.



AAJ: That sounds a lot like writing a song.



AB: It's exactly the same process to me. It's using the creativity, the musical creativity to do something else. I love it. I plan to do it forever.



AAJ: King Crimson shows since the '70s, and possibly before that, have all incorporated improvisation. All the incarnations of Crimson you've been a part of have made that a part of the show. In the 1990s, you even released an entire album [Thrakattak (DGM Live, 1996)] of improvisations by King Crimson recorded live in various venues on the 1995-1996 tour. So much of jazz and other music is based almost entirely on improv. To many listeners, improvisation is a great mystery. How would you comment on that mystery?



AB: I would say it's mysterious to me too. Honestly, I've created a lot of music in the studio by creating a piece of music on the spot and then turning it into something. I've played live where there are sections where you are free to do whatever you want, and we would improvise together. I'm doing a lot of it with my trio now. I can really lock horns with them. My mindset with Eric and Julie is really wonderful because they're siblings, they grew up together. They can just look at each other and know where they are going to go. They'll just take off, and it leaves me free to just ride and fly over the top of that.



So, I'm doing more improvising with my trio than I ever have. And, to some degree, improvising {for me} is soloing over the music. You're taking some theme, some idea, and you're expounding on it, but you're letting yourself do it completely freely. There's another aspect to it, which is when the entire ensemble is improvising, which is what I am mostly trying to approach with this trio. Where everyone on stage at once is trying to go somewhere together that you've never attempted to go, you've never planned it. You don't know how it's going to begin or end. You don't know where it's going in the middle. Obviously you have to have a certain level of musicianship to have control over your sounds and your instrument and the mechanics of what you're doing, to free yourself to that point. What happens then, I don't know.



Improv is exactly like what happens when I paint. I get lost in it, and before I know it, we're doing some incredible thing. I don't know how it happens. Later you listen back to it, as I try to record our shows live, and you go, "How on earth did we do that?" It sounds like we knew what we were doing. I think it's intuitive mostly, and it really shows the range of what you've learned and experienced together or apart. It really shows how much time you've put into your instrument, and maybe how much time you've spent together as a group. If you haven't really, really worked hard at the mechanics of your instrument, you'll fumble around, and you'll sound like a bad blues player or something.



You have to go way beyond that. I think the main key in improvising is you have to allow yourself to do it. You have to open up and say, "Okay, I don't mind. I'm just going to go there. I'm going to trust the process and just let it happen." Because we are so trained as musicians to go perform. King Crimson music or my music is very precise. You have to know what you're doing. The arrangements are the same, so you're going to play it correctly every night. Same with Frank Zappa's music. It may sound like a bunch of noise, but everyone was trained to know exactly what they were doing. So when you're so trained to have that as mostly what you do in concert, it's so hard to go totally the opposite way and say, "Now we're just going to make something up on the spot. If it fails or falls on its face, so be it." I think that mostly these days, I'm working with musicians who don't fall on their faces ever.

Adrian Belew

AAJ: That brings to mind the jam band phenomenon of the last 10 or 20 years—Phish and the like. I know you worked with Umphrey's McGee and String Cheese Incident. These bands have taken some of the improvisations and rhythms of jazz and applied it to rock in a new way.



AB: Yeah, Umphrey's McGee is a great band. It's truly amazing. A whole new form of music has come out of that. I think it was totally unexpected by anyone. All of a sudden bands can go out and play whatever they want for 40 minutes at a time, and people will stand there and be excited about it. I think it's wonderful that the ears of the public are now open to that.



I think it all works on the basis of education. People have been educated now to different types of music and what you can do with music. I think people get tired of hearing what they're "supposed" to like. And it's great to hear a good musician get on stage and just blow it out. And there's a special thing that happens when you're a part of that, whether you're on the stage or in the audience. Something unique is occurring and you know it. You feel the energy of it. You can almost feel the musicians straining and looking at each other kind of saying, "Where are we going?" I think that's kind of exciting, and I'm glad that there's a jam band kind of world out there now.



AAJ: I think you've been accepted fairly well into that world.



AB: Well, I'd like to do some of it. They never call me to do the festivals. I've never done Bonnaroo or any of those big festivals. But I'm hoping that eventually they will realize that the trio element is perfect for their series of festivals they do every year. We go out, and we don't do anything the same. I mean, we have a set list, but I've made in the arrangements places in my songs that were once three-to-four minutes—I've made points where, okay this opens up now and anything goes.



AAJ: Like, "Beat Box Guitar." [on Side Four]



AB: Yeah, that was perfectly written for that. It's very jazz-like in that sense. There is a theme, and once you've played the theme, you are going to go somewhere else from it. Maybe taking some of those elements from it and incorporate it into what you're playing. Maybe coming back to it to sort of reference so people know maybe 10 minutes in, "Yeah, he's still playing that song." But that's very jazz-like; you've got the head, the improvisation, then you come back to the head.



 



AAJ: Speaking of themes, I notice you keep returning to the rhino in your music. It comes up on multiples albums and songs. I know you are an animal lover, and you obviously have affection for this animal.



AB: And elephants, and birds, and whales, and all kinds of animals. One thing I learned from working with Frank Zappa is motif. Frank would have motifs in his songs. He was always talking about dwarves and midgets. And, these little things that keep reappearing. Frank told me that is the way you tie your whole body of work together—by having some kind of motif. Early on, I really like making the guitar sound like odd things. And some of those things sound like animals.



It's easy to get your guitar to sound like some big old grunt or growl. So I thought, maybe I'll just stay with that theme. I started writing songs with that theme. I developed a sound that it seems like a rhinoceros would make so I wrote a song, "The Lone Rhino." I develop a sound that sounded like an elephant trumpeting, so I wrote, "Elephant Talk." That way it's not just some kind of effect. It makes a musicality of it. You can see that there's a reason why I am making this sound with the guitar, it fits the song.



Selected Discography



Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV (Null, 2008)

Adrian Belew, Side Four (Independent, 2007)

The Bears, Eureka (Bears Music, 2007)

Adrian Belew, Side Three (Sanctuary, 2006)

Adrian Belew, Side Two (Sanctuary, 2005)

Adrian Belew, Side One (Sanctuary, 2005)

King Crimson, Power To Believe (Sanctuary, 2003)

The Bears, Live (Bears Music, 2001)

The Bears, Car Caught Fire (Bears Music, 2001)

King Crimson, ConstruKction of Light (Discipline Global Mobile, 2000)

Adrian Belew, Coming Attractions (Thirsty Ear, 2000)

King Crimson, Absent Lovers (Discipline Global Mobile, 1998)

Adrian Belew, Salad Days (Thirsty Ear, 1998)

Adrian Belew, Belew Prints : The Acoustic Adrian Belew Volume 2 (Adrian Belew Presents, 1998)

Adrian Belew, Op Zop Too Wah (Passenger, 1997)

Adrian Belew, The Acoustic Adrian Belew (Discipline Global Mobile, 1995)

King Crimson, THRAK (Discipline Global Mobile, 1995)

The Bears, The Bears (Primitive Man, 1987)

King Crimson, Three of a Perfect Pair (Warner Brothers, 1984)

Adrian Belew, Lone Rhino (Island, 1982)

King Crimson, Beat (EG, 1982)

King Crimson, Discipline (EG, 1981)

David Byrne, Catherine Wheel (Sire, 1981)

Talking Heads, Remain In Light (Sire, 1980)

Frank Zappa, Sheik Yerbouti (Ryko, 1979)

David Bowie, Lodger (Virgin, 1979)



Photo Credits

Power Trio Photo: Courtesy of Adrian Belew



Photo of Adrian Belew's guitar collection: Justin M. Smith



All Other Photos: Daryl Darko


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