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Interviews

Adrian Belew: Power Trios and Crimson Heads

By Published: November 10, 2008
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.



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