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Interviews

Adrian Belew: Power Trios and Crimson Heads

By Published: November 10, 2008
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



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