Adrian Belew: Power Trios and Crimson Heads


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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.

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