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Adrian Belew Discusses His Oscar Nod For ‘Piper,’ Upcoming Power Trio Tour: Exclusive Interview

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Adrian Belew will take time out from tour prep this weekend to check out the Oscars. But it’s not because he wondering which of 14 possible trophies will be handed to La La Land.

Instead, he’ll be focused on the Best Animated Short Film category, where Piper – the Pixar production featuring a score by Belew – has been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Then, it’s off for a series of rare U.S. dates with the Adrian Belew Power Trio, beginning on Feb. 28.

UPDATE: Piper did, in fact, take home the Oscar. “I am so thrilled to have provided music for such a very special film,” Belew enthused on Sunday night. “It has so much heart.”

This busy period for Belew has also included a return to work by two of his former mentors, David Bowie and Frank Zappa. He appeared as part of the ‘Celebrating David Bowie‘ tribute concerts, and is also at work on a liner notes for a new box set focusing on the first of Zappa’s famed Halloween shows at New York City’s Palladium Theater.

Music from both of those collaborative eras will find a home in his new power trio shows, which will also feature music from Flux, an innovative app that continually randomizes Belew’s work for listeners.

“You never know what you’re getting,” Belew says of Flux. “It’s a little bit addictive in the sense that things are surprising, things are quick. Things are more fun, I think, that way – rather than your normal album where it sort of plays itself out in a traditional way. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. We haven’t toured behind it yet. So, this will be the first tour where people at the end of the show will be able to say, ‘Oh, I see – that’s Flux.'”

Looking further ahead, Belew is at work on an album with Stewart Copeland of Police fame, but that’s after a very busy spring – and this Sunday’s Oscar awards ceremony.

Preview Pixar’s ‘Piper’ With Music by Adrian Belew

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You’ve always been a very cinematic songwriter, and now you’ve made the leap to the big screen with Piper. Describe that experience.
I can’t really imagine a better entrance into that world. As an artist, it fit so perfectly. This was a collaboration between myself and Alan Barillaro, who is the guy who directed and wrote the story. It was a constant conversation, over three years, and it just fine tuned everything between us as to what works. You’d be surprised – I was very surprised – at how detailed it became. It was a great process. I loved the fact that it was something new for me. I love animation – I always have – and I’ve always been head over heels for anything that Pixar does, because of their level of perfection. So, to be put in that position, I can’t think of a better way to start. I’m really, really happy that it’s doing so well.

What’s next for the Flux app?
I actually wrote two other scores for Piper – not completed them, but started them and recorded parts of them, and they’re going to gradually be leaked into Flux. One little piece, I now call it “Summer House.” I don’t know why. It just reminds me of sitting on your porch at a summer house, though I don’t have a summer house – so I’m not sure what that means. [Laughs.] Some of the ideas were passed over, not because they weren’t good ideas but because Alan had a very distinctive thing that he needed for every scene. And some of the stuff that got left behind is, I think, musically very valuable. So, that will come into Flux.

Listen to Adrian Belew Perform ‘Idiom’ From Flux

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After such a long association, the Bowie tribute shows must have brought up a wide range of emotions.
The whole experience has been cathartic. I sort of re-immersed myself in David and his music. It felt good. It felt like it was time to do this. I think the shows have been fantastic. It was a big event, the way it was put on. Sometimes, there were so many people on stage, you had a double string section, a six-piece horn section, backup singers and a 30-piece choir in front of eight or 10 musicians and guest artists. It was exciting, the whole thing. It gave me a fresh appreciation for everything that David represented as an artist.

Long before I ever worked with David, you know I listened to his records just like everyone else did. The thing that always impressed me about his music was how far ahead he was of everybody; he was always changing – and he was always doing very artful things within that music. He took risks and chances, but yet millions of people enjoy it. He was one of the artists I would listen to for hope. Like, ‘Yeah, you can be creative and still have an audience.’ When you heard three and a half hours of his music, done the right way, it really points out what a songwriter he was.

Contributing notes for a new box set also gave you a chance to re-examine to your tenure with Frank Zappa. How did you approach that?
What I was trying to do, mostly, with the liner notes was to let the music speak for itself. I’m not going to try to explain anything about Frank’s music. I think it speaks clearly. My idea is to show what the experience of being there was like – describing the characters involved, the little things that went on in that time period. That’s what I thought I could give. So, as you’re listening to the music, maybe your imagination can put you there. And there’s a little bit – well, more than a little bit. There’s a huge dose of tribute to what Frank was to me.

Watch Adrian Belew Perform With Frank Zappa in 1977

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Your upcoming power trio tour features a re-designed set list. What can fans look forward to at these shows?
I’m putting some new material in, and taking out some things that I think deserve a break for a while. I’m putting a lot of new snippets in, and I’m going to play an acoustic set in the middle that’s going to be six songs. That’s going to be probably 12 to 15 minutes long – and they’re all songs from Flux, because it’s the easiest way for me to represent Flux. We’re playing one new song as a trio. It will be the first the trio has ever done a Flux song. We’re putting in a little more Zappa, a little more Bowie, and just kind of going through with a fine-toothed comb and tightening up the idea that we left off with. You know, the last time we toured in 2014 here in the states, we kind of started this Flux live-performance idea and I thought it was great. I really loved the response we got, but I also felt like it wasn’t yet perfect. So, that’s what I’m trying to do now: I’m trying to get the whole idea to flow more like a Flux presentation.

Do you have a sense of how Piper will do at the Oscars?
It’s a tough one. But whether we win that or not, it’s just the nomination that means so much – for me, anyway. Because it means you’re in the Top 5, and that’s saying a lot. There’s been so much good will for this film, and I think it speaks volumes: In a world where there is so much turmoil and hate and terrorism, and death and destruction, that these very high-level artists who could do anything they want instead choose to make a film about something so beautiful.

22 Modern Musicians Frank Zappa Would’ve Loved

Next: Adrian Belew Goes In Depth on the Flux App

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