Adrian Belew On Frank Zappa, David Bowie — and William Shatner
Like his early mentor, Frank Zappa, Adrian Belew is a guitarist’s guitarist. His broad sonic palette has added color to a diverse collection of recordings — Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails and Porcupine Tree to name just a few.
Belew currently divides his time between his latest band, the Adrian Belew Power Trio, and his latest obsession, FLUX. The guitarist describes his new app, available on Apple devices late November 2014, as “an ever-changing variety of music, songs, sounds, and visual art, that comes at you in quick, surprising pieces — the way life does. You get exposed to a lot of interesting content quickly. And every listen is a new, unique experience, that will never happen again for you or anyone else.”
That’s a pretty fair description of a conversation with Belew, too. The guy is a ball of energy, bouncing between topics with trademark energy and enthusiasm. Not only did we talk about FLUX and his current tour, but we hit on his time with the legendary Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and King Crimson.
And then there’s Shatner. Never forget Shatner.
On Frank Zappa
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Everything starts with Frank for me. He walked in on me playing in a little club one night, and that changed everything.
"I spent a year with Frank, and it was probably the most educational year I’ve ever had in my life."I spent a year with Frank, and it was probably the most educational year I’ve ever had in my life. Since I’m a self-taught musician and artist in every way, I’ve never really had anybody show me things in a technical way. We had three months’ worth of rehearsal time together, and I would spend every weekend at his house learning things by rote.
That year was super important for me, because it put in my head all the knowledge I needed for making a career as a recording artist, and as a traveling musician: as a professional having your own business, how to make records. It was all laid before me by Frank.
At the same time, of course, working with Frank marked my first travels around the world, first record [‘Sheik Yerbouti’], first movie [‘Baby Snakes’], all in one year. It was a big crash course, very important for me, and Frank was super generous to me.
He told me so many stories and just had so much information for me all the time. I was just like a little puppy sitting there by his side, sucking up all the gems. I think that was probably even more important than the music in some ways.
Every time I was in L.A. I tried to manage to get up to see him. I liked Frank and sent him some of the things that I was working on, and we kept a good relationship going all the way up until his death. I was very, very pleased that I was able to thank him before he passed away. He really appreciated that.
On David Bowie
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I have to say being cast right on the same stage beside a superstar like David was really unbelievable. It was a stratosphere that I never imagined myself being in, socially and otherwise. I was meeting people like Dustin Hoffman and Mick Jagger, traveling in private planes and hearing that whole thing. The first round in 1978-79, I felt like I was just a hired hand, and I knew my place and I just stayed in that place.
The second round, in 1990, when he asked me to be the music director and guitarist for a much larger world tour that went to 108 shows and 27 countries, that’s really when I felt like I got to know David and we became close friends. I really enjoyed that period a lot, because by then I felt more on his level somehow, and there weren’t all the buffers of people who you have to talk to before you get to talk to David.
One thing I always really loved about David is that he’s one of the very few artists who have been able to actually be so creative and artistic but still make it work in a popular way. Apart from the Beatles and a few other people like that, you don’t usually get that. He’s done some pretty interesting stuff that’s also gotten to be very well liked. That’s kind of cool.
"That’s just where I’ve always wanted to live. When I was young I liked interesting music before I liked popular music."That’s just where I’ve always wanted to live. When I was young I liked interesting music before I liked popular music. I liked Stravinsky and I liked things that I saw and heard in soundtracks and exotic music, and then by the time I was a teenager, of course I was in love with all the pop music and really loved anything that was a well written song.
It seems like for me all my life I’ve had a foot in each camp, and I always tried to combine those two things, or at least include those two things in whatever music I present. That’s what I think David Bowie was so good at.
On King Crimson
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I think essentially the idea that Robert Fripp had for a lot of the music he wanted us to do in King Crimson was a dual guitar partnership type of music, where we each played similar figures and then deviated from them and you get pieces like ‘Discipline.’ That sound — that interwoven two guitar thing — ultimately has to have two guitar players.
As we got to know each other, I think he realized that I could also really be a frontman, a singer, a songwriter, a lyricist — not just a guitar partner, but a writing partner. I kind of fit the bill for a lot of different things.
It really does work well because we come from completely different backgrounds and even from different continents, but there’s a commonality between us. I kind of knew what he would bring to the table, and he knew what I could bring to the table. Between us, it was always easy to decide what to play because it fell into place. This is more Robert’s thing here, and this is my thing, and in between you’ve got both of us doing something that takes two guitar players to do.
I’ve always had a very keen appreciation for King Crimson. They’re really second only to the Beatles for me in terms of bands that influenced me, and the reason was because they could do this amazing, strongly complicated musical things, but then they would also do just a really well written song like ‘I Talk to the Wind’ or something like that, something that might have even be done by the Beatles. I always loved that combination.
It wasn’t just a really out-there virtuosity band. It was that, but King Crimson also had melody, music, and songs. You have to have a good combination, a good balance between the two. I think in that way Robert needed that from me, because left to his own devices he would write more of the heavy, dark stuff, but there wouldn’t be any melodies and there wouldn’t be any songs and words.
You have to have strong songs, I believe, to make it all work somehow. I always felt like one of my roles in the band was to put my hand out to the audience, and shake it, and say, “Hey, it’s okay to like this very strong, difficult music, because listen to this, here’s a nice song.”
On William Shatner
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I got a call one day from Ben Folds, and he said that he was working with William Shatner and Henry Rollins. He said, “We’re putting together a record and it’s going to start late tonight. Would you be able to come over and bring some of your stuff and play from 10 until 5 in the morning?” I was thrilled.
Talk about a guy with a million ideas and a lot of energy, that’s William Shatner in a nutshell. He was running around like an 8-year-old. His wife was there, and I was talking to her. Shatner was in his 70s at the time, and I said, “This guy has more energy than I do and I’m a pretty energetic guy.” She said, “Well, he’s got more endorphins than you’re physically supposed to have.”
He really has the energy of a little kid. He’s just great. He kept coming over, asking me to do things like, “In the back of this poem right here we want it to sound like a suburb. Could you make a sound of a lawnmower?” They just kind of threw all these curve balls at me all night, wanting me to be the sound effects. It was a lot of fun. They had great players, and I really enjoyed meeting him. He’s a special guy.
On the Adrian Belew Power Trio
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About 10 years ago I discovered looping with guitar, and I started doing a lot of writing where I would create a loop and then write to that loop, a second guitar part or solo over it, or things like that. It got to the point where I had in my back pocket a nice round of songs that I realized should be played and could be played by a trio.
A trio format has always interested me, because it puts so much emphasis on each player. Everybody has to fulfill their role very completely, and as a guitarist it gives you more freedom. You’re the only guitar player, so you have to do it all.
It takes whatever material you put into it and automatically makes it something new, because most material I’ve done and written and played has not been written for a trio. When the Power Trio does our 18 King Crimson songs, they have a different feel to them because they were never meant to be for a trio.
The other thing about a trio format that I love is that it’s always nice in shows to have a certain amount of improvisation built into it. A trio can improvise more effectively than, say, a five-piece band, because you can focus easier on what each other’s playing and you can really go somewhere together when you improvise.
I decided I’d try that idea, and luckily found Eric and Julie Slick at the School of Rock in Philadelphia. They were 19 and 20 years-old and really incredible young players, very talented but very tasteful in their abilities. They could play Zappa music and Crimson music, but they could play the right things and not overplay it.
That started the idea of the Power Trio. It’s been really good for me as a live vehicle, and we’ve taken it all around the world many times now. It’s a very reliable format for me. I get to play more guitar than ever, and the rhythm section is still Julie Slick on bass, but for the last four years Tobias Ralph has been our drummer. They’re really great players. I always know when we step on stage there’s a power, there’s an excitement to it that blows people away.
On the Current Tour
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We’ve done something a bit different for this tour. This comes from the FLUX concept that I’ve been working on for so long. We’ve tried to do a sort of a live version of that concept in some way. The FLUX concept is that things are never the same twice, and they move at an accelerated rate. You’re playing a song, it gets interrupted by something else that lasts for maybe a few seconds, and that turns into the next thing. It’s just a series of surprises and sudden bursts of information, and we’re trying to do something like that with my catalog in the live show, and it’s working out really well.
We do something like 30 songs in the show now, but you don’t hear the whole song. We’ll play maybe a verse, two verses or a chorus, and all of a sudden it will be interrupted by a sound, which we call a snippet.
The snippets we use in a large show come from the actual FLUX, music snippets that I’ve created. They surprise you and then it will be on to the next song. People walk away saying, “Wow, I heard everything you’ve ever done.” It’s kind of nice, and it’s not as accelerated as the FLUX app will be when it comes out November 25, 2014, because it was designed to be very quick paced.
The FLUX music app, music that is never the same twice, is hundreds of musical thoughts and ideas and songs, and what happens is they’re randomized in a way. One time you may hear this section of song, the next time you may hear a different section; another time you may hear a remix section, or even a different version entirely of the song.
I’ve been working on it for five years, so there are loads of songs, lots of different music, and literally hundreds of these snippet ideas. Snippets are really interesting to me because they’re kind of the glue that holds it all together, but they’re also the things that interrupt everything.
They can be really anything that I like the sound of. It can be an everyday ordinary sound. I recorded in Europe the sound of my bathroom fan, for example. It was extraordinary. Snippets can be a musical sound, or a guitar loop, or just conversation, laughter, whatever it might be that interrupts a song.
Then, of course, being an app on your iPhone or your iPad and hopefully some day on your Android device as well, it requires visuals, so we have some really amazing visual stuff that we’ve been able to create that changes and morphs all the time but does not sequence with the music in any way.
Every time you hear and see FLUX it’s really a completely different experience. You press “play,” and it plays for about a half an hour, and every time it randomly searches through all these ideas, lines them up a different way, and there you go. You see them and hear them the way you never will hear it another time.
The app itself is full of information. You can press an information button for each song and the title comes up with the song. It will bring up the lyrics, any studio techniques, what gear we used, any back stories, pictures, stuff like that.
I think this is just something that will be a new wrinkle. It’s going to be a good one, and it never is finished. That’s another thing that I think really makes it stand out from any other music form that I know of. I will continue to change it, add to it, update it, put in new songs, take something out and remix it, put it in again, add in new pictures and new words, new whatever. It’s designed to do that.
"The thing about it for me that’s wonderful as an artist is that throughout my career I’ve written a lot of things that didn’t have a place to live. "The thing about it for me that’s wonderful as an artist is that throughout my career I’ve written a lot of things that didn’t have a place to live. When I say written, I mean it just might be a sound that I liked, or it might be that I created this little five second guitar loop or whatever, but there was no way put it into a song, or it didn’t fit into the album concept. There are a lot of wasted things that went by the wayside, and this idea, FLUX, is the perfect home for all of those things, as well as fully realized pieces and fully realized songs. Now nothing goes to waste, and because of that it’s making me super productive.
Every time I listen to FLUX it surprises me. From the beginning to the end I have no idea what to expect, and I really like it. It’s changed my way of listening to music. I get bored easy now with songs that go on a bit too long.