An Interview with Adrian Belew

Paul Caparotta
Adrian Belew - An Interview with

Adrian Belew is a true innovator. He's the secret weapon behind so many classic songs, for sure, and a singular musical force. We recently had a chance to catch up with the neon chameleon before his upcoming show at The Chapel this September 17th. You can find the full interview below and be sure to get your tickets here, while they're still available.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Thanks for making time for us today. I remember the first time I saw the video for "Oh Daddy" on 120 Minutes I was instantly smitten. The song was fun, catchy and filled with warmth. I said to a friend: “Wait isn’t this the guy from King Crimson?” His response to me was: “You’re in for a ride.” How do you explain your musical style?

Adrian Belew: I don’t know if I have an answer for that. I touch on so many different things, and have worked through so many different categories in my career; there’s nothing I don’t think I can do. My favorite thing is to try and write songs that have interesting sides to them. Right now the record that I have out, that I just released, called Pop Sided (buy here) — those 11 songs to me represent something between the Beatles and King Crimson.

SFBAC: With all your experimentation, pop (twisted, curved pop) has been a constant through your career. What was your inspiration behind Pop Sided?

Adrian Belew: I just really enjoy sounds! I have a curious nature about what do to with sounds. Generally I’m good when it come to analyzing sounds. With my guitar I’ve tried to stretch what you could do with guitar. One of my favorite things is to find something with a guitar that no one else has done — then turn that into a piece of music or a song. There’s that moment when, all of a sudden, you realize you have something that hasn’t been done before. That’s the moment I’m always looking for.

SFBAC: I’ve been messing around with the Flux app (iTunes) for a bit—what an interesting experience. For so many people, mobile technology contains and limits music—but you’ve found a way to use iOS to expand musical boundaries. What is the future of Flux?

Adrian Belew: Flux is a long story — if we had a long time I’d tell you every bit of it, because it’s very interesting to me. It starts many, many years ago in the late 70s when I was touring with David Bowie. I had something of an epiphany where I heard music a different way. I was sitting outside in Marseilles France, at the harbor, and there was so much different information coming into my ears at once. I assimilated it in a way that I thought: This is the way I’d like music to be — always changing, interrupting, being interrupted, never the same thing twice. Well, that was in the late 70s! [Laughs]

It took how many decades to a point where I could possibly pursue that idea. I kept thinking about it every year and I kept coming back to try and do that. But, it was only when apps were invented that I realized, “Aha! That might be a way to do that!” And so it took about two and a half years to do the software creation for the app. It took about five or six years for me to do the content. The idea is that you listen to Flux, you press play, and for half an hour you’re gong to get a completely different half hours worth of music; it’s a lot of very short things with little connecting bits (I call them snippets), along with full songs.

It’s kind of everything I could possibly want to do. It’s a place where to put all of that and it makes sense. And it has visuals that are never connected to the music, so that makes it slightly different. It’s a place for loads of information—there’s even some of my paintings, which you can manipulate with your fingertips to make into a new painting. You can put it into your painting gallery!

So, to me, it’s something I think the world needs. Because, I’ve felt like, for years and years: "Aren’t we a little tired of listening to the same verse three times, and the same chorus three times? Do we have to have that all the time?" There’s nothing wrong with that — the Pop Sided record is still that. But, my real love is trying to stretch that into something else.

When I finally got to the point where I could do it and realize it, it opened up a flood gate of stuff that I had in my head that I never had a place to put before. You might have a fifteen second thing that you think, “Wow, that is the coolest sounding thing! Now what do I do with it? It doesn’t fit into any of my songs, it doesn’t fit into the current record I’m making.” There it goes, it sits on a shelf somewhere. I have a lot of those incidents because of the fact that I experiment a lot. I’ll find something out of the blue — wow, what’s that?! I may not even know how I did it!

And then there’s also, on the other side, the songs themselves. Sometimes I write a song and I think: That’s it, it’s just a verse and a chorus. I’m done. That’s all I want to say; that’s the song.

There’s a song “One More Day” that’s 45 seconds long. I don’t think I could add another word or moment to it that would improve it or make it better. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.

So, that’s what Flux is. For me, it’s really wonderful — it’s made me so much more productive, and everything I come up with now has some usage as long as it meets my quality control! As long as it’s good enough! Any little thing that I like — I love this Flux thing.

It’s difficult for anyone in the world to take notice of it. Why? There are hundreds of thousands of apps. And mostly people do not think: I want some new Adrian Belew music, I’m going to go check out some apps for my phone.

SFBAC: The beauty of Flux is the social sharing that you’ve integrated into the app. It allows some stuff to get viral, to catch fire.

Adrian Belew: Well, I’m certainly not giving up on it — I’m certainly going to create more Flux material. It’s on hold a little bit because I’m doing so much touring now with this new record. After a couple of years of writing I had enough songs that I thought (well actually, I still have 20 left) should be treated in the “normal” fashion — not cut down to the minimum like the Flux songs.

One more thing: In my experiences, for a long time, I’ve noticed that there’s no music that represents this — we are an ADD society. We just are. We get everything in short little spurts. We have short memory spans. Ever since you were a child, you’ve been looking at 30-minute commercials, for example. On the Internet, everything comes quick and then it’s gone — boom.

And I thought, for years and years, why isn’t there a music form that represents that? Where you get the same effect? Because, I think people get bored sometimes by something that goes on too long. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with having a ten minute song, if you want. But, what about all the people like myself who like to get information quickly and move on? That’s what Flux is for.

SFBAC: Usually people try to lean away from ADD culture, I love the idea of you embracing the quick blast aspect of this.

Adrian Belew: Well I think it’s pretty much engulfed our society. We have news bites — everything comes in little bites. They can be tasty bites if you have the right music there! [Laughs]

SFBAC: In a month, you’ll kick off two months of intense touring. What can we expect to see during your show at The Chapel on September 17th?

Adrian Belew: Well, this is a different show. Some of it is what I’ve been doing over the last ten years with the Power Trio. But, the Power Trio stuff is really very aggressive music — it’s taking some of my material, the King Crimson material, and putting it into the hands of three players who can maybe play too much! [Laughs] That’s the Power Trio attitude toward my music and I like that.

But what I’ve done now is I’ve made the band a quartet. We still have access to, and play, some of the Power Trio stuff, so that hasn’t gone away; what’s happened instead is that we’ve added new things that I couldn’t do before from my catalog—and from the catalog of King Crimson.

So, I’ll explain it this way: Having the Power Trio was limiting — there were only certain songs that you could manage to do as a trio. King Crimson was really never a trio, so that’s not easy to do. But when you add a second guitar player in — you’re back to the 1981 King Crimson which I was part of and joined, which relied a lot on these two interlocking guitar parts on most of the songs. Songs like "Frame by Frame" and all those kinds of songs where there’s a running partnership going on between the two guitar players—now we can do those songs that way again.

The second thing is that I never could do any of my piano songs; I write some on piano — but I’m not a great pianist. What piano does for me is that it changes my habits — it opens up a bunch of new ideas. Because I’m not good at it, I have to struggle to play it, and I don’t technically know what I’m doing. [Laughs] I have to sort of learn what I’m doing.

The reason we never play that material live is because I’m not that good of a piano player, like I just said. The fourth guy I added to the band, Saul Zonana, who was for many years our opening act and still is. He, like myself, is a multi-instrumentalist so he can play piano stuff. Robert Fripp guitar parts, and so on.

The whole essence of the band has changed. You’ll hear a lot of songs from throughout my career that my fans have asked me to play for years and years. Not, "Oh Daddy" necessarily — because we don’t have a ten year old girl in the band. [Laughs]

But, we touch on a lot of material that surprises people. And, the other thing we do, we use this Flux theme throughout some of the material. So, just as you’re getting in to the song and you think, “Oh, here is what is going to happen next” — BOOM — it changes into a totally different thing. There’s a snippet of something and you’re off into a completely different song — a different piece of music. So in that respect we can cover a lot of musical territory in one show. I think we do more than 30 songs.

SFBAC: So maybe a song from Young Lions? Some Bears material?

Adrian Belew: We do touch on a little bit of everything. I won’t say there’s something from every one of my solo records, or King Crimson — but there is a lot. And I do actually do something that’s in reference to David Bowie. I do the song that I wrote about David two days after he passed away.

We do a little bit of Zappa as well. I’m tipping my hat to my whole career as much as I can; but, if we really went through and picked out all the stuff it would be a seven hour show. That’s what it is. It’s a new show, with a new band. And people, for the first two months of touring that we did on the East Side of the United States, all the fans went crazy over it and said it’s the best band I’ve had. So, there you have it!

SFBAC: Speaking of the East Side of the US — four nights at Iridium in New York. Does that give you time to go through your entire catalog?

Adrian Belew: No, actually I think we’ll play the same songs every night to be honest. I mean, we didn’t have enough time to rehearse it, to perfect it, where we can start expanding on it that much. We play everything pretty much perfect now — having done six weeks of touring. But that was two months ago! [Laughs] We’ll start all over again, a week or two into the four, and we’ll be totally in gear again. But there won’t be time to stop and say, “Let’s add six new songs.” That’s for next year!

SFBAC: You referenced your collaborations—the musicians you worked with, Bowie, Zappa and beyond. Trent Reznor’s reference on your site is pretty significant. Are there collaborators you’ve most enjoyed working with? What was it like partnering with Trent?

Adrian Belew: I love working with Trent because he allows me full range to do whatever I want. Here’s what happens: I sit at the studio board with him. He’ll play a track, usually it doesn’t have any vocals — it’s just a track with sounds and a few things. He says at the end of it, “Is there anything you can think of that you’d like to play on this?” I usually say, “Yeah, I have about five different things.” [Laughs] And then I go in and proceed to do all five different things — he cheers me on. He’s very enthusiastic about it. But, he doesn’t say much other than that — it’s on to the next one.

When the record is done and it comes out, I’m totally surprised just like anyone else, because I don’t know what he used, what he didn’t use, what he did to it! It’s always a pleasure. I love the way he makes records — I like the sounds he makes. He’s a very good record producer in my opinion.

But, fun people to work with: Frank was fun to work with, but in a very strange way. He was just hilarious within himself. But, on the other hand, you had to take it all seriously. He was very much a taskmaster, and he wanted his music played correctly. I got to hang out with Frank as a personal friend. I went to his house every weekend and stayed there over the weekends over three months while we rehearsed so that I could learn the parts, because I’m totally self-taught. The other members of the band would be reading the parts on Monday morning, off sheets of paper. So I had to get the jump on it. So, I got close to Frank. We’d be at dinner and he’d tell me stories and things; that’s what made it fun for me.

David is fun too — David Bowie. He had a very good, very self-deprecating sense of humor. He knew he was a superstar, but he sort of took it with grace. [Laughs]

SFBAC: It was in Nashville, around 1977, when you began your full time career as a musical artist. What was it like meeting Zappa at first — those initial meetings.

Adrian Belew: Well you know Frank came in to a dank little motorcycle bar that I was playing at with a good band called Sweetheart.

SFBAC: At Fanny’s.

Adrian Belew: That’s right. He listened for 40 minutes and then left — we were still playing. He walked up to the stage and shook my hand while I was playing "Gimmie Shelter" on the guitar. He said, “I’m going to get your name and number from someone at the show who knows you.” So, I didn’t actually get to talk to him then. My first face-to-face meeting was at his studio, in his house in California. That was my first time ever being on a plane. So, the whole experience was utterly overwhelming, and very, very nerve-wracking. Frank was very: Ok, play this. Try that. Ok, do this. Do that. And BOOM it was over.

I was like, “Oh that’s it, huh? I don’t think I did very good.” I was really nervous! It was in his, what would become his studio, his basement. They were interviewing and testing lots of people — there was so much activity. So there I was in the middle of the room with a little Pig Nose amplifier at my foot, and there sat Frank sitting behind a recording board giving instructions: Play this. Ok stop, that’s enough.

Then someone would move a piano in front of me! [Laughs]

So it was very first-go-round. What happened is that I had to stay there then — before they were flying me back to Nashville, which is where I lived then. (Still where I lived, but I moved away for many years.)

There was a moment all of a sudden where Frank was just standing there; there was not much activity and it was toward the end of the day, five o’clock, six o’clock. I said, “Hey Frank I know I didn’t really do that well in my audition, but I just thought it would be different.”

He said, “What do you mean?”

And I said, “Well I thought it would be just you and me somewhere quiet.”

He said, “Oh, well ok, let’s go upstairs.”

So we went upstairs to his living room. Just him and I, on his purple couch. I put my Pig Nose amp face down on the couch and we started over.

About a third of the way through he stopped me and shook my hand. He said, “This is how I pay for this. This is what you get for that. This is what you get for rehearsals. This is what you get if we make a film.” We shook hands and BOOM I was in.

He auditioned 50 guitar players—they all must have gone through spooky moments. But he gave me a second opportunity.

SFBAC: Wow, that's a fantastic story! Well, thanks again for your time and we’re looking forward to seeing you in the Bay!

Adrian Belew: You know, those Chapel shows we’ve done, the two of them — they’ve been some of the most memorable shows I’ve done in San Francisco over the years. The thing about the Chapel shows is that the people are so excited. When you have really excited people in front of you, you perform better.

All you excited people—please come back out and we’ll play better than ever!

SFBAC: Glad to hear it!

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