Talking with Adrian Belew is like leafing with your breath through whole pages of music history; a guitar player that literally created an inspirational trend for a great number of Guitar Heroes that weren’t satisfied with just the mere Prog technique but tried to break every conventional barrier. Rough extensions and technology at the service of talent. The former (for now) guitarist of King Crimson is certainly not the kind of artist that is satisfied to be a living Rock museum, but he pursues and carries on innovative and consistent projects, even in contemporary music.
We couldn’t certainly miss the opportunity to be updated at 360 degrees about his activities.
Hello Mr. Belew, how are the recordings of the Gizmo project coming along?
AB: Oh well, they’re doing very well! We had about a week or so in Milan and we surprised ourselves because we were able to do all 10 songs in that week, we didn’t know if we could make that grow or not but we did….and we got into a very good point where there are only small things left to be done the interesting thing was that when I went over to do the project it was just a project it wasn’t a band because no one really knew how it would work so by the second day we felt immediately that it it was working so well that we all agreed “yeah we should try to do something more than just make a record maybe we should see if we could do some touring next year and things like that”…since then I have visited Stewart at his studio in Los Angeles and I’ve done a few more of the details that were left to do from my side a few more guitar things and some vocal things. I’ve heard maybe four mixes now, out of our ten songs, and I thought they all sounded great just like we left them; I’m happy with the production and the sound of everything.
Did you record part of it in Milan or all of it?
AB: All of it, yes, all of it was recorded in Milan, Vittorio and and Mark were only there for that period of time and myself too.
Are you ever going to tour with material from your Flux project; will the app be available for Android also in the future?
AB: Well it’s a real problem to do it for Android because it costs about 14 times as much to do it (big laugh) so it’s a financial problem but first it’s a technical problem, to do it for IOS Apple related stuff is what we did it for because it made more sense since it’s more of a musical platform to begin with; to do it for Android you have to do it 14 different ways to cover Android so the cost of it is at this point just out of control we wouldn’t be able to do it… but that may change in the future there may come some time when someone figures out a way that we can do it for the people who have Android, though what they’re doing is compiling all the content of flux to be put out and released on a series of CDs so that way even if you don’t have Android or you’re not one of these people who don’t really download music much – if there are any people like that (laughs) – then you can just…you know you can put it into your into your playlist to do what you want with it from the CD.
Do you think that the material from the project can be used for a tour?
AB: Well, some of it can be, yes and that’s probably what I’ll do with my Trio next year; I have planned next year to do a full rehearsal here and in that rehearsal time I want to put together a new show; because the show that we have right now is sort of new but it’s not as complete as I wanted it to be. The Flux concept in the show that we do right now which we’ll be doing in South America in just a few weeks… there are places in the show where things happen the same as they do in the flux app; what happens is we’re playing a song and suddenly the song is interrupted by a sound or something else and then we change immediately to another song so it’s a very fast-paced way of playing a live concert and in that way you can go through a lot of songs in one night so I think we play like 30 songs in one night now because of this flux method; we don’t do it all the time through the show… we just do it in spots… so there may be a place where we’ll do 5 songs in a row done in that Flux manner so maybe you hear a minute of this one, 2 minutes of that one or something, 3 minutes of the next one whatever; and then we have other places where we do the full songs you know if we’re going to do like in Discipline let’s say from King Crimson we do the entire piece.
That’s very interesting, so it’s like having the app during the concerts.
AB: Yeah, that’s what it’s like and the thing you were asking about…is beyond being able to do the concept of Flux, next year I’m hoping we will actually take some of the material from Flux that seems suitable for the trio and work that into the set too; so that’s all my plans for next year.
How was the impact of playing with Frank Zappa for the first time? Was it hard to understand frame of mind?
AB: It was not at all hard for me to understand Frank himself, he was very clear in his thoughts and ideas and things that he said, I got along with him very well but the music itself was very challenging for me because up to that point in my life I was entirely self-taught and I mostly had played songs that you hear on the radio; Frank Zappa’s material’s far more complicated than that so I had to adapt and learn very quickly how to play in odd time signatures and do some of the really challenging things that he was asking me to do; but we had three months of rehearsal so by the end of the 3 months, before we ever stepped on a stage I felt pretty confident that I knew everything I was supposed to know; I had learned by then 5 hours of Frank Zappa material so we went out and toured the world, you know, pretty confident that everything was going to be great, it was a lot of fun but yeah at first it was really hard (laughs).
Hard technically, but as a character was he quite easy going or not?
AB: To me he was easy-going; I wouldn’t say that’s how I would… you know tipify his personality, he wanted things done a certain way and he was stringing about it, he wanted you to play the music correctly and consistently but as a person… I think he sort of took me under his wing; I hung out with Frankie even when we were traveling on the tour, some people hung out with the other guys in the band and I hung out with Frank as I felt comfortable with him and he was sort of a mentor for me so I think he treated me maybe nicer than he does most people.
By the way I read a funny anecdote of Zappa and Bowie almost competing for you; do you have any story about your first concerts with David?
AB: I don’t remember my first concert with David (laughs) what I remember is that as soon as we got home from the Frank Zappa tour I had to turn right around and pack up and leave again and I went to Dallas Texas and we had two weeks of rehearsal with David so… I didn’t really have time to even consider what was happening I was changing gears very quickly and going from you know the very complicated music of Frank Zappa to the music of David Bowie – which I didn’t have problems playing because I had learned some of his hit songs on the radio – and working with David was a lot less challenging for me because he just wanted me to go wild on guitar whereas Frank had a lot more complicated ideas that I had to do; so I don’t remember the first concert I remember the tour overall as being really amazing because it’s just a different level when you’re working with a superstar it’s…everything is different, you know…any time you turn around you might run into an actress or a movie star or someone that David knows…it’s just a different thing so that was the main transitional thing between Frank and David… the atmosphere was different you know we traveled on private planes and things like that so it’s it it’s an honor to be able to do one of those tours.
In Lodger you play a lot by instinct probably also because of the innovative recording technique Eno and Bowie used; have you listened to that record in recent years, and what were your feelings about it?
AB: Well, I haven’t listened to it for a few years but I have the same feelings about it that I always had I think it’s really a great record; I think the reason it was so overlooked is because it was the last of his records for RCA his deal was over and I think RCA just said well why should we promote this you know, which is typical; so they didn’t really promote it as well as they promoted say Heroes; when I listen to the record I think it’s really… it’s world music, it sounds like music from different places in the world, it has an amazing production sound to it, I love all the qualities of it, there’s so many cool things in there… and then… my own parts which as you said were… they tried to make me play things accidentally (laughs) by not letting me know the material ahead of time (laughs) and when I listen to the things I played it’s exciting to me because I remember the moments doing those things and I remember being in the studio and hearing you know someone quick to sticks 1 2 3 4 and then the song starts and I have no idea what that song is going to be nor what sound to use nor what style to play in or anything so it was exciting!
And what was your equipment like in Lodger, what kind of equipment did you use?
AB: I had a pretty simple set up that some of the guys in David’s crew from the tour had put together for me to use… I think it was 7 different stomp boxes, they weren’t on the stage they were in a case off the side of the stage; connected to them there was a simple pedalboard that has 8 switches on it – off and on switches; so or the number one box say that was the first time you would turn it off or on by just stepping on it and you had the ability to use any 7 boxes that you wanted; the eighth one was a mute so you could mute the sound in between songs so there wouldn’t be noise or anything; it was a very very simple setup but I used it for not only that tour with David I also used it for the next tour with Talking Heads and then for the first couple of years with King Crimson before I finally started expanding to other things like guitar synthesizer and more technical pieces of gear.
What kind of guitar did you use?
AB: I had a Stratocaster, the only guitar I owned at that point (laughs), banged-up beat-up old Stratocaster; I don’t even know what year it was made, in 1967 I believe, and it’s pretty pretty ugly looking but it’s the guitar that I used in all these early eighties records before I ever started getting guitars and now I have way too many guitars (laughs).
Well the good old strato!
But I still have that good old strato!
I believe it, you probably still have all your guitars, right?
AB: I do have most of them yes I’m one of those people that when I like a piece of gear I keep it and I either store it or I just take care of it so even in my studio I have a closet full of most of the pedals that I used from my early career on through till now; and they work and I can use them if I want to.
Well, BB King said guitars were like people to him, so I do believe you keep them, you cannot throw them away can you?
AB: Well, you know every guitar really does have its own characteristics and its own…. not just its own sound but the way it feels and the balance and the way it plays, you get special things out of it; sometimes I pick up the guitar and it just feels like nothing else that I have and I write something, like I form something on it that I wouldn’t otherwise do… so yeah I think you have to have whatever you have to have, I mean I probably have too many but I don’t know, it’s not a real problem (laughs
I believe it’s not, and a guitarist actually is supposed to own many guitars.
AB: Yeah, you need some tools.
How did David behave while on tour, were there any rituals or something like that during rehearsals? How were ordinary soundchecks with him?
AB: I don’t remember any rituals but David was very easy to get along with, he had a really wonderful sense of humor so when you got to know him as a person he was very self effacing in his humor; obviously he knew what a star he was but he didn’t take it all too seriously, kind of poked fun of himself which made it a little less daunting to be around him (laughs); he was always very nice to me, we got along great and he was always very supportive of the people working with him and playing with him because, you know, he was… he would always tell the band you know “that sounds great” you know “come on let’s do this some more” so that’s the kind of leader he was he let other people do what they did best.
Was there a specific song in his repertoire for which you loved doing backing vocals, I know it’s an odd question, but digging into old bootlegs we started wondering about this.
AB: Songs that he sang?
Yes, during the tour with him.
AB: Actually there were many because I always liked his song writing and I love his vocal style and a lot of times I would get to sing harmony with him; of course we did Pretty Pink Rose where we sort of switch back and forth between the two he would sing a line and I would sing a line; but I think maybe my favorite that always stands out of my mind is Space Oddity because in the 1990 tour around the world where we played in 27 countries 108 shows that was our first song of the night and I would always get chills when that song would start, you know “ground control to Major Tom” he’d start singing that and it was just amazing because there you would be standing on the stage with David Bowie in front of maybe forty thousand people in the stadium so it was really an amazing moment every single time; and then right off the bat there’s some harmony that I sing along with him and that was always one of my favorite moments; once we got to that moment the rest of the show just seemed to flow out from there on but it’s a special moment when you’re singing Space Oddity on stage with David.
You mentioned Pretty Pink Rose, the video was quite odd…who created it, how did the filming go along, it seems you had a lot of fun during the filming.
AB: I don’t really remember the name of the guy he was a German film artist that David knew and… or no maybe he was an English artist; and I didn’t have anything to do with the way in which they went about doing the video I just showed up the day that we did it, I remember it was in Germany and it was in a broken-down abandoned railroad station and because there were no windows and it was in the winter it was very cold during the whole shoot so it wasn’t pleasant to film that video except for the fact that I loved it that it was me and David doing a song together; that’s kind of what I remember, it was one day that we had off during the middle of the tour in Germany and I just remember we had several meetings in lobbies of hotels with the people who were putting together the video about what we’d be doing what we’d be wearing and things like that, and then all of a sudden one day there it was, you get up early and you’re in an abandoned train station dancing around with David Bowie (laughs a lot).
Let’s talk about King Crimson, doesn’t it strange to see them on tour without your musical contribution, without absolutely underestimating the other members of course, but you were in the band for such a long time so we’d like to know how you feel about it, when you see them.
AB: Well, you know… I feel like… I have mixed feelings about it; first of all I haven’t seen the band live nor have I heard any of their music, I just sort of said to myself: you know this is a little bit painful so maybe the best way to deal with it is just you know not deal with it not look at it not listen to it; so I don’t actually know anything about what the band is doing… at first it was a bit of a shock and I guess I went through a lot of different emotions but as time settled down I felt like well okay that’s fine then, Robert wants to go in a different direction then that’s his right to do that and I’m going to go ahead and just – you know – move on from there so that’s really what is most important is that everybody has moved on there’s no bad feelings or anything like that, it’s just ok now it gives me back the reins to really take control of my solo career and do as much as I possibly can… so it’s good!
And do you recall something from touring with The Tool in the mini tour you did?
AB: I do recall one of our very first shows with Tool it was kind of eye opening for me because it was at a very famous venue here in the United States called Red Rocks in Denver, it’s a 10000 seat place and when KC played as the opener I think there were maybe a thousand people there all the people was staying outside cuz they didn’t even know who King Crimson really was (laughs) and then when they came on I was standing back by the soundboard and suddenly I looked around and I realized there were 10000 kids here and I could tell from their age group that they really didn’t know who King Crimson was and there was that eye opening moment for me where I realized wow, all the things that I had done up to that point were meaningless on this particular group of 10000 young people ‘cause none of them knew it or cared (laughs a lot)
Wow, I didn’t expect to hear that!
AB: Yeah, I didn’t expect that moment to happen either I was shocked to realize that’s what happens over time, you know audiences grow up and they don’t know your music and new audiences come along and they may not know anything about you at all; but the overall tour was really fun they were great they were really supportive I think we did maybe make some new fans but still it was always hard being the opening act for a band that draws a lot of young people that don’t know our music.
In a biography about Primus I read that at the beginning Playful saw in Lelond a little bit of a young Belew. That proves that you’ve become a reference for many musicians, but who were your heroes when you were young? Did you get to know them personally, just like Playful did with you?
AB: A few of them yeah a few of them I’ve gotten to know personally one of my guitar heroes was Jeff Beck for instance and he and I have met many times now and become good friends and we respect each other a lot and every time we hang out we really have a lot of fun we’re both kind of funny people so we can stay up till 2 in the morning and just laugh our butts off … of course I ended up over time meeting two of the Beatles and the Beatles were the big influence that started me on the path of wanting to be a recording artist: I had tea with Paul McCartney for about an hour once and I’ve met Ringo twice now so… so it’s always a pleasure because those guys were more than just… they were actually…they’re sort of Gods! (laughs) you know, so to get to meet them…and there were other people, I mean I have to be honest King Crimson was my second favorite group of all time and so when I finally ended up working with Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford I couldn’t imagine it at first I thought wow it’s incredible to see the people I used to stay up late at night with headphones on listening to their records over and over and over again because I was so impressed with him… and as I like to say, one day I woke up and I was in the band; and there were other people, other bands and other artists that really affected the way that I learned music and the things that I chose to learn, just all sorts of artists really; I always loved the band The Kinks for example, that was another British band that I had a lot of good times listening to; but you know I think it’s all the inspirational part of it that’s so important to a young person and then it’s all down to what you do with it; so in my case I would learn everything I could possibly learn about the records that I loved so much and that became my schooling for what I would do later in my life when it was time for me to make music.
And has Bowie influenced your solo career, and if so, how much?
AB: Yeah, David always was – even before I met him – someone that I looked up to because he seemed to be that one person that could really do artistic creative things and make it popular; and every time you brought out a record it was new, it was something different; he changed courses throughout his career changed characters and changed his look and changed everything and that impressed me a lot because mostly in popular music you can’t be very creative, you have to do basically what everyone else is doing (laughs); that’s pretty much the way it goes and yet David Bowie was the one who set those trends instead of being the one to follow them so I always really liked his stuff, always respected him a lot, of course he’s a great singer songwriter performer all those things; so yes he had a big influence on me in the sense that I think through watching David Bowie over the years I realized I could do whatever I wanted to as well…I may not be that popular but you can do it if that’s what you decide you want to do with your life and that’s what I decided early on: that rather than try to follow other people’s trends and make hit music I would just do it my way and see what happens.
And how about N.I.N. are you fond of some record particularly?
AB: Well, I like all of their records, I think that Trent Reznor’s production style is amazing you know I worked with him on 4 or 5 records and I’m always impressed with the way they sound and the creativity of it all; Trent is very much like David to me in terms of working with him when I work with Trent or David they just let me go wild they don’t give me instructions they don’t tell me what to do or show me parts to play or anything like that; they simply say “here’s the song” or “here’s the piece of music is there something you’d like to do”.
And did the composing or recording method change with every different record?
AB: Yeah it did change a bit: first of all the locations were different each time because he at first was moving around so every record would be in a different place, but now he’s in LA and he has a studio in his home and so I think it’s going to remain that way for a long time I hope because it’s a great studio and I think he’s got a very good thing there; then the other thing that happened was the producers would change and the people around him would change a little bit… so, Trent is very reliant on a small group of experts around him, like this guy may know computers really well this guy may be a keyboard expert this guy may be you know something else so, it seems like every time I work with him he has a small group of 4 or 5 guys who are experts at what they know and those people changed a little bit over the years but mostly I’d say it’s the same, you go in and you work with Trent and you know you’re gonna get to do something really exciting and interesting so I have a great time doing his records.
Is there a specific record or project that journalists asked you little about but that you would like to talk about more?
AB: Well, there really are… I think I get asked fairly just about everything I’ve done I guess of course like every artist I wish people paid more attention to my solo work; I wish that people would explore my new thing called Flux but because it’s a music app that you download I understand that people are just not used to doing that and it’s going to take some time for them to finally come around and say yeah, I wanna check that out…you know I think it’s one of my best ideas and concepts ever and I’m wanting to do it forever and ever so, I’m hoping that more and more people get on the bandwagon but at the same time I know that there’s so much music to choose from now, so you just have to wait your turn (laughs).
Could you tell us anything about the celebration in Bowie’s honor you’re organizing to be held on January 2017 in various world capitals?
AB: Well it’s called CELEBRATING DAVID BOWIE. What I know so far is that it’s organized by a group of people who are used to putting on sort of larger events there’s going to be I think 33 artists on stage at different points; in every city there are going to be different guest artists too so the people who come on stage in London won’t be the same people who are in Tokyo; I know that there are six cities that it’s supposed to go to at this point, I wish it was 60 cities myself (laughs) because I know we’re leaving out a lot of people but you have London you have Berlin, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and Sydney, that’s the rundown so far; those concerts happen in January and they will be sort of a multimedia event with screens with the films of David and things like that on it, there will be as I said a lot of different guest artists and maybe actors and friends of David will be a part of it; we’re going to play material from his entire career, a lot of material; there’s going to be a small orchestra and you know horn section and backup singers and everything; I did this recent event with the same crew of people in Los Angeles, it was for the release of the 8 days a week documentary that Ron Howard made about the Beatles, we did the same exact thing with the material and I just thought it was really great we did 55 Beatles songs we had the same setup as this, we had you know visuals and the orchestra and everything so… we’re going to make a very special thing so I’m looking forward to it; I won’t be playing all the time that’s not the way it works; the way it works is sort of every song has a different group of artists so sometimes I’ll be on stage other times I’ll be watching (laughs
And does Bowie’s family support this project?
AB: I don’t know that but I think it has everyone’s support, all the people that matter I’m sure; I mean it is really meant to be a celebration of his music it’s going to be one of those tours that’s going to be so expensive to put on I don’t think anyone’s going to walk away with a lot of money in their pockets (laughs). I don’t think it’s about that I think it’s about “let’s do the best job, period” of showing the breadth and scope of what David did in his musical life and I think in that way it’s going to be very successful.
Well let’s hope there will be a film about it then, like 8 Days a week.
AB: Well, that’s another thing. They are talking about that now, there being a documentary of the entire affair and I think it would be a shame if it doesn’t get documented so let’s hope that happens but all those things are relying on economic sources, someone has to put up some money or whatever; I don’t have anything to do with any of that side of it, I’m just going to be there playing and singing and enjoying a second round of David Bowie.
Last question, I’d like you to satisfy a little my curiosity, what sentence would you like one day as your personal epitaph?
AB: My personal epitaph? Yeah… uhm… I don’t really follow that… I don’t know what my epitaph will be (laughs). I think… uhm… I’ll have to get back with you on that (laughs).
You know I haven’t really spent much time thinking about what happens when I’m gone, I would hope though that people would want to listen to my music and enjoy it for years to come I hope that’s all… my only reason to be here I think is that I was given a gift of creativity and I’m supposed to do something positive with it and I hope that in the end that’s what I’m remembered for.
Ok, that’s an epitaph alright!
AB: There you go! (laughs)
It was a great pleasure talking to you, have a great day Mr. Belew.
AB: Happy to talk to you and you did a great job and hopefully I will see you again on a Gizmo concert!
I hope to be there. Thank you again, Mr. Belew.
Interview conceived by Federico Francesco Falco and conducted by Rossy Iacono
(Special thanks to Rachele Mura and Lara!)