Mention the name Adrian Belew and you’ll be met with a wide-eyed affirmation from most veteran music fans. As for those of you who think you don’t know him, well... you probably do. After all, as his webmaster Rob Murphree states: “Almost anyone who has listened to music since the late '70s has probably heard Adrian in one role or another. It could have been with Frank Zappa, David Byrne, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Herbie Hancock or Riuichi Sakamoto in the '70s into the '80s. It might have been in some elevator or chi-chi restaurant where they were playing ‘You Can Call Me Al,’ ‘Boy in the Bubble’ or something else from [Paul Simon's] Graceland… If you were one of the three million plus who saw the Bowie ‘Sound+Vision Tour’ in 1990, Adrian was the guy with the ponytail. If you're Generation X, you probably heard his sensational guitar solos on NIN or Crash Test Dummies, his song-writing in ‘Fantasy’ by Mariah [Carey] or his production, guitar and cello playing on ‘Flood’ by Jars of Clay.”
photo by Carla Fraters
Adrian is best known for his work with King Crimson, which is currently touring the States and Europe (a rare and welcome appearance for this original, mercurial ensemble) in support of its latest release, The Power To Believe. I was fortunate to have older sisters who turned me onto the ‘80s incarnation of Crimson, when Adrian had just joined their ranks, and although I was too young to see the Crimson Kings live at that time I do have fond memories of sneaking into Chicago clubs to catch Adrian playing in support of one of his many fine solo albums, or with The Bears, a solid rock quartet from Cincinnati that’s enjoying a resurging popularity on the heels of two releases and a tour in 2002. In addition to all this, Adrian is currently working on a “solo electric album” that will feature a power trio comprising Les Claypool and Danny Carey from Tool, not to mention a highly anticipated solo box set called Dust (whew.)
JamBase recently spoke with Adrian Belew about his numerous current projects, his perspective on the “jamband” scene, young artists who have piqued his interest, and much more. His aggressive, other-worldly guitar style is such a contrast to his disarmingly down-to-earth personality, and his long-standing, seemingly prophetic approach to making music – with an emphasis on creativity and experimentation rather than commercial appeal – is right in line with some of the most innovative artists in our music scene today. Plus the man can write a damn good pop song, produce an award-winning album, and has recently taken up painting, to boot.
So for both hard-core Belew fans and those who might think, “Adrian who?” here’s an opportunity to get to know the man a little better…
MP: You’ve got a lot going on these days, most recently the project you’re working on with Les Claypool and Danny Carey. You’re calling this a “solo electric album”?
AB: It’s a combo of two different kinds of material that I’ve been writing. Some of it is more electronica, loop-based material that I’m doing myself. There’s another side to it which is the power trio-type material, and that’s what I’ve been doing with Les and Danny. So we’ve had about a week together at Les’s studio in San Francisco. We did five of my tracks and we also created a lot of new music that we hope to turn into a future project for the three of us. The power trio stuff I’ve written really requires some muscular kind of playing, and I thought that Les and Danny were so excellent for it. They were both great to work with and I’m looking forward to finishing the rest of this music.
MP: You’re going back to the studio to work with them in May, right?
AB: That’s right. That’s the next gap in all of our schedules. And what we’re gonna do then is continue creating more music for our project, which as of yet has no name. But we’re finished doing my solo material.
Does your solo release have a name yet?
No, it doesn’t. You know, I usually design things in the end that work for the whole project. I have some artwork in mind - I’m gonna use some of my paintings that I’ve been doing recently - and I have a variety of titles, but probably none of them will stick until I get the whole package finished.
How did you meet Les? I know you joined him onstage with the Frog Brigade…
I’ve seen Les Claypool over the last decade once or twice during King Crimson concerts. He’s admittedly a big Crimson fan, but only of the ‘80s version of the band forward. I don’t think he ever heard the original lineups. And so I first met him at a King Crimson concert in San Francisco, and also in L.A., I believe. But what cemented our relationship was me going to Columbus, Ohio and sitting in with him. He and I had talked… each time we’d see each other we talked about playing together, and so when I saw he was coming to Columbus I thought, well this is an opportunity to do that. Whit [Hubner, Adrian’s publicist] suggested, “Why don’t you just go up and play?” So Whit, my wife Martha, my engineer Ken Latchney and I, we all rented a van and drove my equipment up there and we had a great evening. It was really a lot of fun. And from doing that I could see the relationship that Les and I would have, and that he was the right person to be in the power trio aspect of my record. We talked about drummers and his suggestion was Danny Carey. I knew Danny of course from the fact that we had toured together. King Crimson and Tool shared a bill for 12 shows, and I loved his drumming. He’s a magnificent drummer. So we called Danny, and there you have it.
Brigade 11.19.02 | Les, Adrian, Skerik
photo by Carla Fraters
Will there be a tour in the near future, or is that dependent upon the next recording sessions and what comes out of that?
Well, I think it depends on more than the next recording sessions. It depends on everyone’s scheduling. It depends on the duration of King Crimson’s world tour this year, which we start in about ten days. But overall I’m optimistic that we will play. I think it would be great for us to go out and play. I would love to see that happen.
For the King Crimson tour, you’ll be in the States in March and then Europe in April. You recently mentioned that this will be a “short and quiet” tour. Does King Crimson have bigger things in store for the fall?
Adrian, Trey Gunn, Robert Fripp, Pat Mastelotto
That’s what I’m told [laughs]. You have to understand the way it works in King Crimson. I’m just relaying information that’s being passed to me. I don‘t have a whole lot to do with the touring and the booking and so on. The plan that we have, though, is that the March tour is brief. It covers a lot of major cities but it certainly doesn’t cover a lot of what we’d like to do. We would like to come back in late summer or early fall, and do a more extensive tour. Probably, hopefully, as a double-billing of some sort.
With an opener, or a co-headliner?
Something like that. But as I say, some of these things are undetermined. But there is in the making a June and July tour of Europe that involves all the summer festivals there, and that’s still being put together.
Is there any possibility that The Bears will be touring again this year?
I can’t see that far ahead with all the Crimson stuff... But where The Bears are now, we’ve decided that we would take this time period for everyone to individually devote themselves to writing material for another Bears album, and that when there is a gap we would start in earnest to try to make another Bears record. Touring with The Bears, I’m not sure when that will happen. I’m pretty sure it will happen again because we all love it. It’s really a fun band to play with. But at this point I don’t know when that will happen. The Bears are really in a sense back in hibernation for a few months [laughs].
Bears: Chris Arduser, Rob Fetters,
Adrian, Bob Nyswonger (photo by Michael Wilson)
There’s certainly a lot of excitement going on with The Bears, with last year’s tour and the release of the studio and live albums. I understand you’re still working to secure the rights to the first two Bears albums?
I don’t know that anyone’s working avidly on it, but it’s a possibility. What I’m going to do in the future here, pretty soon, is speak with a few different labels… There are just a few that I’m interested in, and maybe The Bears will be included in some of that, and maybe not. I’m not sure ‘til I talk to the different labels. As you can see, I’ve got a coupla different irons in the fire here. I’m getting to the point where I feel like I need to move back in the position of being under the umbrella of a very good company that can distribute and promote correctly. I’m going to make a few discreet inquiries and see if there’s the right person out there, the right company, and we’ll see from that. So far in my career I don’t feel I’ve had much luck in that [laughs]. I don’t feel I’ve had anyone yet who understands what to do with these noises that I make. But we’ll see. Times are changing, and I have my own… kind of intuition about it, that people are starting to come back to interesting music.
Was there a lack of interest for a while? Or do you think people were overwhelmed by the amount of mediocre music out there?
I think that it goes in cycles, and that there are always periods where there’s mundane music that takes over, and then there’s interesting music that comes back. People go through periods where they just want to dance, and then sometimes they just want to sit down and listen to somebody play really well. And I’m hoping that we’re coming back to that phase.
That would make sense, with the resurgence of The Bears and especially King Crimson, and of course with your sitting in with the Frog Brigade. And, I understand you sat in with Drums and Tuba last year?
Yes I did, that was fun. I love that band. I love what they’re doing and had a great evening playing with them. I would love to do some more with them, it’s just that my dance card is so crowded right now [laughs].
Recently you mentioned various artists you would like to play with, including the Kronos Quartet and Amon Tobin.
The Kronos Quartet, they’re excellent players and they choose such a great repertoire. But in my mind I’ve always had this idea for their kind of aggressive string quartet playing joined with some wacky, crazy guitar playing that’s aggressive as well. There’s something in the back of my mind that keeps saying, "There’s something there to this idea." And I’ve not spoken with anyone towards that. It’s just that when people ask me, “Who else would you like to work with,” that’s one of the things I think of.
Amon Tobin, I’m just becoming aware of his work. I bought all of his records and I’m really enjoying them. I think he has such an amazing creativity and vitality to the way he’s combining all these different samples and things. From what I understand he doesn’t actually even play anything, so I think it would be an interesting combination to have someone with that mentality combined with someone like myself who’s more of a player and writer in the conventional sense. So I don’t know if that’ll work out, but even if it doesn’t work out, I still enjoy his music.
Well, “conventional,” relatively speaking…
I only meant... [laughs] That’s not the word I should’ve fished out of my vocabulary. I meant “conventional” in the sense that I do play instruments and write things. Where as Amon samples things from other people’s records. Two different approaches, but I think that if you put them together you might come up with something really intriguing. I spoke with Amon’s manager and she didn’t seem like it was too much of an interest on their part. So I’m going to let it sit for the moment.
That’s disappointing, because from what I understand he creates very original sounds in a genre that is somewhat over flooded with noise. And you’ve been eliciting interesting sounds out of your various instruments for years.
I could give him enough stuff that he could sample himself sick… forever! But the funny thing is I do have this one portion of my solo album that’s in that genre, it’s in this loops and Drums and Tuba and Amon Tobin world. It’s a new world to me, and it’s challenging to me and I think it would be really interesting to have someone like Amon who knows that area a bit more than I do. But we’ll see. I’m not tackling that quite yet.
Are there any other young or new performers who have piqued your interest?
Since I’ve been working with Les I’ve been melding into a lot of music that he has turned me on to. His music, or music of other people that are in his world, people like Tom Waits or Stewart Copeland, Trey Anastasio, all these different people that he’s introduced me to. Critters Buggin… You know, lots of cool stuff there. And it’s one of those things, I can only allow myself a brief bit of time at the end of my evening to sit down, like I did last night, for example, sat and listened through the Oysterhead record and through Les’s last solo record called Purple Onion. And I’m just trying to gradually assimilate and educate myself to these players and their music and the things they’re doing, and they’re uncannily like things that I’ve done in the past and they’re very much in the same spirit of the way I like to work. So it’s intriguing for me to find that there is now a younger generation like-minded to me.
What do you mean by “in the spirit you like to work”?
Well, there’s a certain freedom to the kind of music I like to be involved in. It’s not hemmed in with the need to fit in a format or be on the radio or any of those types of things. It’s music really generated because you want to do the most exciting, interesting thing you can think of, and without really accounting much for what you’re going to do with it. And I think that’s the spirit of the players I’m talking about. They’re making the music they’re making just because they’re drawn to that music, and they want to do something exciting and unique, and those are the people I’m always drawn to. Hence I’ve worked with people like Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Trent Reznor.
Do you find that, with all these different projects you’re working on almost simultaneously, it’s difficult to switch tracks? Or does that come naturally depending on who you’re recording or performing or rehearsing with?
It does come naturally. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing and, for example, if I'm working with King Crimson then I write King Crimson material. If I know I’m coming up to working on power trio stuff with Les and Danny then I sit down and put my mind on that. But overall I would say it is a little overwhelming sometimes. Not so much because of the musical aspects of it, but because of the ongoing life that you have connected to it. It’s difficult to be one day in the studio making a record and then two weeks later be on tour, touring in support of a record that you made six months ago. But that’s the challenge of it, and I like all those aspects.
I did two weeks of touring through Europe to promote the Power to Believe, the new King Crimson record. That was close to 100 interviews. It’s been interesting. The nice thing about interviews like this is you learn what other people think of your work and their perspective on what you’ve done in the past or what you’re currently doing, and it’s all very positive right now, so that’s a good thing. The journalists I’ve spoken with really like the new Crimson record a lot, and that makes me feel good, ‘cause we put a lot of work into it.
Power To Believe
A lot of people could approach your music from a number of different angles, so I’m sure there are a lot of different perspectives.
It’s true, and I often meet people and they only know one aspect of what I’ve done and they’re missing quite a few pieces of the puzzle. But that’s OK with me; you can’t know it all [laughs]. Maybe I’ve scattered myself a bit. But I think that at the end of my life, I’ll be able to look back and say, “Here’s the body of my work and it all makes sense.”
Your box set Dust, I know that’s still in the works but doesn’t have a set release date as of yet. Is that correct?
That’s correct. I’ll tell you what the real hang-up is, and continues to be. The musical side of it is completed enough so that if I had to put the music out tomorrow I could do that. The informational side of it is what’s lacking now. I need to get someone involved in writing the biography that should go with this record. In a sense it’s a biographical record of twenty years of my work, and I would like it to be an overview to such a degree that, say if you’re twenty years old and have never heard of Adrian Belew and you buy this box set, you’d know everything I’ve done to some degree. You’d see it charted out in some sort of map and you’d have a good view of all the things I’ve tried to do, as well as great collection of music that mostly wasn’t released, rare things. The problem I’m having, as I’ve said, is getting someone to write all that. It’s a very daunting task and I don’t feel that I’m the person to do it. I need to find a good writer, archivist, and somewhat of a biographer. I figure this is my one effort at this, and I’d like it to be as extensive as it can be. But not at the risk of never doing it. And if I don’t find the right person soon I might have to do it myself, and it won’t be quite as extensive.
We’ve got the music, it’s a lot of music and we’ve worked really hard. Ken Latchney, my engineer, and I have worked very hard on getting it to sound great, on reconstructing things, correcting all the various recording efforts, because it’s come from so many different sources. We’ve got it sounding great; I think people will enjoy it. And if you don’t want something so exhausting [laughs] I’m going to put out, hopefully, a single CD that will just have my favorite tracks from the whole box set. So I think all in all that it’s a big endeavor, and it’s a tough thing for me to complete in the midst of all these new things.
I can imagine. So why the name Dust?
Because I kinda looked at this music as being something that’s sitting on a shelf gathering dust. It’s really music that no one would probably hear otherwise, and when I first started the idea of this I really assumed that I didn’t have much [laughs]. I felt like, well, maybe I have a record worth of rare things. As it turns out we’ve got more than 100 pieces, so I guess there are a lot more of things gathering dust than I expected.
When making records from different time periods, what happens is things get left behind that didn’t get finished in time, they didn’t work for that project, you couldn’t write the lyrics in time, those are a lot of the problems for me. So these things accumulate after 20 years.
That will be exciting when the box set comes out. I’m sure a lot of people are anticipating that release.
And I have a very strong artistic sense of it too, what it can look like and be like, and I think it’ll be a wonderful package.
A few years back, you started recording your live shows. Do you discourage other people from recording your live performances?
I think you might be attributing Robert Fripp’s quote to me, because Robert has very strong feelings against bootlegging material or recording someone live. Personally I don’t. Within the context of King Crimson, since that’s Robert’s desire, I’m happy for it to be that way. But on a personal level, I don’t care otherwise. If you come to a Bears show or an Adrian Belew show, there’s nothing holding us back from saying, “You can’t tape the show.” Especially if it’s for your own use. I mean, if you were to take that tape and turn it into a commercial product, I do have a problem with that. But I’m not as adamant about it as some people are. I realize that in the world today, there is a lot of exchanging of tapes and there are a lot of downloads and things like that, and my feeling overall about it is, if you support the artist by coming to their concerts and buying their records, then beyond that I don’t really care. If you want to have your own private tape of the concert you came to, I have nothing against that.
It seems to me, knowing the hard-core music fans that I do, that the ones who are trading recordings of the shows are the ones who actually are going to concerts, the ones who will purchase the artists’ albums because they want all that information in their hands.
See, that’s what I think, too. And that’s why my feeling on it is different than some people’s feelings. I’m more interested in those kinds of people than the “normal” people, because I feel that the people who are really passionate about it are the people that I want to have as my fans. My engineer Ken is a bit that way. He attends a lot of concerts and he buys a lot of people’s records, and he follows bands like Phish and some of the jambands like that, he follows the Grateful Dead, and so I’ve learned from him the mentality behind that and I’ve grown to appreciate it. I’m not that interested in whatever loss of sales there may be because I’m not even sure there is a loss of sales. I don’t really know; it’s hard to decipher. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, I would think. I think I sell what I sell, and it’s not going to eat up my profits [laughs]. So strictly from a business sense it’s not something that worries me. From a business sense I always think the challenge is not hampering the people who do buy your music. The challenge is how to expose your music to more and more people who might enjoy it.
Are some of these live recordings going to be available in Dust?
There are a couple of live things in Dust, and the primary source is the tour I did in 1992 for the Here album, in which my band was, in fact, The Bears. They were my opener as Psychodots and then they joined me onstage as my touring band, and I’ve got some tapes of some of that music that’s really excellent. There’s also some live material from the very first solo tour I did, which was the Twang Bar King tour, which had the band that played on the first two solo records, and there’s some great stuff from that. There’s a great version of “Lone Rhino” and “Big Electric Cat” and things from that era.
Last December, when your first three solo albums were finally re-released, I’m sure that was a big triumph. And from my understanding they’re available only on a limited basis. Are there any plans to make them more widely available in the States?
Well, not that I know of. It’s always possible that will happen, especially if I end up signing some new deal for myself. Maybe they’ll be interested in continuing to make that available. Right now of course, the best place you can get it is on my website! We have the best price, ladies and gentleman [laughs].
Rhino | Twang Bar King | Desire Caught By The Tail
But I must admit, when I received those records and they sent me some free copies from Japan, and my wife and I sat and listened to them, it was such an overwhelming emotional experience for me. I broke down and cried, I was so happy. It was wonderful to hear that music again and hear it done so well. They re-mastered the albums in a great way, and they sound absolutely current. The artwork looks great, and I’m just very pleased that those records are available now. When you’re a recording artists or any type of creative artists, you like to have all your work available. You’d hate to die and think that, well, people are never gonna be able to get my CDs.
Hopefully you won’t have to worry about that.
Nah, I don’t think so. I’m gonna live a long and tortuous life.
With everything that’s going on with you in the next year, are there any gaps in there? Will you be able to take time off to decompress?
You know, it’s a funny thing, my wife Martha and I talk about this frequently now. We realize that we’re both workaholics, and I can’t remember when we’ve taken a vacation. We did a honeymoon in Hawaii ten years ago, and that might be the last time. So we’re looking at that and saying maybe there’s something wrong with this picture, maybe figure out some way to let go and relax. It just seems that there’s so much to do and I really want to accomplish as much as I can, that’s my work ethic. But I’m also a big believer in breaks, and it’s a proven psychological fact that people do accomplish more if they take fifteen-minutes off here and there, and I don’t seem to do that very well. But as you said, this year is... it’s pretty tight right now, and I’m very excited about so may things, and there are so many things that I’d like to complete - the solo album, the Dust record, the new project with Les and Danny, and the continuation of The Bears and King Crimson. And it all adds up to: not much time to relax.
You’ve been in Nashville for quite a few years now, and it seems like an interesting place for a musician like you. Typically when you think of Nashville you think country headquarters, singer/songwriters, and I was curious as to what is your take on the scene there.
First of all, the reason I live here is because of my wife’s family. She’s from Tennessee, just south of Nashville, and she has a lot of family here, and it’s been very important for us to have our young children be available to their grandparents and their aunts and uncles. In that regard it’s worked out perfectly. Otherwise I might not have chosen Nashville, but I think there are some good points to Nashville. It’s a city that really generates almost 70 percent of its income from music-related things - publishing companies, there are 350 studios here, there are all kinds of musicians and players, and touring artists and bus companies. So it really is a music city. Mainly run, of course, on country music or Christian music. But I find that there’s an increasing interest in and increasing repertoire of rock music here, too. So I don’t feel totally like a fish out of water [laughs]. I mean, it is a bit strange sometimes for me to think of King Crimson as centering out of Nashville. I can’t quite picture me and Robert in cowboy hats and boots… yet. But the really nice thing about Nashville is that it’s still open enough. It’s an interesting combination of cosmopolitan and rural, and so you can have, as I do, acres of forest around your house, and go 25 minutes away and be in Nashville. And Nashville is not such a huge city that you get lost and swamped in. It’s not full of desperate people on the streets. It’s a pretty easy city to deal with.
As far as cities go…
Yeah, as far as cities go. I travel around a lot, this is another aspect to it that people probably don’t realize. I see and am a part of all different places. In the last month of my life I’ve been to L.A., San Francisco, Paris, Italy, Germany, I’ve been all over the place. So I see all of it, I’m a part of it at different points. If you put all the time together, I’ve probably spent months of my life in New York City, but I’ve never lived in New York City. I don’t have to, I visit there so much [laughs]. So when I’m not in those cities, it kinda makes sense for me, maybe it’s a part of my attempt to relax, to be in a quieter, easier-going place.
You mentioned King Crimson playing the European festivals this summer, and there are so many festivals here is the U.S…
Well, I think we’re a little late on the bus, for this year at least. But I think it is, for the future, it’s part of my future and hopefully Crimson’s too. I know on this American tour we’re sharing the bill with The String Cheese Incident for a couple of shows, and I think those doors are opening. And it seems to me that’s the perfect place for us to go, so I’m hoping in the future we can get more involved in it. And if you look at my work with Les Claypool, that just makes it even more of the same. I think Les has got a very good following in that area, and it would be interesting to go with him and play some music.
So how did King Crimson and String Cheese come together?
Our manager here in the States is very close to the String Cheese management, and both sides had expressed an interest that this would be a good co-billing. I went to Bonnaroo to see String Cheese Incident and so I feel like this would work and let’s try it. I think that maybe these couple of dates that we’re doing is a trial balloon just to see how this works. And when I said earlier that our tour in the fall might be a co-billing, this is one that we’re considering.
You were at Bonnaroo, but just to listen and enjoy, right? I didn’t hear of you sitting in with anyone.
No, I didn't sit in with anyone. I was there mainly to see String Cheese Incident but ran into old friends of mine as well, like Bernie Worrell, Stevie Winwood, who sat in with String Cheese. We didn’t stay the entire time, but I was there primarily to see String Cheese and check out the whole festival scene.
And it was a good experience?
Oh yeah, I enjoyed it. Whit has really been instrumental in educating me about this area of music: the jamband festivals and things, which I must admit I didn’t know anything about. And the more I learned about it, the more I’ve realized it’s one of the most open fields left in music today. And I do believe with all the things that are going on, in the way that people exchange music and the way you buy and sell music, the one thing that is so interesting as a constant is live music. Because no matter how many people download your tapes, the one thing they can’t take from you is the live experience. If you want to see King Crimson live, that’s the only place you can get it. And I think that’s going to be something that’s really gonna be strong for artists like myself in the future. So I’m really interested in the festivals, and this whole jamband mentality is unique, I like it. Because if it’s true that people come to those shows because they want to have fun and they want to hear somebody play well, then that sounds tailor-made for things I’m involved in.
Adrian Belew is currently on tour with King Crimson, and who knows where else you might find him? In addition to the latest Crimson album, look for Adrian's upcoming solo record, a further collaborative effort with Les and Danny, his long-awaited box set (which will hopefully be released this year!), a "best of" CD with selected tracks from the box set, and more from this versatile and always-interesting artist.
More on Adrian:
Belew music downloads [plus video and photos]
Interviewed by Margaret Pitcher
JamBase | San Francisco
Go See Live Music!