Having been a stunt guitarist for one year, Adrian speaks candidly about his experiences and kinship with Frank Zappa. As well as his own solo projects, The Bears, King Crimson and many other entertaining stories from his adventurous career as a multi faceted musician, singer songwriter and producer.
December 5, 2003
Guitarhoo!: Hi Adrian we’re glad and excited to talk with you. A good part of this interview will be based on your days working with Frank Zappa, as a tribute to the master. For starters, how did you exactly come about auditioning and finally being accepted into Franks band?
Adrian Belew: Well, I was playing here in Nashville. I lived here in the 70’s for a couple of years and I played with a band called “Sweetheart”. It was a 5 piece band; Saxophone, keyboards, bass, drums, guitar, three singers. Three of us sang I should say, haha. And it was a good band. It was colorful. We dressed in vintage 40’s clothing. I wore Fedora hats and ties everywhere we went. It was a band that had a little bit of a following. They played really only just cover music. Things like Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, the music of that era.
And we were playing one night in a dark, dank bar called Fanny’s which is now a parking lot here in Nashville and Frank had played a concert. He was looking for somewhere to go afterwards with his entourage, with a few of the band members, and some crew people. And they had a limousine, the limo driver, his name was Terry, was a fan of our band so he directed him to the night club, Fanny’s. They came in and listened for about 40 minutes, then Frank came up to the edge of the stage, reached out and grabbed my hand, shook it and said, “I’ll get your information from the chauffeur and I’ll audition you when I finish this tour.” About 4 or 5 months went by before the call actually came and by then of course everybody all thought it was just a fluke, especially me. But then he called and he said, “Here’s some songs I want you to learn from these records and I’m going to fly you out to my place and audition you.”
Now as the audition went, it was pretty hairy. First of all I don’t read music. I had to learn everything by rote, had to figure out as Frank told me, “Play and sing whatever you can figure out, play and sing.” So, I learned those records and I really dedicated myself to that.
G!: Wow, and it was pretty complicated music…
AB: It was very complicated music for me at the time because I had never really played anything outside of popular music really. I mean I hadn’t really understood odd time signatures and things like that, although I had an ear for it.
So, I went to the audition in Franks basement. It was very unnerving ’cause people were moving equipment around, lots of things were happening. I was standing in the middle of the room with a microphone, a pignose amp and a stratocaster and Frank was sitting behind a recording board saying, “Play this.” Then he’d stop and say, “ok, stop and try this.” and so on. It went that way with all kinds of choas surrounding me. I felt very uncomfortable and didn’t feel I did well. And he auditioned 50 guitar players.
G!: oh, wow…
AB: I didn’t see any of the auditions for the guitarists. I only saw some of the keyboard players and percussionists audition and they were tremendously tough auditions for them.
So, I was there at his house, I had nowhere to go. I stayed around and watched the auditions all day then when the day was over I finally got a moment to say to Frank, “Hey Frank, you know I don’t feel I did well in my audition but it’s not the way I was expecting it to be. I thought we’d just sit down somewhere quietly and I would play these things for you.”
G!: Just like one on one or something…
AB: Yeah. And he said, “Well, let’s go upstairs and sit in the living room and we’ll do that.”
We sat upstairs on his purple couch and I did a second audition just sitting right there next to him and that was very successful.
Pretty soon he was mentioning things and showing me different harmonies and stuff. Then he reached out his hand and said, “Well, you’ve got the job and here’s what I pay and here’s the rules.”, and so on. He ws very straight forward, just a verbal agreement, for one year.
G!: oh, so he was looking for players for only one year?
AB: He said, “This is a one year agreement.” That’s how he did it, year by year with his players. And he had different rates for whether you were rehearsing. There was a rate if you were recording. There was a rate if you were touring. Filming had another rate. So basically it was a pay scale and it was more money then I’d ever made, haha… I was thrilled about it of course.
My initial impressions of Frank were that he was absolutely brilliant and very hilarious and kind of a very striking person. I mean you could just talk to Frank for a minute and know that he’s brilliant. He’s just a very, very smart guy. In fact I would say that he’s truly a genius not just musically. Now, I know a lot of people who I maybe think are musical genius’s that I have worked with, but Frank is that rarity. I think that he is just an all around genius! hahaha… a genius in every way.
He became kind of for me a father figure. I lost my father when I was 19 and it was kind of nice to have someone like Frank, such a responsible and hard working person…
He guided my life. I worked with him everyday. I use to live at his house over the weekends. And so for a year, a very important year in my life I learned directly from Frank, either in conversation or performing or rehearsing or whatever. There was always something to be learned because he was a very hard working guy. As most people know he didn’t do any drugs or anything like that, like his reputation might seem. He was actually one of the most serious, hard working people I’ve ever known.
G!: When you were playing in your bar band, when Frank found you, were you playing your more weirder guitar stuff or were you playing more straight forward music?
AB: I was just in the stages of developing my own little thing, which is something I always recommend to guitar players. To me the way that I learned was I simply listened to and disected and absorbed every single thing that I liked. Whether it was a country guitar lick, a blues player or Andres Segovia, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Jeff Beck, whoever it was. You know, it didn’t matter I would just learn the parts and the same is true with anything, any music. So, I was a dedicated record player guitarist, haha. I would sit in front of a record player hours upon hours and learn everything I could.
By the time I was in Sweetheart, I had just started trying to figure out what is my own voice and I had just started trying to stop playing all the things that I knew and just try to figure out what I could play that would be uniquely mine. So, the thing that I was left with mostly was sounds. I liked making sounds and it didn’t seem like that was a part of anyone elses vocabulary. Around the time I was in Sweetheart I was making interesting, funny sounds in the songs that weren’t supposed to be there. I put in a car horn or some seagulls or something, haha. And you know, it was just the edges of me trying to find my own voice. And I could play in a lot of styles and play like a lot of players at that point in my life. By the time I got around to really making records of my own I decided I didn’t need to do that anymore.
G!: I came across something on the internet actually, it looked like a Japanese commercial you were doing and there were monkey’s there and you were doing the monkey sounds, then an elephant, then at the end it just said “Daiko” or something. And that’s it. So what was that?
AB: Daikin is a company in Japan that is very multi-faceted. They make everything from air conditioners to parts for Naussa. And they asked me to be their spokesperson for two commercials. The first one, as you said, was me making animal noises and the animals would walk by me or fly over me or whatever. Now, the second one was a piece in which they put me in a concert hall in Japan and I played all the instruments as an orchestra would. Only they were all guitars. Tympani drums were guitars turned upside down. So you had me conducting myself as a whole symphony and I think we played Dvorak’s New World Symphony, I think was the name of it.
G!: And I can totally see how that relates to air conditioning, haha…
AB: No it doesn’t you know, not at all. What was so cool about the commercials and what appealed to me about them was there was nothing like that in them. Simply both commercials would say, “Daikin! Adrian Belew! Always Unique!” haha… They were a nice experience though. I really enjoyed it. They did a great job with those and they were very popular in Japan and totally unheard of here in the states.
Adrian / Daikin Japanese commercials.
G!: That’s really cool. Did Frank make you memorize “Johnny Guitars” vox outro?
AB: Yes. I didn’t know that song and I didn’t really know much of Franks material, only things I just heard inadvertently from my friends or something. So, with that song naturally you wanted to do that ending a certain way ’cause it was such a character. And I tried throughout all the music that we did Frank to be as true to the originals as I could unless he took us in a new direction which he often did. He really liked to take a piece of music and do it a completely different way and then another different way, and then maybe even another one. haha. So, you’d learn a doo-wop version, then you’d learn a jazzy version, and so on.
There were a few times when I was in Franks company over the weekends that I would affect his thoughts on something. One time in particular I remember he was playing the song which would become “Flakes”. He was singing this sort of folk song part in the middle. And when Frank sang and played he couldn’t do that really, when he sang and played guitar he couldn’t do that at the same time. He had a real hard time to do that. It sounded like a bad Bob Dylan. hahaha… So I started singing it like a bad Bob Dylan immitation and it stuck and that became part of that song.
G!: hahaha… so he let you go with it…
AB: Well, mostly if I was doing someone elses material that had already been done on record I just try to mimmick what they did.
G!: What were your thoughts on xenochrony as a concept, and did you ever participate in any sessions that ended up in a “xenochronous” recording?
AB: I’m sure I did participate in things because we recorded everything. In fact I remember very clearly being at the Hammersmith Odeon, which is a large theatre in London, and we spent three hours recording things in the theatre because Frank said, “Well, here I’ve got a space that I can record in.” He had some of us up in the balcony shaking bits of metal and things. Then he would point to someone down at the stage and they’d hit a timpani drum and so on. He was really recording parts that would become xenochrony parts for him. And I’m sure that I’m a part of some of those in his records. It’s really hard to tell though what any particular source is.
As far as the concept of xenochrony, I’ve used it a lot myself over the years because it’s something I really admire and like in Franks music.
G!: Are those things that you’ve learned from him, that rubbed off on you?
AB: I’d say definitely yes that is one thing I learned from him. I already had a penchant for the musical area that’s called “music concrete”, which is the music like, Edgar Varese and the people like that that Frank admired. So, he would play me a lot of those records when we were just sitting around and it sort of helped waken up all those interests for me. I already liked that stuff, I just didn’t know really who it was or where to find it. There were a lot of small techniques, interesting techniques you would absorb just being around Frank. Particularily for me, not so much in the area of guitar playing or songwriting but more in the area of production and arrangement.
G!: Why weren’t you in Franks band for very long?
AB: Well, as I say I had a year long agreement and I intended to stay much longer than that if he would have me. But what happened, we started touring in Europe and… see it’s kind of a long story but the little known part of it is that when we first started in Europe, several people in the band, not myself but several other people were busted which is a cardinal sin in Franks band. I didn’t do drugs so I wasn’t a part of it but it made for quite a horrible scene and it led everyone to believe that at the end of the tour he was simply going to fire the whole band which in fact is what he did.
What happened though, in the meantime, we played in Germany and Brian Eno heard me play in Cologne, called David Bowie who was in need of a guitar player for his upcoming tour.
David came to the Frank Zappa show. I saw him on the side of the stage during a break in the show where I usually left the stage and I went up to talk to him and he asked me to join his band. haha…
So, what followed after that was before the tour was even over I had a decision to make to either continue with Frank or to go move forward with David. And the real thing that made my decision for me was Frank told me that when he finished the tour he was going to spend four months back in his house. He was going to rent a film editor and he was going to edit the movie “Baby Snakes” and it would take him four months. And that during that four months I would be on a retainer. In other words I wouldn’t be doing anything. And so, Davids original offer to me to tour, in fact, was for four months. So, it made sense and I went back to Frank and told him and he said, “Yeah, that makes sense to me too. I think you should go ahead and do that.”
I expected to come back into Franks band but things changed on both ends; the Bowie tour continued, much more than four months and Frank took much less time editing Baby Snakes and started another band. hahaha…
G!: Is it true that David Bowie called Franks music “Joke Music” and advised you not to be playing it or is that just a rumour?
AB: No, that’s not true at all. David did not have any problem with Frank but when the two of them met together… and it was obvious David was trying to steal me from Frank. Frank was a little bit mean to David, hahaha He kept on calling him Captain Tom, hahaha I don’t think David had anything against him. I doubt that Frank had anything against David either, he just didn’t know his music very well. And it’s true for David too, he didn’t know Franks music.
G!: ok, let’s move onto more about you. Who were some of your biggest influences on the guitar?
AB: Well, let’s see, when I started of course the Beatles were already out and I would have to credit them for being the reason for me to want to take up guitar.
I started as a drummer. I was happy being a drummer. I was a singer in the bands when we were playing in my first teen bands. But I kept wanting to write. Kept having songs appear in my mind and I couldn’t write. So, I taught myself to play guitar and I suppose some of my earlier influences would be people like Roy Orbison, The Beatles, Ray Davies, those were people that I liked at that period. Soon enough it became obvious that there was a new generation of virtuoso guitar players. People like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page. I was a big admirerer and fan of Hendrix and Jeff Beck and still am. And, I think Jeff is my favorite guitar player now in the world along with Robert Fripp and they’re both friends of mine, so isn’t that amazing!?!
I also listened to anything that caught my ear. I learned how to play Country Style finger picking by listening to Chet Atkins. I picked up things from Les Paul records, and just anything that caught my ear. I figured out some Segovia pieces and I was trying hard to become a multi-talented guitarist who was well balanced, who could play any style.
G!: Well that’s interesting. Are you at the point now where you can play pretty much everything that you hear?
AB: I’m at the point where I can transcribe my own ideas in my own ways. Either putting them on tape or figuring them out on the guitar or the piano or whatever instrument is at hand. I’ve been at that point for a long time. Even back then when I was a teenager just starting to learn to play though, I had the ability to hear the harmonization. That’s how I taught myself to play guitar. No one ever showed me any chords or anything. I just accepted, ok, this is the note I want and this is the note that goes with it, here’s another note that I like that goes with it, haha… I ended up with the wierdest, most awkward chord shapes that anybody could have, haha, when I first started writing. But it was the only way I knew to accomidate the ideas. I really didn’t have the mechanics of the instrument down. Now over the years, I still really don’t know the technical terms for every little chord that I play or every note, but, it doesn’t interest me in that way. It’s more, ok, to achieve the ability to translate your ideas quickly and not lose any of them, and I’ve got a lot of methods for doing that.
G!: Right, well that’s excellent. When you improvise are you mainly listening for a sound or do you think “this note over this chord”?
AB: I think when I improvise it starts with a sound. It also starts with a kind of attitude and something of a concept, you know, you want to take this and you want to go this way with it. You want it to build up or you want it to be wild, or you want it to be something melodic, whatever the concept may be. I like to sort of have an idea where I’m going and then turn myself wild and free and not think too much about it. In that way, just ’cause I’ve had so much experience in the studio, I can formulate my guitar ideas rather quickly. Live onstage where the true improvisation comes it’s just, it’s of the moment. But I would say it all starts for me to have a sound that intrests me. And that’s why over the years I’ve worked so hard on different styles of sounds. You know, different catagories. That’s why I guess I use sythesizers and so many effects boxes and things. But I can sit here and play acoustic guitar and be happy with that but… it’s limiting, haha.
G!: Who came up with the “Twang Bar King” moniker?
AB: That was really an idea for a song. It was a joke. I came up with it. I thought there was a lot of loud mouth bragger guitar players in the world saying, “I’m the greatest”, kinda guys. You know, and I kinda thought I’ll write a song that’s funny about that kind of character and epitimize that in a song. I never meant for anyone to think it was me saying that about myself, hahaha Because I certainly didn’t feel that way and I still don’t. You know, people have used that as a moniker for me over the years. Some people still even call me the Rhino from the Lone Rhino times and I think all of that’s fine ’cause I don’t take it seriously and I know people don’t think that I’m really trying to be a Twang Bar King. But it’s nice to have something like that to be known as. It gives you some sort of personality.
G!: What is the strangest thing you’ve done to a guitar to create some wild sounds?
AB: Well, I could think of lots of things, but one thing that popped in mind is the time when we were making the Laurie Anderson film called “Home for the Brave” and they wanted us to act out the playing that we were doing. And there’s a scene in the movie where it’s just me and the drummer David Van Tieghem on a stage together. And we had to create a piece of music and act it out at the same time. I layed the guitar on the floor. I set a pedal next to it that controlled delay times and I walked around on the stage and I had barbeque tongs in my hand. I walked around the stage as a crab would because I looked like a crab. I crouched down and then I would go over to the guitar and sort of, you know, grab it and pluck at it with the barbeque tongs and change the delay and stuff with my foot, hahaha. It was really a kind of performance art and I think of that as being an outstanding moment. But if I’m in the studio and no ones watching, I’m just trying to achieve the sound I’ll just do about anything. I’ve used files on the guitar. I’ve done everything I could come up with. That’s one of the things that interest me, is streching the vocabulary
G!: Well there’s so many things you can do and there’s so many things that you have done…
AB: And there’s still lots to do I’m afraid, hahaha
G!: haha! Well, what do you think of what some other guys have been doing, like taking a drill, Paul Gilbert took a drill and attached a pick to the end of it and…
AB: oh, I’ve done that onstage a lot. I did that in the 80’s with Crimson. I didn’t know anybody else was doing it.
G!: You probably came up with a lot of these things but those guys are stealing the thunder…
AB: I really don’t even know who Paul Gilbert is. I’m actually not very knowledgable about other music and current music. It’s not what I do with my time when I’m not making my own music. You know, I basically know whatever I hear and like and don’t follow the steps of other guitar players. There are great guitar players out there naturally and I respect anyone who’s dedicated themselves to the instrument. I especially respect anyone who’s found their own voice, so to speak, ’cause I think it’s one of the hardest things to do. There are a lot of immitaters and only a few innovators. So you know, I don’t sit around and listen to guitar records much. I might put on something that I enjoy from Beck, Hendrix or somebody like that but it’s more for enjoyment rather than to emmulate.
G!: When you go to relax do you listen to much music, like say classical music or whatever or do you do your own music so much that that’s your release and you don’t want to hear anything after that?
AB: Well, really I do music continually. I have a studio. I’m in my studio right now. My engineer’s here, he comes here everyday. So I’m working on music all the time. Right now I’m working on 3 solo albums that contain 30 different pieces of music. It is a little distracting for me to listen to other peoples music during these kind of real dedicated times when I’m trying to complete my own work which I almost am always doing. Either my work or work with Crimson or something like that.
If I’m going to relax and just listen to music it’ll be a music with purpose. I mean, I like modern classical music for example. In fact I like a lot of Franks modern pieces. You know, the synclavier type stuff and you know, the European… I can’t think of their name right now… ensemble modern. Yeah, I like that kind of stuff to just listen to. Something that really thrills my ears.
I totally tuned out years and years ago to anything that would probably be called mainstream because I don’t watch a lot of television, I don’t listen to the radio. And it’s not some sorta rebelious thing in me. There’s just nothing on there that ever interests me, so… hahaha And I don’t have much time to be uninterested. haha. I suppose I’m at a point in my life where I’m trying really hard to take advantage of all the things that I’ve got and can do with and build my own legacy by doing that. Work is the most important thing to me. I love making music. I know there’s not going to be enough time in my entire life to do all the ideas that I’d like to try.
G!: So you constantly have a flow. Your always hearing something. Do you ever have dry spells or is it always within you?
AB: I never run dry of interest in music and I don’t think there’s ever been a period where I just wanted to stop or anything like that. It always has excited me. And music flows out of me pretty easily. It’s the finalization of it which is so tedious and difficult, you know, if you’re going to write a song, you’re going to have to write the words for it and that usually is the last thing in the picture for me and that usually is the hardest thing ’cause I’m very hard on myself with my lyrics and I just don’t throw in just anything. They have to fit phrase wise, emotionally wise…
G!: It’s got to be coming from some place, something personal…
AB: Yeah, it’s a long difficult process for me usually, the lyricism part. I have to listen to the music over and over and over. And eventually I’ll get an idea or a phrase or a title or atleast a direction to go in. And then I have to get real serious about it. Sit down at my computer and start typing in things and deleting them, hahaha… You know I got a bunch of books that I look through for words and things, it’s a constant education process really. My wife always says that I’m the most self educated person she knows ’cause I read and just keep finding new things in life that I’m interested in and once I find something I want to know everything about it, so, hahaha
G!: hahaha.. Well, it must be challenging to maintain and get through the process of putting a song together, while the whole time new song ideas are flooding in. To keep that focus and not lose anything in the process.
AB: I think the saddest thing is when you lose a piece of music that you have in your mind and you just can’t get it out in time. And that has happened to me. I have been driving in a car, for example, that’s a time when your mind runs free and it’s likely to come up with something. So now I take to carrying around a little portable recorder in my pocket and if I got any idea I’ll just sing it in there or say it, if it’s a word or lyric or something. And I’m losing less and less of my ideas that way and especially now that for around nine years I’ve been living in a fully equipted studio, it’s really changed my life. That’s I think one of the major things that’s helped me is having my own place where I can just constantly create. You don’t have to wait until there’s a time to do it. You just do it.
G!: And then you probably know a lot of musicians that are around, you can call up this guy and get him down, or do you do a lot on your own?
AB: Well, as for my own records I try to do as much myself as I can.
G!: Do you play drums as well?
AB: Yeah, I’ve played drums all my life. I have three kits of drums here; a set of V-Drums, an old set of Ludwig vintage drums, and a set of Ayaotte drums. Bunches of percussions, cymbals, keyboards, saxophone, flute, cello, anything that I feel I can get an acceptable noise out of, hahaha I’ll try to play it.
G!: haha.. a couple trash cans, haha…
AB: haha, yeah anything. I think that’s the creativity part of it. Like music is… Music started out with just poeple beating their hands on a rock or something, you know. And you gotta take it from any source you can, so. Mostly on my solo records, which I’ve been doing a lot of for the past two months now, I play everything and I really like that for that purpose, it’s a matter of self expression that’s undiluted by any one elses interpretation. Because I have plenty of situations where I am working in collaboration with other people, you know, with great drummers, guitar players, and so on. You know, King Crimson, The Bears, all the many different things that I do allow me a lot of cooperative moments where it’s not just my ideas. So, when I make my solo records I try to make them totally my self expression. These three records I’m working on now will even have my paintings as the artwork, hahaha
G!: Wow, right on! You get a lot of satisfaction from that because you’re expressing in every possible way. Can you compare the contrast and the mental vibe between a Bears tour and a King Crimson tour?
AB: Well, it is true I think the Bears tours are just simply more fun. It’s like having your own band and I always say it’s an alternate universe where we’re the Beatles and instead of being hugely popular we’re not. hahaha… We’re in an alternate universe. The Bears are for fun. The Bears are more like a writing workshop than anythng else. I mean everybody in the band writes and we pool all of our materials and ideas together. Sometimes I’ll use somebody elses chorus or we’ll change things around but it’s really… you got four pretty prolific writers so you get a lot of interesting material to choose from. You got four guys who’ve played together all their lives, so there’s a deep kind of binding, family type of friendship there and it makes for a good kind of mid-western pop music. It’s not the main thing for any of us. We all have other things that we do that are probably the more important things in our lives but it’s a lot of fun.
King Crimson on the other hand is probably one of the very main things I do. I joke that it’s my day job but it’s much more than that to me. It is a big part of my legacy. It is something that really keeps me focused and moving forward because you have to find new things and new ways to express yourself in King Crimson. My relationship with Robert and all the musicians who’ve come through the band in the 20 years I’ve been in it has been really astounding and deep relationships for me. People that you really learn a lot from just being around them, you learn a lot about yourself even. And it pushes me. King Crimson pushes me. And I’m proud of the music that we do. It’s no so much fun. It can be a little bit of fun but it’s really more serious than fun. So, I suppose between the solo records which allow total self expression, The Bears which allow a lot of fun and King Crimson which pushes the limits, I pretty much have everything.
G!: And you were saying Tony Levin’s back in the band?
AB: Yeah, Tony is back in the band and we rehearsed for… oh, I’d say… let’s see one week entirely. They left last week. They were here rehearsing in my studio. It was very good, an excellent week of rehearsing. We learned everything that we wanted to learn and more. Having Tony back in the band is a joy and it’s not because Trey is not a joy ’cause Trey is a joy too but Tony has got a different vibe, and he causes you to play differently. Especially, I think he’s gonna have a good effect on Pats playing. And I know that Robert is really wound up about it. Robert is excited by it and that’s good because sometimes Robert will start just kind of taking it easy and not wanting to do anything more… haha.. So, this is a little exciting. He’s coming back to work with me in April alone on new material.
So, this meeting with Tony was just to get our repetoire up and running and I think we did about 20 songs and they all sounded great and by the end of it we were playing it like we’ve been playing it forever. We’re ready to go but I don’t think there is any specific touring on the schedule until the Fall because for one thing Tony is still doing sporadic touring with Peter Gabriel until the end of June. So, Crimson is ready to go but we won’t be doing anything… hahah
G!: So, will you have an album ready to be released by the end of this year or?
AB: oh, I don’t know about an album. We haven’t even started the new material. That’s what Robert and I will start doing in April. I’ve been concentrating on my 3 solo records and I’ve also started a new Bears album. We have 6 songs finished. So, I’m halfway through a new Bears album.
King Crimson is basically starting over. We’ll have a different line up, a different quality of emphasis in the music. So, it’s basically down to me and Robert now to start a whole new round of material. It’s a very lengthy process with King Crimson because the longestation to the writing process and then you change it again, then you change it again and then the players come in and then you change it some more and then you take it out live on tour and then it changes yet again. hahaha
I mean the last record we did, “The Power to Believe”, was sculpted, so to speak, over about 2 and a half years. In fact we played all that material live on tour before it was really even finalized. Some of it didn’t even have the vocals yet. And that’s the process that King Crimson uses.
The Bears is a much more immediate process. Somebody brings in a song we all like and we go in the studio and record it. hahaha And my solo albums are something in between. They are laboured in the sense that I put a lot of effort into them and I have to think a lot about what I’m doing,but they’re still a lot of fun.
G!: That’s cool. What is your main goal when you produce other artists?
AB: Well, it’s more than one goal. I mean, you naturally want to facilitate their ideas and help them achieve their music without imprinting too much information on it that doesn’t belong there. I’m really careful to treat their music as I would treat my own but not to make it sound like my own music neccessarily. It depends on the various artists but most artists I end up teaching something in the process I hope because I think that’s also important; is sort of awareness, you know. I think poeple that have worked with me have often said that after they made their record they’ve felt they were more self aware and had more studio qualities about what they do. They knew what they were doing a little bit more. It’s a matter of directing the whole process. Like directing a film to me. You have to have your hands in every category. You even have to watch the cost and you have to watch to make sure everybody’s pleased with what you’re doing and everybody gets their proper amount of time to do what they need to do. So, it’s a bit of a juggling act but I think I’m a natural at it and I really enjoy it and I do have a studio accrument after pretty much living in one now, haha… If someone says, “I’d like to try this, I’d like to try to go in this direction.” I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t able to accomodate that.
So, overall it’s a marriage and it has to start with someone that I enjoy and some music that I enjoy. Some music that I feel I can contribute to.
G!: So when you get involved in producing other guys are you mostly at the luxery to spend that time and explore with them, getting out their best stuff and the whole vision or are there times where a record executve comes in and says, “You guys have to make this kind of record!”?
AB: Oh, I’ve never had that happen. I think record executives have never bothered me. Maybe they know it’s useless, hahaha… When I do get a project that I’m really excited about I dedicate myself totally to it. I spend 24 hours a day, live, sleep, breathe and eat their music until it’s done. Nothing interupts that and the idea is basically yes, to make the very best record that these poeple have in them. So, I would do a lot more producing if I had more time but you know as I’m juggling all these different things I’m doing, I have to be more selective and sometimes something will not happen just because there’s not the time. But I’d like to do more and there are certainly a lot of artists that I think would, work well with what I do.
G!: You were on “God Shuffled His Feet” by the Crash Test Dummies…
AB: Well, that was a band that I was really slated to produce. I had many conversations with Brad about the record that they were going to make. I went through all the material methodically with him and I actually thought that I was going to produce that record and I felt that would be an excellent marriage I wish I had. But someone stepped in from the record side and said, “Well no, Adrian’s not a proven producer yet so let’s get somebody else.” As it turned out they got Jerry Harrison who is an old friend of mine so I was still being able to be involved on playing on the record. It would have even been better if I could have produced it I think. Nothing against Jerry’s production. I just think that I felt really in tune with what they were doing. And to tell you the truth I think it would have been an easy record to produce because their music was self produced just in the way that they do that.
Some bands will come to me and they really need ideas and they really need direction and other bands will pretty much have it written into their music already. All you have to do is facilitate it and make it play itself properly and not make any mistakes. You know, I mean, that’s kind of the way King Crimson is. It would be hard for someone to truly produce us ’cause as we write and create the music, we’re doing that process. So all you can really do is direct it a little bit.
But with Crash Test Dummies, I think that would have been an excellent marriage. I was looking forward to that. But, I think about the next year I did produce a band called “The Jars of Clay” which sold 2 million records so…
G!: Whoever kicked you out, haha…
AB: Haha.. who ever decided I wasn’t going to be a producer was wrong. It doesn’t matter… Well, that was a good band. I really liked that band.
G!: Well, they have a lot of haunting tracks, you know and…
AB: Yeah, they do. They had a lot of music that I really felt in tune with because there are different areas in music where you feel, “I just know this stuff”. You know, it was a little bit XTC, a little bit Beatlish and a little bit of a few other things that I just felt, “I know this stuff”.
G!: Then you have Brad with his super low voice and…
AB: Yeah, I think that’s a real selling point. The songs and his voice. And so there are many ways you can do the treatments around them.
G!: Well that would’ve been great but maybe in the future, eh.
AB: Yeah, it’s possible of course.
G!: So, what is your favorite Beatle record?
AB: I would say, it’s a tough question because I love them all of course but the real eye opener for me was “Revolver”. Because that’s when I really saw the Beatles go from being a band that wrote great songs and had done records like “Rubber Soul” previously which is a great record, to becoming a studio instrument. I mean that’s the first record that had backwards guitar. It had a lot of sound effects like Yellow Submarine, it had strings, like Elenor Rigby, it had Indian music for I think the first time ever. To me it was the first record in which someone had come along and said, “Now we are going to play the studio.” And as that’s always been one of my interests; productions and arrangements and sounds on records, that really intrigued me a lot. You know I love the mixture of material on there. I thought it just showed so many different sides. Of course, the same could be said about all their records to a degree especially the later ones like Sargeant Pepper and Abbey Road and The White Album. But, I think Revolver is the one that just hit me at the right time.
G!: Which era of music is your favorite? I know that’s an impossible question…
AB: Well, it is. hahaha… If I went back historically I could say that there’s a lot of early Jazz that I like. I mean even though I don’t play Jazz or know much about it. I was always a fan of Sinatra and Tony Bennett. You know, there’s just era’s in the 50’s that was some of the best Country music when you had people like Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and those people.
I think for the music that I’ve been involved in, probably the mid 60’s to late 60’s where there was a lot of experimentation going on and people were really advancing everything in music. You had so many great players and people making really intriguing new albums. That was a great period. A very rich period for everyone and it still has it’s affect today.
I would also say for me though the early 80’s were super, super influential on me because that’s when I stepped onto the world stage and I was suddenly in the company of people like David Bowie, The Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson. You know, that period of music I also thought was a very rich period of music. You had The Talking Heads, The B52’s, The Eurhythmics and King Crimson, you had The Police. You had a lot of really interesting music going on there for a short period in the 80’s. So, the late 60’s, early 80’s.
G!: So, when you did start getting your fame, getting well known and your career is taking off. You’ve got David Bowie around you and all these guys, did that like, set you free artistically and all of your ideas were coming out or did you feel a bit intimidated and stifled a bit? …. you know what I’m getting at?
AB: Yes I do. I thought is was a freeing experience. I felt ready for it. I felt I’d done the homework, so to speak. Naturally you feel moments of awe. You feel, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m here in Madison Square Gardens with David Bowie onstage.” hahaha…
King Crimson more than anything was intimidation but it was also a free license to be all the different things I wanted to be. You know, I was suddenly the songwriter in the band, the lyricist in the band, the front man, the singer, the guitarist. haha.. You know all those roles suddenly converged on me all at once and in the company of some pretty intelligent and respected musicians who I loved. So, that was a passing period for me of intimidation. I got over that in a couple weeks and from that point on it has always been like the ultimate challenge just to alright… you know… let’s do this. Let’s just do something interesting and new that we haven’t done.
G!: You’re not the guy who’s trying to write the next hit single…
G!: hahaha… I know… But if it touches somebody, it must be gratifying when someone comes up to you and pays you a compliment?
AB: It’s truly the most gratifying to know that something you did affects someone else ’cause I’ve been in those shoes all my life. I’ve had other musicians and artists affect me and I feel that when someone seriously feels that way about what I’ve done, that’s the greatest compliment there is.
I’ve never been able to contrive music in any way. It’s just one thing I can’t do is to sit and say, “Oh well, this is what’s happening and I should write like this.” I probably should be able to do that but it’s just never interest me and there’s a certain phonyness about that. For me, what I do is write what is in my mind, what ever is exciting me. So, I’ll get a new piece of gear and it will cause a new song to appear just because I’m experimenting with it and I’ve got some exciting new sounds which takes me in a new direction. I’ll read a book and there’ll be something in it, I think, “I can express that musically.” You know, haha…
So, it’s basically a process. I wake up everyday and there’s something in my mind to do. I’ve already been writing lyrics this morning, in fact, for one of these few songs that are left on this trio of records. And, that’s pretty much how my days go when I’m lucky! hahaha…
G!: So you’re feeling at this point in your life with your career, family life and you’ve gotten to play with so many of your heros, you must feel pretty comfortable at this point in your life?
AB: I am comfortable in many ways. I think there’s one thing that lingers and that is the sense of security. I think if your the type of musician that has had a lot of hit records by now you can have a sense of security because you know that your family will always have everything that they need. And I’ve not really reached that point. I mean I made some money and done well with it but at the same time it’s been a very expensive career to have because I don’t make hit records. So, if I take 6 months to make a record it’s costly for me. I’m not at that point where I can feel totally free and as wild as I want but pretty close… hahaha…
G!: You’re independent…
AB: I’m doing it all on my own. We’ve been doing most of it through our e-store which is at AdrianBelew.net which everyone should visit just for information and the site has just changed. It looks really interesting and cool. But I think the 3 records I’m doing now I will attempt to get them into the hands of a label that really has excitement for it and some ideas of what to do with it. If that doesn’t work we’ll do it on our own.
Again, this record has a lot of really intriguing things. I mean it has Robert Fripp on it. It’s got Mel Collins. It’s got Les Claypool and Danny Carey. There’s a lot of music there. It deserves the full machinery which I certainly can’t give it myself because I’m not really a record label. I’m just someone who can sell you my CD’s over the internet if you want but it’s not the same as being a record label promoting records, distributing them, getting them in all the shops.
And I haven’t, as a solo artist and even with The Bears, had that ever for a long time. I stopped having a record label in 1994 I think. So, it’s been about 10 years.
But, the music business has changed and everything’s going in a different new direction and it’s now down to the artist to make what they can about it. And it’s a pretty interesting time and I’m not insecure about it for some reason. I feel like there is a place for what I do and all I need to do is keep working hard. And that’s what I love to do and as you say I have balanced it with family and touring and being away from home. I work in my home whenever I possibly can. So, I’ve got it worked to the point now where I feel where it’s running very well. I spend a lot of time with my family. I’m here a lot in my home. I only really tour with King Crimson or The Bears maybe a month or two a year.
G!: You have a following and a body of work, you got a name but I guess the industry is taking such a beating from the internet with everyone downloading. So, the whole industry has changed, as you say and…
AB: Yeah, the whole industry is in an upheaval right now. I still, as I’ve said, have people in the industry who love my work and have been supporters and I’ve had a lot of goodwill, a lot of attention paid to me by the media and I think it’s just one of those things where everybody’s just a little uncertain as to how to proceed now because the normal model doesn’t work anymore. You know, you just don’t pour a lot of money into it and get it on the radio and make a video and that’s everything. It doesn’t work anymore. It hasn’t worked for my music for a very long time. So, you’ve got to explore all these different avenues. A lot of which is a do it yourself kind of attitude. You know, using the internet and word of mouth and getting out there and playing for people, exposing yourself and your music. Doing interviews like we’re doing now. That kind of stuff. Those are the tools we have to use.
It use to be, well, “I’ll find a record label and they’ll groom you and they’ll put out the records and they’ll do everything”, you know… hahaha… That never really happened… hahaha…
G!: But maybe more so in the 70’s…
AB: I should say it never really happened for me… hahaha… No, I think it has happened for a lot of artists and maybe too many types, too many artists. When I look around at the music business, as I was saying, I rarely do look at it. I feel a little bit outside it. But when I do look at it and I see what’s going on, on T.V. and things, you go, “How on earth are these people getting in the music business? They don’t belong there.” They’re not musicians, they’re dancers… hahaha…
G!: hahaha… And it’s just packaging. Who cares if no one can sing, whatever….
AB: The people who surround me are more on the artistic side. They come to me and really want to hear my music. They’re not interested in watching you dance.
But, that’s true. It astounded me. I always thought there would be a next generation of great players and maybe there are but I just don’t see many of them. It seems the next generation has been a lazy bunch of guys who never really learned the basics of music and never really learned their instruments well. And all they can do is pose. And you know, I’m not pointing my finger at anyone. I probably really shouldn’t even say that because non of this really matters to me or even interests me. It’s just that’s what I see and that’s why I keep my head out of it. hahaha…
G!: hahaha.. On a more independent level you can develope your following and do alright…
AB: You can do it. Here’s what you have to do though. You have to live within the means of your own earnings, whatever that may be. And you have to scale things to that. Obviously if you’re not selling a lot of records you can’t expect to spend a lot of money to make a record, for example or, if you’re going to go out and tour you can’t expect to have a full production and so on, if you’re still in the early stages of reaching fans. You have to look at it very sensibly. And I think in a way it’s very healthy for the industry and for the people involved in it. I forsee that what’s going to happen is it’s going to sort the men out from the boys, so to speak.
G!: Right. Very well said. Well, Adrian, it has been an honour and we all look forward to your future projects!
AB: It was nice to talk to you.
Interview © 2003 Guitarhoo!
Adrian on the web