Adrian Belew is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist and one of the most prolific and talented artists of our time. He is a “musicians musician” in that those who play or who are into music as a pursuit inevitably know his work, whereas the more casual listener may not. It’s a shame, as Adrian’s solo albums number more than a dozen, and his work with other artists of our time is compelling.
To kick start his solo career, Adrian released a pair of incredibly creative, fun albums in the early 80’s – Lone Rhino (1982) and Twang Bar King (1983). These established Adrian’s love of both progressive and pop-rock forms, peppered with frequent use of distorted guitar patches to imitate animal sounds, industrial noise such as trains and autos, to create frenetic leads, and color quieter pieces. His releases since, interspersed through the years with his other collaborations follow a varied path through many fascinating soundscapes. He is known for inventive technique on guitar and pliant, modern voice. It’s possible to forget he’s penned some of the best lyrics of our era – from “The Rail Song” to “Men in Helicopters” and “Inner Revolution,” which reflect on our times, our treatment of the planet, and just as often, very fun, positive and affirming prose.
Adrian’s work with other musicians, on their albums and concerts, include productive time with Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, and The Talking Heads, often guesting on the best of all works by that artist. Listen to his playing on career defining albums such as Graceland by Paul Simon, or Lodger by David Bowie, or Remain in Light by The Talking Heads for relevant examples of this charm. Besides his solo work, Adrian fronted his own happy pop band “The Bears” who were a blast to see live. But his primary work outside solo and bear efforts has been with King Crimson from 1980 to 2012, wherein his writing, vocals and duos with founder Robert Fripp on guitar are second to none. Adrian’s kind heart, sense of drama balanced with humor and concern for the environment pervade his work and that of his collaborators.
On November 10th I talked to Adrian about his current band “The Power Trio” who has played with him about 8 years now, and discuss their current tour.
Doug: Adrian, to begin, when the Power Trio just started out in 2006 we saw you play at the Carriage house (a small theater in Saratoga, California.) I recall the sound was so loud, and the playing so aggressive that you cleared out first three rows within ten minutes – do you remember that night?
Adrian: (laughs) – I do remember that – those were people who subscribed to the concert series – who came to the shows no matter who was playing!
Doug: It remains true that these shows are definitely of the hard rocking variety – presenting very driven versions of your work. What’s led to that approach – no piano, no winds – a trio?
Adrian: I really wanted to work in a trio format – it allows each member more freedom, and more responsibility at the same time. And consequently in doing that, to do material that was not originally in that format, you have to fill the holes pretty well – I don’t think of it as “hard” as much as powerful and a bit exciting!
Doug: Agreed – Back then the power trio was Julie Slick (bass) plus her brother Eric on drums?
Adrian: Yes, he was our drummer for the first four years – now for the last four years we’ve had Tobias Ralph who has worked out absolutely perfectly for us. We really love Tobias. Considering this band has done so much touring inside the US and all over the world we’ve really come together – you feel like these guys must have been playing as a trio forever cause that’s how it feels.
Doug: What should we expect for the new shows?
Adrian: We’ve changed the format for this tour – it’s pretty new and I’ve never done it before – there’s new music coming out on FLUX – it’s a music app – its music that is never the same twice. The music changes at a fairly rapid rate then is interrupted by other things and keeps moving in different ways changing constantly.
So we’ve applied that idea to these live performances. We’ve dug through my catalog and pulled out songs from among 14 records, all from different eras, but we don’t play the whole song most of the time, we’ll play a portion of it and just when you least expect it that will be interrupted by a sound or something called a “snippet” and then it will move into the next song. So in the show we do something like 30 songs and I sing 25 songs (laughs) so it’s a romp through my whole career.
Doug: How do you pick things for the set list like that – it must be hard to choose from so much work
Adrian: We have plans that over time we are going to build in mini sets – I look at them as blocks. Let’s say you might put 5 songs together and in between the songs there might be 4 or 5 things that cut the song off and then the next song starts immediately – maybe that’s 10 minutes long. What I want to do over time with the trio is build a lot of these blocks – we can shift them in and out of the show and get more and more material – Crimson, Bowie, Zappa, and tons of solo stuff – so much to choose from.
Doug: Set lists I’ve seen include a lot from your solo work and from King Crimson – ever thought of doing a show that’s just made up of songs from all the artists you’ve worked with?
Adrian: I could do that! What we do on this tour is we take a break for 15 minutes in the show. During that intermission, and before and after the show we play the other artists I’ve worked with– whether Crash Test Dummies or Paul Simon’s Graceland – it’s a good way to remind people of the whole picture.
Doug: I noticed Mr. Music Head (1989) was left out of the set – is it just too different given the piano driven songs?
Adrian: I’m going to find a way in the future to tackle those – maybe just having a keyboard beside me. So much of that record was written around the piano and there’s a reason why. I had bought a house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and it came with a piano – first time in my life I had one. That whole record was based on me just sitting there every day just figuring out the piano. So you’ve got a lot of songs like “Bad Days” and “Motor Bungalow” that really are piano songs – really difficult to play on guitar – I’ve got to play them on another tour!
Doug: It’s a big favorite including songs like “Peaceable Kingdom,” “Bad Day”, “Motor Bungalow” and others.
Adrian: I had played the piano before but never owned one so I could sit down gather my thoughts and compose with it, so it was really a thrill. I remember when I wrote the song “Bad Days,” I sat there and played that song 4 days in a row all day long – I was just fascinated that I’d finally written a piano song!
Doug: “Big Blue Sun” (from Inner Revolution (1992)) has that same sunny feel and I noticed it in an early set list.
Adrian: We tried that out but pulled it from the set– it’s very difficult to sing. I’ve got to be careful I don’t put too many difficult songs in the list because I realize our tour has a lot of shows. I’m singing 25 songs a night – it’s about as far as I could take it!
Doug: Another one I noticed on the list – “Men in Helicopters” (from Young Lions (1990)) – a big favorite – that one must be special to you.
Editor: the lyrics to this track are heartfelt and impactful:
Wouldn’t it be great
To see the African plains
Before they lay them to waste
And only the bones remain?
Adrian: It really is one of my personal favorites – once again a difficult one to sing so what were doing is just the first two verses of it. So its kind of nice I can go that far without exhausting my voice every night – you feel like you’ve heard the song – you’re reminded of it and it’s enough you know – its fun in that way. I miss having songs like that in our set, so the new approach is a way to do that.
Doug: Another early favorite is “The Rail Song” (from Twang Bar King)
Adrian: I’ve got to work that one out in the future – it’s a different guitar tuning – hard to switch guitars just for that song – but I will work that one out because it’s another perennial favorite for myself, and my wife likes that one a lot.
Doug: I was wondering about FLUX – you are using it for new material – are you adapting your earlier songs for it as well?
Adrian: If FLUX is accepted well enough and becomes a legitimate form, which I can continue – and I really hope that happens – I always thought there might be another version – like FLUX “classic.” That version would go back to the old catalog, to take it apart and put it back together in different ways. You would hear songs but they would sound different than they did originally. Here’s the thing about FLUX – you can do as many versions of the song as you want – you actually need to do that as it requires lots of content. I was thinking the other day how interesting it is that an artist does a song and that’s it – that’s the song –you can never hear it another way – that’s it’s only life. My idea is that in the future I’ll give all those songs a whole new dressing up – that might be a second version of FLUX.
Doug: And the FLUX platform includes visuals as well.
Adrian: There’s so much that can happen with the visual aspect to this. The original idea was only a musical one and I had that idea for several decades. But how to actually do it was eluding me, because there was no technical way to approach it. Once we decided that we could develop an app – that opened the door to the visuals – since you play it on your iPhone or iPad or Android and you don’t want to be looking at a blank screen. So that introduced a whole new set of variables into this that are very cool – we are loving it! I’m a visual artist – I think musically in visual terms as I write so now that we’ve got these interesting creative things going on, and they are as random as the music – it’s a confluence of events.
Doug: I’ve been collecting video content – lots on Youtube but also on media. You are in a lot of these shows – from Bowie 1978, and his Sound and Vision tour 1990 – to the Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and The Bears and Crimson of course – but is there video from your solo career hidden in a vault somewhere?
Adrian: No I don’t think so –most of the time if I worked in a video format we used any footage because it was costly. If you go out of your way to do something visual you want to use it. Nowadays of course its not expensive – everyone’s used to people filming and taking photos with iPhones. Back in the day with MTV I did not do many videos because they were costly. The “Big Electric Cat” video won an award for the effect they used – the filmmakers loved the song and tried out this new technique and it worked – that was very early days. But MTV turned out to be so huge and corporate it seemed to me that people who didn’t have a $200k budget were not allowed in the door – it left me out in the cold. Even if I had that kind of money I don’t know if I would want to do that – I would rather spend it on creating new music or playing music for someone.
Doug: Looking at the Kickstarter campaign for FLUX I noticed you offered to come to a contributor’s home to tell stories and play live – that sounded like an awesome offer –and no one took you up on it!
Adrian: As we looked at campaigns and things to do we decided to try it – I would have done it if it sold. I like my fans and I like to engage with them – going out and meeting and talking with them. The campaign went well though – we didn’t know what kind of goal to set – FLUX has cost a lot – the point of doing Kickstarter was more getting people to know about it. There are a lot of people out there who know Kickstarter but don’t know me – so in a sense it was more for that – we will utilize the money we made to improve FLUX and make it better.
Doug: Will you be offering the FLUX platform to other artists?
Adrian: Yeah that’s a possibility – its not something we’ve planned out – would love other people to take to it and enjoy it – it’s a great artistic platform. I don’t have a plan as to how that might happen but am hoping it does. I’ve always believed that the concept of FLUX – of things never repeating themselves – short random bursts – could be applied to other art forms – especially film – its already the way people make TV commercials somewhat – so my other hope is that this idea will spread into other areas. For me it requires a lot of content so its very time consuming – you can’t just take 10 songs and turn it into FLUX like you can a record. But for people who are prolific or have a lot of ideas or people who have an ADD approach to their creativity or people who have a large catalog – any of those types of situations – if you have a lot of information then FLUX is a wonderful way to present it.
Doug: Okay, last one is a King Crimson question – we saw the new incarnation of the band recently. The new group played a lot of older tracks besides the 2-3 songs you guys used to play since 1980. Back then was it Robert who did not want to go deep and play much off the 1970’s albums – or was that your position as well?
Adrian: I was a huge fan of all the early music but I was a champion of “new” so I was with Robert on that in the sense that it was a very different band with completely different vocabularies so it didn’t seem right to me to be going back and playing “In the Court of the Crimson King” or something like that. I think now that’s what he wants to be doing so he’s gone back to that period and it makes sense that I’m not a part of it because I wasn’t a part of it then. So when he told me about it I said, well if you’re not doing the music that I was a part of or wrote or co-wrote then I have no bone with any of it. If you’re doing more of the later music though then I think I should be there. In a sense he made the determination to go back to the beginning – I heard good things about it so am happy it all worked out.
Adrian’s tour winds it’s way through the U.S. this year. A few nights after this discussion, we caught up with the tour in San Francisco at the Chapel Theater, on November 12, 2014.
The show was astounding – powerful and exciting as promised. Adrian did in fact “romp” through his catalog, playing the style that will be served up by his FLUX platform. Songs would begin and end with transitions to and from other songs –or sometimes to a snippet of sound – be it random distortion, animal noises, or a bridge to the next track. As an example, Adrian led into the song “Elephant Talk” at the fourth verse “Debates, discussions, these are words with a D this time.” After that verse, one chorus and a solo, Adrian switched to the next track within the “block.” Most of the show consisted of these blocks – song snippets and interludes, though several tracks were played in their seemingly complete form, such as “Indiscipline” which allowed drummer Tobias Ralph a ripping solo prior to the first verse. It was a completely unique way to create a set list – covering a lot of history – and managing to give one the satisfaction of hearing so many favorites.
Of course, the playing itself was terrific. Adrian incorporated his trademark techniques, and his voice is undiminished. Julie stood out on several tracks, with rapid, dexterous moves and attitude. Tobias was just amazing – very often creating a fuller sound than the original tracks with dense fills on a musically tuned kit. And as promised, before and after the show, and during the intermission, we heard recordings from most of the artists who have collaborated with Adrian over the years – a welcome soundtrack as we anticipated the opportunity to catch this artist at work.