Something Else! Interview: Adrian Belew, of King Crimson


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Adrian Belew, at work these days a classical reformulation of his well-received 2009 trio project e, admits that he's unsure when King Crimson will reform. “No word right now," he says of the group, led since its late 1960s inception by Robert Fripp. “We're just waiting on a word of encouragement from dear Robert."

It's not like he's been sitting idly by. Belew, who's also worked as a sideman with the Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie, has just finished mastering 'e' for Orchestra—something that he describes as a dream project. Done with the Metropole Orchestra of Amsterdam in February, the album is set for release later this summer.

He joined us for an SER Sitdown to discuss the new record, King Crimson, an early-career stint alongside Frank Zappa and his ever-restless muse ...

Nick DeRiso: There was this funky undertone to e, a canny update of the modern prog-rock vibe you helped establish with the rejuvenated King Crimson.

Adrian Belew: It really is based on a lot of the principles that exist in King Crimson. But even though we utilized a lot of the Crimson tools, we were trying to make a record that would demonstrate musically what the trio could do. I wrote it for three years and the whole time I was thinking: 'This will foil them. This will be difficult.' But at the same time, I kept writing it as an orchestral piece. I kept hoping that maybe somebody will play this as an orchestral piece—maybe after I am dead and gone. It's so rare. Even Frank Zappa, a huge modern composer, rarely got it done. It's so expensive. But then I mentioned it on my website, and the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam called. So my dream came true. I am thoroughly pleased with the Power Trio—Eric and Julie (Slick) did exactly what I wanted—but the orchestral version, that's the way that it was in my mind. It's radically different, in some ways. Of course, with the trio we could only play three of the parts that I was hearing. I do 16 different loops, so sometimes there is a layer of other parts—but now the other parts that were left out are there. The orchestral version is a completely a different thing. You get to hear an elaboration of all of those themes as I first heard them in my head. I can't wait for everyone to get that record.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Digging into five old favorites from Adrian Belew, with King Crimson, the Bears and as a solo artist.]

DeRiso: This isn't your first work in avant-garde contemporary classical music. It's something that dates back to 1986's Desire Caught by the Tail and 1997's Guitar as Orchestra. How long do you plan to stick with the concept?

Belew: I realize that there may be no continuance. I'm hoping there will be others; but it's so expensive. To put on the one we did, 'e' for Orchestra cost a quarter million dollars. The performance was funded by the Dutch government, and the largest broadcasting company there. How often will that happen? I've done that, and I'm pleased with the results, but meanwhile I have had to come back to earth. So what I have been doing in the last month or two is sitting down and writing songs with an acoustic guitar—because I can do that alone. I can write songs and crazy musical pieces and all of the connecting bits. We'll have to wait to see what happens with the future of Adrian Belew and an orchestra. I like the variety, and that has given me longevity. At the same time, it might be why I haven't had more commercial success. It's been hard to categorize me. I like being eclectic—and electric. (Laughs.)

DeRiso: Describe what it was like as a student in the Frank Zappa School of Rock.

Belew: I was completely self taught. I figured it all out on my own, and mostly got it all wrong—until I was under his tutelage for a year. The three-month rehearsal period that we had before we ever set foot on stage was crucial. I got all the tools I would need and learned so many other things. I loved watching him arrange his music; he could arrange five different ways. He was the first guy who showed me how to play in odd time signatures, which turned out to be very important to my career. Once Frank gave me some key pointers there, that led me later into writing all that stuff with King Crimson. I don't know how I would have done that. I was only there for less than a year, but I learned a lot of about how to be a professional musician. All of that was crammed into that 10- or 11-month period. I owe a lot to Frank.

DeRiso: As unorthodox as your guitar playing style can be, I've been consistently intrigued by your ability to remain accessible.

Belew: I was brought up on pop music, Motown, the Beatles—and I loved all of that. That was the stuff you heard on the radio. At the same time, I always had an interest in odd things, movies soundtracks and Stravinsky, things that had nothing to do with rock. When I graduated into being a guitarist, I tried to give myself a real broad education. I learned how to finger pick from Chet Atkins records, learned how to play blues and jazz—all while listening to the current rock stuff, like Jeff Beck. Then, I tried to forget it all. (Laughs.) OK, I can sound like all of these guys. What do I do that's my own?

DeRiso: That sound has taken dramatic turns over the years with the introduction of new technology. Do you find yourself writing specifically for certain pieces of equipment, a favorite amp or the whammy bar?

Belew: In many case the sounds come first, then the music followed. I wrote 'Lone Rhinoceros' in the middle of the night while staying at David Bowie's house. I had no guitar, so I had to memorize it in my head. When I finally got around to working it out on guitar, I realized that I needed this sound—this snorting, charging beat—to come tearing off the record. I only had a few pieces of gear to work with, so I went in and did some quick tweaks, and then I did it in one take. There are always new things to try, and I have always tried to get the most out of what I have. Every five years or so, I still have to reinvent my guitar stuff. I undo it all and start fresh—then I have to figure out what I have to do to make the old sounds. I used to have a circle of pedals; now it just a computer. There is very little gear with me now. Some of that was predicated by traveling around world. Lately, you just can't take much with you. It's too expensive, it can be damaged, it doesn't show up. It finally dawned on me that I couldn't keep carrying that much gear around, so I downsized into something very new, something very sophisticated. There's not much you can't do with it.

DeRiso: How far back does this fascination with sound go?

Belew: I always had an ear for sounds. Even when I was kid, one of my favorite things was Mel Blanc's sounds on all of those old cartoons. I always analyzed sounds, wondering whether I was able to do that on a guitar. How do you make it sound like a bird or a car? I think what helped was that the technology came along at the same time. For instance, when the guitar synth came out, there was a whole new range of timbre that was now available. Suddenly I could say, how do I make a clarinet sound? You find out, in the end, there are many different articulations. I learned from all of those things. Once I would get a sound, I would study it. The most interesting stuff was the stuff that had no predecessor. That's what has inspired me the most as a songwriter, when I come up with a sound that nobody else has come up with. Then I think: 'I have to find a home for this.' That's been the genesis for so many things.

[ADRIAN BELEW IN CONCERT: Our thoughts on a Power Trio performance from 2008, highlighted by a brilliant take on “A Little Madness."]

DeRiso: You were able to help resuscitate the King Crimson brand, with 1981's Discipline, an album that retooled the group's core prog-rock vibe with a modern sheen. It didn't seem, at first, like the best fit—since founder Robert Fripp is a noted guitarist himself.

Belew: That was one of the ideas, especially in Robert's mind, to carry on the musical legacy but with a whole new brand of music. Each of us had new toys that no one else was using like the stick, and the guitar synth. I really felt like we ended up making something fresh that didn't sound like anything else.

DeRiso: King Crimson hasn't released a new album of band material since 2003, though various combinations of band members continue to record under the ProjeKCt moniker. Are there plans to go back into the studio again?

Belew: You never know. He might form a new band without me. (Laughs.) My relationship with Robert is, of course, the center of all the Crimson work I've done. When he's ready, I'll give it another shot. Until then, I've got my plate full. No sooner than I put out 'e' for Orchestra, I am already working on a new solo record. My plate is always full. I hope, somewhere down the line, Robert says: 'Let's do it some more.' But I can't wait around for that. I'm still writing songs like a kid. I sat down and wrote about 20 songs recently. Despite the lack of commercial success, I love the music I've made. I'm very happy with all of the music and all of the collaborations. I still have all of that in front of me. I feel like I could do this forever.

[TOMORROW: Adrian Belew takes over our One Track Mind feature, discussing King Crimson's “Thrak," the solo novelty hit “Oh Daddy" and his underrated work with the Bears.]

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