Adrian Belew: A Musician In Flux

By Roy Rahl

Adrian Belew is a universe unto himself. He is a fascinating person. Discovered by none other than the great Frank Zappa, Belew has spent a lifetime performing with some of the greatest musicians in the modern era. Along with Zappa, his resume includes David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Nine Inch Nails to name a few. Oh, and he’s also played for “that other band” known as King Crimson!

His current venture, The Adrian Belew Power Trio, has embarked upon an extensive tour with stops in forty states. Classic Rock Revisited was able to spend some time with Adrian during the last few days of rehearsal. He was in good spirits and was excited about getting on the road. It was a pleasure to spend some time this true musical genius. He is open about his past and about what lies ahead. He also gives a taste of a little somethin’ interesting known as Flux.


Roy: You have an extensive tour coming up with the Adrian Belew Power Trio. The sheer number of the performances in that time frame is pretty intense. How are you going to keep up the energy?

Adrian: I’ll let you know! [Laughs] I see that this is going to be probably one of the tougher tours that we’ve done in a long time. You know, I don’t book the tours; I just go and do what they ask me to do. [Laughs] I believe there’s kind of something to do about being creative and playing music that kind of gives me a younger feeling. I never have for a moment felt my age, ever. I still feel like a pretty young guy. It is hard though. There’ll be a lot of travel involved and not much time to rest. But we just plow right through it and have fun. That’s the other thing about it, because it’s a band that I love playing with and I love our shows. That makes it a little easier.

Roy: Out of my own greed I’d like to request that you add just one more date here in Las Vegas.

Adrian: [Laughs] Well, I would love to come to Las Vegas but I guess we’ll have to tie that one into the next tour. Sadly, we didn’t. Even with this many dates and this much coverage there’s a lot of places that got left out of the picture. In particular, we’re not doing anything in Texas and Florida and a lot of people are on my Facebook page complaining. But you can only do so much at a time. We’ll be back.

Roy: It has to be an interesting transition stepping from a Crimson ProjeKCt tour into a Power Trio tour.

Adrian: Well, you know, we’ve been doing Crimson ProjeKCt now internationally for the last couple of touring seasons, the last couple of years. And in the Crimson ProjeKCt the Power Trio does play on its own, but not very often. The real emphasis is the six piece double trio playing King Crimson material throughout the night. It’s almost a two and a half to three hour show anyway. So we’re kind of really anxious to get out and do our own thing again. Of course, we love the Crimson ProjeKCt. But we hadn’t been through the States and Canada now, it’s hard to believe this, but for three years because we’ve done so much international touring. And we realized, Oh! You know it’s been three years. We need to get back and play for our people!

Roy: How are the audiences different on an international tour versus the States? Do you notice a difference in their reaction?

Adrian: Sure. Everywhere it’s different. It’s very different. You can typify some of them. Japanese audiences are a little more sedate throughout the concert and then they go crazy at the end. South American audiences go absolutely crazy the whole time! It’s different from country to country. You kind of learn that; and you kind of know a little bit of what to expect. So you just keep the energy going and you keep responding in the way that they throw at you. But it’s really fun when you go and some of these audiences are super excited.

I’ll tell you, American audiences are somewhere in between. They’re very excited and they show a lot of response. So, that’s all you want. You want to look out and make sure and have that feeling, that wave of appreciation coming back over you. It makes me play better.

Roy: You want to get that energy back and know they’re responding to you.

Adrian: We’re lucky. Everywhere we go we have that. So, I don’t think there’s ever been a time in recent years where we’ve had a concert where I felt like we were having to pull teeth! [Laughs] People are there because they want to be.

Roy: I saw on your Facebook page where you asked fans to send you the top ten songs that they wanted to hear on the tour. How many made the set list?

Adrian: Well, quite a few of them made the list before I even asked those questions. It wasn’t really to make a list from. It was just for information. There are always a couple songs that just won't lend themselves well to trio format for one reason or another. For example, some of the songs that I write on piano. Since I don’t carry a piano and don’t play piano live very often - I’m not very good at it! [Laughs] That kind of rules a few of those out. Most of the ones that were there were already things we were either thinking of doing or hoping to do. There were a couple surprises in there for me. To see “City Of Tiny Lights”, for example, from Frank Zappa. That kind of surprised me because I thought people would just request songs that I wrote. But that is a great song and, of course, a very important one for my career. So, we’re looking at it. We haven’t learned it yet, but we’re thinking about it.

Roy: A lot of those songs are Crimson tunes. When you perform those songs on the Crimson ProjeKCt tour I would think there’s kind of an expectation in some way to keep those songs reasonably consistent with the studio recording. With the Power Trio it would seem that expectation is not there. You’re going to perform it in an entirely different mode. That change up has to be interesting.

Adrian: Yeah, that’s something that’s always existed. When we went about learning Crimson material with the Power Trio I knew that there would be certain pieces that would really be out of line to play, that really require more parts, especially some of the six piece stuff. But I think we’ve done well with it. I think we’ve chosen the six, seven, or eight songs from the Crimson catalog that we figured we could do something unique to, and they always get a great response. On this tour I’m trying to cut back a little bit on how much Crimson material I do because I’m trying to load in a lot of solo material. Not necessarily new material, but material that we haven’t played either ever or for a long, long time.

So this show will be a little more solo material heavy, I think. And I’m developing this plan that’s in keeping with this new music that I’m putting out in November called Flux Music that is never the same twice. The concept of which is the music is truncated. You don’t necessarily play the entire five minute arrangement; you play a portion of it and it’s interrupted by something else. We’re going to do a little bit of that in a live show version, because it’s cool! It’s different, and you can get a lot more songs in a set by doing that. I think this set is going to to end up having about twenty, twenty-five or thirty songs! [Laughs]

Roy: That’s a large set list!

Adrian: It is. But since you don’t play all of them all the way through - some of them you do, some of them you don’t. We haven’t timed it so I can’t say for sure. We’re two days away from finalizing what we’re going to actually do in our show.

Roy: Can you elaborate a little more on Flux?

Adrian: Sure. I’d say if anyone really wants to know a lot about it you should probably go to the Kickstarter campaign that we have up and look for Flux music that is never the same twice. It’s in the technology department under Apps. In fact, I think it’s a featured one. We made a nice video where we put in tons of information about every bit of it.

In general, it’s a new music app. I’ve been working on it for going on five years now. It has hundreds of pieces of music and songs, sounds and sound effects, and common ordinary things that happen every day all mixed together in a randomized way. So, the music changes frequently. It’s interrupted by things that we call snippets. And those things can be anywhere from one second to, say, sixteen, seventeen seconds long. They’re meant to just come out of the blue and sort of surprise you. So you’ll be listening to a portion of a song and all of a sudden it’ll turn into something else entirely. And then that’ll turn into the next thing. It’s pretty quick paced that way.

For that reason it never repeats itself. You do hear the songs over again, over time. Sometimes you even hear the complete song. But most of the time you’re hearing portions of different things. And, because there’s hundreds of bits like that, it makes for a unique experience. It plays for a half an hour, or so, each time that you play it. Each time it’s a different experience. It’s accompanied by visuals that always are changing as well. So every time you look at and hear Flux, like I say, it’s never going to be the same as any other time.

I think it really fits well with the way that people get information now. The Internet has kind of changed the way our brains are. We’re used to getting things in quick, random bursts. That’s what this is. This is the musical version of that. It’s all new songs and new pieces of music. It’s lots of stuff. I’ve been working on it for a very long time. It will be at first for iPad and iPhone but hopefully eventually for Android as well. The one last thing I would point out about it that makes it really different from anything else is that it’s never finished. I can continue to add to it anytime I want.

It’s something I’ve always wanted because I get bored easily. For fifty or sixty years now the basic format for music has been you write a verse and a chorus and then you write a second verse and then a third verse. By the end you’ve heard the verses and the choruses three or four times. For me, by the time I’ve heard the chorus and the verse once I kind of get it and I’m ready to hear the next thing. That’s what Flux is. Short attention span! That’s the name of the game here in our world these days! [Laughs]

Roy: Maybe you should’ve called it ADD!

Adrian: Yeah, it’s ADD music!

Roy: When composing new material, which typically comes first for you - the idea that requires specific technology, like an effect or a patch, to make into a song? Do you hear that in your head? Or does the technology itself provide the inspiration to form the song?

Adrian: It’s both. There have been times when I’ve had something I’ve wanted to hear and I’ve had to figure out how to make that happen. A good example is from my very first record that I ever did of my own, Lone Rhino. I wanted to figure out how to make the guitar emulate what I think a rhino might sound like. [Laughs] And that just took some real scientific investigation for me as to what could you do to get a sound that would kind of feel like something snorting and would have some kind of weight to it and a little bit of anger perhaps, even.

Most often though, I think it’s the other way around. Most often I think it’s the technology that’s provided first. I dig in and I figure out stuff to do with it; and that inspires me. And I’ve said this all my life. Really, technology has been one of my biggest inspirations because it’s always prompted me to do something I couldn’t do before. So as soon as I have a new sound or a new technique that I didn’t have before it almost always creates a place for some new music.

Roy: I’m a very amateur guitarist. I enjoy playing in some of the alternate tunings, but I play in the common ones, the Dropped D and the Bottleneck type stuff. I’ve noticed that some of the tunings you use are way out there! How do you discover these tunings and how do you figure out how they can be used for composition?

Adrian: Well, one of the things that happens, of course, even with someone who plays music all the time professionally is you hit a point where you realize you’re doing habitual things. And so to shake it up, once again this is something that really helps me a lot, like technology; I’ll just tune the guitar a little differently. It doesn’t have to be a radical tuning. In fact, I prefer that it’s not. I prefer that you just tune maybe one string down and one string up and that’s it. You leave it at that. But what happens then is when you play what you normally would play it’s completely different. So it’s almost like starting all over again. You have to find new chord shapes and you have to find new finger positions and you have to figure it out again, which I really like. In doing that, then I find some sounds and some chord phrases and things that start my creative juices. Then before I know it I’ll have five new songs in that particular tuning! [Laughs]

All the tunings don’t work. So you have to fiddle with them a bit. I try to just do it a little bit; not all the time. Because it’s just another device for me to creatively shake myself up a bit. Like, sometimes I’ll sit at the piano and play a song, try to write a song. And as I said I’m not a trained pianist. So what I come up with is very different than anything else I would come up with on guitar where I kind of know what I’m doing. And it’s the same with tunings, you know. So every now and then I’ll be fooling around and I’ll find something and it will lead me down the trail of a whole bunch of new things. The most recent tuning I discovered for myself I think I wrote about six songs with it, so there you go. It’s worth it. It’s free!

Roy: Wow. To be able to come up with that volume of music - it’s pretty impressive!

Adrian: Well I just work at it a lot. I mean, once I find something I like then I can try a lot of things with it. I mean, after all, look at all the songs that have been written with the standard tuning.

Roy: That’s true. As someone with your talents who has spent a lifetime in music, what kind of advice can you give to young guitarists about their future in the industry?

Adrian: Well, I think these days more than any other time in the business side of music it’s a do-it-yourself business. So it’s really all on you to build up your audience, to play live, to get out there and spread the word. Social networking is extremely important to get the word out. I’ve always advised on the musical level to find the things that you like. Learn all about them, digest them, absorb them, and then find your own way in all of that. Try to move away from it and find something of your own if you can. That’s a true test right there.

When I was young I learned everything that I liked the sound of. Anything. I didn’t matter what kind of music or even what instrument it was, I would try to learn how to do it. And then at some point you take that information, you have the mechanicals of your instrument a little more under control and you say, “okay, now what can I do with this information?” Re-synthesize it; do something with it to make it more to my taste, more my music.

That’s the musical side. The business side I think is what’s so important now. It’s very important to play live. That’s where you can still make money on any level in the music business. That’s one thing they still haven’t figured out how to steal from you. [Laughs] It’s very important I think to invest in yourself. Whatever you do in music. Whatever time or effort or money you can get from it you should put it right back into what you’re doing. Don’t live beyond your means and think, oh wow, you’ve made it big or whatever.

That advice came to me from my first real mentor who was Frank Zappa. And it served him well and I’ve always lived by that. So, eventually over time after I had made a few records rather than taking the record budgets that existed then and going into someone else’s studio I invested in my own, and I’ve had my own studio in my home now for over twenty years. So that’s a good way to invest in yourself. Set yourself up to a position where you can be creative and afford it at the same time. That’s just one example, but that’s what I think. This is the age where you have to promote yourself; you have to get out there and put all the shows and things together and do all of the stuff that has to be done. It’ll pretty much be done by you and whoever you’re working with.

Unless you’re a big star. A big star still can tap into that machinery that exists for some people. You know, record labels and promotion machines and stuff. But that really doesn’t happen for very many artists if you look at the whole picture. It’s for the reserved few who just happen to have some sort of mass appeal.

Roy: That’s good advice. Many young artists just believe “I’m a great guitarist” ... and some do have incredible talent. But nobody’s heard them yet. They have to do something in order to get heard.

Adrian: Well, you know it’s not all about talent or your abilities. I wish it were. I wish it was graded on that scale. It’s just simply not. It’s not about that as much as it is about a certain portion of luck, also a whole lot of hard work. And as we were saying a whole lot of getting out there and letting people know how great you are and what you’re doing. So it’s not automatic in any way. It never has been. It’s a hard thing because more and more people are shooting for the same target.

I don’t want to discourage anyone but I know a lot of talented players who never get beyond a certain point. They can’t seem to make that ... and I never have been able to discern what is “that”? Because at one point I was twenty-seven years old and, you know, starving and three months behind on my rent and didn’t think anyone in the world would ever discover what I could do. Then Frank Zappa came along and that changed for me. But that’s not the way it changes for everybody. So, I know the feeling of waiting in the line to get your chance, but you just have to believe in yourself and continue to work hard at it.

Roy: I first saw you perform, it was either at the Hollywood Bowl or the Greek Theatre, during the Three of a Perfect Pair tour.

Adrian: That would have been the Greek Theatre, I think. A nice place to play.

Roy: How is the musician Adrian Belew different now from the musician I saw back then?

Adrian: Well, probably older and stupider! [Laughs] Not necessarily wiser. You know, I’m a believer that if you’re working on something all the time throughout your life you’re going to get pretty good at it. So, I would say now, at this point in my life I feel secure that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind on musically. I have enough experience, studio time, knowledge, ability and control over what I do that I can make that statement. Back then I would say I was just starting to get into the surf and starting to ride the wave and see what happens there. But over time you learn a lot of things. You have so many great experiences and maybe even a few bad learning experiences thrown in there. That’s life. And then one day you wake up and you realize, well, you know, I like where I am and I can do what I want to do now. And that’s a great place to be. So that’s kind of where I find myself now days. It’s not that it’s easy; it’s not always easy, of course. Going and doing a forty state tour will never be easy! But I feel like it’s where I belong and I know what it’s supposed to be, and I know how to do it and I’m comfortable at it.

I guess years ago, in the eighties when I first started with King Crimson, Talking Heads and David Bowie and all those wonderful experiences, that was still my schooling. Now what I’m doing is kind of trying to pass on what I’ve learned and what I can do.

Roy: What can you tell me about the other two-thirds of the Power Trio?

Adrian: Julie Slick is my bass player. She’s been my bass player now for eight years in the Power Trio. I discovered her and her younger brother who is a drummer, his name is Eric, when they were twenty and nineteen respectively; literally just out of music school. I took them kind of as my trio and began going around the world and we created what we have now. Eric left the band about three of four years ago and we brought in Tobias Ralph, a drummer from New York City, who’s very, very suitable to the band. He fits perfectly. I think both of them are excellent musicians, great people. They’ve now traveled around the world with me. They’re very seasoned. They have great tastes in their ability. What they can do with what they choose to play impresses me.

I see a lot of musicians who have really good chops, etc, all that stuff. But they don’t always use them tastefully. They overuse them. For example, a lot of drummers are great technicians but they’re not necessarily great musicians in their understanding of where to play what and why you’re playing that or choosing not to play something. Tobias is not one of those. He’s one of the drummers that could play anything he wants to play. He’s got incredible technique. But he plays the right things. And that’s what I love about him as a drummer. Because I started as a drummer so I know a lot about drumming. I still play a lot now, and drummers usually fall into those two categories: There’s guys with taste and there’s guys with chops. And then there’s a third category, guys who have all the chops and taste. And they become people like Bill Bruford or someone like that who I’ve always admired. Tobias is in that category.

Julie I think is truly a rare commodity. Coming almost right out of the gate she had her own technique, her own style. Not so much a technique, it’s every technique. The way she approaches bass is such just so unique and it fits very well with all the music that I create or have been part of. She grew up listening to Zappa and King Crimson and that was her learning curve. And she turned it into her very own style. That’s kind of cool a young girl up there just raging away on bass guitar!

Roy: It does seem like you have a lot of fun on these tours.

Adrian: Yeah, this is fun for us. It’s hard work, but underneath it all we really enjoy being together. We love our audience. We love playing the shows. So the travel goes by. It’s fine. We basically drive ourselves everywhere and we just have fun doing it, you know. It’s a small little affair, just the three of us in a van! And yet, when we get to the shows it really becomes kind of bigger than life itself. Everything is just amazing and I’m really looking forward to it.

Roy: You are one of the more interesting people on Facebook. You seem to really enjoy reaching out to your fans.

Adrian: Well it’s new to me. I got in late. I avoided it as long as I could. Not really because of any particular reason other than I just didn’t have time to absorb myself in one more thing. I’m pretty busy. But once I started doing it I really love the feedback and the relationship you can develop with people. Just knowing what people think. It’s another creative outlet, in a way.

I think it’s really important to the way we live today. Ten years ago this obviously didn’t exist and you wouldn’t even worry about it. But now I think as a professional artist you’re supposed to inform your fans, engage your fans. I’ve always liked doing that. I’m not one of those guys who likes to sit in gilded tower and just pretend that I’m better than everyone else. I like to be with the people. I like to know what they’re into. I love my audience; I think they’re great people, from all walks of life and all ages. It’s like having a big friendship with the world! [Laughs]