Adrian Belew Feels Like He Could Do Anything
As a drummer and singer with a teen band that played “all the early ’60s music,” singer-guitarist Adrian Belew says he could hear songs in his head. But he didn’t know to do with them. So when he caught mono and had to stay home, he taught himself to play guitar. After making the most of a bad situation, Belew has gone on to become a noted producer, multi-instrumentalist and singer. Over the course of several decades, he’s released 20 solo albums and worked with such acts as Paul Simon, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson and Nine Inch Nails. We recently phoned him as he was driving to a gig in Buffalo.
I know you’re probably sick of telling this story but how the hell did Frank Zappa wind up see you performing at a Nashville club?
He was playing a concert in Nashville. After the show, he wanted to go somewhere to see someone play, which was something he did frequently with the hopes of finding someone he might be able to bring into his band. He had a chauffeur who told him the best rock band in town was ours and brought him to our show. He didn’t talk to me because I was still playing but he shook my hand and he said he would get my name and number from the chauffer and call me when his tour was over. I was playing guitar with a band called Sweetheart. They were a good cover band.
I remember hearing you do an imitation of Bob Dylan on the Zappa song “Flakes.” What’s the story behind that?
I didn’t do it in the studio. Everything I did on the record was live. I was staying at his house one night. He showed me this song and it sounded like a bad folk song. I was joking around and started singing it like Bob Dylan might. He said, “That’s it; that goes in the show.”
As a guitarist, did you set out to find a specific sound?
There was a time in the middle ’70s when I knew how to play different styles and I could emulate lots of different players. Then, instead of imitating them, I decided that I should break my own habits and I would try to insert something of my own invention. The first couple of things that people seemed to like were things where I would make sounds with my guitar like a car horn or a seagull. I thought it was kind of fun for the audience.
You seem to have an interest in animal sounds.
I have always been interested in sound period regardless of what the source is. You start out by making an elephant sound . . . it’s not that hard to do to be honest. Over the years, I’ve added so much to my vocabulary. I feel like I could do anything now. I did one whole record that was nothing but orchestral sounds for example. It’s a great instrument for orchestration. You can change the sounds so drastically that I feel like it can cover a lot of territory.
Has the technology changed?
It’s changing all the time everyday. It’s gone through an amazing facelift since I began. I’ve watched it all and been part of it all. I like technology because it allows me to create something I couldn’t do before. I find it inspiring.
Did you start playing with effects pedals from the beginning?
When I first started, there weren’t any pedals. If you had an amp and a guitar, that was about it. Soon after, there were stompboxes that people could buy. When I joined Frank’s band, I only had two or three pedals. When I first toured with Bowie, I expanded to about seven. Eventually, I had thousands.
Touring with David Bowie in 1980 must have been really magical.
It was pretty eye-opening to be in his company. He was a superstar, so everywhere you went, you were traveling in that stratosphere of famous people. The the second time I toured with him, I felt better about it. That was in 1990. I had developed my own name a little bit. We could approach it as peers and friends and it was a much longer tour. Once I got to be his friend, it was amazing because he was an amazing guy. He was very smart and interested in lots of different things. He was very curious and a great conversationalist and very funny. I enjoyed being around him. We had a lot of time on that tour to go to museums and dinners and book stores and so forth. Like him, I’m a big reader. I’m self-taught at everything I’ve ever done. My wife says I’m the most knowledgeable person she knows that’s self-taught but she also says that I have an incredible amount of useless information in my brain.
I really liked those albums you did with King Crimson. What was it like to work with the band at that time?
It was my first opportunity to be doing all the things I had groomed myself for. I was the singer and lyricist and frontman, so it was a big leap forward for me. It came at the same time I started making my solo records as well. It was when I was finally able to burst forth and show my creativity rather than being a sideman. It was hard because that music isn’t easy. Writing and singing it is complicated. Playing it is complicated, but I loved every minute of it. It’s a great band and we got lots of attention for being so different.
What has it been like to sustain a solo career?
I’ve got 20 solo records right now, not including the stuff being done with the new app I have called FLUX:FX. We are putting that on CD right. We have One and Two already available and Volume Three is coming out in a week. It’s what you think. When it’s your solo music, it’s your baby. You have all the control and say over it. I play everything and do everything for it. It’s a personalized statement. When you’re in a band, that’s a different form.
What is the set list like for these gigs?
We have a little bit touching on David Bowie, since I just did some stuff in memory of him. We do a lot of solo material and eight or nine things from King Crimson. It’s a power trio. Julie Slick is my bassist for nine years and she wows people everywhere she goes. Tobias Ralph, my drummer for the past six years, is so good that in South America they call him the human hummingbird because he drums so fast. We’ve traveled around the world together many times. It’s a great show and we have a great opener who is a friend of mine. His name is Saul Zonana. I’ve worked with him on several records. We have a lot of fun. The shows are very powerful but they’re also a lot of fun.