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Interview: Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew has come a long way from playing in a marching band in Covington, Kentucky to touring globally, stints with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, King Crimson, The Bears, and a long solo career. He recently released his 25th solo record, Elevator, which he calls one of his best. Through it all, he’s been able to meld his love of sound, curiosity and technical virtuosity to create a unique guitar voice that is instantly recognizable. CincyMusic caught up with him as he was wrapping up rehearsals and preparing to hit the road in what he calls a unique experience to catch him at his best. As Belew himself says, even if you’ve seen him before, you haven’t seen him like this, so don’t pass up this chance to catch him live at the Ludlow Garage.

CincyMusic: How are you doing today?

Adrian Belew: Very good. I'm ending up my week of rehearsals with the newer power trio. And I'm really happy [laughs].

Very cool. Yeah, we’re excited to have you coming back to your birthplace soon. Ish, I guess. I live in Clifton. I know Cincinnatians can get a little picky around neighborhoods, but it's all Cincy.

Oh wow, so you get to go to Skyline chili all the time then, right [laughs]?

Yeah, I live about three blocks from Ludlow Garage and Skyline Chili, so I’m a happy boy.

[Laughs] I know exactly where you live then. Exactly which building, I’ve been there all my life.

It’s an honor to talk to you. I got an email the other day from Cameo because I've used that service in the past for some shout outs, and I clicked through, and I was looking through all the folks available and I was really surprised to see you on there. And I went through and looked at some of your videos, and I thought they were really delightful. There was a nice one where- it might have been your first one- for somebody's birthday, and you're walking through all your effects pedals, and you're just, it seemed like you were having a blast.

I just started doing that; I haven't even announced it.

Oh, wow.

That's because I'm in a busy period here getting ready for the tour. But probably by the end of this month [June], I'll be announcing it. And I want to see if I can get some people coming over for Father's Day. I mean, it's easy and simple. I enjoy it. I'm a people person, so…[laughs].

Yeah, they were a lot of fun. And hopefully, that'll be a nice kind of thing you can do in between touring and practicing.

I think I can do it while I'm on tour, because it's pretty simple. You just put a cell phone in front of me and I'll say the right things, hopefully [laughs].

If not, you can you can edit it [laughs].

Yeah, or do it again [laughs].

I was really fascinated about you walking through your gear and talking about how some of it, you haven't really kind of strayed from the platform, because you've done a lot of work, I guess, writing programs for it. So, I just found that fascinating that, you know, you kind of came up in an era where computers were in their infancy, and now you've got this really cool technology where you actually learn to program and bend it to your will. How did all that kind of curiosity in tech- I gotta believe it's a little bit of tech savviness that maybe not the average guitar player has. I mean, there's guitar playing and then there’s the technology end.

Well, first of all I'm really not that tech-savvy, but I just work with the things until I can squeeze something out of them that, you know, maybe they’re not supposed to do or something that's new to my ears. And then that stuff inspires me to do songwriting, which includes whatever those techniques or, you know, sounds are. So, it's actually been throughout my life, I've gone along with the flow of it. And it's really created a lot of new material in my mind as I've gone because when I find something new I can do on guitar that I haven't heard someone else do, that's a very good impetus to write something. And hundreds and hundreds of hours of doing it over a lifetime. I look back and I go, “Wow, if I had all those hours back, I’d have another couple of years [laughs].”

But it’s years spent well because I enjoy sound. That's where it came from in the first place. You know, as a little kid sounds fascinated me, sounds around me. And I loved so much things to do with sounds I got really good at imitating sounds as a kid. You know, I could make sounds, you know, Bugs Bunny sounds and all those characters and everything. You know, I've just always really been interested in the sound of things. So, when guitar and music technology in general started opening up like that I was right there at the beginning.

Which must have been thrilling. I was in Berlin a few years ago and I went to Hansa Studios, where Bowie recorded Heroes and they were walking through the techniques and then [we toured] that big ballroom and how they set up the mics and how the mics were gated and all this stuff. And I read about how Robert Fripp had done the guitar parts and they said, “Look, just do the parts and we’ll piece them together” and they magically worked [Fripp recorded three separate tracks without knowing how they would be combined and they were composited on the final track]. But then when you were tapped to tour with Bowie and to play those songs, I read the story that you didn't know there were three [guitar] parts [combined together], [and that] it was impossible to play. So, you just learned it.

Yeah, they laughed at me one day in the studio about that. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp and Tony Visconti were sitting there and I came in the room and they were laughing. I said, “What are you laughing about?” They said, “Well, you know, this was the technique we used. And you know, you didn't know it was impossible, you were so stupid, you didn't know you couldn't play and so you just did.” [Laughs] But I had a similar situation when I did my first record with David which was the Lodger record which followed that series of records that you're talking about at Hansa studio. They did the same thing to me they put me in a room by myself and said, “Okay, we're gonna play you a song and hear the click now just play when it starts.”

[Laughs]

And I say, “Can I hear the song first? “

“No.”

“What key is it in?”

“No. We just want to get your reaction.”

So that's how all the stuff that I did on the stage and on the Lodger record worked out. Same thing- compiling, going through and go, wow, this accidental thing he did, right here, it was perfect, but he didn't know what he was doing. That's what's beautiful about it [laughs].

Well, that's phenomenal.

And I had to go back and learn all that stuff too, by the way, my own stuff.

Oh, right. Because they cut it up and kind of reconfigured it.

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been doing these “Celebrating David Bowie” shows, we’re doing another one throughout October and November. And that's with me and Todd Rundgren as the guest stars. I keep having to relearn songs that I did from, you know, 1979 [laughs].

Wow. It's interesting that you mentioned Todd, because I've interviewed and actually met Todd a few times. And he's another guy I've loved for forever. And you seem to have that same, I will say intellectual, technical curiosity and approach to music, where it's like just this great joy in making sounds and kind of seeing how to piece them together and make these really beautiful, sound textures and scapes. So, that sounds like a really great pairing. He’s a dynamite guitarist as well.

Yeah, we played together in Iceland-two shows with the Celebrating David Bowie tour. And so that's how we ended up doing this one again, because we both really enjoyed it. And he and I wrote a song together for his new record. So, yeah, I'm a good friend of Todd, big supporter of his work too. I remember when he had a band called Nazz bursting on the scene and that goes all the way back.

Yeah, it's kind of circa, I guess, the very start of King Crimson, like, late ‘60s-ish era. [note: King Crimson was formed in 1968; Nazz was active in 1967-1969].

Probably so yeah, yeah.

Speaking of Bowie, I guess I can’t do an interview [with you] without bringing up Bowie and Zappa. But I wanted to ask you a bigger, maybe more philosophical question. When I read stories about the start of your career and how you got started with both Frank Zappa and David Bowie, a lot of it seems like these kinds of fortuitous accidents, right? Like where the chauffeur of the car that Zappa had asked him, “Hey, what band should I check out?” and he's [the chauffer’s] a fan of your band and he takes him to see you and Frank goes,” I want that guy in my band”. And then you're on tour in Europe in Cologne and Brian Eno just happens to see you and says to Bowie, “Hey, you gotta check this guy out “and Bowie sees you and says, “I want that guy in my band.” [Both laugh]. So, it seems like these two phenomenally pivotal moments that were maybe just, you know, happenstance. Like, if the chauffer said, “Eh, there’s nobody good playing tonight, I'm just gonna take you back to the hotel”, do we get Adrian Belew with The Talking Heads and Zappa and working on Lodger? Ultimately, I would guess, yeah [even if it’s not on those projects], just because you're so fiercely talented and that's going to break through somehow. How do you feel about that? That's just really magical, happenstance.

Well, absolutely, of course, I've never would have guessed my career would unfold that way. It's kind of like walking in the backdoor. I thought I would do the normal routine of putting together a band and getting a record deal somewhere along the line. Yeah, but uh, you know, when those things happen, I was so involved in it, I didn't really even have time to think about what was going on. It was just one thing after another, right? You know from Frank right into David and then Talking Heads saw me with David in Madison Square Garden and I went into their band. Then Robert saw me with Talking Heads and I formed King Crimson with him [laughs]. One thing after another, and then all kinds of other things in between, other records being offered to me. It was a glorious time, and a very, very busy time. It's only as my life has gone by that I've been able to actually look back at it and be pretty amazed, really, I'm amazed at all those things that happened. But I will just say this, you know, I was ready. I don't know how I got myself ready, but I was ready enough for those things to occur and, and take on the challenges. From being a guy who had just been in cover bands playing in 4/4 the hits on the radio to going into Zappa’s band and not reading music like all the other musicians, in itself, is a, you know, an enviable feat. And I wouldn't want to have to try it again [laughs].

That's got to be just mortifying. I read an interview where [you were auditioning for Frank Zappa and] he's like, “Go learn all these songs”. And so, you learn them off the records and then go play for him, which is daunting, and then you say, “I don't feel like I did well, so can I do it again?” And he's like, “Okay, you're in.” But, wow, it's kind of like, when [Wile E. Coyote] is running off the cliff, you just don't look down [so that you don’t] realize you're hanging in air so you don’t fall. So, you just go with the rush of it.

Well, it took a lot of effort. We rehearsed for three months. So, by the time I walked on a stage, I knew five hours of Frank Zappa material.

Wow.

And Frank was really, really so good to me. He was so helpful; I would come home with him on Friday nights and learn the upcoming material. And he just really took me under his wing. And that was a, that was a great learning period for me and kind of prepared me for other things. I don't think I would have been able to do the writing and stuff that I did in King Crimson without the knowledge that I received in that one year of working with Frank. So, it all kind of worked hand in hand. But I don't know, I just have a way to fit into things because my mind can imagine a lot of different scenarios. So, if Trent Reznor says, “Hey, I've got this piece right here, can you think of something to play?” I will say,” Yeah, I've got five things here [laughs]”.

That's incredible and very rare. And it probably does go back to, as you said, your childhood of just being in tune with the world, in tune with sounds and figuring out- okay, how do I adapt what's in my head for the music. That's, that's amazing.

You know, where it started with me is a very funny little story there. You know, Johnny Carson Show was big when I was a teenager. And he had a guy on there who played cello and he was a comedian too, so he made funny sounds with the cello. And at one point, he was scraping a cello with his bow and it sounded like seagulls. And I thought, “Wow, I wonder if I could do that on guitar [laughs].” And that’s where the whole thing started with me. Then I started thinking, “Well, how can I do other things that you're not supposed to do with the guitar?” And that really was the turning point for me. After I started doing that, I realized no one else is trying to make these funny noises but I'm going to continue making sounds like a rhino and elephants and [laughs] car horns. It sorts of gave me my own little piece of real estate in the giant world of guitar players a lot of which is people emulating other people. I didn’t want to do that.

You definitely have your own unique voice. You can tell when you put a record on- your guitar and your voice, not your literal voice, but the voice of your guitar, is very apparent on the recordings and that is incredibly hard to do. Let me ask about this tour specifically. So, what can we expect music- wise? You've got like 40-plus years of back catalogue. You’ve got all the stuff with Zappa, Bowie Crimson, Talking Heads, your own stuff. What's a show on this tour gonna look like both band- wise and music-wise?

Well, I’ve just been putting together what I consider to be the contour of the set. It's a little bit unique, what I've tried to do is- the band, the trio is going to come out first. And we're going to do some song-oriented stuff, including some of the new material from my 25th solo record, which is coming out in just a week or two, called Elevator. Naturally, we want to play some stuff from that. And some other things that we haven't done before, but it’s song- oriented because my drummer is a good singer. So, you know, we can really sing some songs and do that. That's going to go right into me doing a short solo acoustic guitar performance of more songs and more things like that, including new material. In the end, you'll see there's, there's nine things, nine songs out of how many ever, that we've never played before. So, a lot of new things going on.

I'm not trying to look back at the early stages, I want to go from certain periods. So, I’ve handpicked things. Then we have a short intermission. And then the power trio itself comes blasting back out, doing all the kind of classic stuff that we've done with the, you know, the heavy-handed things like King Crimson and, and stuff like that, that really is, you know, it features more of the virtuoso playing styles that we have. And I think by the end, people will leave on fire [laughs]. The contour, you know, I want to start it out kind of- here, here's some cool songs. And then, oh, here's some intimacy, you know, it’s just me with a guitar;this is me sharing myself with the audience by myself. And then break open, you know, bring out the big guns. And this band can do every bit of all of that and more. So, I feel like this show is one that fans will be surprised by. And I hope they just come out. I hope that they're not thinking, “You know, well, I've seen Adrian…” No, you haven't really seen this. So…[laughs].

Oh cool, fantastic. You know, I gotta say, to my chagrin, I have never seen you. So, I am thrilled at the opportunity.

Well, you’re gonna see me in, I think, in one of the best situations I've been able to put together. And also hearing… I think… Elevator for me…this is the 25th solo record. And strangely, I think it's one of the best. So, I’m getting better [laughs].

Nice. And again, that is that is super rare. You’ll get guys like- I would say Bob Dylan, Neil Young- that are still making phenomenal stuff. And you know, arguably, even at the top of their craft. So that is,again, super rare. And I think that speaks to your talent and your industriousness and your creativity. I can't wait to hear it.

Well, I can't stop myself.

[Laughs]

And I don’t want to. I’ve got so much left to do and left to say. I took up digital painting over the COVID downtime and wrote a bunch of new songs. So, it just spurred me on and here we are. Now I can come out and produce a lot. I have seven songs done for the next record already.

Wow. [Both laugh]. That's amazing. This has been a delight and I cannot wait to see you play live. I've been going through a lot of old [video] clips and, man alive, I was just blown away. I don’t know why it’s taking me this long to catch you. I wish I would have been old enough in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s to catch you in that Zappa/Bowie/Talking Heads era, because those are three of my favorites.

Thank you so much, it's been great talking to you. And please come on back after the show and say hi.

Oh, I'd love to. Thank you so much. All right. Well, have a good trip. Welcome back to Cincy and we'll see you soon.

I can't wait.

Adrian Belew plays the Ludlow Garage on July 21.

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