ADRIAN BELEW chats with Simon Patterson
June 9, 2006 | Author: Simon Patterson
Adrian Belew is the guitarist recording artists call upon when the unconventional is required. Rather than speed or accuracy, of which he deals out with ease too, Adrian is more concerned about innovation, imagination and inspiration. It’s his unique approach to guitar which has earned him credits on projects by artists as varied as David Bowie, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails and Tori Amos. Add to that his ‘day job’ with King Crimson, a two year stint with Frank Zappa and an assortment of critically acclaimed solo albums, and it becomes obvious that Mr Belew is a significant voice in the context of contemporary music history. Adrian was recently in Australia playing with his amazing power trio consisting of local musicians John Prior on drums and Al Slavik on bass and Chapman stick. Australian Musician’s guitar columnist SImon Patterson was more than happy to sit down with Adrian for a chat.
You were last here with David Bowie. What do you remember about that tour?
That was 1978. I was David’s stunt guitarist if you like. I’d been trying to get back here ever since. I finally decided to just go and pick up two players while I was here. I’m used to playing with my trio in the States. I really lucked out when I was paired with John Prior on drums and Al Slavik on bass. That has been a very powerful trio, it has just taken off. It has been great. I’ve been involved in 150 records now from Nine Inch Nails and Laurie Anderson to Paul Simon and Talking Heads, so there’s so much material to choose from too.
How would you describe what Adrian Belew does?
What I like to try to do is create interesting sounds and colours. Because of that, it’s a flexible approach to guitar. So I can be called upon by Paul Simon to put a guitar synthesiser track on ‘Graceland’ and a month later be called by someone like Tent Reznor to put one of the darkest foreboding solos you can imagine on his record. Stylistically … there is no style to what I do. I’m always re-inventing what I do, always experimenting. I love to work with sound. I love the tremelo arm. I love to bend notes every which way. People say it’s reminiscent of Hendrix and Jeff Beck. Those are two of my earliest influences. From the other side of it there’s the Beatles and Stravinsky and Gershwin who have also been an influence. And then there’s King Crimson, which is a real home for me to stretch out. My involvement started with King Crimson during their second time around in 1981. I was asked by Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford to join forces. Eventully we selected a bass player, Tony Levin. It started a remarkable quartet that left a mark on the eighties. We were ahead of our time in that we had all the newest things that nobody else was using, like electronic drums and Chapman stick, guitar synthesisers. We were the first fools to try to make music with those instruments and succeeded I think. You put monkeys in a room long enough …
Your concept is so original and such a departure from traditional guitar playing. What inspired you to get to that point?
I began by learning anything and everything by any guitar player who interested me. I learned to finger pick from Chet Atkins. I learned to play some Blues licks. I learned to play like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Then in the late seventies I got to a point where I knew I could sound like a lot of guys. Now what am I gonna do to stop that? I then forced my self to stop playing anything that sounded like someone else. I replaced whatever habitual lick I might play with something of my own invention as much as I could. What I found from the beginning was what I really liked doing was making the guitar sound like things. So I figured out one day how to make the guitar sound like a car horn. Then one day a flock of seagulls at the ocean. Not very useful things at first, but I put them in the songs, and you know, people would kind of laugh and think … that’s unique. Eventually I took it more seriously and tried finding sounds that sounded like animals. One of the very first ones was this big flanged guitar sound and it sounded like a big old snorting something. I thought it was a rhinoceros. Turns out the rhinos don’t actually have that sound but who knew! It sounded like a rhinoceros to me. But then I thought … what do I do with this? So to make it a musical idea, I wrote the song ‘The Lone Rhino’, the title song of my first record. Around that same time King Crimson and I were jamming on a song and I kept making a sound that everybody said sounded like an elephant. So then I wrote the song ‘Elephant Talk’. You have these creatures, these sound effects but they are only really useful when you find a musical way to deal with it and they become more than just a trick. After that I learned how to do orchestral instruments and percussion, and of course now you have samples and you can hook up to MIDI and do these things quite easily. When I started, the idea was, and it still is for me, to try to figure out what the sound is, dissect that in your brain, then try to recreate or from that, create something that is brand new that no one has ever heard.
I imagine you’re an avid fan of the home recording situation?
First of all, I have been very fortunate to have grown up in an era when music technology exploded. When I started out. you were lucky to have an acoustic guitar or maybe a Fender and an amp, and if it was really happening you might have a wah wah. That’s about it, but look at it today, what you can do. I always liken it to painters. I’m a painter. I paint all my own record covers. As a painter you can use a crayon, a pencil, a piece of charcoal, a 3D computer, an airbrush. Those are simply your tools. I use all the tools. I write on piano or acoustic guitar. I play drums, drum machines, synthesisers, trigger them by my guitar. Any effect that comes along, I try to wring the most sounds out of it as I can. Those things inspire me and move me forward and make me do things differently than the way I was doing them in previous years.
In terms of studios, earlier on when we called it the ADAT revolution, I was one of the first people who jumped into that because I always wanted my own studio. So I invested in continuing to build my own studio. Now I have a full blown studio in my home and have a recording engineer that comes five days a week. Even if you do a little bit everyday, the accumulation of music and ideas is awesome. That’s why I’m able to put out three solo albums in a year. ‘Side Three’ just came out in America.
Let’s talk about ‘Side One’ and ‘Side Two’.
Side One and Side Two, and Three all came about when I was doing a a lot of work touring with King Crimson, and on a lesser scale with The Bears. In order to do that I had to put aside making my solo records. There were times where I would come home for a week or two weeks and every time I would get right in there and start working on new ideas. Through that process I accumulated more than 30 songs. When I finally looked at them, I realised they fell into categories and were best suited to put all the power trio ideas onto Side One, all the DJ juke box music with drum machines and synthesisers, very little singing, put that on Side Two and everything else on Side Three. So Side Three is a very eclectic record with a lot of different styles. Some of the younger readers might be intrigued to know that for the Side One record I chose Les Claypool on bass, and Danny Carey the drummer from Tool. They only play on a few songs but that was the genesis to do the power trio I do live now. It allows the bass player and drummer a lot of freedom and requires them to almost over play. I make loops as I’m playing guitar too. There’s a lot of music coming off the stage for just three guys.
Tell me about the gear you are using on this tour.
I have to preface by saying by necessity I had to leave a lot of stuff at home for this tour. My normal set up if I was playing in the States is five different amplifiers, two keyboards, a guitar synthesisers, two pedal boards, all mixed together. The effect of all that is that I sound like three or four people at once. I’m able to layer different guitar sounds on top of what I am doing as well as making loops and also triggering keyboards. For Australia I bought the baby rig which is just one of my five amplifiers. It’s a Johnson Millenium 150. They stopped making them. They were originally made by the Digitech corporation. I’ve devoted so much time to writing programs for it… backwards sounds and looping sounds, that I still want to use mine. So I have brought that and they are providing me with my speaker cabinets, usually Line 6, 2×12 Celestian speaker cabs in stereo because the Johnson Millenium amp is in stereo. With that I have the single pedal board that’s called a J12 that runs the Johnson. I have a Digitech Whammy pedal, Digitech Jimi Hendrix pedal that gives you some different sounds that Jimi was noted for and I use that kick in a sound if I’m improvising. The only other thing I use is a Boss CS3 compressor which I place before I go into the amps.
I think the thing a lot of people might be interested in when they see the show is the actual guitar. In America there has been for the last 12 years there has been a guitar known as the Parker Fly. Over the last year I have been developing a signature series Adrian Belew model. It’s the same as a Parker Fly which are to me the most revolutionary things that have happened to guitars since the 50s when you had the invention of the Telecasters, Stratocasters and Les Pauls. Nothing earth shattering has happened since until the Parker Fly.
Essentially they are light, only weighing four pounds, that’s why they are called the Fly. They are a wooden sculpted guitar, then it’s coated in a carbon polyfibre that is baked onto the back of the guitar. That fibre makes the guitar wood ten thousand times stronger. So that’s why the neck of the guitar, which is the chief feature to me, is incredibly thin, perfectly in tune, no dead notes, always perfect. It has stainless steel frets. It’s the neck that makes me play a lot better. faster, smoother, cleaner. All the things you want a guitar to get you to do…instantly happens with the Parker Fly. Then they have a great tremelo system which I thoroughly abuse and it never goes out of tune. With the signature model, we take the stock Parker Fly and we put all of the electronics that I like into it. It will look like a Fly in my chosen colours. I’ve chosen some custom car colours. They look nice on stage and change in the lights. Essentially the real difference is that they are MIDI guitars. Secondly they have a sustainer pick up in the neck position so you can have ultimate sustain anytime you kick that in. Thirdly if you want, you can have the custom built Variac system from Line 6 in this guitar. If you know about the Variac system, it’s 25 guitar sounds including sitar, 12 string, banjo, Les Pauls, Rickenbackers the list goes on. You have all that on 3 knobs on the guitar. My creation has less knobs than the original Fly. With 3 knobs and a five way switch you can play my synthesiser sound to a sitar just by one little switch.
For his acoustic work, Adrian has five Taylor guitars and now also plays Babicz guitars. “They are great people and great guitars, I have a few of them” Adrian said of Babicz. The unique Babciz guitars designed by Jeff Babicz (ex Steinberger) have lateral compression soundboards, adjustable neck and torque reducing split bridge.
I gather you are a devotee of the modelling phenomena?
Yes I am but I like all of it. I would never for a second suggest that modelling should replace a Fender Tweed amp. I do think it makes it very convenient for you to have a wide pallet of things available. The first attraction for me with that is that everything is built into an amp so you are not hauling a round racks and racks of refrigerators full of gear. In terms of the modelling they are doing on the Variacs guitar, it is so authentically great and it doesn’t come off like you are sampling something or triggering something. The guitar responds and is the guitar you have chosen. If you choose a Les Paul 57′ custom, it sounds exactly like that guitar in every way. If you scratch the strings it sounds juts like it would if you did that to that guitar. They have got it down to a science now that it would be silly to ignore it. The guitars I am using in Australia are regular Parker Flys. I don’t have the protoype finished yet of the Adrian Belew model.
What do you see on the horizon that excites you with guitar?
I’ve been briefly catching up with a lot of new things including playing my guitar through keyboards. There’s an enormous amount of possibility there, especially if you use your keyboards through your guitar effects. You’re really going forth between two mediums and there’s no telling what sounds can be accomplished. What ultimately moves me with guitar is that it is an endlessly expressive instrument. I don’t see any end in sight for me for things to come up with that will be new and different. I look twenty years down the track and I think I’ll still be figuring out how to make a chicken chasing a steamroller sound.
Could you discuss your experiences touring and recording with Frank Zappa, and what you learned from him?
Frank was the person responsible for sucking me out of the little club scene and setting me on the international stage, and saying ‘here you go, I’m going to show you the ropes’. For one year I virtually lived under his tutorledge. I’m a self taught musician, never learned to read music, you know I don’t know how to look at little dots on paper. You can only go so far. I was 27 when Frank came into my life and it was like ‘here’s your diploma, you’re going to university now’. It was wonderful. I watched everything he did. He was generous with his time, taking me to masterings session, to his house to show me things and play records for me. I was a sponge. he was such a genius and a hilarious person at the same time. Just imparting stories there would be a message in there to learn from. He was highly responsible for taking a guy struggling in the clubs to being a guy who is a recording professional world musician who can make records and be on stage anywhere. We made a film the first year I was with him. So I got my initiation into everything from Frank directly.
He discovered me in a club in Nashville. He was looking for something to do after his show. Frank asked the local promoter where he would go. He said I’d go down and see my friend play at a club called Fannys, a biker bar. Frank and his entourage of weird looking musicians and crew walked in and everybody knew. I rose to the occasion. I sang and played my heart out. After about 45 minutes I was playing ‘Gimme Shelter’ and he came up to the edge of the stage and said I’m going to get your number from my chauffeur and I’ll call in a couple of months and audition you which is what happened. So we had this awesome band with Terry Bozzio on drums and Patrick Ahern on bass. We did 3 months of rehearsal five days a week, and on Friday night after the last rehearsal I’d get in Frank’s car and go home with him for the weekend and he would show me what was coming up the next week. So I would begin to learn it by rote. The band would get the sheets of music on Monday but I’d already been studying it in my mind. We worked very long hours but it was a huge education.
Tell me about Bowie?
With Frank the idea was to play Frank’s music the way he wrote it and conceived it, and to play it correctly. Almost two weeks after finishing with Frank, I started with David Bowie. In David’s band he needed entirely the opposite. He needed someone to just play their arse off.
Your thoughts on the Idol phenomena?
It seems to be about young people who just want to get up on stage and be on TV or be famous. What I would say is that unless you are willing to sacrifice all your time to that because you love it, you’re probably not going to make it. If you have that same passion for photography or whatever it is then you should go that way. Specialisation I think is what works in society today. People have to find what they are really good at, then sacrifice for that. When I was younger everybody else was out trying to figure how to date, I was busy trying to turn my guitar into funny noises.
What do you see yourself doing in twenty years time?
I met Al and John here and I’ve only known them for two weeks and they have both said that I am very driven. I didn’t realise that about myself. I love doing music. I love other stuff too. I am an avid reader, I like films, vintage cars, I paint, I have children, gardening, rhinos and elephants. I have a ton of interests. All of those things I plan to continue. I like learning new things. I am a self educated person. Tony Levin once said that when I find a new interest, I know everything about it. I get all the books. So I’ll just continue top find ways of being creative. Just two years ago I started painting. I have no idea what I’m doing but I keep trying things. I might try writing. I recently did some work at the School of Rock.
For more information on Adrian visit http://www.adrianbelew.net/
ADRIAN BELEW chats with Simon Patterson