Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew
For the past 40 years, American multi-instrumentalist Adrian Belew has been one of the pioneering artists in experimental rock. Mostly known by prog fans for being the lead singer of King Crimson since 1981, Belew has also worked with many other talented artists from Frank Zappa and David Bowie to Talking Heads and Porcupine Tree. Soon, he will tour Europe with The Crimson ProjeKCt, a band celebrating the music of King Crimson with the killer trio of Belew, Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto joined by Markus Reuter, Julie Slick and Tobias Ralph. DPRP’s Basil Francis was able to get the low-down on this new tour and discuss Belew’s philosophy of music.

Basil Francis: Hi there Adrian! Very nice to speak to you!

Adrian Belew: Nice to talk to you too.

BF: What are you busy doing at the moment?

AB: Well after this, I’m going to have a spot of lunch and then go down to the studio and record a new song that I wrote this week.

BF: What’s this new song intended for?

AB: Everything I’m writing right now is for this project called Flux which is “music that is never the same twice.” I’ve been working on it for three years now, and it’ll hopefully be launched in the middle of this year. It’s an app you can buy, and every time you put it on, the music is different. It requires a ton of subject material and a ton of music and songs, and I’m very excited about it. I’ve been doing a little of that every chance I possibly get.

BF: That sounds incredible! So, pretty soon, you’re going on tour with The Crimson ProjeKCt (see dates below). Is there anything significant about this tour?

AB: I think it’s always significant to go out and play this music with this band. It’s exciting, it’s pretty amazing really. It’s an almost three-hour show, and it’s very strong, very aggressive. It includes everything from the various periods of King Crimson when I was in the band. It started three years ago, on the thirtieth anniversary of my and Tony Levin’s joining King Crimson and we thought “Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate this music?” So we spoke to Robert, and he joked “I’m all for it, as long as I don’t have to do it.” So it had his support, and he even named it for us: “Why don’t you call it The Crimson ProjeKCt?”

We decided on this idea that I thought was rather nice because it included new music as well as the Crimson music. Tony and Pat Mastelotto, the other two players from King Crimson, have a trio with Markus Reuter called Stick Men. I of course have my trio, which is called the Power Trio with Julie Slick and Tobias Ralph. The idea was to put it all together as one big show; you have the Stick Men come and play for 45 minutes, then you have the Power Trio for 45 minutes. After that, you have yet another trio, which is Pat and Tony and I – something that has never happened before – we play a couple of Crimson songs together. Then, all of a sudden, we turn into a gigantic six-piece band with two bassists, two drummers and we play more than an hour’s worth of full on King Crimson material. It’s quite a night!

When we first started it, I really thought we’d just do it once for the US audience but it’s now become something that people are asking for all around the world. We’ve done Japan and now we’re doing all of Europe. In June we will do Australia as well. We’re starting to cover the globe.

The Crimson ProjeKCt
BF: I believe you’ve recorded one of the shows in Japan for a live album coming out in March.

AB: That’s right, yep.

BF: When’s that being released?

AB: I don’t actually know the date myself. As you can tell I’m a little busy but I’ve just seen the artwork which I really like and I’ve heard the music of course. It’s a very good representation of the show, although I will say this: the show changes all the time. From night to night we have certain parts of the show that are different. We have some improvised sections built into some of the arrangements, a lot of double drumming things that happen. No two shows are alike, pretty much, so that keeps things fresh for all of us. We’re really enjoying doing it.

The Crimson ProjeKCt - Live in Tokyo
BF: You’re also doing a one-off date in London.

AB: Shepherd’s Bush! Yes! I’m very excited about that. I remember Shepherd’s Bush from previously playing there with King Crimson, so it really means a lot to me to get to come back and play at this venue again. We don’t get to play this stuff that often there, and it’s just going to be great to be back.

BF: We’re all very sad that there aren’t going to be any more UK dates.

AB: Oh, so am I, of course! The fact is, if it were up to us, we would do as much of this as possible. It’s all down to logistics and bookings and who’s got the right dates and financial things. Things are a bit out of our control but we’ve tried to put it out there that we would like to play as much as we can. Hopefully, we’ll come back, that’s all I can say. I wish we were playing some other dates in the UK.

I was just doing an interview with a guy from Liverpool and I was thinking “Wow, that would just be great to go to Liverpool.” For a guy like me – my life changed when I heard The Beatles and changed my whole perspective of the world – wouldn’t it be great to go play there sometime, something I haven’t done before? Hopefully there’s more in the works.

BF: The big news last September was that King Crimson had been resurrected with a new line-up. How did you feel about not being invited?

AB: Well, you know, I feel great about it. I support it totally. I’m happy for Robert to do whatever he feels he needs to do. The way he explained it to me, I understood why it wasn’t something that sounded right for me. It wasn’t a sleight against me or anything like that, of course; we’re great friends, lifelong buddies and we’ll probably end up doing something together down the line.

His explanation of it was a seven-piece band looking more towards the ’70s version of King Crimson with the three drummers being at the front of the stage where I’d normally be, and the rest of the players being behind them. All of that sounds like it’s not really the right thing for me to be doing.

I have so many other things that I’m very excited about. I hope it’s not the end of my tenure in Crimson, but if it is, I’m actually happy with that too because thirty three years is a long time to be doing something and I’m very proud of what we were able to create. I’m all happy and grins about the whole thing. What else should you do? I support it because Robert’s always been a great supporter of my thoughts and ideas. If this is something he has that will make him excited about performing again, I think that’s a good thing. He needs to get out and play.

King Crimson in the '80s
BF: What’s the difference between The Crimson ProjeKCt and King Crimson, in your opinion?

AB: First of all, The Crimson ProjeKCt is not trying to be a new version of King Crimson. There’s nothing new being written, or trying to be offered up except the intensity and intent of our performances. What The Crimson ProjeKCt is, is a celebration of the music that Tony and Pat and I were a part of and King Crimson music in general. We feel like we’re the right people to go out and keep this music alive. I suppose that makes it differ a lot from being an actual King Crimson. Robert’s role in the band in The Crimson ProjeKCt is very well covered by Markus Reuter; he’s a student of Robert’s. He plays all of Robert’s parts expertly, even the soundscapes and all the different sounds. You don’t really miss the sound, but let’s face it we can’t legitimately call it a King Crimson.

In my mind, King Crimson is always about moving forward and making new music and trying to reinvent the musical wheel. Crimson ProjeKCt is really a band that’s simply celebrating that music already and we’re not trying to reinvent it. But our shows are dynamic, they’re very impressive and strong, you won’t hear this music in an authentic way like this anywhere else in the world. It has its own attributes that I really enjoy. Personally, having been so involved in this music for half of my life, it’s really a pleasure to get up and play it again. I feel so excited about it and yet so comfortable with it.

BF: Which is your favourite King Crimson album?

AB: I was a big fan of King Crimson before I was in the band. In that period I think you had seven or eight albums. I like the very first and the very last of that realm of King Crimson music, the late ’60s/’70s music. I like In the Court of the Crimson King and Red, those were my bookend favourites.

Of the music I’ve been involved in, well I have to say that Discipline is my favourite, although there are lots of favourite moments from all the records. Discipline has to stand out to me because it was our first record and we really changed course quite a bit. It didn’t sound like the King Crimson of old and it wasn’t supposed to. It set a new standard for what we could do musically and of course started a whole new relationship between not only just those four people but King Crimson in general. It restarted that whole concept. I’ve got great memories about that record. We always called it our “honeymoon record” because everyone was so excited and so in love with playing together and sometimes that results in some extraordinary music.

BF: When did you first come to meet Robert Fripp?

AB: I was attending a concert in New York City with David Bowie, it was a Steve Wright concert at a club called The Bottom Line. When the lights came up at the end of the show, David Bowie pointed over to another table and said “Oh, there’s Robert Fripp!” I didn’t even actually know what Robert looked like, even though I was a big Crimson fan. I said “Well I’m going to go over and say hello to him, and tell him how much I love King Crimson.” That’s what I did, and he wrote his number on my arm with a sharpie. It was there for months! He said “Please, give me a call, let’s get together and have some coffee or tea or something.” I think it was the next week or so in New York City, we got together and started being friends from that moment. I let him know clearly from the beginning how much I knew King Crimson’s music and how greatly I appreciated it. I think that got me right on his good side.

BF: What year was that?

AB: That was 1979. In 1980, when I played around the world with Talking Heads, the first day we arrived in Europe – in London in fact – I got a call early in the morning in my hotel room from Robert Fripp saying “Hey I’m starting a new band with Bill Bruford. Are you interested?”

Adrian Belew with Talking Heads
BF: When my Dad heard me playing Thela Hun Ginjeet recently he thought I was listening to the Talking Heads.

AB: No, but it came out of that same era. Back in that era there were a lot of us were involved with African rhythms. I sat down one day with my guitar synthesizer and started playing the rhythm that starts that song. I thought to myself “This is something that we should perhaps look at for King Crimson” and it turned into one of our classics.

BF: What inspired your unique guitar style?

AB: My guitar style is inspired by sound itself. As I taught myself to play guitar over a decade or so, and learn from so many other guitarists, listening to them on records, I could emulate a lot of guitar players. I finally got to a point, though, where I said “Now what do I do? What can I call my own?” The one thing that I realised that I really liked doing was making the guitar sound like things that it wasn’t supposed to sound like. I could emulate a car horn or some seagulls or something like that. I started putting those sounds in; whenever I’d play live I’d substitute a Jimi Hendrix lick with a seagull. It seemed that everybody really got a kick out of that. That gave me a small piece of real estate in that huge world of guitarists that I could call my own, and I just took it from there. These days, I don’t really feel that I have a style, as much as I just try everything. It’s hard to put me into a stylistic box. I can do whatever comes into my head. I’m basically trying to stretch the boundaries of what you can do with guitar.

BF: I think it’s very noticeable from the very first song you play with King Crimson; on the track Elephant Talk you play a sound that is indeed like an elephant.

AB: In my fooling around and in my experiments with sound, I got the sound that everyone said “Hey, that sounds like an elephant!” If you have something like that, it’s a gimmick unless you find a place to utilise it musically. I wrote that lyric “Elephant Talk” specifically so I could use that sound there.

BF: I think my favourite track from the album Discipline has to be Indiscipline. I simply love the intensity of it. Who wrote the music and the lyrics?

AB: Robert and I wrote the musical part of it. All of the melodies and lyrics from the entire catalogue that I’ve been involved in since 1981 are mine. That was the rule from the very beginning from Robert that if I was to be the singer, then I’d write what I want to sing, both the melody and words. All of that has been mine.

We play that song now in Crimson ProjeKCt with our double drummers at the front. It really gets pretty intense. You have the right word there; even now, it sounds intense.

BF: Who would you most like to collaborate with in the future and why?

AB: I don’t really have an answer for that. Everybody always asks me that question. I feel like I’m lucky to collaborate with people I would never have dreamed of working with. I always think, when you’re young, you want to work with the people who impressed you so much. For me, those would be people like Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr or Jeff Beck. On the other hand, to be truthful, I don’t know what those collaborations are worth, because they don’t need me. There are a lot of other people out there that I really like and that I listen to, but I’m not necessarily driven to do something with them. These are people like Andy Partridge or Amon Tobin. I can think of a lot of artists whose music I appreciate, but I don’t feel like that means we need to play together. I’d like to be friends with any of them.

BF: I have a question about the Nine Inch Nails, who you began working with last year. How come that didn’t go anywhere for you?

AB: Well, before we started that idea, it was Trent’s idea that we were going to try to reinvent the music of Nine Inch Nails. I put quite a lot of time into that idea – three months in fact – before we ever started the rehearsals. Once the rehearsals started, however, I realised pretty quickly that that’s not what we were doing. What we were doing, in fact, was learning the material note for note exactly as it was on the record. That seemed wrong for me. Trent came to that conclusion and so did I. A couple of weeks into the rehearsals we realised this isn’t really doing what we hoped it would do and it was a big disappointment for both of us. I’m not that kind of guitar player any more.

BF: So with all of the projects that you do, the Power Trio, Crimson ProjeKCt and all those other bands you’re in, does it ever seem too much for you?

AB: No, I think I’m very good at compartmentalising things and focusing on just what it is I’m doing. That’s always been my saving grace, from playing with Paul Simon on Graceland to playing with Trent Reznor on Downward Spiral, two very different projects. Once I’m in the moment, I disengage everything except that one thing that I’m in, and I live that one thing. Focus is really what helps me do that. I like having a diet of different things. I think it keeps me healthy and keeps me changing and moving forward. I enjoy having collaborations in other bands or playing music where I’m not in control but, let’s face it, the thing that I probably love the most is just being at home in my studio creating new music. That’s what I like to do more than anything. Having said that though, I think playing live and performing around the world is a very important part of who I am too. I have a lot of different irons in the fire for that reason.

BF: What was the very first progressive rock album you owned?

AB: In the Court of the Crimson King.

BF: That’s incredible!

AB: Yeah, I started at the top. A best friend of mine had seen King Crimson play in Florida at a festival and he brought back that record and rushed right over to my house saying “You’ve gotta hear this!” I’ve loved it ever since. To this moment I can remember that opening sound, that strange sound. I’m not even really sure what it is, perhaps I should ask Robert some day.

Belew on stage with Frank Zappa
(photo by ericnp.net)
 

BF: What was the most important thing you learned from your time with Frank Zappa?

AB: He taught me how to be a professional touring musician and recording artist. Here’s this master who’s taken me under his wing and said “You’re going to be a recording artist, and you’re going to tour around the world. Let me show you how to do that.” He showed me the nuts and bolts of the business, how to master a record properly, how to travel properly and how to run a business. Those parts, to me, are actually more important than the musical parts of what I learned in all that one year’s tutorship from him. Although the music was very interesting and challenging, I always remember that Frank showed me the ropes. Before this, I was playing in little clubs and making no money and had no future. I was starving and three months behind in my rent. I certainly needed that kind of knowledge.

BF: Was it daunting playing Fripp’s guitar parts on Bowie’s Heroes tour?

AB: There’s a funny story behind that actually, but I only learned it after it happened. One day, I was in the studio in Switzerland making my first record with David Bowie, the Lodger album. Brian Eno was producing it as well. I came in and they were laughing at something. I asked what they were laughing at. They said, “When we made the Heroes album with Robert, we recorded a lot of different guitar things and then edited them all together in a way that we thought was impossible for someone to play. Because you didn’t know that, you figured out how to play it!” It was difficult though, because those were things that had never been physically played by Robert or by anyone else!

BF: When did you start to play the guitar?

AB: I was sixteen. I was already playing drums and had been in a band for several years. We were a little teen band called The Denims, because we all wore denim. We played Beatles music and stuff and had our hair combed like that. I was the drummer and one of the singers. But one day I got sick, and I had to stay at home for two months and get tutored. I began to hear songs in my head, but I couldn’t explain them to anyone, because I only played drums, not any sort of toned instrument. I decided to teach myself to play guitar. For those two months I simply taught myself how to play, and I had no-one showing me anything. I worked it out my own way.

Consequently, I wrote a couple of songs in those two months and when I came back and showed them to the band, they were not only shocked but they said “What the hell are those chords?” because I’d made them up myself. A few years later I had become a much better guitar player than drummer so I switched to playing guitars in bands from that point on.

BF: That’s quite a progressive way of learning the guitar, I think.

AB: I’ve always had the talent that I can hear what’s supposed to happen. Even when I was a little kid I could sing along to all the strange harmony parts of the Everly Brothers. I used that same ability to figure out how you write songs on guitar. It came out well for me; I’ve always been self-taught at everything I do. I was the only one in Frank’s band who didn’t read music but as he said to me “Well, you’ve figured it out your own way.” He encouraged me to continue that way. My daughter has learned to be a concert pianist in the more conventional way and she can play amazing things but when it comes to composing her own stuff, it’s more difficult because that method of learning doesn’t teach you to be free.

BF: I certainly agree in that I’ve become a much better drummer since I quit my lessons. It had gotten to the point where I wasn’t learning anything and my drum teacher would ridicule me if I made the slightest mistake. Since then I’ve gone on to teach myself how to play in odd time signatures, use double bass techniques and so forth.

AB: It’s so much fun to figure it out yourself. That makes it exciting. I play everything on my solo records for that reason. It’s always a challenge for me to get the sound that’s in my head and play it.

With time signatures though, it’s difficult to get someone to teach you that. Rock music that’s being played like that is still a relatively new thing when compared to jazz, so who’s going to teach you that? A jazz drummer isn’t going to teach you to play prog rock.

I still play drums sometimes, and I love to do so. It’s a very different feeling, a very physical feeling and also very challenging. It’s when you get all four limbs doing something that you couldn’t do before. It’s an amazing moment. I still really love it.

BF: You were talking about The Beatles earlier. What’s your favourite album of theirs?

AB: My favourite album is Revolver, because I feel that’s when The Beatles really started to develop into a studio entity. They began to use the studio in ways that nobody else has ever used it on that one single record. Everything from backwards tapes to string quartets. Of course Sgt. Pepper’s… was another step forward, but for me, Revolver had it all right there. That’s when I realised more than anything I wanted to be a recording artist and not so much a pop star; someone who takes the studio as their instrument and does things with it.

BF: I think I have to agree with you there. It’s got some of my favourite Beatles tracks on there. It’s so diverse yet all so brilliant at the same time.

AB: Before that they’d just been a four-piece band playing pop songs, and even though you could say Rubber Soul was a more sophisticated version of that four-piece band, it was still pretty much the four of them playing and using their instrumentation. Then, all of a sudden on Revolver, you have all kinds of other things involved and I just thought it was brilliant.

BF: That said, it does have Yellow Submarine.

AB: Alright, but look at Yellow Submarine. All of a sudden you have sound effects. You have the sound of water and the sound of guys on the ship, John Lennon’s pirate imitations, and even a brass band! It’s comical, and it’s not the greatest song they ever wrote, but it’s still somewhat innovative in a recording sense.

BF: I suppose its immense popularity does also boost it somewhat, the way it’s become a sort of cultural landmark of Britain.

AB: To have that as your background and where you got started from, there’s a richness to it that doesn’t exist so much today for people who start out now. I feel lucky to have lived in a time when The Beatles were pioneering a revolution in music.

BF: Well, it’s been very interesting to chat with you. Thanks for taking the time to chat with DPRP.

AB: Thank you so much.

The Crimson ProjeKCt on tour in Europe, March and April 2014:-

5th March 2014 – Heichal Tarbut, Tel Aviv – Israel
6th March 2014 – Bingo Club, Kiev – Ukraine
7th March 2014 – Usine à Gaz, Nyon – Switzerland
8th March 2014 – Amager Bio, Copenhagen – Denmark
9th March 2014 – Cosmopolite, Oslo – Norway
11th March 2014 – Ziquodrome, Compiègne – France
12th March 2014 – O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London – United Kingdom
13th March 2014 – Trabendo, Paris – France
14th March 2014 – De Boerderij, Zoetermeer – Netherlands
16th March 2014 – Arena Club, Moscow – Russia
17th March 2014 – Palace of Culture Lensoveta, St. Petersburg – Russia
19th March 2014 – Palladium Club, Warsaw – Poland
20th March 2014 – Klub Studio, Kraków – Poland
21st March 2014 – Neuberinhaus, Reichenbach im Vogtland – Germany
22nd March 2014 – Konzerthaus, Karlsruhe – Germany
23rd March 2014 – Frankfurter Hof, Mainz – Germany
25th March 2014 – Grugahalle, Essen – Germany
26th March 2014 – Z7, Basel – Switzerland
27th March 2014 – Archa Theatre, Prague – Czech Republic
29th March 2014 – Auditorium Supercinema, Chieti – Italy
30th March 2014 – Auditorium Manzoni, Bologna – Italy
31st March 2014 – Auditorium Verdi, Milan – Italy
1st April 2014 – Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome – Italy
2nd April 2014 – Viper Theatre, Florence – Italy
5th April 2014 – Sala Penelope, Madrid – Spain

The Crimson ProjeKCt
Adrian Belew Website
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