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Talking Guitar: An Interview with Adrian Belew

March 17, 2009

Few players are as recognizable on tape as Adrian Belew. One of the most innovative players to pick up the instrument, Belew is a legend among musicians and music lovers for his impressive resume and unorthodox approach. His notoriety began as a guitarist for Frank Zappa on the acclaimed Sheik Yerbouti album in which he endured a rigorous regimen of musical training from the eccentric and brilliant composer. The work paid off in spades, as it resulted in Belew’s talent being tapped by the prolific David Bowie, then collaborations with other greats, such as Talking Heads and ultimately, joining King Crimson. Belew’s labors can also be heard on records by Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, and on his own celebrated solo records, which he’s been producing since 1982 (Lone Rhino). We sat down with Belew recently and picked his brain about his new signature Parker Fly, the future of King Crimson, and his excitement about recording and touring with the Adrian Belew Power Trio.
Photo Jon O’Gara

What are your current plans for the Adrian Belew Power Trio? You seemed to be very excited about the group at NAMM this year. I’ll be recording a new record with Eric and Julie Slick.

It’ll be the first record of new material that we’ve done. We’ve only done project before; that was a live record. I’m so excited about it, I’ve been playing guitar every day, waiting for them to get here!

I’ve heard that the upcoming record will have five distinct sections, or movements that are unrelated.

Well, it’s a piece that I’ve written over the last two or three years. It’s called “e” and yes, it’s in five different sections. Each of them could stand alone as a piece of music, but they do interact in the sense that some thematic things weave through all five pieces and tie them together. I’ve not been able to put much of this down on tape correctly, so I really don’t know what I have on my hands, but in the end it’s probably going to be 40 or 50 minutes long—a power trio playing something almost symphonic. And there are many different sides to it, so if you don’t like one section, hopefully you’ll love the next! [laughs]

How would you compare this to the Side series you released, in terms of its sound? How musically different is it?

It’s different in the sense that it’s more symphonically based, and it’s all instrumental. In terms of the Side records, it cuts out a lot that was great for the orchestration, you know, like the electronica sounds and things like that. Of course, there are no words or voices in there to humanize it. I think it’s radically different really, from what I’ve put on a record before—except that in one sense it has the sound, overall, of something that King Crimson would do.

The beautiful thing about the Power Trio is that we’ve gone everywhere, all over the world, and we’ve had so many experiences. We’ve played every type of venue, every type of event, and we’ve grown so much musically because of that. It’s perfect timing to finally do something brand new and original with this lineup.

Both Julie and Eric Slick—the other members of the Power Trio—have pretty impressive backgrounds and experience. What is it like creating music with their combined talents, as opposed to other acts you’ve worked with in the past?

I’m bringing material to them and expressing the different ways I’d like to see them approach it. What’s nice about it is that they naturally play their instruments the way that I wish I could play those instruments. [laughs] I mean, the kind of approach or orchestration that Eric might do for drumming in a section is quite often exactly what I would have tried to do, and the same goes for Julie’s bass playing. I think it’s because their growing up and studying music involved a lot of things that I was involved in. They learned a lot of the Frank Zappa and King Crimson catalogs, David Bowie’s stuff, Talking Heads… so it turns out that they are really familiar with a lot of things that I do. That’s what will make this record different from most of my solo records. On those records I played all the instruments; this time around I’m going to have a better bass player and drummer than me.

You recently continued work with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, notably on the Ghost I-IV record. That was a massive instrumental record, and your playing is very expressive. What was your mindset during those recording sessions? What were those sessions like in terms of your artistic freedom?

Well, I’ve done three records with Trent now, and all three have been alike: I walk in the door, get my equipment working properly, and he starts playing me pieces of music. He’ll say, “If you find something you want to play, stop us and we’ll record you.” [laughs] It’s usually easy for me to find something to play in his material. It really fits my styles—my sounds and the things I like to do—very well. When you play with Trent Reznor, you don’t want to pull out your normal things; you go do the most extreme things that you can. It’s a lot of fun, because it puts me on the spot to do what I really love to do, which is be creative with the guitar. The sky’s the limit. Nobody is saying “No! No! No!” Everyone is saying, “Yes!”

I really enjoy working with Trent, because it gives me that type of freedom. In a way, it’s the same kind of freedom that I had working with David Bowie. He was also very encouraging, asking me to do more wild things. The same was true with the Talking Heads. Trent Reznor is, to me, a major inspiration in the world of production. I really like the way that his records sound. I’m always keeping my eyes open on the process, so I can maybe learn something.



A lot of people, including musicians, have no idea that you contributed heavily to Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti. It was in fact your break into the music business. How intense were those sessions? Was it gradual or did you just hit the ground running when you arrived?

The entire Sheik Yerbouti record, from my perspective, was done live. Everything you hear of me on the record is live, mostly recorded in New York—or other places, because Frank would record things all the time. I didn’t get to go in and play on the record. From what I can tell, there wasn’t much that had to be played. I think Frank just added some little things of his own. It’s mostly a live record, in other words.The preparation came in learning how to play Frank Zappa’s music, which was one of the biggest endeavors of my life! [laughs] And I’ve told this story many times. Before we ever touched a stage anywhere, we rehearsed in a large film studio with full production, on a big stage—lights and everything— and we did that for three months. Every day for three months, except for the weekends, when I went home with Frank and he taught me the things that would be coming up the next week. It was three months of solid work for me, trying to adapt to Frank’s pretty scary music. That’s what put me in the position to be able to contribute at all. One time, for example, he was showing me part of the new song called “Flakes,” and I was kind of poking fun at him and sang it like Bob Dylan, and that’s how it ended up on the record that way. He said, “That’s it. You’re going to do that on the record.” You have to be careful for what you wish for.

I’ve noticed a lot more admiration for King Crimson in the past few years, and specifically the trinity of records from when you first joined the band (Three of a Perfect Pair, Discipline, Beat). That really tight, interlocking but orchestrated sound that you guys created has seemed to influence a lot of recent acts, with groups like Tool citing you as a major influence. Have you noticed that influence in modern music, and if so, how do you interpret it?

Well, I’m ashamed to say this, but I really don’t listen to much other music. I know that may sound selfish, but I do have so much I’m working on, I find it’s better to not listen to too many other things, because it destroys my focus on what I’m currently doing. But, I have heard enough comments, and I’ve heard enough of the bands you’re mentioning, like Tool or Umphrey’s McGee, and what I can say about it is, it’s the biggest compliment I could ever have in my life. It makes it all worthwhile.

I was influenced by King Crimson long before I ever joined the band, because I felt the music inherently had a higher level of quality in the way that it was constructed, and in the things that they didn’t do, that they avoided doing. So when I got in the band, I was very keen to carry on that same tradition. I think that’s the only way we could have operated as King Crimson, because that really is what it’s about. It’s about pushing the limits, but you have to remain above a certain line. In King Crimson there are a lot more things you don’t do than there are things that you do.

In other words, imagine if you took a box of 24 crayons and poured them out on a table, and then took four of them and said, “These are the four we’re going to use. The other 20, no thanks.” It forces you to come up with unique ways to deal with what you have. The interlocking guitar-thing was really difficult to deal with from a songwriter’s viewpoint, because it’s a one-trick pony. It’s a very good one, but how do you keep riding that same pony and make it seem different all the time? That was the task that Robert and I had. I think we I did honorably with it, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. That was a good partnership… it still is.

Parker Guitars recently issued your signature Fly Deluxe model. Can you tell us more about how it came into being?

Well first, I’ll tell you a little bit that I know about Ken Parker. He was a luthier who, for almost 20 years or so, tried to develop a new approach to the electric guitar. He was very concerned about the woods used, and the technology. He was really the first guy to take all that stuff and view it from a scientific viewpoint— how to make a modern guitar. He cut away all of the unnecessary wood so it would resonate perfectly. The guitar ended up that. It’s only four or five pounds. He carved away everything, sculpted it… I think it the guitar looks like a modern sculpture, but the wood resonates perfectly. It’s not the kind of uncontrollable resonance; it’s the right kind.

The problem at that point is you’d have a neck that was so thin that if you put the pressure of strings on it, it would probably crack or break off. So, that’s where the science comes in. Ken Parker then developed a carbon and glass composite. They put a thin coat of that on the back of the guitar, and they shrink-wrap it. They put it in an oven and cook it. When they cook that chemical compound into the wood of the guitar, it makes the tensile strength of the wood 10,000 times stronger. Then you’ve got a very thin neck—which is the best feature of the guitar if you ask me—that stays perfectly intonated and perfectly in place. There’s never a dead note or anything like that.



My favorite thing about the guitar is this: it makes me play better. I can’t really give anything a better endorsement than that. It absolutely makes me play better. I play with more fluidity… smoother, faster. I can do things I can’t do on other guitars with the Parker Fly. The next thing about it that attracted me was, of course, the tremolo arm. I’m very picky about tremolo arms, because I abuse them to death. That’s a problem, because [guitars] usually don’t come back in tune so easily. The Parker Fly does; it stays perfectly in tune. I can bend the notes up a third, or dive bomb them all the way down, and the guitar comes right back in tune. It still kind of amazes me. [laughs]

Even though the Parker Fly comes equipped with a piezo pickup and some DiMarzios— they’re great sounding guitars anyway. They resonate, you can get a lot of sounds out of them—I still wanted more sound qualities from them. What really makes my signature guitar different from a normal Parker Fly are the electronics. Mine is a MIDI-capable guitar, which means you can play it through any MIDI device: guitar synthesizer, keyboards, samplers, anything you’ve got, you can now trigger with your guitar. And that was a very important thing to me, since I’ve used guitar synthesizers pretty much since they started. The second thing was something I’ve always relied on, which is called the Sustainiac [pickup]. I’m sure most guitar players know what it is—it gives you infinite sustain, which is great for playing solos or trying to mimic violin lines, or just getting feedback. There are so many uses for the Sustainiac that I didn’t want a guitar that didn’t have it.

To make it the most modern, up-to-date, state-of-the-art guitar I could have, we put in the Line 6 Variax system. That in itself is an incredible technology, which allows you to have 25 different types of guitars at your fingertips. They all sound and react like the real things, which is amazing. When you play it, you really feel like you’re just playing a guitar that sounds like a banjo. It’s great. I couldn’t leave it out when I was designing what I thought would be the Ferrari of electric guitars.

The last difference with my signature model is the paint jobs. I’m a vintage car nut, so I studied cars a lot and how they do paint finishes. I went to the idea of using PPG custom car paint, like you would see at a really nice custom car show. It looks you could stick your hand down into that color. It’s a 12-stage paint job in itself, which is a quite a chore. We picked out different colors that lend themselves to great lighting on stage, and the colors will change and shimmer, and they’ll have little subtleties in them. That makes it more of a modern sculpture-guitar to me, and that’s one of the things that first attracted me. So, all of that put together—oh man! I’m the happiest man… you can’t believe how happy I am to play this guitar! [laughs]

You know, when I was at NAMM, that orange one on display just totally caught my eye—it’s one of the coolest looking guitars. I love the way it locks onto your body when you play it. Yes, it’s like I said before; it makes you play better. Anybody who sits down and plays a Parker Fly for a while will say, “This neck is better than any neck I’ve ever played.” Because it just is. It’s perfect. I don’t know how you could do it better. When you go back to your heavier, thicker necks and heavier guitars, you kind of scratch your head.

With your live rig, I know you’re a big fan of using modeling amps like the Johnson, and the Vetta. What’s your current live rig with the Power Trio going to be like?

Well, it depends on whether we’re playing in the US or internationally. When we play outside the US, as we did a lot this past year, I can only take what we call my “baby rig.” The “baby rig” is a Johnson amp head only, and being as light as a fly, which is why it’s calleda few floor pedals, including a Boomerang looper. When I go to Australia or Europe or Japan… they provide the cabinets to run the amp through, and I bring the least amount of stuff I can. I much prefer… [laughs] the US “big rig.” It gets bigger every day, because they are so many nice things that are being invented and changing the world of guitar playing. It’s hard not to stay in the game, not want to have some of those things. I now run basically three different systems at once. One is the Johnson system: a Johnson amp and a cabinet. I invested so much time and effort into that. It was one of the first modeling amps I found over the years, and I do things with it that I can’t get anything else to do. So, I still use Johnson, even though they’ve been out of business for many years. I buy as many of them I can find. The second amp system is the Vetta. I use that for flavors and different sounds that I don’t get out of the Johnson. Sometimes I’ll bring the Vetta in over the top of the Johnson sound, to get that thicker, overdub type of guitar sound. Sometimes I’ll switch over to the Vetta for some special lead sounds. It’s got a lot of nice sounds in it, being a Line 6 device.

The third thing I use is the Bose L1 setup. In fact, I have two of them, and they are the towers you see. The technology is incredible. How they make this happen I don’t know, but I went to the Bose factory and they demonstrated it for me. It has a different kind of dispersion than anything else. If you stand in front of a guitar amp and move two feet to the right, you’ll get a slightly different sound. If you move to the back of the room, you’ll get a totally different sound. Not true with the Bose L1. It has a 360 degree dispersion, and they do truly sound about the same anywhere you are in the whole room. You can walk up to them while you’re playing, and they don’t get louder—they’re the same as when you were 40 feet away. I use them because they’re a high-end product. I use them for their great fidelity, because I do use guitar synthesizer. I do play my guitar through a keyboard. I make loops, which the band then plays to. All those things come through the Bose L1s. It’s especially good in the looping area because the band can hear it really well. They no longer need to have so much extra monitoring or anything. They can hear it just coming out of my guitar rig.

Can you tell us what lies in the future for King Crimson?

I wish I could. As everyone knows Robert Fripp is the leader of the band. I’ve always thought that was the way it should be. I respect that, and try to respect Robert’s wishes in most everything that King Crimson does. Right now, he doesn’t want to tour, he doesn’t want to play or write any new material. It’s not that he’s angry with anybody, it’s just where he is in his life right now. It’s not on his mind to do that—he has other things. So, it’s down to waiting for Robert to say he’s ready to play some more shows, or write some more songs. What I do know about him is that when he’s ready he’ll say so. When it does happen, I hope that I’m still there!

Adrian's Gear Box
Note: Adrian is in the process of creating a computer system to use instead of the standard effects/amp signal chain.
* = Used in the “baby rig”
Instruments:
Parker Adrian Belew Signature
Fly Deluxe with MIDI*
Roland GR-30 Guitar Synth
Korg MS2000 Keyboard

Amps:
2 Johnson Millennium 150s*
J12 Footcontroller *
2 Line 6 Vetta IIs
2 Bose L1 Towers
(for keyboards, synth, loops)
Effects:
Roland VG-99
Digitech Jimi Hendrix*
Digitech Whammy*
Digitech Harmony Man
Analogman Peppermint Fuzz Box
Pigtronix Disnortion
Keeley Compressor*
Eventide Timefactor
GigFX Chopper
Boomerang Plus Looper*
Roland FC-300 MIDI Controller