Adrian Belew of the Adrian Belew Power Trio

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Adrian Belew has racked up an impressive resume over the years. A singer and virtuoso guitarist, he's played with Zappa, Bowie and the Talking Heads, among others, but he's best known as the frontman for prog-rock gods King Crimson. In between King Crimson tours, Belew has been performing with the Adrian Belew Power Trio, and is currently in the middle of a 21-city jaunt across the United States. Earlier this month, Ground Control spoke to Belew's Power Trio bandmates, bassist Julie Slick and her brother, drummer Eric. As they prepared for the first show of their tour, Belew took time out to talk to Ground Control about his history in the music industry and the direction of his newest collaboration.

Adrian Belew: I started in the school junior high school band, I was a drummer. Then after three years my family moved…that was the year that The Beatles came out, so my focus shifted entirely from being in the school band to being in a rock band. When I started school again I didn't know anybody. I didn't bother joining the school band again, they were full up with drummers. I met and befriended all the local musicians, and ended up being invited to be in the best band in the whole Cincinnati area, The Denims. We played almost nothing but Beatles music, we didn't bother with much else. You know, The Kinks and a few other things, but mostly Beatles. We wore the military outfits and had the vox amps and the whole bit.

Ground Control:
Wow, beautiful! How many years did you play with The Denims?

AB: I think it turned out to be four years. And by that time The Beatles had evolved to a point where you couldn't really play their music anymore—you know, you needed an orchestra.

GC: So when did you shift from being a drummer to learning to play guitar?

AB: Right around my junior year, I got sick for two months. I had mononucleosis—which is not much of a sickness, but it means you have to stay quiet, at least sit quietly, you can't have any activities for at least two months, stay at home and be tutored. And so I borrowed a guitar, an acoustic guitar from one of the guys in The Denims, and I taught myself to play over those two months. I even wrote five songs. Just figured it out on my own. The next couple of years I spent as the drummer for The Denims until they broke up after we all left high school—at that point I switched to guitar.

GC: Okay…

AB: By then I was interested in the guitar as more than just a writing tool. I started playing because I wanted to write songs which I couldn't do when I played drums. By the time The Denims broke up in 1967 or 1968, um, the guitar was a whole different vehicle. All of a sudden you had Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton burning up the world, you know…So I wanted to do more with guitars and that's when I started taking it as my first serious instrument.

GC: Okay. Was it long after that when you started to experiment with the sounds and noises you could get out of a guitar?

AB: It was a few years, because really you have to put a few time into the mechanics of an instrument. I learned a lot of styles. I could finger pick American style, I could play blues like a lot of players, I could imitate Hendrix or Jeff Beck. You know, I could play a lot of different things and then at some points in the early 70s I realized I just sounded like a lot of people. That is when I started, in '73 or so, '74, trying to find my own voice on guitar and what I forced myself to do when I caught myself playing someone else's lick I would try to find something else to substitute it with. A difficult process but what I eventually forced myself to do was to come up with my own ideas. One thing that I really, really liked was the idea that you could make the guitar sound like things. No one really seemed to be interested in that. I liked that idea, that you could kinda make it sound like an animal, or a car horn. And that became the beginnings of my being interested in using it for more than just playing solos and notes and chords.

GC: Well you've certainly become the grand master of making the guitar sound like other things.

AB: No one else still wants to do that.

GC: So around 1973, when did you first hear the music of King Crimson? When did you first meet Robert Fripp? I know a little more about your time with Frank Zappa and Bowie and other people but Crimson is what interests me more.

AB: I first met Robert in 1980. I still was working with David Bowie—it was at the end of our relationship the first time around. David and I were in New York City at the Bottom Line and watching a guy named Steve Reich and we were watching his performance; the end of the show, the lights came on, I looked over and David said, Hey, look, that table over there, that's Robert Fripp.' So, I walked over and introduced myself, he was very nice, and he wrote his number, his hotel phone number on my arm in indelible ink, which I couldn't get off for years. So I ended up calling him over the next couple days and we went out for coffee a couple of times and that was my initial meeting and befriending with Robert. What really happened in the long term was, eventually, he took his band out on tour of the mid-west and I took my band on tour of the mid-west, and we became their opening act for five shows, and during those five shows, in Cleveland and Cincinnati, Columbus, OH and places like that, I think that's when Robert realized that, 'oh, this guy's more than a stunt guitarist, he's a songwriter and a singer and a frontman,' and I think that's when he developed the idea of maybe there being another King Crimson with me involved and later that year, in 1980, is when he called me and asked me to join. Of course, it wasn't called King Crimson for the first couple of months, but eventually it was.

GC: What was it called?

AB: Originally, it was called Discipline. That was good for Bill Bruford, but not for me and Tony Levin. I guess maybe we were spanked too often when we were kids. I really never thought the name was a good name for a band—it's a great name for other things, and obviously we named a record that and now Robert's record label is called Discipline. A few weeks into rehearsing, writing, and being close together, Robert said, 'you know, whatever we call this band, it has the spirit of King Crimson,' and I said 'well, why don't we call it King Crimson, then?' For me, that made it an entirely different apple, to call it King Crimson. Now you were dealing with a certain tradition, a musical history, and an integrity and something to be proud of, rather than starting another band with a different name.

GC: When you started to play with King Crimson in '81, the music took on a whole new sound. Was that from your initial influence, or was it a conglomeration of all the new minds working together?

AB: Yeah, sure, I think it would be fair to say it was everyone. It would also be fair to say that the writing of it was Robert and I. It was the two of us developing the songwriting aspect of it and then giving it to the whole band to deal with it. You had these very strong unique players blended together, Tony and Bill and all of us had new tools that no one else had tried to work with. Robert and I were the first guitar synthesizer players that I had ever heard of, Bill was the first electronic drummer, Tony was the first Stick player. So, we had new instruments, new technology, and we had this blueprint that came from the songwriting area that Robert and I were developing all the time. Tony and Bill mostly wrote their own parts, of course, added their own parts like anyone does, but I think the development of the basis for what the music is came from the pens of Robert and I.

GC: I want to shift over to your current project with the Power Trio, with the Slick kids. How is this tour going to be different than the last tour? Are you going to have a new set list, or…?

AB: We're going to play a lot of the same things, but one of the things that I think makes this band exciting is the fact that we improvise and change constantly, even material that we are doing. We're going to add in—as time goes by during this tour—some new material. I've written three new pieces that eventually we'll be attempting to play. I've incorporated a few new songs from the catalog that were never played, but the problem that we have with this tour—it's not a problem, but I think it's something that people might want to understand, is there is no rehearsal time. Julie has been in audio school for her last semester and she was only available two days ago. By then, our equipment was all gone and we couldn't even rehearse, so we're appearing tonight in Seattle for the first time in three or four months, and we're going to walk on stage and play without a single note of rehearsing! That shows how confident I guess we are, or maybe how stupid, I'm not sure. But I think over the course of this tour—which has 21 shows—at sound checks and otherwise, we're going to incorporate new material…and people are not tired of hearing what we do yet, I don't think, so I plan to improvise even more. I've got some new tools, some new sounds, some new little tricks in my bag, and I think it'll be worth it even if you've heard the band a few times before. By this time next year, who knows where we'll be. I would expect that, by then, we'll probably be playing a whole new round of material.

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