Let The Music Do The Talking #1 : Adrian Belew

#interviews #king-crimson #frank-zappa #talking-heads #nine-inch-nails

"The most complete and relevant art form of our time is cinema"

It seems that whenever I read anything about you, it starts with "Adrian might be one of the most underrated and overlooked guitarists" or something along those lines and then goes on to list all the reasons why you should be the most famous guitar player in the world. We all know that "talk, talk, it's only talk" but how do you feel about this rather simplistic approach to your career? Does it suit you to have this (relatively) low profile? Am I wrong in thinking that you seem to cultivate it in a certain way?

Stardom is not the target I'm shooting for. My aim to is to live an "artful existence". Current pop culture offers almost nothing for me so long ago I created my own little bubble. I rarely watch TV, never listen to a radio, and probably know less about who's who than anyone you'll ever meet.
My days are consumed with trying to create. Writing new music, recording, performing, writing lyrics, painting, experimenting with sounds: that's my universe. On the rare occasions when I think about why I'm so "underrated and overlooked" I find it destructive to my creativity. It depresses me to know how easily my work can (and probably will) be dismissed and forgotten. So I try to concentrate on the creative side. It may sound strange or self-serving but the main reason I continue to make music at all is because I want to hear what's in my mind.

On the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation petition page, you're quoted as saying "My style, if you want to call it that, is to have no particular style. If someone asks me to be a part of their music, I can offer them five different types of ideas, and five different things to chose from. I think that's what has kept me viable through a few generations of music." When I read this, the names of some of the people you have played with come to mind - (in no particular order) Robert Palmer, Paul Simon, Garland Jeffreys, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Cocker and the Crash Test Dummies - and I've been wondering what specifically is your approach to working with these artists and, more generally, with any other artist: is it sometimes "just" a technical one as in, say, the Jimmy Page sessions in the 60s - in other words, "just" a musical analysis of the song chords so you can compose your solo or your guitar part? Or do you always take a broader approach, like a kind of musical director, dealing with the whole song, musically, emotionally, etc.?

I don't think of music in technical terms. I think cinematically. So most of my choices will be based on what is missing from the picture. Most people I work with encourage me to do whatever I want and I am compelled to take the music somewhere beyond where I've found it. I take in the music as a whole, imagine what I'd like to add to it and fire away, but I'm careful not to step on the toes of its creator. Most artists seem thrilled with the results which is why I'm asked back again.

On the Young Lions album (1990), you did a cover of your own song "Heartbeat" from the King Crimson album Beat (1982). This new version featured a very emotional solo, in just a very few notes. I've always thought that this particular solo was one of the reasons you felt "compelled" to re-record this track, as if you wanted to add something or even make a comment about it - am I right or am I really just a dumb fan?

I offered "Heartbeat", a song I had written alone, to King Crimson and it turned out to be somewhat of a mistake. There was consternation within the band particularly from Robert as to whether or not it was something King Crimson should do. In time I actually agreed that it was probably too "pop" to be King Crimson, but after much trail and error we did the song anyway. Later I decided to take my song back and to put it back in my pocket of work which may be what I should have done in the first place. I was young and did not understand the inner politics of a major rock band.

In your "Life in a Nutshell" video, you say that when you went solo, "that's when things really kicked into gear". Do you mean you felt your creativity couldn't blossom whilst you were playing as a sideman, even in experimental bands like King Crimson? (Or should I really improve my English?)

No, I didn't mean it that way. My work with King Crimson is something I cherish and the same is true for all the artists I've worked with. I had always planned to have my own solo career, to make my own personal brand of music, but it took such a very long journey to find support in doing that. No one believed in me. I remember one record executive who said, "Tell Adrian to stay with David Bowie and forget about making his own music". When the time finally came and it was my chance to make my own records I was naturally very excited. I still am. I try to make my solo records as personalized as possible. In most cases I even do the artwork myself!

The (not so) weird historical question: do you remember when you recorded your first full solo in the studio? What was it like?

I'm scratching my head. No, I don't actually remember my first full solo so...I guess it wasn't very memorable.

What do you think about the "classic" 70s rock culture, its swaggering mythology and its excesses, which people tend to associate with acts like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones or Deep Purple? Is it something you can relate to in any way, musically or otherwise ?

Everyone has the music which struck them hardest and meant the most to their young psyche. For me, because of my age group it was the music of the Sixties. But I learned and enjoyed things from all the bands you mentioned and much more. I love the Stones. The Beatles are my all-time favorite band, King Crimson is number two (even before I joined the band).

In your "Life in a Nutshell" video (again), you have some harsh words for "modern" rock which according to you often boils down to "fashionable crap". Not that I disagree but is there anything that's worth salvaging from the rock of, say, the 90s or the 2000s?

Oh, of course I'm sure there are many things worth celebrating about the music of any generation. I just don't have the time to ferret out the good from the ugly. But I believe there are always new things happening in music. Something strange has occurred in the last few decades: when I was young music was THE hottest thing. You waited anxiously for the next record from your favorite artists and then you drenched yourself in the music, listening to whole records from beginning to end, over and over. Nowadays music has taken third or even fourth place to other entertainment forms: computers, the internet, films. For many people music is now wallpaper for their lives or something to procreate to. I've always thought the most complete and relevant art form of our time is cinema. It encompasses every art form.

Adrian Belew's official website : www.adrianbelew.net