Adrian Belew: Crimson and Claypool and Bears (Oh My)
Vocalist/guitarist Adrian Belew's nonstop work ethic involves touring to promote King Crimson's latest releases, recording a new solo album and working with his pop group the Bears plus the usual round of special guest appearances that in the past has found him adding guitar parts for Nine Inch Nails, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson. Readers of this site may be most familiar with his work in Crimson, which nearly co-headlined a gig with String Cheese Incident earlier this year before a heavy snowstorm prevented that from happening. He has a project with Les Claypool and Tool's Danny Carey that just might hit the road at some point as well. For additional updates and info be sure to stop by his web site at www.adrianbelew.net.
JPG: As we do this interview, you’re in the studio working on your next solo album…
AB: I have been working on the components for the next solo record. I’ve done five songs as a power trio with Les Claypool on bass and Danny Carey from Tool on drums.
The rest of the album is more in loop-based music area, some with drum machines, but lots of guitar loops. I’m trying to advance that basis of music into something more songlike where you’d have lots of singing and guitar parts and things that are normally in the form of music. There’s about 16 different tracks we’ve narrowed it down to now. What I’ve planned to do is make it a record of CDs. Each will be about half an hour long. It would be like the days of albums. Side one and side two.
JPG: It seems that this project, like things you’ve done in the past, goes back and forth between your pop side and your edgier side.
AB: What I’ve attempted to do during most of my career is have a foot in both camps. I love and try and cross over between the areas of experimental avant-garde ideas into more formalized areas of composition where you create a song or a piece of music as those interesting unique overtones and that’s what makes it a little different.
JPG: Last time we talked, which was many years ago, we discussed your admiration for the Beatles. Your solo work as well as contributions in King Crimson reflect that band’s influence, particularly albums such as Rubber Soul and Revolver. What is it about that time that remains a constant influence?
AB: As a teenager, I came into the era where pop music was at its most experimental. You could actually turn on the radio and hear things that were pretty out there. You could even, if you were lucky, catch King Crimson doing "21st Century Schizoid Man" or you could catch the Beatles doing "I am the Walrus" or "Strawberry Fields Forever." I’ve always kept my eye on the ball cause I think, at some point it’s still able to be advanced. There are still people digging through that mine, that wealth of interesting ideas and making something new out of it.
JPG: Were there other artists that left a lasting effect on you as well?
AB: There was a little bit of the Beach Boys thing that struck me before the Beatles. A lot of the Motown thing. Other than that there wasn’t a lot on the radio that drew me in. When you’re a kid though, you’re going to listen to the radio for your influences. So, those are the things that stuck with me through that period. Then, there were these anomalies like Roy Orbison. Someone really out there. And I always liked different things that didn’t fit on the radio. Stravinsky or Chet Atkins. I had Segovia records and I had Sandy Nelson drum records. I had a pretty wild, eclectic taste in my youth.
JPG: And over the past year you’ve discovered the jam band scene, performing onstage with Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade and Drums and Tuba…
AB: I’ve been very pleasantly surprised, almost outside of the music business as it’s known and seen by the media, that there is another life, the life that I’ve lead for so long with King Crimson. The projects I’ve done, which almost have no reliance whatsoever on the typical music things. We don’t make music videos. We don’t get on the radio. We don’t do a lot of photo shoots and all that is career building stuff for most artists.
I was so pleasantly surprised when I found out about the jamband area because now that opens the door for the live performance. The people just follow the music in a way that doesn’t rely on any of those traditional methods. I was really, really happily surprised to see here are some cool bands and they’re playing really interesting stuff and they’re doing it in front of a large audience of people and people are buying it and trading the tapes and making their own tapes. There’s a whole flourishing life to this, another approach.
Usually I’m slow to pick up on trends because I don’t follow anything. I’m working so much. I have to rely on people like my engineer Ken Latchney bringing me something saying, Listen to this. Check this out. This band’s called Drums and Tuba.’ And you go, Wow! That’s cool. I like that stuff.’
JPG: As far as the solo album you’re working on at the moment, how did you end up recording with Les and Danny?
AB: I’ve known Les for awhile. He’s a friend. Every time we’ve seen each other, usually at his concert or mine, we’ve always discussed, Let’s play together sometime.’ Finally made that a reality. It’s wonderful. I’m loving the way this stuff turned out with Les and Danny. It’s exactly what I wanted cause I had written this material that was perfect for a power trio. That is some pretty muscular type players who really have command of their instruments and can make, just with three instruments, a full orchestra.
I love what Les and Danny did with the material I brought. My parts were already written in stone. They basically played to the tapes that I brought and then we spent quite a lot of time inventing new things. Obviously, there’s a project in the offering in the future but right now, everyone’s busy doing other things.
JPG: In the case of King Crimson, the group released an EP and a full-length album within the past year, based on the same sessions. On The Power to Believe album, you incorporated a series of segues to string the musical segments along, explain how and why you did that?
AB: What happened is when we finished the record, we realized we had all the big pieces to make the record that we wanted. We had a bunch of other material that didn’t work on the record, which we made another record out of, the EP Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With. We had the big major pieces, but when we put it all together it was still, Hmm…there’s still one little thing, there’s a glue missing here.’ Then we had all these live jam pieces that we had done. One of em was, for example, Pat [Mastelotto] and I playing Chinese sounding percussion with our electronic percussion devices. One of em would be something where Pat and Trey [Gunn] and Robert [Fripp] would do a very open thing with a lot of soundscape type stuff to it. Another area was this vocoder stuff I was discovering. And so we realized that putting all those things down on record and in between songs would do what we needed, which is to clear the air between the huge pieces. (laughs) So, you get a breath of fresh air with these "The Power to Believe 1-2-3-4" and then boom, you’re back to the heavy pieces again.
JPG: You’ve been in King Crimson since 1980, the longest stint for anyone other than the group’s founder Robert Fripp. So many other musicians have come and gone, what is it about Crimson and/or Fripp that keeps you there? You and Fripp seem to be polar opposites…
AB: Simply put I would say that we need each other. In the guise of King Crimson we need each other. Certainly, we can operate exclusively from each other. We both have an entire lifetime of work that doesn’t include the two of us together. When you’re talking about King Crimson, at some point, Robert realized that he needed someone who had the qualities that I could bring to it. Someone who can have a partnership with him in terms of the guitar things and also, more importantly, with the writing. You need someone who can sing some of these things and front the band. All those aspects that Robert wouldn’t really want to take on himself seemed to be the things that I was already trying to do and vice versa.
Robert runs the band, the visionary behind the band. He takes on all the business of the band. Naturally, he’s a brilliant musician, too. So, he’s doing a lot of the things that I wouldn’t want to do or wouldn’t be good at doing. You put them together, it’s a great collaboration. It has been difficult. It’s had its rough edges a lot of time because we’re both headstrong. We both have very strong ideas about how to do things in the guise of King Crimson. I’ve tried to let Robert have his way and be a supporter of his ideas. He’s tried to do the same to me, encourage me to add things to the band that he wouldn’t necessarily think of.
My general philosophy is I have an entire other musical life away from King Crimson. Anything that I want to do, I can do in that life so I don’t have to have my way in King Crimson. Unlike some of the players who’ve come and gone through the band, I’ve not been insistent in having things a certain way. I’ve been able to be flexible and go with the flow. I have a strong belief that Robert is King Crimson. He is the guy who started all this. He is the backbone of it. The spirit of it. So what I’m there to do there, really, is complement all that. I feel like sometimes it leaves me in a position where I don’t get the credibility out of it that I might if I took a stronger position, but I don’t care so much. It’s a one of a kind lifetime opportunity but it’s not the only thing I do. So, why get bent out of shape? Enjoy it for what it is.
When I first joined the band in the 80’s it was hard for me to do that. I was younger and I was more stubborn. About things and wanted to, I wanted to impress everyone with my ideas and so on. Eventually, I learned to fit. It really is a group effort. And the reason that the band had done so well over its lifetime is because it’s constantly challenging itself and changing. When you have these different people who come through the band and we’ve had a few in the 23 years I’ve been in, what they do is they really do alter the direction of the music. For example, now that we have had Pat and Trey as our rhythm section, the band has changed musically to being, I would say, more of a modern heavy rock band.
JPG: Your last album, ConstruKction of Light, didn’t thrill people as much as past releases, do you think a part of that was that you, Robert, Trey and Pat were still getting to know each other in the latest version of King Crimson?
AB: Absolutely. I think it was two different things. It was that we had very little experience yet and it was also that the gestation period of that record was so slight. If you take Power to Believe, we’ve played that record in various forms for the last two-and-a-half, almost three years before we recorded it. We played it in front of live audiences and we refined it. Then, we’d rewrite some more, add this and change that and then play it again.
With the ConstruKction of Light, we did it in the studio in a short period of maybe two-and-a-half months but there was no time to take the material out and see what else you could do with it. Or to play it together so many times that it takes on a different life or goes to the next level. It was really Crimson studio record. I’m actually a lot prouder of that record than the bad rap that it gets. I think that there’s some really good stuff on it. But there it is. It’s a matter of taste. A lot of times, people won’t appreciate something for a long time afterwards. It has the possibility, at some point, ConstruKction of Light will be seen as a real cool Crimson record. I don’t think it will ever be seen as a pivotal one, which is what I think The Power to Believe is. The Power to Believe has re-upped the bar, like the Discipline album did in the 80s.
JPG: You played the numbers that became The Power to Believe in various stages of formation in a live setting prior to going into the studio. That’s the same method that a lot of jambands work. Is that something that was done to create immediate growth among the four members in King Crimson or is it something you see the band doing in the future?
AB: I don’t think we’ll return back to the idea of going back and doing things in the studio a la ConstruKction of Light because I think we learned that our material deserves that developmental period that you’re talking about.
There are two ways of looking at live performance. One you’re mimicking what you do. You’re taking your songs that everybody knows and you’re trying to replicate them and play them over and over every night the same way pretty much. Put on a show in other words. The other way is more the Crimson way where you take the idea of live performance to be a performance, a one time thing and, therefore, you place yourself in a position where every night you’re going to try to find something different.
So, we would take these pieces of music, something like "Electrik," "Level Five." "Happy" was always in segments. When we play those things live that song was really never played in the sequence that it is on the record til we got to the recording process. By then we realized what the sequence should be. A perfect example, we parted out that song, had it so many different ways. Eventually, we were able to learn by experimenting in front of an audience which things worked together best. That’s the Crimson way of playing live.
Naturally, you have to offer up a certain amount of material that people relate to and want to hear and you want to play it too. Just the way you write this stuff, you don’t want to play it once and forget it. And then there’s also the added attraction within this band, a lot of times we’re trying to form new material as we’re playing.
And I think that is really what sets the jamband scene apart from any other live performance scene that I know, that’s what they’re always doing. They’re always just creating new music. That’s really cool. I love that idea. That separates the men from the boys in a way to me because I think any good musician can go out and play something faithfully over and over. All that requires is a bit of rehearsal and a good attention span.(laughs)
JPG: I’ve seen concerts that look too well-rehearsed. For me, doing it the same way night after night would drive me insane.
AB: It does drive certain kind of people insane. I remember working with Bill Bruford. He could never play anything the same way twice. He just couldn’t really keep his mind on it that way. And every time was a new thing for him. He’s an extreme of that. I’m sort of in the middle I think. I like some things to rely on being the same every night. But I also like to have spots where you know, Uh oh, I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen here.’ That allows the door to open that something might happen.
JPG: The way that the music’s constructed on record, I always think of King Crimson as a highly methodical, structured type of band whereas when you joined Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade and Drums and Tuba onstage I would think that those experiences would be either freeing or frightening.
AB: They are a lot more open because that is truly a jam. To backtrack to your comments, there is, I would say, a good 80 percent of what King Crimson does that is so well-structured and so interlocking that it has to be played exactly precisely right, which is one challenge. Then there’s another area that the band dabbles in where we let ourselves play freely and improvise. If you want to know what I think the ratio is, it’s probably four to one. Most of the material that we play is material that was written, composed and very methodical, as you say.
Now, when you step onstage with the Frog Brigade, it’s all being hammered out right there in front of you. For me it was both experiences. It was frightening before I did it, but almost the minute that I’m onstage then it becomes freeing and I forget about what might go wrong or any of the things that frighten you. You’re just out there. That’s when the accumulation of experience that you’ve had in your life, the hundreds and hundreds of hours you’ve spent playing your instrument finally become your ally because, all of a sudden, you can just turn loose and you’re not really thinking anymore about the part that you’re supposed to play. Now, you’re just playing something that works to what you’re hearing. It’s very freeing. As it is with me in all things, I like a little dose of each thing.
JPG: I understand that. In a way, it could ground you by being able to play something methodical or letting loose and jam.
AB: If Les and Danny and I were to be able to go out and play live, which I’m hoping that can happen at some point, I would see that we’d certainly mix it up. We’d do both ideas. We would certainly want to play some of the things that we put together already and we’d also want to free up and just go crazy and jam.