Interview with Adrian Belew in Fender's Frontline
Submitted By: L. Bruce Higgins (LBH2 at cornell dot edu)
Jeff Rocca Posted the following to alt.fan.frank_zappa:
Mike Keneally Talks With Adrian Belew
[Mike interviewed Adrian for Fender's Frontline in early 1994. The interview appears here courtesy of the fine folks at Fender.]
There's not enough room in this nifty introduction for me to say all I should about Adrian. You know about his illustrious career already, but here's something you might not know: he's got a new album out, on Caroline, called Here. You ought to buy it. If you have none of his albums, buy that one first, because it's superb, and because the people at Caroline care very much about Adrian's career and are being very nice to him, so they should be rewarded. Once you've got that, buy an album from a couple of years ago called Inner Revolution, which no one knows exists, but which is also spectacular.
Fender thought it would be interesting to have one ex-Zappa guitarist interview another (they were not aware that Adrian interviewed Steve Vai for another publication recently; I suppose Warren Cuccurullo will have to interview me next), so they asked me to talk to Adrian and I was thrilled to do so:
Adrian Belew: Hello?
Mike Keneally: Adrian.
MK: Mike Keneally here.
AB: Hey, Mike, how're you doin'? I was putting a Fender Jazz Bass part on a song that I'm doing for King Crimson. I'm doing some demos this weekend of song ideas that I have for the rehearsals which start Monday.
MK: As long as you brought it up, who's actually going to be performing?
AB: Well, it's going to be what Robert Fripp refers to as a "double trio". As opposed to triple duets. Which means, two guitars---Robert and me; two bass player/stick players---Tony Levin and Trey Gunn; and two drummers--- Bill Bruford and Pat Mastellotto.
MK: Wow. Very interesting.
AB: It's a pretty incredible combination. The six of us have never played together, and we're gonna do that starting this coming Monday for three weeks. I'm attempting some pretty interesting marriages of ideas right now.
MK: I think the world can look forward to something interesting, because your last two solo albums have been the culmination of everything you've been working towards. You really nailed it. You've definitely hit your stride.
AB: Well, thank you very much. I'm going to continue on in this melding of pop and avant-garde ideas, and King Crimson can take me in lots of directions that I can't go by myself. But I do enjoy making my solo albums alone because it's fun for me, and it's a more personalized statement that way.
MK: Were you as proud of Inner Revolution as you have a right to be?
AB: Yes, I think so. I never put out records that I'm not happy with, and I think Inner Revolution is 95% as good as I wanted it to be. I think Here is approximating more 98%.
MK: (laughs) That's good.
AB: The reason being I just had more time for song development and, doing it in my own home studio, I was able to try a lot of ideas and make sure that the song underneath all the ornaments was as good as it possibly could be. And I've still got about a half a dozen songs left from that that I haven't even finished yet. If I had the words for those songs I'd be halfway through the next album. It takes me a long time to decide on Iyrics. And sometimes I'm attempting to nail something that might have a timeless quality about it. Like "Peace On Earth". I think that that's a song that will always be relevant because the things that are said will always be true, and that's a really difficult song to write. It's kind of like attempting to write "Imagine" (laughs).
MK: (laughs) Going in, that's a lot of pressure.
AB: I don't think it's in the same league with that, but...
MK: It's a severely gorgeous song. That one and "Fly" are both astonishing on the new record.
AB: "Fly" happens to be my personal favorite. It began as a little one minute idea that I had on the dobro, and I just immediately came downstairs and starting recording it, and wrote it all at once, instead of belaboring it like I usually have to do. And it turned into a five-minute piece with all these tape loops and wonderful GR-1 sounds and a lot of interesting things in it that roally created exactly the atmosphere that I wanted, which is somewhere between the pleasure and the tension of flying. Because flying, for me, is an awful experience (laughs).
MK: You were talking about the percentage quotient of the last few records. When you look back over your solo career, can you judge how close you came to nailing it on each of your records?
AB: I'm very proud of Lone Rhino. I didn't think that Twang Bar King worked out quite as well. Once again, it's probably not being able to take the time to develop the material. Desire Caught By The Tail is a whole different bag of bananas. I like it a lot, but I do think it's darker than I thought it was at the time. Some of the instrumental music that I plan to release soon is in a similar vein, only it's much more uplifting.
MK: Just from the tones on the new record, it's obvious that things are sparkling more for you now.
AB: My life is in so much better shape than it was, say, three or four years ago. I met my wife, Martha, in 1990...
MK: Would that be May 1, by any chance? (Note: "May 1, 1990" is the first song on Here.)
AB: That's May 1, 1990, the day we met in Orlando, Florida after the David Bowie Sound + Vision concert. I my life has just been going steadily up ever since. On a career level, too, I feel ldie I'm achieving more and more of what I set out to do in my lifetime, which is create a body of music that somehow makes a complete picture. And having my own studio has made me super productive. My engineer, Noah Evans, lives next door. I got up this morning and I said "I know what this King Crimson idea should be, let's record it", and we've just been doing that for the last two hours.
MK: The song "Brave New World"; is that fully in earnest?
AB: Yes, it is. I think there are good and bad points to technology, and I wanted to point out some of the astounding, good things about it. It's still very impressive to me that I can stick a little piece of paper in a fax machine, and seventeen seconds later it's in England.
MK: I was curious because of the way that song ends: it starts fairly triumphantly and droozles down into this real subdued, minor-key ending. I wondered if there was some subtext there.
AB: Some people will say that technology is ruining the world. But I think it has the wherewithal to save us as well, so I thought it would be nice to celebrate it. That's the perfect song for AT&T commercials.
MK: Is "Dream Life" an intentional Harry Nilsson tribute?
AB: Oh, no, not really, but now that you mention it, I'm doing a version of "Me And My Arrow" for a tribute album to him. Harry was one of my all- time favorite singers, right up there with Roy Orbison, John Lennon etc. And a real cool writer.
AB: All the money from the album is going to go to his family, his remaining six children.
MK: There's another song from the same album that "Me and my Arrow" is on, The Point, which is called "Are You Sleeping?" If you compare that to "Dream Life" I think you'll understand why I came to that conclusion. The contours of the melody are real similar.
AB: All I remember is sitting on my couch in the living room, and just having this song, "Dream Life", kind of pour out of me. It's the kind of song that makes me get-a little teary-eyed whenever I play it.
MK: Have you been doing a lot of these new songs at your solo shows?
AB: I haven't really done any solo shows for this record yet, but I embark on a two month tour this June and July, of the entire United States, and the band I'm going to take is what amounts to The Bears. Rob, Bob and Chris, the other three members of the Bears, are also a band called Psychodots. Th will come and do their skow, then I'll join them and we'll do my material. I think it'll be a really excellent tour.
MK: Will you be doing any Bears material?
AB: Yeah, of course we will. We'll probably put in some King Crimson songs and songs from all the different periods of my solo career. But, taking a clue from our buddy, Frank Zappa...
AB: ...we're going to learn a lot more material than we need, and we're going to alternate it every night.
MK: That tradition's also being carried on by his sons. I just got back from a tour with Z, Ahmet and Dweezil's band, and when we see the same faces at show after show after show, we feel an obligation to keep them interested.
AB: I don't really want to be, as John Lennon once put it, a performing monkey. Most of the creativity comes in the studio and the songwriting process, and all the problem-solving involved in producing and creating a record. But it doesn't mean you can't go out later and still be creative in a live format.
MK: I saw The Bears in San Diego a couple of times before the first album came out, and the shows live on in my memory as two of my more exhilarating concert experiences. And then, it seemed as though, especially by the time the second Bears album came out, that some of the steam had been let out of the balloon.
AB: It was a very good band, and we had a great chemistry that was rare. It was almost like a songwriters' workshop, you know, where everybody traded off their choruses and verses and made songs out of that. But what really happened---unfortunately it happens a lot---is that there was no real financial support. A band can be great, but if you do seven tours of the United States and you're still not getting anywhere, in fact you're getting deeper and deeper in debt, you finally have to say, "Well, maybe this is not going to work". The record label folded after the second album, too. That didn't help much. (both laugh) And then the next thing that happened was I did Mr. Music Head, and that record did about ten times better than any Bears record did. So there you go.
MK: That seems like a very important album for you.
AB: It's very unusual because it's almost like two different records. The first side---this is back when they had sides---is e pop songs, and the second side is a whole different sound. I actually did the second side first, and then began what turned out to be the first side. So it was about seven songs before I had this little novelty song called "Oh Daddy". And that's actually what got me a record deal. (laughs) No one was the least bit interested in the material that I had until suddenly "Oh Daddy" appeared on the scene.
MK: So you had the album more than half done before you even had a deal.
AB: The whole second side was done, and most people thought "this is a little bizarre, Adrian...I don't know how you're even gonna get a record deal".
MK: There's several beautiful songs on that record. "Bad Days" is incredible.
AB: "Bad Days" is one of my favorites, and "1967". Those two make that record special for me.
MK: Any thoughts on Young Lions a few years down the road?
AB: Well...I would give it an 80. I had ten weeks to do Young Lions, from top to bottom. If you're playing all the instruments, writing everything, producing it, ten weeks isn't much time. That's one of the reasons why I chose some songs that were already written, like "Heartbeat", for instance, and the Roy Orbison tribute. But I ran out of time, in fact was doing the last two songs as I was rehearsing the band for the Sound + Vision David Bowie tour. That's why I feel that album is slightly compromised.
MK: "Men In Helicopters" is the shining thing on that album, for me.
AB: I think that's the best ecology song I've ever written. There's only one or two ways you can talk about things like what we're doing wrong to the planet without sounding like you think you're better than someone else. What I like about that song is it says we're ALL responsible. It's such a vivid picture to me: these guys shooting animals from helicopters with high- powered rifles, and you just think, what a sad state that is for the world to be in.
MK: It's a very passionate song. That was a good one (laughs).
AB: Thanks (laughs).
MK: Are you happy with your new label?
AB: I'm very happy at Caroline. I believe in their philosophy. The philosophy of a major label has to be that they're going to put out five artists a week, and whoever sticks quickly gets all the money and backing. Versus the Caroline method, which is more "get down, get on the street, talk about this record for a year, and work it hard, and if there's no hits, keep working it".
MK: Was there even an attempt made to release a single or video from Inner Revolution?
AB: There was no attempt to even market that record at all, to my knowledge. I actually have a lot of fans who don't even know about that album. People who say "you haven't put out an album in five years"! And I say "well, that's not true, actually..."
MK: That's tragic.
AB: I'm much happier in the situation I have now. My deal is two-sided: my pop albums come out on Caroline proper, and I also have an imprint label called Adrian Belew Presents, which is what I'll use to do experimental guitar music, and any other specific brands of serious music that wouldn't fit so well in the pop mainstream.
MK: Since this is for Frontline, there's probably someone over there that would like to know what Fender instruments you used on the new album.
AB: Well, if you saw my rack of guitars, you'd see almost every one of 'em is a Fender. But what I mostly use are the three custom ones that they made for me a couple of years ago. What's unique about them is they have my favorite vintage neck. I have a vintage Stratocaster; I sent them the neck from it, and they replicated that neck as closely as they could. They also have all the hardware on them that I prefer, they have the Lace Sensor pickups...they have strap locks... (both laugh) ... and they're really beautiful guitars. I guess the most unique feature about them is the fact that they have the GK-2 Roland Guitar Synthesizer pickup hidden inside the body. The design that I made just allows for one volume control, so there really isn't much in the way of knobs sticking out of the guitar. It's a very clean look. I'm really happy to see that recently they've started putting out Fender Strats that have GK-2s built into them, so everybody can now enjoy what I've had for the last couple of years.
MK: I was pleased that the new album had more of a marriage between synthesized guitar tone and natural guitar tone, both electric and acoustic. It doesn't seem quite so synthesizer-heavy, or at least it's done in a more organic way.
AB: That's true. And what I've been doing recently is, rather than having three different guitar parts, I have one guitar part with maybe three different guitar sounds. You get a real nice big guitar sound, but it's not muddying up the arrangement with too many different ideas.
MK: The guitar arrangement on "Survival in the Wild" is very successful.
AB: "Survival in the Wild" has an interesting Fender guitar thing in it that I love: it's a little black Santa Rosa guitar. I don't know if Fender has really pursued tha guitar, but I love that little guitar. It's kind of a semi-acoustic, a small-scale guitar with beautiful white binding around it, and what's so unique about it is it has built-in, almost acoustic-sounding pickups, and it's very sensitive. It catches every little noise you make.
MK: Is that the guitar you used for the kind of mosquito-y sounding solo on that song?
AB: Yeah! I'm planning on using it in King Crimson, and I've got high-string tuning on it. It's like the top end of a 12-string, all 9s and 10s. It makes very unusual voicings.
MK: It's real vivid sounding. The way that pops out of the arrangement is startling.
AB: I'm happy that you like the album.
MK: I listened to it twice last night, thinking "Boy, this is great". And then I woke up this morning and put it on and said, "Jesus, this is gorgeous!" To me Inner Revolution was---to use an XTC analogy---Oranges & Lemons, something that just jumped out at me and grabbed me and destroyed me. This album is more Nonsuch, a little more subtle, something that's going to be more richly rewarding over time.
AB: I'm getting such nice feedback over this record, and combining that with kind of a fresh start, with a new record label and all the support you get from that...I just have an extremely positive feeling about this. It doesn't mean it'll sell millions of records (laughs), but it means that I'm happier with the situation.
MK: You certainly have reached a point in your career where you deserve to have a record company that believes in you.
AB: Well, I've got a nice support system all the way around. Say, for instance, with Fender; they've always been extremely nice to me, and let me try things, and do special things for me like customize my guitars, and when you get to that point, it's a nice place to be.
MK: W I'll let you get back to demoing for Crimso.
AB: By the way, say hi to Dweezil and all those guys for me.
MK: I will. I'll be seeing them tonight.
AB: You know, I think about the Zappas an awful lot these days.
MK: I'll bet.
AB: I'm sure you do too.
MK: I've been working with Z during the week. We're making another album, and we're using Frank's studio. I never worked in the studio with Frank like you; all the recording I did with him was on the road. So, actually being there in the studio and seeing his stuff all over the place-- I gave him a present for his last birthday, or the last birthday that he was here for; it's a red rubber replica of this monster that he talks about on the album Roxy and Elsewhere. It's sitting on one of the speakers. So I keep seeing that in there and looking around and not seeing Frank, and it's very strange.
AB: It's very strange not to have Frank in this world. I never realized how important he was for me all these years. Because he's such a great role model, and such a brilliant, wonderful, terrific...astounding person...
AB: ...that you miss him, you know, in a way that's really strange. I miss him like he was my dad or something. It shakes me up a lot. People ask me about it, and I can't put it into words, but...at least I had some time with him. There are things I regret: I didn't stay longer, I didn't make more of it...things you would regret because, you know...he's not there now.
MK: I attempted to put it into words. I did a column about him in Guitar Player a couple of months ago, and I got close (laughs), but there's no way to capture all the feelings, and everything that he's done, both for people that he worked with and people that were even tangentially involved with him.
AB: And just society in general. All the things that he contributed...from parts of our vocabulary, to all the music, to just a totally fresh, different way of doing things.
MK: He was amazing, and he was so casual about it.
AB: Yeah, absolutely. That's Frank. And I've got a little movie of him in my mind that'll never go away, so that's a nice thing to have.