Few people in the music industry are as busy or accomplished as Adrian Belew. The list of people with whom he’s worked is a “Who’s Who” of the music world. King Crimson, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Trent Reznor and Paul Simon are only just a few. With two releases already this year, Side One and Side Two, and Side Three which will be released early next year, there is no stopping this musical troubadour. I was able to chat with Adrian Belew by phone in the middle of his latest tour which is now heading out West.
It looks like you’ve been on tour most of the summer. Can you please tell us a little about what you’ve been up to and who you’re touring with?
My touring trio is myself, Mike Hodges on drums and Mike Gallaher the bass player. What we’ve been up to is traveling around and doing as much dates as we can do and different types of dates. We’ve done some festivals; we’ve done some clubs and some theaters. We’ve been to Japan, been to Venezuela and being doing a little bit of everything. All of it is in support of the three records that I’m releasing this year; Side One, SideTwo and Side Three. Side One and Side Two were already released in January and July and Side Three comes out in January of next year.
How did this band come together? Did you hold auditions or know these guys from before?
Originally I tried to put together something here in Nashville. My idea was that if it were here in Nashville I could afford a lot of time to develop the band and, you know, kind of woodshed was what I wanted to do. My thinking was if people lived here and they were already settled in here the cost of it would be affordable enough that they could continue to work the jobs they have here. That didn’t actually work. So in that first plan, plan A, I did audition musicians from this area and eventually decided on some players and worked them for awhile then realized that it was just never going to be good enough for what I had in mind.
So I fell back to Plan B which was playing with people I knew already who would be great players and would be able to do this music correctly and add a lot to it. At the time Mike Gallaher lived in Florida and Mike Hodges lived in Cincinnati since then Mike Gallaher has moved here to Nashville so that’s made it a little simpler in terms of our rehearsing and traveling problems. Mike Hodges still lives in Cincinnati but we were able to do what I wanted without the woodshed aspect of it simply because they are such good musicians.
Do you enjoy touring or do you consider it a necessary evil?
I used to…I’ve gone up and down over my touring life and I’ve been touring since 1977. I’ve done some touring almost every single year. There have been times in my life where I really despised it and saw it as a necessary evil. And there were times when I, for instance, for about 15 or 20 years I had a fear of flying so anything that had to do with airplanes was horrific for me. I’ve overcome that fear and so that’s not an issue for me anymore. The other issue is that it took up so much of my life and time away from my family. I think a third issue was always to me was that creativity comes to a halt when you’re touring. When you’re at my home, I have my studio and engineer, that’s when I can really turn loose and create something really everyday and accumulate a lot of ideas and material.
Those are the aspects of touring that I didn’t like over the years but in the last few years’ things changed. I don’t know, King Crimson started touring by bus and that made the travel aspect of it a lot better for me. Better hotels. You know, just the strategy behind the touring became more livable. We weren’t touring constantly. We’d go out for short periods and then come back so you could continue your creative roll; you could still be with your family and have some semblance of home life.
Now where I am currently with touring and with playing live is about the best place I’ve ever been because I’ve wanted to do solo touring with a trio for about five years so this is a little bit of a dream come true for me. Why a trio and why touring? Because I’ve wanted to be able to stretch out on guitar like I haven’t been able to do for a long time. When you have a trio and you’re playing specifically your own music, you can design the music to have those aspects to it. It’s not entirely a lot of improvising but there is improvising built into the arrangements of my songs. And since it’s a trio, everyone has to work really hard and everyone has to pretty much play their butt off all of the time. And since I’m the only guitar player, it affords me a lot of room to do that. I think it’s the same kind of thinking that Robert Fripp had when he put together the Projekts and in particular we had Projekt Two where I was the drummer and he was the guitar player and Trey was the bass player. That’s a great format for a guitar player and I developed all of these ideas for looping and things to keep kind of a fourth player invisible in the band so I could take some time and explore new guitar things that I’ve been wanting to do. Lots of new sounds, lots of new techniques I’ve been working on and hadn’t had any time to put them anywhere yet.
That’s a long answer for your touring question but I’m really enjoying it again with the music and the players. We still aren’t back to the bus level with my solo touring. I mean obviously we don’t make nearly as much money as King Crimson but I’m hoping that if we can continue next season, we can get up to that level and that would kind of make the whole package just perfect.
You’ve worked with a number of incredible players and personalities in long term projects. King Crimson and the Bears to be specific. What challenges do you see in keeping a band together and how do you make it work?
Well there are all kinds of challenges in keeping a band together. The ones that I deal with currently seem to be financial beyond anything else. That’s always a challenge, how does everyone make enough money, how do you afford the crew, how do you afford the recording sessions and all of the things people really don’t take into account unless they’re right in the thick of it like I am. It costs a lot of money to do what we do even if you are semi-famous. Still the money is necessary. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do. For example with the Bears; the Bears can only do a certain amount of stuff because we are limited. There’s just not the money there. There’s not the support. There’s no record label. The fan base is a certain level where there’s a ceiling to how much you can do. And actually that’s even true with King Crimson. There is a ceiling as to what we can do. We have about 300,000 people and that’s a lot of people but they’re spread around the entire world and that’s our ceiling. And it doesn’t seem to matter what record we make, we’re not going to sell more than that. So you have to work it within those things.
The second thing of course is scheduling. Everyone has other things they’d like to do and can do and are offered to do at different times so you have to take all of that into account. And I think the main thing is how well is it working? Are the personalities and musical ideas mixing together to make some fabulous soup or are they making some horrible stew? You know, I keep coming back and working with the same people because those are the people that the ideas flow with. The friendships are there. They are long term so you kind of already know a lot of things. In a musical friendship the longer you play together, the more intuitive you become and the more you understand the other person’s attributes and things that they bring so that kind of makes it a little easier to work with each other.
I’ve also gone back a lot of times and played with these people that I just do one record with or something, Trent Reznor, David Bowie and those kinds of people. I attribute that to the fact that it works. If it works, they’re going to call you back. So I did three records with Paul Simon and two tours with David Bowie and two records with Trent Reznor and so on. I just think that means that something here is working. Obviously when you start a musical relationship you don’t really know each other but gradually it develops into a real friendship and then as you know people. I think I get along with just about anybody.
What types of music are you listening to now and who, if anyone is really pushing innovation on the guitar?
Gee, I don’t know. That’s a loaded question for me because I’m not a person who listens to a lot of other music and I’m sorry to report that. I’ve had to say this a hundred times in interviews and people may be surprised to find out that I simply don’t have time to listen a lot of new music. It filters down to me through people that I know and respect. They’ll come to me and say you have to listen to this. For example my bass player, Mike Gallaher played me the new Bill Frisell record the other day, a guitarist that I wasn’t really that familiar with. I’ve heard his name a lot of times. I thought it was great. I loved it. There are a lot of really interesting things especially on the first of the two CDs. But I’m not the right person to say who’s up-and-coming, who’s next or who’s doing something ‘cause I’m just not well educated at that. I have, in my mind, something that I need to do everyday. When I wake up, I generally have a lot of thoughts on things, musical or otherwise that I have to accomplish. So my recreational listening time is pretty small.
You’ve played with so many different people in the industry is there anyone in particular who you would like to collaborate with if given the opportunity?
I hate to say names because somehow that seem presumptuous to even say names but I would limit it to this, when you’re growing up and you’re most influenced in your teens and your early twenties, those are the people that influence you, those are the people that later in your life you say, “gee I wish I could have played with so and so”. And so it’s the people that I listened to when I was most vulnerable to influence that would still be interesting to me. I’d love to catch up with some of those people now and say “oh gee, now I’m pretty good maybe let’s do something”. So I won’t name names but it would probably be any of the people who were influential and famous in their work or even infamous in their work when I was younger.
In terms of people who are my current peers which might be people like Les Claypool or Danny Carey who I just worked with. Those things are also very exciting to me and they’re more reachable because most of those people already know your work and they’re fans of it. I think in November I might do something with Amon Tobin who is a non-musician who makes music and it’s a really interesting approach. He basically samples a lot of things and puts them together in a musical way. He’s not a player at all and that’s interesting to me. ‘Cause I love his work, I love what he does with it but I think now what would you do if he had a live musician standing there who could really help you with this so that might be an interesting collaboration. Collaborations are something that I don’t have enough time for right now so I don’t really put a lot of thought into it.
Read Part Two of my interview with Adrian Belew
Originally published at OnlineRock