Steal This Guitarist: An Interview With Adrian Belew | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Steal This Guitarist: An Interview With Adrian Belew

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Published July 20, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Guitarist Adrian Belew has performed with both Talking Heads and David Bowie. - COURTESY OF ADRIAN BELEW
  • Courtesy Of Adrian Belew
  • Guitarist Adrian Belew has performed with both Talking Heads and David Bowie.

Adrian Belew has always been a wanted man. When the guitar virtuoso and composer formed a fusion supergroup of sorts called Gizmodrome with Stewart Copeland in 2017, the former Police drummer said of Belew, "This is the man stolen from Frank Zappa by David Bowie." While that's a cool résumé topper — there are few rock stories cooler than Zappa repeatedly telling Bowie, "Fuck you, Captain Tom" over poaching Belew — it's only a small part of the tapestry of Belew's career.

Plucked from obscurity by Zappa when he was playing in a cover band called Sweetheart, the Kentucky-born Belew went on to play with everyone from Talking Heads to Tom Tom Club to the Bears to Nine Inch Nails. And he fronted the second iteration of prog-rock legends King Crimson for more than 30 years.

While he is known as an ace collaborator, Belew, now 72, is also a prodigious solo artist. In May, he released his 25th solo record, elevator, a decidedly up-tempo, pop-adjacent album brimming with some of his best work in years.

Ahead of his stop at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington on Wednesday, August 3, the man Zappa credited with reinventing the electric guitar spoke with Seven Days by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: Your career is already so hard to define — you've played with so many legendary talents. But 25 solo albums seems like a massive achievement, even for you.

ADRIAN BELEW: Well, doing your own record is the most rewarding thing musically in many ways. You can really present the clearest vision of your work. For instance, with elevator I'm showing my audience where I'm coming from and where I'm taking it from there.

There aren't a lot of crazy instrumentals or anything, just 12 strong pop songs. Or my type of pop songs, at least. And I wanted them to be uplifting, which is why it's called elevator. I was shooting for the '60s spirit from when I was a kid and the feel of those songs. I get to play all the instruments, too, which is such a challenge, and I love it.

SD: You recorded the album during the pandemic, right?

AB: Yeah, which meant I had time. It was the only good thing about that period. I'm usually making records in between three other things and tours coming up, all that stuff, so I had a little time to breathe — even if I had to wear a mask while I was doing it! But yeah, having more time, I honestly feel like my drumming and bass playing improved.

SD: You started out as a drummer. What prompted the switch to guitar?

AB: That's right. I was playing in a band as a singing drummer. I loved it, but I had songs in my head that I couldn't explain. Then, when I was 16, I got mononucleosis, and I couldn't be in the band, and I had to sit at home. I borrowed a bandmate's acoustic guitar and taught myself to play.

It wasn't long after that when the virtuoso guitar players started to appear on the map — like [Jimi] Hendrix and [Eric] Clapton and Jeff Beck — and I started to think I wanted to do more than just write songs on the guitar.

I was totally self-taught. I've never learned to read music, which is unusual for someone who was in Frank Zappa's band. But I understand it in my own way, as Frank said.

SD: Still, you must have been intimidated when he asked you to join his band, especially not being able to read music.

AB: When Frank hired me, I had up until that point only been playing cover songs — that's how you made your living. So when I moved out to LA and got an apartment, I rehearsed for three months straight.

I lived Frank Zappa music 24-7. That's all I did: listen and practice. It made it easier that I lived in LA and didn't have a car! I'm really proud that I was able to do it — coming into it, I didn't even know how to play in seven.

SD: The story about Bowie hiring you from the side of the stage at a Zappa show is famous, but it set the precedent in a way, didn't it? I mean, after you played with Zappa, have you ever had to actually audition for a gig?

AB: [Laughs] I suppose not! The opportunities that have come my way, sometimes I have to sit back and actually say, "Wait, was that real? Did that really happen? Was I really on stage next to David Bowie?" But what you learn is that at the end of the day, they're all people. They're innovative and creative people, and that's my tribe.

The thing with Crimson ... I didn't realize I was in that band, at first. When Robert Fripp called me, I was playing with Talking Heads. He said he and Bill Bruford wanted to start a band with me, which was incredibly exciting. But it was never this sort of "Hey, we're starting King Crimson again" thing.

But after six weeks or so, Tony [Levin] and I, the Americans in the band, realized we didn't like the name of the band, which we were calling Discipline. It sounded too severe. So Robert just said, "Whatever we call it, in spirit it's King Crimson." So we said, "Well, let's just call it that, then."

SD: With such a varied body of work, were you ever worried that you one day might bite off more than you could chew?

AB: Not really, no. I've played on so many different kinds of records. I played on Graceland with Paul Simon and then a couple of weeks later played with Nine Inch Nails on The Downward Spiral! [Laughs] I try to be proud of what I get myself involved in, and I don't have any regrets that I can think of. So I don't really feel like there's anything I can't do. There's definitely some things that I don't want to do...

SD: Do you still experiment with guitar sounds, or have you figured out all the tricks that can be summoned from the instrument?

AB: Absolutely — I never stop experimenting and discovering. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an era when the gear stuff was flourishing. When I started out, a Fender amp and a guitar was about all you could have. These days I'm using FLUX [an effects multiprocessor application Belew designed for use on iPads], playing through a laptop and powered monitors, no amplifier, and creating things with software that were impossible to do beforehand.

For instance, in "backwards and upside down" off the new album, I use a guitar sound that wasn't possible to make until just recently. It also keeps my rig relatively simple for traveling around the world. All of it fits in a case that weighs less than 70 pounds.

SD: You're touring as a power trio, just you with a bassist and drummer. Does that make covering some of your older, more intricate material difficult?

AB: No, it just gives my material a way to be renewed and reinterpreted. You take the songs and you make them more powerful.

I'm really looking forward to it — those three years without gigs was tough. But I think I've put together a really good show. We'll do the new stuff off elevator; we'll do King Crimson stuff, all sorts of material. Plus, I do these 20-minute segments with the acoustic where I get a little more intimate with the songs. And who knows, if there's time, we might even do some questions and answers. I miss you guys! We honestly can't wait to see the fans and play for you.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Adrian Belew, Wednesday, August 3, 8 p.m. at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington. $45/$49. AA. highergroundmusic.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Steal This Guitarist | Adrian Belew on his new album and being the guitar player of choice for a generation"