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Progressive Rock Interviews

Adrian Belew

Interviewed by Sonya Kukcinovich Hill and Grant Hill
Interview with Adrian Belew from March 2008
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 2 at

You've pretty much acquired legendary status and yet there seems to never be a sacrifice of musical integrity or quality on your part. It seems that you're always creating with very interesting ideas. I think that's the way you come across in general, and it's especially very refreshing. Can you comment on that?
Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. It's something I try to do. I've never given any consideration to the commercial part of it, which is, I suppose, one of the reasons why I'm not exactly a household name. But, in the end, I'm still very passionate about my work. And, I think that you can only affect as many people as you can with what you do, that is if it's real. I try to be real about it, anyway.
MSJ: That brings up how you seem to defy categories, which is really great because whatever it is you are musically, you draw on all kind of sources. You have a deep rhythmic approach, lots of dense chords and textures which at times become abstract and avant garde, yet you seem to bring things full cycle through your compositions and performances with some cool melodic stuff as well. How does the creative process work for you to bring about that solid balance yet forward sounding approach?
Well ,first of all, you know I'm self taught. So, everything comes to me from maybe a slightly different angle. I don't know the rules, so I can probably break them easier. (laughs) And, you know, I've always had an affection for both avant garde ideas, sounds and types of music and world class songs. Before the Beatles came out and that became the inspiration for the pop side of what I do, I was busy listening to interesting orchestral music. I was in the school band and I had a percussion background, which gave me a leg up rhythmically on why I can work in odd time signatures in bands like King Crimson or in my own work. I always like to develop those ideas together. Just the typical pop song doesn't interest me that much, but the one that does some interesting things that maybe changes up the timing or goes to some interesting places, or incorporates some unique ingredients or sounds, those are the ones I'm going to be interested in. You know, those things don't get that popular very often, but that's not the point. The point is to take all of those things that you've soaked up during your life, and formulating something of your own from those.
MSJ: How did you get involved with the School of Rock and relying on such fine young talent with Eric and Julie?
Well the founder of the School of Rock, Paul Green, in Philadelphia where the original school is from, called me, and they have a guest professorship where they have someone come in to actually teach a class, and you actually go out and play shows with the students and the students get a hands on experience where they set up everything themselves, including sound checks and running their own merchandise, so it's really an incredible experience for such young people to get an incredible experience in knowing exactly what the music business is going to be like for them as a professional. I like that idea so I went there for one week. While I was there, Paul said, “You know, I've got the best two students I've ever had live here in Philadelphia, Eric Slick and his sister Julie Slick. I'd like you to give a listen and maybe come in and play something with them.” So, I said “Sure.” And that was all it really took. We played a Frank Zappa piece and I just kind of knew from there. In the back of my mind I had the idea that I wanted to create a power trio and to me that means you have to have a certain kind of energy and almost a virtuoso ability and know the mechanics of your instrument, and really be able to stretch out and improvise. Eric and Julie just seemed to be the perfect pair for that. They've been playing music together since they were little kids and they have a unique quality where they can follow one another instinctively and that gives me, as the centerpiece front man and guitarist, the ability to go anywhere I want, so, you know, it's a beautiful combination.
MSJ: Eric and Julie sound very “present” in their playing, very involved in the phrasing aspect so everything seems to fit like a glove. The trio sounds a lot like the cutting edge early fusion style playing from the seventies in certain ways. Everything is well thought out writing and the aggressive playing that captures this feeling, like witnessing something new and different for the first time. You have an unmistakably non-formula driven sound, quite contrary to the mass produced garbage all around us. How do you keep it fresh?
I think we keep it fresh by, well marshaling what the....partially what I've tried to do with these arrangements is to write into some areas where we can create every night and leave room to stretch out so it's going somewhere where you have freedom, and that makes it unique that night, and that keeps it very fresh. It's also that the energy in this whole thing is a very fresh type of energy that Eric and Julie bring to what I do. They are familiar enough with my music and background so they feel very comfortable and confident with it, so, you know it's, I don't know, in a way it's one of those rare, special chemistries that rarely occurs, and musically it gives us what I call "license to kill." (chuckles) You can play a nice song, and of course we do that, but we also write into the show spots where we can know we're just going to do things off the top of our heads, Every show is a little different and every show is the same!
MSJ: How did Frank Zappa influence your style and career in general?
Well, Frank was the person who discovered me, of course, and he took me out of the small club scene, where I was starving. (laughs) and, the year I spent under his tutelage was a crash course for me in terms of learning everything to do with being a professional musician how to tour the world, how to make records, how to arrange music and just do it all on a certain world-class level. That was all given to me in one giant lesson from Frank. Musically, he taught me to play in odd time signatures which is really important. And, I really liked watching him arrange his own material. So I've always had an ear for that, production you know. And, to watch a master like that I learned an awful lot from him. I have to say that most of it was practical on a day to day basis. This was an education concerning how do you write your own music, how do you tour the world? It was the kind of education you won't get in a book or in a classroom.

MSJ: As a writer, did he score his material? How exactly were you playing what he wanted, or was it a bit more free than that?
In my role in Frank's band, the idea was to play everything correctly and according to his instruction consistently. It wasn't so much, “Here, have a lot of freedom." That came later for me with people like Bowie and The Talking Heads, and Nine Inch Nails. For most people who call on me to work with me now, that's entirely what they do. But with Frank it was the opposite. He knew what he wanted and he would tell me, “Here is what you play, and how you play it.” It was a good discipline for me at that time, to have some very difficult material, and to have to perform it correctly every single time. Once you do that, that kind of opens the door for you to be able to say, ”I can stretch my wings.”
MSJ: Do you see anything new with King Crimson happening in the relatively near future?
The plan that we have currently is based more on Robert's design. I don't think Robert wants to do much in the way of touring and traveling. I think he would like to do short bits of things, maybe three shows in one place like Chicago and maybe like five shows in a place like NYC. So, you know, something without a lot of travel involved. It's just to keep the music flowing a bit and seeing where it goes from there. There's no plan this year to do anything new. Like I said, less than ten shows and that will be over by August. But, next year, maybe we'll move forward and do something more than that. There's always the probability that we'll write some new material and that will filter into what King Crimson performs into the future. Right now it's pretty open and not much is going to happen. I want to keep as much of my energy into the power trio, because that's what I like and that's what I'm into doing, and I'd like to do as much of that as possible.
MSJ: We want to mention a few well known musical names, and We'd like if you can just give us a a brief summary of what comes to mind for each, ok?
Sure, go ahead.
MSJ: Jeff Beck.
The most soulful guitarist in the world. He's also my favorite, by the way.
MSJ: Bela Fleck.
Incredible. Unique. A unique person with a unique approach musically to do all the things that he does on the banjo.
MSJ: Tony Levin.
Tony is amazing! He's an all around great musician. He's a little bit like Robert Fripp in that he's made his own place in the world on his instrument. When you hear Tony Levin play bass, you know it's him. and when you can do that , that says a lot. He's a wonderful guy. He's very smart, interested in lots of things and has been a great friend.
MSJ: Chick Corea.
I'm afraid I don't know much about Chick Corea's music, but what I've heard is amazing. He's a virtuoso who has done a lot in that field (fusion). I'm not an expert on his music, but I admire him. He's great. I wish I knew more, but I don't get as much time for recreational listening as I should.
MSJ: Robert Fripp.

Robert Fripp is also like Tony. He's in a class by himself musically. No one sounds like him. There are maybe one, two, three or four areas that he can claim as his own that are unique, and that says a lot,. As a person, he's a lifelong friend and an interesting person. He's complex. I've probably seen sides of him no one else has ever seen in my 27 years with King Crimson. And, it's been a great partnership, so a lot of great music has come out of that.
MSJ: David Byrne.
David Byrne is pretty much to me like he looks publicly. He's a quirky guy; he's got a unique way of looking at things, pretty nerdish. (laughs) What you see is what you get with David Byrne. He is just like he seems to be in his videos.
MSJ: Al DiMeola:

Well I don't enough about Al's music. He's in the same category for me as Chick Corea. What I've heard, of course, I admire greatly. He's a unique player. In fact, one of the unique people that I work with in my crew, Andre Cholmondeley (Project Object, Delicious), worked with Al for many, many years. So a lot of what i know about Al DiMeola has come through Andre. He's an interesting sounding guy.
MSJ: What's your best Spinal Tap moment?
Well you know there was a time, actually, not long after that movie came out, the entire King Crimson band was in rehearsal stage, and we had a night off so we went to see the movie together. Later on when we went to Japan on tour...........,remember the scene going into the bowels of some venue, and they couldn't find the stage? That actually happened to us. (long belly laugh) Really, the same experience! I remember very clearly Tony Levin saying, “Hello, Cleveland!” We were in a boiler room and couldn't figure out how to get to the stage. By the way, I actually played with them once. For their encore on Phoenix, they found out I was in the audience so they brought me up and we played, “Break Like the Wind." What's the one about the bottoms, you know, “Big Bottom.".So the “Jeff Beck guitarist” in the band, I guess you know who I mean, I said to him, “I don't know this song," and he said, “Do you know an E chord?” I said, “Of course.” He said, “Then you're in!” That's all I had to know for “Big Bottom," an E chord!
MSJ: What was the last CD or download you bought for your own listening pleasure?
It's been awhile since I actually bought anything. The last one I remember liking so much was a guy from Canada named Amon Tovin. He does some unique sort of sampling of other records, mainly old jazz records and things, and puts them together in a unique way that sounds new. He doesn't actually play any instrument from what I understand, but the album I bought is called “Super Modified,” and that's the last record that I bought that I really liked.
MSJ: What was the last concert you attended, again for your own enjoyment?
The last concert I attended for my own enjoyment was Umphrey's McGee. They came to Nashville where I live, and so I went to see them. It's a very good band. They bounce around through every kind of musical style. And, I like them. In general, I'm not a big concert goer, because I'm usually doing them, but that's a great one.
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