Interview with Adrian Belew: The Guitar Man

While his name is inextricably linked to prog rock icons King Crimson since he became their frontman in the early ‘80s, Adrian Belew has a career that spans well beyond that. His resume reflects his work with some of the most respected and forward thinking bands in recent memory. Getting his start as a guitarist for Frank Zappa, he then moved on to play for David Bowie on his tour for Heroes before working with the Talking Heads. He joined King Crimson, which has always been an intermittent project, and formed the side project The Bears. He’s done a lot of guest work, including Nine Inch Nails and Porcupine Tree of late, and as he’s a neophilic gearhead, he’s often consulting with various instrument manufacturers on their bleeding edge technologies.

And somewhere in there, he found the time to record about 20 solo records, and has toured those as well.

His last few albums, including e which Belew reveals will be arranged for orchestra next year, have been with the Adrian Belew Power Trio, featuring School Of Rock grads Eric and Julie Slick as the rhythm section. But Belew’s most recent solo work has been just that; solo. He had a few one-man band dates over the winter, and now he’s embarking on a second leg of solo improvisations, songs, and interactions with the audience. As he describes below, the pieces generally start with an abstract loop that serves as a jumping off point for improvisation, but there are also infrequently performed songs from his extensive back catalog and more to be found at his one-man show.

We talked about all this and more, particularly about gear, in the following in-depth Q&A.

Are you getting ready to get out on the road?

Yeah, it’s 11 shows. I’m going to leave on Wednesday morning, so I am working hard toward practicing the music and getting all that ready. I’m kind of doubling up as well because right after I return from that, just four days later, I do a show with the power trio, and that’s a whole different set of music, so I’ve got to reprogram all those sounds and get all that stuff working too. In the last few months, I’ve changed over my guitar setup considerably. In fact, it’s a completely different guitar setup. Much smaller. I’ve downsized it so I can be much more mobile for traveling around the world. It used to be my guitar setup was three different guitar setups put in one with a couple of keyboards thrown in (laughs). It would take almost a van to carry around. Now I’ve basically got it down to a laptop and two other guitar boxes and a small pedalboard. Much better. I’ve had to put a lot—hundreds of hours—of work into that, to get it to the point where I could do the things I could do with all the other gear.

Are you putting all that through a PA, using an amp?

You can do it both ways. When we travel out of the country, we will put it through the PA and it will come back through monitor cabinets for me to hear. When we’re doing a tour like this, though, we can take everything that I use now. Right now I use two Bose towers, the high-quality full-range towers, for anything that needs that, like my keyboard sounds that I trigger for MIDI, my loops and things like that. They come from a separate source. Then for the actual guitar, I have two small monitor cabinets, they’re called Atomic, they look like monitor cabinets, they’re not even amplifier heads, there’s nothing to them. They’re just like little speaker cabinets. And they’re perfectly matched to the main device that I use that isn’t the computer and that is called the Axe FX Ultra. It’s a new guitar box that kind of solves all the needs that I had from other gear. So, it’s a whole new world (laughs).

You had stated that there are things that you can do now that you couldn’t do a year ago. Is that based on the smaller footprint?

It’s not just the smaller aspect. I’m deeper into the world of software and finding areas that I can work with, like I said, that I couldn’t do before. I’ve written some pieces now that I play in this one-man show that demonstrate what I’m talking about, and kind of the one-man show is based on all the things that I do that don’t really work exactly in a rock concert context. If I’m working with King Crimson or the Power Trio, there’s a bunch of music that I’ve got that works well for that. But there are other things that I want to do that don’t seem right in that setting.

For example, I want to talk with the audience, I want them to ask questions, I want to be more personable, I want to improvise by myself on guitar by making loops and creating sounds and things and then playing things over them. And I’ve got all this new technology sitting here that is really inspiring me to do new things that I haven’t formulated into something that I want a band to deal with. And then the last thing of course about the one-man show is people have asked me to see some of my paintings that I’ve had as the artwork for the last four or five records, so I bring some of those along and people can look at those close-up. Kind of makes a different presentation.

My long-term goal with the one-man show is have it as a perfect complement to the rock concert stuff, the Power Trio or King Crimson. What I really want to build it into is more like a multimedia presentation, where you have a couple of video screens and there’s some interesting film accompaniment going on, and you can do a lot with that. We’re not at that stage though (laughs). That’s going to require another computer and more input and more time.

Would that cut down on improvising at all? I know Trey Gunn had done something like that with the Quodia project he did.

No, not really. I’m actually just talking about something that kind of floats in the background and changes. Maybe put a couple of paintings up there and let them morph with computer software. I actually want to be very careful that the video aspect of it does not overwhelm the musical aspect. It’s just going to make it look bigger, richer, more interesting, but I don’t plan to have things that correspond to what I’m playing or things that I have to play along with.

That’s not the approach I want to use. So in other words, improvising will make no difference at all. It’ll just be colors. More like what my paintings represent to me. I think of my paintings as fairly abstract ideas that are just there and you can look at them different ways and you can maybe see something in there or not. Or it’s just a flash of colors or a depth that you’re trying to create, and I’m just trying to do some of that visually.

I guess there’s a way to expand my own personal vision of what I’m doing but also perhaps replace the fact that you don’t have other people moving around and other visual things that you would normally have at a concert. There’s no crashing drums (laughs). It’s a different thing, but I really hope people come to these shows knowing that it’s not a guy getting up there kind of strumming his guitar and playing his songs. It’s not really that. It’s much more aggressive and interesting than that and something that I hope will develop. So far, I’ve only done six shows in the Midwest, and the response was really good. Some of my fans actually prefer this. I hope they just like everything (laughs).

Were Robert Fripp’s soundscapes any kind of impetus?

No, not really. I love Robert’s soundscapes but I think that’s kind of his own territory. I know how to do it, I can do it, and I could probably make it sound more my own, but I haven’t really traveled down that path yet. I like to set up kind of nondescript loops and things and kind of go places with them, whereas a soundscape is kind of a specific formula. You feed in one or two notes at a time and it gradually forms into a universe sitting there that keeps twirling around and coming back different ways. I probably could get to that at some point, but it’s not really in my radar right now.

I meant more in terms of the format, one man, one guitar, not somebody strumming a guitar and singing songs, more of an abstract piece.

In that regard I guess they are similar, but mine is much more proactive I think because I’m playing solos, and I do play songs, and I do sing, and I do a lot of things that Robert doesn’t do when he does his shows. The songs that I pick, they’re few and far between because I don’t want to make it a typical rock show singing a lot of songs, but the ones that I do pick are ones that I don’t ever do in any other format, so there’s really nothing in the show that I do with either King Crimson or the Power Trio.

It is a really very separate idea, and I’d like to keep it that way. This could be the outlet for more personal things, I play a couple of new pieces in here. I play a new song in fact, that does have lyrics and melody, and I want to keep that kind of aspect to it. Anybody who came to see me play in the last three years is not going to hear anything that they heard before.