Interview with Adrian Belew: The Guitar Man

Are you recording these or are you planning to release anything like it?

I am set up now for this leg of touring, we weren’t set up for the last one. We’re set up to record nightly, every show, and we will do that. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, because the new pieces I’d like to actually develop them a little further than just being one man pieces. Just a little further. I don’t want to end up orchestrating to the point where I can’t play them successfully live.

The new song which is called ‘Europe By Rail’ for example, I have a little box called Tenori-On, which is a brand new device by Yamaha that most people have never heard or seen. It’s another little wrinkle in the show that I think people really enjoy. All of a sudden you’re demonstrating and utilizing this little piece of gear that no one’s ever heard or seen before. I’m use it in that particular song as my drum machine and I’ve programmed it to be something like a train clacking along on a track because that’s what the song is about, traveling around Europe on the Eurorail. And that kind of just basic little bit of orchestration there is what I hope to do with some of the one-man stuff.

My premise is not everything has to have bass and drums or a vocal or any particular ingredient. My music is going to start having fewer things to it, but each thing will have more importance to it. So the guitar part that I’ve written for ‘Europe By Rail’ is a very full, very interesting sounding guitar thing, and rather than cover that up by adding more and more ingredients, I want to go the opposite way, and let that represent more of the sound and put fewer elements around it. That’s how I’m going to deal with the new one man material.

I guess the idea of actively looping or boomeranging what you’re doing is not what you’re looking to do, a means of building songs via looping.

My looping now comes from the computer by the way, I use a free download program called Mobius. That’s very helpful, because now that’s one less piece of gear. (laughs)

You were asking about recording this stuff; I am going to record it live, but you never know what’s will happen from that. There may be something that I want to put on record or as a download. In terms of recording the new material properly in my studio here, yes, that’s on the backburner, probably for September. That’s looking like the time I’m going to have open to do some recording. The interesting thing that always happens for me and this is one of the reasons every four or five years I do a turnaround on all of my gear, whenever I get new gear, that’s a big part of the inspirational process for me. New sounds creates new music. SO as soon as I realized with this computer that I could do something I could never do before, I utilized that idea and turned it into a new piece of music. That’s the beauty of technology for me, but it’s also the curse, because once you create music with a piece of technology you have to have that to recreate it (laughs). It’s exciting for me right now because right now in my back pocket here I feel like I’ve got a whole new record of material sitting here already, just from working for the last couple of months with all these new ideas and new technologies. Suddenly, ‘Oh here’s this part I want to use,’ ‘Oh, there’s this other cool little vibe over here I can turn into something,’ and ‘Oh, there’s this.’ I see it already as a record, just not yet recorded.

And all that is stuff that you can manipulate through your Parker because you have a MIDI setup on that as well as it being a ‘normal’ guitar.

Well, I think the difference that makes the Adrian Belew model different from a Parker Fly is the advancement of the electronics. I didn’t try to change the guitar itself because I already felt it was just perfect.

I really believe Ken Parker reinvented the electric guitar and he’s the only person in my mind to have done that since the ‘50s when you started with Gibson or Fender products. Those things have been dominant since Ken Parker reinvented this guitar and what he did was he changed all the things that were inherently wrong in guitars. They go out of tune, they require intonation, tremolos don’t always come back into place perfectly. All that kind of stuff, he fixed all that stuff.

The guitar itself is already perfect to me. What I wanted to do is access some of the state of the art electronics, like you said, MIDI. When I spoke to Ken Parker he said the guitar was intended to be a MIDI guitar in the first place, but when they put it into production he felt they already had so much radical about it they didn’t want to take it one step further (laughs). It was designed to be a MIDI guitar in the first place, and one of the reasons that it works so well as a MIDI guitar is that the neck is always perfect.

Every single note is exactly the same. There’s no difference. It’s a really hard thing to do with any guitar, but because they use this method of baking a carbon epoxy into the wood, it makes the tensile strength of the wood a thousand times stronger and the neck has a rigidity you can’t get otherwise. Therefore, all across the fretboard, every single note is perfectly the same. There’s no intonation ever required, and the guitar stays perfectly in tune.

In terms of MIDI guitar, that’s exactly what you want. MIDI wants the least confusing waveform it can see, and if every note is perfectly accurate, that’s a good thing. We added that, then we added the sustainer which I’ve been using for the last ten, twelve years, and I’ve gotten very accustomed to that and it’s something I’ve written into a lot of my material, and the last thing was the Variax system that Line 6 invented, which is the modeling of 25 different guitars and that came out just as we were finishing the design and it was so state of the art and to me a radical leap forward I made sure we put that in the guitar.

It’s really MIDI, Sustainiac, and Variax electronics that separates this guitar from a normal Parker Fly, and that surely was a long explanation wasn’t it. (laughs).

I didn’t know about that carbon method. To me, I always thought the most striking thing about Parker Flys was the weight, really.

And that’s why, see. You can’t have a four-pound guitar. The neck is so thin and beautiful, that’s why I love it, it makes me play better, it’s more fluid, it’s accurate. But a neck that thin would not be able to withstand that kind of pressure. And a body that thin. The brilliant thing that Ken did was he discovered this sci-fi kind of thing you could do to the guitar which was coat the back of it in this little thin coating that you can’t even see, bake it into the guitar, and suddenly the guitar is this four pound piece of steel, it’s not even wood (laughs). It’s a great guitar.

Other things, you are doing the Power Trio dates in Canada.

What we have is one festival on Vancouver Island, which was on the books a long time now, and had I known that it would turn out that it was just this single little thing in the middle of the year, we probably would have said no to it. It gives us a reason to regroup and do the trio again. I wasn’t going to be doing the trio until fall because we had decided at the end of the last year that we had toured the States endlessly and let’s give it a break and let’s take six months away from the trio. Just have the trio reemerge at the end of the year in Europe primarily. Maybe even in Japan. That’s the basic plan for the Power Trio. Next year, I hope to put it back into action in the States again.

Marco [Minnemann] is filling in for the Vancouver show?

Marco is filling in because what happened is Eric [Slick] got busy (laughs). Of course, I knew he would get busy, I knew he was going to try to stay active and play a lot of different things, but what turned out, instead of him playing with a lot of separate bands, he ended up joined a band, getting on retainer with that band, and that means for the rest of this year, he’s not free.

It’s an unfortunate, sad turn of events for me (laughs). It’s kind of like I created this little monster and someone else gets the advantage of his abilities. Of course, I’m happy that in regards to having Marco Minnemann fill in. I think it’ll be really interesting to see what Julie [Slick] and I sound like with a different drummer. Marco’s an amazing drummer. Probably more drummer than I need (laughs). His facility is unbelievable. So I’m looking forward to that. Hopefully next year we can nail down Eric a little more and not have him off doing something else all the time.

I guess that was Frank Zappa’s problem that he would have players come and go.

I was one of them, so I understand that. I felt good about it in my day because I did have an agreement with him for one year and at the end of that year, I switched to playing with David Bowie and he gave me his blessing to do that. I actually thought I would go back to Frank’s band at some point after that but it just never did happen.

In the case of Eric, I have his assurance that really what he wants to do is play with the Power Trio. The other band he’s playing with is something he likes, of course, but it’s more the money gig. And you have to have that, and I understand that. I can’t keep these guys busy all the time, there isn’t that much work. Once you tour the United States once, there’s 30 or 40 shows there, you can’t really go back for six months at least.

Then you have to put together something outside of the country and that’s very hairy. This European tour has now developed to be about five weeks long and I can tell you it’s taken about five months to put it together. You’re dealing with 20 different promoters, foreign countries, different currencies, different languages, flights, gear, all sorts of minutiae that go into getting you up on a stage in Lithuania.