Interview with Adrian Belew: The Guitar Man

King Crimson is on indefinite hiatus, what about the Bears? Anything down the line?

The Bears will always be something I would like to do whenever someone’s ready to do it. It is for me a recording project. I don’t see it as a live touring entity because it doesn’t seem to be able to do that. The other guys in the band mainly work regular jobs so it’s not even feasible for us to do much outside of getting in my studio and putting together a new record which I’m always ready to do. It usually takes a couple of years and finally everybody’s got their quiet batch of new songs and they say, ‘Let’s do it.’ That always possible, it’s not on the books to be done, but it is possible.

I did speak with Robert about putting King Crimson back in action last year, so that’s possible, although I think it’s very unlikely given most of his comments lately. I don’t think he really wants to do that, but I did ask him. I made a special call to him and said you know, I really think the next year we should go out and play some more. We’ll see what he says.

The main thing that I’ve got next year that I’m really excited about, and this is for sure, when I wrote the last record, e, which is a 42-minute piece of music, I wrote it for the trio, partly as a way to kind of show what the trio is capable of doing, but also as a piece of music that could be done different ways. In particular, I was hoping that someday it could be orchestrated, not for a rock band, but for an orchestra.

And that’s actually going to happen in Holland next year. Next Feb. 27, in Amsterdam, Holland, I am going to play with the Metropole orchestra which is a very well known 40-piece orchestra, we are going to play the entire piece of music. Me with an orchestra (laughs). I am extremely excited about that and a little scared as well [as] it’s real new territory. If it works, and it goes well, we’ll have a real score for e that could be done by any orchestra in the world.

That’s very exciting. I’ve got to go there pretty soon, we haven’t worked out a time yet when everyone is available, that is the conductor, the orchestrator and the whole orchestra (laughs). But when that is available, probably August or September, I’m going to go to Amsterdam and spend about ten days there working with the orchestrator spelling out my ideas to him so he can write the score. Everything that I’m doing in guitar in that piece of music can be done by cellos and oboes and bassoons and pianos and horns and I’d really love to get that to happen, and I think that is going to happen next year. It’s going to be a huge undertaking that probably will take up a lot of my time from December through February.

It would be between you and the orchestrator rearranging it and rescoring it for a full orchestra?

Exactly. His name is Tom Trapp. He’s an American from New York who’s been in Holland now for 14 years and he’s worked with this orchestra many times and he’s very excited about doing this. The difference is in Holland, there’s a lot of state funding there, some of this is being funded by the Dutch, some of it is being funded by a broadcasting company, so there would be a possible recording of this, a possible DVD of this, so if it all falls into place it could be a whole new avenue for me. I could actually see myself sitting in with an orchestra or two around the world anywhere.

Have you ever done that?

No, never. And I don’t read music. I was totally self-taught. I was the only guy in Frank’s band that was self-taught. I learn things quickly by rote. And I understand music in my own way. As Frank said to me, ‘You understand it, you just don’t have the technical terminology for everything.’ And he recommended to me that I didn’t bother to even learn it because it was partly what made me somewhat unique.

The problem of course is when you’re standing in front of a 40-piece orchestra and they’re reading little dots off a paper (laughs). It’s gonna be a challenge for me, that’s why I’m a little nervous about it. I know the piece of music, it took me three years to write it. It’s going to be really fun to hear it that way. It’s going to be a highlight of my career to stand in front of an orchestra. This is something I’ve thought about ever since I started playing guitar.

I had a dream when I was much younger that ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to get up and play with an orchestra.’ I don’t know why I thought that. At that point in time, 30 or 40 years ago, it was not something anyone would think of doing. But for some reason in the back of my mind, I always thought that I could do that someday. It’s one of the few major things left on my list (laughs). And it looks like I’m going to get to do that, so that’s really exciting to me.

Over your career, I almost took it as a ‘Oh, well he must have done that.’

I’ve done a little bit of things where I’ve written pieces for string quartets on a couple of my records, and the way I write those things is I get an orchestrator in and we sit at the piano and I spell out the parts and say ‘Okay, here’s what I hear the cello playing.’ It’s a very painstaking process. What you get from it, the orchestrator knows the more technical things, the range of the instrument or whether or not it might be better to put this note an octave higher or something like that. Those techniques are their specialty. But I know exactly what I want to hear. I hear it in my brain as though the orchestra is already playing it. So it’s going to be some time sitting down with Tom Trapp and getting it perfected. For me, it’ll be a different performance of e because I’m going to relegate a lot of my loops and a lot of the parts that I play to other instruments in the orchestra, so it’s actually going to change the way that I will play the piece of music, so that will be exciting too.

I think I’ve seen some video of you playing cello.

Yeah, I can hack around on cello (laughs). I actually have a lot of instruments, like Japanese koto, and flute and cello and even piano. I would say I can work at them a few days at a time and get something that I’m trying to get. Get it well enough that I feel okay about it.

I’ve never used autotuning or anything, so at least my cello chops are good enough that I put them on record. And they sound like a real cello instead of doing it on a sampled keyboard or something, and I’ve found through the past that if you actually just put in a real instrument with the sound you’re trying to emulate—like say if you’re doing a string section and you’re doing it on a keyboard but you put in one real cello, somehow it tricks the whole process. It tricks your ear. People are more likely to think it’s real strings.

Real strings are not affordable for most projects. Cello has always been an instrument that I just love. I love the sound of it, I love the way it feels as you’re playing it. I wish I could develop my techniques, but it’s good enough to do what I want to do with it.

It’s the same way that I look at my drumming chops. I’ve played drums all my life, but I never really got past a certain level. I didn’t really want to sit down and put the time into it that was required. You get to a certain level in drumming where you’re good and solid and maybe a little creative, and that’s where I feel like I’m at.

But if you want to go to the next level, you’ve got to deal with sitting there practicing paradiddles eight hours a day (laughs). And that’s something I felt like, ‘Nah, I’m happy where I’m at.’ I can do what I want on my records with my drumming and when there are times when I can’t and I realize this is beyond me, then I hire somebody else.

Have all these different instruments, learning them, affected your guitar playing?

Yeah I think it does. I especially think drumming has helped my guitar playing a lot. I began as a drummer at age 10 and I didn’t pick up guitar until 16 when I realized I needed to write songs and I couldn’t do that on drums. Having that background and continuing that background of drumming and dealing with rhythms, that’s a whole different dynamic than playing guitar. I kind of feel that without that as part of my background, I probably wouldn’t be able to do so well with odd time signatures and all the composing that I’ve done with that kind of material.

King Crimson might not have happened for me if I didn’t have that. In King Crimson, it’s been required that you work in odd time signatures and polyrhythmic things. My understanding of drumming and the fact that I can do some of those things on the drums has really elevated my abilities on guitar. But I think it’s true no matter what. Even if you just pick up a harmonica and play it, you get something out of it that’s different that seeps into your consciousness and maybe someday you’re playing guitar and you play something like a harmonica lick.

It’s the same reason why even though the Parker Fly is suitable for me to be happy with that guitar and nothing else, I still do have 30 or 40 other guitars because they’re different and they have different characteristics, and when you play them, they cause you to play differently. It’s why I write on electric guitar, then I write on acoustic guitar for a while, then I write on the piano for a while, then I play drums for a while. Each one of those things have their unique set of characteristics and it informs the music a little better.

Adrian Belew performs his one-man show at Joe’s Pub on June 22, Mexicali Live in Teaneck, NJ on June 30, and World Café Live in Philadelphia on July 1.