An in-depth interview with Adrian Belew, guitar wizard and sideman to the stars.
Adrian Belew’s career in music seems like some Hollywood-styled fable, the story of a Zelig-like character who comes from nowhere to influence everything … and yet remains largely unknown to the general public.
“From the time I was young, I had an interest in both pop and the avant-garde,” says the guitarist/producer/songwriter/vocalist. “I always liked interesting movie scores and avant-garde percussion music, but at the same time, I was in love with the Beatles and the Kinks. I like catchy, singable songs that have something interesting musically inside them, and I’ve always been guided by that.”
With a CV that includes everything from backing Nine Inch Nails to scoring the Oscar-winning Pixar animated film, “Piper,” Belew, 72, was discovered by none other than Frank Zappa, seasoned by David Bowie, who employed him as his tour guitarist and later musical director, and mentored by guitarist Robert Fripp, who asked Belew to join, and practically take over, King Crimson. The Kentucky native was also a key collaborator on classic records by Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club and Paul Simon. Since 1981, he’s had a side-career leading his own four-piece, the Bears, and has crafted more than 20 albums of solo rock ‘n’ roll, most recorded one-man-band style. This underrated solo output has managed to be musically innovative while diving headfirst into the kind of melodic pop that he loved as a kid. (Ironic that, as a solo artist, he’s only had one Top 40 hit, 1989’s irresistible “Oh Daddy,” a tongue-in-cheek sing-a-long about not being able to score top 40 hits).
Belew says that his latest disc, “Elevator,” is his best and most complete to date. For that, he thanks the COVID layoff. “It was the first time that I had the chance in my whole career to sit and concentrate on the record that I was making, with no pressure or deadlines.” He wanted to make a set of songs that would help people feel good about their lives again after being grounded. “Hence the title, ‘Elevator.'”
Playing a mixture of solo material and King Crimson favorites, The Adrian Belew Power Trio — with bassist Julie Slick and drummer Johnny Luca — will perform at the Ashland Theatre on Aug. 1. Style Weekly recently caught up with the affable axeman at his Nashville home studio to talk with him about, among other things, his unlikely origin story, how he creates those trademark animal sounds on his guitar, and what it takes to be one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great collaborators.
Style Weekly: You’re originally from Kentucky?
Adrian Belew: Yes, Northern Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati, a place called Covington. I lived in three different places in the state: Covington, Ludlow, a little river town, and then Florence, Kentucky, the home of the garish water tower that reads, “Florence Y’all.” In fact, I’m a Kentucky Colonel. It’s a designation given to me by the Governor himself.
What was your first exposure to music?
I started singing when I was a little boy. I just thrilled [them] at family gatherings. I knew from an early age that music was important to me. I could sing all the interesting harmonies of the Everly Brothers and things like that. When I was ten and we moved to Ludlow, I got into the junior high school marching band. They wanted me to play trumpet but I insisted on playing drums. And that’s what I did for the next three years. During that time, the Beatles arrived. I was the perfect target. I loved them.
We then moved to Florence and when we did that, I formed my first teen band, called the Denims. I was the drummer. We wore denim outfits and eventually became so good at playing Beatles music that we were called Cincinnati’s own Beatles by the town’s radio stations.
When did the guitar enter your life?
When I was 16, I contracted mononucleosis. I don’t know how I caught it … I certainly wasn’t kissing anyone (laughs). The doctor told me that I had to stay at home for two months and get tutored and I couldn’t play with my band. But I had these ideas I could hear in my head that turned out to be songs. I could actually hear them like a record playing and I needed to figure out how to play them for other people. So I borrowed a guitar from one of the guitarists in the band and learned how to play guitar, teaching myself. I remember it was an old Gibson hollow body acoustic.
I went back and got in the Denims again and had written five songs by then. But because I didn’t know what I was doing they were like, ‘what in the heck are those chords?’ So for a few more years I continued as the singing drummer in the Denims. But locally I started becoming known more as a guitarist and I became a guitarist within the local Cincinnati scene. Eventually I moved to Nashville to play with a popular group called Sweetheart, a very good cover band that performed Steely Dan, Wings, Stones, Stevie Wonder — the good stuff. I was one of the main singers and whenever I would sing the songs, I would always try to sound like that singer. I prided myself, even when I was a little kid, on being able to mimic sounds and voices and things.
Frank Zappa came in one night after playing a concert at Vanderbilt … he just wanted to go somewhere after the show. He saw me play guitar and sing in a variety of styles and that’s what enticed him to audition me for his band. And that, of course, changed my life.
What did Zappa hear in you, do you know?
What he told me later was that he needed someone who could do both things. Frank wasn’t coordinated enough to sing and play guitar at the same time. You’ll notice [in clips] that he’s either playing or he’s singing, so he really needed someone to cover for him in either case. If he was singing, I would be playing the guitar stuff and vice versa. Up until that point, I think he had to have more than one person filling that role. I was perfect for him.
Even though I was self taught and didn’t know how to read music, I was very good at learning things quickly by rote. We would rehearse Monday thru Friday, eight to ten hours a day, very serious rehearsals. And then I would spend the weekend at his house, and he would prepare me for what I needed to rehearse the next week.
When did you connect with David Bowie?
There often were times in the show when Frank would play guitar for a ten minute solo and there was one of these times in Berlin, Germany. I left the stage and looked over at the monitor mixer and there was Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and so I walked over and shook David Bowie’s hand and said, ‘I love your work and all the music you’ve done,’ and he said, great, how’d you like to be in my band?’
A few days later, I heard from my manager that, in fact, David did want to hire me for his forthcoming tour. It was going to last four months. The interesting thing was that Frank had told everyone that, for the next four months after his tour, he was going to be editing this movie, “Baby Snakes,” that we made. So we would all be put on retainers for four months, sitting around doing nothing and getting paid. I told Frank about the offer and told him I’d come back after the Bowie tour and he said, sure. Do it. The problem was that it didn’t work out on either end. The Bowie tour ended up stretching to a year and a half, and Frank ended up not editing the movie and putting together a completely different band and going back on tour. But for years and years afterwards, whenever I was in L.A., I would go to Frank’s house and visit with him. We remained good friends.
It’s been said that David Bowie could be stingy when it came to paying musicians. Is that a fair charge?
I think on the first tour, 1978-79, the money wasn’t what it should’ve been. I knew other members of the band were making way more than I was, but it didn’t matter. I was the green kid from Kentucky and I didn’t care at all. I was having a ball. I couldn’t believe I was touring the world with David Bowie.
But twelve years later, I did the 1990 Sound and Vision tour and David called me and asked me to not only be the guitar player and singer with him, but also the music director. And the money for that was extraordinary. And he also said, ‘you can bring your own band.’ It was amazing. We had Lee Iacocca’s private jet, we went to 27 countries, played 108 shows. The stage we had was so big that it took two days to construct so David and I had time to hang out together.
After you left Bowie, you joined Talking Heads for the album, “Remain in Light.” What was it like to work with them?
That record really took me by surprise. Because when I came in — and I did everything in one day — they had nothing. It was just chords and a drumbeat. They didn’t have vocals, nothing. They were kind of stuck and later Jerry [Harrison, Talking Heads keyboardist] told me that they were at the point of nearly giving up but that my coming in kind of reignited the record.
The sessions have been labeled as contentious. Did you feel that?
Well, Chris [Frantz, drummer] and Tina [Weymouth, bassist] didn’t show up. But I didn’t realize there was tension at the time. It was when they asked me to join them later for the world tour that it became obvious to me that there was a direct split in the band, David and [producer] Brian Eno on one side, Chris and Tina on the other and Jerry neutral. But they loved me and I loved them and I wasn’t about to take sides. And it didn’t affect the quality of the music, or the performances.
During the same period you were playing with Talking Heads, you were also joining King Crimson, one of the elite British prog bands. Did that seem odd?
It was really two different types of bands, with King Crimson much more complicated, complex kind of music and Talking Heads more of a feel-good groove type of music. David [Byrne] is just an interesting, quirky person, like you’d think he is … a bit on the spectrum, I suppose. Full of crazy little ideas. I loved him. I love the whole band – I’m still good friends with all of them, I hope. I still work with Jerry Harrison [performing occasional concerts of Remain In Light material].
How did you get your deal as a solo artist?
When I was with Talking Heads in 1980, I also did a record with Chris and Tina called the Tom Tom Club. One of the songs I co-wrote, “Genius of Love,” has been very successful and influential … It was just sampled again by Latto for a number one record, “Big Energy.” We were at the studio in the Bahamas owned by Chris Blackwell, who ran Island Records, and he asked me, ‘Is there anything you’d really like to do?’ I told him that I’d been writing songs since I was sixteen and my plan was to make my own records, not just be a sideman. I didn’t start out to be someone’s guitar player. And he said, ‘I’ll give you a record deal.’ I asked him, ‘don’t you want to hear the material?’ And he said, ‘no, I trust you.’
So just as I was joining King Crimson in 1981, I was also signing my first record deal. I made that first record with King Crimson, “Discipline,” and, between the cracks, I was recording my first solo album, “Lone Rhino.” My career has been that way ever since… concurrent with whatever else I’m doing, I’m working on solo material.
Of all of the performers and groups you’ve worked with, which had the most effect on your development as a musician?
First would be Frank because he brought me into the position of being a world-class musician, working in odd time signatures, which has served me well in my career. And King Crimson. It was the first band to say, “Here, you are the front man, co-guitarist with Robert Fripp, the singer.” I mean, this was all the things I’d been waiting for.
It seems odd that this established band would basically just hand over the reins to you, a relative newcomer. King Crimson sounded at times like the Adrian Belew Band.
It wasn’t meant to sound like the old King Crimson. The idea was to create something brand new. We also had a lot of the latest technology – the Chapman Stick, the synthesizers. And, yes, I became the songwriter and the frontman, but Robert was very keen to share all of that with me.
He’s notorious for being difficult to work with. But you make Fripp sound like a giving collaborator.
Robert is not that way with everyone. He can indeed be difficult. He has some things that you have to learn to deal with. He’s very precise in his own playing and wants to control things. And that’s not always a bad thing. A band needs someone who has a vision of what it’s supposed to be. He could be rough on some people, like [drummer] Bill Bruford, demanding that he shouldn’t play this or should play that.
I probably had the best relationship with him than anyone other than his wife for 33 years. He’d stay in my house for days. My home studio has its own guest quarters with a private entrance, bedroom, kitchen, bath. He’d stay here working with me for weeks on end. We talked through everything we did and there was almost no disagreement. And when there was, it was quite civilized. Robert gave me free rein to do whatever I pleased and if it was something he didn’t care for, he’d say so in a nice way and we moved along. I didn’t care because I had somewhere else to put the work: my solo career.
Was it difficult writing songs for King Crimson?
I always tried to make the King Crimson material more open to interpretation, not so personable, but at the same time my role in life was to be the friendly guy in front who’d reach down and shake the hands of the fans telling them it was OK to like us. (Laughs). Robert could give off a distant vibe to the audience. It was his demeanor and it worked well for him, made him very mysterious and it made King Crimson more successful I think, because it caused people to almost be afraid of him. But I felt like this was not my personality, and that what I can do to help is just be myself, be friendly, jump around, have a good time and hopefully draw a different kind of audience to King Crimson.
You worked with Paul Simon too, on “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints.” Were you a fan of his going in?
I think Paul is one of the great American songwriters, he’s the top. And out of all the people I worked with, Paul was the most precise, in the sense that he had a really strong idea of what he wanted you to do and he wanted you to do it exactly that way. So we worked until I had it exactly that way. It was not so much about me bringing my own ideas in. David Bowie, Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails – those are people who brought me in and said do whatever you want, that’s why we have you here. The people who didn’t do that were Frank Zappa and Paul Simon. They had exact ideas of what they wanted and they wanted you to do it just that way.
One of the features of your guitar playing over the years has been your ability to produce weird animal sounds on the guitar. Where in the world did that come from?
Even before Frank discovered me, I started doing that stuff. Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by sounds, ordinary sounds … a car horn, a train, a bird, sounds that surround us in life. And I began to wonder how I could make my guitar sound like that. Pretty soon I was making sounds that sorta seemed like something – what does an elephant trumpeting sound like? Or whales or birds?
Were you ever worried that it would seem like a gimmick?
Everybody has embraced it. Let’s put it this way, in the world of guitar players, you have a lot of imitators and very few who have something original to say. There’s a lot of territory being taken up. It’s very difficult to find that piece of real estate that is yours. When I first met Jeff Beck, who is my favorite guitar player, he ran over to me and shook my hand and said, ‘you’re that elephant guy.’ It’s not a gimmick for me. If I find a sound, it has to work within the context of the music. It has to serve the song.
You’re very self-contained. You not only play all the instruments on your solo records, you also paint the covers.
I know what I want. I love playing all the different instruments, I love doing the artwork. During COVID, I learned how to do digital painting. And the process was just [like] teaching myself to play guitar. You’re dealing with tones and depths and perspectives.
“Oh Daddy,” from 1989, is your only chart hit. Does it frustrate you that you haven’t, as you once sang, “hit the top” as a solo artist?
I always knew I was capable of writing material that was as catchy as anything on the radio. I don’t know why it never happened, maybe I didn’t have the clout, maybe I wasn’t with the right label, I don’t know. But I realized after a while that it wasn’t going to happen to me, that I wasn’t going to be a big media star. But that’s fine because what’s always mattered to me is being creative. Like, when I finished the songs on Elevator, and they were everything I wanted them to be, that’s the greatest joy I can imagine. I’d rather have that than chart success any day, although it would be nice to have both (laughs).
An Evening with Adrian Belew takes place at the Ashland Theatre on Monday, Aug. 1. $44.50-$59.50. Tickets and more info at thebroadberry.com