With both the Bears and King Crimson, you’ve developed longstanding creative relationships that have spanned decades. What do you attribute that to?
When you know something works, you should continue it. There’s a large part of me that’s solo oriented. Like a painter, I think sometimes, “Well, I don’t really need anyone’s help in this. This is me painting a picture or me painting a song.” So as much as I can, I try to do everything myself because that’s not only the most fun, it’s also the most rewarding.
But it’s very healthy to step out of that and share something with someone else where you’re not the only one in control and you’re not the only one with the ideas. Interesting things happen that way. So I’ve tried to kind of have a diet of both throughout my career, as a way to continue to be fresh and grow.
How does collaborative songwriting differ from when you’re writing solo?
Well, most of my collaborative things have been quietly done — you know, one or two people sitting down together, perhaps, unamplified, where you’re just trying to get a basic outline of something. Then you take those ideas away and refine them and you meet again and show each other your refinements.
If I’m working within, say, King Crimson, with Robert Fripp, that’s exactly how it works. It’s a quiet process and what you’re trying to do really is allow each other the freedom to try things and be a sounding board sometimes, or else be the one who’s leading the parade.
I’m very blessed to be born into a time where music and technology have joined forces, and it inspires me. If I get a new little box and it makes a new little sound for me and I can get it to do something I’ve never heard someone else do, I can almost guarantee that there’ll be a song derived from that.
So with King Crimson, one person typically takes the lead writing a particular song?
Well, in a lot of ways that’s how it’s happened with Robert and me. But eventually, over the last decade or so, I’ve learned that it really helps to let Robert start, because his involvement is key to anything that will be deemed King Crimson, and if I start it, he’s less likely to feel involved. So if he brings five chord changes and says to me, “I’ve got this much. What do you think?” I can take that and elaborate on it far more easily than the reverse happening.
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew is a Grammy-nominated solo artist and a member of both King Crimson and the Bears. Belew’s big break came in 1977 when he landed a job in Frank Zappa’s band. Over the past thirty years, he’s played on records as varied as David Bowie’s Lodger, Paul Simon’sGraceland, the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Herbie Hancocks’ Magic Windows, Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral, Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak, and William Shatner’s Has Been. To date, he’s released more than fifteen solo projects, starting with 1982’s Lone Rhino. His most recent CD is Side 4, a live recording of The Adrian Belew Power Trio, a new outfit featuring Julie and Eric Slick on bass and drums.
Belew is currently posting a play-by-play of his ongoing recording efforts mixed with memories from years gone by over at his highly recommended Elephant Blog.
How does collaborative songwriting typically work with the Bears?
Well, with the Bears it’s very easy because the Bears is a writer’s collective. So all four players are writers and all four do their own records and work in other situations. We’re less inclined to sit down together and try to write; it’s more that you write for the Bears something that you’d like to hear the Bears do.
The Bears have a very self-proscribed sound, and we know what it is — it’s two guitars, two vocals, bass, and drums. It’s a tried and true, started-by-the-Beatles kind of sound. It’s easy to know that a song is for the Bears or not. There are surprises naturally now and then. But what we generally do is get together, sit in a circle, play our songs, and pick one.
Besides collaboration, are there any other patterns or habits that you’ve noticed that help keep you creatively charged?
What works best for me is to move from one thing to another, and that’s probably why my career has been so varied and I’ve tried a lot of different styles and worked with a lot of people. It revitalizes me to try to go in a new direction.
In a more general way, though, just observing life and reading books and going to movies and occasionally even taking a break from all of it and just letting yourself recharge, all of those rather mundane-sounding things are simply part of the process to me.
I usually wake up with ideas and things that I can do. And sometimes I wake up and I’m just tired. So on those days I just say, “All right, put the muse aside and recharge your batteries.”
As a recording artist, I think one of the key things that I did in the early ’90s, when it became affordable with what was called the ADAT [Alesis Digital Audio Tape] revolution, is that I started equipping myself with my own studio.
Now it’s rather common that everybody’s got their own home studio, but I always thought this was one of the reasons that I was able to be more productive. I had this thing sitting in my house. I had an engineer I paid who came over every day. And when you’re paying someone, you’re more inclined to work. [laughs]
These last two years have been particularly productive, with the release of four new CDs. Why do you think that is?
Well, I could probably write a book about the things that have contributed to that but to say it in a sentence, this is a good time in my life. I’ve adjusted things to a point where I feel good about what I’m trying to do. I’ve gained a certain amount of confidence and energy from the knowledge that I can do certain things and enough people like them that I can make a living doing it.
So it’s partly to do with that. And it’s partly just that this is the time where I feel like spreading my wings and my creativity is boundless now. It used to be, sometimes I had to work at it. And now it just seems to come a lot more naturally.
You still have to work at the problem-solving part of it. By that I mean, I’ve got this idea in my mind — how can I actually realize it on a record or in a live performance? How can I make my guitar or my song go in this direction? So there’s a lot of experimental time spent on research and development.
A lot of things that happen for me come from the instruments themselves. I’m very blessed to be born into a time where music and technology have joined forces, and it inspires me. If I get a new little box and it makes a new little sound for me and I can get it to do something I’ve never heard someone else do, I can almost guarantee that there’ll be a song derived from that.
Is there anything about the creative process that still intimidates you?
I don’t think so. I totally embrace it. I mean, everyone says it’s hard to get started and it’s hard to finish, and I suppose that’s sometimes true. But I like to take on projects and I like to know, “Okay, this going to be a full-on realized record of this type,” and plan it out and kind of imagine what the components are.
It’s a little like painting. Since I started painting a few years ago, I can talk about the likenesses between painting and creating music because they’re very similar to me. They involve similar things, only you’re using different tools.
When you make a song, you’re creating something out of nothing, just like a painting. And you’re using dimensions and depth and different tones, or colors, if you’d like. You’re trying to create something a specific way. A lot of times it’s in my head to begin with, and sometimes it’s totally not, and I just let myself go and find something to create. [laughs]
Does letting go like that just come naturally?
I think it’s mostly that I do it a lot. It’s a continuing process for me. This was especially true when I had my engineer for ten years. He died last year, so I haven’t an everyday partner since then. But when I did have that, I found that even if I went down to the studio and just worked a little bit and didn’t really seem to accomplish much, it was the accumulation of all that that kept the creative process moving forward.
Robert and I do that with King Crimson. We’ll meet for maybe two hours and go over ideas and then try some new ideas. And then we’ll stop and just let it sink in and go on and do other things for a while, come back the next day, and do it again. I guess my point being, the accumulation of ideas and creativity is often what keeps it going. It’s like a fire. Once you get the fire going, you just keep it stoked a little bit and it feeds itself.
Looking back, has there been a moment that stands out as particularly creatively challenging?
Well, there have always been transitions from one type of music to the next, or from being in King Crimson to not being in King Crimson, or from being a solo artist to starting the Bears and making that happen. But if I really think about challenges, they’re usually musical ones.
One that comes to my mind is that I did a record, my third solo record, Desire Caught by the Tail. It’s such a distinctive, even unique record that I pretty much had to redesign everything to figure it out. What I was trying to do was to get my guitar, in particular, to sound as much like an orchestra as I could. There was early technology available, early guitar synthesizer stuff, but it was completely untried at that point for the most part.
I had to write a new language to do that. It required an intense amount of knob turning, [laughs] sitting down for hours at a time, trying to design something that was similar to a clarinet and play it on an electric guitar. That process took me way outside of what I normally did because it had nothing to do with pop music. It wasn’t about performing live. It wasn’t about writing songs really. It was about composition.
It took me about a year and a half to work through that and come up with this record, which is pretty unknown to most of my fans even. And in the end I think, it was somewhat of a disaster. It’s either so far ahead of its time — or it just doesn’t belong at all — that my record label dropped me because of it. [laughs] It’s a strange one. It’s certainly an acquired taste. It’s almost like, “You’re a rock guitar player and all of sudden now you’re trying to deal with the world of symphonies.” It was very unexpected and maybe ill-timed.
I was curious if you suspect that you perceive music differently than most other people — how music comes into your brain, even just listening to it?
I think I do perceive it differently. I think I perceive it almost cinematically. In other words, when I hear something, I can place other types of values on it — that it’s this color or it’s this scene — I can imagine things that go with it. It’s not just music and rhythm to me.
I think, obviously, for most people music is an enrichment. And for a lot of people it’s also just the background, you know — it’s something that they do while they’re doing something else or something they dance to or something they have on in the background of their lives.
But for me it’s so intense an experience that it’s almost like another visual in itself just to hear the music. So I perceive it differently. That may be why my insights into music, they’re not always apparent to most people. [laughs] You know, when I’m making a piece of music, I’m doing more than just combining the musical elements. I’m actually trying to make a vision of something, and I can see it, but I don’t know that everyone else does…. I don’t know where that comes from and how you get that. Maybe talent, you know, or the idea that you’re born with something — some wiring that you already have in your DNA or in your brain is the reason that some people can do it and some people can’t, just like anything.
You know, there are a lot of things I can’t do that other people can. So that’s the thing that I got. My dad was able to take a car apart and put it back together. I couldn’t do that if my life depended on it. I don’t even know what a carburetor looks like. My father, to me he was masterful at what he could do, and it was all the things that I have no — I can’t even imagine it.
The interview continues in Part Two.