Do you remember when you first started writing songs?
At age sixteen I contracted mononucleosis in high school and was forced to stay at home and be tutored for two months. And the requirement was that you be inactive. I was a drummer, and I could no longer drum. I had always had songs in my mind that would just appear, and I could kind of hear them full on as though a record was playing. So I decided to take those two months and teach myself to play guitar.
I borrowed an acoustic guitar from one of my band members, and by the end of the two months I had written five songs and put them on tape. I do remember little bits of pieces of them, but I couldn’t even tell you the melodies or titles.
The tapes are long gone?
I’m afraid so. I wish they weren’t. They’d be on my website right now.
Were you surprised at how quickly you picked up the guitar?
I was very surprised at my ability to just figure it out my own way. I could hear what I wanted and so I would just say, “Okay, this is the note that I want, and here is the harmony note to that. And if you put this other note with it you get an interesting chord sound that goes underneath it,” and just proceeded that way. I had absolutely no instruction from, really, anyone. And I didn’t try to learn it in a proper way. For many years I had no idea what the names of chords were.
So you just sort of intuited what the chords would be?
I think probably a lot of it was from my ability as a singer. Because from the age of five on I studied singing by just, you know, singing along with every record that I liked and every singer. I’d have to say that really my first musical ability was singing. I used to entertain my parents and aunts and uncles by singing along with the jukebox or singing with songs on the radio. And I just seemed to have a natural knack for harmonies.
I’m impressed to see that if you work really hard at something, it does eventually pay off. And nothing in my life has proven that to me as much as the creative process.
Did your parents recognize that you had an unusual skill?
I think they did. And even though we were from a lower-income family, they did everything they could to support me. Neither my mother or father nor anyone else in my entire extended family had any musical ability. However, they loved the idea that I was in the junior high school band playing drums at parades and football games. And eventually, when I was in my first band, my father would lug all my drums for me, and my mother would come out and see us play, and all my aunts and uncles.
So it was considered by my family to be a really cool thing. But I do remember how many thousands of times I was told, “That’s great, but what are you gonna do for a living?”
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.
When you started playing with Frank Zappa in the ’70s, did your family know what that transition meant?
Well, unfortunately a lot of my family had died. Not just my father, but a lot of my extended family, aunts and uncles, grandfather, grandmother. Everyone seemed to die over about a decade’s time. My mother lived to see me join Frank Zappa’s band and also to play with David Bowie, and then she died in 1980.
By then, I guess at least to a degree, it was clear that I was doing something. Unfortunately my father didn’t get to see that. But he was never one of those people who said, “You shouldn’t be doing this.” He was first in line to support me, and I think in the back of his mind maybe he thought, “Well, I hope something works out. It’s a better life than I’ve had being a truck driver.”
When you first joined Zappa’s band, do you remember feeling any nervousness?
Well, it was extremely welcomed by me for a number of reasons. I was poor [laughs] and just about ready to give up on the idea that I was going to do something with my music when Frank Zappa discovered me and auditioned me and then asked me to be in his band.
The original handshake agreement between us was for a year’s time. I took it on myself to take that year as a crash course in music and all things to do with being a professional musician, something that I never would have received otherwise, never having had any formal training or going to Berklee [College of Music] or any of those kinds of things. I went to the Frank Zappa School of Rock….
One of the first things he said to me was, “I rarely play in 4/4,” [laughs] “so you’re gonna have to learn to play in all the other odd time signatures.” And he sat me down and showed me a few things — how to start learning to do that. With my drumming background, it came a bit more naturally to me than it probably would some people. Because it’s not a matter of counting things to play in odd time signatures, it’s a matter of feeling the accents. That’s what he taught me.
I’ve heard you say that you can multi-task with your brain, so you can track different rhythms at the same time. Is that something that came naturally, or is it something you had to develop?
I worked at it. I always relate it to what a pianist does, where you’re playing the bass line with your left hand and you’re playing the melody or soloing with your right hand. It’s the same thing I do. I’m concentrating on the guitar parts with one side of my brain while I’m concentrating on the singing with the other side. For a while it’s a real struggle until you finally lock into it. And then what I find becomes important is that one of those two things has to become automatic.
In King Crimson, for example, when the band is playing in three time signatures, and I’m playing in one and singing in a different time signature, it can be very confusing, but what I do is let the guitar playing become what we call “in my body,” so that I’m not thinking about the guitar playing anymore and I can concentrate on doing the singing.
Is there a reason that it’s the guitar that typically goes in your body rather than the vocals?
I think it’s because there’s a [guitar] figure that you’re playing and it’s repetitive. And even though it may move around or change keys or shapes, it’s a physical thing you can remember. And you can practice it to a degree that it starts coming naturally without you thinking about it. Whereas singing is something you’re doing out of your heart and your soul — you’re not just practicing it.
The hardest part of the process is creating it in the first place. It’s not performing it; it’s thinking of it. For instance when we did the song Three of a Perfect Pair, I’m playing a different time signature from what I’m singing, and the band is also [playing a different time signature] from one another. For a long time there’s nothing to hang your hat on. So you can’t imagine really how are you going to sing something on this, you know? King Crimson material often presents that dilemma. But I study it and just listen over and over and over. That’s how I do most of my songwriting. And eventually it occurs to me, “Oh, well you could sing this melody, you could sing this subject matter.” That’s how I write.
It sounds like the instrumental piece generally come first.
Without exception. There’s only one song I can think of where I wrote the words first and then fit music to it. It seems to come naturally to me — the music part of it comes first. And then there’s the struggle and sort of sitting down and forcing yourself, like an English Lit. assignment, to fit the proper words to the mood and the phrasing and the rhythms — all of that stuff that I think defines good songwriting from sloppy songwriting.
The interview continues in Part Three.