Is there anything you’ve learned about the creative process that’s surprised you?
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. Sometimes you do have to work at it; it doesn’t always just flow out of you like lava. Sometimes you really do have to sit and [say], “How am I going to make this work? What can I do?” And really go deep within yourself or at least concentrate to such a degree that it gets tiring, you know? So I’m kind of amazed that the process works and that it’s still working.
Have you gotten any advice about creativity that particularly stands out?
No — strangely it’s not something that I think artists sit around and discuss, although perhaps they should. It’s more to me just the doing of it. In King Crimson, for example, every time we approach a new record, we set up a lot of obstacles to challenge ourselves with. For example, we will say, “Okay, we’re only going to use these few things. Out of all the things we can use, out of all the time signatures or all the chord changes or all the tones or whatever you have on your palette, these are the things we’re gonna use. We’re gonna take this box of twenty-four Crayons, empty it out, and only use these six.” I think, sometimes, challenging ourselves all the time, that’s what it’s all about.
I learned that technique by reading about the way that Stravinsky wrote. That was just a bit of information that somehow stuck with me — that you could do that — you could put parameters around what you’re doing, and it would help focus your creativity.
Almost the entire opposite way of working has worked a lot for me as well. A lot of times I come in the studio and I just start on something — I have a sound and I just start playing something. And then I build from there. It’s not preconceived. It’s not all a target that I’m even shooting for. It’s just free-form, and you create something out of it.
So between those two things — one’s a very disciplined way and one is a kind of haphazard way — I think that’s where most of my work exists. [laughs]
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.
With all the projects you’ve been working on, what are you most excited about?
Right now the trio that I have has touched a creative nerve, has done something amazing that I can’t really explain. It’s like it’s reinvented my music for me — the trio being Eric Slick and Julie Slick. Eric is twenty. Julie is his sister; she’s twenty-one. Eric plays drums; Julie plays bass. And it’s just so incredible to have this newfound canvas, which is the three of us playing music together.
They are young, energetic, unjaded, and just completely ready to do anything, like eager little puppies wanting to do it all. And yet they’re so adult in their abilities and the mechanics of their instruments and in their understanding of all music.
Because of their parents, they grew up in their living room surrounded by twenty-five guitars, a set of drums, and three thousand vinyl records. They live in Philadelphia; they still live with their parents. They don’t even have driver’s licenses yet.
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.
From age eleven on, Eric and Julie have been learning all the music that I grew up learning and everything beyond that. So they know the Beatles — and they shouldn’t at age twenty, but they do — they know King Crimson and they know Zappa and they know all the stuff. The end result is suddenly I’m thrown into this wonderful fire with two young, brilliant players, and it’s caused me to almost rethink what I do. I have to now take everything I’ve done and I can put it back into a new form — a trio form — with a younger, more aggressive kind of attitude.
What drove you to bring on players that age?
I was looking to form a trio and had tried two different lineups. The first lineup I tried, my thinking was, use someone locally, so we could woodshed here in Nashville where I live and I have a studio. And I tried some local players [but] that didn’t work. So my second thought was, okay, I’ll go to tried-and-true people that I’ve known for a long time — some older players, older friends of mine. And that worked a bit and was pretty good, but it wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t the right chemistry.
So I was still looking and thinking, “Well, I still really want to do a trio.” I felt that that would help define my current writing as something different from the Bears or from King Crimson or from my past solo work. So it was important to me to get that kind of lineup.
At the same time, Paul Green brought me to his school [The Paul Green School of Rock Music] to be a guest professor for a week. And while I was there he said, “I just have to have you play with my favorite two students I’ve ever had, the Slicks.” And so I did. I played just one song with them and I knew. I just knew, wow, there’s something amazing here. It was almost like a chemistry that you couldn’t manufacture and you just knew it. They were really wonderful kids, and the more I got to know them, the more I realized, oh, this could really be the trio that I’ve been looking for.
It didn’t immediately work once we stepped out. I mean, every show has been good. But they’ve all gotten better. And this last round where we just played six shows on the East Coast was almost phenomenal. I couldn’t believe it. Every night was just great. Every song sounded fantastic. The tour was happy. Everyone was in good spirits. The audiences were, I think, blown away. And so this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing….
I’m still in the Bears and I’m still in King Crimson, so it doesn’t eliminate those things. It just means that here’s another thing that is more my own personal form. And I can really see what I can do with it and how I can take it further and further. So creatively that’s very exciting. It’s like you’ve found a new vein in the mine.
The strange thing about creativity in general and being musical and so on — it’s entirely what keeps you young. And this is off the subject of anything you’ve asked but, to me, that’s one of the best rewards about it. I feel like a twenty-five-year-old. You know, I’m fifty-seven years old; I don’t feel that way at all. And when I went to my thirtieth class reunion, I looked like I should have been in a, you know, a different class. [laughs] Because all the people who turned out from my class, they look so much older than me now. And it’s not just your looks; it’s not that. It’s more to do with your spirit. It keeps you so young, to do this for a living.
It’s all work. Everything is work. No matter what you’re doing there’s some work involved in it. It’s your livelihood. But I see so many people whose livelihood just burns them out, and the idea of my livelihood being something that really kind of energizes me all the time is — it’s very fortunate. I think it’s true and I think it’s true of a lot of musical and creative people. It becomes like a bonus. Even if you’re not as successful as someone else, you still get the bonus that it keeps you young.