An Interview with Adrian Belew, Part 2

Musician Adrian Belew talks about teaching himself guitar at 16, what it felt like to sign on with Zappa's band, and how he writes and performs complex, multi-rhythmic pieces.

Adrian Belew

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko

Welcome to the second part of this interview with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew. If you haven’t already read the first part, you can find it here or jump to Part Three here.

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.

Continue reading

Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Adrian Belew, Part 1

Musician Adrian Belew talks about collaborating with King Crimson and the Bears, why the last two years have been so productive, and how he perceives music.

Adrian Belew

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.

This is the first part of a three-part interview. You can find Part Two here.

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.

Continue reading

Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Tobie Giddio

Visual artist and fashion illustrator Tobie Giddio talks about music and meditation, and finding inspiration in the New York club scene.

Image created for Tiffany & Co. by Tobie Giddio, reproduced  courtesy of the artist.

Image created for Tiffany & Co.
by Tobie Giddio, reproduced
courtesy of the artist.

Can you describe your background?

Well, I started out in fashion illustration. I studied with a number of teachers at F.I.T. [the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York – ed.]. And one of my main mentors was a teacher who was very rooted in fine art, so I was getting taught both principles at the same time. I was learning about drawing, and drawing the figure, and drawing the fashion figure, and then at the same time I was learning how to abstract the figure and learning about color and fine art and especially the modern art folks. To this day, I work in the fashion industry, and I spend a lot of time abstracting fashion and beauty and nature.

How does fashion illustration work — when you’re working on an ad, for example, what are you working from?

Well, I studied drawing from life…. And then, as time went on, I left drawing from life and now I mostly draw from memory. The figures just keep sort of coming. I draw them from my mind.

If it’s a job, I’ll often have specific clothing to draw. Most of the things on my site — a lot of the things that I do for myself in my studio — they’re just sort of memories and little vignettes of things that I’ve seen, and I’ve really loved.

I love to look at the couture in Paris and very beautiful, extravagant runway shows. I’m not that interested in regular fashion — American fashion. I look at those European shows, and then a lot of the details might show up in my work.

You seem to be very productive. Was that always the case or did something kick in along the way that helped ramp things up?

Well, I don’t know if I’m really that productive. I mean, it looks like a lot of work — when I look at my website, I think, “Oh geez, I have done stuff.” But I don’t draw every day. To me, productive people are people who draw every day or paint or are sitting at the piano every day. I don’t. But I do work. I’ll work when I really feel inspired to work. And I’m capable of producing a lot of work in a small amount of time. But I don’t necessarily work every day.

Continue reading

Category: Visual Arts/Design

An Interview with Dan Wilson, Part 2

Musician Dan Wilson talks about how much to let listeners in on the story behind lyrics, the benefits of Eno's Oblique Strategies, and the creative challenges he faced mixing his new album.

Dan Wilson

Photo credit: James Minchin.

Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with musician Dan Wilson. If you haven’t already read Part One, be sure to check it out to hear about the summer day Wilson wrote his first song, the key role titles play in his songwriting process, and why art is a volume business.

I’d heard Semisonic’s song “DND” several times before learning that “DND” referred to the “Do Not Disturb” signs in hotels. I wondered what your thoughts were on how much you want to let your listeners in on the particulars behind your lyrics?

This is an important question. I’m torn about it. On the one hand, I’m a talkative guy who has a lot of ideas and they naturally come out in my lyrics. So I often am tempted to explain my songs, or at least tempted to lay out for interviewers (and through them, listeners) the thoughts or ideas or stories behind my songs.

But on the other hand, I have a vivid memory of being a kid and reading an interview with Paul McCartney wherein he said that his song “Jet” was about a dog. Not only that one, but “Martha My Dear,” that one was about a dog, too. These were two songs of his that I loved, and I was just deflated by the revelation — I had had my own mental images of the people in both those songs, not that they were visually detailed, but a kind of “songish” vision of the people and the stories. And to learn that these people were dogs was such a letdown.

Now, Sir Paul has every right to write songs about his dogs, I’ve got no problem with that. But in learning that those particular songs were about dogs, I was suddenly deprived of my own pleasant illusion that they were about people. And somehow they shrank in my mind as a result of being explained.

Another factor in all this is that I often don’t know what the songs are about until long after I’ve written them. This makes it tempting to share the interpretation — since in my mind, my explanation is as good as a listener’s. But on the other hand, once I’ve given my interpretation of my own song, it has the quality of being “the last word.” And sometimes, the fans come up with the coolest interpretations of their meanings – way cooler than the interpretation or intention I might have had.

So I try to curb my impulse to explain my songs, lest I shrink them in the ears of fans.

Is there any aspect of the creative process that still intimidates you?

It’s the writing. That’s the most intimidating part. Every time I finish a song, I get the feeling that it’s the last one I’ll ever write. It’s like suffering from a creative hangover. One of the things I’ve had to keep learning is the art of starting over. I’ve had to tell myself, “There will always be another song.” Which is hard to believe during that post-writing hangover.

In the actual writing process, the most challenging part is the lyrics. It’s as though the lyrics are the hard and laborious process that allows me to have the fun of working on the melodies. My guess is that lyrics are the hardest part for most songwriters. In the world of unfinished songs, I bet there are ten wordless tunes for every tuneless lyric. They’re just hard to get right. Bad lyrics distract so much from the melody. I keep trying to tell myself that the only requirement of lyrics is that they not be bad — “First, do no harm.” But I can’t help it, for whatever reason I have to keep working on them until I believe they’re great. And getting to that point is challenging.

Continue reading

Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Dan Wilson, Part 1

Musician Dan Wilson talks about the summer day he wrote his first song, the key role titles play in his songwriting process, and why art is a volume business.

Dan Wilson

Photo credit: Steve Cohen.

This is the first half of a two-part interview. When you’re done here, be sure to check out Part Two, in which Wilson talks about how he wrestles with how little (or how much) to let his listeners in on the particulars behind his lyrics, the benefits of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and the creative challenges he faced mixing his new album.

What’s the first song you remember writing?

I can’t remember the title of the first song I wrote, but I do remember the day. My family was up in northern Minnesota on vacation on this particular clear, hot, summer day. I think I was twelve years old. My parents had bought me a guitar, maybe for my birthday in May.

My parents listened to The Beatles the whole time I was growing up: Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. So the first book of sheet music they bought me was Beatles Complete. I think my brother Matt and I had been figuring out the chords in the book all summer. I believe that it was Matt’s idea to write songs — so he wrote one and I wrote one. We did the songs bit by bit over the course of the afternoon on our parents’ bed. In between “songwriting” we’d run out to the ditch by the road and play war with our plastic army men.

When we were done with the songs, we wrote out the lyrics on typing paper, with the titles boldly written on the top of the sheets. Very official. I’m trying to remember them but I can’t. I liked Matt’s more. The lyrics of mine seemed not so great to me. But the melody was satisfying — I remember thinking it sounded like a George Harrison song. Which I guess tells us which Beatle is mine.

I think the impulse came partly from just wanting something to do on a summer day. But also, once you have a bunch of the chords under your hands, you start to realize that “I can do this too.”

I told a painter friend of mine once that the reason I made paintings was often that I’d seen someone else’s painting that I liked, and I wanted to have one for my own. My friend replied that Picasso said the same thing: He’d see a masterpiece in the Louvre and say to himself, “I can do that! I want one of those.”

Continue reading

Category: Music/Dance

An Interview with Matt Wagner, Part 2

Comic book writer and artist Matt Wagner talks about how Mage is like a Zen journey, why he was drawn to working with material from early Batman stories, and what makes for good comic-book storytelling.

Matt Wagner

Photo credit: Greg Preston.

Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with Matt Wagner, award-winning comic book writer and illustrator, and creator of Mage and Grendel. If you haven’t already read Part One of this interview, be sure to check it out to hear Wagner talk about the birth of Mage, and why comic book creations often look like their creators.

I recently read your Batman run — the “Dark Moon Rising” books. Could you describe where the idea for those books came from?

They’re actually based on two of my favorite Golden Age Batman stories from the late ’30s and early ’40s. They’re both pre-Robin stories — before Robin shows up. “The Mad Monk” is in Detective Comics #31 and #32. #31 you’ll recognize — it has a very famous cover; it’s a huge image of Batman looming up over a small castle in the foreground. There’s a moon behind him, and he has absolutely ginormous bat ears. In fact, when you look it up, you’ll go, “Oh, of course — that cover.” The other one, “Hugo Strange and the Monster Men,” was in Batman #1.

Part of the fun of playing with somebody else’s toys is the challenge of trying to tell a story where some of the playing pieces are already in place on the board. In the world of Grendel, in the world of Mage, I’m the absolute god. Whatever I say happens, happens, and there’s never any question. With Batman there are many other aspects to consider. [Also,] any work I’ve done for DC, I always like to work early in a character’s career because I hate the giant, extended, huge continuity crap you have to deal with in their world. And I’ve just always liked primary-motivation stories.

So I decided there was a missing link in the early Batman tales, where we needed to see his transition from Batman Year One — the Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli classic storyline where he’s fighting just thugs and mobsters — to his more established litany of costumed crazies that eventually becomes his absolute normalcy, you want to call it that [laughter]. And so I decided to take these two early stories and revamp them into a modern setting. I wanted to dig deep into the actual origins of this character.

Those early primal Batman tales are neat because the conventions that have since become established as being comic-booky were fresh and new and were based more on a pulp tradition than what we think of as comic cooks. And they were just so unfettered and raw. So I took those and tried to squeeze them into DC’s continuity and make them work.

Continue reading

Category: Comics/Cartoons

An Interview with Matt Wagner, Part 1

Comic book writer and artist Matt Wagner talks about the birth of Mage, and why comic book creations often look like their creators.

Matt Wagner

Image (c) copyright Matt Wagner

This is the first half of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Part Two, in which Wagner talks about how Mage is like a Zen journey, and what makes for good comic-book storytelling.

Were you a storyteller as a young boy?

Matt Wagner: I was. My father, and this dates him quite a bit, used to say I was vaccinated with a Victrola needle because I was very talkative…. My parents like to tell a tale of when I was quite young. I must have been five or something like that. We had literally — I kid you not — a door-to-door Bible salesman come to the door one day selling these lavishly illustrated Bibles. We were going through it and I was pointing out all the illustrations and saying, “Oh, look this is Noah, this is Jonah, Jesus” etc., etc., and we got to a picture of Adam and Eve in their loincloths in the Garden of Eden and I turned to my dad, apparently, and said, “Dad, Tarzan!” [laughter] So I think I was doomed for this profession from the very beginning.

My mother was an English teacher before she became a full-time mom, and a huge proponent of reading, so she made sure I was an early and vigorous reader. Coupled with that was the fact that I was an only child. I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania in Amish country — we lived out away from most other houses…. I drew to entertain myself because there wasn’t much video entertainment in those days. I think we had probably three or four TV stations initially. And so I was a vigorous reader and I drew. And comic books were both writing and drawing all rolled into one and just became the magic quotient for me.

So you were headed for comics from the start?

MW: I sure wanted to. They were such a mystery to me. And of course in those days it was all centered around the big two publishers. There was no overnight delivery service at that stage, so pages of original comic art were not going to go from writer to artist to inker through the regular mail. You pretty much had to live in New York; you had to show up at the offices in person to get jobs. As a result it was very, very insular, and I just had no idea what it was all about.

But here again, another childhood tale: My parents have a school-memories book from when I was a kid, and on the back of all the elementary school years is a little spot to fill in what I wanted to be when I grew up. And one year I wrote “astronaut,” and I’m sure that’s the year they landed on the moon. Every other year I wrote “comic book writer.”

From what age?

MW: From kindergarten.


MW: And I wrote “comic book writer” because I just assumed whoever wrote the comics must draw them, too. I didn’t know that it was usually a team effort, which in commercial comics is the norm.

Continue reading

Category: Comics/Cartoons

An Interview with Kim Addonizio

Poet Kim Addonizio talks about "poem feeling" vs. "prose feeling," asking her characters to talk to her, and salvation.

Kim Addonizio

Photo credit: Joe Allen.

When did you first start to identify yourself as a writer?

I remember my first unfinished work. I wanted to write a novel when I was around nine. I wrote ten pages. It was a mystery, I think. I don’t remember why I stopped — probably because it was too hard. I remember writing a short story at fifteen and being eager to show it to my dad, who was a sportswriter.

Do you remember what drew you to writing poetry?

I wrote down my feelings in lines in high school and after, but it was hardly poetry. I seriously started trying to write it in my late twenties. I think poetry drew me to it — I think I was always meant to find it.

How has your creative process changed since then?

When I was younger, poorer, and raising a kid, I had a lot less time for consistent creative work. So I was less connected to my own process. I feel I’m able to tap in a lot more often now.

Continue reading

Category: Writing

An Interview with Tucker Nichols

Artist Tucker Nichols talks about why he likes early thoughts and exposed decisions, and the importance of not giving other people the keys.

Tucker Nichols

Photo credit: Lisa M. Hamilton.

How would you describe your creative process?

Recently I realized I’m trying to make work that freezes a moment in time that I would otherwise discard (or refine to make look like other images already in the world). In a text piece, that means writing something down that I’d otherwise pass by and then making a drawing of it later where it’s totally out of context. Or coming up with something slogan-like on the spot and painting it across a storefront window…. Planning a drawing is tempting, but I’ve found it rarely works for me.

With my abstract drawings, it’s more of a puzzle where I make up the rules as I go — like, what would it look like if everything’s being pulled to the edge on the left and there can only be two things and they have to be really different. I’m always trying to stop short of a completed thought because once it’s fully formed, it tends to lose some of its juice for me. Early thoughts have so many different possible outcomes; I prefer thinking about where other people might take them.

And then sometimes I have to draw a glove or a ketchup bottle or a branch because it feels like the right thing to do, and to not draw it would be adhering to some arbitrary rule about what kinds of things I am supposed to draw and what kinds of things I am definitely NOT supposed to draw. The early parts of thoughts don’t obey rules very well.

Are there particular tools that you rely on to gather and develop new ideas?

Absolutely. I go through about fifteen small orange Rhodia pads a year. There’s no set order to the pages, I just fill them up with thoughts or road signs or overheard phrases I’d otherwise forget completely. Then when I’m in the studio I can leaf through them and see what’s worth pursuing — and a lot of it is definitely not worth pursuing. I try to be quick when I take down a note because usually I’m quoting something someone I know just said, and that can be kind of awkward.

I just bought a digital recorder for the car, which was great for a drive on 99 recently but is a bit harder to take ideas off of. Fun to speak into though. Sometimes I feel like I could talk into my thumb and it would be just as useful.

Continue reading

Category: Visual Arts/Design

An Interview with Dan Piraro

Bizarro's Dan Piraro talks about his quest to use fewer words, games he plays with his audience, and how he learned to write funny things in both the best and worst of times.

Dan Piraro

Image copyright (c) Dan Piraro 2007.

What do you think is the key to good cartoon writing?

I have this ongoing effort to create humor in fewer words because I’m very wordy. I always have been. I was that way in school. When a teacher would say to write a 500-word paper about something or other, I would write 750 just because I’m a wordy person. So something that I’ve done over the years, especially in recent years, is try to reduce the number of words in my cartoons just because I think it’s funnier to say things simply and quickly than to over explain. But my cartoons still tend to be pretty wordy.

One of my favorite cartoonists in the world is Sam Gross. He’s most notable from the New Yorker magazine. His work is just fantastic and he rarely uses words. And when he does, it’s almost never more than three or four. I’d love to be able to do that, but it’s just not the way I think.

There’s some kind of irony in somebody who feels they write too much creating a single-panel comic.

Yeah [laughter] I know. I actually started by trying to do strips and they just were too forced. And then I started doing panels, and bang, people just liked them way better.

Ever since I was a child, my favorite cartoons have always been single-panel magazine gags without regular characters, without storylines — a single glimpse of life, and your brain figures out what just happened before this picture or what’s about to happen after it. I love that kind of humor. And so that’s what I was best at.

Continue reading

Category: Comics/Cartoons