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Mentored by Zappa, Friends with Bowie, Beloved by Nine Inch Nails: 10 Facts about Guitar Legend Adrian Belew [In-Depth Interview] 

Adrian Belew (picture from adrianbelew.com)
Adrian Belew (picture from adrianbelew.com)

If you’re a musician, you know Adrian Belew.

The Kentucky native is one of the most ambitious, adventurous guitar players of all-time. It’s not for nothing that he’s played with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, the Talking Heads, King Crimson, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, and many more. 

A man of many talents – and a truly insane resume – Belew is known for many things. He’s collaborated with a seemingly endless list of genius talent, created versatile solo material, is known for his innovative work with guitar sounds and synths, created instruments, and is on the cutting edge of music technology. 

He doesn’t tour often, so be sure to catch his show at The Fine Line on March 6. If you have any musician friends, tell them about it. If they miss the show, they’ll be super mad if they find out that you knew he was coming to town and didn’t let them know. 

Music in Minnesota’s Erik Ritland was lucky enough to have a phone interview with Belew. More than simply insightful, he was also funny and courteous. It was a pleasure to talk with him.  

Below are 10 of the most interesting takeaways from the interview. 

1. He loves Minnesota for the lakes 

When asked if he has any memories of Minnesota, Belew beamed. “I’ve always liked Minnesota,” he said“You have to like a place with so many lakeslakes in your back yard.” He spoke of his love for First Avenue, recalling “great shows” at the “great venue.”

Since this is his first time playing here in awhile, he added that he hopes to see a lot of his Minnesota friends at the show. “I’m excited for the current tour,” he said. “It’s nice to have an expanded sound from the trio (Belew has recently been touring with the Adrian Belew Power Trio). I try to pick material that fits the band, in addition to what people ask for. There’s new Crimson tracks, more expansive things since it’s not a trio, some stuff from the new record. Piano is a feature with a bigger band. It’s a wider based show. There’s a second guitarist, a second keyboard player, another vocalist. It’ll be a good time.”

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2. His solo material stands up with the work of those he has worked with 

Belew has been releasing quality solo material since 1982. His most recent album, Pop-Sided, was released last week. “It’s my brand of pop music, somewhere between the Beatles and King Crimson. It sounds like a band, but I play everything. The album brings back the kind of songwriting that I love, adventurous but also pop oriented.” 

Mr. Musichead (1989) was a highlight period,” he says of his solo career, “along with Inner Revolution (1992) and Here (1994)I’m proud of everything, of course. Op Zop Too Wah (1996), lots of people like it, it’s overlooked but true fans point to it. It was sort of the grandfather to the FLUX idea.” 

3. His FLUX app brings an innovative album to the palm of your hand

Speaking of “the FLUX idea,” it is difficult to describe. It really does have to be experienced. The interactive app – which includes music, sounds, and a visual element – is incredibly innovative. It’s something like a constantly evolving album. Purchase it here. 

Every time you press play you get a new version of the record,” Belew explained. “It’s ever-changing all the time, it‘s never the same twice. It contains hundreds of pieces and sounds that go by rather quickly. There’s visuals, information, so much stuff. It’s different way of hearing and seeing music. It took me six years of devotion to get to it.”  

More than that, Belew adds more pieces to FLUX regularly. “It’s truly never finished,” he says, “I continue to add to it whenever I want to.” There are other features, too: “If you find something that you want to hear anytime then you press a favorite star and it’ll put it in a playlist. Put it on and enjoy the surprises. Even when I listen I don’t know what’s coming next.  

Belew hopes that FLUX especially speaks to younger people. “For the new generation, for short attention span people like me, seeing thousands of commercials, we grab information and digest it quickly. It includes every brand of music, every type of thing I’ve done. Its like looking inside my brain, if you don’t mind doing that,” he said with a laugh.

4. His first major gig was playing with legend Frank Zappa 

Although I’m sure he’s been asked about it a thousand times, Belew was happy to talk about the many talented people he’s collaborated with. While he had already been in bands, the first big name Belew worked with was the enigmatic Frank Zappa. It was a thrill to hear him talk about his time with him.

“He was very, very generous with his time. Anything I wanted to know, he’d teach me. He was my first and only mentor,” he said. “I spent a lot of extra time with him because I was a non-music reader and I’d have to learn at his house. So I’d spend weekends before practice at his house. There was so much information going through my brain at that time period. He was funny, always telling stories. It was a wonderful year.

“He showed me the ropes on how to be what I am now: a professional touring artist, going around the world. He opened my mind to show me how you can do these things if you work for it.

“He was hilarious,” Belew said. “People say he was nothing but acerbic, but he was very kind, very sweet. He just wanted things done right, he was something of a taskmaster. One of the smartest people I’ve ever been around.”

5. He was friends (and a frequent collaborator) with David Bowie 

Like one does, Belew went from working with Frank Zappa to David Bowie. More than a collaborator, you could tell that he had warm feelings for him, at one point in the interview referring to him as “my buddy.” 

“He was another genius, looking at things from a different direction,” he said. “Such a superstar. Being around him was a thrill. Things happen around Bowie – you meet Warhol, Dustin Hoffman. He had a love of lots of different subjects, he was a true intellectual, he could talk for hours.

“He was so self-effacing. He had a “how the heck did I get here” kind of humor. When he was in Bowie mode, he was consummate Bowie and a performer, but when he was just himself he saw how strange and ridiculous and funny it all is. You can’t take it too seriously.”

The first album Belew worked on was Lodger, the third in Bowie’s famous Berlin Trilogy. How Bowie and co-producer Brian Eno asked him to add his parts was pretty far out.

“It was an incredible experience, my first studio record,” he said. “We made it in Lake Geneva in Switzerland with Brian Eno. It was monumental to me. They had this idea where they wanted me to hear the song and just play. They didn’t give me the key the songs were in, they didn’t let me hear them first, they just wanted me to respond to them. I didn’t know what was coming and had to improvise.

“Just being in the same room with them was incredible,” Belew said. “That album is underrated. I think it wasn’t as popular initially because he was at the end of his deal with RCA. They promoted “Heroes” and Low but not as much for Lodger since he wasn’t re-signing. In retrospect, people think it’s equally as good as the other two.”

6. He once did a recording session with Ben Folds, punk legend Henry Rollins, and...wait for it…William Shatner 

“I was at home in Nashville and got a phone call for a late-night session,” Belew explains, “something that never happens to me.” Who was the phone call from? Ben Folds.  

“He asked me if I would come over and contribute. So I went at 10 at night, just packed up my gear and headed out. Rollins was excited because he was a huge Crimson fan. The session went until 5 a.m.”

“One of my favorite moments was when Bill Shatner approached me:

‘They tell me that you can make your guitar sound like a lot of things.’
‘Possibly, yeah.’
‘So this next thing I’m doing, it’s about suburbia. Can you make your guitar sound like a lawn mower?’

“You feel like you’ve finally arrived when Captain Kirk is asking you to make the sound of a lawn mower, and I did,” Belew said. “That was really fun, they’re all great guys. Shatner has so much energy. You feel like, ‘wow, you’re in here with a teenager.’ It was quite a scene, a great time, and I didn’t want it to end.”

Check out their wonderful, hilarious collaboration “I Can’t Get Behind That.”

7. He’s worked with a few other famous folks 

Talking to Adrian Belew for 45 minutes is not nearly long enough to discuss even a portion of his career. He played on two Talking Heads albums, Paul Simon’s Graceland, four Nine Inch Nails albums, and hundreds of other projects.

We barely touched on his time with seminal classic rock band King Crimson, which he is arguably best-known for. He did have some kind words for Crimson leader Robert Fripp: 

“He’s been my best friends for 30 years,” Belew said. “He takes things very serious. He’s like any person, with foibles, hang-ups, disappointments. When you know him, though, he’s not such a hard shell. He’s very funny, thoughtful. Those people (Zappa, Bowie, Fripp) have gotten me to the point that I can make my own expressions and feel good about it.”

And of his time with Nine Inch Nails:

“Working with them was a real surprise for me. All of a sudden, I realized this is really intensely done, well-produced music. Not my cup of tea in every way, but I enjoyed it and fit in well,” Belew explained. “Trent would say, ‘Anything you’d like to play?’ and I’d always respond, ‘Yes sir, I have 10.’

“It was fun, there was no limitations, no instruction. It was fun to be in Trent’s world. It’s music I could play in my sleep, like the Talking Heads, more about sounds than notes. Not well-thought-out, like I’m improvising.”

8. He doesn’t listen to any new music – and it ties in with how he approaches solo albums 

When I asked Belew what new music he currently listens to, his answer was somewhat shocking. “I don’t listen to other music at all,” he said.

“I know that sounds strange. I realized a long time ago that I had so much work to do myself, that to really stay true to what I’m doing, to keep my music pure, I don’t listen to other things much.

“I wake up every day with something to do. My studio that takes up half my house that I work in a lot. If I really, really want to listen to music, I go back to the things I liked when I was younger, when you are most affected by music.

After I was done working on Paul Simon’s Graceland I started writing new songs and they sounded like him. I’m a good mimic,” he said. “I have to be careful, I take great pains to make my solo music represent me. I do the artwork, play the instruments, I approach it like I’m creating a painting. The McCartney album (1970, on which McCartney played all the instruments himself) has always been a huge source of inspiration, it opened my head to the idea.

“There’s a big separation between working solo, where I’m in control, and collaborating, where I’m exchanging thoughts with other people. I like having a diet of both things, I wouldn’t want to do it all one way.”

9. He reads a lot – especially history 

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Although he doesn’t listen to other music, he says that he does read a lot. While he has 200 books on his iPhone ranging from traveling and biographies, to vintage cars and animals, he tends to stick to non-fiction.

“I prefer reality over fiction. I like history, world history, any history. I’ll learn about one subject, like Napoleonic history, exhaust that, then go on to the next,” he said.

“Like my buddy David Bowie, when I find a new subject, I exhaust it. Then you know that you really have enjoyed the subject material. There is always more to know, but you can take it in steps. Take World War II. I’ve read so much from every angle that I could teach a class, but I don’t want to.”

10. He binge-watched Game of Thrones 

“I bingewatched it like everyone did at one point,” he says. “George R.R. Martin created his own universe, and great fiction writers can do that. I appreciate fiction if its original and done well. 

Be sure to catch Adrian Belew at the Fine Line on March 6.

Written by Erik Ritland

Erik is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. In addition to writing and editing for a number of local outlets, he founded Rambling On, a Minnesota-focused blog and podcast about music, sports, and culture, in 2012. He began working for Music in Minnesota in 2018 and is a writer, editor, and social media content strategist.

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