Probably best known as King Crimson’s guitarist, Adrian Belew is also a skilled multi-instrumentalist who has worked with everyone from Frank Zappa and Paul Simon to Trent Reznor, Tori Amos and William Shatner. He also attached midi effects and other synthesized elements to a guitar to create sounds ranging from wild animal calls to soaring string sections.Oh yeah, and the whammy bar, thus the 1982 Belew solo record, Twang Bar King.
Musically, he’s blended humor, pop and experimental styles into such quirky songs as “Elephant Talk,” ‘Fish Head,” and “Big Electric Cat.” The last two years have also seen the release of three albums recorded with Les Claypool (Primus) and Danny Carey (Tool), and recently he’s been touring in a power trio comprised of Paul Green’s School of Rock graduates, siblings Eric and Julie Slick. Metro Times spoke with Belew about his career and what he’s doing now in anticipation of his show with jam band Umphrey’s McGee.
Metro Times: I understand one of the reasons Frank Zappa took to you was he wanted someone who would wear funny costumes? (Belew appears in Zappa’s humorous 1979 Halloween concert film Baby Snakes.)
Belew: Frank would always contour his music and everything he was doing to the qualities of the band. The particular lineup that I was in, I think had theatrical qualities. He wanted to be able to do some of the funnier music and wanted somebody there who wouldn’t object to wearing a dress or a helmet or whatever it took. So I think he probably saw that in me.
MT: You were playing with a costumed cover band in Nashville at the time you met him, right?
Belew: Yeah, we wore authentic 1940s vintage clothing, and the rule of the band, called Sweetheart, was that you had to dress that style of clothing all the time. So if you went to Kroger, you’d look like James Cagney walking around the supermarket. The idea worked beautifully because anywhere that you would go it was like an advertisement for the band. …It really did get us a lot of attention. Even Frank was impressed with that. How weird was it to see five musicians and they look like a bunch of gangsters?
MT: You had an incredible five year stretch (’77-’81) where in succession you played with Zappa, David Bowie, David Byrne and Robert Fripp. What was that like?
Belew: Looking back on it, it is pretty amazing. It’s one of those things that just happened and it’s almost a blur to me now. But in succession I did so many things — so much touring and so many records — that suddenly the world seemed like a little tiny place, and everybody I ever wanted to meet was in that place. It was pretty wild. I remember being on stage in Madison Square Garden with David Bowie in 1978, looking in the front row and seeing Dustin Hoffman, Andy Warhol, the Talking Heads. Those were the people sitting there watching you play and you’re thinking, “Ohmigosh, two years ago I was in a disco band!”
MT: Unlike many experimental artists, you haven’t abandoned pop structure or hooks. Why is that?
Belew: I’ve always had a little of both in my background, and I constantly try to forge the two together. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you have to do them separately. But more and more, I give up on pop music. It seems like a losing battle, and there’s just no place anymore for interesting pop music, but there’s still something that draws me back to it. So I’ll still make a record with the Bears, which I’ve just done, of 10 great little pop songs that everyone is going to want to sing along to. There’s still something to it, but the older you get the more you move away from it.
MT: What’s the story with your upcoming shows with Umphrey’s McGee? Are you embracing your inner freejammer?
Belew: The idea was brought to me by my agent who said ‘this will be good, they’re really talented.’ Which they are, but they have a different fan base than I have. It’s a little like what Tool did for King Crimson, but it’s also musical. Everything I do has to have a musical purpose and I have to fit in it in a way that I feel good about. It’s not just about the exposure. It’s also about challenging myself. I like the idea of sitting in with a band I don’t know, traveling on their bus with them, and getting to know them, then going on stage with them and making music.
MT: You’re opening for them as a solo artist, what does that entail?
Belew: I don’t know. [Laughs]. What I’d like to do is play a few songs, because I want that side of my personality and voice to be there. But I’d also like to make some loops and jam along with myself. Just play guitar, because I really don’t get the opportunity to do that for an audience. … It’s something I like to do at home if I’ve got a few hours left in the day. I’ll come down to the studio and I’ll just play. I’ll just entertain myself. Maybe I’ll make a little rhythm loop I can play to with my guitar in one key and then put different sounds over the top. I think it would be interesting for an audience to hear a little bit of that. I don’t know that they’d want to hear a whole performance of it.
Friday, March 16 at Clutch Cargo’s, 65 East Huron, Pontiac; 248-333-2362. With Umphrey’s McGee.