With her own band, Adrian & the Sickness (due tonight at 3 Kings Tavern with BugGirl and Cock N Balls), Adrian Conner gets to be herself on stage and on record. This isn't the case with her day job: As resident lead guitarist for AC/DC tribute outfit Hell's Belles, Conner channels her inner Angus Young for devoted fans. But as the Austin-by-way-of-Seattle singer-songwriter explains below, there are perks to being yourself behind an instrument, and an awesome escape in being able to play the role of a guitar great.
Westword: When and why did you start playing guitar?
Adrian Conner: I started playing when I was fourteen -- it was actually a movie, Satisfaction, with Justine Bateman. And Julia Roberts. [Laughs.] There was this character in the film that was like the lead guitar player, and I really thought she was cool. I wanted to be just like her. I always liked music, but I thought more about being a singer. My musical range was, like, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, so I didn't know much about singing, either. But I loved music, and I saw that movie and thought, "I want to be a singer and be a guitar player like that girl."
I didn't listen to "guitar" music, really. I didn't know that Led Zeppelin or AC/DC existed. I mean, I knew about Quiet Riot because my sister listened to them -- this was, what? '82 or '83? Basically, anything my older sister liked, I liked. I knew about rap and hair bands and stuff, but as far as classic rock, I didn't know about it until after I started playing guitar.
How did that eventually lead to you playing in a band like Hell's Belles?
I'm not an original member -- the band started around 2000. I was one of the original girls to try out, but they didn't choose me at first. I actually tried out to play rhythm guitar. I had been playing in a lot of shitty bands in Seattle, and I was just learning how to play guitar and had gotten into Led Zeppelin. Since I hadn't grown up with it, classic rock was all new to me. But I wanted to play guitar like Jimmy Page, so I kind of concentrated on playing and practicing from like 18 to 23. Hell's Belles did some touring, and the rhythm guitarist they hired couldn't do an upcoming tour that was two weeks away, so they called me to try out again. That's when I got the part -- they were pretty much under the gun. [Laughs]
Do you have to take on a different stage "persona" for Adrian and the Sickness versus Hell's Belles?
I get to add that physical element in Hell's Belles -- I don't get to do that with my band because I'm singing. It is really fun to get to be the cheerleader and zone out and listen to the drums and bass and stuff. As far as the soloing goes, there's not a whole lot of room to change things. People want to hear what's on the albums and, unless it's one of the bluesier parts, I stick to the song. I try to stay as close to his [Angus Young's] guitar playing as possible. But to get to add the physical part, that's what makes it fun to do the shows.
I'm definitely not as nervous in Hell's Belles -- there's a lot less pressure. I don't have to talk on the microphone, and, you know, what we're doing is so easily accepted. It's so easy to go up there and do it well. Even if we're having an early set or the crowd isn't, like, off the wall, it doesn't faze me. But with my original music, it's my writing and my singing and my words. There's a lot more on the line, as far as my ego. It is harder when people don't respond to that stuff. It is hard not to compare crowd reactions from each band. It's tough not to think, well, what am I doing wrong? I don't say that in Hell's Belles. [Laughs]
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You grew up in Seattle, where Hell's Belles is also based, but you currently reside in Austin. How did you end up there?
About three months after I joined Hell's Belle's, the lead guitar player quit. This was around the time when tribute bands were still sort of a new idea. When we were on tour at that time, the furthest east we went was Austin. I noticed that people actually went out here and the clubs had a nightlife, almost every night of the week. In Seattle at the time, that was not the case. It was really dead there. I think it's changing now -- but I can't say, because I haven't lived there for years. The music scene here was a lot easier to break into and meet other musicians and people to play with. I just didn't see a future for myself in Seattle with my original music. Plus the sunshine and the heat.
How did Adrian and the Sickness come together, once you got to Austin?
I had already recorded a CD myself under Adrian Conner -- it was before I had even started working in Hell's Belles. The music was different. So when I got to Austin, I was able to do music for a living, and I had been doing that for about a year. I spent that time soaking up the bar life here, and I started writing songs where I wasn't trying so hard to do something. I was just expressing myself and my emotions at the time. Some of the songs are kind of funny and immature. [Laughs.] I met my bass player here, and we've had revolving drummers thoughout the years [the outfit now plays with drummer Mel-Z.] But she and I are solid.