Q&A with Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew has lead something of a charmed existence as a musician for the last thirty years, from his first high-profile gig as a guitarist for Frank Zappa in 1979 to his later work with Talking Heads, Trent Reznor, David Bowie and King Crimson. Though possessed of preternaturally able technical chops, Belew is one of a handful of guitar wizards whose creativity was never hampered by his virtuosity. In February of 2006, Belew formed the Adrian Belew Trio with Eric and Julie Slick, siblings who attended the Paul Green School of Rock where Adrian performed as a guest musician that year. Never content to being stuck with one musical style, Belew's music is remarkably for its rich variety of tone and technique without losing a signature sound. Touring in support of its latest album e, the Adrian Belew Trio is playing small clubs across the country. We had a chance to talk at length with Belew while he was at home in Nashville and discussed his history, his art and his favorite guitar, the Parker Fly.

Westword (Tom Murphy): What kind of conversation did you have with Frank Zappa when he asked you to be part of his band?

Adrian Belew: I went to his house, and I had one audition that was done downstairs in his basement, and it was so chaotic, people moving gear around and all kinds of noise and things, and just me standing in the middle of the room with a microphone and a guitar, that I did a pretty miserable job. I was stuck there for the rest of the day while he auditioned other people. I had nowhere to go; they were going to take me back to the airport later that evening.

Finally it quieted down at the end of the day and I had a moment with Frank and I said, "Frank, I know I didn't do so well, but I had envisioned this differently. I thought that it would be you and me, and it would be quiet, and I would play the songs and sing them for you, and show you I can do it." He said, "Well, then, why don't we try that." So we went upstairs to his living room, sat on the purple couch there, and I did a second audition. About halfway through it, he reached out his hand and shook mine, and said, "You've got the job." Then he said, "I have a verbal agreement with you, and here's how much I pay, this, and this, and this. And you're on your way."

It was very brief and then we hung out in the kitchen and talked about all kinds of things and had a great time. He actually called my ex-wife on the phone and told her what a great musician I was. So, I barely missed it. But thankfully, I had the courage to ask for a second try.

WW: A few years ago I saw Henry Rollins do a spoken word performance where he told how he ended up doing vocals on a William Shatner album and that you were called in, as it were, to do guitar on "I Can't Get Behind That." What was that like for you and are you often called in to do studio work on a lark?

AB: No! That was one of the things that was so interesting about it. No one ever just calls me the day that they want me to do something. Usually it involves moving gear and taking flights and so on. It just so happens that that was done here in Nashville, where I live with two of my friends, Ben Folds and John Painter. It was a late night session; it didn't start until ten o'clock at night, and they just called and said, "Hey, we're doing this interesting thing and we've got this, this and this person. What do you think about bringing some gear over and setting it up and just jamming with us? It'll be this kind of improvised jam session." I said, "Great, I'll be there."

What it was like is just what it sounds like: It was just a lot of improvised things. Play something here, make it sound like a lawnmower over here. It was William and Henry getting something together on the microphone -- of course it was longer than just that one evening. But it was an amazing evening that went on until six in the morning. That was another thing that was unusual. You usually never do sessions late night. Most of the time you do them starting around noon and you go until you drop.

WW: How would you say your guitar style differs from and compliments that of Robert Fripp. And does Robert Fripp ever smile?

AB: I'll answer the second question first. Yes, Robert Fripp smiles. He has a good sense of humor. He doesn't like to show it in public that much. If you knew him as a friend you'd see he's like everybody else. But people walking up to him and think he's a god think, "Well god doesn't smile."

I've always said that our styles are two sides of the same coin. There's a middle ground that we share, but it's almost like were both given the same tools and the same equipment to do things with but we both approached it from an entirely different place. He's English. I'm American. There are truly cultural differences in terms of what we learned growing up and what we did in terms of applying those things as grown-ups, as accomplished players, and in terms of the things you decide to concentrate on. Robert is, as you might imagine, a very particular, very sort of...he's the guy, of the two of us, that will sit down every day for two hours and have a regimen that he does -- a disciplined person. I'm the guy that will sit down every day for two hours and just fool around until I find something I like and do something with it -- kind of the American ingenuity way.

WW: What is it about the Parker Fly guitar that you like so much and how did you first come to play them?

AB: I went to Japan one time and the Parker guitar had just come out, and some people from a company called Korg, that makes guitar items, brought me some Korg pedals to try out, and incidentally they brought me the new Parker Fly to use to try them out with. When they came back to get the pedals back and see what I thought, I said, "Boy I love this guitar." And they said, "It's yours; it's our gift to you." So I've had them pretty much since they first came out courtesy of the Japanese.

I always wanted to play one, but I couldn't replace things certain things I have come to rely on with the Parker Fly until four years ago. We decided that together we could design the things into the guitar that I needed. They're all electronic things, so that doesn't change anything to do with the look or feel, structure or anything else about the guitar. In fact, it has fewer knobs than the regular Parker Fly.

What I like about the Parker Fly, it's just simply the most revolutionary guitar that's been made since the discovery of Gibson's Les Paul and Fender Stratocasters, and everything else has been pretty much a redesign of those two guitars. Ken Parker took twenty years to sit down and figure out the way to make the perfect guitar that resonates perfectly, stays perfectly in tune, weighs only four pounds, never has to be intonated -- it never has to have the frets replaced. Has a remarkable tremolo system, that no matter how much I abuse it, the guitar comes right back to tune. I mean it's sensational, really. Even without my electronic changes, it's truly the best guitar in the world in my opinion.

The last thing I'll say about it is that it makes you play better. Once I started playing a Parker Fly -- I've got fifty other guitars -- when I'd play one of the other guitars, I felt like I was playing a log. So it makes you play better, faster, more fluid. There's a lot of technology that goes into it, and I could talk for a long time about it, but basically, the guitar neck is so thin that the piece of wood would normally break under the strain of the strings. But what they do, is put a carbon epoxy, space age type of material on the back of the guitar, a real thin coat of it. They bake it into the guitar, and it makes the tensile strength of the wood ten-thousand times stronger. You could stand on the neck and nothing would happen to it.

WW: What is it about your power trio with Eric and Julie Slick that you're able to do that you haven't before?

AB: First of all, it's a trio. And rarely have I worked in a format where I'm the only guitar player. If you look [at my past projects] - they're all shared relationships with another guitarist. When you were you a trio and you're the only guitarist; if you've got the right players and you've got the right material, you can really fly freely. I'm not just talking improvising -- everything is on you. So you can do as much as you want. In my case I do a lot of looping, so I can have something basic going on underneath what I'm playing, so when I take solos or improvise, it doesn't get empty.

Eric and Julie [are] young, energetic and they've mastered their instruments at an incredibly young age. They can play just about anything I could possibly throw at them. That has given me license to do whatever I want.

WW: What do you like about playing smaller venues versus larger shows?

AB: If you want to get the most from a show and you want your audience to have the best musical experience from a show, and maybe take away something, and maybe even change their lives, hopefully, in some minor way, it's best to do it in small venues, where the energy stays there in the room. Everyone can see, everyone can feel the music. Everyone can be a part of it. It's not the best thing to do economically, but musically, for the experience for the audience, I so much prefer it, and I so much prefer what it does to the band itself. You really do feed off the audience. I know that's an old cliché. In our shows now, people get so excited, we get excited. The bigger a venue gets, the less that effect happens. When I played in stadiums with David Bowie for the whole year in 1990, it was a wonderful experience and incredible in so many ways, but it wasn't a musical one.

Adrian Belew Trio, With Dave Beegle, 7 p.m. Sunday, October 25, The Toad Tavern, 5302 S. Federal Circle, Littleton, $25, 303-795-6877.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.