Stars and Guitars
Adrian Belew Talks About His Salad Days
So much has been written about Adrian Belew’s ingenious use of electronic colors (be it with guitars, synthesizers, or otherwise), that it’s easy to miss two decades worth of songwriting permeating a sizable body of solo work. From the comic “Adidas In Heat” off 1981’s Lone Rhino to the more emotional “Man In the Moon” (about the loss of his father), Belew writes and plays with a passion that has been recognized by a who’s who of musicians. Let’s face it, you don’t get to play with David Bowie, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Trent Reznor and Frank Zappa by just making quirky noises on a guitar. We caught up with Adrian to talk about the stripped down versions of King Crimson and solo compositions on the new album Salad Days , as well as some of the musical company he’s shared.
How did the new album come about?
Salad Days is a collection of things from the last six years. In 1993, I started doing some acoustic shows, just to highlight the singer/songwriter part of what I do, so this record sort of built from that idea. Most of the songs have string bass, or acoustic piano, more flushed out arrangements, but still real simple versions highlighting just the song. I really enjoyed going through my catalog and finding the songs that worked in that domain, where you can just kind of play the song and it’s complete as you play it on the guitar or piano.
Was any particular song interesting to do in this style?
If you listen to “Three of a Perfect Pair” on this record, I don’t think you ever would get that from listening to the original King Crimson version, which is rather dense and complicated, besides being all electronic. But now you get to hear, “What does Adrian do in this song?” Well, here’s the guitar part and here’s the vocal, and that’s still complicated! The most difficult thing for me about writing King Crimson material over the years has been, how do you turn this rather complex music into songs?
Speaking of complex music, what was it like to play with Frank Zappa?
Frank was a genius. I’ve worked with a lot of very innovative people, but it’s rare to actually find somebody who is a genuine genius — the real article. And when you see that someone, it’s just remarkable. You can’t deny it. Just to talk to him, you would know it. If you didn’t know his music or anything else, you’d say, “This guy is brilliant,” because he was. It was one of the most educational years of my life to play in his band.
How about David Byrne and Talking Heads?
I did two albums with Talking Heads, then I did two Jerry Harrison records, then I did Chris and Tina’s first Tom Tom Club album, which was a huge success. And I worked on David’s solo album, The Catherine Wheel . That’s what, six records? And that was in less than a year’s time. That music was so much fun for me to play, because I had free reign. My instructions were, “Just play some wild guitar stuff here.” I took to that like a baby to candy. David Byrne was always unique to me. I thought he had one of the most unique lyrical styles and had unique ways of rendering a song.
He’s just a chameleon, you know. So up on what’s new and vibrant in music, and finds really interesting ways to assimilate it all into his sound, and still puts his own spin on it.
I arranged a version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” for her True Colors album, and played on a few other songs. She has such an incredible voice–I still don’t think she’s truly let loose vocally. Yet.
I remember going into the studio and listening to the music tracks for Graceland , thinking it was the most un-Paul Simon type of songwriting I’d ever heard. And then he’s showing me the lyrics for “Boy in the Bubble” and “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes,” and he’s singing them right into my ear … it gave me chills. That was such an experience. He’s one of the greatest songwriters America has ever produced.
Most of his stuff is done on the computer, Protools, and so what he does is he turns everything into a loop. To give you a comparison, if I’m going to do a song, usually there’s a space in the song where I may play a guitar solo for 35 seconds, or 36 bars. With Trent, everything has a continual loop, so you can play for a half an hour. He’ll go back and edit just the part that he wants and take that and put in the loop. He’s brilliant with his manipulation of sounds. He probably has a reputation in the lifestyle press as being kind of a dark and foreboding kind of guy. He certainly wasn’t that way to me.
What are you working on now?
I’m deep into the next all-electric solo album. It’s a power guitar trio album–very aggressive, probably the most aggressive electric guitar playing I’ve done in a long time. I would say it’s the closest to King Crimson that my solo records have ever come. At this point, I’ve been playing all the instruments. Right now, I’m struggling trying to write the lyrics. There’s a lot of great tracks already finished, but as usual, the last thing that goes on my paintings are the words.