If someone asked what you look for in a guitarist, what would you say?
Would you emphasize a chameleonic ability to tackle every style regardless of the degree of difficulty entailed? Would you harp on the possession of a universal tone capable of removing all doubt about who’s responsible for the sounds coming out of your speakers? Or, would you be willing to forgive a few technical gaffes here and there in favor of someone that more than made up for them with an unrivaled passion and onstage panache?
While each of those is important, they serve as tiny pieces to a much larger puzzle.
Any guitarist worth their salt would agree, because mastering the instrument should be a lifelong commitment requiring the pupil to withstand whatever obstacles come their way. The process is never-ending and the player must never succumb to the inevitable frustration that comes with trying to make an age-old medium sound new again.
Take Adrian Belew, for instance, the ex-King Crimson guitarist and eternal six-string innovator for whom complacency is not an option. As proud as he is of the statements he and Crimson made from 1981-2009, he continues to tirelessly plug away in pursuit of the next great project.
He told me all about those projects and more during our 20-minute conversation to promote his upcoming “Adrian Belew Power Trio” performance at Buffalo’s Tralf Music Hall on Oct. 30. The show will feature cuts from his solo catalog as well as radically re-imagined Crimson classics sure to have members of prog nation, myself included, salivating from the moment they set foot inside.
If you still have questions about what an ideal guitarist should look like once it’s over, well, you weren’t paying close enough attention.
Question: Are you excited for the upcoming tour?
Belew: I’m very excited. The rest of the band is meeting me tomorrow to begin a five-day rehearsal period and we’re going to try to do some things we’ve never performed in a live setting before. We’re updating some of the material in a way that better suits a trio, because people have to remember that a lot of the arrangements we’re tackling on this tour were written for larger ensembles.
Question: How does your current power trio compare to other bands you’ve played with?
Belew: This band is a unique collection of talent with the ability to be powerful at any given moment. We all love to play and there’s a sense of excitement pervading our live shows that can’t be faked. I discovered Julie Slick when she was just 20 years old and now her playing is becoming quite revered among other bassists on the scene. She’s been with me for eight years and we’ve just always jelled together musically. I’ve also had Tobias Ralph on the drums for three or four years now and he’s anything but your typical drummer. He plays with a kind of tastefulness reminiscent of my former King Crimson bandmate Bill Bruford, which is something I’m really drawn to. He can do whatever he wants musically without having to overanalyze the process and his ability is endlessly complex.
Question: Of the band’s you’ve been involved in, which do you feel has brought out the best in your own ability?
Belew: I think they all do, to some degree. One of my early bands, The Bears, was a real brotherhood and we all wanted to take it as far as we could. With Bowie, it was a different experience entirely, because the stage was bigger and the stakes were higher. I could feel the enormity of the gig pushing me to elevate at every turn. What meant the most to me, though, was the way in which I balanced King Crimson with my solo career. Without that healthy mixture of the two, I don’t think either output would have maintained the high standard that they did.
Question: I know a lot of fans were disappointed when your stint with Nine Inch Nails didn’t pan out. What was the real story there?
Belew: Trent (Reznor) and I sat down to discuss essentially reinventing everything that the band was previously about, but, the longer I was there, the more I began to question how well it would work. It was clear that I wasn’t the right fit for what he wanted to do, so I bowed out with no problems or hard feelings to speak of. I still think the world of him as an artist, but I didn’t want it to feel as if just anyone could fill the spot I was taking.
Question: Because you dedicated so much of your life to King Crimson, are you disappointed with the way things ended?
Belew: I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed to some extent, because I put everything I had into that band. When Robert Fripp decided that he wanted to reform the group, we both agreed right from the start that I wasn’t ideal for the direction he wanted to go. But that’s the way things go. I didn’t want them to carry on without me, but I’m always focused my own future and what else I can get myself into.
Question: You’re known for having an unorthodox approach utilizing sounds not traditionally heard on the electric guitar. Did you make a conscious effort to be different or did the innovation come naturally?
Belew: After a while, I think it was definitely a conscious effort to formulate my own voice on the guitar. I taught myself various techniques and would often attempt to mimic sounds I heard walking down the street on a daily basis. Seagulls, car horns, anything unusual, really. I would find a way to incorporate them into my solos and people started to respond in a fun way.
Question: I know that you’ve also gotten heavy into designing your own guitars and their accompanying setups. What does your ideal guitar setup look like?
Belew: With all the international traveling that I do, I try to limit the amount of gear I take with me. There are a lot of problems with people tossing stuff into the back of planes and potentially causing damage, so I prefer to travel lightly in the respect. I’ve gotten to the point in my live performance where I don’t have to use an amp anymore, because everything I need comes directly from my laptop. Software has progressed so much that all I really need are a few pedals on the floor and the computer to complete my ideal setup.
Question: Looking back on the incredible body of work that King Crimson is responsible for, which album stands out in your mind as the finest of the bunch?
Belew: I’d say the very first one, because we had the most ideas about what we wanted to do. It was our honeymoon album in that we were free to experiment with whatever we wanted without concerning ourselves with outside expectations. We were reinventing the wheel without realizing it and “Discipline” ended up sounding like nothing else out there at the time.
Question: Because you were young when Frank Zappa extended an invitation to join his band, how much did it mean to you that he thought so highly of your playing at that age?
Belew: It meant everything to me. I was like a puppy on that tour just gobbling up all the genius and wisdom he had to offer, because no one else was like him. He was always generous and challenging me to be at the top of my game. I’m pretty sure that I hung right under his elbow for the entire year.
Question: Do you have any projects that you’re currently working on?
Belew: I have a huge project that has been in the works for a few years now called Flux. It’s a whole new way to experience music, because, no matter how many times you listen, you never hear the same thing twice. Basically, people can download the app to their phones and hear hundreds of pieces accompanied by visual effects without repeat. And every listen is a new, unique experience that will never happen again for you or anyone else. While songs do repeat over time, the song forms themselves are short and varied. Songs even appear in multiple versions, with different lyrics and instrumentation. Sometimes a longer song will play in its entirety, but most often you’ll only hear a portion of it, which may be interrupted by something else: a startling sound effect or a common everyday noise. There are hundreds of these songs, pieces of music, and sonic “snippets”, along with engaging visuals randomly changing with the music. It’s gotten a lot of buzz on the Internet in advance of its Nov. 25 release, so I encourage everyone to head over to Kickstarter to support the campaign.
Don’t miss the Adrian Belew Power Trio at The Tralf Music Hall on Oct. 30 in Buffalo, NY.
Doors at 7:00 p.m. Show at 8:00 p.m. See http://www.tralfmusichall.com for further details.
For more information on Flux, please visit http://www.flux.noii.se and see for yourself what all the hype is about.