Catching up on the road with the stunt guitar icon
Adrian Belew is undoubtedly familiar to most if not all readers of Rock & Roll Globe.
On one hand, the 72-year-old’s work on more experimental albums by these artists, as well as Frank Zappa and Laurie Anderson, might suggest that he appeals to niche audiences.
On the other, he has also played on multi-platinum albums by commercially successful – though experimental in their own way – artists such as Cyndi Lauper (1986’s True Colors), Paul Simon (the 1986 and 1990 Grammy winners Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints), and Nine Inch Nails (four albums between 1994 and 2013).
He has also reached the mainstream, even if inadvertently and anonymously, by virtue of a riff that he wrote for a 1981 top 40 hit by Tom Tom Club – the side project of two Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth – being used in a #1 hit by Mariah Carey in 1995 and “Big Energy” by rapper Latto, which recently topped the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart and peaked at #3 on the Hot 100.
Belew has also maintained a productive solo career that began in 1982 and continues with the release of Elevator, the lead single of which, the Covid-themed “a13,” premiered back in April.
The person Frank Zappa said “reinvented the electric guitar” and Trent Reznor called “the most awesome musician in the world” spoke to Rock & Roll Globe by phone while travelling in a van – driven by his wife – from Chicago to his next gig in Cincinnati, which is just across the Ohio River from his hometown of Covington, KY. (His tour continues this week with stops in Burlington, VT, Plymouth, NH, and Boston, MA.)
AUDIO: Adrian Belew “a13”
The events of the past two years obviously inspired the first single from Elevator. How did the lockdown affect you for better or worse in terms of productivity?
The worst would be that for two-and-a-half years you’re not able to have your livelihood and your income. I think it’s for the better for me, because it gave me a really long period to write a lot and record a lot. I taught myself to do digital painting. I just kept my creative side fed as well as I could, because that’s what I felt like I could do to use that time. I think it also resulted in one of the best solo records, because I wasn’t up against the clock I wasn’t looking down the road towards a new tour or playing with someone, or doing anything else. That’s the good side of it, you know. I really enjoyed that process.
You are quoted on your website as saying of Elevator, “It’s my best yet.” What is special about this one?
I’m really happy with the way it turned out, overall, and the content. My aim was very clear. I wanted to write a record that would be uplifting, that’s why you have the title Elevator. I figured that after the lockdown, after the disturbance of that, that people would want that, you know. So sifting through all the songs I was writing, I was very careful to compile and produce that kind of record.
And that’s why I feel it’s one of my best. I maybe should say “my best.” I don’t know, that’s subjective. But I’m happy with it. I’m always happy with my records in the end, and never have regrets about them. But this one I’m particularly happy about.
Have you felt that way about any of your previous albums?
Yeah, almost every one! (laughs)
Your current power trio lineup still includes bassist Julie Slick.
16 years she’s been with me. She just won’t go away. I don’t know what to do!
What would happen if she did?
Uh, I don’t even want to think about that happening! She brings a lot to the show. More than just what you see on stage. As does Johnnie Luca, by the way.
Yes, your new drummer. Tell me about him.
Every year, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto and myself have a band camp called Three of a Perfect Pair Band Camp in the Catskills for a week. The very last thing that we do is go to Bearsville Theater in Woodstock and play as a six-piece band. Most of the time our drummer from the trio wasn’t involved in that. So Johnnie suited up (laughs) and sat in, and ended up playing all of the material with the six-piece band, as well as our trio. And that happened a few summers in a row before it finally dawned on me that hey, this kid is a great drummer and more. Why don’t we have him in the band?
Let’s talk about one of your first bosses, Frank Zappa. Was the fact that he had confidence in you enough to counteract what I presume was the intimidating prospect of being expected to play his compositions?
Well, one interesting thing about it was, most of the time, he really required people who read music. In my case, I think he made an exception. So that itself is kind of an honor. (laughs)
VIDEO: Adrian Belew “Big Electric Cat”
I think of Frank Zappa as being to rock what Miles Davis was to jazz and James Brown was to funk. If you went through those ranks, you were doing something right.
Yeah, it’s like a school. I always say I graduated from the school of Zappa. A good school to go to!
Speaking of former bosses, you have another Celebrating David Bowie tour coming up this year, on which you will be joined by Todd Rundgren. Is he someone with whom you have a personal or professional history?
Somewhat, yeah. We had never played together until the last, I think that it was 2018, of the Celebrating David Bowie tours. We’ve always had an affinity and a relationship on a friendship level, we just never really did any work together. Now not only are we do this Bowie tour together, but he and I also wrote a song together for his new record. The song is called “Puzzle.” I’m really, really pleased with it. It turned out great.
2021 and 2022 were, respectively, the 40th anniversaries of the King Crimson records Discipline and Beat. Have your thoughts on them changed at all four decades on?
No. My thoughts on the records are the same. Although with time, I’m just still ever so surprised that a record like Discipline has held up as well as it has. It’s still really timeless today. It could have yesterday and sort of be ahead of things.
It’s also the 40th anniversary of my first solo record, The Lone Rhino. And while it might not be the same as those two records, I proud of it. That was the start of the 25-series solo career.
When I look back at the whole era, that particular time, it starts in ’77 with Frank and then ’78-’79 Bowie, then 1980 Talking Heads, and then King Crimson and my solo records, sometimes it really does quite amaze me that it all happened.
VIDEO: Tom Tom Club “Genius Of Love”
And the first album by the Talking Heads side project Tom Tom Club’s was in 1981.
Yes. Right now, #1 I think on the Billboard R&B charts is a song by an artist named Latto, and it’s a rewrite of the song that I co-wrote with the Tom Tom Club called “Genius of Love.” So right now even my guitar is being played on a #1 record here. (laughs)
Trent Reznor was heavily influenced by David Bowie. How did you first meet him and end up playing on four Nine Inch Nails albums between 1994 and 2013?
I guess his management called my management, and I just happened to be in L.A. at the time with my gear. And I didn’t know who Nine Inch Nails was, because I don’t follow new music very much. And my manager suggested to me, he said to me, you know, this band is really doing great, and it would probably be a good idea for you to check it out. So, instantly I loved the music. I loved doing things with Trent. But the funny thing was to me that Trent said, well, you know, listening to you with Bowie over the years, you were very influential on me. And he said, we called but we didn’t think you’d ever play with us. (laughs) I thought that was funny. Then of course later he called me “the most awesome musician in the world,” which is a great compliment.
Is there anyone whom you consider to be the most awesome musician in the world?
No, I think that’s too broad. I think all of those things are tastes. My favorite artist over the years, if I had to pick one now, would be McCartney. I think he’s done more for music than most people. My favorite guitarist would be Jeff Beck. I think he’s done incredible things for the music world. And he’s also a personal friend! But other than that I don’t like to pick favorites.