Adrian Belew & his modern electronic lives

by Laura Long, (September 13, 2011)  Adrian Belew taught himself to play guitar, and he doesn’t really read music either. With enough session/tour/band/solo work to fit into what Belew calls “three lifetime’s worth,” the list of creative and interesting people he has worked with (in between putting out solo albums, mind you) includes Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails, Laurie Anderson, Tori Amos, Tom Tom Club, Cyndi Lauper, and Paul Simon. Oh yeah, he’s also well-known for his work with the legendary rock band “King Crimson.”

With Belew scheduled to play The Bijou on September 21, 2011, (Two of a Perfect Trio Tour with Tony Levin, Markus Rueter, Pat Mastelotto, Julie Slick, Tobias Ralph) it seemed like a good time for to ring him up and ask about gadgets.

LL: “You’ve been quoted as saying “I went to the Frank Zappa school of rock.” What do you mean by that?

AB: My work with Frank Zappa (1977-1978) was very intense, and not just because I was a non-reader (of music) or because we had the challenge of odd time signatures and things like that. Frank taught me things like ‘this is how you tour’ and ‘this is how you run your music business.’ He taught by telling stories; he was full of stories. He was brilliant.

LL: Is that where you got the idea of doing a duet with your daughter (on “Oh Daddy)?

AB: Because of the (Frank Zappa/Moon Unit) ‘Valley Girl’ thing? No. The song I did with my daughter was never meant to be a real recording; she just said ‘I want to sing something with you.’ And so we did this song together, but then someone else heard it and took it to Atlantic (Records) and said ‘You gotta hear this.’ And so we ended up recording it.

LL: It charted # 5 on Modern Rock.

AB: Yeah, I wish everything I did went that well.

LL: You were invited onstage to play guitar on the song “Psycho Killer” with Talking Heads (before you went on tour with them). Was that planned or were you just hanging out backstage and they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come out and do a song?’

AB: I had been to their shows, and I think it was the third show of theirs I went to and they asked if I would play on that song. I told them I didn’t know ‘Psycho Killer’ and they said, ‘Just play guitar and freak out at the end.’

LL: You’ve been called ‘Trent Riznor’s guest guitarist of choice.’ You played on Nine Inch Nail’s ‘The Downward Spiral,’ ‘The Fragile,’ and ‘Ghosts I-IV.’ When you work with artists you have worked with before, how do you keep your guitar work fresh but still fit in with what the artist expects from you?

AB: I’m always changing. My guitar work is concurrent with change in my life in general, so I always have a new round of tricks.

LL: You have a signature guitar now.

AB: It’s the Parker Fly. It weighs four pounds and always stays in tune. It has this epoxy coating baked into it that gives it super strength; you could stand on it and it wouldn’t go out of tune. Never needs intonating. It makes me play better! Updated electronics, Midi, every bell and whistle, no dead spots—

LL; How much?

AB: Ten thousand dollars.

LL: You’re kidding.

AB: I know that’s a little much. There will be a second model early next year that will be five grand. The Dragonfly.

LL: You have also served as producer on projects; you produced ‘Flood’ for Jars of Clay.

AB: And ‘Liquid.’ They helped me pay for my home studio (when they paid me $10,000 for that work.) It was the first project I did in my home studio, too. When it was done, I thought they would do okay, sell a few copies of their CD to family and friends. Imagine my surprise when it sold (2 million copies).

LL: A lot of people obviously identified with it. You’ve done a little soul-searching yourself, like on your solo album, “Inner Revolution.” (quoting) ‘Your love is precious; give it to someone who deserves it.’

AB: That album came about after a time of personal upheaval, a lot of music, and a lot of changes in my life. In 1990, I toured with David Bowie in 27 countries. I made lots of money. I got divorced. I fell in love. It was a life-changing year. And ‘Inner Revolution’ is about how changes on the inside contribute to changes on the outside

LL: Is that song you did with David Bowie, “Little Pink Rose,” about a vagina?

AB: You’ll have to ask David, because that’s his song. Personally, I never thought it had any sexual connotation. Have you seen the video? There’s a Russian lady in it. I always thought it was a political song, a song about Russia.

LL: Any new projects you care to mention?

AB: I’ve got a DVD called “E for Orchestra,” which is an orchestral project I did with the Amsterdam Symphony. It’s modern classical music in five movements. It took me three years to finish, and since I don’t write music, I had to spell it out to someone who prepared the sheet music for me. It’s only been performed once, and that’s the DVD. It’s available on my website at, and we will also have it available at the Sept. 21, 2011  show at The Bijou.



Adrian Belew sits in on a set at Java in the Old City with local guitarist George Middlebrooks during Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival. File photo by Laura Long for