The Crimson Twang Bar King: An Interview With Adrian Belew
by Gary Marks
T'Mershi Duween #40 August 1994 copyright Fred Tomsett

This interview was conducted by Gary Marks via the telephone on March 7 1994, and transcribed by himself; re-typing and tweaking by the Freditor (Fred Tomsett). This interview really only contains the Zappa-relevant sections in their entirety, the post-Zappa period covered in outline only.

Q: Let's start with your early days. Where were you born?
AB : I was born in Kentucky at the very top across from Cincinnati. The Ohio River separates Northern Kentucky from Cincinnati. There were a lot of really good bands in the area; a  lot of RnB has come out of Cincinnati over the years.

Q: Was there any interest in music in your family?
AB: Not at all, I was the only seemingly talented one (laughs). I don't know where it came from. My father was kind of a jack of all trades; he drove trucks and fixed plumbing and could do electrical work. My mother was a housewife and a Sunday school teacher, so there wasn't any musical ability in the family.

Q: Did they actually encourage you once you started playing?
AB: Oh very much so. They were really great about that. My dad bought me my first drumkit.

Q: Did you start on drums?
AB: Yes, age ten in the High School marching band. We'd go to football games and do that sort of thing. I didn't take up guitar until I was sixteen. At that point, I was playing in this band as a drummer and singer, but I wanted to be able to write songs, and I couldn't express my songs through the drums. So I borrowed an acoustic guitar for a couple of months and started teaching myself to play.

Q: A lot of your guitaring is quite rhythm oriented, isn't it?
AB : I think that probably comes from having a background in drumming. I'm able to incorporate some of that into my playing and I'm able to hear what the drumming might be like as well and  imagine that in my mind.

Q: When you were growing up, what kind of music did you listen to? Who were your favorite bands?
AB: When I was a young child, I went to a lot of concerts. My school had a program you could enroll in to go and see orchestra music and so I was very aware of things like Stravinsky and Ravel and so on. That was the first music I remember being effected by Gershwin and more modern orchestral works. Then when I was fourteen, there was the Beatles and the British invasion.  That was really when my life changed enormously and I decided what I really wanted to do with my life was to be a recording artist. After the Beatles, the next few things that influenced me were Jimi Hendrix and curiously King Crimson. They were the third band that I remember really having a lot of influence on me. I knew a little bit about the Mothers from their first album. Even when I was in my little Beatles copy band, I was already listening to Zappa's music. My manager gave me the 'Freak Out!' album and said I was the only person he knew who might enjoy this music (laughs). I still remember 'Help I'm a Rock' and all those interesting things. That was a very amazing record; but over the years, I lost track of a lot of Frank's things.

Q: Did you have any interesting jobs or did you do the usual sort of mundane jobs before music?
AB: Through the Seventies, I was in a variety of different bands. Sometimes it would be a power trio playing Hendrix type material. I was actually in an Elvis cover band; I was in a lot of bands playing covers. I was also in a band or two that tried to get into the progressive rock arena (laughs). I don't even remember what they were called. We did however open for Yes once. I remember sitting at the soundcheck watching Bill Bruford and thinking 'man, I just love Bill Bruford', never dreaming that some day we'd be in the same band together.

Q: As legend has it, you were in a nightclub when Zappa saw you.
AB: Yes, Nashville. I had played in a number of hands and ending up joining a band in Nashville that just played other people's music, but it was a rather interesting band called Sweetheart. I was writing my own material, but the band didn't do that. It was more a band that just played a lot of club dates. We were located in Nashville but didn't often play there. We mostly played around the Mid West. So there I was, floundering in this band (laughs) and Frank had played a concert in Nashville. He was looking for something to do afterwards, and asked his chauffeur where to go. He said 'Well; I like this band playing over at Fanny's', so Frank and his entourage, including John Smothers, Patrick O'Hearn and Terry Bozzio came on over, this strange interesting exotic looking bunch of people. I saw him walk in as I was playing. It was undeniable that it was him, and you know I just lit up like a neon sign, because I played and sang better than I ever had done that night.

Q: It might have had the opposite effect on some people.
AB: That's right, I've always said that to people. If I hadn't been ready for the moment. I might never have been discovered. After all, he didn't discover anyone else that night (laughs).

Q: You had no idea that he was going to walk in?
AB: No, of course not. It was a total surprise. You could almost tell from the audience that something unusual was happening; there was a real buzz in the air. Frank sat and listened to us for about forty minutes, then he came up and shook my hand in the middle of a song, 'Gimme Shelter'. He said he would get my number from his chauffeur and audition me some time later. It was about six months before he called and I thought he had forgotten about me, but he'd been out finishing off the tour. So then I auditioned at his house and the rest is history.

Q: Were the rest of the band jealous in any way?
AB: I think they were all genuinely excited for me, but as the months went by, everyone thought it wouldn't happen, and nothing would come of it. The band fizzled out anyway. At about the time Frank called, I had nothing to do. It was a pretty low point for me. I was behind in the rent and just about to go crazy (laughs) when I got this wonderful call saying 'Hi, this is Frank Zappa; I want you to come and have your audition. Here's some songs for you to learn.' I don't read or write properly, so he just gave me a bunch of songs and said to try to figure them out, to sing and play them as best I could, and I worked probably sixteen hours a day for the next week.

Q: Were you nervous at the audition?
AB: Well, I did two auditions really because I was so nervous at the first one. I was up at  Frank's house; there were people moving pianos and other equipment, and there was me in the middle of the room with a little naked microphone standing there, singing Frank's songs. He was sitting behind a studio board, smoking a cigarette and just said 'Play this; play that' and 'No that's not right; play this one', so it was very nerve-wracking. I stood around the rest of the day, watching other people audition, I actually watched Tommy Mars audition. Incidentally, Frank told me later that he had auditioned fifty guitar players, so I felt lucky to get it. Near the end of the day, I finally caught Frank's eye and said 'Frank, I know I didn't do very well, and it's because I thought we would do this differently. I thought we
would sit down somewhere quietly, just you and me and I could play the songs and show you I can do it.' He said 'Well fine. Let's go up to the living-room and sit on the couch and we'll do that'. So I did the audition a second time; then he shook my hand and said 'You got the job'.

Q: How did you feel?
AB: I felt like a million dollars (laughs). I was so happy I couldn't believe it.

Q: How long was it after the audition that you were on stage with him7
AB : We rehearsed for three months solid before we ever went on stage and it was a very intense, educational period for me. I worked five days a week with Frank and the band, then on weekends I would go up to his house and start working on next week's songs. In other words, he would give me a chance to start learning them by rote before he would show them to the rest of the guys. So I literally spent seven days a week for three months learning Frank Zappa material and staying at his house, working to the wee hours of the morning with him. Hard work, but I loved every minute of it. It was a great time for me. I will always have nothing but great things to say about him because he was always really great with me. I know other people say he was demanding or hard to work with; yes he was demanding but to me it was always a joy.

Q: How did the arrangements of songs evolve throughout rehearsals and tours? Did they change dramatically?
AB : Yes, they did. They all changed a lot. Frank would try out all these different types of arrangements and it was amazing to watch him completely change the song. I learnt five hours of material, of which I would say a good two hours was brand new. So he was trying out all these new ideas and different ways. He would arrange a song about five or six different ways before he finally arrived at it. In fact, the one I remember was 'Flakes'. When Frank showed it to me at home one night on a weekend, when he sat and played it on guitar, it sounded like a lousy folk song (laughs), so I started kidding about with it, singing it like Bob Dylan, and he said 'That's in the show.You're going to do it that way.'

Q : It seems that everyone thinks of Frank being cynical, but he seemed to have a genuine interest in the band members. Does your experience bear this out?
AB: I think Frank was really a wonderful person. I think maybe he was pointing out a lot of things in life to be cynical about, but he himself was genuinely a very warm, friendly person, with a great sense of humor. You couldn't help but love the guy. You would be around him for ten minutes and you would be laughing and having a great time. He was always very fair with me, totally straightforward, a no-bullshit kind of person.

Q : I read in an interview you did with Society Pages that you rang Zappa about a year back, after a dream about him.
AB: I had a dream at about six in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep. In the dream, it was simply Frank and I together, having a conversation. We were talking about his music and I told him what I was doing. When I woke up from it, I realized that I had never really genuinely thanked Frank for helping me out and giving me a start, so I sat down at my computer and wrote up a little fax. I then faxed it off to him and he faxed me back saying 'Call me'. I called him and we had a great conversation and he said 'That was very sweet of you, Adrian, to say thanks', and that's an unusual word, 'sweet', for him to say. It made me feel really great.

Q: Have you seen him or spoken to him since leaving the band?
AB: I've seen him several times. In fact one time, I took Bill Bruford up to his house and we sat and talked. I used to go and visit him on occasions but never stayed long because I always felt funny taking up his time, because I know he's a busy guy. I did visit him about three months ago. We sat in his living-room and talked for about half an hour, but he was tired. This was probably only a couple of months before he died: he seemed very weak and fragile. Then he said he wanted to lie down for a while, so I took a tour of his studio with his assistant Mark. Then I left and that was the last time I really saw him.

Q: I've often thought Bruford would have made an ideal Zappa drummer. What do you think?
AB: I think he could have done that very easily and been very fitting. Even though Frank was very specific with what he wanted everyone to do, I think Bill could have done that well.

Q: Is it true that Bowie and Eno approached you at a concert?
AB: Not entirely true. It was David Bowie and Iggy Pop, but Brian Eno was the one who instigated it. Eno had seen the Zappa show in Cologne, called Bowie and said 'I think this is a guitar player you should use on your next tour'. Then David came with Iggy Pop in tow to the Berlin show and that's where I first met David.

Q: What was Frank's reaction when you wanted to leave?
AB: He didn't like it (laughs.I think Frank didn't care much for David Bowie personally, and then secondly I don't think he liked the idea that I was leaving so soon. But he shook my hand and said 'Good luck and I hope it works out for you'. He ended up firing the whole band at the end of the London shows and was very upset about it. It had nothing to do with me, and since I had already in a sense removed myself from the picture, I didn't feel too responsible, but I did go and see him that last night of the tour after the show, and he said 'Good luck.' The firing of the band had something to do with some incidents that happened on tour, where people had gotten into trouble with drugs. Not me. I was drug free (laughs).

Q: How different was Bowie than working with Zappa?
AB: At the time I began working with David in 1978, he was buffered pretty heavily, so I don't feel that I got to know him very well as a person. It was an awesome thing to work with him. When we did the 1990 tour, it was exactly the opposite. David was very open and friendly, so during this period I got to know David very well. I think he was a lot different then. He must have had a lot of pressure on him in the late 1970s, being such a superstar.

Q : You arranged the music for the 1990 tour?
AB: Yeah. He wanted me to come in and do the songs in a true to the spirit of the music fashion, but just do them our way. He wanted to be a sort of cheerleader on the sidelines (laughs), so apart from a few arrangement or key changes, it was left up to us to devise the music, with me as musical director.

Q: Around about that time, you were becoming well-known. Did you get any offers you had to turn down?
AB: There were a few, but nothing I regret. Pretty much one thing parlayed into another. I've always found this amazing; I went from Frank to David to Talking Heads to King Crimson. The world became a much larger and a much smaller place at the same time. It seemed like everywhere I went I was meeting these people I respected and admired and then sooner or later they would call and say 'Would you like to do something?'

Q: Did you enjoy the Talking Heads experience?
AB: Yes I did. I felt very comfortable in that band. because the role I had was kind of the wild soloing guitar player who would also take over all the interesting sounds that they couldn't reproduce from the records. I missed being a singer, but that didn't bother me too much. Their music was easy for me as well; it was music I could play in my sleep.

Q : Then we come to King Crimson. How did that come about?
AB: That was I think the most monumental change in my career forever, and I still feel the reverberations from it. Everyone still seems to ask a lot about King Crimson. I was amazed to be on the same stage as those guys: Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford and Tony Levin. I don't see how you could get higher company than that (laughs).

Q : Fripp once said he thought it was the best band in the world at that point. Was it that good?
AB: I think he said it was the best live band to him, and I must admit that there was something in the live performances that transcended anything we put on record. There was just something about it, the intensity of the music, and what I have always liked about any King Crimson is the integrity in the music. I think Robert should be given credit for that, he was kind of a watchdog over it.

Q : Did anyone else audition for your part or did Fripp want you from the start?
AB: I didn't audition. Robert called me. He said he was thinking of putting a band together with Bill Bruford and would I be interested? We auditioned about thirty bass players, but all the while we really wanted Tony Levin and weren't sure he would do it. Tony walked in and played, and it was obvious he was the guy. When he finally agreed to do it, we stopped the auditions.

Q: The 'Three of a Perfect Pair' album sounds like it was a difficult album to make.
AB : It was, as was 'Beat'. I think when we lost the idea that Robert was the leader, we started going the wrong way. I preferred it the way it originally was, and I even wondered if we should introduce what I call my 'pop music'.

Q: Bill Bruford's not involved with the new line-up, is he?
AB: Yes he is. I'm so glad about this. Robert in January, decided he did want to work with Bill again and have two drummers, and we will also have two stick players. It's going to be an awesome six piece, and we start in April. I think it will be a long term thing. Robert and I have talked about taking the pace slower so we don't burn ourselves out on the idea.

Q: So then we come to the Bears.
AB : I'm surprised you have anything by the Bears in England; it was pretty much an American phenomenon. The record label and budget was modest, and the label folded during the touring for the second album and that was the demise of the band. There was a wonderful spirit in that band. I sat in and played a bunch of new songs two nights ago, and they're going to join me for my June/July American tour. There is the possibility of a third Bears album. I have a really nice home studio now which can accommodate some of these things.

Q: Is there any chance of you touring Europe as a solo act?
AB: A lot will depend on the reaction to the new album. Over here, people are saying it's the best thing I've done. I think it's similar to the last album, but I think it's much better; I say that in all sincerity. The songs are more developed; the vocals are real good; but it's still in the realm of 'avant garde pop music' or 'sophisticated pop music', where the songs are orchestrated in a slightly askew manner (laughs).

Q : Are you tempted to do a real guitar album, something like 'Passion and Warfare'? 'Desire Caught By the Tail' is more like a guitar orchestration album...
AB : I am working on doing some more 'Desire' type material. In fact, it's funny you mention guitars and orchestra, because that's the title of the first one, and I'm going to have a series of them. They're going to be called 'The Experimental Guitar Series' and the first is called 'Guitars and Orchestra in Modern Ensemble Music', serious music done strictly on guitar. There's about an hour or so already. The second one is called, 'Animal Kingdom' and that's all rhythms and animal sounds, more of a tropical setting.

Q: On the new album 'Here', do you play all the instruments?
AB: Yeah. I managed to play everything, including some cello lines and some Japanese koto, all in my home studio. Everything about the album seems to be very uplifting. There are still songs about ecology and world concerns I have, but there is a kind of love song thread that goes throughout the album, kind of a surreal love song. It's a very up album compared to 'Mr Music Head' which is darker than this one.

Q : Have you ever considered doing film scores?
AB: I did a documentary about eight months ago, and last week I won the Canadian Documentary Film award. Out of 160 films, I won Best Score; I was astounded. It was called 'In the Gutter and Other Good Places', and traced the life of three street people, guys who had been successful then had some bad failures in life and were now living in boxes on the street. It's a very enlightening story. I had a great time doing the music to it. I'd love to do more. The experimental guitar music would be an excellent calling card for film scoring.

Q: I presume there's going to be some sort of Zappa tribute. If you were approached, would you consider doing it?
AB: Oh Sure. I was going to try and do it before. My schedule wasn't too good when they did the Zappa's Universe. If it came at a time when I had space for it, I'd love to do something. There's no way I could ever say thanks properly enough.