By: Justin Beckner
Guitarist Adrian Belew boasts one of the most prolific and accomplished resumes in music history, including collaborations with Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Nine Inch Nails; Oh yeah, and 32 years in King Crimson. In the following interview, Adrian talks about his music camp, his FLUX project, and discusses the new King Crimson lineup, the first in over three decades to not include him.
Tell me how the Three of a Perfect Pair Music Camp came together?
This will be the third year that we’ve had the band camp. Originally it was presented to me by the organizers of the camp and they had some success with some other acts and they had pretty much perfected their model of how to run a camp. They had an excellent staff who had done this many times before and they approached me to see if I’d be interested. After speaking with them for a while about it I realized that the best camp I could offer should involve other people. So I presented the idea to Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. We were the three members of King Crimson who were still playing live music; at that point everyone else had retired.
I would imagine that there would be a bit of musical instruction going along with this camp.
You know the first year we did it I was wondering what it would be like and how much of it would be actually teaching people things, what types of people and age groups would be there and what I’ve noticed is that a lot of people come there just because they want to hang out and there’s nothing wrong with that. They want to hear the stories and just hang out and watch us do our thing. The first year we learned some songs in front of them and we thought that would be interesting for them to see. Eventually that turned into what is now called Crimson ProjeKCt, which we’ve been taking around the world at different times. Another thing we’d do is have a concert at the end of the week for all the campers. So what we did is we’d learn songs during the week and then play them, along with others of course. Still, some people come there for instruction and, because there are three different players here, we can instruct them differently. We devised it so that the classes didn’t overlap. I would do a class on songwriting and Tony would do one on how to record your bass and Pat would do one on electronic drumming. So we had it laid out so that people could go from one class to another. I should mention that this camp is held at a 70 acre resort in the Catskill Mountains so it’s a beautiful place with several large rooms including a big barn that has been converted into a studio. There’s a roadside tavern with a bar in it. We all eat communally in a big tent outside. It’s very loose and we’re always with the campers and if you want to hear a story all you have to do is come up and sit by me.
How big are the class sizes?
They range from 30 to 40 people in general. There are usually around 70 people there total and they come from everywhere. We’ve had people come from other continents, we’ve had people who are non-players - there are really no restrictions. Financially, it’s based on how you want to be housed. You can even bring your camper and camp out; that’s the cheapest method. Then you can have your own room or your own cabin; that’s more expensive obviously. You can share a room with another camper. The interesting thing about it is that people come there with a shared love for the music that we’ve been a part of and then they become friends and jam together; we have a free form jam every night at the bar. In the past couple years I’ve realized that people keep up those friendships after they leave. We have a lot of people who return. Each year we change things up so it’s never the same experience twice. We learn every year. We’re even able to give away a lot of amplifiers and guitars – we’ve got some great sponsors who allow us to do that. I’d also like to point out that the food is great. There’s a lot of smiling and a lot of laughing. It’s part serious and part party.
Let’s talk cheddar, this seems as though it would be an expensive camp. Is this a camp for rich people?
Oh no, I don’t actually know how much it is but it’s not like these baseball fantasy camps or anything, it’s very affordable. The website tells you how much it costs. It’s layered but even at the highest level, it’s not very expensive (Editor’s note - check out prices here: http://threeofaperfectpair.com/register-now/).
What was the most challenging musical endeavor that you’ve ever faced?
Well, all my life when I was learning to play guitar and coming up through the ranks, I always dreamed about playing guitar with an orchestra. At that time I was dreaming about it, it was something that no one had ever done. It’s a little more commonplace now. But about four or five years ago I started writing a piece of music called “E” which is a forty five minute piece of music in five segments. I originally wrote it for my trio. After we recorded that and made a record out of that, I also had ideas of how to make it for a symphonic orchestra. So I said that in the press and on my website and, low and behold, they called. The Metropole Orchestra from Amsterdam, one of the finest in the world, called and said that they were funded by the Dutch government and the largest broadcast company in the Netherlands and they said they’d like to do my piece. So my dream came true, and it was also the hardest thing I ever did in my life. First of all, I’m totally self-taught as a guitarist, I’ve never been able to read music at all and I never thought it was holding me back in any way. In rock music in particular it’s not all that important but in orchestral music, it’s highly important. So I worked with a friend of mine, Tom Trapp, who is a transplanted New Yorker who lives in Amsterdam and is a brilliant guy, and I could sing and play for him on guitar and piano everything that I wanted and he could write it out perfectly and make suggestions based on the range of the instruments. We did that for the first ten days. We did the orchestral piece one time and it was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life to be standing there in front of a full orchestra and a sold out house, it’s very nerve wracking. It’s a very difficult piece of music and there is no room for error so I had to rehearse it for months before I went and performed it.
Was it difficult working with someone like Frank Zappa, who has himself written orchestral compositions and I’m sure had a great deal of knowledge in the realm of reading music?
Actually Frank was the first person of any notoriety that I’d worked with and he usually always had members in his band who read music because that’s the way he operated, he would bring sheet music every week to the rehearsals. But he made an allowance in my case and what he would do is he’d say, “here’s what we’re going to do, at the end of rehearsals on Friday night every week, I’ll bring you home with me, you can stay at my place and I’ll teach you what’s coming up the next week and you can learn it by ear” because that’s how I learned everything else. Consequently, I asked Frank if I should learn how to read music and he said, “No”. Because he said I already knew everything, I just didn’t know the terms for it. He also added, “If you don’t know the rules, it’s easier to break them”.
When did you realize that you could make a living with a guitar?
Well I never realized it, it just happened. To tell you the truth, when I first started back in my late teens there was nothing else I wanted to do. So I don’t think it would have mattered if I would have succeeded of failed. I was going to do it no matter what, even if it meant just playing for my friends. I struggled for many years and was able to make, what I would call, a bare bones living until I was discovered by Frank. I was 27 years old at the time and I was worried that I had missed the boat because I thought 27 was pretty late to be finding your career. I was not earning much money and I was playing in dark bars and playing cover music and things like that; it was starting to look pretty bad and then Frank Zappa showed up. My year of tutelage under Frank really taught me how to run my own business and how to be a professional. That opportunity came by at the perfect time in my life when I really needed some teaching in that department.
You’re a guy who’s always got a few irons in the fire, is that something that helps to keep things fresh and interesting?
Yes it is, there are several things that I do to try to keep music fresh and interesting, one is that I involve myself in a lot of new technology and gear and I’m always investigating new sounds. I like to make up new tunings because when you change the tuning of the instrument, you go right back to zero. The learning curve goes right back up when you do that. One of my favorite things to do is sit at home in my studio and make my own records but I think it’s very healthy for me to put myself in the position of being in a band where all of the decision making is not up to me and you get to collaborate with people. The other thing that keeps music fresh to me is the live experience. There is something about performing live that just propels your ideas forward and there’s just such a great energy to it that I just don’t want to give that up. So I try to balance the solo music, band collaboration, and playing live and that keeps things exciting for me.
Which collaboration pushed you the furthest as far as your musicianship?
I think Frank was a big push in an overall kind of way. Playing with David Bowie and Talking Heads certainly pushed my guitar playing because I was asked to just be a guitar player and go wild. But I think what really did the most for me was finally joining King Crimson. I had groomed myself all my life to be in a band and take on multiple roles – songwriting, singing, guitar, lyrics. Up until that point I was just a side man. Then King Crimson invited me in the door, the were also my second favorite band at the time, second only to The Beatles, that’s how much I loved King Crimson. Once I was part of the band, all of the sudden I had enormous responsibility and I had everyone’s attention for better or worse and it was time for me to do what I’d always been dreaming of. In that same year (1981) I also got my first record deal to do my solo music. I’ve run those two careers concurrently ever since. Jumping in with King Crimson was the biggest step for me creatively.
I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what exactly lead to this new King Crimson lineup?
I don’t mind at all. Robert has an idea. The idea is to have three drummers and to have them in the front line where Robert and I would normally be and then put the rest of the musicians behind those drummers. He wants to try this idea. And as I learned more about it, it seems like it’s a pretty quick idea to try. They’re going to do four weeks of touring next September which is a long time from now. There is not going to be any new material and there’s not going to be a new record. Robert said that it just wasn’t something that was right for me and I agree with him, really. I think it doesn’t sound like something I should be spending my time doing. I’m in creative mode and I want to stay there. I’m working on a solo project now that has been three years in the making and until that’s finished; I just don’t think I could put myself 100% into something else. King Crimson is a very demanding entity when you’re in the driver’s seat and you have to write songs and make a new record, it takes a lot of effort and sometimes it takes two or three years of me and Robert working together to come up with the material that the band can play. At this point I don’t think he’s ready to do that again and I’m not either. I support that he wants to do something like this and I remain great friends with Robert. There is no problem whatsoever. In fact if he’d asked me to go along with him on this idea, I would have had to say no, which would have been a problem.
I’d like to hear about this big solo musical project you’ve been working on for three years.
Well it’s very difficult to explain but it’s a musical concept that I’ve had for many years, all the way back to the first time I played with David Bowie. I’ve been honing it and working on it all these years but I could never do it because the technology wasn’t there. It’s called FLUX and its music that’s never the same twice. So, how do you do that on a record? Up to this point, there was no way for me to do it but about three years ago I realized that with streaming technology, you might be able to do it and eventually I realized that I could turn it into an app that people can download it for free and listen to it whenever you want. I think that’s the best way to do it and that’s how we’re going to do it. So FLUX will be a free app and once you’ve listened to it for a little while, you’ll be prompted to buy it just like any record. Then once you do that, the door will be open to FLUX and it will be something that will always be changing. I will always be adding to it. The idea behind this musically is that small pieces of music or bits of songs are interrupted by different things. For example you’ll be listening to a song with a verse and a chorus and then maybe a door slams and a phone rings and you’re off in a totally different piece of music. This continuous randomization is what FLUX is all about. First of all, it requires an enormous amount of content, which is why it’s taken me over three years just to do all the content. I sing everything and I play everything, just as I’ve done on all of my solo records. I can also include any sounds that I want as long as it’s short. The idea behind FLUX is things come at you rapidly but every now and then you’ll hear an entire song. But most of the time, it comes at you in bite sized chunks. The goal is to have something that people will enjoy and never get tired of because it continues to surprise you.
I remember hearing you talk about this before. This is something that’s been in your head since the late 70’s?
1978 – I remember exactly when the idea started and you might even call it a bit of an epiphany when I heard this music in my head a certain way. It was music that was very similar to how life is; life is full of interruptions. You don’t get to sit down and listen to a piece of music that often. Usually the phone will ring or something else will come along. In 1978 I was with David Bowie touring Europe and we were in Marseille France. We had a day off and I went down to the harbor and I was sitting there at a café outdoors and the café I was at and the one next to it had their doors open and were playing different music. One of them was on a radio station that was coming in and out. At the same time I’m hearing all the sounds of the harbor which involved people talking, boats going by, bells, seagulls, car, and everything just made sense to me that it was all music. There is a rhythm to it and there is a music to life itself and its ever changing. I knew that to do this it would have to be something that never repeated itself. Thankfully, I have a studio at home now my engineer living in the guest quarters now but it does take a lot of work. It’s a set of algorithms that decides what gets played and that has to be designed to shuffle and randomize. But you won’t ever have a song repeat itself. There are little snippets which can range from one second to twelve seconds which serve as the glue that holds the whole thing together and they’re also the interruptions that break it all apart. Creatively it has really opened up a new world for me. It’s taken off many of the normal shackles that you usually have to deal with when recording an album. I’ve been doing this for three years now and when I listen to other music now, I tend to get bored with it rather quickly. You won’t get bored with FLUX. I think that the internet and television have changed the way we think and we now have new listening skills that we don’t even know about or realize yet. We’re used to everything coming at us really fast so I think that putting out a new album with 12 new songs just doesn’t fit with our times. I think that FLUX fits with our time, that’s not to say that it will be popular but I think it fits the times we live in.
When will this be available to the public?
I was looking to launch it in December or January but then we had some changes we wanted to effect and we had to update it to work with the new operating system of the new iPhones. Because of those technicalities, we’re pushing for a March 2014 release even if it’s not complete; first of all, I want to be the first to this. I’m tired of waiting and I want to see what people think. So even if it’s not perfect yet, I can perfect it as I go. At any time, I can write something in my studio and upload it into FLUX – it’s like a living breathing thing piece of music and over time there is going to be so much stuff.
Are there any plans in place for a new album for any of your other projects?
No, not for me. I would like to write something for The Power Trio specifically somewhere down the line. I wrote ‘E’ for the Power Trio and it’s a piece of music. I always thought that I’d like to try to write songs to mix with the pieces of music. FLUX has taken my creative abilities for the moment but I think down the line, I’ll have that under control and be able to get back to writing songs. I already have some pieces of music that I’ve written that wouldn’t work in FLUX. So, FLUX will not be something that eliminates everything else. I will always have some songs that will not work in this FLUX idea.
Will you ever work with King Crimson again?
I don’t know, at this point I don’t see that happening. It’s going to be a year before they even do this new lineup idea and I don’t know what will happen from then. They may decide that they want to make a new record and continue with that for a few years and that would probably be the end of it for me. Or maybe it will prompt them to do something that would involve me and I’d have to make that decision then. Either way, I want to make it clear that I’m very happy with my 32 years in King Crimson. I’m proud of what we did and the music we created and if it’s over now, I’m ok with that. If it’s viable again and there is something new to do that I can be a part of, I would choose to do it.
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