Tech talk with guitar genius Adrian Belew

This story was taken from the summer 2010 issue of Limelight Magazine and the Bridgethink.org monthly e-newsletter.

By JESSICA A. BOTELHO

With a tour about to kick off and gigs at both the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonberry, N.H., on June 24, and the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Mass., on June 26, guitar extraordinaire Adrian Belew said he is equipped with fresh new gadgets that enhance his unique, innovative sound. These “toys” will allow him to put on a one-man show that the audience will have to see to believe.

“I think everything I pick up is part of my creative thought process, which is why I’m always trying new instruments or new effects boxes or switching from playing from guitar to piano,” Belew said. “Each one of those things has the same characteristics and will spark an idea. I guess what I’m always trying to do is inspire myself towards creating the next piece of music, the next song, or the next record concept.”

In order to be more creative, Belew said it’s best to continuously experiment with a lot of different equipment, as he is forever on the prowl for the latest and greatest gadgets.

“I went to the NAMM show they had in California in January,” he said. “It’s a huge convention of all the new musical devices and instruments. It’s where all the different music manufacturers show everything they have.”

Belew said he spotted a mechanism on display called the Tenori-on, an electronic musical instrument that consists of a screen, held in the hands, of a sixteen by sixteen grid of LED switches, any of which can be activated in a number of ways to create an evolving musical soundscape. He said he became infatuated with it almost immediately.

“I really loved it,” he said. “I thought it was an amazingly creative tool. It’s small and almost toy-like and anyone can play it instantly. I want to figure everything out about it and master it. Once you’ve mastered it, there is a lot more to it and then you could actually do compositions with it.”

He said playing the Tenori-on is absolutely nothing like playing guitar, or anything else for that matter.

“It’s not like anything I can think of,” Belew said. “It’s not nearly as tactile as playing guitar. So much of playing guitar is physical. Every little thing you do with your fingers, the way you move your fingers on the fret board, the way you strike the strings, or picking, is going to affect the sound. It’s not the same with the Tenori-on. You are just pushing buttons and once you push a button it activates a sound.”

After he experimented with the Tenori-on, he decided to bring it with him to a performance in order to test it out on stage and introduce it to his fans.

“I brought it to the show because I figured there weren’t many people who’ve seen one or heard one yet,” he said. “I wanted to show my audience everything they expect from me, that I’m pushing the boundaries and trying out new technologies.”

Another form of technology Belew frequently has been using on and off stage is an Apple laptop computer, which primarily acts as a looper for all the sounds he composes. He said he became interested in the concept of looping through his desire to play in a trio.

“When you open up a new box of tools like that, especially a computer, you can imagine there are so many things you couldn’t do with just guitars,” he said. “It’s helped me a lot. In a trio format where there’s only one guitar player, I figured if I could make some loops and that would be our rhythm guitar player (so we would) not have an empty place whenever I wanted to do a solo.”

With the Tenori-on, laptop, software, and other devices, Belew said he ultimately wants to be able to replace keyboards, guitar synthesizers, and several other pieces of heavy equipment he’d rather not lug around. More or less, he said this would give him the opportunity to travel lightly.

“I’m making a big effort to downsize all of the gear I have because in the last four years we toured a lot and it’s too much gear to take most places,” he said. “I wanted to see if there was a better way of doing it with smaller tools so eventually I’ll have just a couple of tools with me and I’ll be able to take those around the world.”

As Belew said, he has toured a lot over the years and has written music in multiple bands including King Crimson and his Power Trio, as well as solo material. He said the main difference between writing music within a group versus working as a solo artist is simple: when writing in a band, he needs to consider the style and preference of his fellow band mates. When working on a solo project, anything goes.

“When I’m writing songs with King Crimson, I’m the singer, the lyricist. I’m the person who writes the melodies,” he said. “I have to be careful that I choose ideas that reflect the rest of the members of the band and their taste and well as what the band is about.”

He said that while it may sound limiting, it’s not.

“The good thing about it is the other people are collaborating with you,” he said. “They are creating things for you to work with too. On my solo records, I try to do everything I can myself just because I think it makes it a little more personal. In King Crimson that’s not necessary. I don’t need to play drums because we have a much better drummer. It’s all from the same well and it’s all good.”

Whether he composes music as a collaborative effort or alone, Belew admitted he rarely considers his audience when he writes.

“I’m sorry to say that and it sounds cold, but I do whatever is in my mind,” he said. “I wake up in the morning with certain ideas and thoughts. I have musical problems I want to solve and I go about doing that. My purpose is, ‘this is in my mind and I want to get it out.’ There are times when I think if the audience will like it or not, but I don’t think it causes me to change anything.”

He said he has never been able to write on the basis of what other people like and, while he admits it may sound a bit selfish, he thinks it’s a “more pure” way to express himself.

“I always create on the basis of what I want to hear,” he said. “You do whatever your heart and your mind are telling you to do. You don’t sit and think, ‘what are my fans going to think?’ because that can derail your creativity quickly. When I started out as a musician, I thought I wanted to be in a popular band or be an artist that made records that loads of people would love. That’s kind of where a lot of people start from but as you mature you realize that’s not the most important aspect of it.”

Belew said the quality of his work is what matters to him most.

“If you’re a musician, you have to live within your own means,” he said. “I’m always conscious that I’m not really a mass appeal, at least not now. You never want to shut that door, it may possibly still happen, but because of that I think it gives me a little extra freedom. I’m not trying to compete with anyone on the radio or with my last hit.”

Hits or no hits, Belew said he has been able to write many rock songs with his bands. On his own, he said he can branch out more.

“The idea behind the (one man) show itself was to demonstrate a part of my music that doesn’t work in other formats,” he said. “It’s more improvising and playing gentler music and prettier things and talking with the audience. You can’t really do that in a rock show because you don’t want to stop the momentum and talk with the audience. In this show, I do all those things, so it’s really put together to show an artistic side of what I do in a very personal way.”

Belew said he hopes to personalize his shows even further by incorporating video to make his sets more of a multi media experience.

“I want to put up two big screens and play with visual things on the screens, sometimes just allowing (images) to float by and do their own thing. But other times being interactive with them so I might be playing something that refers to the pictures you are seeing,” he said. “I’m not really completely finished with what I would like to see happen.”

While he works on perfecting his video, Belew plans to take some of the artwork he recently painted on the road with him and put it on display.

“I’m bringing the paintings along just as a way of showing another side of myself and who I am as an artist,” he said. “A lot of my fans have asked about the paintings and have hinted that they’d like to see them in person. The paintings are really a backdrop. If you come before or after the show you can come and take a look at them close up.”

Belew said he always thought he would start painting when he retired but got the urge and acted on it.

“I just took it up one day out of the blue,” he said. “I thought, ‘well, I’m ready to do this now,’ and I went to a store and started asking a lot of questions about paint.”

He said he knew he wanted to get paint that would work with other substances like sand and gloss so he could add to the dimensional aspect.

“I bought two canvases, took those canvases home and within three or four hours I was ready to start out on the next two,” Belew laughed. “In my paintings, I’ll do a lot of different layers and I’ll put a layer on and then I take some of it off. It’s a way of building dimensions.”

He said he thinks painting is a lot like making music and believes the two forms of art have the ability to inspire one another.

“They come from the same family, from the same side of my brain,” Belew said. “You’re dealing with the same type of things – dimension, tone, and arrangements. I’ve never thought about (music) in the same way as in painting, but it’s true, they are two separate ways of using layering. If you were Picasso, you could draw with a pencil or you could use an airbrush. If you’re a guitar player you could play an acoustic or you could play through a computer.”

Another effective way Belew said musicians and artists can use the computer is via social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

“I think it’s an exciting time because of those elements,” he said. “I think they’ve been good for the music business to reinvent itself because it’s taken the music and the business itself and hoists it in the hands of the artists. You’re more in control of your career through the Internet than you ever were when you were making records on a label. If you do it correctly, you can make more money. It’s a double-edged sword to me. It’s harder, but more rewarding.”

He also said he thinks it’s a bit of a confusing time to be in the music business because too many people are posing as musicians when they are not.

“There are a lot of people that really don’t belong there,” he said. “Maybe as time goes by they get sorted out – who’s truly a musician and who’s just up there because they have a computer and they can. It doesn’t mean you should just because you can. It’s spreading things so thin. There’s no one behind any one movement. When I was starting out, there were movements and a lot of people would get behind those movements. You don’t quite get that same feeling on the Internet because everyone’s doing things. It gives the effect of almost too much information and not enough focus.”

As far as Belew is concerned, he said he is just having fun with his many gadgets and gizmos.

“I never get too wrapped up in one,” he said. “I use all of them for the different needs I have. I’m very careful in my music to balance between the technical and digital aspect of what I do with the more organic acoustic aspect of music so you never lose that part of it.”

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