The Love Bubble
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2022 Anil Prasad.
Adrian Belew is a case study in perpetual motion. The American guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer remains endlessly and restlessly creative, 45 years since his career began. His professional endeavors kicked off in 1977, performing with the Nashville-based rock act Sweetheart, which rapidly led to him working with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and King Crimson, all within the next four years.
Belew’s extraordinary ascent resulted from his singular guitar approach that combines brains, brawn, and technology in equal measure. He’s capable of creating exceptionally unique shapes with the instrument that rage, swoon, and swoop, often with otherworldly and animal-like intimations. He’s equally adept within progressive and avant realms, as he is within addictive pop and driving rock contexts.
His latest—and notably, his 25th—solo album, Elevator, is an elegant composite of his many directions, styles, influences, and cross-genre proclivities. The song-based recording is both accessible and eclectic. It’s infused with Belew’s observations about the bizarre times in which we live, from pandemics to escalating violence to cemented, polarized political worldviews. It also offers hope and positivity, encouraging people to get out into the real world, bridge their differences, and try to move forward despite the all the upheaval.
In addition to his solo career, Belew has focused on several touring bands. Gizmodrome, an art-rock quartet also featuring Stewart Copeland, Mark King, and Vittorio Cosma, released a 2017 self-titled studio album and 2021’s Gizmodrome Live, capturing its limited run as a performing unit. He also reunited with Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison to play the entirety of that band’s classic Remain in Light recording live over the last two years. He’s also co-leading the 2022 Celebrating David Bowie tour, together with Todd Rundgren and Scrote, performing material from across the rock icon’s oeuvre.
Recent years have also found Belew working on Flux:FX and Flux by Belew, a pair of iOS apps designed for musicians and consumers, respectively. The innovative apps brought together more than 300 audio tracks to enable real-time audio manipulation for artists, and randomized, yet seamless listening experiences in which those pieces intersect and combine.
Another key project and career milestone for Belew was his 2016 score for the Pixar short film Piper, released together with the blockbuster movie Finding Dory. Piper was seen by hundreds of millions of people, making it Belew’s furthest-reaching music of his career. It also won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
He’s also been involved in myriad sessions for the likes of Joan Armatrading, Tori Amos, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Jean-Michel Jarre, Cyndi Lauper, Mike Oldfield, Porcupine Tree, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Paul Simon. As a producer, Belew has helmed releases for The Raisins, Jars of Clay, Caifanes, Jaguares, and Kevin Max.
Innerviews conducted more than 11 hours of interviews with Belew between 2019-2022, yielding this wide-ranging, career-spanning, and deeply philosophical conversation.
Give me a view into the making of Elevator and what you sought to achieve with it.
It’s my 25th solo album and I really wanted to celebrate that milestone. Elevator was mostly written during the COVID-19 period and also while other factors were affecting in the world. During the last few years, there have been riots and a lot of anger and hate. People were turning against each other. And I really felt it was important to make a record that would be uplifting and give them a break from that. That’s why I called it Elevator. I was thinking about how music elevates people. So, I set about trying to make a record that would do that. I thought, "These are the best things I can offer to the world at this point, coming out of such big, giant disasters as we've all been through.”
I played, sang, and did everything on the album—even the artwork and the package design. It includes five main digital paintings, which is something I also learned to do during the COVID-19 years. I taught myself how to paint digitally with an iPad and Apple pencil. It has just been so great. I love it so much. All of a sudden, I can paint without having to clean up. It's exactly like learning guitar was for me. I just keep doing it different ways and find all kinds of new things to do. The package also includes smaller versions of 32 other paintings.
I made the album with my engineer Miles Fuqua at my home studio. When we started, the COVID-19 scare was at its peak, so we were separate. He wore a mask and sat in the control room. And I wore a mask and sat in the recording room. And when it came time to hear playback, I just listened through my headphones right there and never went in the studio. So, that was the working procedure for a while. Then finally, we got our vaccinations and worked normally.
I think one of the differences between this and the other solo records I've made is there was no hurry. Usually when I'm recording records, it's in between other things. And sometimes I'll only get to record for a certain amount of time before I have to go on to the next thing, like leaving to go on tour. But this time, I was able to really take my time and do it right.
I also actually practiced. That's another thing I never usually do. This time, I sat down and played drums a lot and I worked on my bass playing. I got a lot of different pedals and equipment. I created a different guitar set up for this album to try to find new sounds. I think it shows in the record. You'll hear guitar stuff with tones I don't normally have. But the songwriting is the key thing. I took a lot of time sitting in my bedroom and writing these songs, trying to perfect them and making sure the lyrics were exactly what I want to say.
There are three songs on the album that are in ballad mode. There’s “The Power of the Natural World,” which is a pretty somber song. Then you have “You Can't Lie to Yourself,” which is also a nice melodic bit. I put some beautiful viola tracks in it. I love the way that sounds, including my voice. And the third one is “Beauty,” which is a strummy song. It could have been a McCartney song if I was that good.
I like to always have one standout, crazy song on my albums. This time, it’s “Taking My Shoes Out for a Walk,” which is very powerful. It has just an insane set of lyrics. The rest of the songs to me are my brand of pop music, however people would like to label that. Those include songs like “A13,” “A Car I Can Talk To,” and “Back to Love.” They’re upbeat things.
Let’s dig into a few songs from Elevator in depth, starting with the lead single “A13.” It includes some intriguing observations about the world we live in.
I tried to limit how much stuff I included about COVID-19, because I like records to be timeless. No-one will want to hear about COVID-19 10 years from now. But for “A13,” I just thought, "Boy, I'm so tired of all of this. I wish I could get on an imaginary train and just go anywhere." I mean like one of those romantic holidays they had in ‘50s movies. You know—the ones where people would just meet on a train and they'd go off together, with no destiny or caring when they got off. They were just so happy to be there, as opposed to dealing with what was really going on around them. I thought, "Well, that's kind of a fun thing to do. I’ll write a song that's about escaping from this situation.” So, it does include just one or two references about what a rough time COVID-19 was, and how if I never saw a mask again, it would be too soon. I just sprinkled those things in there. But really, it's just a fun romance song with a happy feeling. I like the fact that it's really upbeat and fast.
“A13” is written with a different tuning, and it just motors along. It’s one I've used a lot. It has really been a great tuning for me. It's given me a lot of songs. For this tuning, I tune the low E-string down to a D. And I tune the G-string down to an E. So, what you have on the guitar from the low to the high, is a D triad, and then you have the E-B-E triad. I've found some really wonderful chord shapes and voicings in there that I can’t really otherwise do. I don’t have a name for this tuning, but it feeds my imagination. It’s a very simple tuning. I can quickly tune down to it, and quickly tune back out of it, as people will see during my shows when I’ll be playing some of these songs on acoustic guitar.
“Backwards and Upside Down” is another topical song about today's reactive era.
When I was writing this album, so many people and so many things seemed to be backwards and upside down. The world had just gone—at least to me—almost insane. I would think “Wait a minute. That doesn’t make sense. Why are we doing that? Why do people think that’s the right way to go?” It’s not a political song, but a humanistic song. It’s like everyone lost their brains a little bit and everything became black and white. It was either you’re for me or against me. So, this song is about my observations about that stuff. It’s another one of my pop songs.
For the guitar geeks, I’m using an Eventide H9 on it, which I developed a program for. Essentially, it lets me play the parts of two guitarists. There’s the part you’re playing and the other part the Eventide H9 develops from it. They meld together in a way that’s very unique and makes the guitar almost sound like a 12-string. It also renders a part that’s pretty impossible to play. You hear it throughout this song. It’s also the loop you hear on “Good Morning Sun,” done in a different way.
“The Power of the Natural World” encourages people to embrace reality in front of us, instead of always focusing on the virtual. Elaborate on what you’re communicating in it.
I often think of the bigger picture—not just what's going on around us day-to-day in our lives. I wanted to write an uplifting song about the nature of the world. So, I tried to envision three perfect settings. The first one was what I find beautiful. I actually have it in my backyard. When the sun comes through the trees, it's right there for me and it’s by a little stream. That's an idyllic image to me. I tried to write about that as poetically as I could for the first verse.
In the second verse, I thought “Well, another huge beauty of the world we live in is the ocean and what goes on under the ocean.” So, I made some observations. I tried to, once again, make them poetic about the environment that exists there, including all the colors of the coral reef, the fish and all the different sizes and shapes of them. It's just phenomenal to me when you see all this stuff that's in the ocean. When you're looking at the ocean, it just looks like a flat piece of water, but underneath there are billions of really cool-looking things and interesting wonders that are unlike anything on land. It’s a beautiful thing.
I made the third verse about the sky, because oftentimes, even here where I live in Nashville, we'll catch a great sunset. And in this verse, I envision the ultimate sunset. It's draped in the sky, and it's on a beach. And it's just, "Wow, look at that."
So, the whole idea is to celebrate the beauty of our world. Everybody talks about all the bad things that are going on. Well, hey, just look around you. A million years from now it's still going to be like this. Maybe even better, I hope. And all the troubles that you may be thinking about will certainly be gone.
There are two choruses in the song. In one of them, I explore what was it like when the Earth first started—before there was mankind, buildings, or concrete. I was thinking about how serene and beautiful things must have been then. Of course, it would be a dangerous place because of the volcanoes, and eventually, dinosaurs. But the serenity and the virginity of a world untouched must have been incredible. I wanted to touch on that a little bit. The second time the song goes back to that chorus, I explore the fact that science tells us 99 percent of all living things that have existed on Earth are gone. We as people think we're so special, but we're just the latest in a long, long line of species that have come and gone.
At the very end of the song, there's a piece of music floating across the top of it. It's hard to tell what it is, but it’s a little guitar called a Loog, which is a small instrument for children. The idea is you build it with your child and then the child can play the guitar. It has three strings. I tuned the three strings the same. Then I was fiddling around with it, trying to figure out how to make it do something. And suddenly I picked up a piece of a drumstick I have and started rolling it across the strings and realized, "Oh wow, this is interesting." Suddenly, it was sounding like an Indian instrument to me.
“Saturday Morning Road” sounds like a view into your creative process.
Yeah. I was sitting on the deck when I wrote that and thinking, "Okay, here I am. What am I supposed to be doing today? Well, I'm writing words. I've got a lot of songs to finish." And then it hit me. “Well, what do I really want to say?” Sometimes I just feed my thoughts straight into the songs. But other times, I actually have to stop and think quite a lot about them.
I really like the musical side of the song because I keep changing guitar parts. One part is simple. Then another part replaces it. And then another one comes over top of that, and another one comes off. So, I’m just continually making this flowing, ever-changing sound. On top of that, there's the same thing happening with a Japanese instrument called the Tenori-on. It creates different loops with every button you press. You’ll hear them happening all the way through the high part of the song. What sounds like a keyboard is the Tenori-on. I spent quite a lot of time making that thing do the same thing as the guitars did. If you listen to it, it starts out one way and it continually just keeps changing every few bars.
Along with that, I play bass and piano very straightforwardly. I also play very straight drums, just like a drum loop. And then of course, there's some guitar. There’s always some guitar. It's a very unusual piece of music. I don't know how I would ever play it live, because there are so many small changes and little things going on.
It’s a series of vignettes that keep moving and moving. Finally, you get to the big ending and the song goes “Yeah, that’s what I wanted to say.” It’s about freedom of words and watching what you say and think. I always want people to understand what I’m saying. The song also reminds people you’ve got to say something that has some meaning, or don’t say anything.
The title of the song comes from the fact that I often go out and have breakfast on the deck, looking out at the woods. It’s beautiful and serene. I love watching the birds coming to the feeder.
Speaking more broadly about my creative process today, most of the time, I have in mind what I think I'm shooting for, in terms of the tones, the colors, the orchestration, and the arrangement. Then, it's down to becoming more and more detailed about that, and knowing when to leave something in, or when to leave it out. Or sometimes, there are just things I want somewhere on the record, so I find the right place to put them.
Mostly, it's just me sitting and thinking through, "Well, how would I like to have this song sound?" I can picture it in my mind, for the most part. It's really thrilling for me to do it all in the sense that it is challenging. It's a puzzle and I've got to work out every little part. Sometimes, I have to actually teach myself how to play what I want to hear.
It’s really joyful to play all the different things, as well as sing them, and construct the piece of music. That goes all the way to putting the record together and doing the artwork. I live for all of that stuff. I always want my records to be the best they can be. I want to present a really personalized picture of this as a solo record.
My solo records are like paintings. You don't ask five guys to do a painting. They aren’t band projects. I have several bands. When you're in a band and you're doing a record or playing a concert, then it's a collaboration. For me, when it's a solo record, I want to try and have listeners understand, “Here’s Adrian. This is his way of thinking about things.”
My favorite moment during the creative process is when you almost have it, and you're right at that point of completion. It’s sort of like being in a darkroom, and the photograph is starting to finally come into focus. You see the picture and go “Ah, there it is. That's it. That's what I've been wanting to hear." When a song gets to that point, that is the payoff to me.
“Attitude” also connects to the idea of being mindful with communication.
Yes, it does. Only with “Attitude,” it's talking about trying to have a good attitude. It's not really talking about what you should say or shouldn't say. It's just pointing out the uselessness of negativity, because as the song says, whatever thoughts you have in your mind, that's what you're doing. That's your life. You're living right then. So, why would you spend a lot of time on the bad things? I like the fact that it's so slow as a song, with such interesting sounds. There's nothing much else like that. You rarely hear a song that has so much low end that just kind of goes “boom.” It sounds like a giant pack of mammals moving by.
Are you also commenting on social media in this song?
Yeah. I, like everyone else, have thoughts about the good and bad points of social media. I'm sure that has something to do with it. So often, social media is not a good thing. It sometimes backfires into being a bad thing. I do a lot of stuff with my social media because I'm supposed to. And I do enjoy interfacing with the fans very much. But then there are always those one or two people who come in and just sort of make a big stink out of nothing. And I think, "Why are you doing that?"
The album closes out on a very autobiographical note with “Seventy Going on Seventeen.” It sounds like a personal manifesto.
I wrote that before the big hand of COVID-19 came down. At the time, I wasn’t 70 yet. I wrote it thinking “This is what I’m going to feel like when I’m 70.” And it’s true—there’s still a kid in me. I’m 72 now, and I can say, even two years later, that’s all accurate. It’s how I’ve always been. I don't feel old. I don’t think I’m responsible enough to call myself an adult yet. [laughs]
Of course, I get aches and pains, as we said in The Bears’ song. I’ve realized “Well, you’ve got to counteract all of that. You’ve got to do your stretches.” I’m doing more of that and ensuring my joints aren’t getting into a bad condition, so I can continue to play drums, guitar, and every other instrument.
But I think how you feel has something to do with your view on things. In my case, it has to do with the fact that I’ve lived my life being creative and doing things I hope other people will enjoy. It’s what lets me still feel like a kid. My father died at 45, but to me, he was an adult. He was responsible. I’ve never felt that way. I don’t feel much like an adult. I feel like somebody who’s exploring the world and still very young at heart. So, what I’m saying on this song is how freeing it is to feel that way and to know that I’m happy doing what I do.
What are your thoughts on mortality?
Inevitable is the word. If you live long enough, you’re going to have people around you who pass away. That’s just natural, but it’s very hurtful and painful. It also seems like it’s happening at a much faster rate. It’s because there are more and more humans, and we’re all getting older and older.
But for me there’s nothing left to prove. I just have more thoughts and ideas. As “Seventy Going on Seventeen” says, I’m happy where I am. I am what I am. I know I’m never going to be certain things that I’m not. I’ve accepted that. So, what I’m about now is just continuing the journey. I’m always exploring ideas, sounds, songs, and playing with words. Now, I’m a digital painter as well. I’ve done hundreds of paintings.
This is the time in my life to keep going and enjoy the ride. I don’t have any more real goals. I imagined I might work with Pixar, write a symphonic piece and perform it with an orchestra, and play with a lot of great musicians. I’ve done all those things, and I’m really happy with the results. But hey, I’d like to live a long time and continue putting out more new music. That’s what I’m about. When I perform, I play material from different times in my career because that’s what audiences want, and I enjoy doing that, too. But for me, as a creative entity, the thing is finding something new and doing that. I’ll never stop.
It's interesting. We’re living longer lives than ever, but we expect we’re going to die sooner than we probably will. I’m not in a rush for that to happen. I want to leave the most music behind me that I possibly can. I don’t know what a “musical legacy” really means, now. There have been so many great artists and so much great music made. Maybe 10 years after you depart, it all gets forgotten. Or maybe in 100 years, it still lives on. In a way, it doesn’t matter.
It’s fascinating how things went with my career. Within a few years of my professional life as a musician, I was with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and King Crimson. Then the solo albums happened. In a short period of time, I had already made a lifetime’s worth of music. But I just kept going from one thing to the next. King Crimson made Discipline, then I made The Lone Rhino, King Crimson did Beat, then Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak, and next was Twang Bar King. It just goes on and on. What I do know is what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s what I love doing and I’ve put myself in a position where I can do that all day, every day.
Reflect on the overall vision for your last album, 2019’s Pop Sided.
Most of the things that were written for Pop Sided came in times when I was home between tours. The downstairs of my house is my studio. We did a lot of touring before COVID-19, especially internationally. We would come back, and I might have a week to two months off, and in those time periods, I would work on the many ideas I had waiting. Before I started Pop Sided, I realized, on my chalkboard, which I keep in the studio to track what I've yet to record, I had 30 pieces sitting there. There were five musical pieces, and 25 songs.
Before I started the record, I thought “Well, I've got a lot of stuff here. Maybe rather than feed all these things into Flux, maybe I should make a proper record again of 10-12 songs that are three-to-four minutes long.” It’s what I tried to avoid doing with Flux, which I was focused on for the previous seven years. I realized that most of the songs were starting to fall into the standalone category on their own.
I got to the point where I felt like this batch of songs was working together really well. They held up together as my idea of a pop record, which is somewhere between The Beatles and King Crimson. It's not Kanye West. [laughs] I don't know pop music that exists today. I know pop music that has happened in the earlier part of my life, because I really stopped listening to other people's music years ago. I know that's a very selfish thing to say. For most people, they'd probably go, "What, you don't listen to new music? And you're a musician?" I do listen to music, though. I listen to the music that's in my head, every day, all day. I’ve got a lot of it, so I pay attention to that.
When I sat down to write these songs, I wanted to make them sound like a four-piece band. That's the production style I had in mind. It wasn’t a case of, "Okay, let's overdub everything you can think of.” It was a real lean, "Here they are—here are the songs” approach. For the most part, they're not overly complicated. Some of them are pretty straightforward.
As with Elevator, Pop Sided explores some deep societal themes. Explore the lyrical directions the songs delve into.
They’re just things I’m thinking about. Sometimes, I just entertain myself with my lyrics and write fun things like “Lobsters and Hypocrites.” Other songs are humanist statements, like “The Times We Live In” in which I talk about why people aren’t treating each other correctly so often anymore. It’s not a political statement about which side you’re on. It’s just saying “What happened to just being nice to each other? What happened to civility, regardless of if you have a different view on something? Why do we crucify each other with a different perspective?”
Some people might think “The Times We Live In” is about Donald Trump, but it’s not. It’s about anyone who says “You motherfucker. I don’t agree with you.” That’s not the way to say that. The way to say it is “Hmm. That’s interesting. Let me think about that. I appreciate you have your views and I hope you appreciate I have mine.” That’s the message.
“Obsession” sounds like an indictment of modern consumer proclivities. What drove you to write it?
We have become a society in which everyone has to have everything. It’s always "Wow, you’ve got to buy this, and you’ve got to buy that." It's drummed into us by the media and by the way we've grown up, I suppose. Kids used to be happy with one or two toys for Christmas. Now, they have to have an iPhone and a car. I think this consumer obsession with things is bad for everyone. I think it's bad for our planet, and I think it's bad for our sense of self in that you have to have so much stuff in your life.
I have started trying to divest myself of all the things that I've accumulated, but I’m as guilty as anyone. I have too much stuff already, I certainly don't need more. I'm trying to pare down in my life to the things that really do matter. Do I have to have 50 guitars? Nah, not really, but I do.
So, I’m just making the point that I feel like our society has moved toward materialism in an unhealthy way. We don't have to have everything. You can't have everything. It takes too much time to take care of it all. I'm going through my own process with my property, cars, studio, and gear. I'm getting everything to be as simple as I can get it to be, and it's not easy. But as someone once said, "The simple life is complicated."
“Everybody's Sitting” almost feels like the movie Wall-E as a song, in that it’s about being mesmerized by glowing screens and their accompanying sedentary lifestyles.
I'm concerned for future generations. I mean, we all spend far too much time looking at our little screens in front of our hands. I have mixed feelings about it because there's some of it that I think is really wonderful. You can find out so much information, instantly. You can reach a friend and see each other when you talk. But I think people just take it too far.
When it comes to iPhones and technology, I'm a little bit of a moderate person. Don't stay there too long, folks. It's not good for your brains. Plus, I mean, if you're a kid, what about going outside? What about living a normal life in the real world? You're supposed to get out and enjoy the world, not just sit and watch it through a little tiny screen. It’s creating some problems for society.
Most of the societal challenges you and I are talking about, all tie together. People think technology is connecting them, but really, people are separating themselves from each other through technology. They’re losing a part of their humanity. Families aren’t the same as they used to be. This stuff has been discussed at length by others, but as a songwriter, I just throw my two cents worth in every now and then.
“Road Rage” examines one of those problems—how people are taking that frustration and lack of connection, and channeling it into increasingly insane behavior while they drive.
It ties into people not being nice to each other, again. Some people get so mad on the road, and I don’t know why. They get angry when you need to change a lane, and it turns some people into monsters. I’ve had people try to run me off the road. I guess I wasn’t driving to their benefit. It’s crazy. What happened to common sense? Why can’t we let people be who they are and stay out of each other’s way? Maybe I should move to Tokyo.
“Wait to Worry” talks about a straightforward antidote to all of this.
Yeah. It’s all about stress and how we handle it. How much of your life have you spent worrying about something that ends up not happening? Why is that? It’s a way to make yourself unhappy. And if nothing happens in the end, it was a huge waste of energy and time. So, I thought of the phrase “Wait to worry.” The idea is why not wait until there’s something really important to worry about. “Okay, my leg is falling off. I really need to worry about this, now.” [laughs] So, I want to wait to worry about things, until there’s a real reason to. It's just another small piece of Adrian Belew advice.
Reflect on the experience of scoring Pixar’s 2016 Piper film and what it meant to you.
It was one of the greatest honors of my life, and one of the biggest thrills. Since I was a kid and watched Bugs Bunny cartoons every Saturday morning, I've been a huge animation nut. I've gone on in my adult life to really have a serious appreciation for it and have been one of Pixar’s biggest fans. I always thought “It would be so great if I could do something with those people."
One day, our online store—which is our kitchen—received an order from Andrew Stanton in Emeryville, California. We had packaged up a CD to send to him and it dawned on me that it was the same Andrew Stanton who is one of Pixar’s key directors, screenwriters, and producers. I was a big fan of his work, so I went back to the order and used the email address for it to write him. I said, “Are you Andrew Stanton from Pixar?” He replied “Yeah, how you doing Adrian? We love your stuff. We’ve been animating to your music for years.” I couldn’t believe it.
My power trio was about to leave for a tour, and it had a San Francisco stop. We had a day off after our gig at The Chapel there. I invited Andrew and Pete Docter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, to come to the gig. Pete was also a fan. They said, “If you have a day off tomorrow, why don’t you come out to Pixar?” So, I took the power trio over there and they led us all around the facilities and introduced us to everyone. It was just a fantastic experience. We got to sit in their 750-seat theater designed by Steve Jobs and they said, “We’re going to show you a couple of previews of what we have coming up, including a couple of short films.” Again, it was amazing.
Then we walked over this bridgeway that connects two parts of the main building. One is the artists’ side, the other is the tech side. While we were talking, Andrew and Pete stopped, looked at each other, and said “Wouldn’t it be great to use Adrian’s music in a project?” I poked my head in between them and said “Yeah, that would be great.” [laughs]
The next thing that happened is they flew me and Daniel Rowland, the producer and engineer, out to Pixar. We spent two days in the studio with three of their producers and nine of their animators. In those two days, I played them music of mine. I played them a lot of the new Flux stuff that no-one had heard yet from my computer, and they animated to that. It was like a big think tank session. Each one of them would draw different things, and they put them up on a wall. By the end of two days, all the walls were covered in drawings about these concepts that we could possibly do for a short film.
It was fantastic, and I left thinking, "Well, now we're going to get to do a short film." Then something terrible happened. They had this movie they were making, The Good Dinosaur, which was a big deal. They were having problems with it. It just wasn't going well, so they called a moratorium on everything. They said, "Everyone now has to work on this movie. No more short films, no more ideas, just The Good Dinosaur."
They changed directors, modified the film, and got it right. But our movie kind of got lost in the moratorium. Then one day, a year or so later, I got a call from Andrew, and he said, "We have a short film now and the guy directing it is a huge fan of yours.” He said they asked him, "Well, who would you like to have do the music for the film?" He said, "I've been using Adrian’s music as temporary music." They said, "Well, we know Adrian. Let's give him a call."
They called and said, "Would you like to do a different short film than the one that we thought we were going to get to do?" "Yes," was my answer, of course. So, that’s how I got involved with doing Piper.
It was a long process to make. For almost two-and-a-half-years, it didn’t look like a Pixar film because they hadn’t done the rendering yet. So, it was like a beautiful pencil-drawn film before it assumed the shape it was going to have. I would write music to those early versions. I started with two completely different approaches before I landed on the one they liked.
For the first approach, I was told things like “Every little thing means something. That’s a little too quirky for this character.” For the second approach, I went towards the more Bugs Bunny, cartoonish direction, in which every movement has its own sound. Then we realized “That’s not how Pixar works.” So, there was a lot of exploration, but it was all wonderful and inspiring, even though I was working really hard. There were times I was worried if I was the right guy for this, but I kept moving forward.
Finally, I realized what was going on. They were very tied to some other temporary music they were also using. It wasn’t my music, but the music from another film. Anything different wasn’t resonating well for them. One day, I realized what the answer was. I started matching my music to the music they had in the temporary soundtrack—not the notes or instrumentation, but the feel of it. The temporary track had banjo, so I used pizzicato strings. I started to make it feel like the music they were used to, and that was the right way to go. They ended up liking that score and it’s what they went with.
It was a significant process, but the film was fantastic. I made great relationships with the people at Disney and Pixar. And then it went on to win an Oscar. It was such a thrill. I felt so great and positive about it. It was a total victory and career highlight for me.
Between 2014-2021, you were highly focused on your Flux generative apps for iOS. How do you look back on that period and what you achieved with them?
I first thought of the idea for Flux in 1979, during a day off on tour with David Bowie. I was in Marseilles, France. I walked down to the harbor, sitting between two cafes. Each had their doors open, with different music playing in each. In front of me, there were also seagulls, people laughing and talking, boats, bells ringing, and cars going by. I realized that something was always changing and interrupted by the next thing, and maybe the original sounds would come back later, or change somehow. I thought about that and wondered how to make music that is like life itself. But there was no way to do that back then. I eventually coined the phrase “Never the same twice.” So, from that point, every now and then over the decades, I would revisit the idea and see if there was a way to make it happen.
My first attempt was my 1996 record Op Zop Too Wah, in which a song comes on and all of a sudden, it's interrupted by the sound of running water or something. Then, later in the record, the sound might return. The problem was that every time you play the record, you knew what was coming next.
Between 2009-2011, I had written and recorded an album called e. It was a symphonic piece written for my power trio at the time, which included Julie Slick and Eric Slick. I wanted to show people what this young group could do. So, I put together a 43-minute piece of music. I also recorded it with a symphony, and released a version called e for Orchestra.
After I did the e projects, it had been several years since I had written any songs. I didn’t want to do any typical pop songs at that point. I wanted to make this Flux idea finally work. I started recording short bits, pieces, and snippets that were 37-seconds long, and songs that were 45-seconds long. My engineer and co-producer at the time, Daniel Rowland, said to me “What are you doing?” I explained the whole idea and he said “You can’t put all of that on a record. How are you going to make it so it’s never the same?” I said, “Let’s just continue to make this music and let it work itself out.”
Then one day, I thought “Hey, what about an app?” Daniel and I connected with a friend named Nick Mueller, the Chief Creative Officer for a company called MogGen that makes cutting-edge apps for companies. I flew to Amsterdam to meet him, and we realized we could do something like this with an app.
The idea was the app would have a mechanism to randomly choose the pieces and realign them. Every time you press play, you’d get a whole new half-hour of bits and pieces that combine together. Nick said he could build an engine that would randomize everything all the time, and that really got us going. It took two-and-a-half years and a lot of money. A friend of mine who is very well-off and generous, supported me to help make it happen.
MobGen and Nick went to work, coding and packaging. I was recording like a madman, realizing this was going to be on iPads, iPhones, and Macs. We were also working on the visualizer part so there were interesting, generated visuals to look at while the app plays.
Another idea we implemented in Flux was having the app learn user preferences, so they can “favorite” things. We thought “People will want to hear some stuff over and over.” So, we solved that problem, with the app learning preferences and loading in pieces based on the user’s taste. It was pretty smart stuff.
Flux gave me the ability to put so many more of my ideas into the ears and minds of my fans. I’ve received a lot of great comments from them. There's so much good material in there, that I wish the rest of the world knew about it. By "the rest of the world," I mean, the people who know me from my work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, or King Crimson. I think they would all love it. And I don’t mean for money or fame, but just because Flux reflects my heart and what I want to communicate from it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
The problem was people weren’t used to using apps like this to hear my music, so it was a really hard sell in some ways. There are hundreds of thousands of apps to choose from, as well. But for a while, Flux received a lot of attention. It won awards through Europe and the States, but it didn’t catch on in the way I hoped it would.
Unfortunately, in 2021, an Apple iOS change meant the Flux apps stopped working and were removed from the App Store. It’s a shame my fans can’t get them any longer. Perhaps we can revisit Flux in the future.
You’ve also released three volumes of Flux albums to capture some of its essence. Talk about arranging some of that material in a linear way for those records.
They provide an idea of what Flux was supposed to be like. There were some complications with putting that music on CD. First of all, you can’t have a track number or name unless the track is a minimum of four seconds long. Some snippets of Flux are shorter. So, I’d attach some of those parts to the beginning or end of other pieces. That was a bit of a compromise. But the bigger compromise was losing the information and visuals that accompany the pieces.
The other idea is for people who didn’t have access to iOS to be able to hear the music. It cost $200,000 just to create it for iOS. For Android, we’d have to have rendered Flux in 14 different ways, so it just wasn’t affordable, especially since it’s not a money-making idea. We knew we would never make money from it. We did it purely as an art form. So, I wanted to at least put out some CDs that represented some of the work.
I realize the whole idea of CDs is up in smoke for some people. I balk at that, because I like CDs. I still like having something I can hold in my hand and look at, and read the lyrics and liner notes. I enjoy making CD packages. Having everything as a stream or download isn’t very inspiring.
What’s your perspective on the current state of the music industry?
The music business screwed every one of us artists by the way they let our music be given away for free. They didn't fight it when the streaming companies started driving things. They didn't even try. It is about as unfair as it gets. I know listeners love Spotify, because they get all this music for free. That’s great for them, but remember, you’re cheating me and every other musician on there. I’ve barely got a penny from them, but the streaming companies are making billions of dollars. They’re never going to share that money with the artists, who enable them to exist.
Let's be clear here. To legally say you're paying someone, there is a figure that you have to legally give them and that’s what they do. It's the lowest figure you could possibly give us, as artists—something like .0006 of a penny per stream. That’s what they decided our music is worth. So, they give us .0006 of a penny, which is really nothing. It would take something like 9 million streams to make $50,000. I spend that every time I make a record.
So, I have to do things my own way. What choice do I have? The music business is a total disaster for everyone, except the huge artists who make money playing giant concerts and generate billions of streams. Some of my music is on streaming, including Elevator, because it’s the reality we live in, but I make money by going out and playing concerts, and selling CDs.
I make my CDs myself. Beyond my own time, the costs involved are the engineer, artwork, and printing the CDs. In that way, I can make more money selling directly than when I worked with a record label. But I’m in this situation, not because I wanted it that way, but because the industry made it that way. I don’t want to be my own record label. I’d rather be writing new songs, but the business forced this path on me. The business really let everybody down and it’s a real shame.
King Crimson embraced streaming in a major way, even though the organization was once the ultimate fighter against the economic injustices the streaming universe has wrought upon artists. Robert Fripp said one of the key motivations for the shift was ensuring the music is available to younger generations of listeners. What’s your perspective?
I have no say in it at all. It’s all DGM, the record label Robert Fripp runs. All of the decisions are made by them. But yes, the good side is the music gets out to more and more people. On that basis, it’s one of the reasons I put Elevator on streaming. That’s the dichotomy we’re dealing with as artists. On one hand, you really want to communicate with as many people as possible. As a realist, you have to earn a living. So, I guess you have to say “Okay, I’ll walk the line somewhere between those two things.”
One of the reasons I play a lot of concerts is to connect with as many people as I can. And when they come out, they’re probably going to buy something from the merch stand. They’re going to see and buy things they weren’t aware of. They’ll jump in the pool and support us.
How do you contextualize your contributions to King Crimson, today?
I was involved in 33 years’ worth of recordings and performances—not continuously. It was on and off, but there was a lot of output, and I consider the Crimson material a significant part of my legacy.
It all started in 1980, when I got a call from Robert Fripp early one morning in England. He said, “Bill Bruford and I would like to start a band with you.” That’s what the premise was. At first it was called Discipline. Tony Levin and I didn’t care much for the name. As the band progressed, eventually Robert said, “Whatever we name it, it’s King Crimson in spirit." So, we said, "Let’s call it that.” Once we did that it, became Robert’s band, because everyone thinks of King Crimson as his band. I guess from the start, I saw it a different way—as a collaboration between four very strong, creative people.
I thought Robert and I were a great team. We were like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lennon and McCartney, including the way we made our guitar approaches work together. It was a real partnership. If we were working on something that was to be a song, Robert might say “Here are my ideas. Now, if you think this could be a song, it's over to you, Ade." Then it was up to me to write the melodies and lyrics. The instrumental pieces were always Robert's. That was how it worked for 33 years. A great partnership—not me joining Robert's band. That's why I didn't think that would change. As long as Crimson was working, I thought I'd be a part of it. Silly me!
I don’t hold any grudges. I don't have the energy or time. Robert had a different idea for King Crimson and I wasn’t right for that idea. I’ve let go of it. I still love Robert. I loved the experience of King Crimson. It was very challenging and rewarding. I'm proud of what we accomplished. I loved everyone else that was in the band. I’m totally at peace with things.
At the time that Robert decided to change the lineup, I was also really very busy. I'm not even sure I could have done it. I was creating Flux, which took five years, continually touring the world with my trio, writing a symphonic piece, and so on. I wouldn't have been able to do Piper with Pixar. I think it worked out fine for everyone.
And I have left the door open.
During the last couple of years, you’ve done Remain in Light shows with Jerry Harrison. They initially involved the band Turkuaz and transitioned to you and Harrison entirely helming the performances. Tell me about your interest in revisiting your Talking Heads period and the transitions that occurred with this new group.
It goes back to our conversation about people not being as friendly and nice as they used to be. I started thinking, "You know what the world really needs? A band like Talking Heads.” It had some real artsy intelligence about it, but it's basically a really fun, groovy band. We would play those concerts around the world and people would just get on their feet and they'd have the best time of their lives.
The idea to do these shows goes back to 2016. I made the suggestion then, but Jerry wasn’t quite ready. Then he produced Turkuaz and said to himself “This band could play Remain in Light. They’re a lot like Talking Heads in their funkiness and happy vibe.”
Turkuaz flew into Nashville to do a show. Jerry came as well to take me to the concert and about three songs in, I turned to him and said “Let’s do this. This is the band. We’ve got this.” So, that started the ball rolling and we did several really great shows. I felt like we really sounded like a band.
Our goal is to recapture the joy of that era and that music. For me, as a guitar player, I throw in lots of flavors from that period, as well as new things I'm capable of doing now that I couldn't do then. Now, we have this wonderful, groovy, happy dance music with some wild hairy guitar on top of it. The shows were exactly what Jerry and I wanted them to be. They’re a celebration of Talking Heads at their peak. It’s modeled after the famous Talking Heads in Rome, 1980 film. That’s what we try to recreate. So, we need a larger band for that.
And then I got an email saying Turkuaz had broken up. That’s the music business for you. Unbeknownst to us, there were problems in the band and the leader of Turkuaz, Dave Brandwein, and their bass player Taylor Shell left. So, we got Julie Slick in, and didn’t replace Dave. We’ve parceled out the different songs he was the singer of and moved on without him. It’s unfortunate, because I thought he brought a lot to the band. I like all of them. They’re great people and really hardworking musicians. We’ll continue doing Remain in Light shows in 2022.
When you first joined King Crimson, several journalists compared your performance approach to David Byrne. How did you handle that issue?
I thought that was very unfair. If you listen to Discipline, which came out the year after Remain in Light, could you really imagine David Byrne singing that material? Not really. Talking Heads were very influential on me, because they were opening up to African-influenced music. It wasn’t so much David who influenced me. I certainly wasn’t trying to sound like him. I’m a super-good mimic. I could do an expert version of that if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.
David and I are such different singers with different styles, so I think it was a cheap shot from those critics. Unfortunately, it has lasted forever. I made fun of it at the time and said “Well, skinny boys all sound alike.” But really, I felt it was demeaning to me that it’s all some of the press could come up with back then. The press would say all kinds of stuff then. Some of them were very upset with me. One writer, who was the editor of a very popular magazine, came backstage one night and said, “How could you turn Robert Fripp into a rhythm guitar player?” I was in shock. I replied, “Robert plays what he wants to play. If he isn’t soloing as much as he used to, that’s totally his choice.”
Another person from the Talking Heads’ organization was also mad at me because I abandoned the idea of joining that band full time and went with King Crimson. My manager at the time said I could join Talking Heads or King Crimson. He said, “There’s one offer and one non-offer.” Talking Heads didn’t make a clear offer to me. Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford did. If Talking Heads had made a firm offer, I probably would have joined them. As we discussed, at first, the new band with Robert wasn’t King Crimson. It was Discipline. I didn’t know it would become King Crimson. But I was blown away that they would even think of working with me. I also really loved working with Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, though.
Gizmodrome is another band you have on the go, with a couple of albums and a handful of shows to its credit. Tell me about your experience working with the group.
Gizmodrome is very dear to my heart. It was an accidental project. I went over to Italy in 2016 to play guitar on a few songs for Stewart Copeland, Mark King, and Vittorio Cosmo. But I was instantly won over by everyone. Little did I know, Stewart already had the idea in his mind that “Well, if I get these monkeys in one room together, and we play, they’ll decide we should be a band.” And that’s exactly what happened. After the third day, we were having so much fun. Again, it reminded me of my time in Talking Heads. It suited me.
On every track, I said "Oh, I can do this. I can do that. I know what I want to do here." I just played and played. Everything sounded perfect and it was a wonderful time. We’d spend all day in the studio. We’d also have these Italian breakfasts and three-hour feasts at the end of the night. Most importantly, we enjoyed being together, which resulted in a really great studio album. It’s a lot of fun.
Some people didn’t like Stewart singing on all of it, but I felt early on, the songs were going to be a lot less fun if Mark or I sing them. That wouldn’t have represented the music correctly. I think Stewart embodies the character of his songs and no-one else really could sing those. So, we developed this idea that Mark and I would sing the choruses, in perfect harmony. I thought it worked beautifully. I think some people thought, for some reason, that it would be Mark and I doing all the lead vocals. If we do a second album, perhaps the balance of singing might change.
To date, we’ve only done six shows—including London, Frankfurt, and Japan—because everybody is so busy. But interestingly, the record sold 20,000 copies without us hardly doing a thing. We’d have to have the time and business side together in a certain way to turn this into an ongoing, working group. To date, it’s more about having fun, making music, and leaving it at that. I love that and signed up for it. But it has the potential to be a proper band that tours the world.
For anyone that wants to hear what we were like in concert, there is a new album out called Gizmodrome Live. It was done without my involvement in Italy. I wish I had been able to be there to work on it, because I would have really enjoyed the process. But that was just something they decided to do. We don’t have a lot of experience performing together, but I remember the shows being really good.
Whether Gizmodrome will happen again or not, I'm not sure. The first concert that I did with the Remain in Light band, the group that preceded us at the festival was Oysterhead. That was Stewart Copeland, Trey Anastasio, and my good buddy Les Claypool. We were backstage talking, and they said to themselves, "Wow, it's been five years since we played together as Oysterhead." And I said, "Well, now I know how long it'll be before we get to do Gizmodrome again.” [laughs]
I’d like to name some albums and projects from across your history and have you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Let’s start with David Bowie’s Lodger (1979).
That’s the first studio record I was ever involved in. Technically, the first record was Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti, but that was created from things recorded live on stage. My first experience in actually going into the studio was Lodger. It was so utterly overwhelming, and exciting. I can't possibly explain how much.
First, I flew to Switzerland, had a room overlooking Lake Geneva and was in the studio with none other than David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Tony Visconti. The manner in which they asked me to proceed was so off the wall and surprising. Given it was my first studio venture, I had to really be on my feet and say, "Okay, I'm going to give this my best." The idea was there's a recording room on one level and there's a studio recording room on the other level. On the control room in the first level, they have a one-way TV camera watching you in the room above.
So, I’d go up into the room above, put on the headphones, hear the count off going “One, two, three, four,” and I was supposed to start playing. I said, "Well, play what? Let me hear the song." The response was "No, no, you don't get to hear the song." I’d say “Well, what key is it in?" They’d say "No, you don't get to know what key it's in." [laughs] The original working name for that record was Planned Accidents. They wanted to get my accidental responses. So, they would have me play without having heard anything. I'd be scrambling to try to figure out what to do. We'd switch to the chorus, and I’d think, "Oh, what do I do here?" I'd find a new sound. I'd just try something. They would let me do that twice maybe and then that was it for that track.
Next, they would go back and find their favorite accidental moments that worked for them and compile them into the guitar track. Some of the songs I’m on include “DJ,” “Red Sails,” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” All of my parts are things I would have never thought to play. They're all things that I did play, but not because I knew what I was doing. That album left its mark on me in good ways. After that, I said to myself, "That's what the studio is. It's your canvas. You can paint whatever you want on it in whatever way you want.” That's one of the things I loved about working with Brian. He'll put you in situations where you have to come up with stuff that you wouldn't normally do.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Left Handed Dream (1981).
I had gone to Japan for the first time with David Bowie in 1979. That was a huge deal. The concert was televised with a quarter of the population of Japan watching it—literally something like 25 million people. It made me instantly something of a star in Japan. The next year, I went back with Talking Heads, and they were at the crest of their popularity there, and that was another huge event in Japan. Once again, I was a hero. After that, I got a call saying that Ryuichi Sakamoto wanted me to play on his record. I had heard a few things from Yellow Magic Orchestra and his band, but I didn't really know that much about them. On the way over on the plane, I was looking through Life magazine and there was a huge spread on them and how in Japan they were bigger than the Beatles.
They couldn't walk down the streets. They had screaming girls chasing them everywhere. This was the band I was about to go play with. So, I arrived and we went into Sony Studio A, which was the first digital studio, I believe. It was an incredible and impressive place, with big glass windows all around the control room. The control room was enormous, and there were always people there, including the press. I would go out by myself with the guitar, put on the headphones, and I'd start playing a song. It was his solo record, but it still involved the other people from Yellow Magic Orchestra. Eventually, I think all the other players played on the record one at a time. After I’d play something and finish, the whole room would stand up and give me a standing ovation. It was the greatest feeling. It was so wonderful.
Later in 1981, King Crimson went to Japan for the first time ever with the Discipline record. You can imagine my experiences in Japan going from David Bowie to Talking Heads to Ryuichi Sakamoto, the most popular artist in Japan, to King Crimson’s Discipline album all in the course of three years. I established a name for myself and fans there. I've been able to go back a lot. In fact, I've been to Japan 21 times.
In 1990, when I went back with David Bowie, we played at the Tokyo Dome—a 90,000-capacity venue, possibly the biggest in the world at that time. As the tour continued around the world, I got a call from a company named Daikin in Japan who wanted me to be their “visual spokesperson.” They make parts for NASA and air conditioners. All they wanted me to do was appear in a video in which I make animal-like guitar sounds, and then the animals would appear in the video.
We made a commercial in Chicago on a day off. They brought in a whole truck and a crew of people. They also had elephants and chickens. And there I was shooting this video for them. It became a super success there. They have great commercials in Japan. They're just fabulous. They look fantastic—so much better than what we produce in the US, I would say. I think it’s why you get American stars like George Clooney and Robert De Niro, who would never do commercials here, doing them there.
My commercial with the animals was so popular that they kept using it. Typically, they’d run for six weeks and that would be it. But they ran it for several six-week periods. It was so popular that we did a second one with me playing all the parts of an orchestral piece on guitar. They made it look like I was in a concert hall. I’m every person in the orchestra. For the timpanis, we laid the guitars down flat, and I played them with sticks.
“The Momur” from The Lone Rhino (1982).
It’s from back in the day when I was still trying to be funny in my songs, which came from my work with Frank Zappa. My first daughter, Audie, who was three at the time, would always go “Ooh, momur” whenever a big truck or something would scare her. She meant “monster.” So, I wrote a song about that. The idea was my wife was a monster—which she wasn’t, by the way. She didn’t actually smash my guitar or try to kill me with a broom, as the song says. [laughs]
At that point, I had put together a band called GaGa, in between my work with David Bowie and Talking Heads. GaGa is the band that played on my first two solo albums. It was a very theatrical group. We’d wear costumes and it was like a Vaudeville act. Bill Janssen, Rich Denhart, and Christy Bley, who were part of GaGa, also had a band called Tonguesnatcher Review. They wore costumes from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘50s. They played everything from Count Basie to the Beatles to Frank Zappa, in a comical way. So, when we put together GaGa, in a way, I was writing material for that kind of band.
It took quite a while to find a record label willing to put out my stuff then. Eventually, I decided I no longer really wanted to do funny material. It was like a joke that had been told once too often. So, after we made The Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King, I cut out that part. I think the GaGa fans had hoped we’d keep doing that type of thing. By the mid-‘80s, music had transformed into something different. For instance, Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel were doing music that was pretty serious, so it was time for a change.
"The Rail Song" from Twang Bar King (1983).
I’ve always lived somewhere I could hear the sounds of trains in the background. Even now, I hear them as they pass through the night. The sound of a train blowing its horn has huge emotional value. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved everything about trains, in the same way I love rhinos and elephants. I always felt sad when the expressways of the world were built in the States and jet planes came into fashion. Airports suddenly appeared everywhere, and trains stopped transporting people, for the most part. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, trains transported people from New York City to Los Angeles, and they would have three-day poker games on them. The best restaurants used to be on trains, and it was a beautiful thing. I always longed for those days. There are still great train systems in Europe and Japan.
I always thought, “What if you were one of those people who devoted your life to trains, and now you’re an old man and the world has gone and left you behind?” I had a guitar sound like a train, and that’s how the song started. I loved the sound so much that I decided “Well, I’m going to write a song about trains.” Rich Denhart, my engineer at the time, went out one night with an eight-track recorder and sat at a rail yard waiting for a train to come by. We wanted an authentic recording of a train passing by. We used that as the intro of the song. It’s a very physical click-clack sound. You can feel the air moving, it was so intense. We were so happy we got that. We let it run through the whole song. The train comes in at the beginning, it’s featured throughout, and then at the end, you hear it again by itself.
It’s a very emotional song for me, for some reason. It’s not just about a person who gave their life to trains who feels left behind. It’s also about the condition of getting old and being put out to pasture.
“Dig Me” from King Crimson’s Three of a Perfect Pair (1984).
It relates to “The Rail Song.” Another love of mine is automobiles. I own some vintage cars, and hundreds of books and magazines about cars. Once again, I thought how sad it was that at one point you were a 1966 Buick, and you were somebody's treasure that the whole neighborhood loved. Everyone would come over to see this powder blue beautiful vehicle just out of the showroom. Thirty years later, you were in a junk pile, all rusted, and you're just sitting there. The song is about what you would be thinking if you were that car. That's where the lyrics came from.
Musically, I had a really interesting idea. I wanted to go in by myself and play some abstract kind of angular guitar playing with a flange or a very strange sound, and then edit it all together in a way that was rhythmically strange and difficult. Next, I’d bring the band in and have them play to that track rather than us trying to do it together and figure it out. I thought it would feel more accidental, so I did that. The thing was, Robert Fripp wouldn't play on it. He said, "No, not for me." So, it's the King Crimson trio, musically. But I love that song. It's quite overlooked.
We actually played it live with the band. When we did, Robert would play a chord now and then to add to the chaos. It was amazing to perform because it has no real time signature at all. It's free form, and that's what I loved about it, too. When you get to the chorus, it turns into a pop song. Until that point, it’s almost free jazz, and then it becomes a Beatles tune. I remember Tony Levin saying, "Finally, I get to play like Paul McCartney." He did and he pulled it off great.
It’s funny. Three of a Perfect Pair is a King Crimson album I love to death, but I’ve never understood why people have it out for that record. Robert told Musician magazine in a column that he felt the band had gone off the rails and left its initial vision. Robert’s vision was the Discipline record. Granted, the Discipline album is the most focused of the three ‘80s albums. But when we got to Three of a Perfect Pair, lots of things happened. It wasn’t that the vision imploded. It was that we ran out of ideas.
We worked really hard and did three brand new records and three world tours in three years. The other months of those years, I put out two solo albums, did the Ryuichi Sakamoto record, worked with Laurie Anderson, and tons of other stuff. By the time we got to Three of a Perfect Pair, there was a sense in the band that we didn’t really know how to proceed. I remember, I was left to my own devices some nights at the studio in Bearsville to figure out lyrics and songs. The best of the bunch was the title track. But “Model Man” and “Man With an Open Heart” were left in the dust after we recorded them. We didn’t even play them live to take them to the next level.
It was ultimately a rushed album, but that’s how that stuff happens, sometimes. At one point, we were the best band in the world. And at the end, Robert says, “That’s it, I’m done” and went home. I’ve never understood it.
Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak (1984) and Home of the Brave (1986).
Laurie Anderson is very special to me. I was once in London recording with King Crimson in the early ‘80s, and while I was there, I went to a theater to see a performance by Laurie. I was totally blown away. I just couldn’t believe it. I loved what she was doing. It was so original and unique. Then I ran into her and her producer Roma Baran in an elevator somewhere. We said a few words and I thought nothing of it.
The next thing I knew, I got a call from them saying “We'd love to have you come and play on this record we're doing called Mister Heartbreak.” The original version of “Sharkey’s Day” almost sounded like a Jew’s harp blues, if you can imagine that. I came in and sprayed ferocious guitar all over it, and she told me I changed the energy of the song so much she had to rewrite it. That was a big compliment. I had a lot of fun working with Laurie. Her sound, stories, and voice are singular. What a great storyteller.
That experience led me to doing the movie Home of the Brave, which was a fantastic experience. Every morning, really early, the band would get in a bus to take us from New York City to a theater in New Jersey. We’d do makeup at 8am, and we’d finally be shooting scenes around 2pm in the afternoon. It was brilliant. She had all these great ideas.
One of the first things that happened is two prop guys came to me and said “We can make anything you like. That’s what we’re here for.” I said, “What about a rubberneck guitar?” They said, “What’s a rubberneck guitar?” I said, “I don’t know, you figure it out.” [laughs] A few days later, they bring in a black rubber fretboard to attach to one of my Fender Mustang bodies. The first one was a bit floppy. It looked grotesque. The second one had a similar problem. By the time they did the third one, they had put in a flexible metal spine, so if you moved it one way, the spine flexed back the other way. That’s the one we used. It really couldn’t handle the pressure of the strings, so I’m not actually playing it, but it sure did look good.
Another thing I remember is the drummer David Van Tiegham—a great, artistic player—would walk around New York playing on sewer lids and pipes. He’d film himself doing that. He was one of the first people to use those sorts of sounds for rhythmic pieces. Laurie said, “I’ve got this piece and want you and David to act it out on stage.” I said, “Like what?” She replied “I don’t know. Just get out there and do your thing.” So, I looked around and got something to use on stage, including barbecue tongs. I decided to lay my guitar on the floor, put a volume pedal beside it, and walk around the guitar with the barbecue tongs, as if I was a crab picking on the guitar. I’d snap the strings, press the tremolo, and shift the volume pedal. It was painful to do after a while, but it added to the visually bizarre nature of the movie.
One more memory is when I was in a dressing room area and William Burroughs walks in. He’s got this ugly brown suit and fedora on. He’s 1,000 percent William Burroughs. He’s talking and meeting people, and then sits down and it’s just me and him. He pulls out this bag of pot and starts rolling this gigantic spliff. I’m just sitting there with my eyes and mouth wide open as he talks about all kinds of stuff. He finally lights it up, offers it to me, and I said, “No thank you, I’m working.” He said, “I love this stuff, it makes me think.” So, that’s my quote from William Burroughs. [laughs]
Laurie Anderson is one of America’s true originals.
Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook (1984).
I got the offer to play on that record through Laurie. She told Jean-Michel about my approach and recommended I play on the record. So, I went to France, and his wife, the actress Charlotte Rampling, was in the studio. That was very exciting—a huge movie star in the control room. Jean-Michel was great. He wanted me to do whatever I could come up with for his album. It was fun. There was so much going on with that record. It’s a very, very dense album. I remember having to figure out how to shoehorn some things into it, without getting in the way. I really liked Jean-Michel and the music on Zoolook.
Peter Gabriel’s “Out Out” from the Gremlins soundtrack (1984).
I got a call to go to the studio with Peter and Nile Rodgers to do this eight-minute song. I was having a great time with it. I was told for the last two minutes to turn it loose and deliver a great curve ball for the song. I wish I had some of those original recordings, because a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor. Some of the best stuff I’ve ever played in my life, no-one will ever hear, including me. It turns out what they did with some of those parts was use them in the bar fight scene of Gremlins, playing in the jukebox. I don't think they used much of my guitar playing on the track. Peter didn’t say much during the sessions. Niles is a very good producer and made suggestions, without it being stressful.
I’ve known Peter since my early days with King Crimson. Our first show was in Bath, where he lived. One day, we went up to his mansion he had at the top of the hill and hung out with him and his wife. It was a strange mansion, with no furniture in the house, but I remember him having a sensory deprivation tank. I said to Peter “I’ve always wanted to try one.” He replied “Oh, great. I’ll show you how to use it and get it going for you.” So, he turned it on, but something was wrong. There either wasn’t enough saline or there was too much. I was in this thing with my clothes off and was laying there suffocating after three minutes. I’m screaming “Let me out! Help!” But everyone was in another part of the mansion somewhere. So, I figured out how to find the door in the dark, and somehow got out of there dripping wet and screaming “Are you trying to kill me?” [laughs]
Peter’s always nice to me. He’s a good guy and we’re still in touch from time to time.
Desire Caught by The Tail (1986).
By this point, I had done The Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King. I gave them my best shot in terms of doing songs that might hit a mainstream vein, but nothing much happened. People said my songs were “too quirky.” Next, King Crimson was having its woes with the Three of a Perfect Pair album and tour. The band ended, and suddenly I found myself sitting at home in Champaign–Urbana, Illinois, with nothing to do.
I had one more record left in my Island Records contract for three albums, and had just got the Roland GR-700 guitar synthesizer from Japan. I was probably one of the very first people to get one. It had a Japanese-only manual and I was left to figure it out on my own. I started furiously programming it.
I loved it so much. It was a big old giant analog guitar synthesizer—the first of its kind. I was programming sounds like cello, piccolo flute, and oboe, and deciding what to do with all of this work. I was also upset that MTV had made it so that unless you could get $100,000 from your label to make a video, that you weren’t going to get any airplay. At that point, I thought “I think I’m totally tired of pop music. I want to do something artistic that no-one else is going to do.” Of course, this meant the music I was thinking about was never going to be for mass consumption.
I started going into the studio with Rich Denhart and just making this music. It took 18 months. It was a long process. Throughout, I was saying to myself "I’m never going to make another pop record in my life. I’m just going to do this from now on." I loved the sense of discovery and the idea that I was doing something no-one had done before. It was really unique music, and I was really happy about it.
I remember me and my manager at the time, Stan Hertzman, flew to New York to play it for the head of Island Records, who had discovered Boston. He delivered his famous quote “I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do with this." In the end, it lost me my record deal. I was let go.
When it came out, there weren’t any reviews. No-one was the least bit interested in the record. I even had a fan mail the record back to me, smashed to pieces with a hammer.
I didn’t care about any of that stuff. To this day, I’m really proud of the record. It has some very nice writing, instrumentation and colors.
Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986).
Again, Laurie Anderson made something happen for me. She talked to Paul and said “I’m working with Adrian, who is a guitar player, but doesn’t play guitar. He does something entirely unique with it.” So, I got the call from Paul to work on Graceland.
I arrived in New York for four days of recording with Paul. It was just Paul, the engineer Roy Halee, and me. Roy said, “Let me play some of the music for you.” He put up some of the tracks, and at that point, no-one outside of the African musicians who had played on the record had heard them. I initially honestly thought he had made a mistake, because it wasn’t typical Paul Simon music. It was interesting and cool. I loved it.
Paul said “So, what do you think?” I said “I’ll be honest. It’s fantastic, but it doesn’t sound like you.” He replied “Oh, well, let me show you what I’m doing.” He had Roy put up “The Boy in the Bubble” and said “I’ve just started on the lyrics. I’ll sing you some of the lines I’ve got.” So, Paul stood next to me, singing the lyrics right into my ear. He also did it for “You Can Call Me Al” and some other songs. It gave me chills. I couldn’t believe Paul was singing into my ear. And then, once he did it, all the music sounded like Paul Simon music, and I realized instantly the brilliance of what he had done. He had totally reinvented his music.
For four days, I made sounds for Paul. I had my now trusty Roland GR-700 there. Every day, Paul would say “What do you think you’d put here?” I’d say, “Let me try this and that.” There was a lot of trial and error. There were times when he had something particular in mind. Most of the time, he didn’t turn me loose to go wild. That’s not his approach. He’d show me on guitar what he was interested in, then give the guitar back to me to see what I’d do. For instance, he’d say “Use your tremolo on that part” or “Make it a little less staccato” or “You’re lingering too long on that last note.” He’s super-detailed in that way. He’d also say “Well, now do something different, because I don’t want it to be a regular guitar sound.” I had developed some saxophone section-like sounds, including baritone and tenor sounds, and he loved those. Later, he added real horns to go along with it.
It was such a major record. I remember being in Amsterdam at a bar, about to grab a beer. The barmaid asked, “What kind of music do you play?” I said, “It’s hard to explain.” I can be pretty shy sometimes. Then on the radio, “You Can Call Me Al” came on with the big horn intro I play on, and I said “Oh—that’s me.”
“Joan Miro’s Procession Through the Insides of a Purple Antelope Across a Sea of Tuna Fish,” from the Guitar Player magazine flexidisc (1987).
It’s a piece of music I had done in the studio by myself as part of the Desire Caught by the Tail record, but for some reason it didn’t make it onto that record. I loved it and felt it was at the top of the heap of all my experimentation in terms of trying to sound like an orchestra with electric guitar. But it was sitting there, and I had nowhere to put it. I also didn’t know when I would be making a new solo record, because I had just been dropped by Island.
Around that time, I did a Guitar Player interview, and they were doing flexidiscs—these little floppy plastic things that were stapled into the magazine. They said, “If you have something to demonstrate what you’re doing these days, we could make a flexidisc out of it.” So, that’s how that came out, initially. It was the only way you could ever hear that song, before I put it out on the 1991 compilation Desire of the Rhino King.
The Bears’ self-titled debut album (1987).
After being down on pop music. I decided “Well, let’s give the pop thing another try, but let me get together with my buddies from The Raisins: Chris Arduser, Rob Fetters, and Bob Nyswonger. All three are writers, singers, and are young, good-looking guys. Let’s do it like The Police. We’ll make this record, get out there, and tour the world for three or four years and become superstars.” That was our plan, but that one didn’t work out, either.
The energy, feel of the band, and live shows were sensational. We’d blow the roof off of places. Again, I point my finger at MTV and the lack of journalistic interest in the band for holding it back. At that point, if you weren’t on MTV or Saturday Night Live, or in Rolling Stone, you were dead in the water. It really was true back then. Very few people were in control of what was popular. If your manager wasn’t greasing the wheels, you probably didn’t make it. That’s the story, folks. It’s why The Bears didn’t do as well as they should have.
I love all five records we did. I think we got better from record to record. The Bears’ Car Caught Fire is really one of my favorite records. There’s great stuff on it, and everybody contributed equally to it.
The Bears weren’t popular enough to pay for the band to continue. We did seven US tours and went to Israel. We weren’t making a living with it, so I had to stop. Then I was offered a solo record deal from Atlantic, accidentally, by a guy who heard me recording “Oh Daddy” in the studio with my daughter. He thought it was a hit song. That’s how it came about. I felt I had no choice but to move on. I couldn’t keep losing money on The Bears, as much as I love them.
All the guys in the band still deliver the goods, so I think it’s possible in the future we’d do the occasional show, like a New Year’s Eve bash. We’d let people from all over the country know ahead of time and if they’re interested, they can come out to it. There would be a hotel set up for people who want to come down. It’s doable for our fans. It’s a way for us to play together again.
Speaking of the Atlantic deal, let’s discuss your first album for that label, Mr. Music Head (1989).
Mr. Music Head was a great moment for me. It was really a good time in my life to have the time to spend and try to do something creative in the pop world again. “Oh Daddy,” which got me the deal, wasn’t really something I ever intended to put on it. I thought it was a novelty song I was doing for fun with my daughter. There was nothing remotely like it on the record, but there was a lot of interest in it. We did a video that got onto MTV, finally, and did other TV appearances.
I think if there was a concern, it’s that people who heard “Oh Daddy,” would buy the record and think “This is not what I expected it to be.” But I’m proud of the record. It has a lot of cool stuff. “One of Those Days” is a song in particular I think was strong.
Young Lions featuring David Bowie on “Gunman” and “Pretty Pink Rose” (1990).
At that point, it was decided I was going to be the music director for the Sound and Vision tour. David also hired my two school mates Rick Fox and Mike Hodges, as well as his bass player Erdal Kızılçay for it. It was an extreme world tour, lasting an entire year, performing mostly in big stadiums.
It came up right when I had to finish Young Lions, my second record for Atlantic. I didn’t have enough material to finish the record, so that’s why I covered “You’re Not Alone” by Roy Orbison on it. At the time, Roy had just passed away, and it was the last song he’d ever done. So, it was my tribute to him. It’s also why I did my own version of King Crimson’s “Heartbeat” on the album. It was a song that almost didn’t make it on Beat because Robert Fripp couldn’t find anything he wanted to do on the song. It almost ended up on the cutting room floor. I also had another track for the album with no vocal. I had tapes of The Prophet Omega, so I used his voice on “I Am What I Am.”
David Bowie said “Well, since you’re going on tour with me, you’ll need to also promote your record while you’re doing it. How about I come and do something on your record and that’ll help you?” It was a very magnanimous gesture. He also said, “I’ll send you a song of mine and we can do it together.” That was “Pretty Pink Rose.”
He sent a cassette tape of “Pretty Pink Rose” with studio guys in Los Angeles. David felt it could be a single. He wanted me to play all the instruments on the new version, with him on vocals. I studied it for a while and came up with a new approach for it. It’s not at all like the demo. I also moved the chorus to the intro, added some spooky sounds and string things, and gave it a new rhythm approach. So, I had this new version, took it to New York City, where David and I had one night to work on it in a studio. I remember David coming in with a six-pack of beer, which was kind of unusual, because he didn’t drink much. He would get very silly after two beers. [laughs]
We sat down and started. He loved the new version. The only thing he changed was having the bass turned up more. So, I found myself in the studio in front of one beautiful antique, vintage mic with him. He’s on one side and I’m on the other, and we’re standing there singing together. He’d sing a line and then say “Okay, you sing the next line.” I’m looking at him through the microphone thinking “I cannot believe this is real.” It really blew my mind.
Then David said, “Do you have anything else?” I said “Yeah, I do. I have this other track if you want to have a go at writing something for it.” So, I played him “Gunman,” which had ferocious guitar playing, but no vocal idea. It didn’t even have a melody. Amazingly, David sat there with a beer and a yellow legal pad and wrote the words for the song in a half-hour. Boom. I’ve never seen anyone do that. Paul Simon told me that much like myself, it takes him weeks to come up with and finish lyrics. That’s not always the case, but it often is. But not for David.
So, right afterwards, we recorded a couple of versions of it. Then he said, “How’s that?” I said “Fabulous. It’s great.” He replied, “Is there anything else you want me to do?” I said “Well, how about you also speak some of the words, like you were reciting them.” He responded “I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with that. What kind of voice would you like me to use?” I said “Just use your own voice. It’s one of the best English-speaking voices, ever.” He laughed and thought I was pulling his leg. But he did it. He recited the lyrics and that was it. We had those two final songs and I completed Young Lions.
It was a life-changing moment for me. Then somewhere along the tour, Atlantic decided they wanted to film a video with David and me singing it. So, I found myself in the same position as Mick Jagger when he did “Dancing in the Street” with David. There I was dancing around a cold room with David, with cameras all over us.
The Crimson ProjeKCt (2011-2014).
Every year, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, and I put on the Three of a Perfect Pair Music Camp in the Catskill Mountains. And on the last day of camp, we play in a club somewhere with some of the students. It always includes some King Crimson songs. Sometimes, we had two trios—my power trio and Stick Men, with Tony, Pat, and Markus Reuter. Over time, we’d add more and more King Crimson numbers and we realized “Look, we’ve got a great six-piece band to play this material. The only thing that’s missing is Robert.” We contacted Robert and he gave it his blessing. He said, “I’ll be happy to sit at home while the band goes out and plays.” So, we started touring as The Crimson ProjeKCt, with Markus covering Robert's parts very well.
We felt this music needed to be played, with as much authenticity as possible. So, we had Pat, Tony, and I as the center of the band, with the three other musicians, including Julie Slick and Tobias Ralph, totally equal for the task. To me, it was very legit.
We would refer to ourselves as “The fun King Crimson,” which may have hurt Robert’s feelings. I could understand that. But it wasn’t our intention. We were playing mostly material from my era, without delving into much of the dark, heavy stuff. It was leaning more into the vocal material, which gave it a different approach. That was our intention—to focus more on my material than anyone else’s, and for that reason, it came off as being more fun. I look back on the band fondly.
Tell me about your new power trio lineup and what audiences can expect from the 2022-2023 Elevator tour.
I think the material we perform will keep changing because I’ve gone back to the trio format. I did that because, first of all, I love playing with Julie Slick. We’ve been working together for 16 years and I can’t imagine going out without her. It wouldn’t be the same. She adds so much to what I do. So, there was no question about who I wanted in the bass role.
What I felt I also needed was another singer in the trio and that singer also had to be a drummer. I’ve been working at the Three of a Perfect Pair Music Camp for many years now, and there was a young guy named Johnnie Luca who I’ve played with there. He’s sat in with us at the concerts we hold on the last day of camp. He’s played with The Crimson ProjeKCt, too. I said to myself "He could do this job really well." I got to know him and realized “He’s also a multi-instrumentalist like me. He’s a recording engineer. He’s a very smart kid and is willing to do what it takes to make a name for himself.” The bells finally rang, and I said “It’s Johnnie! He’s the right person.”
So, now that I’ve got the trio I want, the question became what do we play? We’re going to play some new pieces and a lot of the classic power trio stuff. I want to add new wrinkles to the classic stuff and reassert it. So, you’ll hear new versions of old songs. I’m also going to do a short acoustic solo set. I might get Johnnie to do some harmonies for that.
My live shows are better than ever. I love our concerts now. I love the audiences. They’re so focused and taking it all in. They're well-educated about the music they've paid money to come and hear, and they know the musicians. They derive a lot of enjoyment out of it. For me, concerts are a hugely positive thing. They go by in a flash because I'm having such a great time.
You’re also doing a series of Celebrating David Bowie shows this year. What can people look forward to at those shows?
It’s a pretty big band and it can cover every bit of David’s catalog. So, it’s great. Todd Rundgren and I are the guest stars for the tour. No-one is trying to be David Bowie. We have different people singing the songs. I’ll probably sing five or so. You never know who’s going to show up. In the past, we’ve had all kinds of guest artists like Sting, The B-52s, and Living Colour sit in with us. Sometimes the show will include an orchestra, too. I can’t wait to do these shows.
What’s it like for you to perform again after the COVID-enforced break?
During COVID-19, I was starting to get a little antsy and even a little worried and concerned, in that I don't stand around and practice what I do all day long. That's because usually I'm busy doing it on stages around the world. And I just kept thinking, "Wow, when are we going to get to do this again?" So, I could not be happier at being back at work and performing, if you want to call it work. I love my audiences. I love the band I have. I love the music we get to play and all the various things we get to do. The fact that I'm right now actually doing three completely different tours this year—my solo tour, the Celebrating David Bowie shows, and the Remain in Light gigs, shows how ready I am to get out there and do this stuff.
What’s your perspective on the unique value of music during these difficult times?
I don’t feel it has the impact it once did in our society. I always harken back to the ‘60s when I was growing up. Everybody was excited as they could be about the next record that was coming out. It seems like that effect is gone now. There are too many things to spend your time on, now. Everybody, right in the palm of their hand, has an amazing, miraculous thing called a smartphone that can connect them, instantly, to millions of things, including so much information and entertainment. That’s both a plus and a minus, because people take that too far.
I think music, at this point, has come to represent different things for different people. I think there's more music now, but so much of it is disposable and means nothing and has no real value. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but it seems rarer to me to find creative things happening. More often, it’s just the same old, same old. Having said that though, I think music still has the power to uplift people, make them feel better, make them happier, impart messages to them, and even change their minds. So, it still has real importance.
What’s your secret for happiness?
It’s a little concept I call the love bubble. What it means is you surround yourself with the people and the things that interest you, intrigue you, make you happy, and everybody else and everything else is outside of that love bubble. For example, if you're walking past the TV, and the news is on, and you don't like what you're hearing, you turn the TV off. Then it's no longer in your bubble, see? There are eight billion people on this planet now, so if a person comes along who doesn't really take a shine to you or you don't take a shine to them, they're outside of your love bubble, and that's it.
I surround myself with art, music, people, friends, happy dinners, and vintage cars. It’s what keeps my spirits up. Stress is the killer of happiness. To avoid stress, live longer, and be happier, just blot out everything that doesn't fit in that category of making you feel better somehow.
As we discussed, a lot of people just aren’t nice anymore. I don’t understand what happened, but in my love bubble, everyone is a nice person. There aren’t any assholes or people who want to say mean things or do mean things to others. They’re not part of my world. If I listened to all the naysayers, critics, and haters, maybe I’d just sit in a chair all day instead of trying to get something done.
Taking this approach makes me want to get up in the morning and say “There’s a reason to keep going here. I’ve got my friends, family, and fans around the world who enjoy my work, so I’m going to do more of it.”