by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2005 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Democracy and spontaneity drive The Bears’ adventurous pop approach. Featuring guitarists Adrian Belew and Rob Fetters, drummer Chris Arduser and bassist Bob Nyswonger, the Cincinnati-based singer-songwriter collective recently released the impressive Live at Club Cafe DVD and is in the midst of working on a new record. The group also has a new track, an amusing cover of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” on One To Grow On, a children’s CD from the State of Ohio designed to highlight the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.
With all four members involved in thriving solo careers and Belew doing double-duty in King Crimson, time is of the essence when it comes to crafting tunes for the band. Belew and Fetters described the group’s creative process in detail during this engaging conversation.
For an in-depth look at the history of The Bears, read the Innerviews feature “Immediate chemistry.”
Typically, how do The Bears go about writing songs?
Belew: With The Bears, everyone writes songs together or separately and does it in a way in which we can play them again and again. When The Bears meet to peruse through each other’s vines and catalogs of what we’ve recently written, everyone plays their demos or sits down and plays it on guitar. Usually, one musician pretty much has the song written and it becomes a question of “Now, how is the band going to treat it and where is it going to take it?”
Fetters: Bringing in an idea in that way is a painful process for anybody collaborating. Essentially what you’re doing is selling is your idea. I think in The Bears, whether a person is having a good day or a bad day, even if they’re not hitting the notes right, it’s the idea that sells us and grabs our imagination. And we’ll say “Yeah, we can take this one and move with it.”
Belew: We know each other so well—our tendencies and our weak points—and in that way, we can see through what the process is itself and say “Yeah, buried in there is a song The Bears should do and it may need this or that or it may not be quite as obvious as one of the other songs, but it’s there.” And you’re so in tune with each other in this band that you know what The Bears need and want and do well. So, you write to that.
Walk me through the process of negotiation between the four of you to determine what is and is not a Bears song.
Belew: First of all, most often, it happens in the studio. The way we’ve been making records lately has everyone coming to my studio for an extended weekend. We all stay here in the house and we use the idea of synergy—just quickly finding something and working it up and really being excited about it and recording it there on the spot. That’s the way we work these days. It’s more economical and it also means you get a certain level of excitement. If anyone has a demo of their song, you stand in line. You take a number. You say “I’m going to play this number for you guys.” Then the next guy plays his couple of songs. Sometimes, we’ll sit around in the kitchen area of the studio and pass the guitar around because not everyone has demos all the time.
Fetters: It’s funny, if I knew the combination for getting my songs past the first gauntlet, I wouldn’t tell anyone else. [laughs] Sometimes, it’s better to present a song bare bones, acoustic guitar or piano and voice, or with a little more production added to it. I think it backfires when someone has over-recorded their idea. Sometimes, our reaction is “Oh, you’ve got it. It’s fine, it’s perfect. Great. You can put that on your solo record.” [laughs]
Belew: That really doesn’t happen that often these days because everyone now has done this together enough that we understand that you’re trying to offer something that’s flexible, that everyone can add something to that they feel good about. So, you don’t want to define it too much.
Fetters: Fifteen or 20 years ago when I presented a song, I might go “Adrian, here’s your part. Chris, here’s the drum part you should play.” Now, I leave big gaps and I just do the part I know I can play and usually that leaves room for other people to flesh it out.
Belew: That’s what makes it a band and a collaboration. You let other people take the germ of an idea you have and filter it through their own way of doing things and add their own interpretation to it. Inevitably, because we’re so well-tuned as a band, it comes out sounding like The Bears. I think another part of the process of choosing a song is partly to do with knowing what we have and don’t have. If we know Rob has written a beautiful ballad like “Dave,” then we’re not really looking for another one of those. We’re looking for something up-tempo or whatever. It’s a bit of self-producing as it goes too.
So, you’re thinking specifically about an album’s cohesiveness right from the start of the process?
Belew: That’s right. We have to be strategic with our time, so we always ask “What’s the purpose of this song? Where is it going? Is it something we should work on later?” Usually, everyone brings in songs that are so well done, you can tell what they are and you can say “I can hear what The Bears will do with this” or you can say “I don’t know, let’s wait on that one.” It’s not that painful a process I guess because no-one would subject another to ill feelings over any of this because we all respect each other’s writing abilities.
Fetters: Ridicule has not entered the picture, so far. [laughs]
Belew: Not yet. [laughs]
Tell me about the weekend writing sessions that resulted in the Car Caught Fire record.
Fetters: We’d play each other our songs and then during the same weekend, we’d record them. For instance, we’d converge at Adrian’s studio on a Friday. We’d hang out, have dinner, pass around the guitar or play DATs and CDs, or whatever we have our demos on. Then, we’d say “Okay, here are two or three songs to do. Let’s start with song one tomorrow” and we’d get to them that way.
Belew: It’s been a goal of each extended weekend to get started on and as far along on three songs as we can. So, the first aim is getting the energy and arrangement of the track correct and playing it a bunch of times ‘til we’re excited about it. The second aim is we play live together and try to get the drum and bass track—Chris and Bob’s parts—to be exact. Chris is so fast and so good. He usually gets his stuff in one or two takes. Then the rest of us will start adding our parts or replacing mistakes we made or whatever. It may not get finished all the way, but usually in the case of Car Caught Fire, we would leave with two or three songs you could pretty well know were on their way and needed only a little refinement. Typically, we didn’t worry too much about the mixing because that takes extra time.
I understand you took a more long-distance approach on “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” for the One To Grow On charity CD.
Belew: Yeah. Without actually meeting together in my studio, or seeing each other face-to-face, we just did the song. The idea was you do a child’s song that’s commonly known and you have to be a band that’s Ohio-based. It’s a wonderful track. I love it a lot. The way we did it is everyone did their parts separately. Chris, Rob and Bob did their parts first, then shipped them down here. We each sang a verse. Rob sang the first verse, Chris sang the second one and I sang the third, put a little guitar on it, mixed it and said “There you go.” It was quite interesting to try this long-distance way of recording things. I don’t think I’d like to do a whole lot of that. We’ve already done it in the past where Rob would have something he could do on his own when he gets back to Sound Images, the studio he works at. And I’ll have some part for which I’ll say “Don’t bother doing that now. Let’s do something we all need to do now and I’ll do my part later.” So, we’ve already gone down that path before, but I think mainly we’re a band and we like to play together as a band.
Car Caught Fire only has one group-written song on it, whereas the ‘80s Bears CDs each have several co-written pieces. Why did you take a more individual-oriented songwriting approach for it?
Fetters: I think the reason we didn’t have more co-songwriting on Car Caught Fire is because we had been apart for such a long time and everyone came to the table with a bunch of songs quickly. The one co-written piece, “Waiting Room,” was really just a fun song. Every musician or songwriter has snippets of songs or melodies in mind that they’re trying to fit into a song and they don’t fit anywhere. “Waiting Room” was one of those. I was actually thinking about The Bears going “When are we going to finish this record?” It was over a couple of years that it came together, but then that line become about something else. I had a mantra verse and Adrian had that really cool bridge part.
Belew: I had come up to Cincinnati and we were rehearsing and had a hotel room and the guys came to the hotel room and we kind of wrote it line by line and I think that is the weirdest thing to do. Whenever you have four people sitting there and are trying to write words together, it’s a very strange moment because everything you do immediately sounds clichéd, as soon as you say it. [laughs] Everyone looks at you and goes “Well, I don’t know about that.” Eventually, you struggle through and all of us contribute a line here, a line there, or a melody change or a harmony idea or arrangement idea. Early on, in the ‘80s, the band really came together on the basis of a writers’ workshop because we all had a lot of songs and we figured “If I’ve got a part that doesn’t work in this song, maybe Rob has something it’ll work for in one of his songs.” And that did happen a lot. In fact the very first song Rob and I wrote together was a combination of one of his songs and one of my songs. It was called “Superboy.” What was your original song called again?
Belew: Yeah, I loved that song, but we didn’t want to play songs that had already been played, so we stole the chorus from “Valentine” and used the verse idea that I had. We’ve done a little bit of that, where you take separate ideas and put them together in a new way. Of course, it requires rewriting. You don’t use the same words and you may change the melodies or keys, but that’s something I think has been really good for us. We’ll get back to that when we have time in the same place together more often. [laughs]
Fetters: A couple of years, before The Bears started making Car Caught Fire, I made a solo record and I had a dry period when I hadn’t written any songs and I called Adrian and was bemoaning that fact. He said “Why don’t you just come down and we’ll hang out for a week.” So, Adrian and I got together and I think we had a song within about two hours because although we didn’t have complete ideas, our ideas fit together. I left that weekend with a really cool pattern that Adrian was playing. We didn’t have words to it or anything, but I just learned it. I went home and basically added a chorus to that. There was a verse, chorus, I modulated a few times and it turned into a song. So, a lot of it, when you’re collaborating with someone, is to lose that fear. You need to have a childlike curiosity and really have to let go of any kind of fear.
Belew: And you have to let go in a sense of preconceived notions or egotistical things. The Bears are really good at that. We love playing together. None of that stuff is a problem for us. In some bands, it might be a problem, but for The Bears, we’re just trying to have fun and play music we all really enjoy.
Fetters: That’s not to say we’re not egotistical or vain. [laughs]
Belew: We certainly are! [laughs]
Fetters: But we have a mutual agreement to screw that stuff and try to build something together.
In general, what do you believe are the elements of a good song?
Fetters: I like some kind of audio identification that hooks me quickly. Usually, it’s something that tweaks something like a memory for me or is so new that it puts me in a new space. A good song usually has lyrics that really intrigue me. If I like a pop song, it’s usually those two things.
Belew: I agree with all of that. I read this thing with Ringo Starr 20 years ago in which he said “It’s the chill factor.” If something gives you a chill, then it’s really special. I don’t think that’s always true, but it’s something. If a song really emotionally touches you somehow, that’s always a strong point. I tend to like things that have a sonic characteristic that intrigues me. It can be the whole sound of the song or the band or the singer’s voice or any of those kinds of elements. I think another final test is really how it stands up on its own. When I write a song, if I can sit down and play it and feel that it’s complete within itself just playing it like that, then I consider those to be some of the better songs—maybe not the most experimental ones—but at least in terms of songs, they seem to work better.
How do you know when a song is complete?
Fetters: When it’s three-minutes long. [laughs]
Belew: I think the question is more how do you know when the production is done? [laughs] How do you know when to stop adding things to the production? To me, song-wise it’s complete when your idea has run full-force and you have no more to say and then you arrange it with a method that works with the format you need. A lot of times, I find I’ll write a song and I’ve said it all in the first verse and chorus. I don’t really need to say it again in a second or third verse and that’s sometimes a problem for songwriters.
Fetters: It’s really a two-part process. There’s a point when a song is complete when you’ve written it and composed it. You have the basic gist and you have something you feel really good about and in many ways, that’s the most satisfying part. Even before you play it for someone else, for whatever reasons, it feels like “Whoa, I just wrote a song!” It’s a great feeling. That’s the first part. As Adrian said, the production part—how you’re going to frame this in audio so it will either blow your own mind further or create the chill factor in the listener—can be a longer process. I don’t think there’s as much of an “a-ha!” moment when you’re producing. It’s the job of the producer to know when to say “That’s enough” or “That’s too much.”
How do you typically overcome writer’s block when it rears its ugly head?
Fetters: It’s easy to get stuck on the same page. One thing that has always worked, is just using a different tuning, because suddenly everything you know how to play is thrown out the window because you’re using an alternate tuning. Things suddenly don’t sound right or they sound really right. I think that device helps. If it’s a really bad case of “I can’t write a song anymore,” it’s good for me to pick up an instrument that I’m idiot on, like a keyboard. I’m a two-fingered keyboardist, I can hit chords, but I don’t have a great facility. So, I get a lot of ideas messing around on something I shouldn’t be messing around on and then converting it to guitar.
Belew: Both of those are really good ways to work if you’re having problems. I’m not much of a pianist, but whenever I sit down at the piano, I’ll write something very different than I’d come up with on guitar. And even tuning the guitar a slightly different way will cause you to create shapes and sounds and chords you wouldn’t ordinarily create. I think it’s pretty much a frame of mind and you once again have to just get past it mentally. I go through long stretches where I can’t seem to come up with words. Music seems to come out easily enough, but I get stuck on words. It’s like “What do I want to say? It all seems to all have been said.” [laughs] And I’m pretty picky about that. So, there’s writer’s block where you really don’t have any ideas and nothing’s flowing. And then there’s another area where you’re beating yourself up a little bit.
Fetters: Yeah, sometimes the block is just a big wall of fear. When you hit that wall, you have to turn left, into a different direction.
Belew: The interesting thing about working in a collaboration in a band is you know you’re going to be playing this stuff for other people and that they’re going to really dissect it and put it under a microscope, so I think it causes you to do your best, because you know you can’t get away with anything. When you finally do play your song for the other guys, there’s no hiding. [laughs]
Fetters: That fear and self-criticism that can just paralyze you on your own, but you can also do that to other people if you don’t watch it. You can be really toxic to be someone else’s innocent idea. I think as Adrian has said, The Bears try to be sensitive to that. Sometimes, I could be in a cynical frame of mind and hear a lovely, innocent love song and my reaction to it on that bad day could really put the kibosh on something that’s really beautiful and powerful. So, restraint of pen and tongue can be a good thing sometimes.
Tell me about the cross-section of output you chose to represent on the new Bears DVD.
Belew: To capture a phrase from the Fox Network, it’s “Fair and balanced.” [laughs] I really think the DVD shows all the sides of the band. Everyone has their spotlight in terms of writing and being a vocalist or a player. It’s a good cross-section of old versus new, although you’re always a bit more excited about what you’ve just done. There’s probably a little more Car Caught Fire than anything else, but still, we’re proud of the old material so we always include that as part of what we do. I think most importantly, the DVD is a great way to get the feel of what the experience is of going to see a live Bears show if you’ve not been able to do that. The Bears are a high-energy live band and the DVD captures that.
What excites you about the DVD format as a medium for releasing music?
Fetters: I like it because it can hold a lot of information. And I don’t like it because it can hold a lot of information. I grew up with records that were 15 and 20 minutes long. I have a short attention span, so I like short segments of music. What I like about the reaction to our DVD is not so much the reaction to our performance—I was there, I know what that’s like—but that people are really enjoying the back story, the individual interviews and how the songs came about, how the band met, things like that. People get excited about that stuff. And I then I realized that’s the stuff I like to know about bands too. I was interested in just watching the other guys get interviewed. I knew the stories, but it was interesting not being in the room and just seeing Bob on his own describing the first time he saw me play guitar. It’s really cool that you can put that much stuff on a little disc.
Adrian, tell me about your contribution to the forthcoming Porcupine Tree album.
Belew: I really, really enjoyed working on the Porcupine Tree record. Porcupine tree represents an interesting combination of several things that I like. It’s a little bit like King Crimson, Tool and Trent Reznor, English-style, but not the same as any of those things. Steven Wilson has a real strong vision of what he wants to do and his music has a certain kind of power that’s really great. His voice is also very fetching. It’s unique and fits in very well with what he’s doing. Musically, what I really like about the band is they do a lot of odd time things that you don’t notice so much—they’re just in there. They fit together so well that they slide right past your ears, which is something some bands never attempt and when they do, it’s very obvious. Porcupine Tree also has really good players and the songs are really cool. I like everything about it. It’s just good stuff, custom-made for me. Steven has given me free reign and just guided me here and there and said things like ‘Play something strangely beautiful in this 17/8 area.’ It’s been a lot of fun.
How did you hook up with Wilson for the project?
Belew: I have several people now who do what I call “a la carte management.” I’ve given them the nod that if they want to find some project that they think is right for me, then we’ll talk about it, I’ll look at it and pay them a commission for bringing that project to me. Andy Spencer, one of my “a la carte” managers who lives in L.A., brought the Porcupine Tree idea to me. I really liked it.
Do you believe the fact that Porcupine Tree is signed to a major label offers some hope for the music industry?
Belew: I can’t make hide nor hair of the way the record business is unraveling itself. [laughs] My hope is it separates the men from the boys. There’s a lot of poseurs in the music business and that’s been true for a couple of decades. There are a lot of people in the industry who would be better off calling themselves dancers or models than recording artists. It’s making the real artists learn the business themselves and take control of their own destiny. They have to become hard working, productive people instead of fashion figures.
Having said that, it is impressive that Porcupine Tree has achieved success. I thought that was impressive about Tool as well. When King Crimson opened for Tool, I had an epiphany in fact. We started their tour with them as the opening act. We played one hour and it started at Red Rocks in Colorado, a very well known venue. When King Crimson played, there were maybe 1,000 to 1,500 kids scattered throughout the place. Some of them were cheering, but mostly none of them knew anything about us and by the end they were appreciative and that was great. Then Tool came out and the place was packed to the rafters with 10,000 people and I went out to the soundboard which was in the middle of the fracas. [laughs] I watched Tool play for awhile and looked around and realized here’s all these 20-year-old kids and few of them know anything about anything I’ve ever done, so it’s all useless and it makes no difference to them. Few of them have any idea what King Crimson has done.
After a show in Seattle, I came out and was walking back to the hotel. I was walking right behind some kids who were talking about how much they enjoyed the show and how much they loved Tool. Great, I thought that was wonderful. And then they said “That other band. They played some tricky shit.” And I thought “Wow, my whole career has been reduced down to ‘That other band that plays tricky shit.’” [laughs] It put things in perspective. It was kind of like “It doesn’t matter. I’ve played on 150 records, but you’ve almost got to start over every time you do something.”
Tony Levin has rejoined King Crimson. How is the new line-up working out?
Belew: Tony is a great player and it raises the level of excitement just by the fact that it’s different. I do kind of think that maybe the combination of Tony and Pat Mastelotto as a rhythm section is somewhat more suited to the music that Robert and I have been trying to write. Now, I hope that doesn’t sound like a cut against Trey Gunn, because it certainly is not. Robert loves Trey. In about 10 days time, we worked up all the material we had wanted to work up, plus two new pieces, so at any point King Crimson could be ready to go out and scare the world again, but right now, that’s not settled on yet, but it’s working out beautifully. Tony stepped in and made it so easy for all of us. It was fun. It was nice to play some material we hadn’t played in awhile. Naturally, the ‘80s stuff that Tony was a co-writer on is the stuff that worked easiest, but I thought the whole thing went really well.
The one thing that seemed lacking about recent King Crimson gigs was the absence of your vocals.
Belew: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know why. [laughs] There was a period of time when things were aiming towards improvisation and a lot of lengthy musical pieces and I really thought “I don’t know, maybe this band doesn’t need that much singing these days.” At the same time, I was entering a period lyrically where I was trying out the idea of sort of some kind of haiku poetry approach where you only have a few lines and sing them in a few places. It was totally not the verse and chorus idea of normal songwriting. I tried that for the last record and I liked it somewhat, but I would never want to give up the idea of writing a full-fledged song in a normal way.
I’m told you have several solo albums forthcoming Adrian. What can you tell me about them?
Belew: Yeah, I’ve finished 30 new tracks which are going to result in three new solo records. The first one is a power trio CD. I invited Les Claypool and Danny Carey, the drummer from Tool to join me for it. That worked really well, but that music doesn’t sound at all like the second record, so I separated them. The second record features beatboxes, loops, synthesizer pads and spacier music—things that take a lot longer to develop. The record doesn’t have a lot of words, but it features songs, as well as some very interesting musique concrete pieces stuck in between them for about a minute or so. It’s more of an ear candy record. The third record is a combination of both. It’s got things that didn’t exactly fit on either one, but related to both. There are some interesting things on the third one that I think will surprise people. There’s a visit from my old buddy the Prophet Omega. Robert Fripp plays on a track and Mel Collins from the early King Crimson days plays saxophone and flute on two tracks.
Each record will have a thematic look to them. They’ll feature for the first time the acrylic paintings I’ve been doing over the last couple of years. And musically, there are some thematic things that cross from record-to-record. In fact, the first song on the first record is also in a different version as the last song on the last record. There are little themes and things like that which go through the three records. I didn’t want to be overly clever with it. It’s not a series of concept albums or anything, but if you like one, you’ll probably want to have the other two. They are self-standing albums and the thing that makes them stand on their own is that they have slightly different musical attitudes.
I really totally agree with Rob’s thinking earlier. I like music these days in smaller doses. I like it to be almost on the verge of being conceptual where you say “These nine or 11 tracks make up enough in information and cover everything I want. I don’t need more than that.” So, each of these records are going to be about 35 minutes long, but you put it altogether and it’s an hour and 45 minutes worth of new music.
Will a label put out a 35 minute album in this day and age?
Belew: I’m trying to find out if anyone is foolish enough. I’ve been thinking I need someone who is okay with being foolish and taking a gamble. Some people say some of this is my best solo work. But the music business is such a wreck these days, so we’re all finding out ways to work around that.
Rob, give me an update on your solo activities.
Fetters: My day job is as a commercial music composer and in the last two years I’ve done a couple of dozen ABC spots. I do candy commercials for things like Airheads. I like doing candy, because it’s bad for you. [laughs] I’ve also done things for Nickleodeon. I also do a lot of stuff that’s regional. In addition, I have all the songs necessary to put out a second solo album. I’m hoping to get a disc out soon. But I like to give The Bears first dibs for all my songs. I like what The Bears do to my music. I know I have a few weak spots in my songwriting and presentation and The Bears fix that.
Personally, I thought your solo album Lefty Loose, Righty Tight was absolutely brilliant. You’re being way too humble.
Fetters: That’s the critical wall of fear I was talking about earlier.
Belew: I agree with what you’re saying Anil. I think his solo album was really a great record and showed Rob in his best light and that’s what a lot of people have been waiting for. But The Bears are a good venue for all of us in that I don’t feel my music is ever going to be mistreated.
Fetters: There was one thing I learned from Adrian. It’s really helped me in collaborating with other people which is something I have to do all the time in commercial work. I’m dealing with ad agencies and a lot of creative minds, including people who don’t know anything about music but have ideas and some who know more about music than I do. I was once really hurting over some changes Adrian wanted to make to a Bears song. I just didn’t want to change it. I felt “This is going to compromise it.” Adrian took all the wind out of the argument I had and said “Well Rob, you’ve got it your way. That’s way A, let’s do it way B and see what happens.” That’s really a good way to work with other people in a collaborative sense. If you like your demo, you’ve always got it and if your demo is truly better than what the band comes up with, the band will probably realize that and go back.
Belew: You can always put it on your solo record. [laughs]
Fetters: [laughs] In one way, that sounds cruel and cynical, but it’s the way of life. It’s good to look at the way other people are receiving what you’re doing. That was quite an education for me. I was quite rigid and rigidity is no good.
Belew: It’s understandable because these things become precious to you once you’ve labored over them and you really feel like you’ve got something exactly the way you want it. It’s hard to be produced in other words. I know. I’ve been on all sides of the coin and I’ve seen things happen that I wish had turned out differently. But in most cases, you end up with something that’s a little better than maybe what you thought it would be.
Fetters: I think 90 percent of the time, that’s really true. That is, if you’re willing to loosen up.