Now known as a guitar hero, Adrian Belew got his start as a drummer and singer with a teen band that played what he describes as “all the early ’60s music.”
He didn’t consider switching instruments until he caught mono and had to stay home. To kill the boredom, he taught himself to play guitar.
Decades later, Belew continues to craft cutting edge music (he even developed his own guitar-related app) and has become a noted producer, multi-instrumentalist and singer. He’s released 20 solo albums and worked with such acts as Paul Simon, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson and Nine Inch Nails.
The late, great Zappa deserves credit for spotting the man’s talent. He saw Belew play one night at a Nashville club and recruited him to play in his band.
“He was playing a concert in Nashville,” explains Belew, who performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday at the Beachland Ballroom, in a phone interview. “After the show, he wanted to go somewhere to see someone play, which was something he did frequently with the hopes of finding someone he might be able to bring into his band. He had a chauffeur who told him the best rock band in town was ours and brought him to our show. He didn’t talk to me because I was still playing but he shook my hand and he said he would get my name and number from the chauffer and call me when his tour was over. I was playing guitar with a band called Sweetheart. They were a good cover band.”
As he developed as a guitarist, he noticed that he had become quite good at emulating other guitarists. But he wanted to develop his own damn sound. So he tried to take a different approach to playing.
“Instead of imitating other guitarists, I decided that I should break my own habits and I would try to insert something of my own invention,” says Belew. “The first couple of things that people seemed to like were things where I would make sounds with my guitar like a car horn or a seagull. I thought it was kind of fun for the audience. I have always been interested in sound period regardless of what the source is. You start out by making an elephant sound — it’s not that hard to do to be honest. Over the years, I’ve added so much to my vocabulary. I feel like I could do anything now. I did one whole record that was nothing but orchestral sounds for example. It’s a great instrument for orchestration. You can change the sounds so drastically that I feel like it can cover a lot of territory.”
A stint with King Crimson in the 1980s proved to be formation. Belew, who took on the role of frontman, made the band’s progressive rock more accessible during his time with the group and delivered three terrific albums during that time period.
“It was my first opportunity to be doing all the things I had groomed myself for,” he says when asked about playing with King Crimson in the '80s. “I was the singer and lyricist and frontman, so it was a big leap forward for me. It came at the same time I started making my solo records as well. It was when I was finally able to burst forth and show my creativity rather than being a sideman. It was hard because that music isn’t easy. Writing and singing it is complicated. Playing it is complicated, but I loved every minute of it. It’s a great band and we got lots of attention for being so different.”
Belew says touring with David Bowie in 1990 was a special experience. While he had toured with Bowie prior to that, the two developed a strong friendship on the 1990 tour.
“I had developed my own name a little bit, and we could approach it as peers and friends and it was a much longer tour [than the previous tour in 1980],” he says. “Once I got to be his friend, it was amazing because he was an amazing guy. He was very smart and interested in lots of different things. He was very curious and a great conversationalist and very funny. I enjoyed being around him. We had a lot of time on that tour to go to museums and dinners and book stores and so forth. Like him, I’m a big reader. I’m self-taught at everything I’ve ever done. My wife says I’m the most knowledgeable person she knows that’s self-taught but she also says that I have an incredible amount of useless information in my brain.”
Belew says the Beachland show will feature a short tribute to Bowie as well as a number of Crimson tracks and, of course, a good sampling of his solo material.
“We have a little bit touching on David Bowie, since I just did some stuff in memory of him," he says. "We do a lot of solo material and eight or nine things from King Crimson. It’s a power trio. Julie Slick is my bassist for nine years and she wows people everywhere she goes. Tobias Ralph, my drummer for the past six years, is so good that in South America they call him the human hummingbird because he drums so fast. We’ve traveled around the world together many times. It’s a great show, and we have a great opener who is a friend of mine. His name is Saul Zonana. I’ve worked with him on several records. The shows are very powerful, but they’re also a lot of fun.”