Adrian Belew vividly remembers his first experience with Eddie Van Halen. Like so many musicians, he was absolutely blown away when he saw Van Halen play live for the first time. Though he’d done his own experimentation with what would become known as tapping, the young guitarist was clearly taking the concept to the “next level.”
As a guitarist, Belew has enjoyed a fascinating journey, including stints working with David Bowie, King Crimson and Talking Heads, in addition to his own solo work. Currently, he’s readying an interesting new solo album, which is due for release sometime in 2022.
In part, the forthcoming record draws inspiration from a longtime love of painting. During the pandemic, he began to learn how to paint digitally using an iPad and Apple Pencil. It was a prolific period, with Belew creating more than 150 pieces.
The new album, Elevator, will feature a selection of art drawn from the period, and Belew plans to release the record when he can tour to support it.
Presently, he’s revisiting the time he spent recording and touring with Police drummer Stewart Copeland as part of the all-star collective Gizmodrome. A recently released live album collects performances from their handful of shows together in 2018. Belew spoke with UCR via Zoom to discuss all of the above.
We’re speaking a year after the death of Eddie Van Halen, and David Lee Roth has recently announced plans to retire. What are your memories of experiencing the music of Van Halen for the first time?
I thought David Lee was a great frontman. A lot of people have different opinions, but I thought he was a big part of the band. He and Eddie, of course, [who] was the shining star of the band, with his unbelievable guitar playing. I liked what they did. I thought it was a really great band.
Fortunately for them, MTV came along when it did. But here’s an interesting story from my perspective. Rob Fetters, the guitar player in the Bears, we were both walking along Sunset Boulevard one night. He had come into town, and we were hanging out and having a good time, walking along and seeing sights we’d never seen before. We were all new to the whole thing.
We saw the Whisky a Go-Go. We went in [there], naturally. Before that time, I had just started playing this thing where you hold a note and then you do this. It’s now called tapping, but back then, we didn’t have a name for it. Rob Fetters and I were the only two guys we knew who were doing it.
It was on a Steely Dan record [“Kid Charlemagne,” from 1976’s The Royal Scam], and I figured out, that’s how [Larry Carlton] must have done it. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to start doing that.” Rob started doing it too. We walked in and there’s Van Halen, unknown, unsigned, no one knew them, playing like crazy on stage. Eddie Van Halen is doing that all over the neck of the guitar. We looked at each other and said, “Hey, he’s doing that thing that we do!”
We laughed, and we said, “And he’s doing it better than we do!” [Laughs.] Because he had already taken it and advanced it to the next level. Good for him. It became something that a million different young guitar players tried to do since then.
I love the story about how you joined King Crimson. Robert Fripp wanted you because you were dependable. But when he called you, he found you in a different state and not your usual frame of mind!
[Talking Heads] arrived in London late at night, and we were all exhausted. They asked us where we wanted to go, and Jerry Harrison said, “I know this great Russian restaurant. We went to this Russian restaurant, and it was downstairs. They kept you in this lobby upstairs which was crowded with people. They kept bringing by these trays of flaming vodkas. Everyone was just [going], “Okay, let’s have a flaming vodka.” They kept us there for a long time. By the time we went down to the restaurant, we were all drunk. It was a very expensive bill for our promoter to foot the bill for. [Laughs.]
Eventually, we’re throwing caviar around the room. You know, I was one of the subdued ones. But you have to understand, this was a band of pretty crazy characters. There were a lot of us — and our crew — so it was a big gang of people. That’s why it took so long to seat us, I guess. The next morning, it’s about [8AM], and I’m sleeping, dead to the world.
The phone rings real loud. “Hello, it’s Robert Fripp. I know you’re not one to be out raving at night, and I thought it would be okay to call you.” I said, “Can you please call me back in a couple of hours?” [Laughs.] It’s a strange way to start a new band, but when he did call back, he said that he’d like to start a new band with me and Bill Bruford. I said, “Okay, yes!”
For “Elephant Talk,” which you wrote for Discipline, your debut with King Crimson, you took words out of a dictionary to form the initial skeleton for the lyrics, right?
If you have five minutes, I can run upstairs to my bedroom and bring out the little dictionary. It’s a little pocket-sized Merriam-Webster. If you look in the A’s, they’ll be highlighted, every word that’s about talking or conversation or anything. Then you go to the B’s, and it’s the same thing. That’s what I did. I just went through, all of the way through the E’s, and then I thought, “That’s a lot of words. That should be enough.” [Laughs.]
How did you make it into a song from that point?
Well, you know, I was having trouble at that point. I had just joined King Crimson as their songwriter, singer, frontman and lyricist, and I didn’t know quite what to do. King Crimson had a big history. I thought, well, let me try some interesting things here first and see if they stick, and that was one of them.
There’s this new Gizmodrome live album. That seems like a really fun band, playing with Stewart Copeland.
I got a call from him one day, and he says, “Hey, wouldn’t you like to come to Italy?” I said, “Of course, I loved Italy.” He said, “Wouldn’t you just love to play on my new record?” I’m like, “Well, sure, I’ll play on a couple of things.” I didn’t know anything else about it. I really thought I was going to just play some guitar on maybe three or four songs.
By the third or fourth day in, I realized, “Wait a minute, we’re actually making a whole new record here, from scratch.” [Laughs.] By the fifth day, I think we were all looking at each other, like, “Maybe this should be a band?” Which was Stewart’s idea to begin with. He tricked us all, which was a good trick. I liked it.
You’ve been involved with some quirky projects over the years, but what you’re doing here with Gizmodrome really seems to take that quirkiness to the next level.
These are all Stewart’s songs. At one point when the record was finished, he said, “Well, that’s the songs I’ve written in the last 20 years. That’s all I’ve got. So the next record, you’re up, Adrian.” [Laughs.]
But the songs that he brought in, as we would do [them], he would sing a scratch track for us to listen to. His vocals were a little off-key, but there was a lot of character — and as you say, very quirky. The whole time, I was kind of wondering to myself, “Well, is he going to sing these songs? Or should me and Mark [King] sing the songs?”
Because Mark and I are “professional singers” [Belew takes on an exaggerated tone], you know, who sing in key and things like that. I tried singing one or two of them, and I realized, you know, the character is missing. The Stewart Copeland character of his voice. He’s bigger than life with the way he says things. We finally came to a solution, and that was: Let him sing the verses, and let Mark and I sing the choruses in harmony, perfectly pitched, and that would kind of be our deal.
So you get all of the fun character of Stewart doing his thing, and then you get a chorus that sounds more normal. I really like it that way. Some people on my Facebook said, “You should have sang all of these songs,” but I disagree, actually. I think the fun and quirky element [of the music] is Stewart’s character in the songs.