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On The Record: Adrian Belew speaks up on Nine Inch Nails & Talking Heads

On The Record: Adrian Belew speaks up on Nine Inch Nails & Talking Heads


Aside from his role as lead singer and guitarist for prog-stalwarts King Crimson, Adrian Belew has toured with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Nine Inch Nails — to name just a few! In this On The Record interview, Adrian shares recording a solo for David Byrne and Brian Eno, what is like auditioning for Bowie, Zappa and Nine Inch Nails, and why his band The Bears are underrated.

PodcastInterviewOn The RecordUltimate GuitarAdrian BelewTalking HeadsNine Inch NailsRemain In LightBrian EnoKing CrimsonThe Bears


Adrian Blue talks about his favorite recording memory with Brian Eno, Jerry Harrison, and David Byrne. They asked him to play a guitar solo and then write the song around it, which turned out to be successful. He also discusses the Remaining Light tour with Jerry Harrison and how it has been well-received by audiences. Former Talking Heads members Chris and Tina have seen the band live and approved of their performance. Adrian mentions the challenges and enjoyment of playing certain Talking Heads songs live. He also talks about his guitar setup for the tour and his experience working with Frank Zappa. The Bears, another band Adrian was a part of, are mentioned as an underrated group. One of my favorite memories of recording is, you know, I went in the studio with Brian Eno, Jerry Harrison, and David Byrne. I came in and they said, okay, we want you to just go out and wait around until you think there should be a guitar solo and then play a guitar solo. And we're going to write the song around that. So I went in and I waited, you know, listened to the song and it was a really great groovy track. And then all of a sudden I just jumped in and played a solo. I looked back in the studio and once again, they were just jumping up and down. You know, I thought that must've gone pretty well. Hi, this is Adrian Blue and you're watching On The Record with Ultimate Guitar. Yeah, so the first question I have is how has the Remaining Light tour been thus far with Jerry Harrison? It has been absolutely great. So much fun. The audiences love it. Everybody's dancing. Everybody leaves happy and full of joy. And that's exactly what we set out to do with this. Jerry and I originally talked about this for many years. We said, you know, the YouTube Talking Heads Live in Rome 1980 was our blueprint. And we thought that that video got such great response. We thought it was a good thing to try to do again now. And what can fans expect from these shows that are coming up compared to the ones from last year? It's the same show. I mean, we haven't played enough places to need to change it. And the interesting thing about it, it's an 11-piece band. And we show up and we do the show. We don't even rehearse or anything. And every time it's just perfect. So we've just done, just got back yesterday from doing four shows throughout California. And each one of them was absolutely wonderful and great. So I think everybody's really happy doing this. The hard part, of course, is an 11-piece band is difficult to travel and book and so forth. But we do whatever we can while we can with it. What are some memories of recording and also touring behind the album originally back in 1980 and also 81? One of my favorite memories of recording is, you know, I went in the studio with Brian Eno, Jerry Harrison and David Byrne. Chris and Tina had come and gone, their parts were already done. There was nothing really much to play to just bass and drums and maybe an occasional or something, you know, all in one key. And so I tried out my pedals and I could see in the studio room, they're all jumping up and down, listening at all the sounds. And I came in and they said, OK, we want you to just go out and wait around until you think there should be a guitar solo and then play a guitar solo. And we're going to write the song around that. There was no vocals or any signposts of any sort. So I went in and I waited, you know, listened to the song and it was a really great groovy track. And then all of a sudden, I just jumped in and played a solo. I looked back in the studio and once again, they were just jumping up and down. You know, I thought that must have gone pretty well. So I waited around another two minutes or so and played a second one. And that was the song Great Curve. It was like it was like watching something explode. Up to that point, Talking Heads were doing really well. And in my touring with other things I was doing, you know, I could see, you know, you could hear them in every little crevice. You know, you walk into a bookstore, they're playing Talking Heads. But I think when we went out with the 11 piece band, 10 piece band, actually, when we did it then, it seemed that I watched them kind of, boom, become huge. And I was standing beside that and watching that happen. It was a lot of fun. And have any former Talking Heads members seen this band live? And if so, what were their thoughts? Chris and Tina came to see us in Connecticut where they live and they loved the show. And I remember Tina said to my bass player who's in the band, Julie Slick. She said, it's yours now. You've taken it over. You go with this. So they gave us total approval before that even happened when this was still kind of in its earliest stages. Jerry talked to David Byrne and David Byrne thanked him and said, thank you. Tell Adrian I said this, you know, thank you for doing this because he doesn't want to do it, but he's happy that we're doing it. And I will say from my seat and as in being in both situations that I think we do a really good job of it and make it the spirit of it is right. And no one's trying to be David Bowie. We have, I mean, David Byrne, we have, you know, three or four different of us singing, but we just do it our own way and just try to do the music and the songs justice. And they're great songs and they come off perfect. In which Talking Heads songs are the most fun for you to play live and do some songs prove more challenging than others? Yeah, there are certain ones that are more challenging. I love playing The Great Curve, of course. I've always loved doing Psycho Killer. It was the first song I think I ever played with the Talking Heads. And now I'm singing it so it makes it extra special too. We do a song called Drugs from, that's not from Remain in Light. It's from Fear of Music. I really enjoy the guitar things and I also sing that one and I like to make the sounds and stuff. It's a very curious song with a really interesting mood to it. I'm singing Take Me to the River. That's interesting. It's not normally my kind of vocal, but I feel like I'm doing it well. And, you know, there's so many others. I mean, there's a lot of spots for guitar playing, as there was originally on the record and on the original tour. So I'm really having a great time playing guitar to this music. I've told Jerry before, I think it was more comfortable for me playing with Talking Heads than maybe just about any other thing I did. It just feels so at home with it. For one thing, as I said, the songs are all in one key. So if you're a guitar player, anything you play should feel great. Because you're not changing keys or switching chords. You're not looking at arrangements. You're just, okay, here it is. Now it's time for me to play. Okay. Another time, let's see, what is the song that I think it's houses in motion. I really enjoy the soloing I get to do at the end that wraps up the song. But it's not just about me. I love the band itself. The singing is excellent. The rhythms, you know, so many, everyone's a great player and everyone's totally focused. There's no drama. That's what makes it a fun band to be in. And what is your guitar setup for the tour? It's the simplest setup I've had in a while. I took out all the MIDI stuff and returned to playing the Strat. I play the Strat basically through an Axe FX, which allows me not to even use amps. It goes direct into the board and then they feed it to me through the monitors. And I wear some in-ears. It has a MIDI controller just to move the programs the way you want them. And it has two pedals beside that. One is the volume pedal. One is an expression pedal. And then I play always through a compressor that's always on. And the last final thing, there's one other pedal on the floor. It is called a Harmony Man. And with that, I can do some fun things with guitar. Otherwise, everything is done through the Axe FX. And those are all sounds and programs I've designed since I've had it for 10 years now. And as far as the Strat, is that a new Strat or is that an old Strat that you play? It's a brand new Strat that Ron Thorne at the custom shop at Fender made for me. Made me two of them. And they're beautiful. What makes them a little bit custom other than you choose the neck and the pickups and things like that is that they have a sustainer on the neck pickup, so I can do a lot of sustained things. And they have a terrific new tremolo that's been made in Spain called the Vega trim. And they have locking tuning keys and interesting good colors. And out of all the artists you've worked with and bands you've played with, do you agree that the Bears may be the most underrated one? Oh, absolutely. Yeah. The Bears certainly deserved better. And it's strictly the business side. The band was giving the goods, very much so. And we were a great band and we loved each other. We're childhood friends. And so we were very, very much in tune. And I think we wrote a lot of really good, straightforward kind of pop songs. Everyone in the band wrote, everyone in the band sang. And our shows, we just blew the roofs off the places we played. But, you know, if you don't have the support of the industry itself and something doesn't click in a few years time, you stop because you just can't keep doing it forever. And sadly, that's the way it went with the Bears. But, you know, I still have so many people talk to me about the Bears and they love those records, which are kind of hard to get. We went on to make five records total, one of them a live record and four records of all new material. And what was Izappa like to work with? He was the consummate band leader. I mean, he told you exactly the way he wanted things to be. He didn't leave a lot of room for you to create. That wasn't the idea. The idea was to play his music consistently and correctly and to be a professional touring musician. No messing around. You know, I mean, you were supposed to be there. You were supposed to never do drugs or ever be drunk or anything, you know, crazy like that. So you could do the job right. I learned so much from Frank in that one year because I ended up having to go home with him every weekend for three months while we rehearsed so he could show me the upcoming parts because I was the only one in the band who was not a reader. Everyone else would read the parts and score on Monday. So I got to know him really well and he taught me a lot of things, many of them non-musical things, most importantly, how to be a recording artist, how to tour, how to have your own business, how to mix a record, how to master a record, how to make a movie. So much information to my green little ears at the time and I don't know how I would have done the things that I did after that if I hadn't had all of that instruction and encouragement from Frank. So I owe him a whole lot and I love him. Because I know in the past you've talked a lot about what the audition was like with Frank, but did you have to audition for also Bowie as well? No, I didn't. My audition for David Bowie was that he was standing on the side of the stage watching me play with Frank Zappa and he said, yes, that's the guy I want. So that was an easier audition. Yeah, Frank's auditions are notoriously difficult. The music is difficult. And I knew that I hadn't done well with the first audition because there was too much chaos. People were moving pianos and drum kits around and there I was standing in the middle of the room with a microphone and a little pig nose amp on the floor, not very conducive to doing something well. So I waited around. I had to wait around all day anyway, because then they were going to fly me back to take me back to the airport and fly me home. So at the end of the day, there was kind of a moment where he was just standing there. Finally, everything had quieted down. And I said, Frank, I'm really sorry. I don't think I did well, but I thought it would be different. And he said, how so? And I said, I thought it would just be you and me. I'd show you that I can do this. So he said, OK, great. Let's go upstairs. We went upstairs, sat on his purple couch. I put the pig nose down between the pillows and turned it as loud as I could and did the audition again. About a third of the way through, he stopped me and shook my hand and said, you've got the audition. And he, you know, he was very gracious, told me all the things to expect, you know, what you get paid for different things. And he even called my girlfriend at the time and said, this guy is really special. And it was just thrilling. You know, he treated me graciously and always was that way to me. So I feel like he saw something and he told me later he auditioned 50 guitar players. And something I don't think I've ever heard you talk about was, was there, was there a reason why you wound up not touring with Nine Inch Nails back in 2013? Yeah, I don't mind talking about it now, but at the time it was so upsetting to me, I felt like it was better to say nothing. Here's my version of it. Now, you might ask someone else to, and then I'd say something different. But when Trent called me, he was very, he was very excited about the idea that he and I would reinvent Nine Inch Nails. And he even told me, don't worry about learning the songs verbatim, just get to know them. So I listened to the songs and I really didn't try to figure parts out. I did a little bit just out of curiosity. So when I got there, we had 12 weeks of rehearsal time. I thought that's the amount of time I have with Frank Zappa. I could learn anything in 12 weeks. But after 17 days, he said that some of the guys in the band weren't comfortable with me. They didn't feel like I was doing my parts right and that I knew the songs as good as I should. And I said, listen, I can tell you for sure. This is 17 days in. There's no way. I'm still working out ideas of sounds and things. I'm not even worried about the songs. But those were L.A. kind of players, you know. And in my mind, they have very little imagination. I'll put it that way. So he said, it's time for you to go. He was very upset about it himself. He said, you're my favorite player in the world. But if my guys in the band don't want you in the band and then, you know, there's nothing I can do. And so, you know, it was terrible, really. I had put everything on hold for the next year and a half. Everything. Canceled all my gigs. Came home and didn't do anything for six months. I couldn't even get myself mentally and emotionally to go in the studio that's in my very own house and try to work on anything. Just lost all everything. Three months after that happened, Robert Fripp decided I shouldn't no longer be in King Crimson. So that was the extra nail in the coffin. And after about six months, as I said, I said, well, the good thing is now I'm Adrian Ballou. I'm going to do Adrian Ballou now. Boom. And from that point on, I wrote something called Flux. I invented something called Flux. I wrote an orchestral piece, played it with an orchestra. I did a movie with Pixar that won an Oscar. So it worked out for me, too. You just mentioned Crimson. Did you ever get a chance to see the version of King Crimson from 2013? I absolutely did not want to see it. I didn't. I sort of lost my feel for the whole thing. I love the people in it, but I just felt like there's no reason for me to hear it now. I'm not involved. And that is, I think by now, 14 or 15 years ago, I still love all the people involved. And I love the music that we made previous. But I don't know that band's music. I also have not seen the film they made because it was mainly really about that band. And I don't know anything about that band. But of course, my friends Tony and Pat were in the band. Of course, Robert as well. So I respect it. I respect what they did. And how demanding is Robert as a band leader? He can be demanding for certain things. But to be honest with me, he gave me complete leeway because right from the beginning, he said, you know, if you're going to write the melodies and the words and sing the songs, you need to tell me what do you need. So we'll work on songs together quietly or pieces together. It would be sort of at some point my decision to make. Can I turn this into a song or no? Should it continue on as an instrumental piece? If it was going to continue as an instrumental piece, that was Robert's department. My department was, well, I think I can make a song from this, write the melody, write the lyrics. And so then if it needed chord changes, which eventually it always did, I would dictate those things. And Robert was very happy to have me do all of that. So I think it was much harder on Bill Bruford, who he had already been in a band with and they had a little bit of a time of it, but not really. I mean, you know, people think it's worse. It was never uncivilized in any way. That's not the way those people, we all play together. Tony Levin, the bassist, liked to leave the room a lot and let us sort it out. But there was never any real problems that, you know, when I look back at it, I just hear all the great music and the wonderful shows. And, you know, I love those guys. So I'm happy that we had all that 33 years together. That's a lot of work. Were you surprised to be mentioned in the Guardians of the Galaxy film? I was absolutely blown away by that. It's the last thing in the world I expected. I loved those movies from the beginning. I'm a big fan. And so when someone called me and said, hey, you got to go see the Guardians of the Galaxy. And I went. I just didn't know what to think. I still am kind of shocked by it. But I found out through someone that knows the director that it was his decision. He's a fan. He was in the 90s in a band in college that played some of my music, solo stuff and King Crimson stuff. And so it comes from him. And that makes it even better for me. It wasn't written in there as some sort of oddball thing. It's really what he thought. So I just want to say thanks, Adrian, for taking the time to do the interview today for Ultimate Guitar. Well, it's great to see you and great to talk to you again. Always, anytime you want to do anything, let me know, because I've got so many things still going on. I'm far from done.

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