Steve Vai: “The only way to sound like me is to sound like you”

by Aman Khosla

This interview was originally published in our “Holy Grail Issue”

So, Steve Vai – most every guitar player knows that name. In a league of his own, Vai has been a major icon and most certainly a household name in the world of guitar for over three decades and counting. Nine studio albums, Eight live albums, several special releases, collaborations and compilations, philanthropic endeavors, countless accolades, three Grammy Awards along with seven nominations…need I go on? And you know what? I could sit here and tell you all about his incredible years with Frank Zappa, or I could write about his rock star haze that was David Lee Roth and Whitesnake and tell you that he’s played with the likes of Alice Cooper, Joe Jackson and Les Paul, or perhaps I could get knee-deep into dissecting and understanding his illustrious solo career – but the truth is that all of this stuff has been written and talked about for years and years, and it’s not what I want you to take away from this piece. See, I’ve been a huge fan of Steve’s for a while, and that extends well beyond just his music. Every once in a while someone comes along that represents more than just the art that they make, and Steve has inspired and influenced generations of musicians and guitar players – including myself. To me, there is something special about his work and what he embodies and I think I owe that to the purity of his expression, his charm and genuine nature as a human being above and beyond his sheer virtuosity or his image. And that is what I want to touch upon with this interview – the oozing lava that is the creative core at the center of this guitar-shaped cake we all know as Ste-ve Vai. We had a wonderful chat about life and the like, traversing from touring and the econom-ics of making music to inspiration and the meaning of our creativity as human beings, and for those of you that are interested I hope this read will shed some light on the person behind name, the human behind the alien – the Steve behind the Vai.

Steve’s been up to some really cool stuff –  he took his Alien Guitar Secrets masterclasses to Spain, Canada and Brazil, snagged a couple of cool festival spots and held his revolutionary Vai Academy guitar camp in Colorado. When we spoke earlier this year, he’d just played a really kickass show with the Brazilian metal powerhouse Sepeltura at Rock in Rio 2015 and was plan-ning said masterclasses, but I was most interested in his new live DVD that came out in April, ‘Stillness in Motion’. In particular, there is a wonderful little bonus feature called ‘The Space Be-tween the Notes’. I was on tour at the time and hadn’t had the chance to check it out – so come along and get involved in our little conversation as Steve kicks off and tells us all about it.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia
11.19.12 Steve Vai, L’olympia

Steve Vai: The ‘Story of Light Tour’ was a long tour we did that spanned two years, and we had 253 shows in something like 52 countries. It was glorious. So, the 49th show was in LA, and it was recorded and broadcast live by AXS. They’d given me all of the tapes, so I had this beautiful 9 camera shoot of the show and it was relatively easy to put together – only took a couple of weeks of editing, and I do all the editing because I just really enjoy it, but then I always like to add something that’s a little unique to anything I’ve done before. It’s a wonderful challenge too, because I ask myself ‘what’re you gonna do that’s different, interesting, entertaining, engaging’ – you start setting up this frame of mind and all of a sudden an idea will come. And the idea was to create sort of a tour diary, because we went all over and around the world twice, and even visited places that I was told no American artist had performed –

Guitar Connoisseur: Wow. One for the books.

SV: – yeah, I mean we spent a month in Russia! We started out in Vladivostok where you can see Japan and just went all the way, through Siberia, on trains and planes and cars and vans and buses and everything – and we ended up in Ukraine during the war that was taking place –

GC: Oh wow! Now that must’ve been a little crazy!

SV: Yeah – we didn’t really see any action though, thankfully. But anyway, the idea was to cre-ate this chronological tour diary where every city we visited is represented in order by either a photo, a barrage of photos or some video footage. So it’s this very intimate look at what it’s like to tour with us in this situation and to visit all these places, and it was a really intense project. It took months and months, I don’t know, maybe four months of 10-15 hour days. I had to gather all the footage because nothing was shot professionally. We had one guy in the crew who had a really nice camera but these days iPhones can give you pretty good quality film and photos, so I just went to everybody in the band and the crew and my family, and then there was my stuff and I reached out to some fans that I knew took shots and videos, and to fill in certain little spots I visited the internet. It’s easy – all’s I gotta do is type in the show date and the venue and my name, and there’s hundreds of videos! So I collected all this data, which was a monumental task in itself, and then laid it all out in chronological order on a timeline, edited it and cut it up into something I felt would be really fun, interesting, engaging – all the things that I’d set out to do. And when I was done, I have to tell you, I felt like it was part of my best work. It’s just so intimate y’know? If anybody is interested in what myself is like – what Steve is like in normal life, this is where you can see it (laughs). You get to just see a band in which everyone really appreciates each other and is very grateful for the opportunity to be there. We have a great time and you get a look at what it’s like walking down the streets of Croatia or playing to an audience in Spain and Iceland and, my gosh, China – there’s one little clip from a TV show in China where I was playing to 2 billion people! I would highly recommend it, even if you’re not a fan because it’s kind of a fun thing to watch.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia

GC: Yeah, that kind of thing would resonate well with most people anyway. I feel like music and, well, all forms of art are moving into a phase where it’s all a little more interactive and people are more interested in what artists are like and who they are as people. That mystique and that ‘barrier’ exists in a very different way.

SV: Yeah, totally. The whole process can be so fun because there are so many ways to com-municate with people, and as a fan you can really see what goes on with artists and see what’s in their minds – it was never like that.

GC: Interesting that, isn’t it? And what you’ve put together must really be something to see too. The fact that you guys were on tour for 2 years – that’s pretty intense!

SV: Well we took 5 months off in the middle because I had to write a symphony and then have it performed. Throughout ‘The Space Between the Notes’ and during the tour, I played with 5 or 6 different orchestras and there’s little pieces of all that in there.

GC: Oh is that the stuff you did in Europe?

SV: Yup – I performed with the North Netherlands Orchestra in Holland, orchestras in Russia and Poland, and did a 10 show tour with the Evolution Orchestra throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. Then I also played with the Chinese Beijing Orchestra, and actually, the only American orchestra I worked with on the tour was in Denver, Colorado.

GC: Well it’s way cool that you have the ability to go ‘let’s do an orchestra tour’, that’s quite a thing –

SV: Yeah (laughs), it’s pretty ambitious.

GC: Given that you’re traveling and touring so much, how’re you keeping up with your fitness? Are you still running and doing all of that kind of stuff?

SV: Oh yeah, yeah. I go through phases and usually, at the least, I’ll exercise a couple of times a week. When I’m preparing for a tour I’ll probably go out 5 or 6 times a week and I’ve got a little routine where one day it might be weights and then one day it might be biking, and another day running. But you know, you’d be surprised – it’s all in your head, the touring experience. There are a lot of interviews I do where I say ‘oh I’ve been out and I did 253 shows’  and people say ‘how do you stay on tour like that’ and ‘oh my god it must be so hard’ – it’s not hard at all! It’s easy, it’s vacation. Touring is the easiest thing for me because there’s routine. I can sleep as much as I want really and it’s sort of like a traveling family. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 35 years and there are a couple of ropes you’ve gotta learn y’know? You’ve got to learn when to sleep and when to eat – but that’s it really.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia
11.19.12 Steve Vai, L’olympia

GC: Yeah, well I think that’s the challenge many people face. I’m on tour in the UK right now and the band I’m playing with isn’t, well, let’s just say it hasn’t been touring for 35 years (laughs). So there are those few little things, and sometimes, depending on where you are, the challenge of the day is getting enough food and sleep – ‘where are we sleeping tonight’ and so on. But I feel what you said about it being a little family – that’s the best part about it all, because if you’re with the right people you’re just going to have a great time.

SV: Well, you said it – you’ve gotta be with the right people. Touring will exaggerate a person’s personality traits. There are no secrets at sea, y’know? If you’re with somebody that’s a prickish, unhappy person, when they get on tour they become really big a**holes and that can really poison the entire environment. But, if you’re with people that are really fun-loving, generous in spirit and just good people, then they become really fun on tour. And that’s probably the number one thing that I look for in a band. What are these guys going to be like on tour? Touring is a piece of your life, and I’ve toured in very many different configurations. There’ve been tours that I’ve done where the advances were huge and the money was great and all these other things were wonderful, but they’re just dark experiences when I look back at them because of the atmos-phere on tour. There were similar tours that were just as big that were really wonderful, little tours that I did in little clubs that were just the best and then tiny tours in tiny clubs where that wasn’t the case. It can vary so much, and with all of this it wasn’t really because the backstage area was a wreck or because the stage was too small or it sounded like sh** – it wasn’t any of those things. It was the atmosphere that’s created amongst the collective of the people on tour. That’s the most important thing to having a good experience and when you’re the leader, you can shape that more powerfully than anyone else.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia
11.19.12 Steve Vai, L’olympia

GC: Yeah I think there’s definitely a strong responsibility with someone driving the tour –

SV: If they want it (laughs).

GC: (Laughs), yeah – well actually on that note, that’s assuming in some ways that there’s a role that’s being fulfilled, y’know? I mean, well, let me ask you this – did you do any tours back in the day without any sort of a tour manager where you kind of just did a DIY thing? Or was that not really a part of the process since you were just getting off the Frank years and you had enough access to all sorts of people?

SV: Well, after Frank I put my own little bands together but we never really toured. We would do a gig here and there and I had sort of a manager that would set them up. But as far as going on tour, it sounds to me like you’re discovering some of the economic challenges with touring. The expense of bringing the right people – it would be lovely if you could have a dedicated tour manager, a dedicated stage manager, a dedicated monitor guy, lighting guy, guitar tech, bass tech etc, but in reality, unless you’re making a lot, to get the numbers to work a lot of times it starts off with just the band. It’s not totally uncommon for a band to just go out and do it them-selves, and it’s all according to the members of the band, what they feel their strengths are, how they work together as a unit to allocate responsibilities and how each person responds to those responsibilities. Are they looking out for themselves or are they really rising to the occasion for the group as a whole? If that’s the case, then one guy can be the tour manager. He can, to a greater or lesser degree with some challenges, sort of do what a tour manager would do if the rest of the guys in the band respect that position he’s taken. You can even be carrying and set-ting up your own gear if necessary – that’s really ‘touring 101’ y’know? After the band itself, the next thing you usually need is a really good touring manager that usually doubles as either a lighting guy or a FOH or monitor guy. Then as the tour progresses and your economics change you can start filling it out with more guys to help, and you’ve just got to find the sweet spot. The important thing for a band, before they go on tour, is to understand the economics of what it’s going to take and what it’s going to cost, and the most vital element in that is an agent for the gigs that you book. The hardest thing to find in the business when you’re a new act is an agent. It’s easier to find a record contract – agents are the ones who book the shows and have to call up all the venues and promoters and sell the show to them, and the promoter is taking a huge risk on a band that doesn’t have any pull in certain territories. So, I always advise a band to be a band. Be a unit – a cohesive kind of a mastermind where the four guys or five guys or however many members of the band just sit together every day, maybe before and after rehearsal, just sit with each other and discuss and build a positive momentum in a particular direction. There is nothing – nothing that you can’t accomplish as a band if you have that, because all of your crea-tive elements come into alignment and in that process you learn how to accept everybody for who they are. For their strengths, and their weaknesses. You learn not to criticize, you learn to allow. You learn to allow everybody to be who they are, and that’s how you build a really powerful unit that has lasting longevity Because the energy that’s created by that collective master-mind is not like four guys, it’s like a hundred guys, y’know? It’s exponential. But it’s very rare that bands do that because most people are focused on themselves –

GC: – rather than the unit.

SV: Yeah, and that’s pretty common – so there I said it (laughs). If you get it, then you have a great tool in your arsenal.

GC: That’s really well put. And actually, just piggybacking off of that ‘economics’  train of thought, there’s something I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on. Creative freedom is an incredible thing, and as an artist myself I’m wondering what you think about the monetary future in the arts, given the current industry climate. To me, it seems in some ways that we’re moving back to a ‘patronage’ model that supported the arts until the mid-20th century came along with the whole ‘record deal’ thing. I mean that’s still going on, but what are your views on where the money comes from? I know creativity and inspiration will continue and persevere, but how does that manifest considering the economics of it all?

SV: The economics are going to evolve too. As a musician, if you want to take advantage of that you just have to be aware of it. You have to know that the economics of it all, the way you’re going to make money, the way that you make music, the way that you record, the way you mix it, the way it’s reproduced, the way it’s distributed into the world, the way it’s listened to – it’s all going to change. It’s always changed and it’s constantly going to change. The mistake that most people make is that wherever they are at any given point they say ‘well we’ve arrived and this is it’, but I guarantee you it will continue to evolve. So knowing that, you keep your eye on it and it works to your advantage. For me – it would be when the digital age came in. Right now is the very best time for an independent musician to be able to create a career that can be sustainable and lucrative even. It’s just understanding your economics, and there’s one simple rule of thumb that I always mention to any musician – don’t live above your means. As a musician, you can eat good for a while and then there’s nothing. You can have a hit and have a lot of money and it’s just got to last a long time. But you know, all of these things – the economics, how you make your music, where you get the funds to do it, how you’re collecting your funds, the people you turn to, how you protect your intellectual property – this is all important stuff, but it’s of relative importance. It’s not the most important thing. There is something that’s more vitally important that comes before all of that stuff, and that is the quality of your inspiration. The quality of your inspiration is like your product, or rather that’s what’s going to create your product. Everybody has the potential to be uniquely creative, and that’s the first thing you have to focus on – your own, uniquely creative potential. That’s number one all the time, it’s of absolute importance. And, to take it to an even deeper level than that, it’s the condition of your consciousness. How are you letting your inspiration flow into the world? What’s stopping you from being and becoming your truly unique potential? Usually what stops people or cuts at the root of their ability to be truly fresh, unique and productive, is their own mind. Their own limitations that they put on it, and their own freaked out concerns about the things that are important but are of relative im-portance. So once you start cultivating the thing that is of primordial importance – your creative process – then you’ve got something that is of real value. And then, and I know this sounds ex-traordinary, everything will fall into place (laughs). It will all fall into place much easier.

20121119,Steve Vai, L'olympia
20121119,Steve Vai, L’olympia

GC: I honestly think that’s the only way of describing what happens ‘next’. I think this is pretty important stuff so it’s nice to hear how your gears turn when you think about the-se sorts of things. Well alright (laughs), let me just flip things up and get a little less heady on you –

SV: I don’t know if that’s possible (laughs) –

GC: It’s hard for me too! 

SV: Well, why bother? This is the important stuff! You know it – talking about scales and sh** like that is useless (laughs).

GC: Oh I’m so with you – I went to Berklee and we had this little inside joke whenever we’d go to clinics. Anytime someone came in and did one, we’d go in and ask stuff like ‘what kind of strings do you use’, and there was always THAT moment –

SV: (Laughs) yeah, well you know there’s a place for that though. I don’t have any problem answering any academic questions at all, because to some people that’s really important. They think that if they have your strings or your amp or your kind of vibrato they’re going to sound like you, but that’s not what I teach. What I teach is that the only way to sound like me is to sound like you. I only have tried to sound like me, and it’s the same thing with any of the great players. I just listened to this new Jeff Beck cut that’s on his new record that’s being promoted and it’s SO Jeff Beck, y’know? I mean it’s so incredible, he’s like the chosen one and it’s just so obvious to me that he’s doing what everyone wants to do – not the way he plays, but the discovery of themselves as their unique potential. He’s 71 and he’s still doing new stuff!

GC: Yeah it’s crazy! And he doesn’t exactly let off that he’s inspired or anything, he’s kind of inward about that but it’s just so full of inspiration.

SV: Well that’s the way it is with most geniuses. They’re just conduits. Whenever you ask any of these guys ‘where did you get the inspiration for that’, the best answer they can give you is ‘I don’t know, it just came’ ! I saw this great interview with Bob Dylan – I wasn’t a Bob Dylan fan when I was growing up, and actually, I only really discovered his music a couple of years ago. I said ‘ok, let me see what this is about’. I’d heard his music but never really dug in and I gotta tell you – I was SO blown away. It’s like I found a treasure chest in my backyard. It’s so obvious that he’s completely connected with that source of pure inspiration, and you watch an interview with him and they say ‘how did you write this song’? And he says ‘I don’t know, it just…came out’. So they say ‘well, where did it come from’? And he says ‘I don’t know, it came from that source where all inspiration comes from. It just comes out – I don’t know’, and that’s the best answer you can give, y’know? (laughs).

GC: Absolutely. And he is definitely one of those people – because, well I wasn’t into him till recently either –

SV: Yeah it’s funny, huh?

GC: Yeah I think you just start listening on different levels at different times, or y’know, you just sort of hear it in a different context –

SV: Yeah! Yeah, it’s based on what you’re interested in before that. I was never really there, I was just interested in heady, kind of intense music, and then years ago I discovered Tom Waits and that changed my life.

vai 05

GC: Yeah I remember reading about that! In fact it’s because you got into Tom Waits that I got into Tom Waits – you had some list that I read where someone had asked you what you were listening to and I went ‘Tom who’? So I checked it out and oh my god! The atmosphere that he creates – it’s just beyond.

SV: He captures a fragrance. And sometimes it’s a really stinky one (laughs).

GC: Yep, it stinks real good.

SV: Yeah (laughs), and after that is when I decided that I’d better check out Bob Dylan, because there had to be something there – and boy oh boy, was it amazing. It’s not Tom Waits but it’s good (laughs). But you know that that’s just my personal taste.

GC: Yeah, yeah. Everyone’s going to gravitate towards whatever their preference is, but there’s no denying inspiration.

SV: You just nailed it. If you’re open to it, you can’t not be moved by people who are connected. And that’s all that genius is – the simplicity of being connected to your infinite potential. That’s something everybody has access to, but for some people their opening to it is wider.

GC: It’s funny because the time I was at Berklee, there was this whole focus on opening up and listening to a bunch of new things and trying a bunch of new things on your instrument, and just experimenting on an unrefined level. It helped a lot and allowed my mind to be open to various possibilities, but I found that once I’d ended up in that place – getting into all sorts of really heady stuff just like you were talking about –  I started to drift back towards what my ear was naturally interested in. Or rather, it was a shift in what my ear was interested in, I was enjoying music that I liked rather than having my interest be defined by a type of music or musical element.

SV: Well, the thing is, you gravitated towards something that was interesting to you at the time you were into the more heady stuff. It was a valuable phase, because there were things you got out of it, and maybe one of the most important things was the next direction you took – which was back to the earthier or more organic stuff. That’s a nice process, and it will continue to hap-pen. And, if you can embrace it without prejudice, you’ll really get a lot of out it. All too often people criticize the interests of others, which is a form of insanity! (laughs).

vai 01

GC: Funny you put it that way, because that does sound a little insane (laughs). Your interests are your interests, and how could they be otherwise? Actually, speaking of growing and changing with varying interests – what’s come to mind when I think about your music and it’s evolution is the collaboration process. When you did ‘No More Amsterdam’ with Aimee Mann a few years ago, I remember you said you were surprised by how much you loved the collaboration thing. Is that desire still there or have you somewhat faded back to the multiple-hat-wearing-solo-artist Steve Vai?

SV: Well, it’s funny – I always threaten myself with the thought that I’m going to collaborate more, but I never do (laughs). I love collaborating usually when it’s outside of my solo work, because my solo work is kind of like my own little secret. When I’m writing and when I’m building a song, looking for inspiration, it’s almost like I don’t want it to be diluted by anyone else’s contri-bution – and that’s ok! Everybody’s allowed that if they want it. A composer would never – or I’ve never heard of such a case, although it might be interesting – compose half of the piece of mu-sic or only fill in the woodwinds and give it to somebody else and say ‘you do what you think works now’ . it’s a little weird for the creative process, y’know? So I’ve always gravitated towards just being independent. But, the collaborations I have done always felt good. The one with Aimee was very special. I felt like I needed it. I was working on that song and I wanted a female vocal. I had this concept for the song to be this call and response and I had the fist line – “the more that I see, the less I know”, and I thought that was kind of profound (laughs). And so, Amy was a friend – she was my wife’s friend when we were going to college in the 70’s, so we just kept in touch through the years a little bit. I always liked her and thought she was a brilliant songwriter, and Pia actually recommended her and said “why don’t you call Amy”? She was interested in it, and it was wonderful. And then I’ve also collaborated with Devin Townsend on some things that I thought turned out really well, but other than that it’s usually just me and me.

GC: I like how you said it. Collaboration is great but when it comes to your own thing, I couldn’t agree with you more. And the times you’ve collaborated, it seems to have been with some pretty great people so at least those energies can play off of each other.

SV: Yeah that’s the important thing. I get asked in almost every interview, “if you could play with anybody, dead or alive, who would that be”? My band – that’s who (laughs).

vai 02

GC: Yeah that’s the crux of inspiration, isn’t it? I’m curious – are you feeling creative in more ways than musically lately? I remember reading somewhere that Jimmy Page was eventually interested in pottery. Don’t know if that’s true, but I was curious to hear your take on creativity in general, beyond music. It just tends to happen sometimes with crea-tive people where interests grow and evolve.

SV: Well, to get a little more esoteric about it, it’s my feeling that the main reason we’re here is to be creative. We’re expanding the universe with anything that we do that’s creative. It’s actually the universe that’s doing it – it always was, y’know? We think it’s US and then the universe out there, we think we’re separate from it. But we’re not. We’re from it. So it’s our birthright to be creative. Now the thing that stops us is our own mind and our insecurities and fears – fear of failure, fear of not being good enough – all these things. But frankly, you can be uniquely creative in something extraordinarily simple that’s off the radar of what the world considers ‘earth-shattering’. And that’s important – it’s vital for a human being to be expressive and creative in some way. Some people gravitate consciously towards things that they’re attracted to like music or art or business – there are a lot of creative people in business, there are a lot of creative people in cooking – in any field. And in every field there are people for whom that field feels very natural to, and then they flow within it and what comes out of them is inspired work. I never thought of any of that when I was growing up, I just liked music so I made music. But to answer your question – oddly enough, about a year ago I started doing art. It just started out as little doodles because I always liked art but never felt like I was good enough to do anything, until I realized that art is art. There’s no good or bad really, it’s just whatever moves you. That’s the best part about doing art, and it’s just proliferated into – I don’t know, I think I probably have something like 80 or 90 pieces right now.

GC: Wow!

SV: Nobody really knows and I haven’t shown anything – maybe someday. It’s just another one of my own little secrets that I find to be a very cathartic process. When I do it I only have two rules. These two rules can be applied in a creative setting in virtually any field, and I would encourage anybody that’s being creative to try it and see if it works for you. And you know there’s nothing, as far as I’m concerned, that’s extraordinary about the art that I do (laughs), but it’s fun! And the thing that feels really good – these two things – they are ‘I don’t think when I’m doing it’. You just let it happen. You just go, you just move – you just allow whatever to happen, happen. Then the second rule is ‘you don’t criticize it’. You’re not allowed to criticize – you’re not allowed to say this is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is bad – and anything that you do, there are no mistakes. You can do something beautiful and put a big cross through it. There are no rules and no mistakes and it might seem like a stupid, simple kind of a thing but it’s an incredibly cathartic process because it translates into life in general. There’s this feeling of allowing and then seeing the creative value in it – and frankly, that’s when I come up with my best music, because I’m not thinking. Improvising is kind of like that. When I’m on stage the whole point is to not think and to just be. Just to be incredibly present and aware, without having thoughts interrupt what you do. Everything happens perfectly then – magically even, y’know? Even things that might look like mistakes are just part of the process of happening. And when you fight against it it’s usually because your mind is creating thoughts like ‘this isn’t good enough’ or ‘I wonder what everybody’s thinking’ or ‘I’m the best’ or ‘everybody else’s work is inferior to mine’. ‘I am the great one’ or ‘I am the worst one’ – whatever it is, these are just thoughts that get in the way of the real creative process. So next time you pick up your guitar, take half an hour or so and just play without think-ing. It can take time because you find out that the mind is always criticizing or thinking of some-thing –

GC: It’s like meditating.

SV: – well it is. It’s a form of meditation. It’s bringing meditation into the world as opposed to ‘in a closet’ y’know? And you create an opening and just watch what happens, It’s magical, especially if you’re not criticizing it.

GC: Yeah I think those two rules – they sound simple enough but they’re hard to imple-ment and I think they are the backbone of creativity, actually.

SV: Yeah, frankly that’s where your real work is.

GC: Yes! In fact, talking about picking up the guitar, a year ago I started just throwing my guitar into strange tunings just so that I was using my ear instead of shapes or pentatonic licks or whatever –

SV:  Yeah! Isn’t that beautiful? And when you were sitting there and just listening as you were turning the pegs, you were being very present. You weren’t thinking about ‘how is this going to make me money’ (laughs).

GC: (Laughs) right. There’s a little time and a small place for that, but I think that’s the nail on the head – that moment.

SV: Yeah. There’s a place for thinking about all of that stuff, but this is not it. Because all of that is of relative importance, and there’ll come a point where you’ll address it. But of vital importance is that you find that space when you’re turning those pegs and you’re listening until something goes – ‘that’s it’. Now what is it that’s in you that is saying and knowing ‘that’s it’? That’s your creative genius – that’s your creative core. That, is of vital importance – and we’ve just dug to the deepest level here.

And there you have it. To add to that would be to pour water all over that oozing la-va, so I’ll leave it at that and trust you’ve enjoyed this read as much as I enjoyed the conversation with the one and only, Steve Vai.

 

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Adrian Belew: Everything in Flux…

By Greg Jones

In the mid-twentieth century, there was a guy who endeavored to study the brain of the late Albert Einstein in the hopes of discovering why he was such a phenomenal genius. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but many shared his curiosity. We all would like to know how great thinkers became the way they do. Was it there at birth? Did it have to do with brain size? Was it excellent parenting? Maybe it was superior coffee?

Many of us who are musicians stand and marvel at the revolutionary breakthroughs of the geniuses who ply their trade in the same arena we do, yet with such remarkable results. What made Frank Zappa so fiercely innovative? Where did Paul Simon come up with those beautiful melodies and timelessly resonant lyrics? Why is David Bowie such an effective mirror to the essence of society in each new cloak he wraps himself in? What makes the inscrutable Robert Fripp such an infallible analyst of his own music and what has caused him to suddenly smile? The answers elude us for now, but perhaps some insight can be gleaned by something they all have in common: all of them chose to work with the supremely talented and boyishly exhilarating Adrian Belew.

In the estimation of his legions of fans and the effusive praise of his peers, Mr. Belew is himself a genius—though he would undoubtedly laugh off such an appraisal in sincere humility. In this interview, he shares openly some of what makes him “tick,” what events sparked and sustained his legendary career, and he gives us an up-to-date status report on what’s about to allow us all inside his brain’s workings: namely, a revolutionary musical listening experience called “FLUX.”

Guitar Connoisseur: I heard that as a teenager, you turned a long absence from school, due to illness, into your chosen career path; could you tell our readers that story? It may inspire a whole new generation of players.

Adrian Belew: Let me start out a little before that: At age ten I decided I wanted to play drums in the marching band—playing in football games and parades—and for three years I did. When I was fourteen, I moved to another area and instead of getting into the marching band I got into my first teen band. That would have been 1964 or 1965. Obviously, the Beatles were all the rage and the whole British invasion was in force—with great new sounds and great new bands like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. I was a drummer—a singing drummer—and I was very happy doing that, but I kept hearing songs in my head and I couldn’t explain them or translate them to anyone. When I was 16, in my junior year of high school, I was still in the same teen band and I got mononucleosis. They told me: “Look, you’re going to have to stay at home, stay in bed, and just rest; you can’t play drums, you’ll be tutored at home, and you’re going to have two months of recovery.” So I thought: “Oh boy, what am I going to do for two months?”

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: I should tell our readers that this is all pre-Internet, pre-cable television, pre-24 hour anything on the tube.

AB: Yeah, this was 1966 or 1967 so you didn’t have all the things you can do now. Basically, I was going to have to stay in bed—not very fun. I loved to read, and I did a lot of reading, but I decided maybe I should try and teach myself to play guitar. One of the guys in my band loaned me his father’s acoustic guitar. I just sat there endlessly trying to figure out how to make chords, how to make the notes I wanted, what fingering you would use. I would hear a note and say “Okay, that’s here, so I’ll use my index finger on that. There’s the harmony over there; I guess I could use my middle finger for that,” and I’d sort of make up my own chords and things. I did that for two months. When I went back to my band, by then I had written five songs, and played them the songs they said: “What the heck are those chords?” (Laughs) Because I figured it out my own way. So I joked with them, “Oh that’s a G Demolished.” For many years I didn’t know the proper names of anything, and I’m still self-taught, but the point being, by the time I finished that two months’ convalescence I was on my way toward being a guitar player. At the same time, 1967 or so, you had this explosion of guitar virtuosos that came in, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and that spurred me on to want to be more than just a songwriter, but actually be a guitarist.

GC: I’m from that era myself and I remember it seemed like the whole world changed every time a new record came out.

AB: It’s true, there were so many records that really changed everything—pivotal records—from Sgt. Pepper’s to the latest Dylan album, there was always something coming down the pike that would keep everyone excited. It was the age where people were more excited by music than by anything else I think.

GC: So at some point did you become one of the guitarists in that band and look for another drummer?

AB: I did not. After 1967, that band stopped playing together (my first teen band); I went through a succession of other bands, still as a drummer, and then finally I got into a band where the drummer also wanted to be the lead singer. So we switched halfway through the night. He would be the drummer for half while I was the guitarist, then he would be the singer and I would be the drummer.

Consequently, people realized that I was a much better guitarist than a drummer. So from that point on, I got calls to be a guitarist and that kind of switched me. I still play drums, I still have three sets of drums in my studio, I love drumming, and I think it’s very important; it’s been very important to my career that I have a drumming background.

GC: You mentioned not knowing what to call certain chords; we hear that from a lot of great players about not knowing modes, chords, etc.

AB: I still don’t know that stuff and it doesn’t seem to hamper me. I have such a good ear and I’m well-versed in many things. Frank Zappa said to me when he hired me: “You know this stuff, you just don’t know the names of it.” I asked him: “Should I try to learn to read now?” and he said: “No, it really wouldn’t help you much because you already know it.”

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden – Opening act

GC: Well if Zappa said it, what better authority are you going to get it from, right?

AB: Right and you have to understand, my first thing I ever did was being discovered by Frank Zappa, and at that time, he almost never had anyone in his band who didn’t read because his methodology was to pass out sheet music every day at rehearsal and that’s how everyone else would learn the music. I didn’t; I learned it by ear and by rote. We rehearsed every week, five days a week, Monday through Friday for three whole months. I learned five hours of Frank Zappa material—very complex, difficult material. And the way Frank did it was: on Friday nights when we’d finish our rehearsal for the week; I would get in the car and go home with him for the weekend. Over the weekend he could prep me, show me what would be coming up the next week, so on Monday morning when everyone else would get their pieces of paper with dots and notes on it, I would at least be on my way to having memorized it.

GC: Wow. That’s amazing. David Bowie said once that you learned to play impossible parts from his records because no one told you that you weren’t supposed to be able to recreate them. For example, as the first musician ever to reproduce the sound of backwards guitar in a live setting, how did you discover that?

AB: Well I always had a penchant for sound. I have such a knack for it. I can analyze a sound somehow; I don’t know how I was able to do that, even when I was a kid. As soon as I heard the first backwards guitar—which was on a Beatles record, George Harrison put a backwards guitar on a song called “I’m Only Sleeping”—it just floored me. I said:“I’ve got to be able to do that; I need to know how you do that.” I started studying, what is it? What is a backwards note? Turns out there are scientific reasons why it happens—you know, envelope decay, release, sustain, all those kinds of things—so I just kept trying to do it with my volume knob and my little finger. Over time I could get something kind of reasonably like it, but not really cuz you need that sort of…there’s a sound that accompanies it, kind of a “whooshing” sound. Eventually though, the companies of the world that make guitar devices caught up with me (laughs). They made a little box—a company called Roland—and they didn’t even advertise it but there was one setting in it that actually would give you about a second’s worth of “backwards.” Whatever you played into it, it would turn it around backwards in one second increments, and that’s why, you’re right, I think I was the first person to be able to do that live, with that device. Nowadays, I can do that on a much bigger scale because with all the digital stuff that’s available now, I have a system in my guitar rig where I just touch a pedal and it turns everything backwards for as long as I play. And that’s a technique unto itself. Back to the David Bowie story though, I will tell you cuz it’s kinda funny: when I went to play with David my first time in the studio making a record was with David Bowie and Brian Eno in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and I walked in one day and they were laughing. I said, “What’s funny guys?” and they said, “You’re so stupid that you don’t know that you can’t play the parts that Robert Fripp played on the records.” Because what they had done with Robert Fripp’s parts was they had taken three or four performances of each song and edited them together in a way that they thought made it impossible to actually play. But you see when I joined David’s band and we started learning all the material to play, no one told me that (laughs). So I figured out how to play the supposedly impossible parts.

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GC: I remember years later when he came out with the Sound And Vision record, a compilation of his legacy so far, around the same time you had put out Mr. Music Head, and I saw him on MTV saying Adrian Belew is the first guitar player I’ve had who’s smart enough to time a giant world tour in my band with promoting his own new release.

AB: (Laughs) Well, I would have to say that I wasn’t that smart. It was happenstance. I happened to be working on a new record called Young Lions when David tapped me on the shoulder and said I want you to do this world tour and be my music director. Of course, I could not turn that down but at the same time I had a commitment to Atlantic Records to do what I could do for my solo record. So David was very generous. He actually came and did a couple things on the record with me. One of them was a song that he co-wrote with me, another was a song of his called Pretty Pink Rose, which eventually turned into a video of me and David. So David couldn’t have been nicer about it. But it wasn’t a plan (laughs).

GC: Do you still get to spend hours with new effects making notes in a little book on parameter combinations you like?

AB: Yes I do (laughs). One thing that has always inspired me is the technology itself, because as I said, sound is what really inspires me—it’s one of my passions. So the idea is to try and make new sounds, try to find a way to increase my vocabulary as a guitarist, and do things no one else has done. So the best way to do that is to try as many new techniques and as many new devices as you have time for. I get a lot of new things from manufacturers and they want me to try this or that out and if I delve into it long enough I can probably get it to do something it’s not even meant to do. And those are the moments I live for because, once I find something like that, it inevitably will turn into a new piece of music or part of a song. It’s very important to me to keep up with the technology and there’s so much of it now that it would actually be impossible to keep up with all of it. You just dive into the pool at different times and try to figure out what are the coolest new things with the most possibilities.

GC: Later I’m looking forward to asking you about FLUX because I have a feeling it’s going to explode peoples’ minds open with possibility.

AB: It is everything I can do, FLUX is, I’ll just say that at this point the boundaries around FLUX and the whole concept is that it’s everything and anything, from a door shutting and you like the sound of that to a piece of music or a song you’ve written or whatever. The only real rule in it is that it’s fast-paced—everything keeps interrupting itself. Rarely do you hear an entire song—you hear pieces of the song—and every now and then you hear the entire song. So the one rule it has is that things can’t be very long, which means other pieces of music and things I do, they won’t fit into FLUX. They’ll still have their own place on a CD. FLUX is a different thing from that.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden - Opening act
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden – Opening act

GC: When I was trying to get my mind around the concept, I recalled being a young musician in the 1970s, sitting around with friends and listening to certain albums again and again; with FLUX I envision players or music fans listening and it will be a new experience every time they revisit it.

AB: That’s the idea—exactly the idea. The way I plan to do it, it’s going to be an app—I had to wait for technology to catch up to the idea of how to make music that is never the same twice. It’ll be a free app, you download it, you can listen to FLUX for free at first, and then decide “I like this, I’d like to buy it”—just like buying a record—and then the music will come to you in half an hour increments. You press a button and each half an hour will be different. In fact, statistically there will be no way that anyone could have received the same one unless they’re sitting there with you. So each time you listen to FLUX it’ll be your own private experience, in sharing with other people, or just by yourself, and no one else will ever hear it exactly that way. It’s made up of lots and lots of little pieces of things, they’re randomized constantly, you’ve got hundreds of things, there’s no way that they’re going to line up to be exactly the same.

GC: I’m picturing millions of film students sending you licensing requests to use their personal FLUX experiences as the soundtrack to make rapidly changing short films with.

AB: Well I hope so; that’s something I’d really love to be involved in. I’m a big film fan, especially of animation. I’ve visited Pixar—they’re nice guys, they like me (laughs)—and that’s something that will blow your mind when you go and see how it’s really done. I think film, cinema in general, is what music was to the ‘60s. That’s what film is now; it involves all the different things you can do, from drama and comedy and action and music and computer-generated images—it’s all there. It kinda combines all the art forms and it’s a natural place for me to want to go at some point.  Right now I can’t go there because I’m still in that place in my life where I want to go out and play music live and that take a lot of time and effort to do that.

GC: For any of the readers of this magazine that haven’t had the pleasure of seeing you in a live setting, we’re very thankful that you still do want to go play live.

AB: Oh I love it. I love my audience. They’re a great audience. I feel very fortunate, to be honest with you, because I know that what I do has never been mass-oriented. It’s not how I think and it’s not what I want my music to represent. So to have a good career and still not appeal to the masses is rare. That’s happened for me and I’m very happy about it. I try to give back as much as I can.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: Your power trio brought to the public eye the immense talents of the very young Julie and Eric Slick. Why did you choose them and what did they bring to your album, the concert stage and the resulting DVD?

AB: In the first place, there came a time about ten years ago that I started to work a lot with looping, and I always wanted to have a trio because a trio gives you the most amount of freedom, while at the same time, places the most amount of responsibility on each player. You’re the only guitar player so you have to make a lot of things happen. The problem always was in trios that when a guitar player would take off on a solo for example, the bottom would drop out. All of a sudden there was no rhythm playing going on there. Once I discovered looping, I started writing music with that in mind. I realized that I could actually have a trio where I looped myself and play along with what I’d looped and in that sense it could sound more like a quartet than a trio. That, and having written enough material at one point, gave me the idea that I wanted to have a power trio. A power trio to me is a band that plays kind of aggressively but also it’s a band in which each member plays a lot. It’s a term that comes from the ‘60s with bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. And our fans named it that, by the way. I didn’t have a name for it. So I was looking around for the right people to make this trio with and I went to the School Of Rock in Philadelphia to do a seminar with their current students.

While I was there, Paul Green, the founder of the school, said “I have to bring in these two young kids, they’re phenomenal, they’re sister and brother, they’ve already graduated from the school, they’re my best students ever, can I just bring them in to play with you?” So they came in and we played a Frank Zappa song together, and from that moment on I thought this is the band that I should have.

The problem was of course that they were 19 and 20 years old and everyone wondered: how is that going to work? Is that going to be okay to have two young kids in your band? Won’t it make you look old? And I said it’ll either make me look old or it will renew me. And that is exactly what happened as we started playing together. I felt like a kid again, really; it reminded me of being in my first teen band because it was no longer about trying to make it big or trying to make a lot of money, it was simply about the joy of playing together. And it probably wouldn’t have mattered if no one had showed up at our gigs, we were so happy playing together.  So then I decided I want to write a record for this band but I’m not ready to write songs for it; what I want is to write a difficult piece of music and try it out with Eric and Julie. I started with one piece and ended up with five, which, when put together equaled one forty three minute piece of music which was called e. You had five sections—a, b, c, d and e—I tried to make it difficult; I tried to make it interesting and aggressive; I tried to feed into the piece itself all the components that I wanted the power trio to exercise in our live performances. They just interpreted it perfectly for me. Some of the time I showed them exactly what I wanted and some of the time they’re playing something they made up for their own part. But the end result is amazing, cuz for a three piece band to sound that way, I was very pleased with it. And then of course I don’t know how many people know this but a year later I was asked to do it in an orchestral fashion with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam, and that’s also an amazing version of e. It’s very different because all the parts I had in my mind that couldn’t be played by the power trio were now being played by trombones and violins and cellos and so forth.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: I’ve got to pick that version up. One of the things I marveled at about the power trio, both on the studio album and the great concert DVD, is you talk about those power trios of the ‘60s; I remember how it always seemed that their songs were verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and everyone was waiting for the moment where they could take off and strut their stuff, whereas in e, the composition itself contained the wallop and the power.

AB: It starts right from the get go—that’s the idea. It hits you right in the face and never lets up.

GC: It’s a great record for me to drive with if I’m not awake (it really wakes me up).

AB: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess it’s a record you really can’t ignore. And a lot of it was just the power and the energy that came from, the piece itself is well-written if I do say so myself, but also it’s the power and everything that came from those particular people, working together at that moment in time. That was just a fabulous moment, where all of a sudden you had these two kids who literally before my eyes were every day getting better and better.

GC: Now that you’ve told me that e has other parts that were played by the orchestra I’m going to pick that up right away. Is that available just on CD or is there also a DVD?

AB: It’s available as both; the CD is a studio recording, it sounds great, you can hear every little part; the DVD is the actual live performance, the one and only time that piece of music was ever performed orchestrally.  I would say if you can only have one, get the DVD because you get to see this orchestra and me try to handle this piece of music and it’s scary, it’s actually very good. Everyone there just went crazy, including me, cuz I always had this dream of being able to do something as part of an orchestra, and being a self-taught musician I never really thought that could happen for me. For me to be up there and being conducted in front of a 60 piece orchestra is really exciting.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden - Opening act
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden – Opening act

GC: It’s like being at the A Day in the Life sessions, right?

AB: (Laughs) Exactly. I’ve always loved orchestral music and ever since I wrote e for the trio I had in mind, wow this would make such a great symphonic piece. You can only do so much with me looping on guitar and three musicians. I love that version, the trio version, and I love the orchestral version equally.

GC: Frank Zappa, David Bowie, King Crimson, Nine Inch Nails—every musician I know would have killed to work with any one of them.

AB: Talking Heads, don’t forget them; and Paul Simon.

GC: Can you tell us just a bit about the different challenges in each of those settings?

AB: First of all, I never planned on any of those things happening; I planned on going the normal path, you know, write songs, put out your own record, be in a band or whatever. I went in the back door by being in Frank Zappa’s band, then a sideman to David Bowie, then a sideman to Talking Heads, then finally getting my own record deal to do my own work and also at the same time joining a band called King Crimson, which would allow me to do everything I wanted: to be the front man, the singer, the lyricist, a songwriter, etc.  So I wasn’t aiming for that target but it sure was super fortunate for me. I was playing in a band in Nashville at a little club. Frank Zappa had played a concert that night and was looking for somewhere to hang out afterwards, came into my club, heard me play for forty minutes, came up and shook my hand, said, “I’m going to get your name and number, I want to audition you” and that changed my whole life. That started me down the path; my one year with Frank Zappa, which was for me like a crash course in everything you could possibly want to know about the music business and making a film, mastering records and how to run your own business, everything was kind of thrown at me in that one year by Frank Zappa. So I could never say enough about that and how important that was for everything I’ve done since. Frank was a genius and he was very generous to me, and I was like a little puppy dog following him around, trying to soak up every little thing I could. From there, I joined David Bowie’s band, and that was also a surprise. I was onstage with Frank, playing a concert in Berlin and there was a part of the show where Frank took an extended guitar solo and some of the members of the band including myself could leave the stage for about ten minutes. As I was leaving the stage I looked over at the monitor mixer and saw David Bowie and Iggy Pop standing there. So naturally I went over and shook David’s hand and said thank you for all the music you’ve done, I love what you’ve done, and he said, “Well great, how’d you like to be in my band?” That’s how that transition came about, just one dot connecting right to the next. Suddenly I found myself in that rarified air of superstardom, being around that–private planes, movie stars, and all the things that come with that were all of a sudden part of my daily life as I toured around the world with David. He gave me a platform to grow and really stretch out as a guitarist. That’s what he needed from me. Frank needed me more as a guitarist and a singer. But David needed me as somebody to just go wild on guitar. His music allows that;there are a lot of songs he has where the guitar player’s supposed to go crazy in. That was the role I was handed and it was fortunate because it was just the perfect timing for me; I was starting to find my own way, my own sound, dealing with new technologies that had just come out, and I loved working with David. Of course I worked with him again in 1990, as we mentioned earlier, that was yet another world tour that went to twenty-seven countries. He’s, as you can only imagine, a very smart, interesting person who has a lot of knowledge about a lot of different things.From there I went into Talking Heads, who were at the apex of crossing into being famous. Everywhere you went in New York City or in Tokyo…you’d go in a bookstore or restaurant, they’d be playing Talking Heads music. I was in that period of their transition where we did a world tour, I did I think five different records with the separate members and two Talking Heads records, did this thing called The Tom Tom Club, which became a huge hit for the drummer and bass player of Talking Heads, all of that happened in one quick year. So the dots once again connected and all of a sudden I was watching what it’s like for people to gain stardom, just having walked away from watching a guy who already was there. The next thing that happened was a call from Robert Fripp asking me would I like to form a band with him and Bill Bruford—both of those players being people that I greatly respected (Bill Bruford being in fact my favorite drummer of all time)—so naturally I wanted to be in that band. We formed a new band. At first it wasn’t called King Crimson but after a few weeks’ rehearsal and writing together, Robert decided we could call it King Crimson. And the rest, for me, is history. I was in that band now for thirty-two years, and just a ton of writing and things. My solo career happened at the same time, the very same year. I was at last offered a deal and made my first solo record called The Lone Rhino and those two things have kind of always lived side by side—my solo work and my work in some ensemble or another, either King Crimson or The Bears or whatever.

GC: I just have to say the effect on every musician of that first King Crimson album you did, Discipline, it’s everywhere to this day. I remember reading John McLaughlin gushing about it in Musician magazine to Robert Fripp in Paris; I remember hearing jazz guys, rock guys, punk and funk players just going crazy over that record; it was so revolutionary and it stands up to this day—it is as current and fresh and forward-looking today as it was then.

AB: Absolutely I think it still does stand up today and I think if somebody said what King Crimson record should I listen to that would be the one I would point at. We always joked that it was kind of our honeymoon record because everybody was so excited to play together and had so many ideas; at the same time all four of us had new technology. I was the first guy to have a guitar synthesizer because I was in Japan when it came out, and they gave it to me (laughs). Robert was the second guy. So we had guitar synthesizers no one else in the world had. Tony Levin the bass player actually was playing an instrument called the Chapman Stick—twelve strings on it that you tap with your fingers—and Bill Bruford was playing electronic drums, something that, to that point, no one had done. So you had these four monkeys (laughs) all playing with new toys and I don’t think we even realized what was happening because we were heads down in the work itself. We wanted so badly to do some great music and we had so many thoughts on it. Then the whole procedure was done with and after that, about a year or so later, I began to realize, “Wow, we did something that doesn’t sound like anybody else.” I’m really proud of that; that’s hard to do.

GC: Your working with Paul Simon, I’m completely ignorant of that, so could you talk about that for a minute?

AB: Through my friend Laurie Anderson, who I made three records with and one movie, she told Paul Simon that he should have me play on something with him, because she said, “He doesn’t play guitar, he makes sounds, and you mightreally like what he does.” So unbeknownst to me, Paul was making something called Graceland, which, once again is a seminal record, so he asked me to come into the studio in New York. I flew there and had four days there, and the first morning I arrived the engineer-producer Roy Halee put up some of the tracks and said, “Here, I’ll let you listen to this.” It was all African musicians playing, there was no…it sounded like the wrong tape, and I thought he’d made a mistake, I thought,“Well this doesn’t sound at all like Paul Simon; what is this?” And he said, “Yeah, Paul’s been doing some stuff with African musicians and you’re the first non-African to play on this.” There were no words; there was no Paul Simon on the record yet. If you can imagine what Graceland sounds like without his voice…

GC: That’s mind-boggling.

AB: It was very confusing at first. Then Paul arrived in the studio and I explained to him my concern and he was like, “Oh, of course, here let me put up this track and I don’t have all of the words but I’ll sing what I have.” So he would put up a track like You Can Call Me Al or Boy in the Bubble and he would stand right next to me, kind of quietly whisper-singing these songs to me, and it was giving me chills, of course. At the same time I instantly understood:“Oh my gosh, Paul Simon has reinvented himself and this is what it’s going to sound like;” it still gives me chills to think about it. So, we jumped in and there you go; it turned out to be a massive record, re-kickstarted his career, and once again sounded like nothing else anyone had ever done. Not many people know this but I have to tell people this: there’s a video with Chevy Chase and Paul Simon doing You Can Call Me Al and because Chevy Chase is pretending to play a saxophone, I think it misled everyone. The song, it has that part that goes, “Dah duh duhdut, dah, duh duhdut” and everybody thinks that’s a saxophone section; actually that’s my guitar synthesizer.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: Oh my God…

AB: (laughs) I have to say that now, I’m kinda proud of that, I was in Amsterdam not too long ago, sitting having a beer, when all of a sudden that song came on and I said to the bartender That’s me! And I never do that, but I just had to.

GC: That’s amazing.

AB: Really I’m proud of that moment, everybody knows that line, and Paul wrote the line, of course; I just played it.

GC: And Nine Inch Nails?

AB: It’s not much longer after that that I played with Trent Reznor; I remember thinking how odd it is to go from playing with Paul Simon to playing with Trent Reznor. I didn’t know Nine Inch Nails records at all. They called and asked me to come by, I was in L.A., and they had rented the Sharon Tate mansion and had boarded it up so it was entirely dark inside and you couldn’t tell what time of day it was. They put a studio in there. The record eventually was Downward Spiral, which once again was a huge record for Nine Inch Nails. I went in and played for two days and just literally never left the place. They kept asking me: “Play something else. Try this, try that.” I’ve done four or five now with Trent, they’ve all been that way. He puts up a track and says: “What would you like to do? Is there anything you can think of to play on this?” Usually I have four or five ideas and I say, “Yeah, I can do this or this or this,” he says, “Well go and do it.” Then after I’m gone, he’ll rummage through all the information I’ve left them with—and that must take a lot of hours, by the way—and they decide what’s useful to the record and put it in. So, even when I get a new Nine Inch Nails record that I’ve played on, I’m not actually sure what I played (laughs). They run it through so many processors it’s like taking what I played and putting it through a meat grinder. Every now and then I can say, “That’s me right there,” but most of the time it’s all one big thing and it’s…I love the way he produces records; there’s an amazing sound there that I like.

GC: From Paul Simon to Nine Inch Nails, from King Crimson to The Bears, from Zappa to Bowie, I think it’s great that you get to be you in all this extremely disparate music.

AB: Somehow my sound, my style, and my sensibilities seem to work in a lot of musical settings. It was not something I planned but you could probably put me in any kind of music and I could find some way to fit into it. Hopefully add something to it. I prefer that as my “diet”—Idon’t like to be just one thing; I like to have different challenges; it keeps me fresh; it keeps me growing. The thing underneath it all is it gives me the confidence and ability to make my own records the way I want to. Over time, I feel that all these experiences have resulted in me being able to make the best music I could possibly make; if I had stayed in one thing only that might not be true.

GC: King Crimson, during your involvement, was really THREE bands: the Discipline/Beat / Three of a Perfect Pair lineup; the volcanic Double Trio; and the ConstruKctionof Light/Power to Believe band. Was one of these more satisfying than another and, if so, why?

AB: You know they are separate entities, separated, if by nothing else, than by the years in between, because Robert seems to have a penchant for working together with King Crimson for three or four years and then stopping for seven (laughs), and then starting again for three or four years and stopping for seven. They are all King Crimson in their spirit and in their musical nature but you’re right, they are separate entities. There’s nothing quite like the Double Trio. I now have a band called The Crimson Projekct, which includes some of the members from that Double Trio—Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, as well as my trio. So their trio (Stickmen) and my trio come together and do an hour and a half of that particular music, and I will tell you: it’s thunderous; there’s just nothing like it when you have two drummers and two bass players—it gets massive, and there I am in the middle, trying to direct the maelstrom. But it’s a lot of fun and that material was specifically written for that lineup. That makes the Double Trio type of music very different—it’s a different brand of music, but it’s still King Crimson. You have bigger pieces of music like Thrak and Dinosaur—more epic kind of sound, that was what we were going for throughout that time and that band. When you go to the last band, which is Pat, Trey, Robert and I, it’s more scaled back, but to me it’s more edgy—in a sense, even more modern again. To me, The Power to Believe and The ConstruKction of Light, those two records are very modern-sounding. There’s, once again, nothing that sounds like them, and ConstruKction of Light in particular I always liked because I think it was most underrated, it was a departure for us. Always in making King Crimson records—in the thirty-two years I’ve been doing it—it takes about two to three years to make a record. That’s because we do it in spurts. Robert and I then refine it, and we refine it some more, then we bring the band in, they add their part, and we refine it some more, and we go out and play all that music live, and then finally, after two years or so, you might actually get to record it. In the case of ConstruKction of Light we did something entirely different: Robert came here to my home—I have a full studio in the bottom of my home, which has a guest quarters, and Robert loves it here. He came and stayed 109 days, during which we wrote and recorded that record from top to bottom without ever playing it live or trying to refine it or anything else. We just worked on it every day, said, “That’s that song, let’s move onto the next one” and there’s something about it; to me, it has kind of an immediacy that other Crimson records didn’t have the chance to have. I’m proud of all of the records, by the way; I think all of them are great. You mentioned in your questions the song Into the Frying Pan, and so I went back and listened to that yesterday and that’s why I’m now so hot on The ConstruKction of Light—it’s the first time I’ve heard that record in years and I realized how very, very good it turned out.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: It’s incredible. The title track is, again, a piece of music no one’s ever heard anything like before and probably ever will again.

AB: I would agree with that. When we started on The ConstrKcktion of Light, the track itself, it was a musical piece, a lot of the Robert and Adrian guitar interplay and Trey being involved in it too. We were doing things like playing off of each other—one guy would play one note, the next guy would play the next note in a sequence of notes, doing a lot of interesting kind of techniques that were kind of fresh at that time, and it was a piece of music about five minutes long—and it struck me at some point, well, wait a minute, this double guitar interplay stuff sounds a lot like Frame By Frame and the songs that were so typical of the early ‘80s band that we had—maybe I should try to turn this into a song. I quite like that idea that it’s a piece of music for five minutes then all of a sudden it turns into a song (laughs). You don’t expect there’s going to be any vocal, then all of a sudden the vocalist shows up and sings you a song.

GC: It’s the same effect at the end of the album where you have that super-intense, tight rhythm section that Robert is soloing over and then you shift right into the I Have a Dream coda—it’s just such an amazing effect for the listener.

AB: That coda was written while I was in the bedroom above the studio. Pat, Trey, and Robert were playing something downstairs that filtered through the floorboards and carpeting of my house. I could hear some of what they were playing and I sat with an acoustic guitar and said, “Wow, I could play this to what they’re playing.” Then I went down and showed them and it was a whole new section for that piece. What started as I think another Lark’s Tongue ended up having the coda as you say.

GC: I think that, years from now people who maybe haven’t appreciated that record will wake up ten years from now and say, “Oh my God, how did this get by us?”

AB: I like it a lot too, I really do; that was a good band and I’m proud of everything we’ve been able to achieve in King Crimson. I guess, probably you know, that there is going to be a new King Crimson, which I’m not a part of. I just want to make it clear to everyone I’m fine with that; I’m happy about it; from the explanation I’ve received from Robert of what his idea is for this next band it really doesn’t have a place for me. It’s three drummers in the front, everyone else behind that; it’s more re-doing of old Crimson material, there’s nothing new, there’s not going to be a new record; they’re going to tour for four weeks and that’s it so far. So people are making something out of it, but really it’s just a small chapter. I can’t really imagine the racket the drummers are going to make (laughs); hopefully it will be a beautiful racket. I’m happy about it and I totally support it. Robert and I remain very good friends—lifelong—so there’s no problem with it at all. To be quite honest, at this junction for me, I would have a hard time taking on doing King Crimson because still, as I said, I’ve got the power trio doing tours, I’ve got the Crimson ProjeKct doing tours, and more than anything, I’ve got to complete and launch this big thing called FLUX which I’m very excited about.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden - Opening act
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden – Opening act

GC: You actually produced two songs for the band Jars of Clay, one of which was their hit single,Flood; and I heard the guitar-heavy version of that song that you played on—and loved it! Have you done a lot of producing over the years besides your own albums? Would you like to do more?

AB: Every now and then I’ll find a production that appeals to me on a musical level and the timing will be right. The money will be there to fund it properly and I’ll say, “Yes.” Those are my priorities, the first being that there’s something musically there that I feel I can enhance and add to. What the problem usually is, is the timing. To produce someone’s record, I feel I have to really live and breathe their music during that period of time. If it’s a month of producing someone’s record, maybe here in my studio, I have to turn everything else off in my life and really live their record, their music. So yes, I have done that a few times and I enjoy that process. I feel I’m very good at it, actually, naturally a good producer for certain kinds of things. It’s becoming more and more rare that I can afford the time to do that. In the case of Jars Of Clay, it’s an interesting little story: We moved here to Mount Juliet, Tennessee—which is on the northeast side of Nashville—and for two months we built the studio in the bottom half of my house—which has been there now for nineteen years. My wife’s cousin lived in town—a young girl named Sherry; she knew three young guys in a band who had just gotten a record deal. They were pizza delivery boys (laughs) and they had a band called, The Jars of Clay. They said we have just a few thousand dollars in our budget, we’d love to have Adrian produce just two songs—the two that we think are singles. It coincided with the finishing of my studio, so I thought, “Well this is great, I’ll get to have a whole band in here and just kind of test run the studio, see how everything’s working,” and for four days I produced those two songs. I played pretty much everything on the songs along with the engineer: I played cello, he played violin, and so on. That was done and I thought, “There you go, what will ever come of that?” I feel kind of sorry for these young guys, no chance that anything will ever happen—they’ll just sell these records to their friends and relatives. Next call I got they were at half a million sales. It clocked over and became a huge hit record, two million sales.

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GC:  I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it for a little while; it was really a big record.

AB: It totally paid for my studio (laughs)—those four days. Isn’t that curious, that’s how things are in the music business; things drop in your lap or they don’t. In my career I’ve noticed the dots just connect sometimes and there you are. Due to my wife’s cousin, I ended up producing a hit record.

GC: For a local bunch of pizza guys.

AB: That’s the music business(laughs).

GC: Both live and on record, whenever I hear you play it sounds like you’re having a lot of fun. The guitar solo at the end of Into the Frying Pan by King Crimson is one of my absolute favorites by anyone. It sounds like you create a single note, hold it in your hand like a lump of coal, roll it around to see it from all possible angles, then squeeze it like silly putty until it’s a diamond, or something that actually comes to life and is trying to get away—like a puppy or a kitten. How do you achieve so much variation with what is essentially one note? Can you recall the inspiration for that solo and was it as much fun as it sounds like you’re having?

AB: People often mention when they see me live I seem to be having such a great time and it’s true; I really, really enjoy it; I lose myself in it; Time goes by in a flash, especially when there’s a great audience and the band is really hot; It just goes by way too quickly and I’m having a great time. You might have been on the road twelve hours that day through all kinds of terrible things—waiting at airports or whatever—but when you hit that night, those two hours on stage, everything kinda just melts away and there you are—that’s why you’re doing it in the first place. As for putting things on record, it’s the same for me, I just have such a joy playing guitar; it’s almost just an extension of me; I don’t even think about it and little things happen; I can’t even really explain. Like, you ask about that first note that sort of evolves: it’s just a little bit of movement with my tremolo arm that I naturally do, that creates the vowel sound of that note, that causes it to just slightly change a little bit; it evolves, instead of staying exactly the same, and then all of a sudden I know, “Okay, now it’s time to launch off this rocket ship and get playing some other notes and stuff.” Soloing is just an absolute joy for me cuz it really is just instinctive; I just go for it every time and I really love doing that. The thing I found out is, usually from me, my first attempt at recording a solo IS the keeper (laughs). If I don’t get it the first time then I’m doomed to try and make it better for another twenty times before I’ll finally go back to the first time (laughs). So I’ve learned over the years: do it the way you want from the beginning, kind of have an idea of where you want it to go, have a sound in mind that excites you, and just jump in—it’s not failed me very often. I think of something like The Great Curve on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, that’s one of those moments where I just…I knew what I wantedto do and I just jumped in and did it. I guess if you have enough experience with an instrument, you basically live with it, sleep with it, eat with it, drink with it, eventually it becomes such a part of you that you don’t have to think about much, it just happens—your fingers and your mind are so in sync with what the guitar can do. I happen to have a very good guitar now; the Adrian Belew model Parker Fly is, in my estimation, just a perfect guitar—not because it has my name on it but because the creator of it, who took twenty years to create it, and tried to solve all the inherent problems electric guitars have. Ken Parker, he did exactly that—he revolutionized the electric guitar, and I have one and it feels like an extension of my arm.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden - Opening act
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 052908. Elliot Holden – Opening act

GC:  That’s fantastic.

AB: As for that solo and that note: I get that, I see what you’re saying; there’s a wildness in some of the soloing I’ve been able to do, like that note is waiting to escape and go somewhere.

GC: As though you birthed it, that note, only now it’s awake, has become self-aware, and wants to run amok. I hope you don’t mind my describing it in visual terms.

AB: It’s funny, I think in visual terms a lot with music. When I’m writing or creating, especially in the studio, when I’m producing my music, I’m always trying to paint a picture. It’s not necessarily specific—it’s something that other people could think of their own way and use their own imagination—but I think for me music is a visual thing, it really is. I get that same sensation that you’re talking about: a physicality; that note really is something going through the air, and I can see it, and all of a sudden it’s jumping all over (laughs).

GC: It actually reminded me of the first time I heard the solo in Three of a Perfect Pair. I said well someone just completely threw the rule book away as to what constitutes a guitar solo, and it was breathtaking.

AB: Well, thank you. I remember that one too, that one in particular was a new device that we had in the studio, not even a guitar device, and you could trap the sound as you played it back, little pieces of it, and change the bandwidth of it so…it’s hard to explain…the note could be two octaves higher than what you actually played, then it could swoop all the way down to be an octave lower than what you played—it was real fun to do and just another one of those things where you did it once and said, “That’s perfect, let’s just leave it.”

GC: I just want to say, as someone who grew up listening to The Beatles, and feeling that their constant evolving and speeding into every direction, while simultaneously writing songs that would marry themselves to the souls of an entire generation, I feel like you’re the closest thing we have to somebody continuing in that tradition. I’m not deliberately trying to set up the FLUX question here, but when I hear your music—it’s not that it reminds me of The Beatles, although there certainly are some qualities that are reminiscent of them in some of it—but it’s that constant reaching and at the same time bringing the listener with you into all these different areas, it’s just something that I wish every artist was doing.

AB: Well I really like change. I like moving forward. I think it does have a lot to do with my background. The Beatles were the people I listened to and learned from, in so many fashions. I would learn all the different parts on their records—the drums, the bass, the piano, whatever—and knew what the production was doing and why they used this harmony and all those things. They were my teachers really. They wrote the book on rock music in my humble opinion, and the one thing they did that excited me so much was every new record was different. When they went from Rubber Soul, which was very much a song-oriented, four piece band record, to the next record, which was Revolver—my favorite record, by the way—it was like…I don’t know how to explain it…the first time I heard Revolver I thought, “Now these guys have opened up every different possibility.” There were orchestras, backwards guitar, sound effects, there was everything all of a sudden in that record, you know? They had gone in every direction like you said. It sort of taught me: that’s what artists are supposed to do, keep evolving, and keep changing, and because The Beatles did that I guess that’s why I try to do that too.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: I think you have a very long catalog that spans so much and that you can really be proud of.

AB: Well thank you very much. I couldn’t have asked for more or a better platform to live my life on. I’ve had so many great situations and have worked with people I could only have dreamed of. The funny thing is I feel like I’m just getting started still (laughs). I could just do this forever. The main problem I have if any is just having the time to do all the things I want to and to stretch myself as much as I can, which brings us again to FLUX.

GC: Yes, please bring us up to date on your most forward-looking project, to date:  FLUX.

AB: FLUX plays right into that theory where I’m trying to put everything I can into one thing, and I wanted it to be everything and anything that I find interesting—so if I hear a sound that I like, it could be in FLUX for three seconds, in between one musical piece and some other song or something; they connect that way. I call them snippets. We’ve got way over a hundred different snippet things. Some of them are common ordinary sounds like someone knocking on a door and opening it; others are guitar moments where I was in the studio and suddenly I blast away some sound that’s amazing and there it is for ten seconds. That’s all mixed together with the songs themselves. There are forty new songs so far and the different pieces of music.

GC: Wow.

AB: And the beauty of it for me personally is it gives me complete artistic freedom. The fact that most everything is short…let me explain that a little bit: In my mind, the idea that you have a verse and a chorus, and then you’re supposed to write another verse and repeat the chorus, then have another verse and repeat the chorus, is really boring for me now.  I’ve always felt that once I’ve sang a verse and the chorus, I’ve probably told you everything I need to in that song and I’m done. So why do I have to keep repeating it from that point on—just because that’s the format that everyone uses? Well I’ve done away with that, and what I’ve done is written songs that are: sometimes a minute, or a minute and twenty seconds long; some of them are three or four minutes long as per normal, but you don’t hear them that way—every now and then you hear them that way, most of the time you hear bits and pieces of them; you might hear the chorus and a verse; two days later you might hear a verse and the guitar solo, or something. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle and it really allows me to be so much more creative and quick with what I do. I’ve got well over two hundred things now in FLUX and I don’t plan to stop. When FLUX is launched, it’s going to be, for me, a living, continuing thing.I will keep updating it and putting more new things in there that will also ensure that it will always be fresh. The idea behind it is it’s never the same twice.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: I remember when I bought Desire Caught by the Tail; I listened and thought that you had all these great sounds and yes they got grounded to songs and often short ones then too but that the sounds were so strong they could probably stand on their own. Now with FLUX it’s almost like you’re letting the listener peek into your brain.

AB: Well I love the immediacy of it, it’s been so important to me that I have a studio here, and an engineer, and I can just go for it any time I want; Because there’s no particular format I’m looking at—it can be everything. There’s a little funny song about being a cowboy, for example, not a song you would normally hear from me, not a song I would probably ever put on a record because it’s only thirty seconds long (laughs). That’s just an example. There are tons and tons of different pieces of music: orchestral and otherwise; there are aggressive songs; there are pretty songs; there’s this, there’s that; and some of them are full length but most of the time the whole idea is to keep this fast-paced interruption thing going. So you’re listening to something when it gets interrupted by something, then that changes into something else. In a way it’s almost cartoon-like—not that it’s funny, but in the pace of it, like a Bugs Bunny cartoon but doing it with music, if that analogy makes any sense.

GC: Correct me if I’m wrong but you mentioned people never hearing it the same way twice, that there is a random individual experience quality to it, where I can picture people having FLUX parties the way they used to get together and listen to records.

AB: I had this idea since 1978. There’s a thing on my website—adrianbelew.net—which tells you the genesis of FLUX—where the idea came from. I specifically remember it as almost an epiphany and I’ve had to wait all these years cuz there was no way to actually do it. There was no way to make music that would never be the same twice—you can’t do that on a CD or as a download; you never have been able to do that until now. Finally, I realized that with app technology you could do this. FLUX is a free app; you download it free from iTunes; you get to listen to it for free, and then you get to decide do I want to purchase this just like you would a record of any sort. From that point on, it’s yours and you’ll have hundreds and hundreds of listens to it—and it will never be the same;it’s like getting a lot of records. The way I see doing that is it will be in half an hour segments. So when you say I’m going to play FLUX, it will play for half an hour at a time. In that half an hour, it will be scrambled and randomized to such a degree that you’ll never hear that half an hour again. You’ll hear some of the same components as time goes by, of course—the songs are kind of cut up into components so eventually you do hear everything—but over a long period of time. That’s the whole idea in a nutshell.

Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.
Adrian Belew, Julie and Eric Slick at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA. 082207. Saul Zonana opening act.

GC: I can’t think of another technological or musical concept that has me or people I’ve mentioned it to as excited.

AB: Well I hope it doesn’t let anybody down; it’s still just music. I am going to try to have some visuals, but I’m still trying to work that out. How do you visualize so many random different things? That’s one of the things that’s holding it back from being launched at this point; musically we’re pretty close to having everything we want in it to start from. As I said, we keep adding to it over the years. Eventually there will be hours and hours of these things, because they’re fun and they’re easier to do than, say, writing ConstrKcktion of Light (laughs). And I’ll still be able to do that—produce CDs whenever I have a piece of music that doesn’t work in the context of FLUX.  FLUX has to be fast-paced to work; it’s supposed to surprise you a lot. So there you go, that’s where we’re at with it. I hope it’s good. For me and Daniel—my engineer—we’ve gotten so used to it that I’m like, “Okay, onto the next thing.”

GC: It sounds like the type of thing that people just have to experience for themselves in order to understand.

AB: Yeah, I can’t really explain it. I’ve just tried again and it always falls a little short of what it really is. It’s just a listening experience that’s always different.  Hopefully there’ll be some interactivity in there so you can tailor it a little bit for yourself, choose things that you prefer over other things—it’s just a lot of music pouring out of me; all kinds. I think I’ve opened up a new valve. The other thing I have to say…here’s the way I view things now: In our society, our brains have now been taught a different way of taking in information. With Google and the Internet and all these things, we don’t take in information the way we used to. We now take it in little bitty quick bits and that’s very evident in everything from television to the Internet; it’s evident everywhere, but no one’s changed that in musical terms; we’re still making another CD with twelve songs that are five minutes each and thinking that works into that framework. It doesn’t, really. To utilize the Internet was one of my aims when I first started this three years ago.

GC: Almost like the way they use songs in the soundtrack of a movie; they give you just enough to affect you and move on. I’m a guy who still likes to put headphones on and listen to an entire album, staring at autumn leaves. But this, I imagine, will be like immersing myself in a swirling wind of a million leaves all around me.

AB: What you do get if you listen to FLUX in headphones is a flood of information. That’s why I think half an hour spurts are perfect. As a headphone experience, it’s kind of on the edge of your seat a lot. But still, it doesn’t negate seven minute songs being written by me. It doesn’t negate CDs or anything else. It’s just a new color in the crayon box. I know my fans will like it because one of the records people mention to me a lot is a solo record I did twelve or fifteen years ago called,Op Zop Too Wah. It has that essence about it, although at a much slower pace, where something gets interrupted and it comes back later; there’s a sound effect between the two songs, stuff like that. Knowing that a lot of my fans loved that record I’m pretty sure they’ll like FLUX. But I hope it has an effect even bigger than that, of course.  It doesn’t really matter to me, I’m not trying to be a star or anything, but I just think it’s a good idea. If everyone who might like it just had the opportunity to experience it, then I’d be happy. Even if all of them rejected it. (laughs) Cuz that’s what you’re doing as an artist, if you’ve got something you want to communicate, you’d like to communicate it to everybody, and the ones who like it, like it; the ones who don’t, ignore it. It’s hard to do that because there’s so much out there now. There’s such a flood of information out there. It’s fabulous, I love everything about how much you can do on the Internet; it’s amazing how much you can learn instantly; you can talk to your phone and she answers you back, but at the same time, you have, almost too many choices. I’m just hoping that people do at least give this a shot.

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GC: To any of our readers that have never bought an Adrian Belew album, would you make a recommendation?)

AB: If you’re talking King Crimson, I’d say Discipline would be a great place to start. As a co-writer of that record, it’s part of my legacy and part of my work. The Bears: I would go with our last record Eureka, which is available at my online store at adrianbelew.net. It really surmises what The Bears are all about: great songs played by four guys, kind of a mid-western pop band that’s in the vein of Beatles-esque type music. For my own solo work, I would choose Op Zop Too Wah. It’s a very underrated record—it was on a small label, not many people actually heard of it. I remember at the time it had only six reviews in total, but over the years it’s the one people have mentioned to me the most.

To learn more about Adrian Belew please visit: adrianbelew.net

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Steve Vai: From Zappa to Present

By Andrew Catania

One cannot simply characterize Steve Vai’s music.  Vai has such a virtuoso background that it’s hard to pinpoint or label his work.

Vai is a three time Grammy Award winning guitarist and songwriter best known for his soulful music that explores the depth of human emotions.  His deep love for music motivates him to create unique sounds that are not just technically faultless but also appealing to the human emotions. Steve has never tried to imitate anyone nor does he aim to be better than any other musician—he only aims to give his best to music and create music that provides him artistic and spiritual fulfillment.

Vai became interested in the guitar via such legendary artists as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper as a teenager and, upon starting high school, took lessons with an older player from the school, Joe Satriani. Playing in several local bands, Vai quickly picked up on the instrument, and by the age of 18 was attending the renowned Berklee School of Music in Boston. As a student there, Vai transcribed several of Frank Zappa’s most technically demanding compositions for guitar, and even sent a copy of one such transcription, “Black Page,” to Zappa himself. Zappa was so impressed with the young guitarist that upon meeting him, he invited Vai to join his band. And hired him to transcribe his guitar solos in 1979.

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Subsequently, Vai toured the world with Zappa (giving Vai the nicknames “Stunt Guitarist” and “Little Italian Virtuoso”) and played on such albums as 1981’s Tinsel Town Rebellion and You Are What You Is, 1982’s Ship Arriving Too Late, 1983’s Man from Utopia, plus 1984’s Them or Us and Thing-Fish, before leaving to set out on his own.

First off was a pair of self-financed, recorded, and released solo albums in 1984, Flex-Able and Flex-Able Leftovers, both of which showcased Vai’s guitar playing and songwriting talents, yet were still heavily influenced by Zappa.

With Van Halen all the rage by the mid-80’s due to their massive hard rock/pop crossover success, Vai replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in a similarly styled outfit called Alcatrazz (which featured Rainbow Vocalist Graham Bonnett), playing on their overlooked 1985 release, Disturbing the Peace.  The same year, Vai made a cameo appearance in the movie Crossroads (playing the Devil’s guitarist and shredding away in a guitar duel with Ralph Macchio) and got an invitation from his friend/bass master Billy Sheehan to try out for the guitar spot in singer David Lee Roth’s solo band (Roth had just split from Van Halen) and eventually landed the gig

The debut release from Roth and his stellar solo band, Eat ‘Em and Smile, arrived in 1986 and went on to become one of the year’s top hard rock releases. Both Vai and Sheehan were catapulted to superstardom due to their instrumental talents, as they took top honors in numerous guitar magazines for years afterward.

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But although the quartet showed great promise, Sheehan jumped ship just after their sophomore album, Skyscraper, was issued in 1988. Although the album was more pop-based than its predecessor, it became another sizable hit — with Vai earning a co-producing credit on the album along with Roth. The same year, Vai issued his own line of snazzy guitars, the Jem 777 series, via the Ibanez company. After the ensuing tour with Roth wrapped up in late 1988, it was Vai’s turn to jump ship. In addition to working on another solo album, he was invited to join up with chart-topping pop-metallists Whitesnake, an offer he accepted. His one and only album with Whitesnake, Slip of the Tongue, was issued in 1989, as was his third solo album overall, Passion and Warfare, a year later. The largely instrumental album was based on dreams that Vai experienced as a teenager, and it became a sizable hit, earning gold certification and solidifying Vai’s standing as one of the top guitarists of the day. It was also around this time that Vai created a seven-string guitar through Ibanez. Although the instrument didn’t catch on initially, it would by the mid- to late ’90s, when the guitarists in such metal acts as Korn and Limp Bizkit would utilize the instrument to achieve super-low tunings.

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After an extended hiatus, Vai formed his first conventional rock band (called…VAI) along with newcomer Devin Townsend on vocals, T.M. Stevens on bass, and Terry Bozzio on drums — offering their one and only album in 1993, Sex & Religion. When the album proved to be a disappointment both critically and commercially, Vai returned to all-instrumental work with the 1995 EP Alien Love Secrets. For the remainder of the decade, Vai continued to issue solo releases, including 1996’s Fire Garden, 1998’s Flex-Able Leftovers (a re-release of his long out of print second solo album, with added tracks), and 1999’s The Ultra Zone. It was also during the late ’90s that Vai and Satriani reunited for an annual co-headlining tour (with a different third artist added each year), called G3, unleashing a live album, G3: Live in Concert, in 1997.
The early 21st century saw a flurry of releases from Vai, including a compilation of instrumentals, The 7th Song: Enchanting Guitar Melodies Archive, in 2000, and his first full-length live release, Alive in an Ultra World, in 2001, as well as his mammoth career-encompassing ten-disc box set The Secret Jewel Box. In 2002 he collected several pieces that he had contributed to films through the years, including the guitar duel from Crossroads and the theme to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and put them together in a 40-track collection called The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1. A series of compilations came next, and after a five-year hiatus from the studio, Vai returned in 2005 with Real Illusions: Reflections. A tour with the Metropole Orchestra followed and he released an ambitious double live set documenting his performances, titled Sound Theories, Vols. 1-2, in 2007. In 2010, he performed with the North Netherlands Orchestra, debuting several new compositions that fused rock music with orchestral arrangements, dubbed the “Evo Era.” Vai also made several television appearances in 2010, performing on The Tonight Show and on American Idol with Mary J. Blige, Orianthi, Travis Barker, Ron Fair, and Randy Jackson. In 2012, eighth studio album The Story of Light arrived, continuing the new age themes first put forth on Real Illusions: Reflections, and including unexpected twists such as a rootsy blues cover backed by a full gospel choir as well as a duet with Aimee Mann. In 2015, Vai signed with Sony/Legacy; his first album for the label was Stillness in Motion: Vai Live in L.A., a recording of an October 2012 concert by the guitarist.

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Over the years, Vai has guested on countless albums by other artists, including Gregg Bissonette’s self-titled debut and Submarine, Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid, Randy Coven’s Funk Me Tender, Al di Meola’s Infinite Desire, Public Image Ltd.’s Album, Joe Jackson’s Symphony 1, and Billy Sheehan’s Compression, and also releases from Mike Stern, Ozzy, and Meat Loaf. He can also be found on such additional Zappa releases as Jazz from Hell, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Guitar, and on several volumes of the ongoing You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series and the live tribute disc Zappa’s Universe. As if his busy schedule weren’t full enough, Vai pursued a lifelong interest when he began harvesting honey among five bee colonies in the backyard of his home.

In 2016, Vai formed “Generation Axe, a night of Guitars” which featured world renowned guitarists Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi.  This group of guitar masters were on tour from April to May of 2016. I had the pleasure of meeting Steve on the Generation Axe Tour.  His playing is as inspiring as it was 30 years ago.  It was an unforgettable evening.

To this day, Steve Vai is well respected among his peers and fans, alike.

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