When royalty comes to call

March 14, 2003


One of the longest-running and most consistently inventive bands in rock history, progressive giants king crimson trace their history to 1967, with virtuoso guitarist robert fripp as the one constant. But with 22 years serving as fripp's partner (since 1981's classic "discipline"), guitarist-vocalist adrian belew is no novice, and he's a big part of the success of the band's fiery new album, "the power to believe."

I spoke to the Crimson frontman, busy solo artist and veteran of Talking Heads from his home in Nashville, Tenn. Belew was examining a new guitar as we talked ("It's laying here in front of me and I'm inspecting it, looking at it and marveling at it!"), gearing up for a tour that brings the group to the Park West tonight and Saturday night.

Q. There's nothing like buying new instrument to rekindle the 13-year-old boy in you, is there?

A. Oh, absolutely! I'm still a nut for this stuff, and I get a lot of instruments--manufacturers give me deals or send me things all the time. You'd think that it would lose its sparkle, but it hasn't. I remember so many times when I've gotten a different guitar and I just sit down and immediately I'll write something. Guitars have different characters, and it's almost like somebody left that song in the case.

This is a new Strat model made by the Fernandez Guitar Company that I designed. They're making three of them for me, and this is the prototype. It's bare wood right now, but it has all the doodads on it that I like: They have the guitar synthesizer built internally, and tremolo arms, locking tuning keys and vintage-style necks. They're really the Ferrari of guitars. When it's all finished, they're going to be painted a sort of chrome-silver and we're going to call them Silver Arrows. They may even put it forth as a line of guitars.

Q. Tell me about making "The Power to Believe." You recorded at home in Nashville, right?

A. It was a long process, the writing of it, because Robert and I started sitting down quietly in my studio downstairs 2-1/2 years ago. We started out by analyzing what the band had now. With [bassist] Trey Gunn and [drummer] Pat Mastelotto as our rhythm section, we felt like we really had turned ourselves into more of a heavy-rock band. We started by writing this material that was guitar riff-based material. Songs like "Facts of Life" and "Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With" were first on board, and that seemed to be the way the band should go. Then it was a long process of writing and refining and rearranging things.

We took that music out at various stages and played it live twice. One of the theories that we have in King Crimson is that the material takes on a new life once it's been played live, so we try to do that before we record. Then the recording aspect of it is rather quick, as might be expected with guys who've made a lot of records. Basically, everything is played live with very little in the way of overdubs or repairs or fixes. We can play the songs by that time and we give them two or three shots and we're done.

Q. Professor Fripp always has a theory for everything. Do you subscribe to his notion that an album represents the end of one phase of King Crimson, while the tour that follows is the beginning of wherever you're going next?

A. I think that's true for King Crimson. I don't know that it's true in everything that I do, my solo work or [my side project] the Bears. For King Crimson, it seems to be almost two different things, the record and then the version you play live. I think that's natural because live is a different experience: It's more visceral, more physical, louder, bigger, everyone's looking at you and you're sweating. It's a pretty amazing moment when you're in the middle of the music that we play and you're doing it and the concentration is so intense. You don't get that experience very often.

Q. The Crimson audience is so knowledgeable about the music. That's got to be rewarding.

A. I love that aspect of it--that you know that they are so aware and so intent on every little thing you do. For a band like ours, the complexity of which is staggering, it's nice to have that kind of audience. Obviously, we're not about fashion or video or good looks or things like that. We're about music, so the more people know about our music, the more interested they are in the music and the better it is for us.

Q. With bands like Tool at one end of the spectrum and Tortoise at the other, there seems to be a return to progressive-rock values in some corners of the rock world.

A. I believe there is a quiet revolution of people returning to virtuosity. They want to hear players who can really play their instruments, who can really write and really sing, and who can deliver that live. And I think that's what's going to separate the men from the boys here, because we really have had for more than a decade a lot of pretenders.

The music world goes in cycles, and I think it is turning to the point where people want to see and hear something more adventurous. I don't know how that affects anything, because I long ago gave up trying to follow any trends or care about it at all. I'm just happy that people are following us and listening to what we're doing. And moreover, I'm really happy that we're able to recreate ourselves in the way that we have. I think this record represents a brand new King Crimson doing the same thing that King Crimson does.

Q. Is there pressure when you're crafting new music to figure out where it fits--"How does this compare to 'Lark's Tongue in Aspic' or 'In the Court of the Crimson King' or 'Discipline'?"

A. I don't think that we compare it to the historic aspect of the band, but we are very aware of what it is that we want to try to create, and we throw a lot of stuff out. As you can tell from the process that I explained, we're very meticulous with the end result. King Crimson really makes a major record every three to five years, so it's got to be a statement of where you are.

Q. There's still a lot of debate among hardcore fans about the "double trio" version of Crimson on 1995's "Thrak." What did you take away from that experiment?

A. I think it helped Pat and Trey to fit into King Crimson and feel comfortable with, in a sense, their mentors, Tony [Levin] and Bill [Bruford]. So they had that period of time to get adjusted, and now they are the rhythm section. Now they're able to create their own version of that. I think it probably helped them more than anybody else.

There's something about some of the music that we're able to do that I think could only have been done by that kind of lineup, and I'm thinking of a song like "Thrak" or "Dinosaur." They're really big, epic pieces. But I have to admit, for me, I always have enjoyed the quartet as a format for King Crimson because I believe that we all put forth so much music that it's almost too much if you have more than four people.

Q. You've always been the punk-rocker in the band. I'll never forget watching you play "Elephant Talk" on that show "Fridays." It was so over the top that it was as punk as the Clash or the Sex Pistols in terms of intensity.

A. I think that's the beauty of it--the contrast. There's so much built-in contrast to what King Crimson does, and a lot of it begins with the relationship that Robert and I have now had for 22 years. We're the writers of the band primarily, and in a way everything flows from that. If you look at our relationship, you've really got two completely different kinds of people here who somehow have managed a true partnership, and it's wonderful. I think Robert is amazing, terrific, and I can't say enough about his playing and his concepts and the way he thinks, but it's utterly different than the way I think.

Q. You haven't done much in recent years of the sort of thing you did with Taking Heads, where you come in as a hired gun.

Do you still enjoy session work?

A. I really do, but it's always been a very small part of what I do if you look at it in terms of time spent doing it. To go and do "The Downward Spiral" with Trent Reznor [of Nine Inch Nails] was four days. To write the new King Crimson album was 2-1/2 years! But I really enjoy it, and if there's someone out there that has an interesting music that I respect, I can almost always imagine several different attitudes and avenues that I can travel down. I would probably do more of it, except that right now I'm pretty focused on re-establishing the Bears, and the solo career, and King Crimson, and it's a handful.

On the solo records, I feel like I can just explode and be as eclectic as I want to, maybe with mixed results, but they each have a different role in what I'm doing. With Crimson, I can best explain it this way: There have always been parameters to what we do and don't do. There are actually more things that we don't do than there are things that we will do. It's as though you have a box of 24 crayons and your pour six of them and say, "You can only use these." And the challenge in King Crimson is to take those six crayons and make new drawings every time. It's really challenging to do that, but we use similar techniques through all these records. We almost exclusively work in symmetrical and chromatic scales, polyrhythms where different people in the band are in different time signatures, and we have certain tempo and sound preferences. So when I walk away from that to the Bears or the solo albums, especially, I feel free to do all the other things.