In keeping with King Crimson’s multi-tentacled methods, Adrian Belew and friends are touring a show that will thrill fans of the band’s classic material. Interview by Michael Heatley
When King Crimson fans flocked to the Shepherds Bush Empire on the 12th of March this year, they were celebrating the history of a quintessentially English band. Or were they? First off, the talented triumvirate of Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto – half of a ‘double trio’ line-up, as made popular by Crimson between 1994-’97 – are American. Secondly, the band known as the Crimson ProjeKCt are now operating in parallel to a relaunched outfit headed by founder Robert Fripp. Oh, and did we mention that Levin and Mastelotto are in both bands?
It’s a situation that Belew, Crimson’s undisputed frontman from the early ’80s through to the mid-’90s, seems quite relaxed about. ‘No one seems to really know what that means yet,’ he drawls from his Tennessee home prior to a March-April European tour and Australasian dates in June. ‘I was told at one point that they’re going to tour for four weeks, period. And if that’s true then it doesn’t really change much. I would suggest everybody go and see both things if they can; I’m curious to see what they do.
Crimson ProjeCKt is really for those that love the classics we’ve done over the years and want to see that done properly in a big-band formation. It’s big, powerful, exciting music for people that have been there and seen it, but it’s also for people who never did get to see it. So I think it serves its purpose well.’
The Crimson ProjeCKt had its roots in Three Of A Perfect Pair, a band camp Belew hosts in New York state with Levin and Mastelotto each summer. ‘We put on a show every last day of the camp. The year 2011 was the 30th anniversary of Tony and me being in King Crimson, and that turned into the idea that maybe we should play the music beyond that. That turned into a regular-sized tour of the States, and that went down so well that we decided to continue – and fortunately, offers started coming in from all over the planet.
‘For me, it’s about celebrating this music that we were a part of, and we can do it authentically because we were the guys that helped create it. No-one else was going to do it, so let’s go and have some fun with it.’
The interaction between bassists Julie Slick and Tony Levin is at the heart of the ‘double trio’. In contrast to veteran Levin (also of Peter Gabriel fame),
Slick was discovered as a 20-year old playing in Philadelphia with her younger brother. ‘Even at that age,’ marvels Belew, ‘she had already developed something stylised; like Jack Bruce, she plays the instrument almost like a lead guitar and yet she’s developed all the things necessary for it to do all the things you want from a bass, in terms of what it does to the rhythm of the song and the bottom end.
‘When you put her and Tony together, it frees Tony up because he can bow parts, he can play guitar lines, or he can play the Stick, which he’s a master at. It’s almost like they’re not two bass players; there are several instruments going on.’
Drummers Tobias Ralph and Pat Mastelotto are Belew’s favourite pairing of his KC tenure. ‘They’re on the same page mentally – and it even has a sense of humour about it, which has actually never been there before. Then there’s [guitarist] Markus Reuter, who is Robert’s replacement. He was a prime student of Robert’s, knows exactly what Robert is doing and can play it perfectly and add his own elements to it.
‘It’s Crimson, but it’s not – it’s got its own way of doing things. I hate to use this term, but I refer to it as the fun King Crimson! When you get on stage everyone is happy and there’s not that sort of tension there sometimes was. It’s not quite as dark musically, but it’s still as intense… I think that’s built into the fabric of the music itself.’
Belew, a keen user of social media, stated on Facebook that he was ‘glad to see last year go’ because, as well as not getting a call from Fripp, a projected world tour with Nine Inch Nails was aborted at the rehearsal stage. ‘Trent [Reznor] and I were hoping to re-invent the band. As it turned out, when we got in rehearsals and everything started in earnest, it just didn’t go that way. In the end we were just learning each song exactly as it was on the record; within a couple of weeks it seemed like there wasn’t going to be any reinvention of the band, so why was I there?
‘They already had a great guitarist in Robin Fink, who’s been with Trent since 1993; he knows the material inside out, way better than I’d ever know it if you wanted exactly what was on the record. I didn’t feel being essentially a sideman was a role that I wanted to take at this point, and Trent agreed.
‘We were going to learn something like 55 songs; we’d learned 21 in two and a half weeks and it seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere new. That was only a disappointment inasmuch as I was looking forward to the challenge and going around the world in that kind of circumstance – but, at the same time, not that much as I really would prefer to be doing Flux!’
Flux is a concept dating from 1978 when Belew was touring with David Bowie. ‘In Marseille, France, I had an experience – an epiphany if you want. I was sitting at the harbour, outside, between two cafes. They had their doors open, each were playing a different kind of radio station and one of them was going in and out and flipping to other stations. At the same time, I was hearing all the other things in the air in front of me – harbour sounds, bells and people talking in French, cars going by, laughter. Somehow it all just mixed in my head to make a piece of music and I thought, “This is the way I want my music to be someday.”’
The belated result is Flux, for which Belew has already prepared ‘well over 200 things that include events or sounds – I call them snippets if they’re just little short things, even if they’re musical or something else like audience laughter.
‘It will be an app. You download it, and it will play for half an hour at a time. Each half hour will be different than any half hour you’ll ever hear – or anyone else will ever hear. Statistically, it will be impossible for it to repeat itself because there are so many small elements and it’s random every time, so nothing will ever line up the same. It’s something that I intend to keep adding to. I can upload new music or new snippets or new songs for as long as I want to. It will depend on the acceptance of this idea as to how long I do that.’
Flux is now a working model. ‘I’m hoping it will launch midway through this year. This is my fourth year working on it, but the problem – it’s not a problem, just the work that has to be done – is that it’s never been done before. We want to make sure that it works properly and it has a certain amount of interactivity, and possibly some visual activity as well. Those are the final things to put in place.’
In terms of guitars, the Adrian Belew who a decade ago was talking custom-built Strats to Guitar & Bass has moved through Fender Mustangs to the Parker Fly, three of which will be on stage with him on the Crimson ProjeCKt tour. ‘We designed the Adrian Belew model probably six, seven or eight years ago. The difference between that and a regular Parker Fly is the electronics. Ken Parker, I think, revolutionised the design of the guitar; he solved all the inherent problems and intonation, tuning problems and tremolo usage and so many other things. The weight of it, the feel, the resonant qualities – all those things he solved, but that was back in the ’80s. So what I wanted to do with my own version was to modernise the electronics.
‘Now it’s a MIDI guitar, it has a sustainer, it has a Variax system in it – so with just three knobs this guitar can give you the sound of 25 other guitars. It can sustain forever and of course it can be connected by MIDI to anything. You can play it through a computer, a keyboard and guitar synthesisers. So that’s what I changed about it. My guitars weigh four or five pounds; the only other change is we put these 12-stage custom car finishes on them that look beautiful under lighting. And that’s the Adrian Belew model Parker Fly, which, for me, has changed my life.’
The concept of a backline is now history. ‘I have them provide me with a couple of powered monitors, in other words just monitor cabinets, so there’s some sound coming off the stage. I’ve been using in-ear systems with the Crimson ProjeCKt, because it’s such a large sound and I’m right in the middle of it. I really don’t need to have any amplification on the stage at all; I just do it to make sure that there’s something coming from that spot on the stage that’s supposed to be me!’
Back in 1980, when Adrian visited London with Talking Heads, it was ‘a great time for me because my role in the band was just to go wild on guitar.’ The support band was a then-unknown U2. Did Edge make any impression? ‘I liked the sound he had; I thought it was very unique. Of course, it turns out that it is!’ Perhaps the same could be said of Adrian Belew – still unlike anyone else, and loving every minute.