When Adrian Belew builds a setlist, there's an app for that
Adrian Belew had already worked with an impressive array of heavyweights when he joined Robert Fripp's re-tooled King Crimson in the early '80s.
There's some background to that. After touring and recording with Zappa, Bowie, producer Brian Eno, the Talking Heads and the Heads' spinoff sub-project Tom Tom Club, Fripp asked Belew to join the new version of his old band along with Tony Levin and Bill Bruford.
The results were immediately satisfying: the 1981 lineup of King Crimson's produced Discipline, a high-water mark in the genre of prog-rock. Levin, on bass (and an instrument called The Stick) and Bruford's forceful and flawless drumming (his responsibilities are accurately credited as "batterie" on the album) provided a profoundly complex rhythm section above which Belew and Fripp could work. Belew's spatial, effects-driven chords, notes and noises provided the perfect complement to Fripp's math-driven pointillist attack on the record — when the two weren't trading riffs seamlessly.
"We wanted, first of all, to form a middle-ground partnership where we played those sort of fast, skittering licks together and then each of us have our own sort of portfolio of other approaches. It just happened to work really well," recalls Belew during a mid-December phone conversation.
As a band, the 1981-and-beyond version of King Crimson gained notoriety not just for its incredible virtuosity — the quartet never met a time signature it didn't like — but also for the strained relations among its members. That tension, according to Belew, had nothing to do with the complexity of the band's compositions. "There was plenty of friction in the band, but not in the department of [musical] responsibilities," says Belew coyly.
The strife seemed to be nicely channeled into Belew's lyrics while he served as frontman for King Crimson. Often mysterious, sometimes downright dark and loaded with language games ("Thela Hun Ginjeet," for example, is an anagram — and includes a monologue from Belew surreptitiously recorded by Fripp), Belew's vocals and poetry perfectly match the band's edgy instrumentation. King Crimson's best work has the teeth-grinding rush of a very strange trip.
When Belew wasn't recording/touring/fighting with King Crimson, the musician was exploring his own vision with other bands and as a solo artist, all the while developing a sound that went well beyond what a listener might associate with standard guitar tones. From the elephantine bellows of Crimson and his solo stuff to the staccato beeps and whirring mechanical riffs on the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, Belew redefined the word "electric" in "electric guitar."
Belew's continued hunt for unique sounds leads to a lot of commiseration with the people who manufacture effects pedals. "I meet pedal people all along the way. I was with some people from Eventide last night ..." His current favorite stomp box is by Digitech: "It's called a Harmony Man. It's become ingrained in some of the techniques I use for soloing. It's a pitch pedal — I use it for setting pitches that I can sort of careen from one to another."
Beyond the pedals, Belew's weapon of choice is a customized, limited edition Parker Fly guitar that's "the price of a small Ferrari." The instrument maker had given Belew the distinctive six-string early in his tenure with King Crimson. "I had it for about eight years. Whenever I played it, I thought 'Why am I not playing this guitar?' The guitars I was normally playing were so customized — the Fender Strats with sustainers and midi capability and all those kinds of things. Finally, it occurred to me to approach them and say 'Could you customize a Parker Fly for me?' We updated the electronics from what we could do in the '80s when the guitar was invented to state of the art now. And the paint jobs — I asked 'em to put special custom-car paint jobs on the guitars."
For the past five years, though, Belew's tech interests have moved almost completely into the digital universe. He's developed a pair of apps, Flux by Belew and Flux FX, both designed not to just manipulate sound — but to manipulate content.
The Flux by Belew app delivers Belew's works in ever-changing pieces that combine to create a stream of 30-minute content designed to vary with each listen.
"It's never finished," says Belew. "It's made up of small components of things. Not 'Here's another four-minute song' until you've got 12 of those. It requires a ton of content, literally hundreds of tracks." The app is designed so that you'll never hear Belew's compositions the same way twice: "It's done with a software device that was invented for this, it's called The Roulette Engine." (Belew's quick to note that he had some great engineers doing the actual coding.) Flux learns what the user likes — with an assist from a "favorites" button — and increases the probability of certain songs, segments of songs, sounds or even different instrumentations of songs appearing more often than others. The app's also got a visual component, a series of visuals, some of which have been painted by Belew himself, that morph in time to the music.
The other app — Flux FX — plays a role during Belew's live performances with his Power Trio. With Flux FX, the iPad that Belew uses on stage becomes "a professional audio processor. ... It takes anything that you put into it — voice, drum, keyboard, a track from a record — and changes it, alters and angles it about a thousand different ways depending on where you place your finger on the screen." In addition to using the processor as a tool for making the music that goes into the other Flux app, "we've taken this idea of the randomness of Flux and applied it to the concerts. We'll start a song at some point — not necessarily at the beginning — and we'll play it to a certain point and then it'll be interrupted by some sound that comes from Flux." These five-second snippets are cues for Belew, his bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph. After the snippet, the trio goes immediately into their next number. "I think I sing 22 songs from 14 records."
Of course, this meant a lot of practice time for Slick and Ralph. "The band has it down now — at first it was touch-and-go," Belew chuckles. This doesn't mean that the entire set will be fractions of songs: "We do some long instrumental numbers —some of our most cherished pieces are these eight to ten minute things that have improvisational stuff in the middle of 'em." The blend of small, tightly rehearsed segments and long jams is designed to approximate the vibe of his Flux experiments in a live, concert-length setting.
"It's organized randomness — and it is very challenging."