Adrian Belew on How He Continues to Push the Limits of Song and Sound

Though Belew's new album is called 'Pop Sided,' it doesn't sound a thing like conventional pop music. Here, he discusses the gear behind its creation and his ever-evolving live show.
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Adrian Belew’s new, self-released record, Pop Sided, is his first compilation of complete, immutable compositions since 2006’s Side Three. But Belew has been far from idle in the interim. Under the rubric Flux, he has released two apps: Flux by Belew, which mixes recordings of tunes that never play the same way twice with snippets of sounds and visual art, and Flux:FX, a multi-effects processor for iPad. He has also kept up a touring schedule with his power trio, using cutting-edge technology to fill out the sound and provide all the distinctive effects he has developed through the years.

Belew is in that pantheon of players like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and later Tom Morello, all of whom have pushed the limits of what an electric guitar can do. In his work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, Trent Reznor and King Crimson, he has wrenched sounds reminiscent of everything from animals to aliens from his electric rigs du jour. But the guitarist opens Pop Sided unplugged, with the song “When Will It Come Back,” where he strums some flat-tops over his drums (Belew plays all the instruments on the record). As it turns out, acoustic guitars played a large part in the project’s genesis and recording.

“I have two Taylor GS Minis,” Belew says. “One is tuned to standard. The other is tuned, from the high E down, E B E then D A D. So you’ve got a D triad and, on top of that, an E triad. About two years ago, I began popping out of bed every day, grabbing an acoustic guitar and writing songs. Before I knew it, I had maybe 30 or so songs in various states, so I decided to make a regular record again. Pop Sided is meant to be a throwback to when you had your best 11 new songs and put them on a record. When writing them, the idea was to be able to sit down and play a complete song on the acoustic guitar.”

For the album, the guitarist used an arsenal of acoustics strung with D’Addario EJ16 sets. In addition to the Minis, he employed a grand concert Taylor 412 and a pair of Godin 5th Avenue archtops, one with a pickup and one without. Sometimes, Belew would run the magnetic pickup on the Godin through a Supro Dual-Tone amp and mic the body as well. “It still sounds clean, but there’s more depth because there’s something else there the background,” he explains. “You’re not really sure what it is.”

The album’s second tune, “Obsession,” harkens back to more familiar fuzzed-out riffs. “That’s a guitar sound from the Fractal Audio Axe-FX,” Belew says. “But we also tweaked it through software called Speakerphone [by Audio Ease] to make or telephone.”

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On the following tune, “Times We Live In,” a short melodic motif reveals the kind of experimentation that has made Belew a modern guitar legend. “I played that through a DigiTech HarmonyMan set full wet, a seventh below what I actually played,” he reveals. “It gave it all this graininess. The rhythm sounds are an Eastwood Saturn 63. It has a pickup with a very flat response. The guitar doesn’t stay in tune that well, so I thought it would be a great time to get that Shaggs guitar sound. We layered in three or four tracks of chords with that guitar, each one out of tune with the next one. Unlike most of my guitar sounds, they are not compressed at all.”

“Everybody’s Sitting” features a wild-sounding triple-tracked low riff before it launches into the fuzz melody played not with a pedal but on a Boss GP-10. Basically a small version of the VG-99 effects processor, the GP-10 requires a hexaphonic pickup to create modeled and synth-like tones without the use of MIDI. “I went to the GP-10 because I was able to get my top five sounds from the VG-99 right away,” Belew says. “It’s smaller and works better for traveling.”

“Lobsters and Hypocrites” (perhaps the best song title ever) has a funky rhythm part that recalls the guitarist’s soulful rhythm work in King Crimson. Though most of his effects are created in the Axe-FX, Belew prefers a pedal for the compression that makes parts like this pop. 

“First, I go through a Keeley compressor that is permanently on,” he says. “It is set to noon on the volume and five o’clock on the sustain. I like the fact that you can hear the notes breathe. Some people hate that and go for a higher quality piece of studio gear, but I love how it makes your notes sustain and makes the chords ring out. I could set up the Axe-FX compressor to do that, but you would have to do it for every single program because there is no global compressor. The Keeley into the Axe-FX becomes a global compressor.”

The unique solo sound on “Lobsters and Hypocrites” is the product of another composite creation. “There are three sounds going on simultaneously,” Belew explains. “One is a bit-reduced fizzy sound; one is using an expression pedal to engage a serious vibrato; and then I also turned the Parker Fly’s sustainer on in octave mode, so whenever you let a note sustain, it instantly goes up an octave. We put them all together as one guitar. That would probably be hard to do live, but in the studio it was a lot of fun.”

Speaking of live, to recreate the sounds of the acoustic guitars on the record, Belew uses the GP-10’s acoustic modeler. “It can also mimic different tunings,” he says. “In the middle of ‘Wait to Worry,’ there’s an acoustic guitar doing something very simple. To do that live, I go straight to the GP-10. Onstage, I can go from electric to acoustic sounds in a heartbeat.”

Though the Fractal and Boss units are essential for live work, Belew was happy to break out items from his extensive vintage pedal collection when recording Pop Sided. For example, the solo on “Although” features his original Foxx Tone Machine. 

“It’s one of my favorite old pedals,” he says. “When I started playing music, the only time I’d ever heard a pedal like that was on the solo for ‘Purple Haze.’ I was my band’s drummer when that record came out; I wasn’t even playing guitar yet. I remember that song blew my mind. I started playing guitar and searching for pedals. I found this fuzz pedal that actually had a fuzzy coating on the box. I plugged it in, and there it was: the ‘Purple Haze’ sound.”

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Belew’s love of fuzz is evident on “Take Five Deep Breaths,” where it sounds like his pedal is malfunctioning at the beginning. “That’s a sound I call ‘stereo broken battery,’” he explains. “It’s basically two fuzzes running into each other in the Axe-FX, heavily filtered down to all highs and lows. When you take your hand off the guitar, it makes bad battery sounds. That’s one of my favorite sounds. I used it in some of the pieces in Flux and wanted to get it on this record.”

For the alien sounds after the chorus, the guitarist revisited an effect he created during his days with Talking Heads, when he conjured up guitar sounds that resembled computer blips and bleeps. “I wanted to get back some of that,” Belew says. “Back then, we used a studio piece called the Lexicon Prime Time. The very early Prime Time had a knob that let you switch manually between five different octaves. It also had a little button that would trap whatever you had just played. You could loop something and then go over to the width button to change it so it would go crazy. 

"The original hardware units are hard to find and very expensive, but they make a software version. It’s not the same as grabbing the knobs and pushing in the little buttons, but we managed to get the same effect by recording something first and mangling it. That’s the way we did it on the Talking Heads record. I would play something first, then David Byrne and I would run it through the Prime Time and fool with it until you had computer babble.”

Many of the electric parts on Pop Sided were recorded with Belew’s signature Parker instrument, but he also employed an old Japanese guitar. “It’s called an Audition, but it’s really made by Teisco,” he says. “I went through a phase where I suddenly took an interest in finding old funky guitars. I researched it and went on Reverb.com until I ended up with a few that are pretty nice guitars. You wouldn’t necessarily take them out and use them live. They have their drawbacks - or let’s say, ‘character.’ 

"I wanted to use some guitars hanging up in the guitar room rather than have everything coming from the Parker. I would go grab a guitar, plug it in, get some sort of sound and use that instead. I had some small amps in here, like the Supro and a tiny Fender. It wouldn’t be compressed or going through the Axe-FX and therefore would present a different color.” His various electrics are strung with D’Addario NYXLs.

For further contrast, Belew might take a guitar, record it direct and then re-amp it through either AmpliTube or Guitar Rig. “To tell you the truth, we go until I like something, I don’t really care where it comes from,” he says.

This unprecious attitude extends to solos. “I do first or second take these days,” he says. “I used to do a lot of compositing and still do some, say, if there’s one section I like better from the second take. But I don’t like to sit and play solos all day long. I get the best stuff out of myself first, second or third take, when I’m fresh. I know what I want, and I’m going for it 1,000 percent. If I don’t get it by the third time, I might come back to it later.”

Save for the aforementioned Keeley and DigiTech pedals, Belew’s live rig is entirely modeled in the Axe-FX and GP-10 these days. “The central controller is an FAMC Liquid Foot 12+ MIDI controller,” he explains. “There are two expression pedals on the right side and one more on the left side. The two on the right are controlling the Axe-FX sounds. The one on the left is controlling the volume of the GP-10. The signal is being split by the GP-10 through an RME digital audio interface so we can get it into the laptop.

In the computer, I can bring up a screen that has all my programs and set lists.” In the computer as well is Ableton Live, where Belew uses Circular Labs’ Mobius looper plugin rather Live’s own looper. “Every looper has a lot of features, and some of them I don’t need,” he says “When you’re using a MIDI controller, you only have so many buttons. You have to choose things you want, like reverse, overdub and clear. We went with the Mobius because it does all the things I needed. Plus, it was free. Free is good.”

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With this setup, Belew can go direct to the house and listen using in-ear monitors. Closer to home, he may use a full-range Atomic amp and a Bose L1 System onstage.

If you attend a Belew show, you will see him occasionally sit on a stool to perform some tunes. “There are places in my set where I need my feet on two pedals at the same time, and you can’t do that standing up,” he explains. “That’s the only reason I ever sit down. But I discovered it’s a lot easier to play when sitting down because the higher the neck, the easier it is to play. When I stand, I wear the strap higher than before, but I don’t want to look like one of those ’70s bass players.”

Belew has been presenting his music with his Power Trio for more than a decade. The group, he explains, is “a small, intelligent, mobile unit” with which to tour the world. Lately, though, he’s felt the urge to expand.

“When I started the Power Trio, it was because I wanted to dig through my catalog and do it differently,” he says. “Now, I want to do other parts of it. In particular, I wanted to play some of the piano songs I’ve written over the years, and I’m a little nervous about playing piano live. The instrument is more a writing tool for me. That’s one reason I wanted a fourth member. I also wanted a second voice for harmony, and another guitarist, because looping doesn’t cover everything.

Belew’s friend Saul Zonana has been the Power Trio’s opening act for many years, so he was already traveling with them in the van. Now a member of Belew’s band, he provides everything the guitarist has been missing: vocals, piano and a second guitar.

“It offers me the option to do anything in my catalog,” Belew says. “We play things like ‘Big Blue Sun,’ which I could never play because it’s a four-piece band song. Also, I can choose from more of the King Crimson material now. I wanted to take Crimson tunes we’ve been doing in a Power Trio way and revert back to playing them more like the record, with the interlocking guitars that Robert Fripp and I used to do. Poor Saul has to try to do that - and he does a great job.”

Fortunately, Zonana has not had to master Fripp’s New Standard tuning (NST), which is based on all fifths. According to Belew, for “Frame by Frame,” “Three of a Perfect Pair” and other early ’80s material, Fripp employed “old” standard tuning.

Whether playing old material or new, the always-forward-looking guitarist refuses to be trapped in past paradigms. But this doesn’t mean that the tech-savvy picker is always happy about the march of progress.

“With the Axe-FX, I had to go back through everything,” he says. “How would I get the ‘Elephant Talk’ sound? Originally, that was an Electro-Harmonix flanger and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff. I had to put in several hundred hours to recreate that stuff: sitting down, listening, knowing what you’re supposed to be hearing, and then dialing it in. You can never get exactly what you had. But the Axe-FX does it better than anything I’ve heard.”

Though he’s always interested in new sounds, Belew sees technology as a tool, not a temple. Just as the rest of us might get frustrated with a new iOS update, he too has found it sometimes pays to stick with the old version of a favored piece of gear.

“Matt Bacon, who programs for Axe-FX, offered to help me switch my programs from the Ultra into the Axe-FX II,” Belew says. “I wanted to make sure I could retain all of these sounds I’ve worked so hard on over the years. We started with my stereo ‘bad battery’ effect and couldn’t get that sound out of the Axe-FX II after two days of trying. I said, ‘I’m not willing to let go of that sound, so I’m just going to stick with the Ultra.’ I’ve used the Axe-FX II and III in the studio, and they’re great, but I wrote 300 patches for the Ultra, and I don’t ever want to have to do that again.”

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