Adrian Belew long ago secured his place among players who reinvented the electric guitar. His exploration of its potential as a sound creation tool within a pop song format rivals Jimi Hendrix—his early hero. Live and on record with David Bowie, Talking Heads, King Crimson, and Nine Inch Nails, as well as a through a solo career spanning 30 years and over 15 albums, Belew has changed the way people think about this iconic instrument. Now, he wants to change the way the people listen to music.
Belew’s latest project, Flux, is an app for iPad and iPhone that contains his music in the form of song segments and sonic snippets. These appear in different configurations each time you listen, accompanied by static and moving images, as well as information on the recording process. All the musical elements in the guitarist’s varied career make appearances, including Crimson’s odd times, Beatle-esque pop, Zappa-style humor (“Chicken Boobies” anyone?), and NIN noise. In an interview at his home outside of Nashville, Belew discussed his beginnings, and how Flux fits into our ADD culture.
Didn’t you begin as a drummer?
I started in the marching band in junior high school, marching in parades and at football games. When the Beatles happened, I started my first band as a drummer and singer. I took up guitar at 16. The only reason I did was because I heard songs in my head—still do—and couldn’t show them to anyone unless I taught myself to play guitar. When Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and all those virtuosos came along, guitar became much more interesting to me. They got me into sounds and soloing.
When did you get into the more experimental aspect of guitar?
Until the late ’70s I was working on my technique, but I was always interested in sound. I can hear a sound and tell you what its components might be or eventually emulate it. In the early ’70s, I realized I would have to do something of my own. I found I could make my guitar sound like a car horn, a seagull, and a few other funny things. I would put those sounds in the songs we were playing. People liked it, so I stuck with it. By the time I got into Frank Zappa’s band in 1977, I was on my way to having my own menagerie [laughs].
How did you end up in Zappa’s band?
Frank heard me in a Nashville club called Fanny’s—a dark, dank motorcycle bar. I was playing in a band called Sweetheart. We wore authentic vintage clothing all the time. We even wore three-piece suits, fedoras, and ties with tiepins when we went to the supermarket. We were doing cool cover tunes of bands like Steely Dan. I had started putting car horn sounds and the like into songs that people knew.
Let’s jump ahead to today. You record in your house. What gear do you use?
The control room is all Pro Tools HD. I use a Yamaha Motif keyboard for any MIDI stuff. I am self-taught on piano and a miserable player, but I can write interesting songs on it. I look at it like architecture: “Okay, these fingers are here, but if I move this finger up to here, I get that.” That’s why my piano songs are different from my guitar songs.
Don’t you also change random string tunings on the guitar to aid songwriting?
When you came in I was writing a song on that Rickenbacker over there with the low E tuned to a D, which puts the 7 on the bottom. I have written a bunch of songs with the G string tuned up to A. It is a way to break my habits and get inspiration.
How did you create the sounds for Flux?
We have a thing we call the “Magic Closet.” It’s full of effects and things I have collected for years. It contains units like a Roland DC-30 Analog Chorus-Echo David Bowie gave me in ’79, when we went to Japan. I used to make whale sounds with it. The cool thing about it is, when I plug an expression pedal in, I can get these floating sounds. All these effects are now wired by Daniel [Rowland, Belew’s engineer] into five 48-point patchbays. You can have 14 signals at the same time. One time we put The Sound of Music on the turntable, plugged it through a couple of these effects and it sounded like a Nine Inch Nails record. This is where we do some of the Flux connecting snippets— the stuff that interrupts everything and is also the glue to everything.
The concept of Flux can be difficult to grasp without hearing it. Can you clarify?
Flux plays for a half hour. In that time you might get 120 different song segments and sound snippets. The same song might be done in different musical styles, or I might just take a tiny piece of it with yet another sound or a different mix. In the end, one song turns into five songs and some more snippets. There will be updates where you might get another five songs and some more snippets. The initial purchase will be the app and content. I will offer free updates of a few songs and snippets, and am working on a paid package that will be another half hour or hour of material. That will cost, maybe, two dollars and will greatly add to the random possibilities. Even with the initial package, though, you will never hear it quite the same way twice.
So Flux is a version of shuffle mode?
Yes, except it is a shuffle mode that we [Belew and the Flux team] control. The CMS, or Content Management System, is where I put my new songs. I can control the probability rate within the random appearance of each song or snippet. I can adjust it so a new song will come up more often. With this control we can also make sure the whole half hour is not just sonic snippets—though I would probably enjoy that [laughs].
The user can control the probability as well. If you “favorite” something, the app will make that come up more often. If you don’t want it to be random, your favorites will be in a playlist, My Flux, which you can play like a normal playlist. We haven’t lost the old way of listening, we just added a whole new way. If you stick with random, some things may not come up until the tenth time you play it.
After listening this way for a while, it is hard to go back to the old way. I get bored after the second chorus and feel, “Alright, I get it.” I’m not saying everything should be this way; I am just pointing out an alternative way of making and listening to music. I have songs that won’t fit into Flux, because they are too long and break up the urgent, “moving on” feeling. Those songs will go on a CD or be a download. Flux doesn’t shut any doors, it just opens them.
I recently spent time with some friends whose 15-year-old daughter didn’t listen to more than 15-30 seconds of a tune before moving on.
Our brains are now hardwired like that. We are so used to commercials, Google, the Internet, and all these things that come at us so fast. The younger generation is not going to sit down and listen to a half hour of music. If Flux is accepted, and people like it as much as I hope they do, it is going to be my primary artistic platform. This is how I am going to do my creating from now on. That is not to say I won’t write a 12-minute piece of music on some days, but this is the way I like to work and will always keep adding to this.
It seems to present a wide variety of musical styles.
It has all kinds of stuff on it. If you like anything I have done in the past you will be pleasantly surprised because it has everything—including a 30-second country song.
Do you think people are more accepting of variety because no one listens to a whole record anymore?
I think it is true. The concept that you had to wait until you had 12 songs that fit together and made a package that you call an album or CD is not necessary anymore. If I got up today and wrote a new song, we could record it and have it up today.
Are these mp3s?
With this much information you usually have to settle for it being a heavily compressed mp3, but we are going for more pristine AAC audio. It will be a pretty big download, but it will be like having a thousand albums. The next big step is developing an Android version. Right now it is just for iPhone and iPad, but I want everybody in the world to be able to see and hear it.
Is Flux is more than just music?
There are new images that appear with each song or snippet. These change randomly as well. Through the CMS, I can also upload information about the gear used on each recording, stories, pictures of us working in the studio, QuickTime videos, and more.
How is this going to affect your live performance?
I am going to try to do something like this in my Trio show. Sometimes we will play a song that might be ten minutes long; other times, I might take some of my snippets and have them come out in between parts of songs. It might be an interesting way to play—and I hate to use this term—a medley of my older material without doing a whole song. We only have five days of rehearsal, so I am hoping we can get it started. I believe that down the line we can do it as part of the performance but not the whole show—that would get old too. We will try to fit some in, because I want people to start associating my music with Flux. There is so much potential in this. If you think I had an interesting career to this point, wait until you jump into this pond.