There seems to be a “Thing” going on lately, where artists get contracted for a single session, but then end up as marquee players in the act they were brought in to bolster. This happened for Jennifer Batten with the Scherer/Batten BattleZone album (read all about it in the February 2018 GP), and it also went down for Adrian Belew, when ferocious drummer—and member of the Police—Stewart Copeland asked him to put some “stunt guitar” on a recording project in Italy.
“I thought I was going to play for a couple of days on a couple of tracks, and I ended up staying ten days,” says Belew. “I thought, ‘It’s Stewart Copeland. It’s Italy. I get to hang out in the Italian sun and eat pasta. What could possibly go wrong?’”
In fact, everything went all kinds of right—so much so that Belew, Level 42 bassist Mark King, keyboardist Vittorio Cosma, and Copeland turned into a bona fide band, and released the self-titled album, Gizmodrome [earMUSIC] late last year.
“I had my family with me,” explains Belew, “so it seemed more like a vacation than anything else. But as the days went by, it was pretty clear this group of players was doing something really special, unique, and uplifting. I thought it would be a shame not to be in a band with these guys, because the music is so good. And, in the bigger picture, I think people are gravitating back to music that is performed by accomplished players—they’re waking up to good music again. But I’ve been wrong about that before…”
So how exactly did you go from guesting on a Stewart Copeland project to joining a band?
When someone brings me in to do some hairy guitar stuff, I typically set up in the control room, and go wild on tracks that are already there. That’s what I thought I’d be doing in Milan with Gizmodrome. But, when I arrived, everything was set up in a big recording room, because we were going to play together as a band. Then, we proceeded to learn the songs, because they weren’t arranged, and nothing was set in stone. It was, “Here’s the verse, and here’s the chorus.” We’d work up an arrangement on the fly, and when we were ready, we’d do a couple of takes. We usually didn’t do more than two or three takes, and we almost always used the second one. This is when I got the clue that something different was happening here. Unbeknownst to me, Stewart was hoping Mark and I would invest ourselves in the music, and say, “Hey, why don’t we make this for real and become a band?” He tricked me!
Let’s talk about your wonderful Gizmodrome cohorts. What’s it like playing with Stewart?
For my money, Stewart Copeland is one of the top five drummers ever. I put him up there with Ringo Starr and Bill Bruford—players who changed the way people hear drums. He is a ball of energy that shatters the earth all on his own, and you kind of pick your place and jump in. It’s really fun to play with somebody who has that much technique, but is tasteful at the same time.
What about Mark?
Mark and I bonded quickly, because we both have a wacky sense of humor. In Europe, he’s called “The man with the three-million dollar thumb”—or something ridiculous like that—because he’s so well-known for being the slap-bass guy. And, on the first day of the sessions, that’s exactly what he was doing. It was sounding good, but you had me going crazy on guitar, and Stewart absolutely off the wall with the drumming. So Mark comes in on the second day, and he says, “You know what? Somebody has to hold this thing down.” Then, he picked up a Jazz Bass, and completely changed his style to fit the band. Everything just got better and better from there.
I guess to American audiences, Vittorio would be the least known of the group.
He was kind of quiet and serious-minded, but that might have been due to the language barrier. All the Italians told us that, in Italy, he’s considered to be hilarious. He plays in the band Elio, which is very theatrical and comical. Also, Vittorio wasn’t really going for his parts when we were recording the basic tracks. It wasn’t until I started getting the rough mixes that I could hear all the things he was playing, and I was astounded. His chops are amazing. He can play grand piano, or organ, or whatever you want. But it was more about his taste, and all the little sounds he put into the music. He’s a colorist—which is kind of how I view myself, as well.
Was the plan always that Stewart was going to be the lead vocalist?
From the beginning? I’m not sure. Stewart would just say, “Let me throw a vocal on here so everybody knows where we are.” I was kind of taken aback—but only because he has never tried to be a singer. Oddly enough, as the days went by, I got accustomed to his singing, and I realized that a big part of the charm for me was the personality he put into the songs. So we decided that Mark and I would sing the choruses perfectly in harmony and gorgeously double tracked, and Stewart would be the storyteller.
How did you approach the material?
When we worked up the basic tracks, I was just trying to learn the songs and be a rhythm-guitar player. When those were done, I moved my gear into the control room to do overdubs. Everybody was sitting behind me, and Stewart would say something like, “This is about an alien, so do you have anything that sounds like an alien spaceship?” I’d say, “Sure.” Then, he’d say, “Okay, go wild at the end.” And I’d say, “Yep. I can do that.” It was all very quick. I didn’t plan things. I didn’t work out parts. I just went for it. I would do a couple of things in one pass, and then maybe throw something else on there, and they pretty much used everything.
Even after all of your experience, did you ever feel any trepidation about having to immediately translate what Stewart was asking for into actual guitar parts? I mean, it sounds about as in-the-moment as it can get.
No. I feel very confident about my abilities when being put on the spot. After all, I’ve done it with a lot of people, and many of them were very scary—like Frank Zappa. There’s always a minute, though, when you think, “I hope what I’m doing here is turning people on.” Of course, you never know that for sure until you finish, and the people around you are screaming and dancing around.
I think GP readers have always been amazed at how easily you seem to devise unique and surprising, yet appropriate parts. It’s almost warlock stuff.
The process is magical to me, too. You have to understand, I really don’t know what I’m doing that much. I’m not educated. I didn’t go to Berklee. I don’t know a pentatonic scale from a fish scale. So it’s really all coming from what my imagination is telling me.
What gear were you using to unleash all of this madness?
I was just off a European tour, so I had my guitar rig with me, which all fits in one case and weighs 79 pounds. It’s three volume pedals, a Liquid Foot MIDI pedal, a DigiTech HarmonyMan, an Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, a Boss GP-10, and a computer. Then, I had two identical Parker Fly guitars. There was no amplifier involved at any time. Everything came out of the Axe-Fx and into direct boxes.
Your comment about people gravitating back to accomplished musicianship is interesting and, well, hopeful.
Listen, if I tried to fit in and create a pop hit, I’d fail every time, because that’s not how I think. I like to say that I’m in the business, but I’m not in the business a lot of other people are in. I realized after having enough tries at being a mainstream artist that I wasn’t going to have that. What I have instead is my own voice—which is what everyone should have—and it’s all down to how many fans know about it, how many fans will buy the music, and how many fans will come out to the show. I’m not a rich rock star. I’m just a working musician—a “creative force” is what I like to call myself [laughs].
You certainly appear to be working a lot and having a blast.
My wife once said, “At the point you’re at now, it’s all about love. You do it for the love.” It should be fun, or don’t do it. I’ve been in the race long enough, and I know I can’t really do anything else, so it really comes down to saying, “What do I really want to do the most, and can I get there?” And that’s what you’re working on all the time. So when Gizmodrome appeared out of nowhere, it was a huge blessing for me because I felt like, “Oh, I can go in a new direction with new musicians who are on my level, and create music that’s fun and groovy.”