Legendary guitarist Adrian Belew talks about Gizmodrome

Having met at the 2003 Night of the Tarantula festival in Italy, Stewart Copeland (The Police) and Vittorio Cosma (PFM) had often collaborated over the years and found themselves with an overflowing ‘cookie jar’ of musical ideas. When a label (earMusic) expressed interest in releasing it, they recruited Adrian Belew (King Crimson, David Bowie) and Mark King (Level 42) to form a proper band, Gizmodrome. Working together in Cosma’s studio allowed them to take the initial musical ideas and organically shape songs utilizing each member’s musical strengths. The resulting self-titled album blends elements of progressive, punk and pop music into a very unique sound.

The following is an interview with Belew, conducted in New York on August 24, 2017. Be sure to also check out my interview with Stewart Copeland at pleasekillme.com.

How did you get involved with Gizmodrome?

Adrian Belew:  “The backstory is that for about ten summers, Stewart [Copeland] and Vittorio [Cosma] found an excuse to play together in Italy. They would call their little projects ‘Gizmo.’ They would put something together and maybe play in a piazza or something like that. Never a very serious thing, and always different. There also were writing material all that time, so they had this cookie jar’s worth of songs they’d written over ten years. I got into the picture about three summers ago, when Vittorio and the producer, Claudio, started ringing me up, asking if I’d like to go over and join them on these wonderful little Italian summer jaunts. I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to play with Stewart.’ I didn’t know Vittorio but I knew of him. He was in a band called PFM, who I knew a lot when I was younger. But I couldn’t do it the first or second summers as I was busy, but finally during the third summer I could. But then, a record label from Germany run by an Italian named Max Vaccaro had offered that they take this music they had been making and make a record. So, I arrived in Milan thinking that I was going to be playing on maybe 3 or 4 tracks, just overdubbing some guitar and having some fun hanging out in Italy. It was very attractive.

“When I got there, though, I realized that something was amiss because they were tricking me. They had a setup in a very nice large studio room. We could see each other, we could talk to each other across the room, and we could work things out. But we were doing basic tracking of these songs, which is not what I thought I was doing. Normally, in the case of someone like Nine-Inch Nails, bringing me in to do some tracking, the tracks were done. Maybe there were not vocals but at least the track was there and they set me up in the control room and I just sat there next to Trent Reznor and played things. That’s what I thought was going to happen on this. But Stewart had already had this idea that if we could get Adrian and Mark King invested in this music, if they could start feeling like it was their music too, then we could eventually introduce the idea that maybe this should be a band.

“And that’s exactly what happened. After about two or three days, it was really getting fun and exciting and the music was working really well. There was obvious comradery and synergy. I was feeling great about the material because I felt that every track they put up, I knew ten things I’d love to play on it. They let me have my way, and sometimes I actually affected the song in a big way, changing it in some way. So did Mark. That is actually what happened. At the end of a few days, everyone was saying it was really good and maybe we should do something more. This was not really just Stewart’s project; this was called Gizmo. Eventually, we realized that was a word that was overused already, and probably would have legal ramifications, so we changed it to Gizmodrome.”

How complete was the songwriting when you got involved?

Adrian Belew:  “It was completely loose. The idea was not to tie us in to any arrangements or pre-conceived ideas. They might have told us how the verse went and how the chorus sounded, and Mark and I would learn that and go in the studio as a band. We’d play for a while, we’d arrange it together, and we’d get it to a point where we liked it pretty quickly. Then we’d do maybe three takes. We never tried to over-think it.”

What about in terms of the amount of material? Were you able to pick from the songs that Stewart and Vittorio had been writing? Or did they have a firm idea as to which they wanted to develop?

Adrian Belew:  “No, there were more songs. There were four songs in fact that we didn’t feel were up to par with the others. Eventually, we came back a second time and added more to the record. We added a couple of things that Mark brought in, that Stewart then wrote lyrics to. I wasn’t able to be there for that session because I was on tour with my power trio. In fact, we were in Milan and they came to see us one night. But, I later added my parts and things to those songs at Stewart’s studio in LA.”

We there any other musicians involved?

Adrian Belew:  “They had recorded an Italian vocalist that they liked on one song already, but other than that, no.”

Are there any ways that you feel the project evolved over the time you worked on it?

Adrian Belew:  “Early on, Mark King realized that what he would normally play, slap bass, which he is well-known for, was not right for most of this music. He changed his approach and that all of a sudden cemented everything. It suddenly sounded like a great rhythm section. Vittorio was sitting back, because he could do his parts later. He lived there; it was his studio. They spent quite a lot of time allowing me in the control room, with my gear, to just play all over. There would be suggestions. For example, ‘My radio is tuned to an alien radio station’ would be the line and Stewart would ask if I could do anything there, and I’d go over and find a sound and make a little alien radio station sound. Or, ‘Right here we need a raging guitar solo,’ and I’d do that bit and they’d all jump up and applaud. So, it was really fun and very loose. I don’t remember any point where someone said we had to do this or that. It was all about who had the best idea at the time being the leader at the moment.”

Were there time constraints, and if so did that affect you creatively?

Adrian Belew:  “Yeah, there was a time constraint for me because I was already heavily booked. So, I wasn’t able to be part of some of it, and I wish I had been. I wish I could have been more involved with the vocals. It ended up with Mark doing some of the parts that I’d be doing live. Had I known this was going to develop, I would have loved to have brought some material to the party. But that’s for next time.”

Do you see Gizmodrome as remaining a focus in the future?

Adrian Belew:  “I don’t see a reason at all for it not to continue. The idea right now, and we’re all very excited about it, is to self-fund a rehearsal in Milan for a couple of weeks between now and the end of the year and then spring this band on the touring world. Go everywhere we can. We maybe have a debut in Japan; we’re looking at December. That would help pay for our rehearsals and get us started. But then the record would be out and the promotors of the world would know what to make of it. Hopefully, they’d give us some really good offers and we could start touring around the world. That’s the idea. I know I’ve put 2018 on hold. I know that Stewart has, too. We all have things we can do when there is downtime. I’ve got plenty of other things including a second band called the Adrian Belew Power Trio, and Celebrating David Bowie wants to do some more dates next year. I could be a part of that. But for me, I hope the whole thing just falls into place and we can just get out there and go crazy playing shows. It would be wonderful.”

Have you been thinking about how you’ll present the music live? What can we expect?

Adrian Belew:  “When we first started, Stewart would sing the songs and do a quick take for us to reference, and he thought that Mark or I would actually be the singer. But we said, really, the way you sing and the way you’re doing this, it’s kind of like story telling. It’s almost like a Zappa or a Claypool or Tom Waits or something. It’s really not the way that Mark or I would sing. We didn’t feel that we had the personality for it. So, we figured Stewart would sing his stories, the verses, and Mark and I would sing the choruses. We’d put in some really nice professional harmonies and make the choruses properly sung vocals and the other stuff have all the personality. And I thought that was a really important ingredient to this music, having the kind of playfulness and joy that it has. So, long story short, what do we do when we play live? Well, Stewart really wants to take up a Stratocaster and Marshall stack and stand in front of the band for those songs and be the front man. Which is great. I’ll be very happy to be on the side and just got wailing away on the guitar. Obviously, we will need to fill out our show with other things, like The Police or Adrian Belew records, King Crimson, who knows what. And on those, Mark and I will take the front man roll. When Stewart is playing guitar up front, we will have Pete Biggin, the drummer who has been in Level 42, as the backup drummer.”

Have you considered who the audience is for this project?

Adrian Belew:  “No. My thinking for many years now has been so apart from anything to do with mainstream anything. I don’t think in those terms at all. I don’t listen to the radio. I barely watch television. I’m always working on my music. I don’t even listen to other people’s records much. I’m pretty head in the sand. I wake up with things to do and lots of stuff to keep me occupied with emails and making new records. I’ve got a studio in my basement, and I’ve got a million instruments. I just can’t stop myself. So, I clocked out of that a long, long time ago. At least 15 years ago, maybe 20. I stopped thinking about getting on the radio or anything like that. I stopped thinking in terms of record labels. I’ve had my own label since 1992, specifically for my own material. I don’t sign other bands or anything like that.

“So, to find myself in this position again, where all of a sudden there’s a viable record label and there’s a viable band that actually could maybe get airplay, I didn’t even know that even existed. It’s kind of funny for me. I’m learning again that this is something that can still be done. Fortunately, we have a record label in Germany that has affiliates in all different countries, including here [in America] that seems so pro-active, and they seem like they really know how to do this. So, I’m giving myself over to something that I never thought I’d do again. And I’m happy doing it.”

But are you curious as to who your audience will turn out to be?

Adrian Belew:  “I’m very, very curious to see how any of this goes. I’m really hoping that it takes me, personally, to a new place. I can do everything I’m already doing now. I can tour the world with my band endlessly. I’ve done it for 11 years. I can make my own records at home, endlessly. I’ve got all the ability and I know how to do all that stuff. This would be, for me, the time to see what it’s like now to have a popular band travelling around the world in a different setting. My own setting is clubs and small theaters. It’s great, I make a good living doing it and I love it. I love my band. I would love to see the other side of the coin, which is something Stewart had his time at. I’m not saying we would be The Police, but it would be nice to be playing in more of those kinds of levels. This is it I hope.”

Have been involved with so many projects, are there any that you’d compare being part of Gizmodrome to?

Adrian Belew:  “To me, this has reminded me a lot of playing with Talking Heads. I don’t mean in any way musically. Personally, I have the same feeling playing this music that I did with Talking Heads. I’m very comfortable, I feel free to do whatever I want. I’m not the main focus, so I have a little easier role in the sense that I can cut loose on guitar and be happy doing that. In a larger way, I had been thinking over the past year or two that the climate that I see in the world, politically, economically, and musically is one in which a band like the Talking Heads were to the 80s would be perfectly fitted now. In other words, I think the world really needs a groovy, happy, fun band with good musicianship, intelligence, and a sense of humor. I’d compare it a little bit to what the Talking Heads meant in the 80s. They were the hip, ahead-of-everybody band that was cutting edge but also very danceable and fun. I think the world needs that band. If Gizmodrome is that band, that would be great. But regardless, I think that the world needs that because it’s kind of a reflection of the climate of the worldview of everything and that you always have something that comes along and makes you feel better about the dismal state of affairs. I think that a lot of people would say right now, since this world is in a very disruptive state of confusion, with a lot of crazy things going on, it would be nice to have some great music. Because there’s just not much of it right now. All that music that I do get in contact with seems very manufactured and soul-less. It doesn’t really have a personality. The world needs something more than that. I hope this can be it.”

The word “supergroup” has been thrown around in describing Gizmodrome. What do you think of that?

Adrian Belew:  “We make fun of it entirely now. A big part of our reason for going to Italy was to hang out and eat pasta and live the La Dolce Vita lifestyle [laughs]. So, we started saying we’re not a super group, we’re a supper group. But before we came upon that line, I used to say, ‘Well, we’re a super group of people.’ The term ‘supergroup’ is loaded with negativity. It seems like everyone who’s ever allowed themselves to be called that has ended up making one record and been dead in the water. I won’t mind if anyone labels it that way; it’s a little bit of an honor to be considered, that there’s enough elite in what you’re doing that you could have that kind of term. But it is a bit negative the way that people think of it, so I’d rather come up with something else. When were in Paris, we did two days’ worth of interviews and the Parisians couldn’t figure out what the heck this band was about. They kept wanting to find names for it. What do you call this kind of music? Three different interviewers came up separately with this term “punk prog.” So, we’re going with that for the moment.”

But ‘prog’ can also have negative connotations.

Adrian Belew:  “It can. What I would say about the prog part of it, and it is related to the jam band part of it, is that obviously we’ve constructed this record to be songs, short four-minute songs as usual. But when we were recording them, once we’d get through a song we’d always play for another five minutes. We’d jam away and have fun. That stuff is not really on the record, but that is what I expect will happen live. That will take this to a different level. I fully expect that we’ll play ‘Strange Things Happen,’ the exact version of it, and then we’ll jam. Why not? It would be fun and that would put us more in the category of being progressive or jam band. But the basic formula right now is that you’ve got some well-written songs from Stewart and Vittorio that have catchy hooks. They’re what they are; they’re meant to be pop.”

You’ve released an app, Flux, where you’re able to put musical ideas that don’t make their way into full songs. Has that affected the way you work, knowing that whatever you come up with can have a place?

Adrian Belew:  “Actually, that’s the entire reason why I invented Flux. All my life, I’ve had lots of little occurrences, sounds I’d made or loops or ten seconds of something or a song that I’d written where I realized it was only a verse and a chorus but I thought it was perfect that way. There’s no place for any of that on records, there never was. I invented Flux as a means to open up my creative mind so you could look inside and see all the little things that are running around. Flux is an amalgam of everything I can do, everything I can think of. As long as it passes my quality test, it can be anything. It can be a little moment when I did something on my iPhone and I just liked that little moment. One of the first things that happened was that I wrote a song called ‘One More Day’ and it’s over in 30 seconds. There’s no chorus. It’s totally not a standard song form. But to me, it was totally complete. It was an idea that was finished. There was no reason for me to write a second verse that said the same thing again or to add a chorus that summarized or whatever. It was a way to break out of that form.

“So, to answer your question of what happened to me after that and what has happened ever since, I’ve been like ten times more productive, because I have no constraints on what I’m looking to do. Whatever happens, if I can make something of it that I love, it’s Flux-worthy. The idea with Flux is that things change quickly and they don’t repeat themselves over and over, so you need a lot of subject matter. The Flux app has hundreds of things in it, pieces of music, sounds, even some common ordinary things thrown in there to kind of glue it together. Because I like this idea that the song is playing along and suddenly the door opens with a creak and this whole other thing happens. That’s the idea; it’s just like life itself, it’s always changing. I love this idea that you have music that’s not the same twelve songs.

“Now, Gizmodrome is not Flux material, and it’s not meant to be. But for me, personally, it’s like a goldmine. I can’t stop myself from continuing. What I’m doing now, because it’s not easy to get people to download an app in order to hear Adrian Belew music and have that on their iPad or iPhone, what I’m doing now is taking all the content and gradually remastering it to be put into CDs. We have two that are already out, and a third one is finished and will probably be out at the end of the year. It would probably take 6 CDs just to catch up with the material that’s there. And because Flux is never finished, because I keep adding to it, that’s another thing that separates it from any other kind of record music that I know of, I’ll probably continue that process for my rest of my life, I hope.”

So now you’re releasing the material on traditional CDs?

Adrian Belew:  The CDs are meant to be put on in shuffle mode. When you have the app, it does that automatically for you. If along the way on the app you like something, and would like to be able to hear it any time, you just press a little ‘favor’ button and it goes into a playlist. So, it’s the same as having a record you can hear any time. But the object is that you’re not supposed to listen to it that way.”

Do you ever hear something in Flux and get inspired to do something else with it?

Adrian Belew:  “Sure, that’s another big thing about Flux. The idea was supposed to be that most of the time, a song or a piece of music has one life; you produce it this way and that’s it. I wanted it to be that songs can have multiple lives. A lot of what happens in Flux is that you have a song and it is redone different ways. It may even have different lyrics, or five different guitar solos. Maybe you do it one way and then do an entirely different version of it. So yes, I’m already doing that as the material is going by. But I plan to do that further down the line by looking back and going ‘wow, so that song I really only spend that much time on it but I’d like to revisit it and maybe let someone else play it or I’ll put it as a string section with a vocal or something different.”

It seems like a good fusion of electronic and rock music.

Adrian Belew:  “There’s a lot of electronic music in it. Those are what I call snippets; they are the glue that hold everything together, and the things that interrupt the songs. A lot of times, those are electronic moments that I’ve created on keyboards or guitar synth. You could make long pieces out of them, but I prefer it to feel like you are suddenly transported to this entirely different headspace, entirely different feeling, and then you don’t know what’s happening next. It could be another song or another piece of music or somebody talking, it could be anything. I never know, and no one else knows. Each time you press play, you get a half hour, and it’s a different half hour. The visuals that come with it are not matched to the music. They’re always different, too. So, the whole experience is mean to be that.”

You’re known for making creative use of effects technology. Are there any milestones in the evolution of musical technology that you feel have had an impact on your sound and process?

Adrian Belew:  “When I first started, I only meant to be a song writer. That’s the only reason I taught myself to play guitar. But at that point in time, there was barely an effect that you could use. If you had an amp and a guitar, that’s about what you could have. I grew up through this entire period of the explosion of technology, and I’ve loved every minute of it. What it’s given me is the ability to do things that I’d never done before, make sounds I could never make before, and that has always inspired me to write music or songs to put those things in. I think one of the first big breakthroughs for me personally was the ability to use a guitar synthesizer. Early on, I remember seeing two bands play in Cincinnati where I lived. One was the James Gang, a great funk band with Joe Walsh. I liked that band a lot. The second band came out and they did their first album and it just blew James Gang and his guitar stuff out of the water for me. Hearing the synth solo at the end of “Lucky Man” was it for me. I wondered how I would ever get to do that? I had to wait about 10 years before the technology transferred to being something keyboard only to being something you could do on guitar. In 1980, I went to Japan for my second time, this time with the Talking Heads, and Roland had just invented the second version of their guitar synth. It was called the GR-300 and they gave me one there, because the Roland company was very, very nice to me. I brought it back and I believe I was the first person in the United States with a Roland GR-300. So, I started with the guitar synthesizer right off the bat and began taking that and moving it forward. The next year we had King Crimson, the first round in 1981, where Robert and I both had guitar synthesizers and we thought ok, now we can really change things because we’ve got our hands in a place the keyboard players have had for years. That was huge for me.

“I think another huge thing was the revolution that came along in recording itself, which was the ADAT [digital multitrack] revolution. At just about that time, I was wishing I didn’t have these restraints from the record label, who gave me x amount of dollars to go in someone else’s studio and spend all those x amount of dollars on a schedule every day. I had to be very careful how much time I spent, with no time to really experiment too much. Wouldn’t it be great if I could just do this at home?’ As much as I love recording studios; they’re very impressive to me even now. I wanted that ability to be able to sit back and relax and just try things. That gave it to me, and it started me on the path of having my own studio. When I moved to Nashville 23 years ago, the first thing I did was set up my home studio. We corrected two rooms in the house, the control room and the recording room, so they were perfectly acoustic rooms and we put all the gear in. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. Talk about making someone productive. If you have a studio, especially if you’re paying an engineer to come every now and then, you’re going to be very productive. We’ve made so many records in that studio. It’s paid for itself over a million times. But more importantly, it’s really helped me take my ideas almost instantly and work with them.”

Be sure to also check out my interview with Stewart Copeland at pleasekillme.com!

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