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Catching Fire At Level Five


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"Have you ever seen the man who has some plates on some poles and he’s trying to get all the plates spinning at once? That’s me. With so many projects spinning in the air, not to mention a new King Crimson rising in the distance. But that’s how I like it." Those words—first written by Adrian Belew for the liner notes of his 1999 compilation album Coming Attractions—still ring true. Three years later, in 2002, Adrian is preparing to record a new King Crimson studio album—the title of which, like those plates, is currently spinning in the air. The most recent Adrian Belew project—outside of King Crimson—is Car Caught Fire, the long awaited comeback album from The Bears—a group Belew’s been affiliated with since 1976. It was in the club "Fanny’s", in Nashville, that Adrian first met his future bandmates in the The Bears—Rob Fetters, Chris Arduser and Bob Nyswonger—who were then performing as The Raisins. Interestingly, it was in the same club a year later, in 1977 that Adrian first met Frank Zappa, who wound up recruiting Adrian for the late ‘70s Zappa group. Following Zappa, Adrian went on to work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and in 1981 Adrian accepted Robert Fripp’s offer to join him in the ‘80s King Crimson. Belew’s work in King Crimson—dating back to the dawn of the ‘80s—is still legendary. United with long time Crimson mentor Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford and Tony Levin, Crimson recorded three classic albums during the early ‘80s. However—since their revival in the mid ‘90s, King Crimson have surpassed all expectations, releasing a barrage of astonishing studio and live albums, topped off by the 2000 releases of The Construction Of Light and a stunning triple CD set—Heavy Construction—which more than demonstrates the phenomenal impact of the current King Crimson line-up. Belew’s work with King Crimson continues to amaze and much the same could be said about his solo work. Since 1982, with the Lone Rhino album, Adrian has released a number of solo masterpieces such as Inner Revolution (1992), Here (1994), Op Zop Too Wah (1996) and a ‘99 sampler album on Thirsty Ear Records entitled Coming Attractions. The action doesn’t stop there. Car Caught Fire—the first Bears album since the mid ‘80s—is clearly among the great pop albums of 2001 and should serve as an ear-opening experience for anyone unfamiliar with Belew’s ‘other’ band. True to his words, Adrian Belew is happiest when all his plates are spinning simultaneously—a remarkable feat which shines a light on the many sides of his prolific musical personality. MWE3.COM music reviews editor Robert Silverstein had a chance to speak with Adrian on the afternoon before the opening night of the 2002 Bears tour. Among the topics discussed were The Bears’ self-produced third album, Car Caught Fire, the recent limited edition King Crimson live CD—Level Five, various Belew song classics, work with David Bowie and of course his ongoing, pioneering work with Robert Fripp and the 21st Century King Crimson. The following interview with Adrian Belew took place by phone on January 30th, 2002.

Adrian Belew: AB

RS: Hello Adrian, it’s great to speak with you. I saw King Crimson twice in 2001, first in West Palm Beach last summer and then at the Beacon Theater in New York this past December. I’m very impressed with the Level Five disc. It sounds like a new re-energized King Crimson. What does the title mean and could you speak about the making of the Level Five ep and my follow up is on how it relates to the next King Crimson album tentatively titled Nouveau Metal?

AB: Yes, Nouveau Metal—I don’t know if that’s the title for certain—that’s a working title. Well, as you know the CD Level Five is live versions of the material in it’s early forms. What we always do in King Crimson is—after we have some material that we feel is ready to go—we like to tour to play it live because it kind of takes on it’s final step at that point. Most of everything that you hear on Level Five is the beginnings and makings of the next Crimson record—whatever it’s called—if it’s called Nouveau Metal or...I like that title by the way. And, those are primarily the instrumental pieces. What we’re attempting to do in March is add all the songs, vocal pieces, any other interesting bits that we come up with. So, we start March 1st doing the finishing touches of the writing of the rest of the record. I have no idea where the title Level Five comes from—it’s one of Robert’s—so I don’t know if there’s a hidden meaning or any meaning at all to that (laughter). It was originally called Lark’s Five—I think at one point, Robert decided, no he’d stop that line of thought and go in a new direction. Or else someday, we’d end up with, y ‘know, Lark’s Tongue 27 (laughter).

RS: Where and when will the new Crimson album be recorded?

AB: Those are things that we’ll be deciding as we have this next leg in the spring. Everything will begin in my studio, but I don’t know that it’ll be completely recorded there. Pat seems to want a larger room for his drums—and he needs a larger room! (laughter) I think some of it will be finished in my studio, because Robert and I are really comfortable there, at least for guitars and vocals and post-production and things like that. Timewise, well we’ve set aside March, April, May to finish the writing and it’s a lengthy procedure, but at least as you can tell from Level Five, the CD, you know we have quite a few pieces in the works. I think those are the major musical pieces—the things that we started with, that mainly came from Robert—and now the band has taken on and expounded upon. So, if we now, find the right songs to balance the record with, we should be there. I’m ready to go and I’m pretty excited about all of the material. In terms of the direction of it, I feel like we’ve turned ourselves into some sort of a metal rock band that I like.

RS: I think the recent Bears album Car Caught Fire is one of the great pop-rock records of the past year. You say "we made this record just for fun—because we love playing together. That was the purpose". You’ve also said that the songwriting has really matured since the group’s early recordings back in the ‘80s. I find it a really well-balanced pop album featuring four distinctive songwriters and lead singers.

AB: Yeah, I agree with that impression, whereas, the very first Bears records were very focused on being a band and having a distinctive sound and alot of the writing was shared, with this last record Car Caught Fire we simply came together and picked through each other’s best new writings and then played them together. It still comes off as a band because we have our own distinctive way of approaching music and I think it’s because we have such a shared background and we all grew up with the same kind of influences, we’ve played together in various combinations for so many years now. Chris and Bob—the drummer and bass player—started playing together when Chris was eleven and Bob was fifteen. (laughter) So there’s quite alot of chemistry there, and friendship there in The Bears. It’s always been—in a sense to me—kind of a songwriters workshop, but one with a certain kind of focus to it y’know? We’re very discreet with which choices we make, so you know when you bring something to The Bears, you best bring your best new songs—that’s what it’s about.

RS: Your song, "Life In A Nutshell", leads off the CD and the words go "It’s been a long hard drive, and maybe my car caught fire." I guess you’re saying it’s been a long strange trip. I’m glad you’re here to tell it.

AB: The song, I don’t mean to sound strange for a second, but that song really came after I went to a friend of mine’s funeral. He died young, age 35, and he was a really wonderful guy who really enjoyed his life. And I thought, well anyone can die at any time. If I died, for whatever reason, I’d want people to know that nearly everything I ever wanted turned out fine. (laughter) That is the sentiment of the song—is yes it’s fine. Nothing turns out perfectly in life, but nearly everything turned out great for me personally and I’m really pleased with so much of what’s happened in my life especially, I’d say, with family and career. So, that was the sentiment of the song. It was the last song that we worked on, and it was such a nice little rockin’ song by the end, that we said, ‘let’s start the record with this one.’ Kicks it off nicely.

RS: Could you say something about some of the songs from Car Caught Fire? "117 Valley Drive"—I first heard from Coming Attractions and is still my favorite song on the album. I think it’s among the best ‘60s nostalgia songs I’ve ever heard. It sounds like a 21st Century version of "Pleasant Valley Sunday", only in "117 Valley Drive" you really lived it.

AB: That’s right. That is my address from the ‘60s. And all those things that are in the song about having my first band, and practicing in our backyard, and having people come around and listening and the sort of family camaraderie that it had. I mean that was the feeling that was in the air then. It was such a great time in life. Everybody would be there listening to our little band, which was called The Denims. We played lots of Beatles songs. So yes, there’s lot’s of references in that song to the ‘60s and to that brand of music and the song—it tries to sound that way, naturally. We’ve been rehearsing now, The Bears have, for the last week. We start our tour today. Tonight is our first show. We’re all a little shaky and grey-haired but it’s gonna be great. And that song is one of the ones that sticks out in my mind when the band now plays it. It really rocks. It’s a great song. I love doing that one.

RS: How were the vocal parts divided up on that song?

AB: Well, unlike the first Bears, since that time period, we now have Chris as another vocalist. He’s become quite the songwriter and singer himself, so it’s divided among the three of us. I sing the verses, Rob and I sing the choruses and then Chris and I sing the bridge. (laughter) You’ll see, if you see the show when we’re touring this year, that’s how alot of the vocals are. Everyone has their own distinctive moments in the show. We do a couple of Chris’ songs and naturally lots of mine and lots of Rob’s. Any of Bob’s songs get sung either by me or Rob. And he writes great songs that I love to sing. One of my favorites on the new record, in fact, is "When She Moves", and even though I don’t sing that one, Rob does, I think that’s such a great song. And that’s one of Bob’s.

RS: Another great song from the album is "What’s The Good Of Knowing" by Chris Arduser.

AB: Right. Well you know, when Chris brought us that song, and like I said, everytime we met at my studio which was every few months for a weekend, when he first played it, he had kind of a demo of that song. And it sounded a little like a Byrds song from the ‘60s. It had a twelve string kind of sound and we liked that. And we said, let’s do that y’know. So the way we did it...I have a high strung Nashville stringed guitar as they call it. And so Rob Fetters plays the regular guitar parts and I mimic him with the Nashville tuning which is an octave above it. So you get a big twelve string out of two guitars which is’s a really nice sound. Vocally, we all sing it together. Rob and I sing a harmony a little off mike and in unison which is something that not a lot of bands do but it’s something that I got from a band called Moby Grape, which not many people will remember, but they were one of the great failures (laughter) of the ‘60s. I mean they were a great band that never made it big. And they used to do that alot where they had two or three people singing harmony in unison and I love that sound. Moby Grape was really one of those pivotal bands for me personally. I loved that band so much and I thought they—in a similar fashion to The Bears—they had four or five really good songwriters and good singers and they were all great players. Just a really interesting band. For anyone who doesn’t know that band, it was kind of a predecessor to The Eagles in a way. It was a shame that somebody messed it up.

RS: Another song I really enjoy from the new album is "Under The Volcano", also written by Rob Fetters.

AB: That’s a great song and that one’s getting alot of attention and, actually, air play which is amazing because we’re doing all this ourselves. We don’t even have a record label yet. And the other one of his that everyone’s paying alot of attention to is called "Dave", which we had Robert Fripp play on. That song amazed me too because it’s about a friend of Rob’s who committed suicide when they were teenagers. And the two of them were heavily into Robert Fripp and King Crimson music. And then isn’t it interesting that, in the end, he has two of the people from King Crimson playing on the song and Robert Fripp doing a solo. But the song is really one that touches alot of people when you listen to it. The lyrics are pretty amazing and Rob told an interviewer yesterday that he wrote that in fifteen minutes. He sat down and it all poured out.

RS: And what about "Sooner Or Later"—another great song, this one by Bob Nyswonger.

AB: "Sooner Or Later" was the first song we did and I like that one alot too. It was nice because, once again, we have this kind of thing in The Bears where we like to divide things up a bit. So I’ll sing a verse, then Rob will sing a chorus like it is in that song. And I think that works really well because you get these two different singers and then they come together in harmonies and so on. And that’s kind of a hallmark of what we do.

RS: I’m looking forward to seeing The Bears when they play in NYC at the Mercury Lounge in late February. So there’s gonna be a cross-section of songs that you’re playing live with The Bears from your albums and other albums?

AB: No, no we’re not gonna play songs from other people’s records. We’re just playing Bears songs. Yeah, I mean there’s so many Bears songs. There’s 39 to be exact. And we wanted to play as much of the new album as we can. I think we play most of it. And naturally we wanted to play alot of the stuff from the two ‘80s albums. So when we put all the material together we had something like 28 songs to play (laughter). And we learned that many, I think, and then we narrowed it down now. I think that we’re playing 23 or something like that. There is one surprise I won’t tell that’s not from the band. But other than that it’s all Bears music. If we had opened the can of worms, y’know—let’s do other people’s material, well y’know you’ve got alot from me, and then you’ve got some from The Dots, their band that they had after The Bears. So we felt it would maybe convolute things. Plus we just really wanna play The Bears music and have fun again. It’s a pretty short tour. I wish it could be longer. I’m sure by the end of it, by the time we get to the Mercury Lounge in New York City, we’re gonna be A, exhausted, but happily, and B, I think we’re gonna be cranked up unbelievable so...The only reason we couldn’t go any further was everyone has other commitments and things.

RS: Where would you like to see The Bears evolve to next? I hope there’ll be another Bears album sometime in the next couple years or so...

AB: I’m going to record five or six of the shows that we do on this tour and I’m sure I’ll make a live record out of that, because the band has an amazing, exciting energy live. It’s just a hot band. So y’know you wanna capture that and then that’ll be a way to reintroduce some people to the music of The Bears, especially some of the earlier stuff which you can’t get on CD anymore. For the future, I don’t know, I think we just want to be casual and take it easy and then see what happens. We don’t have big plans or dreams. We love playing and when there’s the opportunity to make more music I’m sure ‘cause there’s no reason not to. We can, we’ve proven that we can do it even without a record label. The record’s already paid for itself, by the way, so that’s quite a feat I think. I think for the future though, there will be more Bears material. I could see lot’s of things we could do. I could even foresee us maybe even rerecording something from the first and second album. Maybe putting out a compilation of that or something. Call it version 2.0 (laughter). Because those records are not available. You know, naturally we will have lots of new material so I think we’ll make another record. I don’t know how often we can convene and tour and do things like this, but if we take the method that we did before, where we get together in spurts, I’m sure we’ll have more music.

RS: King Crimson is doing great things with Discipline Global Mobile so I guess it’s naturally better for you to have creative and economic control by releasing The Bears CD yourself.

AB: It is modeled after those kinds of companies. And Frank Zappa did the same thing naturally and alot of people have done that beginning in the mid ‘90s kind of. I’ve done a few releases of my own. To tell you the truth, the jury is still out in my mind. I would prefer, honestly that we had a proper record label. But it would have to be a very good deal and everybody would have to really be able to contribute something that makes sense. I’m not into just giving The Bears away to somebody. But to tell you the truth, doing it yourself is really hard. And we don’t mind it, but if we could find a label that could do the mechanics of it for us we’d be happy. We’d be happier, because it would leave us more time to the music. On the other hand, when you do it yourself you get the satisfaction that you know it’s being done right and you’re not being ripped off. You do make more money, but you have less sales so...(laughter).

RS: It’s really a balancing act.

AB: It’s the future though, I think. To me the future is a combination of those two, a partnership where you have record labels working with artists who have their own record labels. And naturally, there all people already doing that.

RS: Weren’t the first two Bears CDs put out by Miles Copeland of IRS Records fame?

AB: That’s right. They were put out on an offshoot of IRS called Primitive Man, which folded while we were on tour for the second record. That officially landed The Bears in no-mans-land, where we had suddenly, no funding, no way to continue on even though the band was internally in great shape and playing really well and having fun, there was no way to really continue. I mean there was just no money. And when you don’t have the support of a label like that, it was kind of, the chair was kicked from under us (laughter).

RS: Thirsty Ear Records put out your compilation CD, Coming Attractions in ‘99. The lead-off track, "Inner Man" was another great song. You mention it was planned for a future power trio album?

AB: Right, that’s true. I have several solo records that have been in the works longer than they should’ve been. But the reason really is because I took last year to help reestablish King Crimson primarily with the new line-up and then somewhat to help reestablish The Bears. I mean we didn’t spend that much time on The Bears—we spent quite alot of time on King Crimson and that’s the way I see the future will be for a while because, especially King Crimson still has a lot to do. We’ve got a lot of plans for this coming year. And what I have to do now with my solo things—they’re on the back burner—I have to sort of work on them whenever there’s a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there. We just had a month, the month of January, where I did do a lot of work and finished a couple more songs so...(laughter). I agree with you though. I think "Inner Man" is a nice song. I really like it. It’s one that I could even see The Bears doing as a song, but all that stuff, the solo stuff, is just sitting there, waiting for my attention and also, in the back of my mind, I’m also waiting for the mechanical part of it that we were just talking about. And if I interlock with someone who can find a way to get this music out properly in the future that will prompt me alot more. I have music that I can probably put out, but I’m not gonna put it out till there’s the proper method for doing it. I also—as you probably know from that record—I’m working on an exhaustive rarities collection which is now up to 125 songs. All that stuff is sitting there to be finished and I will finish it but as I said, the time came when it was time to put my focus on other things and I’m glad that I had the chance to get it along as far as I have. It’s not going to be anything less because it’s sitting there. In fact, maybe it’ll even be like a wine and get a little better (laughter).

RS: Another great song from Coming Attractions is the song "People"—the demo version recorded on 9/24/92. Compared to the King Crimson version, you play everything on the demo. It’s really another one of your great songs.

AB: Well thank you. They never actually heard that version of "People". Because when we decided to learn "People", it was kind of a last minute addition to the Thrak album. We were in Argentina and as we reviewed the material we were about to record the next month, we decided we could use something uptempo and I said, well I do have this and presented them with the song called "People". They never actually heard that version that’s on Coming Attractions. It’s interesting to me, the differences between those two versions. One is King Crimson wailing away at it and one is my own solo interpretation. They’re both valid and they’re both very good I think. But in a way, I think for me and King Crimson, it works better not to bring material to the band but to create material within the band.

RS: What about the Coming Attractions CD live version of "Inner Revolution"—a truly brilliant performance recorded in Argentina on 9/6/97. How do you compare your live acoustic version of "Inner Revolution" with the studio version from the Inner Revolution album?

AB: Inner Revolution I believe is out of print now. It was my last album on Atlantic and they unceremoniously dumped me after that. I told them, I said, ‘I wish you had told me beforehand that you were going to drop me because I like this record, Inner Revolution. It had some pieces on it that I’m really fond of and I would’ve liked to have to seen it have some sort of life.’ As it was, when I handed them the record, they turned around and said, well y’know we’re dropping you from the label now, along with thirty other artists. So, Inner Revolution is one of those lost records of mine that I feel, just didn’t get any daylight. Unfortunately, I don’t think they put any promotion into it whatsoever. And that’s a shame ‘cause it has some good songs on it. The one you’re talking about—the title song "Inner Revolution"—I like that song because of the message to it, which was something that my wife Martha had said to me and that was the term she used—inner revolution. That sometimes—if you want to change something—you have to do it from within yourself, naturally, and sometimes you’ll have like, an epiphany—an inner revolution—where suddenly it’ll occur to you and you’ll know what you’re supposed to do and you’ll do it. And that’s a brilliant idea, I think, of hers and I like the song alot. The acoustic version—in a way, it’s more interesting than even the record version (laughter) because you get to hear the song that’s underneath all the production.

RS: That song brings me to the brink every time.

AB: The one mention in the chorus that I always liked is that ‘you can’t fix it with a drug and you can’t kill it with a gun’. I think that is so relevant to our society. Everything seems to be—people wanting to fix things with the wrong means. And some of those means are terrible means, y’know? You’re not going to fix anything by shooting a bunch of people (laughter), y’know which happens alot. You read about it, you see it on the news all the time and it just seems to be rampant. So even though that song is now ten years old, it’s still relevant.

RS: Is your favorite guitar still the Stratocaster? What kind of Strats work the best for you?

AB: Well you know, over the years now, I’ve become somewhat of a guitar aficionado. I used to just play anything. Strats, I think are really a perfect guitar. As for what they are, I don’t know that you can improve on it that much. It’s balanced, it’s beautiful, it feels great, it has lots of possibilities in terms of tones and things you can do with it. Fender Strat is a quintessential electric guitar, along the Les Paul and one or two others. There are other guitars that I have that I play for other purposes that I really love alot. I started out, in fact, on this tour, I started out playing the Parker Fly, which I think is a revolutionary, great guitar. But I soon realized that, without my guitar synthesizers set-up, I was limited. So I went back to using my Strats, which as you probably know, they’re customized Strats. They have the Roland pick-up, the guitar synthesizer pick-up built in them. I (often) go down to my studio and look at the wall of guitars and think about ‘em, and pick up different ones and play them. Sometimes that’s the way music comes out. I have a vintage Gretsch for example and I pick the vintage Gretsch up and a different kind of music starts pouring out (laughter).

RS: Is that the Gretsch guitar on the back of the Coming Attractions CD?

AB: No, that’s a Washburn guitar. That’s another beautiful guitar—that has the Buzzy Feiton tuning system on it too. For me guitars are art objects first of all, but they’re also functional tools. You want to have a Rickenbacker 12 string if you’re gonna play a 12 string (laughter). And so on and so I kind of have gradually been able to collect together most of the different things that I like as tools and also as great pieces of work as guitars. There’s so many, I mean, it used to be that I wasn’t that much into guitars, honestly I just would play whatever I had. I don’t know, I got the bug a few years ago (laughter). I guess when I built my studio and we put up the wall with enough room to hang thirty guitars, then I got the bug.

RS: Everybody in The Bears plays guitars. Were there any special guitars or weird instruments like Mellotron that were spotlighted on the new Bears album?

AB: Bob does have a mellotron. I don’t think we used it on the record. We talked about it at one point, but I don’t think we did. Both Rob and I switched on and off with the vintage Gretsch that I mentioned, through a Matchless amp. That’s a pretty amazing combination. You can get alot of real thick guitar sounds, but of course, naturally we both play Strats, so there’s alot of Strats on there. For the 12 string type sound, the guitar that I have high strung is a very unusual little guitar. I’ve never seen one of these other than the one that I have. It’s called a Fender Santa Rosa. A small bodied guitar, and it’s got an acoustic type pickup built into the bridge. I don’t know if it’s a Piezo or what it is, but it’s like that. And the sound is very raspy because of that. And it just gives you a really nice special sound so like in "When She Moves" for example, that’s another place that I use that guitar. And because of that tuning that it has, the Nashville tuning, where your G string is an octave above, two octaves above or something—an incredible tuning—everything you play on it sounds a little different than what you get from a normal guitar. I’m trying to think what else we used on the record, gee...Bob has several different basses, I think he mainly uses Fender basses. He has a big string bass that he’s playing in the show and that he played on several parts of the record. I think it was used in part of "117 Valley Drive" and it was used all through "Dave". Rob has a Godin classical stringed guitar, a nylon stringed guitar he used for "Dave". We all brought a variety of acoustic guitars and what we would do for any area that had acoustic guitars, like "Under The Volcano" for example, we would sit around a stereo C-24 mic and play, ala Traveling Wilburys, I suppose, and all four of us would play acoustics at the same time. Rob and I have some Taylors and I have a Takoma. I don’t know what Chris brought. Mostly we used my Taylors. And I have a variety of them. And Chris also plays mandolin, which is in there somewhere. Sometimes he would play mandolin on some of the songs. Chris is our drummer but in the show you’ll see we do a breakdown where we do an acoustic set for three songs and Chris switches to mandolin. It’s nice to have a drummer that plays other instruments. Y’know I can relate to that ‘cause that’s how I am (laughter).

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Special Thanks to Lori Hehr, Bill Hibbets at DGM, Rob Murphree, The Bears and to Adrian and Martha Belew. Visit Adrian at:  and 

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