“I was the guy standing with the first guitar synthesizer and the audacity to say, ‘What if I play this with a knife and fork? What if I play this with a banana?’ That has always excited me,” says musician Adrian Belew.
It’s that propensity to make his instrument sound… not like that instrument that attracted plenty of collaborators over the years. In addition to his solo work and his long stint with King Crimson, Belew has worked with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and the Talking Heads.
It’s his work with that last iconic band that brings Belew to the Jersey area in early March. He, Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and an 11-piece band will celebrate the band’s iconic Remain in Light album at the Starland Ballroom.
“I have just loved every minute of it,” Belew says of getting (parts of) the band back together. “When I first spoke with Jerry about it, we said the world needs something like we did back then. It’s a joyful, happy experience. People can get away from whatever’s been happening with their lives. … None of us adapt the role or try to take over the role of David Byrne. It’s really one big party.”
Belew got involved in the album when he was in New York City trying to gin up interest in his solo work; Byrne, Harrison and producer Brian Eno “kind of cornered me in the stairwell,” he says, and said they’re recording an album, could Belew play on it?
He waffled for a sec, but then ultimately decided to join in on what would become the Remain in Light sessions, which produced some of the band’s most well-known songs like “Once in a Lifetime,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” and “Houses in Motion.”
Belew’s tendency to push the boundaries of song meshed well with Eno and the Talking Heads—in the early stages, their songs were feelings, rhythms, without guardrails that made it obvious where, say, melodies and solos should go. Belew let his instincts take over when he was called upon.
“I was going through sounds, and in the control room I could see them besides themselves, so I knew it was going to be a very good day,” Belew says. “They said go in, put headphones on and hang out until you think a guitar solo should happen.”
(You can hear his big, galactic-overdrive, eclectic bandsaw guitar cut into the rhythm about two minutes into “The Great Curve” for evidence.) Belew said the enthusiasm from the band and Eno came from the fact they were nearing their wit’s end trying to build songs out of the foundations they had set, and Belew’s energy was invigorating.
“When you make something that’s so unusual and different… [for instance], they layer one thing at a time. You lay one guitar lick and it goes all the way through the track and then they combine different tracks. That idea was such a fresh, new idea. I could understand why they were flummoxed by it. I think David said with the songs being in one key, he wasn’t sure what to do singing-wise.”
You can go down a fun rabbit-hole watching old talks Belew has given on the nature of his musicianship; how he makes the sounds he does and how he approaches the task of fitting those sounds into music—that is, to harmoniously integrate unique sounds in a musical way, not just for the sake of being an oddball.
“I’ve always been invested in sounds, not notes so much. Never really cared for that. I’m a songwriter so I’m involved in melody, but as a guitar player, I thought why can’t I make the guitar do something totally different? Can I make it sound like something I’ve never heard before? That’s what I’ve done most of my life.”
As such, Belew has grown as a musician in the last four decades. So the shows—at Starland (3/5), Philly (3/7) and NYC (3/9)—are not going to be a one-for-one reproductions of the album. They’ll be based on the band’s 1980 Live in Rome concert (which you can watch on YouTube), but Belew and the other musicians will play in the spirit of the album more than they’ll create a carbon copy of it.
And, more than anything, Belew promises it’s just going to be a blast.
“This is music to make you joyful. Just enjoy it and do whatever you want; it’s not gonna happen forever. We can only do so many shows and that’s it. Not saying we won’t do more, but we’re only able to cover so much territory. Folks, if I could I’d be everywhere at once, I would, because I’m loving it, too. I always joke I wish I had a clone, but then I’d have to look at it.”
Jerry Harrison & Adrian Belew, ‘Remain in Light’. March 7 at Keswick Theatre in Philly; March 9 at Sony Hall in New York. More info at remaininlight.net.