For more than two decades, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew has been the voice of King Crimson on stage and record. And as the band prepares the release of “The Power To Believe,” due March 4 on Sanctuary Records, it’s Belew who’s the voice of the band with the press.
But behind the scenes King Crimson has always been guitarist Robert Fripp’s band. From the band’s late 1960s debut “In The Court of the Crimson King, An Observation By King Crimson,” it’s been driven by Fripp’s quiet countenance.
That’s not lost on Belew who says that although he’s been in the band since 1981, it’s been in the last five years that he’s figured out the best way to ride the creative wave of King Crimson.
Belew says in the past he’d catch an idea he thought was worthy of Crimson while he was working on any of his other myriad projects. “Sometimes [those ideas] would work out and sometimes I would feel, ‘No, that’s not really what I had in mind.’ So, I thought that process didn’t work as well as the process of making sure that Robert’s involved in everything, because if he’s not involved in it, it probably won’t be King Crimson enough,” Belew says.
“Robert and I work best if we initiate an idea together rather than bring in separate ideas,” he continues. So for “Power,” he and Fripp sat together over the course of several weeks working through musical ideas in an unplugged setting.
Then the two guitarists set up a “full gear” rehearsal with Trey Gunn on Warr guitar/rubber bass and drummer Pat Mastelotto. That’s when the music “goes to the next level of everyone in the band making their contributions,” says Belew.
That is, all but those songs that Belew feels will be vocal-based and not solely instrumental workouts. “It comes clear at some point whether the song wants to be instrumental or it wants to be a song with words and melody,” he says.
He gets the sense where “I feel strongly about melody or concept or something I feel that I can take and I can change and alter further,” he says. “If it’s going to be a song, I take it away more privately and add whatever chord changes are needed to accommodate my melodies and then I write the words last.”
The music on “Power” has been kicking around for about two years. After the initial brainstorm session between Belew and Fripp and the full-band rehearsal, the songs made their way to live sets as King Crimson toured with Tool. Belew says that playing the new songs live gives “a better sense of what’s working and what needs further changes. We’d take these different pieces out — they weren’t really completed, but we’d have an arrangement that we felt strong enough about to play — most of them never had vocals, because that’s usually the last thing on the painting.”
Belew’s musical career stretches beyond King Crimson in all directions. His guitar has graced music from the likes of Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson. His pop heart beats with the Bears and he’s got a catalog of solo releases as well.
But King Crimson always draws him in because of its “challenging part of how to collaborate with some very headstrong, original-thinking musicians. Every time I come back to King Crimson, it’s as though someone has taken the jigsaw puzzle apart and now you have to put it back together a new way. It challenges me. And I think it’s very healthy for me to have a situation like King Crimson where everything isn’t done my way, as it is on my solo records. It’s done as a group collaboration headed by Robert Fripp. He has very specific areas that he works in that we allow to be called King Crimson.”
In between the album release and King Crimson’s forthcoming U.S. and European tour, Belew has found a new collaborative grouping with Primus founder Les Claypool on bass and Tool drummer Danny Carey. The trio grew out of a Belew solo project where some of the music required a power trio presentation. “On my solo albums I’ll play everything if I can,” says Belew, “but I felt that this material really needed two other powerful, unique players with a muscular kind of attitude.”
Belew was taking a break from working on that solo material when he spoke with Billboard.com. “The music is just amazing,” he says. It’s taking over.
“What we’re going to do is [work on] some of this material that I brought in and is earmarked for my solo record. Then we’re going to generate a bunch of new material between the three of us, fresh stuff out of which we’ll make a project record.”
But first comes those live shows, arguably King Crimson’s raison d’etre. The band’s North American tour starts Feb. 28 in Asheville, N.C., with confirmed dates through March 29 in L.A. A string of Japanese dates is set for April.
While not running as loose a ship as a jam band might, King Crimson presents an ever-changing set list from a core group of songs to play every night, and a shifting roster of tunes to fill in the other spaces. “Basically at soundcheck either myself or Trey Gunn will make up a set list and offer it up for approval,” Belew says.
“We like to change things up just so that we remain fresh, and we realize there’s a certain number of the audience that may come to more than one show and maybe in more than one city,” he says.
Here are King Crimson’s upcoming tour dates:
Feb. 28: Asheville, N.C. (Orange Peel)
March 1: Atlanta (Variety Playhouse)
March 3-4: Alexandria, Va. (The Birchmere)
March 5-6: New York (Town Hall)
March 7: Upper Darby, Pa. (Tower Theatre)
March 8: Boston (Orpheum Theatre)
March 10: Quebec City (Albert Rousseau Theatre)
March 12: Toronto (Massey Hall)
March 13: Detroit (State Theatre)
March 14-15: Chicago (Park West)
March 16: Milwaukee (Modjeska Theatre)
March 19: Englewood, Colo. (Gothic Theatre)
March 20: Denver (Fillmore Auditorium)
March 23: Vancouver (Commodore Ballroom)
March 24: Seattle (Moore Theatre)
March 25: Portland, Ore. (Roseland Theater)
March 26: Santa Rosa, Calif. (Luther Burbank Center)
March 28: San Francisco (The Warfield)
March 29: Los Angeles (The Wiltern)
April 12: Nagano, Japan (Matsumoto Bunka)
April 13: Tokyo (Hitomi Memorial Hall)
April 15-17: Tokyo (Koseinenkin Kaikan)
April 19: Fukuoka, Japan (Miel Parque Hall)
April 20: Nagoya, Japan (Koseinenkin Hall)
April 21: Osaka, Japan (Koseinenkin Hall)
April 23-24: Tokyo (Shibuya Kokaido)