At any given time, guitar wizard Adrian Belew is juggling approximately a million projects. His fall schedule includes the CD and DVD releases of his performance with the Metropole Orchestra; hosting a band camp in upstate New York; speaking at a guitar festival in Urbana, Illinois; and a tour double-headlined by his power trio and Stickmen, a group featuring Belew’s King Crimson bandmates Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. The tour brings him back to Northern Kentucky, where he was born (at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Covington). We asked Belew about growing up on both sides of the river and returning in the ’80s to lend a hand to the Raisins.
You played drums in the Ludlow High School marching band. Is that where you grew up? Well, not entirely. The first school I went to was in Alexandria. That was for the first year. Then I lived in Cincinnati. I lived over in, oh, what’s the name of that wonderful park you guys have that overlooks the river?
Eden Park? Eden Park, yes! I love Eden Park. Believe it or not, Fulton Avenue in Eden Park used to be a beautiful residential area. We lived in an apartment at the very end of Fulton for a couple of years while I went to school at Windsor. Then we moved to Ludlow. I spent three years in Ludlow—sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. That’s when I joined the Ludlow band. Between eighth and ninth grade, we moved to Florence. I went to Boone County High School and graduated there in 1967.
You moved quite a bit. We did. My parents were kind of —what would you call that?—lower-middle class. In other words, we didn’t have much money at all. There were times when my father had to work more than one job, and we ended up moving a lot. Several times we shared my grandmother’s house. We lived in the upstairs floor that she had at 33 Kenner Street in Ludlow. It’s funny how this comes back.
Was it a tough childhood? Actually it was not. I had one of the best childhoods. I know that’s kind of rare. I had a really nice family around me. All of my family was churchgoing Christians, so we had a lot of family gatherings. I was especially close to my aunts and uncles and my grandmother. I had no idea that we were poor—nobody told me. So I was living a great life. I really enjoyed it.
You’ve played alongside some prominent front men: David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and David Byrne, to name a few. What sets a successful rock front man apart? The common characteristic in those guys is that they’re innovative musicians, and they’ve been able to turn that to their advantage. The quirkiness and oddness of their personalities and the kind of music they make have somehow struck a chord. I think there’s a brand of music that I’ve participated in a lot in my life, and it’s usually outside the mainstream, although every now or then one or two of those songs by Talking Heads or David Bowie will slip into the radio stream. That’s the place I’ve lived in all my life, musically, even though I’ve been on a lot of hit records like “You Can Call Me Al” and Nine Inch Nails records. I think that’s what all those guys have in common. They’re trying to push the boundaries, not just make hit records.
Back when you produced that Raisins record, what were you trying to accomplish? Well, it was my first attempt at doing anything on production. I’m sure that I overproduced it, because I’m sure I had a million and one ideas. I just loved the band. I thought they had the greatest songs. I was absolutely certain that they were the next big thing. The response they got in Cincinnati would lead you to believe that too. Some people were just absolutely wild about this band. I couldn’t imagine that they would go forever and ever without being discovered by someone. I don’t know why that never happened. I hope people don’t blame me. It wasn’t my fault. I was the biggest fan in the world.