Belew has served as sideman on several legendary albums, including the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, Graceland by Paul Simon, and Bowie's Lodger. He's also collaborated with artists ranging from Laurie Anderson and Trent Reznor to Béla Fleck. The last two years in particular have seen Belew work with Les Claypool, Danny Carey of Tool, and Eric and Julie Slick, siblings who actually graduated from the Paul Green School of Rock Music. But he hits the Beachland this week in support of Eureka, the new album from his rock combo, the Bears.
Belew traces his love for experimentation to a series of bus trips he made from his childhood home in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, where he saw a 70-piece orchestra perform works by the divisive Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
"Some pretty interesting and strange music for eight-year-old ears," offers Belew from his Nashville home. "I always liked the dissonant, interesting material you might get from an Edgard Varèse, but I was also really captivated by pop music, because when you're young that's what you like -- the stuff you can sing along and dance to. I've always had a little of both in my background, and I constantly try to forge the two together."
Belew's big break came in the mid-'70s, when Frank Zappa discovered him in Nashville playing with Sweetheart, a costume-rock band. "We wore authentic '40s vintage clothing, and the rule of the band was that you had to dress that style of clothing all the time," Belew explains.
Given Zappa's virtuosity and intricate arrangements, the fact that Belew doesn't read music could've been a problem. But the strange sounds he could wring from his guitar, as well as his willingness to dress like a freak, won out. "He wanted to be able to do some of the funnier music and wanted somebody there who wouldn't object to wearing a dress or a helmet, or whatever it took," admits Belew. "So I think he probably saw that in me."
In 1981, after working with the Talking Heads and Bowie, Belew was asked by Robert Fripp to join what would become the second incarnation of King Crimson. "We had all the latest and greatest tools that no one else was using, and I think that's important. [Bassist] Tony Levin had something called the Stick, that no one ever had seen. Bill Bruford had the first line of electronic drumming that I'd ever seen. I was the first guy I ever knew with a guitar synthesizer, and Robert was the second," Belew laughs. "In the air there was a very adventurous kind of creativity that a lot of people were exploring, especially with African rhythms and Balinese music, and so you had the Talking Heads and Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel and everyone dipping their hand into that same pocket of world music."
Belew's most recent collaboration is with the Cincinnati trio the Bears. Belew actually met guitarist Rob Fetters, bassist Bob Nyswonger, and drummer Chris Arduser back in the '70s, while he was in Sweetheart and they were in a group with two others called the Raisins. He produced an album for them, and when the band broke up, Belew joined them as the Bears.
But due to Belew's hectic schedule, the Bears are only an intermittent concern. Time permitting, they work up songs over long weekends every couple months. Then again, Eureka is the group's most polished and consistent effort to date. "I think we were a little more thorough in the weeding-out process," explains Belew. "We were looking to put together a record that hangs together a little better."
To that end, they concentrated on writing the best pop songs they could, resulting in 10 original gems (and an off-beat cover of "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain"). The catchy, ringing rock of the combo is accompanied by equally thoughtful lyricism: from the slinky, almost XTC-ish pop of "Normal," which surveys an imaginary topography, to Belew's witty appeal for people to "Think."
"It's adult pop music, if there is such a thing," says Belew. "All four of us contribute music and lyrics, but it's always been a band that's had a conscience, a social awareness, and a hipness to it that a lot of bands don't bother with. So this is some fairly deep, adult-type writing, akin to Paul Simon if he wrote pop songs for bands."
Though he exudes a certain amount of confidence, Belew struggles with self-doubt like anyone else. Constantly trying to create something new can leave you feeling as if you don't measure up to your past. "I do battle that, because -- despite whatever achievements you might have had -- there's always someone that seems like they've done so much more than you. You really have to fight that. You can't compare yourself to someone else. What you have to do in life is set a course and not look too much to the sides."
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