“Strange things happen,
To a man on the road,
Strange things happen,
To a man who’s alone,”
From “Strange Things Happen” by Gizmodrome.
Stewart Copeland and Adrian Belew are at it again. Individually, Copeland and Belew have been giving us great music for decades. And they have done so by being willing to change things up; taking on different roles in different projects and giving us something a bit new each time along the way.
As the drummer for the band the Police, Copeland helped write and perform on classic albums such as Zenyatta Mondatta, Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity, eventually, earning the band entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. Copeland then completely changed his focus and went on to a long career composing music for television shows such as The Equalizer and Dead Like Me, and films such as Wall Street.
Belew is perhaps best known as a guitarist and songwriter for King Crimson, a band named in a Rolling Stone reader's poll as one of the best progressive rock bands of all time. And he has constantly immersed himself in different projects, working on several solo albums such as Mr. Music Head, as well as working as a composer for other artists on classic albums such as Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. All the while, he continued to work as a session musician, playing guitar for artists such as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Paul Simon.
And now, Copeland and Belew have joined forces to form a band called Gizmodrome, with Mark King and Vittorio Cosma, and released their self-titled debut. At first blush, it would seem natural to assume that the choice to constantly change their focus would be embraced by their audience. Not so fast.
Musicians are often presented with a choice: stay “true” to your original sound and don’t change things up too much or evolve and experiment with different styles. The stakes can be high. If an artist makes no stylistic changes, they are more likely to keep their fan base, but risk being seen as predictable and even boring. If an artist is continuously changing their style, they may be lauded for their creativity but may jeopardize their career by losing their core audience.
This dynamic may play out differently for different bands. “You always expected the Beatles were going to move to a new phase. With some bands, you don’t want them to move,” Belew told me. “You don’t want the Rolling Stones to change. The Rolling Stones are a certain thing that you come to expect and love and you want them to do that thing and you don’t want them to move off of it very far. And you get very possessive of that sound.”
Belew described having experienced both reactions from audiences. As a member of King Crimson, Belew found that the audience embraced change. “I can tell you this, in terms of working with King Crimson for thirty years – the idea from the beginning was always reinvention – never were supposed to stay the same. So every record was a monumental climb up this giant mountain,” Belew explained. “And whether we succeeded or not didn’t matter. We felt like we were moving in some new direction each step of the way. And our audience was inclined to go with that because that was the game.”
And yet there were other times when Belew’s changing things around did not work out so well. “I started out with two solo records, Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King. Nice solo records, they reminded people of what I had already done with Talking Heads and was Bowiesque,” Belew described. “The third record, I decided that I’m tired of this already. I’m going to make a record that’s nothing like this. I’m going to make a record that’s the equivalent of orchestral music played entirely on guitar. And I made something called Desire Caught by the Tail. People sent me that record back broken in pieces.”
Copeland saw this phenomenon happen to his bandmate in the Police, Sting when he made the album Songs from the Labyrinth, an album comprised of 16th-century songs released on a classical music label. While the album was a critical success, and introduced Sting’s work to a new audience, Billboard described it as “…not exactly a commercial slam dunk.”
“When you’ve touched that many hearts...when you’ve become one with the zeitgeist, adoration becomes obligation...Like when my buddy Sting pulled out a lute. Now, this is a guy who has given unto the world many great songs, album after album of great music that people love,” Copeland said. “He has given the world what they expect of him. And now he wants to reinvent himself with the lute, an instrument that has no following, that has a contrary image. That’s his right. He earned it. And yet he suffered slings and arrows because of that creative decision.”
So this leaves musicians in a difficult situation. How do musicians embrace their creativity and continue to challenge themselves without upsetting and losing their core audience? Further, how do they do so without letting audience reactions, particularly negative ones, constantly bring them down?
Well according to Copeland and Belew, one path is recognizing that the private person is separate from the public persona of the artist. “You can’t confuse the avatar with the person. The first route to sanity for a rock star is to separate the person from the persona. And the avatar—the persona—goes out into the world and isn’t under your control anymore,” Copeland explained. “That shot of you throwing up in the parking lot is out of your control...That avatar is in their minds. They imagine this paragon of wisdom and virtue. That’s the star. You still fart.”
And in many ways, if the avatar is wielded properly, it can give the musician more power than they would have had otherwise. “The thing about this avatar is that it’s heavier than a normal human being when the mojo light is lit. When you’re walking down the street, you’re nobody. When somebody recognizes you, as whoever, your mojo light goes on. And now, you’re heavier. Your voice rings louder. Your cuts cut deeper. Your humor lights up the room. The smallest wisdom is amplified,” Copeland said. “When you drive this avatar around in front of you, it’s the star. When you’re in that situation where you walk into the Grammys and you’re inhabiting that avatar...you walked into the room saying, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ But as the story is told, or retold, you came screaming in the room with your hand on your cock saying, ‘Where’s the fucking bathroom before I piss on the champagne!’”
Copeland’s first experience of using his avatar was when he performed the song “Don’t Care” as the band Klark Kent on the Top Of The Pops with Police bandmates Sting and Andy Summers as part of his backup band.
“My first hit was under a mask: Klark Kent. The Police at that time in 1977 were dead in the water. We were known in London as a fake punk band and we were all five years too old and we were professional musicians...We wore the punk uniform as a flag of convenience. We were mercenaries...and the punk ethos was 18-year-old kids just getting up and kicking out the jams...And the journalists spotted us as carpetbaggers right away. Which we were,” Copeland recalled. “So I wrote a song, sang, played all the instruments. And the gimmick was I wore a mask...and we had a mini-hit...So that’s Sting in the gorilla mask and Andy in the Brezhnev mask. The mask conceals the true identity—a guy who has a mom and dad, the guy who the guys I went to school with know is just a jerk—the mask means you can be anything. You can actually express yourself much more freely without the limitation of your commitments to a real person on a real street.”
Belew recounted a similar experience whereby his putting on a “uniform” to be in a band called The Sweethearts helped him discover a new identity. The first step was Belew changing his name.
“When I was 24 years old, I moved from everywhere I’d ever known and everyone I’d ever known. And I moved to Nashville to play with a band, a regional band that did pretty well. It was called Sweetheart, like Bogart, I moved just to have a gig...At this point in my life, my name was Robert Steven Belew. I obviously didn’t go with Bob Belew. I couldn’t do it...my parents called me Steve,” Belew said. “So I said don’t call me Steve. I’ve always liked this name Adrian. I saw this movie one time called The List of Adrian Messenger...I adopted that name and from that moment on my life changed almost immediately.”
A second transition Belew made was when he adopted a new “uniform.” “This band was attractive because we wore authentic 1940’s clothing. We would go to warehouses and find old suits, fedora hats, tie pins, tie hats, vests. And you had to wear it not onstage—you had to wear it every day—everywhere you went...Five guys doing that; very powerful...It was terrific. I went from long hair to a 1940’s hairstyle and a new identity,” Belew explained. “I really loved the look and the feel. I loved the clothing. I kind of wear stuff like that today a little bit...I owned it...It brought me out of a place that I was in my life.”
And the new identity paid off. “Before that, I was just dead in the water. I was playing drums in a Holiday Inn lounge band. And I didn’t know where to go in my life...It was that band that I was playing in that night that Frank Zappa was playing a show in Nashville. He finished the concert, asked his limo driver, ‘Where should we go to hear a good rock band?’ Brought him to hear my band because he thought we were the best band and he was a fan of ours,” Belew said. “Frank Zappa walked in, watched us for 40 minutes, came up shook my hand and said, ‘I’m going to get your name and number from my chauffeur and call you when my tour is over and audition you.’ So it changed my life.”
And thus far, Belew and Copeland are happy letting their avatars do the talking. They feel that it has allowed them the freedom that they otherwise perhaps would not have found. For Belew, he feels that inhabiting his avatar relieves the pressures he might otherwise feel in his career.
“I’m a happy guy who’s content dreaming away and creating things. Every once in a while I poke my head down into reality and think I should write something more people would like,” Belew said. “And then I go, ‘Nah, I can’t do that, never mind. I’m going to go back to my toys and have fun.’”
And for Copeland, recognizing the dichotomy between his avatar and who he is as a professional allowed him to take on the complexities that may come with taking on different roles.
“Once I was out of the Police, I became a film composer. A film composer is a professional, not even an artist. A film composer is a craftsman serving the art of the director. The director is the artist...the director says I need happy-sad, and I look in my toolbox for happy-sad. That’s very un-starish. The avatar needs to be removed from the equation. When I walk in to meet with Oliver Stone...he wants a guy who’s under his thumb, who’s going to do what he wants and serve his film and knows his place and is a professional.
“Off went the leather pants.”
With or without their avatars (or leather pants), here’s looking forward to where Copeland and Belew’s creativity take them next.