Search form

Adrian Belew and the Musical Genius of Pixar’s ‘Piper’

Legendary guitar virtuoso lends his unique perspective on music and sound to Alan Barillaro’s delightful new animated short fronting Pixar Animation Studio’s ‘Finding Dory.’

'Piper.' All images © 2016 Disney•Pixar unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.

At a press screening shortly before the release of Pixar’s current smash Finding Dory, while lazily scanning the credits for the fantastic accompanying short, Piper, it suddenly dawned on me that the “Adrian Belew” who scored the short might just be legendary guitarist and musician Adrian Belew. What are the odds, I thought to myself? A quick Google search later that evening confirmed my suspicions, and for a moment, I got giddy like a little kid tearing the wrapper off the first pack of Tiparillos he ever lifted from the corner Thrifty Drug Store.

Everyone in our business has a story of childhood inspiration -- waiting in line for Star Wars or Jurassic Park, maybe going with grandparents to see Toy Story or The Lion King. I wanted to be rocker. Back then, everyone did. For me, my world was music – my inspiration was a set of albums my brothers handed down to me that included David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” and The Doors’ “Strange Days,” followed a few years later by a series of unbelievable concerts I saw in 1977-78 that included Led Zeppelin, Genesis and David Bowie. Back then, albums cost $4 at Licorice Pizza, and I crammed my bookshelves to capacity with a vinyl collection I still have today.

A huge favorite -- King Crimson. Enter Adrian Belew.  

In 1978, I saw Belew play with David Bowie at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, California, home then to the Los Angeles Lakers and a favorite L.A. concert venue for all the big ticket tours that came through town. His sound was so different, so unique, we used to call it “tasty” -- it had such depth that you could close your eyes and literally “taste” it. Years later, I saw him again in concert with Bowie, as well as twice at the Greek Theatre with King Crimson. Those shows still resonate with me today -- I routinely listen to live recordings taken from those tours. For a few short moments of nostalgic bliss, I drift back to “the days of my youth,” no pun intended, clinging tightly to my fading memories as evidence, to the continued chagrin of my kids who’ve suffered through my music war stories far too many times, that there was once a time when their daddy’s knowledge and taste in such matters was beyond reproach. I didn’t dress well or sneak into clubs, but my music collection was top drawer. The prize of my collections was Frank Zappa’s “Shut Up and Play Your Guitar” in Japanese vinyl, and that, my friends, was pretty darn awesome.

Belew has worked with a number of artists whose music -- still so personal to me -- was hugely impactful during those formative teenage years, when I struggled with steely futility at playing bass and trying to be cool, never managing to excel at either. I sold my Fender jazz bass and amp the summer before I went off the college, my hopes of medicinally addled rock stardom forever dashed. 

Through collaborations with Frank Zappa, Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie, among others, and of course, his two-decade plus run in King Crimson, Belew produced an unprecedented array of innovative music highlighted by unique sonic riffs and sounds not often heard within the contemporary cacophony of rock music. He was, and remains, a maestro, able to make his guitar sound like almost anything other than, well, a guitar.

Through the kind assistance of Krissy Bailey at Pixar, I was put in touch with Belew, who patiently listened to me fumble about in my fan-fueled geekdom, peppering him with questions and trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about. He patiently and graciously shared with me his love of animation, the fun he had working on Piper, his lifelong dedication to all things sound and music and his recollections of a long and inspiring relationship with David Bowie.

Dan Sarto: I have to start by sharing that it isn’t often I get to meet and talk with someone like you whose work has had such a profound impact on me. When I saw the credits on Piper and noticed your name, my first thought was, “Could that be THE Adrian Belew?” And sure enough, it was. I have been a fan of yours for more years than I can count. I've seen you play live four times going back to 1978.

Adrian Belew: Thank you, man.

DS: I saw you play twice with David Bowie, once at the Forum and once at Dodger Stadium, and twice with King Crimson at the Greek Theatre.

AB: I remember those shows really well.

DS: When I mentioned to Alan [Barillaro, the film’s director] and Marc [Sondheimer, the film’s producer] my personal history with your music, our discussion got really animated – they are huge fans of yours, and were so pleased to talk more in-depth about you and your work scoring the film’s music. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you, especially because I have such a personal connection to your work. I've been listening to your music literally for decades.

AB: Well, thank you Dan. I appreciate that. It’s been a great honor doing this film – it’s something I've been wanting to do forever. If you know my music like you say you do, you probably realize that some of it is very cinematic in nature. I've always tried to write music that way.

DS: Your music, your sound, conjures up such visuals, I’m surprised you haven’t been involved in scoring for film before.

AB: No, this is my first venture. I like to joke that I'm starting at the top and working my way to the bottom.

DS: Well, from an animation standpoint, you're definitely starting at the top.

AB: I'm definitely starting at the top. Since before Pixar became a film company, from way back when they used to demonstrate their RenderMan product with little short films, I was a fan. Years ago, I saw Luxo Jr. at an animation festival. I've been a huge animation fan my whole life. I grew up watching Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry on the couch every Saturday morning. I would always try to sound like all the characters.

As you can imagine, it came as a huge surprise to me when I eventually found out that Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, the two guys responsible for so many of Pixar’s films, were fans of mine. They told me they've been listening to my music and been inspired by it for the last 25 years. That's a huge, huge compliment. But yes, to answer your question, this is my first film.

DS: So many people involved in animation are musicians. There's a huge overlap because of the issues of rhythm, timing and movement over time. It's not surprising that eventually, someone would get around to working with you. The issue with shorts, in my experience, is that except for the more established studios and a handful of well-funded indie directors, because there's no money in shorts, most filmmakers aren’t able to produce original music for their films. They can’t afford to secure rights or commission new music. It's fortuitous in a certain way that you got together with Pixar.

AB: I think you're right in everything you're saying. First of all, I know a lot of people in film that have musical backgrounds. In fact, I jammed one night with Andrew Stanton [laughs]. One of the things I got the biggest kick out of when we were doing the recording of the orchestral score at Skywalker Sound, which of course is an amazing, amazing place, was I got to visit the Foley artists. Watching them, listening to them, you talk about someone that has to have timing. They have to have impeccable timing to be able to match all those different elements in real-time, like it's a real performance. That really thrilled me to see that. It's something I have always been interested in my entire life.

For me, jumping into the pool [scoring for film] on this short film was a very good thing for me because it gave me a long time to get the work done. It gave me a long period, almost three years, of on and off, on and off, working with the director and the people on the film to kind of learn my way. Writing for a visual medium specifically, it's a little bit new to me. I kind of wrote the beginnings of two different scores until I finally figured it out. The third score, the one you hear in the movie, is when I finally figured it out…I finally felt, “I think I know now what you guys are asking for!”

Piper scoring session, composed by Adrian Belew, with director Alan Barillaro and producer Marc Sondheimer, at Skywalker Sound.

DS: Along those lines, what did you have to work with? What were the creative concepts and parameters you were given to guide you? What visuals did you work with to help match all the materials up together?

AB: In the first place, Alan, the director, is by his own admittance not very musically minded. He's very much a visual person. We decided from the beginning that it would be better to take it as a collaboration, where he's giving me his ideas and I'm filtering them through my knowledge and ability. In order to do that, we did a lot of conversing, a lot of sending ideas back and forth. Most of the time, there were new visuals or updated visuals, the newest of this scene or that scene. We tried to work with little bits so we wouldn't get too far along - you have to be so detailed in these Pixar films.

The basic way it worked was they would send me things through a private line, maybe a 20 second bit of the film, then I would send them ideas back in return which I had recorded here in my own studio. We just kept building it that way, knowing that at the end, the idea was that we wanted to have kind of a small orchestra. We didn't want it to be a big sounding thing. For example, I’d share, “Here's what I would visualize for a little bird.” You use certain type of sounds, wooden sounds and sounds that you could see on the beach. We used bongos and things like that instead of big drums.

I thought the mother's voice should be represented by something more mature, so I picked a viola. For Piper, the little bird, something more peckish, which I thought would be pizzicato strings. Most of the time, when the little bird is hopping around, you'll hear, "Boop, boop, boop, boop, boop." It just sort of made sense, those ideas. But once you got past those initial ideas, then the real work began, because then you had to figure out the emotional tempo, every single beat throughout the film, and how to do that correctly.

Another challenge was that the film was never locked in, timing wise, until just recently, within the last few weeks before it was completed. I finally got the absolute, “Okay, here's the timing of every single thing.” You had to continue to make those kinds of adjustments. Fortunately, I loved the whole process. I'm so thrilled to have been a part of it. I hope something more comes from this. Something big has already come from it – it’s playing in front of the number one film on the world.

DS: Most people that cover animation focus on narrative, the visuals or the production technology. They don't usually focus on the sound design or music. That's why I’ve become so enamored with this film. The music is so integral to the narrative and the timing is just impeccable. It’s amazingly tight - there's not a wasted frame in the film.

AB: It really took a lot of whittling and carving and attention from everyone. There were lots of meetings on their end and my end too, of course. I think you're right, though. In a movie that's wordless, as this is, sound design, which was done so brilliantly by Ren Klyce [the film’s sound designer], and music, really take on a larger role. Along with the visuals, the sound design and music are telling the story all together.

That was another thing - I wanted to learn about and be involved in the sound design. I would try everything I could think of to get a bird sound. For example, I have a Gillette razor in my bathroom. It's got a little plastic hole that you put it in. When I move it across the bathroom countertop, it sounds like a bird. I have a squeaky pair of blue tennis shoes, the only shoes I have that squeak like a bird, but only when you walk on my hardwood floors. I recorded both of my teenage daughters and my dog and pitched them up and down and all around the place. Eventually I even recorded my stomach growling because we needed a stomach growl.

I sent all those sounds to Ren. He really got a kick out of all that stuff. It gave him a lot of good fodder. So I felt like I was involved in that process a little bit too. Once again, when I went to Skywalker and spent a couple days in Ren's studio, watching him work, that was just absolutely fascinating, to see what you can do with sound. You're right. Everything in the film has its place. The waves come and go exactly at the right speed...everything just works perfectly.

DS: Speaking of sound design, you’ve been an innovator in sound creation and design going back to the early part of your career. Just from my own personal experience, the folks you've worked with, ranging from Frank Zappa to Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, you have always pushed the boundaries of the sounds you could get from your instruments. You were doing this in the earliest days of synthesizers and the analog to digital transition in music.

AB: Exactly. That's why I think I was asked to get involved in this movie. Those records [I made] are the records some of these animators still listen to. The idea that well, here's this guy with his guitar making it sound like a whale, that has a great amount of appeal for them. On my side of it, I've always been fascinated by sounds, just pure sound, any sound. I've always been centered on that. I guess my mission in life as a guitar player - which is certainly not all I do - was always to figure out what else can you do with this instrument. How can you increase its vocabulary, make it sound like something else or make it sound like something you've never heard? That's been my mission, because I love doing that. I think I'm part sound designer, just by default.

DS: Some of the seminal work you did with King Crimson, on songs like “Thrak” and “Elephant Talk,” one track after another had such a wonderful blend of progressive rock and really excellent beats, interspersed with these uniquely innovative sounds that hadn't really been part of the rock vocabulary before.

AB: Yes, that's right. That's what I'm saying. That was kind of my mission from the beginning. In the mid-1970s, I got to the point with the guitar where I felt like I had the mechanics down, that I could sound like all the people I had learned from. So I made a conscious decision to break my habit of sounding like everyone else and see what was left. What was left for me was the fact that I loved trying to make sounds. From the very beginning, that gave me my own little difference, my own little corner of real estate, if you want to call it that, in the world of guitars. There are so many great guitar players and they all have their thing. But many of them sound so similar. I wanted at least to be able to stand out in some way.

That gave me the original “thing” of being able to make my guitar sound like car horns and seagulls and elephants and rhinos and whales and birds. That gave me something to differentiate myself with. I've used that throughout my career, I'm sure you know. It's broadened out to be something much bigger than that now. It's easy now for people. You just get a sound library and trigger it. I don't really enjoy that part. I enjoy making the sound, creating the sound, not just pushing a button.

DS: Right. That's because you were there when there was no button to push.

AB: That's right. We had to figure it out. I wasn't the only one by far, that's for sure. But I'm from that time and luckily, the technology has continued to explode throughout my entire life. I've been there paired with it the whole way, able to utilize it, harness it and be inspired by it. I think this is the perfect place for me, doing a movie like Piper. I learned so much. It was just a pleasure. I'm so happy that it's an animated film, A, I'm really happy that it's about birds, B, and C, that it's Pixar, is beyond belief.

DS: How do you balance your desire to innovate, grow and expand your musical efforts, with the fact that when you tour, you’re playing for fans that want to hear the hits from 30 years ago?

AB: I try to balance it all. First of all, you want to give people some of the things they recognize. If you gave them all brand new things, it wouldn't be as enjoyable for them. I balance it simply by incorporating new things into the older material in some ways, but still giving them what they recognize as the older material. Then, maybe throw in a few new wrinkles that are more recent. If I've discovered a new guitar sound, maybe I'll put that into “Elephant Talk” in some place unexpectedly. That makes it surprising for the audience, a little more exciting, but they still get “Elephant Talk.” I don't consider myself to have “hits,” but it is important…I do know what my fans like and I do know there's a lot of stuff they would like me to play. I'd probably have to play six hours to please everyone.

DS: I was going to say, you have to play for hours to get them all in.

AB: I've condensed it down in an interesting way. I don't know if you know about FLUX by belew, my iTunes music app, where all the music is interrupted by the next piece of music. That's music that's never the same twice.

DS: I've read about it.

AB: Real quickly…you push the button on your iOS device, your iPhone, your iPad, it plays for half an hour. There are visuals, there's music, there are songs, there are sounds. They all come and go rather quickly. You never know what's going to happen next. There are hundreds of bits of information in there. The songs are done in different ways. Even when you hear a song, you're only going to hear part of it...maybe one time you'll hear the second verse in the chorus. The next time you'll hear an entirely different version. Or maybe you'll hear the whole song, and so on. It's meant to surprise you.

It's all different kinds of material and everything happens really quickly. Another thing that I love about it is it's never finished. I continue to add new music to it. It's a unique thing – there’s nothing else like it in the field of music that I know of.

DS: Last thing I have to ask you, from a purely personal standpoint, is your work with David Bowie. His music has meant a great deal to me since my older brothers first mesmerized me with “The Man Who Sold the World” when I was a little kid. I can so vividly remember the Bowie shows I saw with you up on stage. His recent passing affected so many people. Can you reflect on the time you spent playing and creating music with him?

AB: I worked with David twice. They were decades apart. I toured with him in 1978 and 79. Then I toured the world again with him in 1990. I had a long-term friendship with him, which gave us a special kind of relationship. Some people just worked with him once and then were gone. I felt like we were very compatible. David was so creative and so smart, interested and curious in so many things. I think I'm a little bit the same way. Creatively, he liked to put you in a situation where you would do something you might not necessarily do, but not instruct you. He didn't lord over you in the studio or on stage. He stood back and applauded you, urging you to go further. That's a really wonderful way to work with someone who's such a genius. Basically, they know what they want and they're just trying to let you find it for them.

David was really a super person. A very classy gentleman, very funny and self-deprecating. He was a blast to be around. As I said, he was so curious about things. He knew a lot about a lot of subject matters. You know, what do you say now? His legacy is there. It's forever etched in stone. I always felt that David was the one person in the world that you could look to and say, "I know he's going to do something that's popular. But, I also know it's really going to be unique." That's the thing about him that really attracted me so much. He could sell millions of records, but he did it his own way that was really ahead of everyone. He always kind of seemed to be one step ahead of everything.

DS: Filmmakers are like musicians in the sense their art has the potential to, and often does, touch countless people around the world. When you create music, I would imagine you're hoping it affects people in some way, that it resonates with them, takes them somewhere they’ve never been before. From my standpoint, your music has done that for me time and time again over the years. I can't tell you how pleased I am that we got a chance to meet today and talk.

AB: Thanks for saying all of that. I want to say in return, that's really the reason I do it is to communicate something to people. I'm driven to be creative and I'm driven to communicate. If you do things and no one ever hears them, then there's no purpose. Obviously, you want people to enjoy your work. The best thing is when people come up and say, "Wow, this has really meant something to me, even changed my life." When that happens, to me, that’s the biggest reward you could ever hope for.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.