When I was 8 years old, Peter Gabriel's So had just come out and was the soundtrack to my summer vacation on Chincoteague Island. The bass sounds were so otherworldly and I kind of obsessed over it. Cut to about 4 years later, I start playing bass, still can't figure it out. In a shopping mall at Christmas, there is a guy with a crazy instrument playing "I Saw Three Ships". I ask him what it is, he tells me it's a Stick, and I ask him to show me what it can really do. HE GOES CRAZY AND SHREDS THESE 64th NOTE PERCUSSIVE STOP START THINGS, and my light bulb goes off. That's the crazy awesome bass noise I remember from childhood! So Tony Levin occupies a very special space in my heart, and it was with great pleasure that I got a chance to talk to him. Without further ado, here is
MY INTERVIEW WITH TONY LEVIN
Not my area of expertise. [Editor's note: Tony Levin can now substitute for Chuck Norris where necessary. Example: Tony Levin can slam a revolving door.]Mr. Levin- I jumped at the chance to talk to you, and then realized I didn't really know that much about you. My readers also seemed to view you mythically as judged by some of their mostly tongue in cheek questions like "When you ascended to godhood, did it hurt?" and "When there is a Mt. Rushmore of bassists, will you be Washington or Jefferson?" So, to help us out, give me your briefest nutshell answer on who Tony Levin is.
Studio work, as such, is more a craft than an art. Back (way back) when I moved to NYCity, there was a lot of this type of work to be had - quite different than nowadays. Most of it, of course, not for artists like Paul Simon and Alice Cooper, but it was possible in the 70's and 80's to play sessions all day, for different records. So, in that time I got fairly good at sussing out what was wanted from not only the musical track, but from the artist and producer, and engineer too. That's part of the equation in making studio recordings.Your work as a session musician is very far-ranging- I can think of both Paul Simon and Alice Cooper off the top of my head. Do you think there is something in a person's temperament that let's them do work like that? Obviously not everybody can.In later years, I veered toward playing much more live, less in studio - which is a good thing for me, because I prefer it.In these past few years, things have changed again... less touring with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, so I organize tours myself, for the band Stick Men, that I work a lot with. And recordings are still going on, but mostly file sharing, from my home studio.
Again, describing myself is not something I'm good at. [Editor's note: Tony Levin does not sleep- he waits.]There was a very interesting documentary on "The South Bank Show" that you were featured in. I was surprised at your almost Zen calm. Is that something you cultivate, or are you just like that?
----It's always great with Peter, whether in studio or touring - a combination of great music, a lot of fun, great people. I believe that kind of atmosphere stems from the person at the top, so it's a credit to Peter as a person that his whole organization and band are very cool, nice people.There were some great insights into the recording of Peter Gabriel's 4th album in that documentary. Any fun anecdotes from that time you'd care to share.
Drum machines are an old story by now -- they've been incorporated a bit into live drumming, but still sometimes are there on their own. Likewise sequencer bass parts. I don't have any particular insight -- just the obvious, that there is always some room for a musician who can create great parts on his instrument, and that people love live music made by musicians. The economics might change, but those things remain.I remember Jerry Marrotta getting a bit passionate about how humans will never be replaced (musically, at least) by machines. What's your take on the increasing mechinization of music?
Yes, I think it was '94 or '95 that I started the website - at first to offer my new cd, but soon after it morphed into mostly a road diary. Eventually I separated the Papa Bear Records 'store' onto a connected but separate site, with just a few buttons to remind people of it. Must be hundreds of web diary pages up by now, and thousands of photos, from back when they had to be just 200 pixels wide!From what I understand, you're quite the early adopter. You've been blogging for as long as I've been on the internet- 1995, right?
I don't keep up as much as I'd like to. But I feel that if I skip a technology jump (say, MySpace) then I'd better jump on the next one, like it or not, so I can be a bit comfortable as interfaces change. Facebook was a challenge for me (the old 'help from my daughter' thing) because I was used to writing code for the page -- the unintuitive, ever changing, rules of getting what you want up on the page has become the new standard. I may not like it, but best that I'm dealing with it, or I might not be able to work my next cell phone!Obviously so many things have changed online since then. How do you keep up with changing times?
It began before it's beginning (!) When I made the solo CD "Stick Man" ... the music on that was fun to record, and I was wanting to play it live -- but it had multiple Sticks on much of it, and my band at that time had two keyboards, guitar bass and drums... not right for that harder edged music. Michael Bernier is an excellent Stick player who lives near me, and we had been trading ideas. It seemed right to team up for the band, and the obvious choice for drums was Pat Mastelotto, my King Crimson bandmate, who'd also played on the album, and with his electronic drums, he can cover some samples and stuff we can't manage with two Chapman Sticks.One of your current projects is The Stickmen. What was the genesis of that?Then after a few years of touring, Michael felt he couldn't go out on the road much, due to family obligations - we had, and still have, pretty hefty touring schedule - so we made the difficult decision to let Michael move on, and we added Markus Reuter, who plays a touch guitar he designed himself, lives in Innsbruck, and was already in a duet band with Pat. Since then we've toured and recorded over the last year, and look forward to more.
I don't really know Emmet Chapman's motivation for creating the Stick - but I think it took years and probably began before synths were being played much. [Editor's note: Tony Levin can cut through a hot knife, with butter.]I've always liked the fact that in a live setting you take the time to explain the basics of the Stick. I read somewhere that 5-string basses were made as a response to the low notes possible for synthesizers. Do you think the Stick arose from a similar need?
Adrian has a 'Power Trio" which tours a lot -- then Pat and I are in a different trio which also tours a lot - Adrian thought, if we team up for a show, we could do an encore set of King Crimson music - first the 3 band members (teamed up as trio for the first time ever) then have the other three musicians come on to join us for more Crimson, including being able to cover the 'double trio' period of six players.You're touring right now with Adrian Belew, which has been described as "as close to King Crimson as you're going to get". In your own words, what is the heart of this tour? What's it about?The tour has been very successful with lots of sold out venues, and audiences really liking the music.
I can't speak for the whole life of the band - what I really appreciated in my time in the band was how the ethic was to push yourself as a player, and to push ourselves as a band, to come up with really new approaches, and not fall back on what we'd done before.King Crimson has existed in so many permutations, the methodology behind it may not be so visible. What is it about that that makes it such an enduring concept, despite changing so much?
I don't have favorites of just about anything, but I think I could choose "Red" because I play it every night, and still find John Wetton's part exciting to play even after decades.That brings me to some of our reader questions. From Langdon Hickman, "What's your favorite King Crimson song from a lineup you didn't play with?"
I'm not sure what that album is -- as you may know, he's been busy recording and touring with orchestra. My hope is, of course, that he'll come back to the band one of these days. It's my very favorite musical thing to be part of.
Do not even know of them... okay, have now added to my 'must hear' list! Sorry.And a nice open-ended question from Reese Hopkins: "What do you think about newer prog groups like Moon Safari or Phideaux, newer stuff that has only gotten big in the past few years?"
Quilting on the road for sure ... doesn't everybody? But much going on when I'm not touring, including a pretty decent and involved home family life after all these years travelling so much.Well, it's a pleasure getting to talk to you. I wanted to round things off with a non-musical question. What does bass hero Tony Levin do for fun? I hear rumblings about a quilt...
Thanks again for taking time out for this interview!
Once again, thanks to the amazing Tony Levin. Make sure to read his tour diaries at www.papabear.com, and be sure to make it to the show on Friday! And just for fun, watch this video of Patrick Stewart playing a Chapman Stick.