IT WASN’T LONG AFTER THAT WHEN LEVIN DEVELOPED A CAREER AS A STUDIO BASSIST, PERFORMING ON ALBUMS SUCH AS LOU REED’S BERLIN AND PAUL SIMON’S STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. HE ALSO HAD AN IMPRESSIVE CAREER AS A JAZZ MUSICIAN BEFORE TEAMING UP WITH BOTH PETER GABRIEL AND ROBERT FRIPP TO BECOME ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BASSISTS IN THE PROGRESSIVE ROCK GENRE.
DURING HIS TIME WITH GABRIEL, LEVIN BEGAN EXPERIMENTING WITH THE CHAPMAN STICK, A 10 STRINGED INSTRUMENT THAT IS TAPPED INSTEAD OF PLUCKED LIKE A BASS, OPENING UP A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF SOUNDS AND DIRECTIONS.
HIS OWN BAND, STICK MEN, IS AN EXTENSION OF HIS MUSICAL CAREER, WITH THE RECENT PROG NOIR A FEAST FOR FANS OF GENESIS OR KING CRIMSON.
TONY LEVIN WAS KIND ENOUGH TO GIVE US SOME BACKGROUND TO HIS CAREER, AND WHERE HE’S HEADED FOR IN THE FUTURE.
WHAT GOT YOU INSPIRED IN THE UPRIGHT BASS. WERE THERE ANY KEY RECORDINGS OR PERFORMANCES THAT GOT YOUR ATTENTION?
As a kid, growing up in Boston, I just liked the bass. The upright was the only choice at that time, and Classical was the music I was listening to, so that’s the way I went. My older brother Pete was listening to jazz then, and I was inspired by some of those records, though I didn’t get into jazz playing until I was older.
HOW DID YOU GET TO PERFORM FOR PRESIDENT KENNEDY? WHAT WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES, AND WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRESSION AT THE TIME?
The Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra was quite a good youth orchestra, and in my high school years we did a trip to NY to play at Carnegie Hall, and Washington DC to play on the White House lawn. Pretty special, I’d say.
YOU STARTED YOUR CAREER PLAYING STRAIGHT-AHEAD JAZZ WITH GAP MANGIONE AND STEVE GADD. DID YOU KNOW GADD BEFORE THAT BAND?
I was in school with Steve (the Eastman Music School in Rochester) and was gigging with him a bit before getting the job in Gap’s band, and later with Chuck Mangione. Steve was already a great player then, and he kindly hung in with me while I tried to improve my jazz playing. Later I was to move to NYC with Steve, and we did a lot of recording and touring together in various bands. We’re still in touch.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING IN BUDDY RICH’S BAND?
I only spent a week in the band — for their NYC shows, a record session, and a few nights with a quintet in Buddy’s club. It was fun, intense, and quite an education for me. I didn’t want to go on the road with the band because at that time I was happy being based in New York and getting to play a lot of different music.
YOU’VE BEEN ON SOME VERY IMPORTANT ‘POP’ ALBUMS BY THE LIKES RANGING FROM PAUL SIMON TO LOU REED. WHAT DID YOU BRING TO THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, AND DID YOU FEEL ANYTHING SPECIAL WHILE YOU WERE RECORDING THESE ALBUMS?
It’s been great to play on a number of excellent recordings, and there’s always something to learn from them. I didn’t participate much on that Lou Reed record (just overdubbed on one song) but got to be part of a few albums with Paul. My recollection is that you don’t spend time on a session thinking ‘well, this is special’.. you just get into the music and your focus is playing it well.
MANY BASS PLAYERS COMPLAIN ABOUT THE PHYSICAL DEMANDS OF PLAYING AN UPRIGHT BASS. WAS THAT A MAJOR FACTOR IN CHANGING TO THE CHAPMAN STICK?
Well, before I played the Stick, I had switched to mostly playing Fender type bass rather than upright (I play mostly Music Man basses, though often work in the NS Electric Upright, which sounds like the acoustic bass I started with.) Anyway I began playing the Chapman Stick because the sound of it appealed to me, and I heard it as a great tool to have when considering different bass approaches to songs.
YOU ARE ON SOME CLASSIC KING CRIMSON ALBUMS. HOW DID YOU INITIALLY MEET ROBERT FRIPP?
I met both Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp on the same day, way back in 1976. It was Peter’s first solo album, and producer Bob Ezrin had called me to play bass on it, and Robert was one of the guitarists. It’s pretty great that I’m still making music with both of them now, so many years later.
DID YOU TRY OUT FOR THE KING CRIMSON BASS ROLE? WAS IT INTIMIDATING TO TAKE THE BATON FROM THE LIKES OF GREG LAKE AND JOHN WETTON? HOW FAMILIAR WERE YOU WITH THE SONGBOOK?
When we had a ‘get together’ to try out the music, in 1980, I guess it was sort of an audition, but it didn’t feel that way. I wasn’t familiar with the band’s history, so the music was new to me, and anyway the guys were making up new music. And let me add that we didn’t decide to call the band King Crimson until later — it was to be called “Discipline”.
WHAT WERE THE REHEARALS LIKE? HOW MUCH OF CRIMSON’S CONCERTS ARE COMPOSED AND HOW MUCH IS LEFT FOR IMPROVISATION?
Crimson rehearses a lot. We really want the show to be special, and to introduce music we didn’t do on the last tour, and to be up and running from the first show of the tour… so usually at least 3 weeks rehearsing and revising music before that first show. As for improvisation, there’s quite a bit… some of the songs have completely open sections with no plan, and sometimes we begin the show by free improv. And, at least for me, there’s quite a bit of latitude in the bass parts for changing them.
THE BAND SEPARATED FOR AWHILE. WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS FOR THE GAP, AND FOR GETTING BACK TOGETHER
It was Robert who decided to go on hiatus after the 2008 tour, and it was him who decided to form a new lineup, to have 3 drummers, and to tackle more of the classic Crimson material than we had before. I could guess at his reasons, but really the heart of the band’s motivation comes from him.
“I hope bassists can enjoy their time playing music – it’s really a privilege, and when the band is good and the music is special, it can take you someplace very special”
YOU HAVE A LIFELONG BANDMATE IN MAT MASTELOTTO. DID YOU MEET THROUGH KING CRIMSON? WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A BASSIST AND DRUMMER THAT MAKES IT WORK AND KEEP A GROOVE?
We did meet in ’94, in Crimson. He’s been a great band mate and rhythm section mate ever since – not just in King Crimson, but in our trio, StickMen, which tours a lot and has put out 8 or so albums. Pat’s both technically very adept, and very creative with his parts – so you always get something that grooves, but that nobody else would play. Perfect for these progressive bands. And, he’s a great guy to spend time with — a big bonus when you’re spending more than half your year out on the road together.
DID YOUR BAND STICK MEN SIMPLY EVOLVE FROM KING CRIMSON, OR WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION AT SOME POINT?
I’d made a solo album called “Stick Man” and, thinking of how to do the material live, with it’s multiple overdubs on the Chapman Stick, it seemed right to get another Stick player (or ‘touch guitar’ player – Markus Reuter plays his own self-designed instrument) and cover all the parts with the two touch players and Pat playing both acoustic and electronic drums
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE ASPIRING BASSISTS?
I hope bassists can enjoy their time playing music – it’s really a privilege, and when the band is good and the music is special, it can take you someplace very special. I’ve got no particular advice, but I’ll send a “good luck” wish.
WHAT FUTURE GOALS AND PROJECTS DO YOU HAVE COMING UP?
Still busy churning out music with all the bands I’m in, and practicing to hopefully become a better player. I’ve had some other releases, books and photo exhibitions, which I’ll try to keep coming – but playing well and being part of special music is my past and future goal.
WITH A CAREER SPANNING OVER 4 DECADES, IT WOULD BE EASY TO REST ON ONE’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS. BUT TONY LEVIN CONTINUES TO GROW, LOOKING FOR NEW SONIC WORLDS TO CONQUER, AND STILL, SHALL WE SAY, PROGRESSING!