A conversation with TONY LEVIN of King Crimson

By admin on July 22, 2018

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez
HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — Tony Levin is currently a member of the bands King Crimson, Peter Gabriel Band, Stick Men, Levin Brothers.

His most notable bass playing albums and tours have been with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Buddy Rich, Peter Frampton, Gotye, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Paula Cole, Chuck Mangione, Steven Wilson, James Taylor, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

His Solo albums include World Diary, Waters of Eden, Resonator, Pieces of the Sun, Stick Man.

Some of his Collaborative efforts includ: Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Bozzio Levin Stevens, Liquid Tension Experiment, Levin Torn White, Levin Minneman Rudess, Levin Brothers.

As an author, Levin had had several Books published Beyond the Bass Clef, Road Photos, Crimson Chronicles vol 1. And, Fragile as a Song.

Born in Boston, June 6, 1946, Levin grew up in the suburb of Brookline, started playing upright bass at 10 years old. In high school he picked up tuba, soloing with the concert band, and started a barbershop quartet. But he primarily played Classical music, attending Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where he had the chance to play under Igor Stravinsky and in the Rochester Philharmonic. As fate would have it, at the school was drummer Steve Gadd, who introduced Tony to jazz and rock, leading to his trading in his upright for a Fender bass, later moving to New York, joining the short-lived band Aha, the Attack of the Green Slime Beast, and becoming a studio musician.

Having played on many albums in the 70’s, Levin jumped at the chance to tour with Peter Gabriel in 1977, switching to Music Man basses, which he still favors, and learning the Chapman Stick, which he played extensively in King Crimson from 1981, and led to his starting the band Stick Men.

In 1984, Tony released Road Photos, a collection of black & white photos taken during his travels with Crimson, Gabriel, and others. Soon following was the book Beyond the Bass Clef featuring stories and essays about bass playing. Another photo book, Crimson Chronicles, volume 1, the 80’s contains an extensive collection of his black and white photos of life on the road with the band.

He has been on-line since 1996 and has one of the most popular Blogs in all of Rock and Roll.

2016 was a busy year filled with creative output and concerts for Levin. Stick Men has toured the U.S. and will play in Europe in the Fall. The Peter Gabriel / Sting tour in Summer will be a notable one. Joined by Adrian Belew and Pat Mastelotto, Tony will host the yearly Three of a Perfect Trio music camp in the Catskill mountains of NY State. King Crimson will tour in Europe from September. A new album release from Levin Minneminn Rudess is coming, as is the album “Prog Noir” from Stick Men. And in June, a book of Levin’s lyrics and poetry, titled Fragile as a Song.

Seminal rock band King Crimson begins their 2017 North American tour with the summer leg including a 17-show run spanning June 11 to July 10. The “Radical Action Tour 2017” will begin at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on June 11. The tour will run through cities Saratoga, Oakland, San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver, and Minneapolis. King Crimson ends June with appearances at the Chicago Theatre on June 28 and Kodak Hall in Rochester on June 30.

The band begins July with a swing through Eastern Canada including an appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival on the 3rd and at Toronto’s Massey Hall on the 5th ahead of a stop in Quebec City on the 7th. Crimson will play two shows at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey on July 9 and 10 before heading to Mexico City for shows on July 14 and 15. King Crimson also revealed, “there will be further dates in the autumn, to include New York City.”

With three drummers up front including Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey, as well as the return of multi-instrumentalist Bill Reiflin on keyboards, guitarist, and original founding member, Robert Fripp, states that this “double quartet formation” is likely to make more noise than ever before. Rounding out the eight-piece line up are guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk, bassist Tony Levin, and saxophonist Mel Collins, also an early member of Crimson.

Herald de Paris Contributing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had a chance to speak with Tony as Crimson is preparing to tour.

AC: How does one at a young age go from playing under Igor Stravinsky to working with Peter Gabriel? As a youngster do you plan on a musical career?

TL: Hah… you seem to have done your homework! It’s true I had the chance, when at Eastman Music School, to play under the great Stravinsky. At that time, I was immersed in being a Classical bassist… not long after that I changed course, playing jazz, then rock. And, again by luck, I got to play on Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, and happily have been playing with him in concerts ever since. What’s those situations have in common, to me, is that the quality of music was very high, and what I’ve wanted to do since my youth is just to play the bass in a good musical situation.

AC: What was it about Pop/Rock music that steered you away from a career in classical music?

TL: I hit the orchestral scene pretty hard in my youth, so by the age of 19 I was playing in the Rochester Philharmonic, and a couple years after, I realized that, though I love the music, being in a bass section for the rest of my career wasn’t going to work. So, I got into jazz, then rock and the studio scene in NYC for a few years. Once I had the chance to tour playing rock, though, I knew that was where I’m happiest.

AC: Tell us about your friendship with Steve Gadd and going from stand-up bass to Fender?

TL: Steve and I were at Eastman together, playing gigs to help with tuition. He was already an accomplished jazz drummer at that time, and he patiently hung in with me while I made the adjustment from Classical to jazz, and then from acoustic bass to the electric Fender bass. Some players prefer one bass over the other, but I was happy to play whichever suited the music best, and in rock that’s usually electric bass. To this day (as on tour with King Crimson) I’ll have a few Music Man basses onstage (a Fender type bass) and my NS Electric Upright bass, that has the sound of an acoustic bass without the fuss of having to mic it.

AC: Tell us about some of the notable tour experiences such as working with John Lennon, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd, etc?

TL: Playing with those great artists was, as you’d guess, an honor for me, and a lot of fun musically. It’s not hard work, finding the right grooves in the studio, when the artist provides the players with great music as a starting point. And touring is even better — I didn’t get to tour with those artists you’ve mentioned, but in live shows with such performers as Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Judy Collins, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Buddy Rich, Gary Burton, Peter Frampton, Alan Holdsworth, California Guitar Trio, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, and Chuck Mangione… I’ve had even more fun – the magic of sharing music with a great audience makes it more even more special than recording the pieces.

AC: Which were some of your most fulfilling collaborations?

TL: I don’t tend to put things in order of preference… but I’ve had a lot of wonderful years touring with Peter Gabriel, with King Crimson, and with the little trio I started 10 years ago, Stick Men.

AC: Is there anyone you wanted to work with, but have not have the opportunity yet?

TL: Jimi Hendrix. Do you think it might happen? (!)

AC: How did you meet up with King Crimson? What attracted you to the band? What did you bring to the table?

TL: I met Robert Fripp, the founder of the group, in 1976, at the Peter Gabriel sessions where I first met Peter. We hit it off well (yeah… we’re still playing together 41 years later!) Soon after that, Robert asked me to play on his solo album, and then formed a quartet we first called “Discipline” and then decided to call a new incarnation of Crimson. The music and musicians in the band were exceptional – so I was, and still am, both challenged and excited to be part of it.

AC: You are considered a virtuoso on the Chapman Stick? Can you explain a little as to what it is and why you choose to work with it?

TL: I’m only one of thousands of Stick players, but probably one of the best known, because I tour so much. It’s an electric ‘touch guitar’ type instrument with 10 or 12 strings! You play each note not by plucking but by ‘hammer on’ tapping with one finger. So you can play notes with each hand, like a piano, and like a piano it has a large range. Mine has 6 bass strings and 6 guitar strings.

AC: Tell us a little about the band Stick men?

TL: When I recorded an album called “Stick Man”, I thought it’d be great to have a trio with two Stick players. We could cover a lot of ground with all those strings, and it’d be a nice challenge to play progressive rock with only 3 players. Pat Mastelotto, my Crimson band mate, was perfect for drums because he plays both acoustic and electric kits.

We were all happy with the band, and have done many tours since then, all over the world. It’s not the most famous band, but we do have our following and its great fun sharing our new music with audiences.

AC: Tell us about your working relationship with Peter Gabriel, how is being in is band different than King Crimson, what are the positives of this musical experience?

TL: Peter’s a longtime friend and great guy to work with. The shows are not just musically special, but the productions are always fun, with dancing, dramatics, staging and things like that. Crimson is quite the opposite regarding staging… more like a Classical concert, and all about the music. They’re very different, and both a pleasure to be part of.

AC: Tell us about some of the books you have authored? Beyond the Bass Clef, Road Photos, Crimson Chronicles vol 1.

TL: I’ve put out two photo books, the now out of print “Road Photos”, and a book of my photos of King Crimson in the 80’s, which is called “Crimson Chronicles vol. 1”. (I’ve yet to complete volume two!) I wrote a collection of essays called “Beyond the Bass Clef” and last year I published a poetry book, titled “Fragile as a Song”

AC: Tell us about, the book, Fragile as a Song?

TL: Collection of my lyrics and poems through the years. It was a special thing to release, for me, even if sales weren’t destined to be high, so I made up the small books as leather bound, and autographed each of them. It turned out the sales, mostly while on tour, were better than I’d guessed, so I may have to do a second printing next year. But the satisfaction is just having those poems out there.

AC: You are one of the very first Bloggers, and have been blogging since 1996, 5 million visits, 6,800 pictures, 400 tour photos, what was it about New Media that causes you to immerse yourself in the media?

TL: I started my personal website fairly early, without the intention to blog. Just had some news about tours and was offering my solo cd for sale. But I quickly found that what fans really liked was my photos and stories from behind the scenes on the road. So, I gravitated to that, and as bandwidth increased, I upped the pictures from the very small ones of the mid 90’s, to audience pictures where fans can often find themselves. It’s a pleasure to share with them how inspiring the audience is to us on stage.

AC: Tell us about the upcoming 2017 King Crimson tour, what can people expect?

TL: King Crimson is a unique band. The ambition is not just talk about being progressive but to try things that other bands aren’t doing. So, with this tour you’ll find… let me list some things that are out of the ordinary: there are three drummers. They don’t just pound out the same part, quite the opposite, they have devised elaborate strategies to break parts up among the three kits, in many varying ways. We also have the drums at the front of the stage, spread across the whole stage. On a riser behind them are the other five players. We wear suits and ties! (not sure why, but we do.)

We ask the audience to refrain from taking cellphone or camera pictures and videos, until the end of the show – insisting that the full audience can appreciate the show without that distraction. The show offers a lot of music, usually with an intermission. Then there’s the music: King Crimson music is sometimes very complex, sometimes quite simple, sometimes very powerful, sometimes minimal. And the players are notable on their respective instruments.

So… a lot to experience, and much of it unlike anything you’ll have heard.

AC: What are some of thing you would like to accomplish? More books, Touring, new music?

TL: Yes, more of all that. More concerts with great players, more new music, and if there’s something to be said, more book writing.

AC: When it’s all said and done what would you like your legacy to be?

TL: That’s something I don’t think about at all. I’m wrapped up in, and challenged by, the musical situations I’m lucky to be part of. Any legacy will be what it is… not what I’m aiming for.

AC: How can people connect with you on New Media and read your Blog and updates?

TL: https://www.facebook.com/tonylevinofficial/ and tonylevin.com

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