Interview with Tony Levin

I had an opportunity to interview Tony Levin and get the latest news on the Bozzio Levin Stevens project, as well as find out what was going on with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. Here are some excerpts.

I spoke with Steve earlier about this project---what exactly where your thoughts when he and Terry called and asked you to work on this project?

It was a funny coincidence. I hade been thinking of calling Terry to do a duo. When he called, I said "yes" right away. I knew Steve's playing as we've played together on an album (Ric Ocasek) and ever since then I had been wanting to work with him. It sounded like an exciting idea. The truth is nobody knows how these ideas will work out in advance. There's an aspect of chemistry you don't know about until it happens. I went to the recording and things turned out great.

How was it working with Terry and Steve?

We knew on paper that we were going to have fun. Some of it was not what I'd been expecting. When Steve played the Flamenco guitar, our songs went in another direction. I didn't know how far out we'd go in advance. I know I like to go very far out, but it was a comfortable thing, and I felt like I could play my own thing during Steve's soloing. It's going to be a lot of fun to do that live. What is a two minute solo in the record is going to be 20 minutes.

Are there plans for future projects together?

With this band, we wisely made no plans. Generally, when such plans are made, it's a business man who makes them. We just said, hey, let's tour and now we're touring. After that, the first thing we'll address is schedules. When there's time we'll get together again and tour in the States since none of us have time this Fall.

How does this fit in with the live improvisational stuff you've done with King Crimson?

I do a lot of different projects and I don't relate them to each other at all. When I am on a project I am very focused and don't want to think about others since they can be so utterly completely different. An example of that right now is a project called From the Caves of the Iron Mountain. It's a trio of musicians in a cave playing very few notes. It's very good music. I take each project as it is. Having said that, King Crimson is the most intense of the music I have to do with because we write as a band. To come up with a concept, it requires quite a sitting as far as intensity, far more than any other project I've worked on. As far as results, I don't want to comment on that.

So are the plans for a tour more final now?

Right now we will do a small tour of Japan in September, for sure. The tour of U.S. is going to wait. We're squeezed for time. I need to work with King Crimson. Like with the album, we'll tour Japan and see what happens. We hope to record some of the live stuff. The band on the road is going to be very different. I'm not a player who plays things the same and the music we recorded has a lot of room to go places.

Do you plan to rehearse or just jam live?

A lot of the album was written before I got on board. Steve and Terry got together and wrote a lot of material. When we were in the studio, they would play the idea for a piece and we'd go from there. If it had been jamming we'd have done it in one day. The actual performance didn't involve many takes but we wanted to make sure had a composition worthy of the record. In that way when we play we can expand on each section.

Will your set consist of stuff you have done individually or will it be all Bozzio Levin Stevens?

All from the album and it will include new material. If I play an instrument like the Stick, and if I come up with an idea, it may sound like King Crimson, but it'll be all new stuff.

What is King Crimson up to these days?

We got together two months ago to write for a new record in Nashville, and will be meeting again in the Fall. In the Spring maybe we'll tour or write some more. King Crimson is a band where we try to make a new kind of music for every album. It's not easy for us in terms of writing process. We all have an input and the music is so radical. So a large percent of it has to be thrown out. We just can't go and do more of what we did before. How much we'll tour or whether we'll tour still remains to be seen.

And Peter Gabriel?

There is a new album in the works. I flew over to his Real World studios in England and spent three weeks recording the pieces he had written. Peter has been writing the lyrics and has been finishing up the tracks. We recorded a lot of material: on the other albums, Peter had about 5-10 songs for us to work on, but this time he had about 20 songs. I was pretty interested in the stuff and I thought they were good.

With anyone else I might assume they'd finish soon, but with Peter I've learnt to never assume anything. He sometimes decides to change the whole thing and can spend years with these things. He doesn't always proceed directly to the end result. It depends on the sense of how his material works.

Have you thought about bringing the bass to a forefront either with your music or with King Crimson's?

That's nothing to do with my life. I'm just a guy who likes playing the bass and and there's nothing else I want to be, a lead player or leader of the band. The amazing thing is that I'm a happy guy doing what I do. In some ways the bass is very important and I'm lucky to be playing that instrument. I want to be someone that holds down the bottom and plays the basic stuff and when there's a suitable opportunity, like playing with a lot of different basses, find appropriate sounds for the music. There are other players more comfortable with taking the lead role and those players deserve credit.

What sort of processing do you use?

I use very little digital processing. In King Crimson, everyone's digital except for me. For my ears, the bass needs to travel pretty much unaffected. Part of my signal is going directly without any processing especially if it's a driving bass part. I do use standard guitar effects a lot in conjunction with the straight sound.

In King Crimson, do you and Trey interchange playing the low and high notes?

The initial plan was to work things out between us, since we both play similar instruments. But we were in for a surprise. The more he gravitated towards playing the guitar parts, I went towards playing the bass parts. He has gone with the other two guitars and I play very low bass just to stay out of every one's way. There are a couple instances where there's just me and Trey and we both play low notes and that's interesting. But it gets too muddy once we're in unison.

How exactly do you tune your Stick?

The quick story is that half the strings in the Stick are bass strings and the other half are guitar strings. The bass strings are in standard tuning and the guitar strings are in fourths. It depends on where I'm playing though. If I'm doing my own project there's no guitar player and I'm playing all the chords, then I tune it so I can carry the whole song. In King Crimson, I tune it all to a standard fourth.

Who are your favourite bassists currently and who would you cite as influences?

I don't have a good answer for that. I don't listen to the bass when I listen to a song. I try to focus on the song itself. So I don't have a preference for particular bassists but I still do appreciate bass players and other instrumentalists. I've been influenced by every very good bass player I've ever heard. It goes into the memory banks and it just comes up when recording/writing.

What advice do you have for aspiring bassists?

Well, the advice depends on the level the bass player is at. There are different kinds of problems at every level. I once said in an interview one thing that's common is that you run into discouraging setbacks at every level of your career. One thing I'd say is to be mentally prepared to accept set backs, because they are going to happen. Another thing is to use every opportunity to improve your playing and I'm always doing that.

Would you recommend that bass players try using the Stick?

Each bass player has his own style and each bass player knows what kind of bass he likes. I use all sorts of basses, fretless, five-string, and even a three string bass since I didn't feel like I needed all those strings. When I hear a bass part, I think what instrument is it going to sound unusual on. A good example is not only that I've learnt to play the Stick but I have these wooden drumsticks called funk fingers which are available from my web page. I can play more percussive stuff with those. When I first started selling them, I wondered what are other guys going to do with these things, but I've sold 400-500 of those primarily through the web.

Other bass players may work differently and I've learned that each bass player decides for himself what sort of bass or basses to play and they don't have to be bass players for long to figure that out.

What are your future plans?

There's the tour, writing with King Crimson, maybe a Peter Gabriel tour next year, and I also have some very special albums I've been working on coming out over the next year or two. One of that I already told you about, From the Caves of the Iron Mountain.

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || || July 9, 1997