Music: The Bassman Cometh

The legendary Tony Levin is a bassist's bassist

David Sorcher

Tony Levin on bass

Tony Levin's resume reads like a who's who of modern music. Besides many years as the bassist for Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, he has also been a player of choice for the likes of John Lennon, Paul Simon, David Bowie, The Indigo Girls, Carly Simon, Herbie Mann and many more. When Yes reformed without Chris Squire, they called on Tony. And when Pink Floyd needed someone to fill Roger Waters' shoes, Tony was again the bassist of choice.

But despite his recognition amongst his fellow musicians as the bass player's bass player, Tony has received little fame for his work. But for Tony, it really is all about the music. I caught up with him at the 20th Century Theater on March 19 for the kick-off of the second leg of his North American tour with his own group, The Tony Levin Band.

CityBeat: Tony, I know you're serious about your coffee.

Tony Levin: Yeah, I am.

CB: I understand you always travel with your own espresso maker.

TL: This time I don't have the espresso maker on the road. If it's a big tour, like Peter Gabriel, the band and crew uses the machine. This tour is too small. The thing is (it takes) three guys just to carry it into the dressing room, I need a road case for it.

CB: You even have a page on your Web site devoted to coffee.

TL: Yeah, more than a page I think, or maybe just one, I haven't been there in a long time.

CB: You grew up in Boston, right? And began playing upright bass at the age of 10?

TL: Yeah, I played Classical when I was a kid. I played a little Rock, but mostly I was a serious kind of Classical musician. Through high school really I went to music school and majored in Classical. At an early age I decided that it wasn't for me, orchestral playing Then I made a change at a pretty young age, at about 20. I'm glad I got off to such a quick start because if I had decided that at 30 it might have been tougher to change. Then I kind of zoomed into Rock and I've been much happier there ever since. I will say though, that Classical music is still what I listen to mostly. It's my favorite music but playing in an orchestra is not for me.

CB: Was the bass your first musical instrument?

TL: Yeah, first and pretty much my only instrument.

CB: You went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.

TL: Went to the Eastman School which was totally Classical — we weren't allowed to play Jazz— and who do I meet there but one of the best Jazzplayers I've ever heard, Steve Gadd, the great drummer. And Steve and I start gigging in the forbidden Jazz. We weren't allowed to play it at the school. We couldn't practice it or play it at all.

CB: I've heard they're changing that there now.

TL: I'm sure it changed by the time we left. But we had a great time and I was lucky that he (Steve Gadd) was sort of my mentor and he taught me, as you can imagine. I was a Classical guy and had no sense of where to put the time or a lot of technical things about playing Jazzso he (was) very patient with me and stuck with me while I learned where to put the beat on the bass. And then later I went off on my own in Rock where I was quite a bit happier than I was with Jazz.

CB: Do you feel that your Classical training helped you any in your career with Rock and Jazz?

TL: I guess. It certainly didn't hurt. There are ways that it helped a lot but in most ways it was kind of not relevant. And in some ways it got in the way a little bit, so there's a complex answer to that. It never hurts to have deep training in any of the arts, however if you are unable to drop some of the axioms or rules of that idiom, then you can get into trouble. In any idiom really, it's the same with Jazz. If you're a Folk player going into Jazzand you're not willing to play way on top of the beat then you're in trouble. So I maybe wasn't as loose at first when I left Classical and went into Jazz, but I quickly learned that all those absolute rules were breakable and sometimes it's a good idea to break them.

I don't want to go fully into an essay ... I actually literally have written an essay on this subject. But what I try to glean from my careers in Classical and then in Jazzand then in Rock are different things. To me the Classical world has a great appreciation of the very best quality of music. That is paramount in Classical, to the point where, of course, they take it to extremes, it's a little insane. Like the lesser symphonies of Beethoven are unthinkably bad for a Classical musician. However, there is a big benefit to appreciating the best that three centuries of musicians has come up with.

In Jazz everything is spontaneity and feel and Jazz players have the best ears of all the musicians that I've ever worked with and so they live in a wonderful world of understanding and hearing amazing subtleties in each other's playing that the audience doesn't hear and even some other kinds of musicians can't hear. That's great. However, Jazz also has its built in absolutes and there's some things you're just not supposed to do in Jazz. And I try to forget those and I try to glean the ability to really hear everything that's going on and appreciate all the little subtle things that all musicians do.

Now Rock ... I forget what it is about Rock (laughs). Rock has a lot that's great about it. I think only in Rock do we meld the performance and the excitement of the music itself, just the raw kind of animal excitement with the sophistication of the chords and the rhythm. Whereas Jazz and Classical there's the chords, there's the rhythm, there's the sophistication but there is no drawing performance into that. And Rock does that in a wonderful way.

CB: What bassists have influenced your career?

TL: I think I've been influenced a little by a lot of players, any players I like and in fact a lot of players who aren't bass players. Just really good playing influences you, because if you're a bass player you don't just start copying any bass player who you like. You might get some kind of influence, but in a way, even if it's a French horn player and he phrases really well I'm not going to copy him. If I'm open to what he's playing ­ maybe French horn was a bad idea (laughs), but a singer or something. There's something there that I can add to my music because my music is more than just playing notes. I've learned after so many years of playing bass that musicality is very important. Somehow it seeps into every piece you play. Even with the simplest of bass parts your overall musicality comes into it. So anything that influences you in a good way is a great thing and things that influence you in a bad way are a bad thing and are going to hurt your playing in some subtle way. For that reason I try to avoid being around bad music, because I think it has an effect on me.

CB: What would you define as bad music?

TL: In the gym where I work out ... in the gym, there's always bad music. There's a law against having music of any redeeming value at all in the gym. I don't know why that is. And so I wear ear plugs because it just kind of seeps in and somehow, inside me I can accept bad music if I hear it enough and I don't want to be able to accept it when I'm playing.

CB: You've played with some of the true legends of modern music. Besides your long term relationship with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, you've been a sideman for the likes of John Lennon, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Herbie Mann, Chuck Mangione, Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd, just too name a few. Still, you're not exactly a household name. Is name recognition even a concern for you, and, if so, do you have any plans to make the public more aware of you?

TL: No and no. It's not important. The reason is that I came into it as a player, as a musician, and the reward is the playing. That's it, I don't really need to become a famous player and I don't really need to play on famous albums. I'm very lucky that in my career I've played with some very famous and influential people. But the real luck was that I got to rub shoulders with them musically and I got to hope that some of their talent rubbed off on me and I got too be around them. I know that with Peter Gabriel, just being onstage with him physically is an experience completely unlike just watching him play. I mean it's fantastic. So that's my luck.

Recently, a piece of mine was nominated for a Grammy, out of the blue. And it was an interesting experience because, in a way, it was a test of just how much I believe what I just told you, because I got a rung high in fame just with the nomination and I had interviewers calling me, pretty much, a couple times a day in that two month period before the awards ceremony. And I like that because it gives me a chance to promote my tour(s), otherwise people don't know about them. And I couldn't help but think, "if you win the Grammy you get all the more interviews and that's a good thing." However, in my sense, that kind of fame of winning some award that you're the best bass player or made the best record ... is a little unlikely to happen with my kind of instrumental music. But even if I were to (win), it's kind of like a rental, like renting a really good apartment, whereas the real equity, the real ownership, the thing that people can't take away from you, is your enjoyment of good music and getting to play good music. I'm very aware that I'm lucky to get to do that and that's not a thing that's up for votes (laughs).

CB: When you first moved into other forms of music after some time in the Classical symphony orchestra you got yourself an old Fender bass, which I understand served you for many years. But people who do recognize your work tend to know you more for the fretless sound and the Chapman Stick. Obviously, when you started playing the stick, it opened you up to many different possibilities of technique and sound. How much did this and other technological advances help to develop your distinct style of play?

TL: Good question. I'm not that fussy about what instrument I'm playing. I've been attracted to unusual instruments because they have, in a subtle bass player kind of way, an unusual sound. That's what I need because I play in some unusual settings, with King Crimson or Peter Gabriel or my own music, where the usual bass sound might not suit as well. So really what I like is to have a whole bunch of tools when I come into a new musical situation and then I'll just pick the right one for that piece. It could be that the regular bass is right. Lately I've been playing the NS Electric Upright a lot. It sounds a lot like an upright bass, but I play it because it has unusual characteristics that suit some pieces very well. The Chapman Stick I've had really good luck with. It's really good for writing, and it's really good for my own band where I want to carry a little more of the piece from my own playing. So it's very versatile and because it's unusual, and even the bass strings are tuned differently, that helps me come up with different ideas and unusual playing.

CB: What about "Funk Fingers"? How did this very unique percussive technique of striking the strings with cut off drumsticks attached to your fingers develop?

TL: Well, forgive my telling a long story (laughs). I recorded the Peter Gabriel piece "Big Time" with Jerry Marotta on drums, the same wonderful good friend who's playing with me tonight. And we came up with the idea of him playing with his drumsticks on the bass strings while I did the fingering with my left hand. And then a year later when we tried too do the piece live, I was attempting to play what he had done, with a drumstick in my hand, and actually it was Peter Gabriel, who was walking by me in a sound check who said to me, "Why don't you find a way to put two drumsticks on your fingers?" And then I turned to my bass tech, Andy Moore, and said, "Can we figure out a way to do that?" and Andy did.

So really I was only a small part of coming up with the actual thing. It took a lot of adjusting. If they were too thick they would break the strings; if they were too thin they'd bounce too much; too loose on my fingers they'd go flying into the audience. We got a stretch Velcro thing to make them tight. And again, like different basses, I like using them not all the time but for a subtle different percussive bass sound. I used them a lot and practiced with them in 1990 when I went on tour with Yes. At the time they were called Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, and I was given the very difficult job of trying to fill the shoes of Chris Squire, the great bass player, who plays with a pick in a very different style than me — much more melodic and trebly. And I thought that rather than practice with the pick and try to do something that I don't really do very well, why don't I really practice a lot with the Funk Fingers and try to advance that technique for myself. So that's where I got command of the technique, because, frankly, it's a little tricky at first.

CB: I would imagine so. Somehow with all the multitude of things that you do you've still managed to explore your own music with the Tony Levin Band. Your latest is a two-disc live recording called Double Espresso — is this your fourth album?

TL: Let's see, the first bunch I did on my own label, so it was so small not too many people bought them. World Diary was a total record of my own. Then the next few I did were collaborative, so they don't count as a solo album.

CB: Then there's Waters of Eden and Pieces of the Sun.

TL: Yes, so this is my fourth. I never thought about that until today.

CB: You probably like to avoid pigeonholing, but what genre of music would you describe the Tony Levin Band as?

TL: You're exactly right, none of us like pigeonholing ourselves, that's the job of the journalists. Our job is to try to do something we think is different. Maybe it isn't different, but either way it's the journalist who really brings the objectivity. That's what I don't have about my own music and that's OK. In fact I'm better off not looking at it from the outside.

So if I'm forced to describe, I describe it as Progressive music even though Prog Rock can be considered an unkind term. What I identify mostly with my music, partly because it's instrumental and partly because of the form, is Progressive music, though not necessarily moldy old Prog Rock. Progressive in that there are standard Rock forms — verses and chorus, then you throw in a bridge — that are pretty common, and then if you advance to more complex forms, like Yes and King Crimson and many other bands. That's a progressive style of playing and I definitely try to do that with my own writing.

CB: This latest recording is on Narada Records. Is there a reason you didn't put it on your own Papa Bear label?

TL: I'm trying to think when they actually came to me. Usually you try to get a record label to put out your records. Well, I was quietly putting out my records on my own label very happily, but only because I don't need to sell a lot because I make my living as a bass player. I didn't need to try to be an artist who was going to try to sell a lot of records, because it's a lot of work to get them in stores. And Narada Records liked my stuff and they asked me a few years ago if I would like to put records out with them. At first we tried it on a tentative basis, with my first album with them which was Waters of Eden. I liked them a lot as people. I didn't have to suffer some of the things that record companies sometimes put musicians through. My style of music is not what they usually put out so it took some patience on their part to suddenly have a Rock guy in the midst of all their very good, but milder styles of music. So it's been a good thing for both of us. They market in their way, which isn't the Rock & Roll way, but I get to have a record company that I can talk to and relate to and who are nice. Which isn't the normal Rock & Roll way either, so it's been good for both of us.

CB: Double Espresso is a nice mix of your original work, some pieces by bandmates and a few interesting covers. It's about 80% instrumental, but a couple of the covers are lyrical. Do you enjoy singing and do you ever get frustrated with the fact that very few instrumental pieces are ever afforded popular radio airplay?

TL: Well first of all, the singing isn't usually me, it's Jerry.

CB: Right, but you do some though.

TL: Yeah, but Jerry's a really good lead singer and so, after a little while on the road, I just decided, we have to have Jerry singing. What can we do?

CB: Yeah, and people who can sing while playing traps has always blown my mind.

TL: Yeah, and also, as you'll see tonight, he's very funny, he tells a lot of jokes, and rather than keep him hidden behind the drums, I encourage him and bring him out a lot to the front. I do sing backup and indeed I do sing one or two little lead things. I like singing. I'm not gifted with a great lead voice so I hold it down a bit. And I have no frustration as to where instrumental music is for people — some people like it a lot and some people go for things that are more popular. The wonderful thing about the human voice is that it speaks to you even aside from just the words. The sound of it is a kind of music to all of our ears and you don't need to be a musician or even a music lover to relate to it.

CB: Sure, I think that's something Peter Gabriel does with his voice a lot.

TL: Absolutely. Peter has a lot to say but the sound of his voice moves you, just the sound of it. That's one of the mysteries of the human experience, why we relate so much to voice. But I don't do that. There's instrumental music and it can go a lot of places as people tonight will find out. Above all we have a lot of fun playing this music.

CB: As an avid fan of Gabriel-era Genesis, I was both pleased and intrigued by your cover of "Back in N.Y.C.," mostly because it's so lyrical and drawn from a very conceptual album project.

TL: Well, the reason we threw it in is because Larry (Fast), Jerry and I all did it with Peter Gabriel on his first tours in the '80s. Believe it or not, for young people it's pretty hard to believe, the audience would shout out for people to do Genesis pieces because they were unhappy that he left Genesis. So we knew it and I thought that would be a hoot, especially for those tried and true fans who are still coming too see us and indeed those few people, every night, go crazy when we play that one.

CB: Oh, I think you do a great job with it.

TL: Well thanks. What's really unusual and bizarre tonight is that I'm going to do a medley of "Give Peace a Chance" into "Back in N.Y.C." Those two songs have probably never been done on the same record or show ever by anybody.

CB: I found your Web site rather amazing, if only for the amount of time you put into it personally. You do these four diaries, complete with photographs, that are little journals of your road experiences.

TL: I love doing that. It is a stretch for my time and it's easier to do on a bus tour when I have all night in the bus. On a tour like this, I frankly don't have too much time to update it, but I try; from 2 to 2:30 a.m. is when I do it. I think one of the things the Web has afforded us, although it was an unintentional thing, it's lowered some of the barriers between a performer and his audience. Certainly I can't have everyone calling me who comes to my shows, but I am an accessible guy. The Web gives you that degree of separation where you can do things like I do. What I try to do is share for the fans who want to come on the site what it's like for us to be on the road. Not only backstage, but what the audience actually gives us, because I always put up pictures of the audience. Until you see it, you can't understand it, but what the band sees from the stage is a part of the show and gives us back something. And that's partly what keeps us going, especially after all these years. really enjoy doing it. I wouldn't enjoy it if the audience was just sitting there like a Classical concert.

CB: You take a lot of pictures. Back in 1984 you published a book called Road Photos, pictures from a (King) Crimson tour. I assume photography is something you really enjoy.

TL: Yeah. I have mixed feelings about having switched to digital, because Road Photos, which was not just King Crimson, but all the bands I toured with, was black and white. Now that it's time to do another book, I can, but the digital just isn't the same. In fact I'm working on the very final stages of completing a book of photos of my 20 years with King Crimson, which are back to black and white, because I did keep shooting film through the '90s. But digital has other uses. Obviously it's better for the Web and it's quick.

CB: I also notice that you're doing some experimenting with mixed media and PhotoShop manipulation. You are selling a hand colored print of Robert Fripp on the site, painted with Marshal oils.

TL: What's interesting for me is that I hand tinted a lot. In fact I was doing it in my hotel room on the road with Crimson, which is a sign I was going a little nuts, because, as you know, it's a mess of oils and little pieces of cotton all over the room. And in that period I just started slapping the oils on heavier and not wiping it off and I got that other technique, which is the Fripp print. On the first album, World Diary, I did some very neat tinting — it looks like a color picture. The second technique on the next album, it looks colored but then you can see paint on it. Then for the next album, (Bruford Levin's) Upper Extremities, I took the photo and I was set up to paint on it and I thought, "What if I go straight to canvas and just skip that" and indeed I became a painter that day. I had the photo and I was ready to paint on it and I thought,"Well, I'll just slap the paint on something else."

CB: Any plans for a show or book of these images?

TL: There have been a number of shows of my photos. Maybe five or six. One in Geneva, one in Boston. I either send them photos of Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, also (of) the Woodstock '94 festival. I was lucky to be there for the whole thing and took a lot of photos. I could do a whole exhibition of just those.

CB: You haven't been involved in King Crimson's last two projects. Are you missing that and do you plan on working with the band again?

TL: I miss it. We never know what's coming with King Crimson. I'm not completely out of the group the way most guys are. I miss it because it's the biggest challenge musically that I've ever been involved in. But we all have a good feeling about each other. The thing I'm most pleased about is that Crimson's new record is very exciting. I think they have really captured something special. Obviously it's proved to me that they don't really need me there to make a really good record. I'm almost sure I'll join the band in the future. Whether it will be in the near future or the next year or two I just don't know.

CB: It would be hard for me to imagine Peter Gabriel's music without your participation. And while I agree that Crimson is doing great work without you, I still miss your sound in the mix. Is there something in common with these two projects that has driven you to devote so much creative energy to them?

TL: Interesting question. I've spent years with both, of course. With Peter and I, we have a connection that goes back so far. I've been playing with him since '76. I don't need to look at Peter any more, I know what he's doing from the way he breathes, I know where the beat is going to be. That's the way it is with Jerry Marotta and me. And I guess if I had to pick just one of the musical situations, if I could only just keep doing one, it would be Peter's band. Because it's a combination of great music and music of meaning. He's a very deep guy with a lot of meaning. It's also a lot of fun being on the road with him and it's such a great show he puts on.

King Crimson is very challenging and it's improved my playing more than any other situation I've been in musically and I've been particularly inspired by the other three guys in the '80s band. How could Robert Fripp not inspire guys in his band when he inspires guitar players all over the planet? And Bill Bruford's drumming has made me open up my bass playing to levels I would have maybe never really considered before. And Adrian Belew's completely unique techniques, even the way he performs and sings is really very inspiring to me.

So the two situations have some things in common, some very different. The biggest thing in common is just blind luck. I'm very lucky to be asked to be in both. Of course, I wasn't about to leave either one.

CB: The media has made a big deal lately about artists and their political views. People like Bono almost make a second career out of politics and certainly Peter Gabriel has dealt with the subject both in song and offstage with his work with Amnesty International. Some artists and actors are being criticized of late for taking a stand against war with Iraq. Radio stations are banning the Dixie Chicks for a comment made by their lead singer about President Bush. Do you think that artists like yourself, who already have the ear of a receptive audience, have any responsibility to speak their political mind? And if so what is your take on the current state of world affairs?

TL: Interesting question, very timely. I have very strong political feelings myself. Really it's the Web site that is my vehicle for that. I have a lot of visitors on the site. But really, what I say in the show doesn't have as much impact as what I put up on that Web site. But I've avoided any overt political things until this week and I didn't do a very heavy thing this week. It was a diary entry. I just mention that I was protesting the war — that I went to Washington. And frankly I'm feeling the effects of that. I should have been rehearsing (laughs). Today was the makeup day for that, the sound check that you had to sit through. I think because I'm an instrumental musician I'm not able to put it into my songs and I don't think my audience is waiting to hear what I think of politically. So, though I feel strongly about things, I don't think it's my place to go around telling people. With Peter Gabriel it's entirely different.

CB: Right, he's a storyteller.

TL: He's a storyteller, people come to him for meaning and his insight into the human condition. They come to me to hear me play bass. Of course, having said that, I couldn't avoid this part of my life that I really feel strongly about. I could talk about war and politics all night but I don't think it's appropriate.

CB: Still, you have added "Give Peace a Chance" to the set list.

TL: Yeah, yeah. You know what? There were people who told me I shouldn't do that. I'm not sure if I'll say anything tonight but it's an unusual night to be playing and an unusual time to be touring. Peter's tour in April in Europe is going to be fraught with difficulties, if we even get to do the tour. Being an American in Europe has suddenly taken on a completely different meaning. So my life is somewhat consumed by things going on these past few weeks. It's a very interesting time to be in. I guess I won't really know if I'll say anything tonight until the show's over. I think I'll feel very grateful to people for coming out when things are so weird. I know if I was home and watching the news at all these last few days I wouldn't go out. I wouldn't be afraid of going out; I'd frankly be just too depressed.

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