Conversation With Tony Levin

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Top illustration by Tim Forkes

Going on the TV show Fridays
I remember that. What were we doing on that show? We’re not a pop band. We did even know why they had us on, but they did. 

Using the Chapman Stick
 I heard about, I think, in ’75 when it came out because I used to play bass with that same tapping, hammer-on technique. Not often, but sometimes. So a bunch of players I work with told me, ‘Hey there’s this instrument that’s made to be played that way you’re playing the bass. You should check it out.’

So when I was next on tour and in Los Angeles I did check it out and got one. I know the year was ’76 because I brought it to Peter Gabriel’s first solo album after he left Genesis, which was in July of ’76. The producer took one look at the instrument — I opened it up, I could hardly play it — I opened it up and the [producer Bob Ezrin said] ‘Put that thing away. I don’t even want to see it!’ So I didn’t play it on that album but from then on I had on tour with Peter [Gabriel}, and especially I played it with King Crimson and many years later when I was working with that same producer, Bob Ezrin, with Pink Floyd. He asked ‘Hey can you play the Stick on this track?’ So I was gratified he went full circle.

Metting Robert Fripp
And Robert [Fripp] did that first tour with Peter Gabriel One, we called that album, Robert was on tour with him — although he didn’t let Peter introduce him as Robert — he had to say ‘Dusty Roads on guitar.‘ Robert was off in the wings where the audience could hardly see him. But he was playing on that tour.

Keeping in touch with Fripp
We somewhat kept in touch, but when he did his solo album, I’m not sure what year, but after ’76, called “Exposure” he asked me to play on that. Wonderful album, which was essentially King Crimson-like material that he had written, but was a solo album. So I guess he liked the way he responded to that and when he formed a new band in 1980-81 — which was not to be called King Crimson,  we called it Discipline in the beginning — he asked if I would like to join that band. Frankly it was more like they were trying me out; I was checking them out, and it worked out, obviously. On those days I met Adrian Below and Bill Bruford, the other players in that band who were to influence my playing and my musicality a great deal in the subsequent years, so that was great.

We toured for a very short time as Discipline and once we had the record together we changed the name to King Crimson and used the album as King Crimson.

I’ve been working with, and befriended and been a bandmate with both Robert and Peter Gabriel ever since ’76. When I think about it that way it was quite a day in my life. It was pretty fortuitous that I met them both in one day. Glad I showed up.

Origin story
I won’t speak for everybody, generally we don’t think about much anyway because what we think is, “I want to play, I want to play good music. That’s a good player, I’ll play with him.’ I know only a few guys who actually plan ahead — or try to plan ahead, because the music business is full of twists and turns anyway — so you follow the music. You try to play with as many good players as you can. Sometimes it can be rough. You get rejected from things you thought you played pretty well on; a band, a session, rehearsal. Sometimes it goes pretty well and you play just a little bit with somebody and a year later, or five years later or 15 years later that person calls and says ‘I’ve got just the band for you.” Sometimes you’re free to do it and sometimes, as I mentioned,  I never said it this way, but what if I had the flu that day in July ’76 and said, ‘Sorry guys.’ I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t know how special and seminal that Peter Gabriel record would be. What if I just didn’t show up and maybe I’d be playing country music right now — who knows what I would be doing.

Luckily I became immersed in progressive rock and have learned a great deal from those players through the years. Those kind of twists and turns, you’re right, that’s a fascinating thing about musicians.

Did they think Discipline was ground-breaking music
Can’t speak for the other guys, but pretty much we were doing what you do when you’re musicians. We were making music. You take it for granted you’re trying to make it as good as you can. For my part I was being influenced very quickly and deeply by the other players. If you think about their history the [other] three guys in the band had played a lot of progressive rock, wonderful, unique players. I’m not saying I didn’t have my own style, but I was less immersed in that genre than them and I was picking up the unstated rules and I was trying to break away from what I had done before and do things differently because that is what I musically heard the other guys do. Even though what they did already was very distinctive and unusual and very special. I picked up that we were just trying to do something that hadn’t been done. But we didn’t put it that way, we didn’t say, ‘Let’s do something ground-breaking.’ Robert and Adrian created music and Bill Bruford, in his very Bill Bruford way, reacted to that in a way that no other drummer on the planet would. And he played maybe a counter piece or something completely in a different time signature. And he would say, ‘Hey Tony, why don’t you join me. Those guys will play in five and we’ll play in eleven.’ 

I said ‘Sure.’ I gravitated towards the Chapman Stick which has a more unusual bass sound and percussiveness. I’m going to laugh because I’m still in the learning process, but I was in the early learning process of how to be a musical band member in a band where everybody’s got a unique sound and doing something that you never heard before.

Comparing the seven-piece King Crimson to the four-piece of the 1980s. I thought it would be disappointing, but was proven wrong when I watched and heard a YouTube video.
I’m used to being proven wrong so I cn relate to that. Being that it’s a very different band. It’s King Crimson, we call it King Crimson. We’re playing similar material, some of it, but three drummers alone changes everything. That changes the whole paradigm. I love that we have them in the front of the stage so the audience is seeing them, as they should, as the main part of the show to watch what the three drummers are doing. The other four of us are on risers behind them.

I haven’t really compared them. The way that they’re similar (1980s vs current) is it’s very challenging musically for us. It requires a whole lot of concentration, it requires being at the top of your game instrumentally and really being on top of what you can do to be able to play the material. Not that it’s blazingly fast, but it’s very complex, because of the intertwining time signatures it’s really important to not make any little mistakes, especially in some sections. I’ll put it a different way: There are some sections in this show when if one guy makes a mistake it almost requires the band to stop and start again. It’s so complicated nobody can go ‘One-two-three-four’ and bring us back together. We’re thinking in different time signatures. So that kind of concentration for a three-hour show, which is what we were doing in 2019 is a good challenge and is very good for me musically and mentally. And it’s actually fatiguing in a funny way, considering we’re just standing still, we don’t jump around. At the end of the show I know I’m pretty tired. I think most of the guys are, just from concentrating and trying to do it right. And within that there’s a lot of improvising and a lot of chances to spread out. So it”s a fascinating show. Our set list is different every day because Robert Fripp chooses it in the morning so we don’t know until about noon what we’re going to be playing that night. We have maybe 45-50 King Crimson pieces to choose among. Hardly any two nights are the same. It is very King Crimson in that it is very challenging. It’s not like a usual rock band approaches these things.  So in that sense it is like the 80s band, however in many other senses it is not.

Chapman Stick versatility
The Chapman Stick is both bass and guitar strings with stereo output so it’s essentially a guitar and bass.

Playing in the right venues
When you write about the complexity of the sound of King Crimson, especially some pieces, For that reason we are very conscientious and very careful to play venues and beside we have good sound. We put a lot of effort into rehearsals with our sound engineer and into our sound system. We understand that it’s challenging music to the audience — in a good way — but it’s not going to work at all if it’s echo or ringy and not clear. So the best venues for us are where the sound is clear and we try to stick to those as best we can.

What albums were excluded from this tour?
I don’t really follow what songs come from which albums. We do a lot of material from the history of King Crimson. It’s enough for just about anybody.

Changing set list vs static list. Some bands have to perform the same set due to the coordinated stage show.
The normal way is you play the same set each night and that’s got its good points. The way we do it is very King Crimson. Different than other people. It’s got its good points too. The material stays fresh. In fact sometimes at noon we’ll get the set list and I’ll say, ‘Oh my god I’ll have to run these three songs at sound check,’ because I’m not confident on them because we haven’t played them in a week, or 10 days, or in three weeks — or in six months. 

Although we rehearse a lot before the tour and before each tour leg again to be sure we’re up and running on all the pieces that Robert might call for each night.

Does anyone use music charts?
Some of us use music, by which I mean written out charts on a music stand and some don’t.  For myself I need music on about three or four songs so I have the music stand. I don’t need to read the whole piece. We have a series of pieces called the Radical Action Part 1 (through five) but part four is part one and part three reversed. Very complicated. They all have similar themes so as you can imagine when I see on the set list ‘Radical Action, Part 2’ I have to look at a chart. I could really, maybe I should, devote a lot of time getting it straight in my head, memorizing which is which, but it’s easier just having a few notes [and say] ‘This is the one that starts in G and the figure beats twice as opposed to the other one that starts in G and the figure moves on after one beat. 

I’m not sure but I think Jakko (Michael “Jakko” Jakszyk) has the lyrics on a music stand just in case he needs them, but I’ve watched him night after night and very rarely does he look at that music stand.

Guitar effects with Chapman Stick. Fripp is famous for his use of electronics and effects.
I was fairly new with the stick at that time. Mind you I was only using the bass side of it so I mainly looking for the right compressor — oh yeah, I had forgotten in those days I was using a phaser. I was trying to find a distinctive sound, but more than that a sound that worked with the sound that the band was already making. Primarily what Bill Bruford was doing. It was a little bit thinner. I wouldn’t say that it a small sound. The big fat heavy bass sound on my bass worked for some pieces. For some pieces a thinner, more cutting through sound is a fairly simple way to describe what I was after on the Stick.

I’ve changed that since. And instdentally when we recorded the Beat album I counted my pedals. At my disposal I had 42 pedals. In fact for part of one piece, just to see what — an improv we were recording, totally improv — I unplugged the bass and just had the cable in my hand and turned on various of the 42 pedals and it worked. 

So yes, a lot of effects, but not for their own sake, but to have at one’s disposal for what works with the band.

Are you still taking pictures?
August 7, 1982 show at Poplar Creek Music Theater outside Chicago show was cancelled due to storm and power outage. Tony published a book of his stage photos. From that cancelled concert the photo shows Bill Bruford sitting in the seats with the water rushing down the aisles.
This year I had a very gratifying release of a photo album of all my pictures — sorry — pictures from all my tours, not all my pictures. That means tens of thousands. But I picked the best ones and for many years I have been wanting to make a coffee table book of large versions of them and I’m very happy with that and I’m very happy it gave me a very deep and hard job to do during the lock down year. I really worked on it daily from June until December. It’s called ‘Images From a Life on the Road’ and I’m very proud of it. And more than that I’m gratified to have those pictures out in the public where people can see them and share them because some of them are special if only because of the vantage point I had from stage, like you said, at Poplar Creek, but also, for instance, in the 70s when Peter Gabriel started floating out in the audience and there I was on stage taking pictures of what later would be called crowd surfing. At the time there was no such term. Kind of historic in a small way, especially of value to the fans. So it was a great, gratifying experience to finish that book and have it out there.

Let me tell you having taken hundreds of pictures of that event, especially in the early years — the early part of that tour when it was a surprise — the looks on peoples’ faces is what makes it so special. And Peter is just trying to hold himself physically together with all the prodding and things that go on. But the audience, they can’t believe it! They can’t believe what’s literally in their hands. It’s the artist they came to see. Very, very special.

And interesting phenomenon that I couldn’t capture in the pictures; depending on the aggressiveness of the audience they would either send him right back to the stage — and keep in mind it’s a crowd decision. No single person can decide anything about that, you’re just floating on their hands — they would either send him right back, or of it’s a very aggressive audience they would take him way to the back of the venue and then send him back. We would be on stage vamping, and I would be taking pictures, singing ‘Lay Our Hand on Me’ for a long time, many minutes, hoping they (the audience) would bring him back. They always brought him right back to the front of the stage where the crew could carry him up on stage. By that time some of his clothes were gone, sometimes almost all of his clothes, but he was unharmed and it’s really an amazing phenomenon about the audience with their group-think like that. Nobody could control it, but they (the audience) always took him to the degree they felt comfortable and they sent him back. Some places didn’t feel comfortable taking him hardly at all and they sent him right back.

Respect from the bands’ audience
Audiences are all different. In the acts that I play with of course there’s always a lot of respect for the acts and I’m very pleased to see that.

I’m aware of two things: How the audience sacrificed something and gone through something to be there. They’re just not automatically there. They spent money, they spent time, sometimes traffic — horrible effort just to be there and share the music so I try to always have that in mind.

And also, the magic … I love live playing and sharing music with audiences. I like recording a lot too, but playing live, this thing we haven’t had for the last year, is very precious to me. It’s my life’s work and I’m very aware of the magic that happens on the night is not just because of the band. I know that for a fact because with shows every night just about, for over half my life, some sows stand out as very precious and very special. None of us knows why, but it’s to do with the venue and very much with the audience and what the audience gives to the band tat we don’t stop to analyze, but the magic of the night is a product of the audience plus the band. So I try to keep that in mind every night. I don’t say anything about it, but I’m very grateful for the audience showing up, especially for challenging music, which Peter Gabriel is to some extent and my band Stickmen and King Crimson for sure. 

About Stickmen
I did an album a number of years ago called ‘Stickman.’ It wasn’t all stick but I had done mostly stick and I had done multiple over dubs with the Stick. I liked the way the album came out  and thought ‘It would be nice to do a tour with this, but how can I do that, I can’t play all the parts.’ So I thought of a small band, a trio, with two Stick players Michael Bernier and then Markus Reuter) and Pat Mastelotto, one of the drummers from King Crimson who played on that album. Pat is unique i many ways, but he plays electronic and acoustic drums both. So in a way he sounds like a lot more than one. He has samples and loops.

So I thought that with three players we can really be challenged snd we can a small sound with just three guys, or we can — each Stick player can play bass and guitar so, as you can imagine, a lot of possibilities. It ended up being quite workable. We were touring with Stick Men and doing Albums when we had time and we can. It’s a wonderful outlet for my music and the other guys’ music. Because there is only three of us we’re able to do tours where the budget wouldn’t support four or five guys; the hotel room, the travel and all that. So it’s a small and mobile band that’s able to keep going, no matter what. It’s been a real pleasure to have that in my schedule every year.

Sense of humor. mentioned Toyah and Roberts “Sunday Lunch” videos and Peter Gabriel’s sense of humor.
Yes it’s very important and well put. I think the world knows now what I knew is that Robert Fripp has a very good sense of humor. The fans kind of thought of him as this stern guy because that was his musical persona in shows, and maybe still will be, I don’t know. Of course we saw the side of him that’s very funny. I’d say that any band that’s together a lot on the road, how it gets along, how we feel about each other is very important. It becomes more important even than the music. It’s a family, I’ll put it that way. And if it’s a dysfunctional family you’re going to be unhappy on the road and it’s going to be a negative experience and that’s going to lead to even more trouble on the road and of course the band breaking up. If it’s a positive experience it’s that much better.

With Peter Gabriel he’s the way he seems to be, he’s that great a guy. He’s a great person, a kind of family guy so one feels like he’s in his family as soon as you join the band. And even the crew, as soon as you’re on the tour. So it’s always welcoming, a lot of fun, a lot of joking during the show. 

King Crimson, a much bigger band. The guys are very funny, like comedians. We’re deadly serious during the show, and before it and a little after it. But then the jokes start up and we have a lot of fun on the road — thank goodness. If we spend all day being that serious it would not be gratifying. 

So you could never be a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young?
One never knows!

Click here for the article, with Tony’s photos.