Interview with Tony Levin by Craig Norton

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Date Submitted: 19-Mar-1998
Submitted By: Craig Norton (cnorton at snet dot net)

© 1998 Craig Norton
All Rights Reserved
Use of this transcript for reprint is strictly forbidden without written permission from the author. This can be obtained by contacting Craig Norton at cnorton at snet dot net.

The Interview

Let's discuss the medium in which this interview is taking place (e-mail). You have been "wired" for years. When did you start using computers to communicate?

I was online way back in the 80's. First used it when touring with both King Crimson and Peter Gabriel - I talked both managers into using e-mail - it was the only way we could stay in touch with me on the road (no faxes then!) It was, as I remember, a TRS Model 100 or something like that. No storage - save to audio tape - something like 56 k of memory. Real fun. I spent lots of my time in vans and planes writing programs for the thing 'cause it didn't come with much. Basic was a snap though. I certainly can't write in todays languages.

How do you utilize your computers today?

Mostly communication and writing. Never for my music or art - don't know why, I must just be happy w. the analog methods of the arts.

Do you spend a lot of time on line?

Sign on a lot, but get off as soon as I can - answer most mail offline, or I'd be on all night. Don't have the time to cruise around anymore - too bad, miss the fun, but it's like a video game that you love to obsess on: once I'm away from it for a while, life somehow goes on.

Do you travel everywhere with lap top?

If it's a trip of more than a day, I take my laptop. It's a somewhat ancient mac 180 - held together w. duct tape (as is much of the entertainment business) and only has one port still operational. Next big tour, I'll splurge on a better one for sure.

You have a great diary style web site, with frequent updates of tales from the road. There isn't a lot of your photography on the site. Why is that?

Simple, I've used the web a lot, with a slow modem, and I know it's a drag to sit and wait for graphics to come up - so we keep the graphics small, lores, and few. Sometimes, when I've got a special photo, we'll put it on its own page and advise that it is graphics intensive.

Is Papa Bear Records distributed exclusively through the web site?

The site is my main connection to music fans, but the 800 number for credit card orders and post office for mail orders work regardless of the web site - it's just that I don't have the marketing skills (or interest or time) to spread the word about my music to the public. The Internet suits me well because I love it and am comfortable with it, and relate to the visitors to the site.

How much traffic do you see on the site?

About 2,000 hits per week. Varies depending on who links to it. Went flying high when Peter Gabriel's RealWorld site linked to me for a while.

How do you think the internet has and will influence the music industry?

Sure, as it will every industry. I'm looking forward to downloadable music and graphics, so I can directly give the fan 70 minutes of great music, and BIG graphics - finally be free of that lousy small cd package format. Graphically it's a bummer - I've designed my cd packages and booklets to come closer to the old vinyl (LP) jackets. Now, THERE'S a good size for an artist to work on.

Let's talk about your photography. What kind of camera do you currently use? (basic rig or lots of bells & whistles? digital?)

Digital camera (Sony, given to me by Seal) for the web stuff. Nikon for b&w- now an F4, used to be a Nikomat. I usually carry a point & shoot too for color.

You attended Eastman School of Music in Rochester, which is a hot-spot for photography as well as music.

True, but I didn't know it at the time. Wish I had, I could have used the darkroom training, and might have got into it earlier. Fact is, I was buried in practicing at Eastman, as are most of the students.

When did you realize that photography was more than just a hobby?

Hmm.. I'd say that, like most things, I took it pretty seriously from the start. I put out a book of my photos "Road Photos" back in early '80's, knowing the Crimson and Gabriel fans would like it - they did - I misjudged how many to print, and ran out. Wish I had more of those books - too complicated to reprint - so I guess that's a collector's item! I am loaded with images from Crimson tours since then, though, and in a few years I'll put out a book combining photos and road diaries.

How would you describe your style?

When I'm shooting b&w, there's not much unique about my style. Just documenting what's going on, mostly onstage or backstage - trying hard to get a usable image. (don't always succede)

You also add oil paint to photography. Ever do any digital manipulation or do you prefer paints?

I've avoided the digital area - just love to mess around w. paints. Love the smell. On the last two cd's I put out, I did the artwork as b&w photos hand tinted w. oil paints. Progressively I was putting more and more paint on the photos, as can be seen in the exhibition, till it was getting to be a mixture of photo and painting. So for the latest cd, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, I decided to forego the photo and start with paint on canvas. What I did was play the early mix of a piece from the cd, loop it so that it would go on indefinitely, and try to put the feeling of it on canvas. Some were more successful than others. The cover painting of the cd, titled Upper Extremities, was inspired by the first track, Cerulean Sea. I also did one to the composition Cobalt Canyons (in cobalt, of course) which is the inner three panels of the cd package. I should mention that the package is an unusual one - I designed it and have it manufactured for me - it's got no plastic, - I especially hate jewel boxes! And no shrinkwrap. (at least the ones we sell by mail order. If I decide to put some in stores, they'll have to be shrinkwrapped to stay clean.) So, as you can see, I indulge all my artistic leanings with the releases from my record company.

Do you always carry a camera with you?

I try to, but of course when I forget it is when the really amazing things happen. An example: in Senegal with Peter Gabriel rehearsing all week for a concert. We were invited to the President's Ball - having no suitable clothes at all, we figured we'd sneak in, say hi and leave. The guests were dazzling - in resplendent gowns. And then Bobby McFerrin, who was with us, sat in with the traditional Senegalese orchestra, as did Peter Gabriel - all the upper crust of Dakar dancing along. And there I was with no camera.

You sometimes set up a camera on/off stage during concerts and set off the shutter with a foot pedal. Could you describe the logistics of this set-up?

I've got foot pedals for my bass gear, and put a photo squeeze pedal among them. Set up the camera before the show (for only one angle, of course - usually showing my point of view, and even my back) then shoot whenever I like.

What kind of moment would inspire you to fire off a shot during a show?

Mostly if something out of the ordinary happens - a fan coming up on stage, a particularly good look from one of the guys. Most challenging shot was Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" song, in which the three of us in the front row jumped while playing and singing "Shock" - about 6 times per song - I shot it weeks in a row (had to pick up the squeeze bulb and squeeze off the shot a split second before the jump) - almost always something wrong - a shirt rising above a too-large belly, or me blocking Peter's face, or mistiming the jump. Only got it right twice.

Do you still do this?

Only rarely. For the 1990's Crimson re-uniting with a different lineup, I wanted to capture the first note of the first show (in Buenos Aires) -- special events like that.

What can we expect from your current gallery show?

The gallery show is a mixture of shots - some of the stage shots I've mentioned, some tinted / painted shots of King Crimson members backstage. I also included some b&w shots I took at the last Woodstock festival, both from stage and wandering around the audience.

Your work is being exhibited internationally. How did you end up with a show in CT?

They asked me nicely, and the timing was just right, exhibition in Switzerland having just finished.

On to the musical portion of our show: You are considered to be a very innovative player, using some rather unique instrumentation. Does the music which you play demand the innovation or is it just part of the Tony Levin package?

When I'm lucky, I'm a part of some music that's really good and meaningful. Sometimes there's also room in there to move at least slightly in a new direction. Not always. I'm very lucky to have found myself playing with Peter Gabriel, who loves the unusual, and King Crimson; a band that's actually driven to never do what we've done before.

You invented a product called Funk Fingers. Could you describe the development?

On Peter Gabriel's "SO" album, on one piece I asked the drummer, Jerry Marotta, to play on the bass strings while I did the fingering. (not a new idea, but what is!) Then, live, I was attempting to play that part with a drum stick in my hand. One day at sound check, Peter looked at me and said, "why don't you attach sticks to your fingers." What a great idea! I asked my tech, Andi Moore, to help devise a way to do it, and voila, Funk Fingers. (of course, the first sets broke the bass strings - some adjustments had to be made!)

Could you describe your 1st solo disc "World Diary" and what it was like recording it?

My first solo cd, World Diary, was recorded on the road. I carried a tape recorder, and in hotels, houses, and a few studios, I recorded with some of the very special musicians I meet around the world, but whom I couldn't fly into the U.S. for a studio album. I did duets with Ayub Ogada, L. Shankar, Brian Yamakoshi, Bendik, Levon Minassian - it's quite a diverse group. In the cd booklet are some photos I took at those moments, and my diary entries from the days of the recordings. Like all three cd's I've put out, I think it conveyed the mood really well.

I noticed it is all European. Any plans to do a U.S. version?

Well spotted. I did avoid using American musicians so that I could do a future album here. My plan here is to take my Harley across the country, meeting up and playing with some of the musicians I know. Sounds like fun, eh! Hard part has been to have the time to do it, in a month that's got reasonable weather. (Summer is a time I commonly tour.)

Could you describe last years disc "From The Caves of The Iron Mountain"

When I first heard of the Widow Jane Mine, near my home town (Woodstock NY) I thought it would be interesting to play some music there - there's a small lake inside the cavern, and enough dry floor to set up on. I decided that my friend, drummer Jerry Marotta would be perfect, and another local musician, Steve Gorn, seemed the perfect third player - he plays Indian Flutes.

The disc sounds incredible. Could you describe the recording process?

Having decided to use the ambience of the cave, it seemed the right direction to ask engineer Tchad Blake to come in and record it in his binaural specialty - he actually wears microphones in his ears - the resulting music, when listened to on headphones, sounds exactly like being there, sitting in front of the musicians as he was, with the cave around you.

Were there many logistical difficulties recording in a cave?

Plenty of obstacles to overcome - but all well worth it. There was water dripping from the ceiling, not only on our instruments, but very audibly. Very damp, made the drums keep going out of tune, and Jerry had to carry them out into the sunlight every hour. Then there were the ducks and geese who visit the lake, and are quite noisy - we hired a shepherdess to keep them away. The water drips, and crickets outside, we decided to live with on the final tape - for fun I arranged for a video to be shot of the making of the cave project - it's got an interview with the shepherdess! That video is also sold by Papa Bear Records.

Your new project B.L.U.E has just been released. It's a pretty diverse line up and a very unique sound, Tell us about it.

For some time, I've wanted to do a project with Bill Bruford, my fellow King Crimson player (drums) and this seemed the ideal time. I asked avant garde guitarist David Torn to join us, and to hold us down to earth, Chris Botti - who's cool jazz trumpet sound is on many records including his own. I brought them all to Woodstock, and though we recorded in a local studio, we also used a lot of outside-the-studio material to get the feel of who we are and where we did the music - there is Bill drumming on the derelict piano in my garage (it's a motif through the cd) and a band dinner at a local restaurant, the Gypsy Wolf Cantina, where we started playing the piece on our beer glasses - it then cuts to the studio version. There are also bits and loops recorded at Torn's home studio. I did oil paintings to some of the compositions, and those became the cover and booklet art of the cd. All in all, it's exactly the kind of offering I like to present to listeners - very good players, but doing more than just a session or two together - there's a feel of the people involved, and their environment. There's some fun being had, and of course, some very good music too.

Are you doing any music from related projects such as Crimson, TL solo, Bruford solo, Torn solo on the tour?

We haven't quite worked out what material to do on the tour - surely the album, and surely some improv. Also, we want to break down to duets and trios some in the set. Possibly a duo w. Bill and me, as we used to do in the ABWH set. On the cd, there are shades of Crimson in some of my compositions, and on one piece I played the bowed bass with a line reminiscent of Led Zeppelin - but mostly it's a new direction, a bit hard for me to describe. Part is the other-worldly sounds of David Torn's guitar loops, part is because of the particular grouping of players. I do know that it will be very exciting to have the same group out touring live, and see where we can take the music to. (we're playing at Toad's Place, New Haven, on April 13th.)

Rumor has it Peter Gabriel is now shaving his head. Can we expect an all-bald PG tour anytime soon?

I saw Peter in December, and he had plenty of hair. When he tours depends on when he finishes writing the lyrics to the album (rhythm parts have been done for some time.)

You've been doing some recording for the next Peter Gabriel disc. What does the new stuff sound like?

Too hard to say at this early point. I've learned from experience that any way I describe Peter's music from just the rhythm tracks will be changed drastically by the time the record is finished. So this time I'll wisely say, I don't know!

You first hooked up with Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp over 20 years ago and you're still working with both musicians on a regular basis. You have actually contributed to the formation of both of their "sounds".

I don't think in terms of who forms the sounds. When I'm working at writing or recording with Robert, Peter, or others, I just focus on my bass part - trying to make it appropriate for the music, and as creative as I can. The final product is something I only hear when the record is done.

How difficult is it to juggle projects?

Some years it's difficult, sometimes there arent' so many to juggle. In the '80's I used to tour a lot with both Crimson and Peter Gabriel, and do other albums - that left me no life, and certainly no time for solo projects. Now they both tour less, but sometimes I get very busy with other things. Probably the hardest decision I've had to make was whether to tour with Pink Floyd after I played on the Momentary Lapse of Reason album - the tour conflicted with the end of Peters, and finally I chose to stay with the Gabriel tour to the end.

Are you involved in any of the King Crimson off-shoot projects?

In December we did 4 nights of total improvation at a London jazz club with what is called Project One: Fripp, Bruford, Gunn and me. I don't know whether the recording of that will ever come out. I hear there is a Project Two about to come out, but I'm not in that.

What is the difference between Crimson and the Projects?

We're kind of experimenting with the projects until we have enough valid new material to do a major Crimson album and tour. It's a new approach to writing for us.

You mentioned Seal earlier, are you working with him an upcoming project?

Well, I was involved in recording some tracks - they were really great (as I raved at the time on my web page) but I'm afraid that since I left, the album has taken a turn, and is being re-done in a different style. Alas, these things sometimes happen in the recording business - I'm sure the finished release will be great, but I probably won't be on it.

Finally, just a couple of lifestyle questions: When you're not immersed in any one project, what is a day in the life of Tony Levin at home in Woodstock?

My daughter is 13 years old, and keeps me very busy and entertained (!) at home. She's just considering becoming a bass player herself. My fiancee is in the record business, which keeps her very busy, and enables her to understand my strange touring life. When there's time, I love to bicycle (as we do on tour with Peter Gabriel) and ride the Harley.

I have a 7 year old daughter who walked in the room while I was watching the Secret World Live video and she was immediately mesmerized. It quickly became her favorite video and she is now fascinated with Paula Cole. It's very gratifying that she shares an interest without any prodding from me. There was something universally appealing about that show. What do you think?

It was a great show, for ALL audiences - young and old. I also know of a little girl who loves the video, has memorized it, and dances to it.

I understand you are quite a coffee fanatic. Is it true you travel with an espresso machine?

Oh yes, I try to hunt down good espresso while on the road, but it's easier now that I have designed what we call the Crimson Touring Valet - it's got my large espresso maker, and room for wine, glasses and the better things, that you'd like to have around when you come off stage! I should mention that web visitors would get a kick out of my web site - it's got among other things, a coffee page with the design and photos of that Crimson Valet case, also I have a page that's a road diary with photos and updates - I know a lot of Gabriel and Crimson fans enjoy seeing the tour from the band point of view. The address is --- or, to be simple, just