Interview with Tony Levin in Boston Globe

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Date Submitted: 3-May-1995
Submitted By: Mike Saunders (saunde at nws dot globe dot com)

Here's some not-so-idle chit-chat, chit-chat from Tony Levin, who talked at length about ``Thrak prior to heading to Europe. A highly abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the Boston Globe on April 28, so ET subscribers will get the full treatment. Tony gave his blessing to posting his words verbatim, but remember that these are raw transcription notes so it's unfair to hammer either of us regarding grammar or punctuation!


Mike Saunders, Boston Globe


MS: Tony, after this last hiatus, are you ready for this latest incarnation of Crimson?

TL: (laughing) ``I've had a while at home. I was out with Peter Gabriel for a year and a half but that ended last summer at the Woodstock festival. So I'm about ready to go out again and I'm quite excited about the new Crimson material and the new lineup. We haven't really played much as the new linup so it's going to be new territory for us all. ``Thrak is my favorite of the four albums I've done with the band. I don't know why. We happened on some good stuff and there's the excitement of having reformed, that's always an exciting one album anyway, the second one is a little more down to business. Robert is really hot. He's coming up with good material...

MS: What song on Thrak is most fun to play?

TL: Dinosaur is my favorite of the songs that we've recorded. It has a few different moods in it, they're all strange and it harkens back to a Beatlesque kind of thing, but it's also got weirdness. I like that. I got to play straight ahead in one part, but played and upright bass with a bow in the middle which is not your normal rock thing, so as usual with Crimson, I got to explore and have fun quite a bit.

MS: One of my faves on the disc is ``Walking On Air, with all its moodiness. Is that you or Trey setting the tone there?

TL: That was based on a bassline that came about accidentally. I have this new upright electric bass, the guy who made it popped by with the prototype of it while we were rehearsing. I began playing that line from the song and we had tape running and the other guys came in the room and added their own parts. When we listened to the many tapes we had of our rehearsals, that one captured Adrian's imagination, and subsequently he wrote the lyric to it and a chorus. It came about completely because of the bass.

However you play it during the session, it's the people who mix it which is either the band or the producer or both, who control who is out front or not. I didn't know as I was playing it, that I would be particularly audible or out front. It's a nice tone. It harkens back to a piece that we did a long time ago called `Sheltering Sky.' We played it live quite a bit and it had the same general hypnotic feel. It had long guitar solos in the middle that this one doesnpt have although we might add that on the road. Things change alot when you start playing live.

MS: The mini-album ``Vroom _ was that done with the intention of just getting something done in the studio to get the juices flowing again?

TL: Not quite. We kind of had planned it the way it is. We thought it would be good to have an early version of our material. At that time we didn't know whether we would stick with exactly the same material or write a lot of new stuff for the full-size CD but we felt that it would be worth recording. Then the idea came about about releasing it in Japan. We kind of felt comfortable with this unusual approach of having it be the new material but not ready, not finished yet. And hopefully it was presented as such (laughing)...I really don;t have much controlk over how these things are presented. Some stuff we thought we did well enough, and we didn't continue to do those.

There was a lot of adjusting for the two drummers to have a dialog with each other, and for two stick players. That mostly we've done after the Vroom recording, when we were playing live in Argentina. We came up with ways of working that out. That's audible to me on the Thrak album, where things were a little bit more jumbled on the Vroom album.

MS: I would imagine that working it out live after much repetition would be the only way to get the sound down.

TL: For us, yes. There are no rules for two drummers. The kind of more standard appraoch of having the two pound out a similar part was unthinkable for Crimson. We have to at least try to break new ground with everything we do, so those guys really sweat out some tough interplay. They worked hard at it and it paid off. It works well for me _ as a bass player I'm very sensitive to what's going on in the drums. That's the big success of this album, that the two drummers worked out a ver Crimson way for two drummers to play at the same time.

MS: What's it like having someone else on Stick?

TL: (laughing) Well, we tried to work out a dialog. We didn't do quite as well _ we didn't do badly _ but I wouldn't say the big victory of the album was the way we worked out. Somehow, without consciously planning it, I gravitated down toward playing low bass parts and Trey moved toward playing high stick parts. So really there is no double stick playing on the album. There will be on the tour, quite a bit, in fact, but only on the old material.

I have a whole lot of instruments to chose grom, kind of an arsenal. So when I hear the other guys playing, I don't make an intellectual decision about what to do. I'm a bass player at heart, and I just kind of hear it and some part of me thinks, `What about this bass and what if I hit it with this object.'

I didn't keep score until we were actually doing the album and I realized that more and more I was heading for the upright bass and I was heading for the five-string and some very low notes on it. There are some exceptions, some places where I play some hight melodies, and there's one section where we worked out a duet of basses _ I think it's ``Vroom or ``Vroom Vroom. I was playing fretless, and I worked with Trey to come up with a harmony to that. It's a little bit like the elephants come marching in, with the two bass players, but not too much of that.

Crimson is quite an adventure, really. We never know what's going to happen. Nobody can sit down and plan and know that it's actually going to come down that way. Crimson is kind of an organism with a life of its own. We go there and we do our best, and we really put a lot into it _ and I would say, the effort takes a lot out of each of us. It's an intense experience. But the result is always quite a surprise.

MS: Do you feel you have a little more invested, just sort of personally, in Crimson than when you're playing and supporting other folks?

TL: It means a lot to me. I've done a lot of studio work and I've done a lot of live playing. I would say, clearly, that I'm happier playing live. Of course, I'm very grateful to have had to opportunity to make record with really good singers and writers, but it's really playing live that keeps me excited about music and bass playing. I'm happy playing any style of music, but I'm must fulfilled when I'm pushed to come up with creative and innovative bass approaches. And the music where that has happened the most so far in my career is Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. And I would say that of the two, Crimson pushes me harder - a lot harder

MS: Why is that?

TL: Because there are no boundaries. I have more input into the music than with the songs Peter Gabriel brought in. (With KC), It's kind of a wide open piece of music, so if I envision a bass duet in the middle then it can happen. Where Peter's are more structured and prepared before I get my hands on them.

MS: Was it your idea to do the finger hammers and things like that?

TL: That was a combination of just a bizarre idea I had and Peter's bizarre reaction to it and pushing me to go further _ and having said that Crimson pushes me, or has a more wide-open situation for me to come up with thing, I will say that Peter Gabriel's band is a bit more fun to go out with on tour. Partly because I'm not a member, and I'm not involved with any decisions. Partly because of the nature of Peter Gabriel, it's a fun situation. He likes getting off the beaten path and doing fun things, whereas Crimson is a way more serious band. Even though we have out music fun, we go and do our one-nighters.

It's not drudgery at all, but all the excitement on a Crimson tour is in the music, whereas Peter's is a whole life experience. He'll take us to Africa, he'll take us rafting, we go motorcycling, to the Grand Canyon, things like that. Also, Peter's live show is incredibly has some elements in it aside from the music than make it fun.

Crimson is serious and really for serious music listeners. It's not the same animal when you're out there on the road...God help me if we ever did a year solid with Crimson _ that's some hard work. In fact we won't. We will be doing quite a bit of touring but not consecutively because of other commitments that guys have. We have to go two or three months at a time, then break, then tour some more.

MS: I guess that gives you the charge of being out there, but it's not long endurance trek kind of thing...

TL: True - Were it up to me, I would get out there for a little longer and do more serious damage. I don't think any of us wants to do the old 10 months away from home. That's too long to be out there. The trouble with going out in shoirt spurts, as we're finding out, is you can only play a few places. You play the major venues, but there are a lot of places you don't get. We have a lot of really intense followers who are really unhappy because we didn't come to their area. I get on the Internet a lot and lately I've been reading a lot of complaints from people all over the place directed kind of vaguely at the band about `Why didn't they come here, don't they like us? Don't they think we care?' Of course, these things aren't up to the band at all.

MS: So you've been checking out some of the newsgroups?

TL: I cruise around there a lot.

MS: I can imagine how it would be a refuge for a lot of Crisome listeners _ and Peter Gabriel listeners.

TL: I know of a couple of groups devoted to Peter and there's one called Elephant Talk devoted to Crimson. I don't really have access to the Web.

MS: Do you take your laptop on the road and dial in occasionally.

TL: I try to get online in various places.

****(assorted items of chit-chat, chit-chat)***

TL: I'm back to photography. I used to be heavily into photography back when I toured with Crimson in the 80s. And I put a photo book out in 1984, and I got tired of taking so many pictures all the time. I took a big break from it and now I'm starting again.

It's a funny time to start, because it's the same guys doing the same things on stage _ and they don't look that much older. But I eventually plan on putting out a book on the 80s and the 90s of Crimson's adventures.

MS: Was it the feel of getting together with the same group of guys that spurred that creative flow again?

TL: I don't know. (laughing) We got together for the first rehearsal and I thought, ``Ah, it's time to get black-and-white film again.

MS: What was that first rehearsal like?

TL: Actually, the very first rehearsals I wasn't at. There were quite a few changes. The first rehearsals I was a part of were at Bill Bruford's house and they where pretty wild. We were playing new stuff with the two drummers, and I think Adrian wasn't there for those particular rehearsals. We had our hands full. It was hard not to get discouraged by seeing how strange it would be to play with different guys.

MS: Did the old songs just fall into place after a while, or did those need massaging too?

TL: We specifically rehearsed them much much later, after we had done the ``Vroom album. We reconvened here in Woodstock specifically to rehearse the old stuff so we could do a live show so we could break in the new material. We felt we couldn't do it without playing some of the old things. I wish I could tell you at this point which old material we'll be doing in the Boston show, but since we haven't started rehearsing, I don't know.

MS: I assume from some of the things I've read, that there's a good selection from over the years.

TL: We had a lot of old stuff we used to do in shows so we have a lot to draw on. I;m not sure whether we'll add even some older old stuff. I don't know. I'm also no expert at the old stuff.

MS: Why is that?

TL: I really wasn't a Crimson listener until I was in it. Ironic, isn't it?

MS: Here's something I was thinking about: Do you think the industry has changed enough in the last 10 years to be ready for some of the stuff you guys are doing?

TL: I think, in my opinion - I don't think the other guys would necessarily agree with me - but the best place for Crimson to be is right where it's always been - to be a band that's very consciencious and that does what it wants to do without having to meet any expectations about selling a lot of records. We don't sell terribly few records, we do OK, but we don't do well enough to attract the attention of the record company. That could sound bad to somebody else, but to me that's very good. If we were to attract their attention as a potential big seller, they would have something to say about what we ought to do to sell a lot of records. Whatever it is they told us, we couldn't do it. And it would be a big mistake to try to do it. We're just better off lurking somewhere on the edge of the music business, getting by and certainly making a ok living at it and being completely true to ourselves. At least so far as I've been in the band, no record company has been unhappy with that. They like that. A funny thing happens when you sell a lot of records - things change and not always for the better.

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