Interview with Tony Levin in Making Music

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Date Submitted: 23-Jan-2000
Submitted By: Daniel Joseph Bamford (djb7 at st-andrews dot ac dot uk)

Tony Levin

Interviewed by Mo Foster in 'Making Music' magazine.

May, 1996.

'Bass Case Special: Tony Levin.'

Classically trained on the double-bass and now an exponent of both the Chapman Stick and the bass guitar, Tony Levin has just released his first solo CD: 'World Diary.' In his career as a session player he's recorded with artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, John Lennon, Pink Floyd and James Taylor. As a sideman he's toured with King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and Gary Burton, to name just a few. In this 'Bass Case' special, Mo Foster talks to Tony about his session and solo work to date.


Mo Foster: Why the bass?

Tony Levin: When I was very young -nine years old- I don't know why, but I was drawn to the bass. It was an organic, not an intellectual decision. I'm very happy playing a simple bass part. I have no compulsion to be a leader or a drummer. As long as people let me keep playing bass in their bands I'll be a happy guy.

MF: Describe your solo album.

TL: It's instrumental music, but not King Crimson. It's small ensembles of two or three instrumentalists, recorded while I was on the road. It was very special for me to get together with various players I respect and record in hotel rooms, or their houses, and make music that was reflective of that time and the way we felt. There's something magical about some players: Levon Minassian plays a doudouk -a 200 year old double-reed instrument made of wood from the apricot tree. It's remarkable that he puts his whole soul and the history of his people into one note. Similarly with [Lakshminarayana] Shankar on violin and Brian Yamakoshi on koto; I tried to have us be free to do what we felt.

MF: Not everybody is as generous with co-composing credits as you.

TL: I did it the way it should be -composing and royalties equal.

MF: Was any music prepared in advance?

TL: To different degrees. I would sometimes work out the groove for the stick part. I love the magic of players playing and I love capturing that and leaving it alone. Unfortunately I made a lot of mistakes -the other guys, never. I had to go to a studio in Woodstock, where I live, to fix some parts. I also had to edit and shorten some pieces and if there were two takes of a piece, the second was always freer and better.

MF: Some tracks are long, tense and emotional. I was playing track six when suddenly my normally non-violent wife threw a shoe at me and shouted "Turn it down." It _was_ midnight...

TL: I consider that a compliment; [checks title] of course, 'Expresso On A Bed Of Nails' -not a calming track. It has a percussion band from Toronto called Nexus -they're classically trained and have been together for 25 years. It was wonderful -just them, and me on stick.

MF: What led you to playing stick -did you play in that sort of style already?

TL: Back in the Seventies I was guilty of practising tapping techniques in studios between takes -it makes me crazy to even be in a room with someone who does that now. Eventually some friends told me about this instrument developed by Emett Chapman, a wonderful player and innovator. It was very easy for me to pick it up because I had been playing bass like that for a while.

MF: Is the stick amplified?

TL: Yes -two amps: one for the six guitar strings and one for the six bass strings. I also use swell and fuzz pedals.


MF: What led to the connection between your own label, Papa Bear and Robert Fripp's label, Discipline Global Mobile Records?

TL: A distrust of major labels -you can't go asking them artistic things. DGM are user-friendly and they're my friends anyway; they agreed to my artwork, photos and a package design that's all cardboard -I hate that jewel-box. It may cost a little more and record companies don't like 'a little more,' but to me it really doesn't matter. The photos are ones I took of an old globe; the black and white prints were then hand-tinted with oil paints for a subtle pastel effect. I avoid computer artwork -I prefer to explore the 'analogue.'

MF: What's it like recording with Peter Gabriel?

TL: I'll be bold: it can be maddening and it can be very satisfying and fun. The music we do is always great -Peter's early ideas are fantastic and I get to play whatever I want. But I've had to learn that, however great it sounds and whatever I play, it might be replaced. You could be playing a great part on a great piece, but part of me always has to be aware that it might not be heard by the public; of course, after 18 years playing with Peter it's no effort, I'm used to it.

MF: I liked the choreography in the live show.

TL: Peter has a very quirky way of dancing. On the last three tours he hired great choreographers; a poor guy shows up in the middle of a production rehearsal, he'll watch and make suggestions and then slowly realise that Peter is not able to do anything he shows him. Peter will ingest the ideas and be influenced a little, then [guitarist] David Rhodes and I learn whatever Peter does. The choreographer would show the three of us a terrific move, but only David would be able to do it. After the first month we're very together -but the first week is a disaster: me and Peter, our feet don't go where we tell them to go.


MF: I've been thinking about your bass part on Gabriel and Bush's song 'Don't Give Up'...

TL: It was recorded in 1985, when my daughter was two months old. I had brought her to England and had her in the studio with me. On some tracks I was wearing her in a brace on my tummy and the bass was on the other side of her. I didn't trust there would be nappies in England -I had packed my bass case full of Pampers, which I then used as string dampeners. I put a whole Pamper under the strings -an extraordinary sound. In the second half of the song where it gets really bassy it's called 'the super wonder nappy sound.' I also have a technique I know I'm the first to do: 'funk fingers' -they're chopped-off drum sticks that fix to your fingers with elastic bands -if it's too tight it turns your fingers purple, and if it's too loose it goes flying off. The idea was originally Peter's: on the album 'Big Time' he suggested I put two sticks on my fingers -it was my tech, Andy Moore, who figured out how to do it.

MF: Is it hard to be accurate wearing them?

TL: You have to practise a lot -especially between strings. I've also experimented a lot with wrapping the sticks with different materials to make the sound less harsh.

MF: Will you market the idea?

TL: Papa Bear has a CD, a road-photos book, a T-shirt and now Funk Fingers -but only on sale over the Internet.

MF: Do you intend to write a tutor?

TL: I have an idea for a bass method that will have nothing about actually playing bass in it -I have technically nothing to say to a student. what it will have is road stories, anecdotes, essays about music.

MF: Do you use tablature?

TL: I didn't even know there was tablature for bass. I can read music very well -but I don't need to any more. People want interpretation -play what the arranger wants, not what he writes.

MF: Who have been your influences?

TL: I've been lucky to work with many great talents -I've been influenced by, or borrowed from, great players, whatever their instrument. When I was young I mostly listened to classical records.

MF: Finally, a quick King Crimson question -what is 'THRaKaTTaK'?

TL: 'THRAK' is an improvisational piece we played live: with Crimson this means, 'Who knows what will happen?' It's utterly different every time. Someone had the radical idea of putting back-to-back versions of 'THRAK' together. So, 'THRaKaTTaK' is 70 minutes of unadulterated 'THRAK.'

MF: Would my wife throw her shoe?

TL: I think you'd better not play this anywhere near your wife.