Interview with Tony Levin in Notes From the Edge
Submitted By: Toby Howard (toby at cs dot man dot ac dot uk)
Very special thanks to Mike Tiano (miketi at microsoft dot com) of the Yes on-line newsletter 'Notes From The Edge' (nfte at sol dot cms dot uncwil dot edu) for kindly allowing the following interview with Tony Levin to be reprinted here in ET. I would ask ET readers to read and respect the copyright statement attached to the review.
Conversations with TONY LEVIN- Conducted March 12 & 13, 1995
The entire contents of this interview are (Copyright)
(c) 1995, Mike Tiano
PO Box 13
Issaquah, WA 98027-0013
for Notes From The Edge,
Jeff Hunnicutt and Mike Tiano, Editors
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
This interview is being posted exclusively to Notes From the Edge, (Copyright) THE Internet YES Source
If you see this interview or any portion appear anywhere else, please let me know (miketi at microsoft dot com). THIS INTERVIEW HAS NOT HIT THE PRINT MEDIUM. PLEASE DON'T EXPOSE YOURSELF TO LITIGATION BY POSTING IT ELSEWHERE (EITHER THROUGH ELECTRONIC OR PRINT MEANS). Thank you.
Special thanks to Tony for spending two late nights (for him) participating in this online chat. We worked out certain details for 'conversing' online, and that's what Tony refers to in his first answer. --MOT
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MOT: Thanks for joining me tonight for Notes.
TL: This should be fun - maybe it'll take me a few minutes to get the protocol together.
MOT: Let's begin with your origins as a member of King Crimson. How did you happen to hook up with the other members?
TL: They called me in about 1980 - to audition / rehearse. At that time I'd played with Fripp on P. Gabriel's first album. It went well, and we decided to try things out.
MOT: Were you a fan of progressive rock during the 70s?
TL: Not really. I've always been a player who gets wrapped up in whatever I'm doing, and doesn't listen a whole lot to all the other things that are going on. I started as a Classical player, and was immersed in that for years. Then Jazz - by the time I played rock, I had missed some of the great stuff that everyone else knew about. (I) hadn't heard Genesis when I first recorded with P.G.
MOT: So because you weren't into the rock idiom in general all that creative stuff from the 70s kind of passed you by.
TL: Well, I seem to have hooked up with a lot of it 10 or 20 years later!! I guess the test of whether it's really special is whether it holds up for more than a season or two.
MOT: When did you first hear any Crimson, and what was it you heard?
TL: Again, I've got to admit I hadn't heard a thing until I was in the band!! That first rehearsal was funny since I didn't know any of the old material. So, the first Crimson I heard was while I was playing with Crimson.
MOT: That gives you a certain advantage. You're called on because of your expertise as well as your musical point of view, so there are no preconceived notions that may be inherent if one was exposed to what was done before.
TL: They never say why they call me -- and I've never been interested enough to ask -- usually I and the people I'm playing with are just pretty focused on the new music. There sometimes are "preconceived notions" but not usually, and not with Crimson -- R. Fripp is usually busy looking for something brand new anyway. (as, in fact, is P.G.) Quote from Robt. from the making of our new album, "If you've ever played it before, or ever heard it before, don't play it."
MOT: Great. As much as certain factions would like people to believe that groups like Crimson feed off the past actually the opposite is true, as it is with the members of Yes/ABWH...
Earlier you said 'they' called you. How many other members were already involved when you got the call?
TL: All of them, as I remember. (You'll find that, though my typing is excellent, my memory is of a smaller caliber. I'll state now that I don't guarantee that any statements involving said faulty chips, will be found to be 100% accurate.)
MOT: To someone like myself who lived with that music it's intriguing when someone discovers it later...what was your first reaction to the type of music they wanted to play?
TL: Well, allow me, at the risk of offending, to group the Crimson catalogue together with the Yes, and Genesis material - none of which I knew about until I had to learn it to play on the tours. I remember being given a tape of 'Red' -- and hearing it, thinking, wow, this is fantastic. Also, "Lamb lies down on B'way" thinking, "Why did he leave Genesis? But "Close to the Edge," my thoughts were more like, "How the H%$# am I going to play THIS??"
MOT: What did you find intimidating on the latter? The parts, or the length, or...?
TL: It might have been the other songs, but it was the frequency and accuracy of the notes coming out of the low end instrument! Frequency, not referring to pitch, but how many of them occurred within a second! More than I could play, for sure.
MOT: Was working with ABWH the first time you heard 'Close to the Edge'?
TL: Yup. I think it's "Roundabout" that was one of the main technical problems for me. "Close to the Edge" was just a nightmare for background lyrics. Still don't know them. Had them pasted to my keyboard, ran out of room on the keyboard!
MOT: That song is regarded as probably Yes' best. Did it blow you away when you first heard it, or did you react otherwise?
TL: "Close to the edge, down by the water, how did it go, I'm a forgotter." er,, what was the question? Oh, did it blow me away -- well, the truth is, I didn't have the option of getting blown away - I had a few weeks to learn all the material and, frankly, that involved me improving my technical speed quite a bit - so I didn't stop to evaluate anything until later.
I was impressed, but worried about technique, I'm afraid. At that time, I decided, instead of trying to play fast with a pick, to develop a new technique I had tried a bit - two drumsticks attached to my fingers -- I call them funk fingers -- I felt this would be a trebly sound in keeping with the tradition, but would be somewhat new too, and VERY trebly.
Maybe I'm saying my emotional reaction was ... fear! Not really -- I dug the material, and very much enjoyed the challenge it presented me with.
MOT: The funk fingers give your bass playing a different, interesting sound. How did you first discover or invent this technique?
TL: On a P.G. song called "Big Time" I had the drummer, Jerry Marotta, play on the strings while I fingered the notes. Then, live I had to try to play it myself. I used one stick and ... shall I say I did the best I could. One day, Peter saw me, and suggested I try to attach two sticks to my fingers. I simply turned to Andy Moore, my tech at the time, and said "Can we do that?" Andy fashioned them, we spent many months improving the details, and then, having heard Chris Squires parts, I spent weeks practicing like hell.
MOT: So it ultimately gave you a way of playing those trademark Squire parts. It worked great.
Let's go further in discussing ABWH, of which you were a major contributor. How did you become involved in this project?
TL: Well, they asked me!! Bill and I had played together in Crimson, and it's he that pushed the others to give me a try. I joined with them at the making of the album, so by touring time, I knew the new material - just had to learn a bit of history!
I'm flattered you speak of me as a major contributor - I think that I was more of a player to hold things down while the real "band members" shown at the things they do so well. I enjoyed this role, since I got to do what I love; play good music on the bass. Also, Bill and I got to play a duet section in the show, which became a wide open improvisational thing - good fun.
MOT: It was definitely a high point. At what stage of the recording did you come in and which band members did you interact with during recording?
TL: Jon had the whole thing written - was bringing everyone in singly, though Bill and I of course, needed to be there together. Matt Clifford was there programming while I was in Monserrat, Jon directing things, and me and Bill pounding away. Only later did I hear what Rick and Steve had played.
By the way, Rick is a mean Boggle player. We played just about every night backstage - sometimes until moments before he (not me) was due onstage.
MOT: Which tracks from the ABWH album worked best for you; what were your favorites, both on the album as well as in concert?
TL: Not a great subject for me - tour was a long time ago, we then recorded more. I've done dozens of other albums since, and many a tour -- I'm afraid I cant be specific about anything but my overall feelings about the show and tour.
MOT: You became ill towards the end of first leg of the ABWH tour. Who's idea was it to continue with Jeff Berlin?
TL: Well, the illness came on very fast. I don't know at what point they decided how to continue (having been, at that time in a Houston hospital) but I do know that Bill had worked a lot with Jeff [previously]. I'm sure he called him, knowing Jeff has the chops to learn the material.
MOT: The fact that the band later toured Japan and returned to the US shows would indicate that the band was committed to remaining together. Was this the case?
TL: Again, I wasn't in on the board room discussions. All I know is, when I had recovered, the management asked me to continue with the European leg of the tour. I did, though without the verve I had had earlier. It seemed at that time, to be an ongoing project. Later we met in France to record the next album. Much later, I found that there was a new reunited plan for that album. Don't know at what point things changed.
MOT: UNION seemed like it was a calculated move, perhaps by the label: 'ABWH didn't sell like wildfire so maybe if we get the other guys in'... It almost seemed as if Arista lost faith. How were the actual UNION sessions; any indication of what was to come?
TL: The sessions were fine, and fun. Jon rented a horse, I brought my racing bike, we loved staying and working at the Chateau. As for Arista losing faith, I wouldn't look to a company like that for faith in a band as artistic as ABWH.
MOT: If you can answer this, then, what are your feelings about the UNION album as was released? Which tracks fared best...and worst?
TL: Not my area of expertise. Once I record something, I'm prepared to do my best to let it go -- don't know what'll happen in the mix, or even whether I'll end up on the track at all. Once I heard of the project changing, (and it did change a lot,) I just hoped it came out well. Didn't get hung up in looking for my best parts, etc. Would only lead to frustration.
MOT: Steve has said he'd like to remix both ABWH and especially UNION. Do you think there's a great album in those UNION tracks with what the five of you originally recorded?
TL: Um. .... I'll take Steve's opinion anytime!
MOT: Steve told us that you were contracted for the UNION tour.
TL: Nope. I did the album, then, after we had done our S. France tracks, their overall plan changed to include a reunion. I don't recall who told me, but it obviously meant I wouldn't be touring with them, which was fine with me (not many bassists would love a two - bass - band) and I went to the show in Albany, near here, to say hi to the guys.
MOT: So was it evident that ABWH was over, or did anyone ever indicate to you that UNION was temporary and ABWH was just on hold and would resume?
TL: No, I didn't have a clue about plans, either at the beginning, or at the end. I also liked the musical situation we had, but - record company wise - I didn't have high hopes for it to have a long life -- call me a pragmatist. To be an "art rock" band, and not NEED attempts at hit singles, I think ABWH would need a label that was small, or just treasured them for their artistic value. THEN they could make the music from their hearts. Otherwise, there's always the pressure from the company, subtle or not-so-subtle (or sledge hammer subtle) to have a hit - and I don't think that line-up is best off looking for a hit.
MOT: It was an incredible lineup and time.
After a hiatus King Crimson is back in an enhanced version of the band of the 80s. How did it come back together?
TL: It was Robert's idea -- don't know how or why he came up with the 6 man idea, but I trust his musical vision, and went with it. It's working out well -- two stick players in a band isn't the usual way to work, but we're learning ways to find new patterns of playing.
MOT: I understand Bill originally wasn't involved. What convinced him to join?
TL: Don't know -- there were just tentative get-togethers before Robt. decided to ask Bill. From then it was full speed ahead.
MOT: How is it having two stick player/bassists? Are there times where you're both playing the same instrument at once (i.e. two basses?)
TL: Well, surprising! With Crimson, there's always the plan, and then the reality is quite different. I thought there'd be lots of 2 stick stuff, maybe as basis for songs with others joining in but it turned out that I gravitated (well chosen word) to the bass, and to the electric upright, while Trey tended to play more on the stick top than he had planned. Don't know why, but we went with it. So, in the final music, I'm more 'the bass player' than I had been before in Crimson, and Trey is more of a guitar-stick player than he usually is.
MOT: Will we see any duets between like musicians in concert?
TL: Yes. Crimson will tour Europe in May, and the U.S, in June. I don't have the dates handy, but I believe they're being publicised.
I'm looking forward to the tour - recording with the new lineup was exciting, but the best part should be discovering what we can get up to live. I think we'll do quite a bit of the old material as well as the "Thraak" stuff. And hopefully we can get into some drum duets, Stick duets, and other experiments. (not the least of which is the "double trio" concept we had tried to incorporate on "Thraak" - didn't come to fruition except that I think there's a mix of the piece "Vrooom", which has Fripp, Mastelotto, Gunn on one side of the mix, with Bruford Belew and Levin on the other - listeners can check out either trio as they like!) Maybe Bill and I can duo again too in the live show, but probably there won't be time.
MOT: Please elaborate on the 'double trio' concept. Are you saying this is only as far as the mix goes? Or is also musical in some way?
TL: For now, it's just a mix concept. The original plan, which we hope to pursue in the future, was the two trios playing separately, sometimes joining together as a sextet.
MOT: Like playing two separate pieces that can come together?
TL: It's one of those things we thought would happen from the start, but didn't turn out than way. Well, like dividing sections of one piece up for separate trios, then, maybe, both trios together at the end. Who knows? Not me!
One trio going to the bar for a drink while the other plays half the show?? One going out into the audience and interviewing the listeners??
Seriously, it could work well on the OLD material.
MOT: We'd expect to hear old stuff too since usually new stuff isn't enough for a full show. Can you let us in on any titles you're currently rehearsing?
TL: I imagine we'll do "Red" and "Larks Tongues" like we used to, but with all 6 guys playing. We haven't rehearsed yet for this tour -- if we're going to add some other classics, I haven't heard about it yet. "Red"'s still one of my favorite pieces to play.
MOT: So rehearsals haven't begun yet, and you've yet to discuss material?
MOT: When do rehearsals begin, and where?
TL: Rehearsals start in England, April 22. First show is about May 1st. (we're quick learners.)
MOT: Really? Is this because you're pretty much together from the gigs in South America?
TL: Yeah .. I especially don't like rehearsing long -- sometimes it seems like I've spent half my life rehearsing! I'm always pushing every group I'm in to rehearse less, and this time I seem to have succeeded. Yes, having played live in South America, we're more ready than usual. We do have a lot of work to do to play the new material like the record (tempo changes, b.vox, etc.)
MOT: Isn't that also risky from a production standpoint? It doesn't give the sound and light crews much time to get their acts together.
TL: Nope - we're not a huge production band anyway - main focus is on the playing. We find that if you make that clear to the lighting people, they do their job in the time you give them. The sound will be done by George Glossop who did our tours in the '80's. And he came to Argentina last Sept. with us too, so he's as ready as a house engineer can be.
MOT: Is the songwriting a collaborative effort, or are certain people pretty much leading the way (like Robert and/or Adrian)?
TL: You've got it. Robt and Adrian "leading the way" i.e. bringing in somewhat complete compositions and then watching as we "Crimsonize" them -- meaning we utterly change them with our individual styles...a process which I believe Robert has compared to watching your child be molested!
MOT: LOL... He must not mind TOO much.
Is the direction of the music markedly different than it was before?
TL: No .. it just has elements of torture. As does much of the intense creative job of being in and writing with as intense a band as crimson. Regarding the direction, I'd say it has elements of the '80's band, lots of new elements, and a surprising bunch of references to the old '70's music.
MOT: More and more bands are going to South America it seems. For bands like Crimson (and Yes) it's seems almost surprising as their musical culture is so different from what you guys play.
TL: Don't know ... I know we loved it in Argentina -- very receptive and sophisticated audience, decent coffee ... what more does a band need.
MOT: How was the band received down there? Any funny or interesting stories?
TL: The scene in Buenos Aires is quite European -- up to date and all that, though, of course, groups don't come there often. They have a wonderful "Tango" tradition, of course, but there's a lot more going on there. No stories come to mind, but I took lots of photos of some fascinating places -- with an eye to someday doing a photo book of Crim in the 80s and 90s...
Oh yes, one day off, Bill and I took a long boat ride away from the city down the river into sort of a suburb of islands. Just a 20 seat boat with mostly people going home -- across from us sat a couple, the man looking at me. An hour into the trip he came over, and said he's vacationing w. his wife, they're from Paris, and he remembers seeing me interviewed on tv there -- he reminded me of a strange thing I had said...it was this: in a typical embarrassing situation, the tv interviewer went around the Paris studio asking each musician how it was to be in Paris recording with ... I believe it was Catrine Lara, a French singer. I was too embarrassed to answer directly, so I said (in English, which they didn't understand very well...) "Did you know I almost played with the Rolling Stones?" This caused a stir as it was translated, and they said "really?" I replied, "Yes, I called Mick and asked if I could join the band. He said no. Can't come any closer than that!"
All this a decade later, on a remote ferry boat outside Buenos Aires.
MOT: How knowledgeable about the music are they? down there i.e., did anyone shout 'Schizoid Man'?
TL: Very in the know. But too polite to shout. Clearly, I think, the best audience Crim has had, and that's saying a lot.
MOT: Attentive and enthusiastic without being rude?
TL: Yeah, and quite respectful too -- a bit too much for my taste.
MOT: If you're not rehearsing now what are you up to?
TL: Putting the finishing touches on my own project.
MOT: Tell us about it...title?
TL: Title: WORLD DIARY. The album is a series of instrumental duets, trios and more, with some of the fascinating musicians I've met in my travels. I recorded it while on the road, in houses, hotel rooms (with an ADAT) and in local studios in Paris, Bath , Oslo, and Toronto I played the Stick on 8 of the 13 tracks - some tracks are bass w. funk fingers, and two tracks on the new NS electric upright.
There is a duet with Shankar playing violin while I play the stick. There are two tracks with Ayub Ogada playing the nyatiti, a W. Kenyay lyre type instrument. Two duets with a guy named Bill Bruford. One with him taking the melody role on electronic percussion while I accompany on stick - kind of an extension of some duets we played on the ABWH tour, and a track we did on the album - it was called, I think, Eventide. The other track I did with Bill, called Etude, is more of a busy Crimson-ish thing.
There are two tracks with Nexus - a five man percussion ensemble with hundreds of percussion instruments at hand. I did a duet and a trio with Levon Minassian who plays the doudouk - an Armenian double reed instrument. (Levon can be seen on P. Gabriel's live video.) On one of these tracks, Manu Katche plays drums. Brian Yamakoshi - koto player - we did a duet, and a trio including Jerry Marotta on drums. Bendik is a sax player from Norway - we used to play together in a band called "Steps" - we did two tracks together in Oslo, again with me playing stick.
MOT: So it's a collection of things that were caught surreptitiously as well as sessions you had done (which I assume you initiated....or is that correct?).
TL: Regarding the sessions, I arranged them all for this project, but while I preferred the comfortable atmosphere of hotel rooms, I couldn't always have my ADAT with me. And there's nothing wrong with local studios. In all places, I put a premium on spontaneity. (i.e. there are real MISTAKES on it.) Also, I tried when possible to have the music reflect the atmosphere and mood of the day and place. There are my diary entries for the days of recording, as well as some photos.
MOT: Sounds really cool, so it is a diary in that regard.
TL: Yes, that's the idea -- a musical diary, with accompanying notes.
MOT: How will you be distributing it?
TL: I'll be selling the CD mail order only, through a company I've started, Papa Bear Records. It should be ready by about mid-April, and I'll try to notify e-mail users the day it's ready - well ahead of public advertising. How I'll get the ordering info to potential buyers is something I haven't worked out yet. As I said, I'll put some kind of word out on Internet when I have the CDs in my sweaty palm.
MOT: Thinking about playing any of it on Crimson's tour or is that out of the question?
TL: No, it's very much a different thing - quite small in scope, intimate, and as far as my current plans, only a recording, not a live project. (Having said that, who knows.)
But the Crim energy and live vitality are going to be very exciting - I really can't wait to put away my paint brushes and PLAY!!
MOT: Given the music industry today is a unit as innovative musically as Crimson able to thrive?
TL: Yes, I believe so. Because we're smart, somewhat mobile, and don't throw away money on limos. We can't play arenas, but musically that's a good thing for a band like us. This first tour will be smallish theaters. (Though, I fear, not great sounding ones) But at least we'll be in contact with our audience, which I think we need for this first year back at it.
MOT: Let's wrap this up with a question on Lennon. How did you get involved with him, and what do you remember most?
TL: Typically, I was just called for the album. Never asked why me. It was fun, and a great pleasure working with John. The first day, he came up to me and said, "They tell me you're good, but I don't know, so just don't play too busy." "Don't worry," I said, "you've got the right guy."
MOT: Which tracks of his did you play on?
TL: The "Double Fantasy" album and the one they later made of other takes from those sessions.
MOT: So you played bass throughout?
MOT: From what you said it sounds like he may have been apprehensive. Was he generally pleased with what you did?
TL: Very much. He was just being upfront and clear about what he wanted, and that he wasn't going to accept others' ideas about what would work for him. Right away things got comfortable, and later I was much complimented to see that he doubled a lot of my bass lines with horns, making them them bigger parts of the songs.
MOT: What a compliment!
Thanks a lot for taking this time to speak with me.
TL: OK, thanks again, we'll talk some day in .... actual reality!!