If bass genius Tony Levin had done nothing more than create the stuttering funk-prog opening to King Crimson’s ‘Elephant Talk’ from 1981’s landmark Discipline album - and in doing so more or less introduce the world to the Chapman Stick (created by Emmett Chapman some ten years previous to the album in question,
and described by journalist Steve Adelson as ‘an instrument that is simultaneously a guitar, a bass, a piano, and percussion) – he would have secured his place at the high table of musical greats. But that's just one of a long list of musical achievements that pepper his remarkable career, whether as influential band mate (King Crimson, Liquid Tension Experiment), indispensible side man (Peter Gabriel), ingenious session player (Tom Waits, Lou, Reed Pink Floyd, John Lennon and many, many more) or innovative solo musician (check out the list of albums he can be found on ), there are many who rate him as the finest bass player of his generation. So is this prodigeous talent to be found in the family genes?
Tony: “For sure. Older brother Pete is a jazz and rock keyboard player. We both grew up in the Classical music world, him playing french horn and me playing the upright bass.”
Ah yes the instrument with four strings that, in most hands, helps create the rhythmic bedrock upon which most music is balanced, but not content with just four strings Tony Levin has probably done more than just about anyone to popularise the aforementioned (8, 10 or 12 stringed) Stick, so how, we wondered, did he first discover the instrument, it's so different from the regular bass it must have been like learning from scratch?
Tony: “Actually I was playing the bass in 'hammer on' style in those days, so it wasn't a big adjustment to pick up the Stick (pun intended!) And at first I only used it as a bass, ignoring the guitar string side for some time (especially since there are already guitar players in the groups I usually play in). I took to the instrument right away, especially valuing how it gave me new textures (and tuning options) on the bass - so it was especially useful in King Crimson and Peter Gabriel music, where going away from the norm is something I strive for.”
Total Music: Many people (including several in this office) have you at the top of their all time greatest bass player lists, do you feel comfortable with those sort of comparisons (and who is your favourite bass player)?
Tony: “Thanks for the compliment. But for me, I don't think in terms of 'best' when it comes to musicians, or really anybody much, outside of sports. I am constantly impressed and inspired by bassists I hear, especially those who do things really differently than I would... I try to take something, not the notes, but the attitude, from their music, to apply to my playing. Some current favorites are Dan Rathbun (Sleeptime Gorilla Museum), Pino Paladino (for many styles he's done) Hutch Hutchinson (always - what a pocket)... been listening to old recordings of Oscar Pettiford, who I grew up hearing, and I'm sure had an influence on my developing musicality... the list goes on.”
Total Music: Are there any plans for HoBoLeMa - Allan Holdsworth, Terry Bozzio, Tony and Pat Mastelottoto's touring outfit - to release an album or is it purely a live improvisational thing?
Tony: “It is purely improvisational, but we have recorded many of the shows, and there is always talk of putting together a 'best of' for a live recording. However no consensus yet, even about whether we should do that. The hope is, we'll do more touring, when everyones schedule allows, and maybe a recording will come out then, or from that.”
Total Music: Whilst we're on the subject what, if any, plans are there for further Bruford Levin Upper Extremities and Liquid Tension projects??
Tony: “Slightly different on each of them. BLUE was great fun, and there's been plenty of desire to do it again, but with Bill Bruford retiring from live playing, and Chris Botti immersed in his very successful solo career, it'd be a miracle if we ever tour again. With L.T.E, much more possible - but schedules are very full, so I'll wait to see if I get that call one of these days, and will be thrilled to do more with those great players, if the chance comes up.”
Total Music: Your session CV is astonishing, is there anyone you have not yet worked with that you would feel trepidation walkighng into the studio to meet?
Tony: “I don't know about 'trepidation' ...there are lots of styles of music I cannot play and wouldn't be even asked to try... but like most musicians I know, I don't come into a music situation with ideas about the status of others, or of myself. It's all about the music, and you are (hopefully) all working together to make the music come out as great as possible - so, in that context, if there are musicians there who are more advanced than I am in particular ways, that can help me to come out with better bass parts, and maybe even grow as a player. Win win situation!”
Total Music: Many musicians positively loathe the road, however you seem to spend an inordinate amount of time touring, do you actually enjoy the travelling aspect or is it just a necessary evil?
Tony: “I love playing live, sharing good music with people who appreciate it. Sounds like a simple thing, but it's really the basis of a lot of my life so far; there is a profound gratification in doing that, and I've been very lucky to have a long career doing that.
Okay, the travel itself can be tiring, and is getting harder as security around the world gets more varied and rules change often. Don't love that part. At the end of the day, though, there is that two hours of music that more than makes it all worth it.
(incidentally, I'm just embarking on a tour with Stick Men, opening for Adrian Belew trio around the U.S. It'll take us 13,000 miles in the van - that's about 220 hours driving!)”
Total Music: “When the hell do you sleep?”
Tony: “Hah... it's not that bad. On a typical tour, there are a few times with 2am hotel arrival and 8am checkout, but not many.”
Total Music: Can you tell us how this latest project came about (and is this the first time you have worked with Alan White)?
Tony: “It is the first time Alan and I have worked together. The record was the idea of Scott Schorr, our producer. He thought teaming Alan and me up could lead to some exciting music. And we quickly felt that David Torn was the right third player to join in on the wildness. And it is pretty wild, musically - not a lot of normal harmonic structure or rhythmic. I feel we all pushed ourselves to see where we could go musically, and I'm grateful to Scott and to Lazy Bones Recording, for giving us the opportunity.”
Total Music: Several of the tracks are almost industrial, possibly amongst the heaviest you have ever done, was the music creation an organic process (built around riffs and/or ideas) or did you sit and write in a more conventional way?
Tony: “Not much about this album was conventional. Most tracks started off with Alan's drumming - unleashed, no click or time signature or grid. Then Scott did some assembling of the mountain of drumming, and I played multiple bass and Stick tracks over the drums - then more compiling, and David's turn to react. Kind of like jamming with a time lag between players”
Total Music: You're probably bored to death with this question but we have to ask, what is the current state of play with King Crimson?
Tony: “Not bored, but I do get asked a lot. Robert Fripp (our leader) isn't calling for us to record or go on tour in the near future. That doesn't mean we won't do it again, and I really hope we do, but this isn't the time - so each of us in the band is keeping busy doing music we love to play, but with one ear open to hear whether there will be a plan one of these years to go out again with Crimson.”
Levin Torn White
is out now on Lazy Bones Recordings. For more information on this and other upcoming releases and tours go to Tony's website