Tony Levin Of King Crimson
Tony Levin is a world renowned bassist who has had an incredible career. He has played with an eclectic group of musicians including Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Buddy Rich and Alice Cooper, just to name a few. He is a long time member of King Crimson and he and the rest of the band just brought their Radical Action tour to the Hard Rock Rocksino in November.
We recently spoke with Tony to discuss his career, how he joined King Crimson and their appearance at the Hard Rock.
Greg Drugan: Hey Tony, thanks for taking some time with me today.
Tony Levin: No problem. How are you?
GD: I’m fine, thanks. So, how has the King Crimson tour been going so far?
TL: Really well! We are only a few shows in. We started in Austin and you could tell right away that we are feeling great about it and the audience is loving it. We brought back more of our classic Crimson material, some that have never been played live ever! That’s thrilling to the old-time fans and we’ve got some new music and we are feeling good musically. Typical of King Crimson, we rehearsed a lot before the first show. There’s no surprises and we are up and running. It does vary from night to night because we play some improv pieces but we're having fun!
GD: So you guys don’t stick to a static setlist because you change it up from night to night.
TL: Correct. At least some of it! Quite a bit of it is the same but we are very aware that there are many people that come to multiple shows, especially when we have two that are in the same city. I don’t know if we ever do two setlists that are exactly the same.
GD: Excellent. How is this King Crimson tour different than previous tours?
TL: It’s hard to say. The past few tours where we have had this incarnation where there are eight of us on stage, it’s very different from anything that what I’ve done with King Crimson. It’s more orchestral because we had two keyboard players and now we have three. By that I mean that includes Robert Fripp who plays guitar and Jeremy Stacy who’s one of our drummers who also plays keyboards. We have multiple instrument players and at times we have three keyboards going which is a much different sound than it was before. This incarnation has Mel Collins, the wonderful sax and flute player, who was in King Crimson long before I was. His sax playing takes some of the solo’s so it’s not all guitar solos. Playing with eight players is much different than playing with four players. The biggest difference of the last three years is that we have three drummers and they’ve devised an ingenious way of dividing up the drum parts. We feature them because they are in the front row of the stage and it’s fascinating to watch how they worked out these drum parts. I find myself watching the drummers a lot.
GD: Being a part of the rhythm section, what is that like playing with three drummers? Is that more challenging for you?
TL: That’s a good question! It is a challenge and I had reservations when Robert Fripp mentioned the idea. I thought that I’d be in for it and I’d be up for the challenge. It is a challenge but it's different than what I thought. I thought there would be very little room left for me to play and I’d find the pulse and just reinforce that. In fact, it’s ended up that there is a lot of room for me to play a little busier than what I used to play in the band. It surprised me. I don’t know why that is but it just works out musically.
GD: You're a long time member of King Crimson going back to 1981; how did you get hooked up with Robert Fripp and joining the band?
TL: Actually, I recently asked Robert about that because I heard stories that I was auditioned at the first get together. At least I thought it was just a get together! I did know Robert in 1981 because I played on his first solo album and I played with him on tour with Peter Gabriel and on record. I did not know Bill Bruford and Adrian Belew and Robert called and asked me to play together and to see what it was like. Maybe that is an audition? But it worked out very well musically on that day in New York City and we formed a band called Discipline, not King Crimson. I was never asked to join King Crimson. I was asked to join a bunch of guys that we called Discipline and we toured very briefly under that name. Then we recorded the album and Robert decided that this is appropriately the new King Crimson. That lineup had a pretty radical approach to doing rock music and the album was called Discipline. I know it’s a long story, but it wasn’t like “Oh, King Crimson called me to join them.”
GD: Excellent, I wasn’t sure myself. Looking back on your career, what attracted you to the bass guitar?
TL: That’s beyond my career because I was a kid. I know the answer to that because I asked my parents when they were quite old. They told me that I said I just liked the bass. As simple as that sounds, after so many years, I must have been eight years old. It maybe not profound, but it is of interest to me, after so many of years of doing it, I just like playing the bass. I don’t need to be the front man or I don’t crave to be the guitar player. It’s just the way I am. How lucky am I to enjoy what I do and somehow manage to make a career out of it?
GD: That’s great! Do you play any other instruments?
TL: I do. I play the guitar. I did go to school and I am classically trained. I play the touch guitar with the Chapman Stick. I can play some piano, maybe there are some other instruments that I’m leaving out. I used to play the tuba a lot but my mustache interferes with the mouthpiece so I don’t play that anymore.
GD: You mentioned the Chapman Stick. How did you come about playing that?
TL: It was the new instrument that was being released and I kept hearing about it in ‘75-’76. I was playing the bass in those days with a hammer-on technique which is hammering with your fingers instead of plucking. I wasn’t doing it all the time but I did it enough that guys who knew me told me about an instrument where you use that technique. The next time I was in Los Angeles, I approached Emmett Chapman about one of his instruments. I know it was ‘76 because I was playing on Peter Gabriel’s album and the producer said, “Put that thing away, it’s too weird looking.” A year after that, I was using in on quite a few albums.
GD: In the ‘70s and ‘80s you worked with a wide range of artists like Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd. Do you have a particular favorite artist that you’ve worked with?
TL: No, no favorites. I’m very lucky to have played with all of those people you mentioned. Certainly maybe even more lucky to have continuing relationships with Robert Fripp and King Crimson and Peter Gabriel whom I’ve played decades with. I’ve been lucky and when you play with a great artist or famous artist, of course you learn things. In all those situations, the other musicians, who aren’t mentioned unless you look at the liner notes or tour credits, those players are really special too and I’ve learned a lot from them. I tend not to be a person who has favorites in any subject. I try to be open to a broad range of who’s really good.
GD: Great! Speaking of Peter Gabriel, when you were working on his So album, could you tell that it was going to be such a groundbreaking record?
TL: Good question. You know, you don’t think about that when you are making a record. You just don’t think in those terms. Another example was when I was asked to play with John Lennon. My thought process was “Wow, John Lennon! This is going to be really great.” I didn’t think about “Wow, when this album comes out, it’s going to be influential.” The same thing with Peter. All of his albums, to me, have broken ground because he is doing something that he hasn’t done before. Each album is completely different. I never thought about the future of the album, I just hoped there would be touring and playing of the music. When you record an album, frankly I don’t go back and listen to it much. The music kinda takes a life of it’s own. If you’re lucky enough to tour playing it, if it’s really good music, it can kinda grow.
GD: Is there one particular album that you’ve played on or solo album that you are most proud of?
TL: No, I’m gonna give the same answer.
GD: I knew you were gonna say that!
TL: I don’t even look back on them except when I give interviews. I’m pretty good at focusing on what I’m doing now. When I do interviews and I’m asked about the past, that’s when I do my thinking on it.
GD: Now, you have also published a couple of photography books documenting your life on the road. What attracted you to photography?
TL: Just like anyone who takes pictures, I’ve done it as a hobby. Somewhat passionately when I went on the road with the camera. It became more serious when I decided to have the camera on stage to take pictures of what was going on during the concert. In the early years that meant setting up a tripod. For those of us that remember film cameras, I had to focus it before the concert and put a foot pedal among my bass foot pedals that allowed me to take pictures. Now with digital photography, I can actually play with one hand and take a picture if something interesting is happening. Once I started my website in the early to mid ‘90s, people really wanted to see pictures from behind the scene and on stage so I started to feature that on my site. I have a web diary because there was no word blog back when I started. To this day, that’s what I do. I have my computer out and my camera and I’m collating a hundred or so pictures that I took last night and I’ll update it to my web diary on my web site. It’s been a pleasure sharing that information with fans of the music and they enjoy it.
Let me put it a different way. It’s a connection to the fans that I couldn’t have otherwise. Because you just can’t hang out with 200 people after the show. We share our interest in what goes on behind the scenes. They particularly like and I like the pictures of the audience. You can see some of the inspiration that they give us on stage. It’s a tangible thing that’s in the air and I try to show that with the photographs.
GD: Actually I was doing a little research for this interview and I was perusing your site and I think it’s excellent.
TL: Thank you! It’s pretty darn big with all of the archives.
GD: So you are going to be playing in Cleveland soon, what can fans expect?
TL: Yes, we are excited! The band should be very tight by then. We will be there the day after Thanksgiving so hopefully we won’t overeat because the mental attention you need at a King Crimson show is intense. It’s not simple music. If the venue allows us, we will do a three hour show. It’s a lot of music. It’s great fun!
GD: Do you have any special memories of playing in Cleveland? Did you ever stay at the legendary Swingo’s?
TL: I stayed many times at Swingo’s! I’ve played many times at the legendary Agora. I’ve been to Cleveland many times and I love it. I was on location filming the Paul Simon movie One Trick Pony and all of the concert shots were at the Agora. We spent a month filming all the concert scenes there. It’s a good town, it’s a rock town! What can I say? It’s one of the premier rock cities in the world.
GD: Yes, and we are getting back to that. We were kinda down for a few years. I don’t know the last time you were in town but there has been quite the resurgence and vibrancy to the city.
TL: I was just there when I played the Beachland Ballroom. Because of travel arrangements I didn’t get to see the town; I saw the people but I didn’t get downtown.
GD: Tony, thank you so much!
TL: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the quality of your questions, it makes it a pleasure for me.
GD: Well, thank you very much! It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. I know the show is really close to being sold out and I look forward to seeing you there!
TL: Thanks, Greg.
Interview by Greg Drugan