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Feature Interview: Tony Levin

Discussion in 'Features' started by TalkBass, Mar 23, 2004.


  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    This feature was published on TalkBass.com in September 2001

    Tony Levin is known as "a bass player's bass player". He has been credited as "simply the best bass player on the planet" by none other than his frequent employer Peter Gabriel. Inventive, innovative, sublimely masterful, and instantly recognizable as one of the great voices on the instrument, Levin has been a source of inspiration for many over the years.
     
  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p align="center"><font size="6"><b><font size="7"><img src="/images/tonylevin/tonylevin1_medium.jpg" width="300" height="200" align="left">Tony Levin<br> <i><font size="3">Interview for TalkBass.com by Max Valentino</font></i></font></b></font></p> <p>Tony Levin is known as "a bass player's bass player". He has been credited as "simply the best bass player on the planet" by none other than his frequent employer Peter Gabriel. Inventive, innovative, sublimely masterful, and instantly recognizable as one of the great voices on the instrument, Levin has been a source of inspiration for many over the years.<br> </p> <p>A veteran of the '70s studio scene, Tony has album credits in the thousands; so many, in fact he doesn't even know. But here is just a sample of the names he has worked with: Buddy Rich, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Nanci Griffith, Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford and Howe, Yes, John Lennon, Laurie Anderson, Joan Armatrading, Natalie Cole, Cher, Tracy Chapman, Judy Collins, Alice Cooper, Al DiMeola, Dire Straits, Fareed Haque, Indigo Girls, Ivan Lins, Kenny Loggins, Herbie Mann, Stevie Nicks, Laura Nyro, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Robbie Robertson, Andy Summers, David Torn….. [<a href="http://www.tonylevin.com/discography.html">complete discography on tonylevin.com</a>]</p> <p>A graduate of the esteemed Eastman School Of Music in New York State, Tony Levin is renown for his consummate bass work and his superb use of the Chapman Stick, the 10 or 12 string "touch-style" instrument he helped popularize, and some of the innovative techniques such as "Funk Fingers", the drumstick-like finger attachments he uses to play the bass.</p> <p>He is regular member of Peter Gabriel's touring and studio bands, as well as a member of King Crimson. He also runs his own label, PapaBear Records (<a href="http://www.papabear.com">www.papabear.com</a>) from which he has released 5 solo/collaborations including the acclaimed "World Diary" and "From The Caves Of The Iron Mountain" (a live trio recording featuring Levin, percussionist Jerry Marrotta, and Bansuri flautist Steve Gorn, recorded in the Widow Jane Mine in the Catskill Mountains of NY). He is also the author of "Beyond The Bass Clef", a collection of memoirs, anecdotes, stories and advice. Tony Levin's latest releases are "Waters Of Eden" on the Narada Label, and the" California Guitar Trio with Guests Tony Levin and Pat Mastellotto: LIVE at The Key Club" on his own PapaBear Records Label.</p> <p>I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tony about bass, and what new turns we can expect in his prolific career.</p> <p></p> <p><b> What drives you, as a musician, to seek out new approaches?</b></p> <p> I've been lucky, though the years, to be involved with some very creative musicians. Had I not, I'd have been dedicating myself to other aspects of playing - but when you're playing bass in King Crimson, or with Peter Gabriel, the setting is there to try your best to come up with new sounds, new techniques. It'd be the same for any player in those kinds of music situations. Also, there's an inspiring effect of making music with Robert Fripp, or Peter. You see how they don't do things like most musicians, and you get inspired to break out on your own from the way you've been doing things and hearing others do them on your instrument. As a member of Crimson for all these years, I've become aware that both the glory and the difficulty of the band is that it's self-driven to do things in new ways, both individually and as a group. That makes for new music each project, and lots of inspiration, but it also makes things pretty stressful when you're each searching for new voices and techniques. (I recall some rehearsals in Nashville in the '90s, when the drummers were experimenting with counter rhythms off each other; Trey Gunn and I were playing quartertone scales and chords between our two touch style instruments, Robert was bringing in new unusual material, and Adrian was just trying to survive the cacophony.</p> <p> <b>You have quite a resume. Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Nanci Griffith, to name but a few. Lately you have been showing up in some unexpected places: notably Liquid Tension Experiment, Kevin Max, Kevin Parent, and, of course, the California Guitar Trio. Could you tell us a bit about these projects and what types of challenges you find in such disparate sessions?</b></p> <p>I have always played a wide variety of music, though some people who recognize my name might just know me from one type of music. There are challenges inherent in any kind of recording (at least for me -I like to challenge myself.) The situation is different in each project, so there are no consistent rules - except that I always strive for the same thing: to enhance, with my playing, the musicality of the overall project. You mention Paul Simon - on his songs I was, like any listener, engrossed with the lyrics - their meaning and their mood. Many times the best thing for the bass seemed to me to be to stay out of the way of the lyrics, enhance the rhythm feel without getting busy, and ... just enjoy the song! Sometimes there would be an exception - "Late in the Evening" for example, where the rhythm section took a busier approach and Paul sang around that. Another song, "50 Ways to Leave your Lover" had Steve Gadd playing a very distinctive busy part - and doing a sliding but sparse bass line seemed best. With L.T.E. the situation could not have been more different. Actually I spent most of those sessions just trying to keep up with the blazing technique of the other guys in the band. It was all through-composed music, so there wasn't any looking for grooves - just trying to learn and play the part. (Believe me, that kept me plenty challenged!) I could go equally into each of the records you mentioned - for that matter, into any of the recordings I've done. All different situations, but I always do focus on the overall music and what will enhance it best. Sometimes that allows taking the lead (as in the bass line of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" or John Lennon's "Just Like Starting Over" sometimes it seems better to let the focus be elsewhere.</p> <table width="100" border="1" align="right"> <tr> <td><img src="/images/tonylevin/tl_hideyo.jpg" width="300" height="187"></td> </tr> <tr> <td> <center> <font size="1">Levin & Hideyo Moriya of the CGT</font> </center> </td> </tr> </table> <p> <b>How do approach your role in different types of music?</b><br> </p> <p>I guess I just answered that. I'd only add that I try to keep an open mind to the new kinds of music that are always appearing, and to possible new roles that I may not have considered.</p> <p><b>In addition to your stellar sideman status, you have become a solo artist. How have things in your career changed in the past few years?</b><br> </p> <p>Well, it's really a different career. I enjoy both being a sideman and being a solo artist a lot. Actually, I'd add another type of situation: lately it's common for some progressive rock players to get together and make some collaborative albums, not as a full-fledged group (which, in my opinion, means placing all other music work behind the needs of the group) but with a continuing relationship. Some I've done are (2)Bozzio Levin Stevens, (2) Liquid Tension, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (studio and live releases), and my own PapaBear Records releases of "World Diary" and "From the Caves of the Iron Mountain".</p> <p> <b>Last year, you released your "major label" debut, "Waters Of Eden" on Narada. This was a bit of a departure for you in which you played the majority of lead melodies exclusively on fretless. While you are renown as a support player, your melodic sense is beautiful and evocative. How has the public reaction to "Eden" and the resulting tour been?</b><br> </p> <p>First of all, what I see as the musical identity of Waters of Eden is this: I wanted to feature the fretless bass on my songs, but not have the record "about" the bass. Hence, the lead lines are always shared between the bass and other instruments - making the fretless just one of the voices on the record. I'm happy with the way it came out, and the reaction has been very good to the record and subsequent tour (amazingly, more females in the audiences - responding, I think, to the [reduction] of the "masculine side" prog-like music I've done a lot of in the past. <br> </p> <p>I had a great deal of fun touring with my "own band" (JerryMarotta/drums and Larry Fast/synth were my band mates in the Peter Gabriel Band. Jesse Gress/guitar is a great player from my home area of Woodstock). Some of the fun we had playing live was doing some music other than mine, which we'd been involved with ("Elephant Talk" and "Sleepless" from Crimson, "Back in NY City" from Genesis, a Zeppelin, Hendrix... Larry Fast did one of his "Synergy" pieces, and a Gabriel piece.) Anyway, touring was so much fun that for my next album (we finished tracking this month) I'm using exclusively the touring band. I've got Peter Gabriel's permission to do a piece of his that we recorded long ago and wasn't released. Also we've done a re-make of one of Larry Fast's Synergy compositions. The new release will be somewhat harder-edge musically than "Waters of Eden" - kind of a cross between the earthy melodic nature of that, and my prog roots. </p> <p> <b>You also, on "Waters Of Eden", made your cello debut. Can we maybe look forward to your interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites sometime soon?</b><br> </p> <p>Hah. Actually I'd been playing the (electric) cello on tour with Seal, so my chops were reasonable for me, but I'll never be soloing on cello - I'm still very much a bass player.</p> <p align="left"><b>On your website you run several, continually updated photo pages. You seem to have a fascination with <a href="http://www.tonylevin.com/friends.htm">audience shots</a>.</b><br> <br> I've been shooting photos in concerts for a long time. In the '80's I released a book "Road Photos" of those shots, including many of the audience. (that book is out of print.) I'm planning a new book of photos from my 19 years in King Crimson - sometime next year. But, of course, the web is the quickest easiest medium for letting the public see your shots (especially nice when the shots are of them!) <br> </p> <table width="100" border="1"> <tr> <td><img src="/images/tonylevin/audienceshot1.jpg" width="500" height="221"></td> </tr> <tr> <td> <center> <font size="1">WOMAD Festival, July 2001</font> </center> </td> </tr> </table>
     
  3. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p> <b>I saw some photos from the sessions for your next solo album. You are known for using your Music Man Basses, but in one shot you had a hollow body bass, which looked a bit like an old Rivoli or Guild Starfire. Are going for a different kind of sound on this album?</b><br> <br> Given the ability to carry them all to sessions, I usually bring an arsenal of basses to choose from. Most are Music Man basses, which I love (old and new, 4 and 5 string, frets and fretless, and even an old burnt one which developed a different sound from being toasted!) But sometimes I reach for my old Epiphone Rivoli (same as Gibson EB2) or Guild Ashbory. Then there are the NS Electric Upright and cello (made by Ned Steinberger)... a few prototype acoustic basses... and the STick!</p> <p> <b>You have become somewhat of a record company mogul. Could you discuss the genesis of Papa Bear Records?</b><br> <br> I started it in the mid '90s as a vehicle for my own music, knowing well the pitfalls of asking a record company to release your music when it's unusual or doesn't fit well into categories. I don't gear towards selling a lot of cd's (no distribution, little advertising) but more as a special find for those who find it. I can afford to do this because I make my living as a backup bass player, and will continue happily to do that. The company has turned out to be very important to me. Where else could I release music from a cave... or my book, or Funk Fingers, without having to beg some company to bear with me. Recently I released Pat Mastelotto's BPM&M CD (a wild techno version of some Crimson elements) because he couldn't find another outlet for that record. Aside from that, though, (and two Calif. Guitar Trio CD's that we made jointly) I'm sticking to my own music books and art on the label.<br> <br> <b>You have also quite enthusiastically embraced the Internet both as a commercial source and an avenue of information. You seem to daily update your website, adding new photos, new diary pages, and even instant downloads from the stage! How successful has your website (www.papabear.com) been for you?</b><br> <br> I was a fan of the Internet before I had the site. (By the way, it started as <a href="http://www.papabear.com">papabear.com</a> but morphed to being mainly <a href="http://www.tonylevin.com">tonylevin.com</a> with the papabear pages only for sales of things. Most people enjoy the diaries, samples, quicktime movies, and goofy stuff from the tonylevin.com side. I knew a site would work out well for being a location to find my music, for those who discover it. The surprise for me was discovering how ideal the web has been for shrinking the bridge between performer and audience. It's let me (and many others, of course,) put up a journal of what it's like to be on tour and in the studio. And from feedback (on the web, but even more from meeting people on tour) I get a lot of idea what it's like being a follower of the bands or music I'm making. It's good for everyone - a small example of how tearing down walls is an enlightening thing.</p> <p> <b>One of the hallmarks of your sound is the inventiveness, not only in tone, which is exemplified by your use of Chapman Stick and Funk Fingers, but in note choice and, most notably, rhythmic diversity. What is your approach to "hearing" the rhythm in a tune?</b><br> <br> </p> <table width="100" border="1" align="left"> <tr> <td><img src="/images/tonylevin/fingers.jpg" width="280" height="195"></td> </tr> <tr> <td> <center> <font size="1">Waters of Eden 2000 tour</font> </center> </td> </tr> </table> <p>I don't really think about that much - I do focus on the drummer and what he's doing (as do most bass players.) As mentioned in earlier answers, there is no theory in mind when I hear music or play, each experience is different.</p> <p> <b>You have been very prolific, especially in the past year. What do you listen to for inspiration? What music have you been listening to lately?</b><br> <br> I often need to study and learn music for upcoming recordings or tours. Given time at home (haven't had any of that in last few months) I listen to Classical music - mostly solo piano or guitar works. Sometimes a recent release I've been on will so grab me that I keep listening to it (Kevin Max, Kevin Parent are some recent examples) but usually by the time the record's done, I've spent a lot of time with it and don't need to listen much.</p> <p> <b>I understand you just cut several new tracks with the California Guitar Trio at the completion of this last tour. Are we to expect another CGT/Levin disc soon?</b><br> <br> We just finished recording that CD in Austin Texas. The playing was great - I expect it to come out early next year, on DGM.</p> <table width="100" border="1" align="right"> <tr> <td><img src="/images/tonylevin/cgt.jpg" width="220" height="165" align="right"></td> </tr> <tr> <td> <center> <font size="1">Levin & the CGT</font> </center> </td> </tr> </table> <p><br> <br> <b>Do you find it a challenge to play bass/stick with three acoustic guitars (notably 3 acoustic guitarists of such high caliber)?</b><br> <br> When it's just the trio and me, the ensemble playing is very much like chamber music - each player closely attending the others. Reminds me of my days playing Classical, even though the music is different. When Pat is there playing drums, I can relax into the normal bass function - even play with different tone - and know that Pat will handle keeping the time steady.</p> <p> <b>When you toured Japan with the CGT last year, I understand you played some tunes on an acoustic bass guitar, and even used Funk Fingers on it. Did you feel compelled by their "acoustic-ness" to seek out a more open, airy, even "unplugged" kind of sound?</b><br> <br> I do like playing acoustic bass (guitar) on some of the CGT material. Only reason I don't always do so is lack of room in the van!!</p> <p> <b>You recently appeared with Peter Gabriel at the WOMAD festival in Seattle. I am sure everyone eager to hear about his next album. How was it getting back on stage with Peter after a long hiatus?</b><br> <br> It was really great. Peter hasn't lost any of the magic he has, vocally and charismatically. I only hope (like everyone else) it won't be long till we can tour.</p> <table width="100" border="1" align="right"> <tr> <td><img src="/images/tonylevin/gabriel1.jpg" width="220" height="165" align="right"></td> </tr> <tr> <td> <center> <font size="1">Peter Gabriel, WOMAD 2001</font> </center> </td> </tr> </table> <p> <b>Can you give us any hint on the vibe of his long-awaited next album?</b><br> <br> No idea on that. I did lots of tracking, but have no idea what the finished tracks will sound like, or when it will be done.</p> <p> <b>You are also on a sabbatical from your other full-time gig with King Crimson. Are there any plans in the works with them?</b><br> <br> Robert Fripp referred to me as "the fifth man" of the group - but that doesn't mean I'll be working soon with them. The coming months will be a recording, and maybe more touring, with the current lineup. Realistically then, they will probably tour with that release. After that, we've got no plans currently.</p> <p> <b>One of my favorite recordings is "Blue Nights". It combines some daring and challenging musical structures with a melodic accessibility in a unique way. And that band simply tears it up. The vibe of the live discs is such that it just seems like you guys went out and had a blast every night. Was it as fun as it sounds?</b><br> <br> I worked very hard on those mixes - I listened to all the tapes (we recorded almost all our shows of two tours) and chose the best versions of each piece. We did have fun live, arriving at a nice combination of improvising, playing recognizable material, and leaving things wide open for Mr. Torn - who is one of the wildest wildcard players I've played with.</p> <p> <b>You are known as a magnificent bass player. The role of the bass player, and the instrument is continually evolving. What does bass mean to you?</b><br> <br> I'm not really a fan of the bass, just of music. That's why I was reluctant for a long time to do a "bass record" and when I did, I had the bass on Waters of Eden just be one of the voices.</p> <p> <b>Many TalkBass readers check into the interviews and features for advice and tips from noted pros. Do have any advice, tips, or pearls of wisdom on bass and bass playing for our readers?</b><br> <br> No tips in particular - I feel that each player brings different things to the instrument - and what may be an axiom for me might end up holding back another player from finding his voice.</p> <p> <b>It has been a busy summer for you. What can we expect to see and hear from Tony Levin in the upcoming months? </b><br> I will tour in Quebec with Kevin Parent in November and December. Next year my solo cd will come out, and I'll try to tour a lot with that- in addition to, I hope, Peter Gabriel's new music if it's done.</p> <hr> <table width="100" border="1" align="left"> <tr> <td><img src="/images/tonylevin/fries.jpg" width="140" height="139"></td> </tr> <tr> <td><font size="1">Why are Levin and Jerry Marotta lining up fries on a London sidewalk? Read about it at <a href="http://www.tonylevin.com/story4.html">TonyLevin.com</a></font></td> </tr> </table> <p>Tony Levin runs a must-see personal website at <a href="http://www.tonylevin.com">tonylevin.com</a> - filled with tour diaries, pictures, information, and just plain fun reading. To purchase merchandise, including CD's and his book, <i>Beyond the Bass Clef</i>, visit <a href="http://www.papabear.com">papabear.com</a></p>