Chapman Stick / Stick Center
Chapman Stick - Stick Center
Chapman Stick - Stick Center history
Chapman Stick - Instruments
Chapman Stick - Stickistas
Chapman Stick Cds
Chapman Stick MP3 collection
Chapman Stick, Tony Levin, Emmett Chapman, Guillermo Cides interview
Chapman Stick / Photos
Chapman Stick / Articles
Chapman Stick Seminar
Chapman Stick Projects
Chapman Stick Concerts, Stick performances
Chapman Stick links
Mapa Web
The Stick Center

Guillermo Cides








If there is something I’ve always appreciated about Tony Levin, it is the recognition that he has received throughout the years.
In order to further explain, we can say without a doubt that he is one of the most popular bass players of our time. But the interesting thing about this, indeed, is that Levin does not come off as a virtuoso of the bass--not at least as the majority of the musical world understands virtuosity--which includes extraordinary achievements by way of musical astonishments of speed, articulation, musical heroics. This approach often does not surpass the result of playing "only what the music calls for" and heartfelt, intuitive, tasteful playing.
It is possible that the virtue of Levin is not found in this "extraordinary mastery" but that his stamp is on the "extraordinary imagination" found in his extremely tasteful execution, and his choices of and integral, intimate use of... low notes.
What affects me profoundly is the approval of the musical world of this virtue--as if somehow the audience, although always seeming to appreciate most musicians--seems to have rediscovered the original reason why musicians need to perform and keep creating; the reason being nothing more nor less than the passion to make music!
Even more peculiar, Tony is one of the most popular bass players in the world, and he is not interested in offering master classes of his technique, another element of his depth of character that speaks for itself. As discussed in other interviews, it is the opinion of most that his technique comes from an "instinct," an inner energy that intuitively knows the appropriate notes that will give the composition life, distinction and movement while providing artistic integrity for the artist and others involved in the project; an instinct, I venture to say, that cannot be taught.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will not present tonight one of the "best" bass players in the world -"best" is a word that is not comfortable on Tony-- but I will present one of the most ORIGINAL bass players in the world!
It is my pleasure to present... Tony Levin!


To speak the name of Tony Levin is to speak the name of low tones, deeply moving sounds, rich musicality. Undoubtedly, Levin wears this name like royalty and his music moves far beyond any of these descriptions. Today, he is increasingly being recognized as a composer, writer, photographer, head of his own Internet record label, and author of his own web-page where he maintains active communication and an on-line presence with his listeners, fans and friends.
In these pages, you will also find the impressive list of artists with whom he has worked.
His is a long and surprising list, and offers a glimpse into the magnitude of his work and talents and also provides encouragment and inspiration to musicians all over the world that want to share their music with others. If on the list such names appear like that of John Lennon, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel..., so much the better.

Guillermo Cides: Tony, for a long time the people have given you the title, "The best bass player” and I read your opinión about that in your web page
Tony Levin: I haven’t heard that expression in some time. But anyway it’s my feeling that there is no ‘best’ bass player, or drummer, or musician. Music isn’t like a sport, where you have clear indications of who is best. There are many ways to play any instrument, and to interpret music. We who listen form our personal favorites to listen to, and it’s easy to enlarge that to think that it’s the best there is. The fact is, nobody has even heard all the bass players on this planet of ours - teenagers in New York, playing new music that’s not popular yet, freelancers in Africa playing the music of thier country that may be unknown outside their country, players all over Europe, trying out a huge variety of styles and expanding the bass to areas it hadn’t been before. It’s exciting thinking of all the great music being made around the world - to try to hem it in seems counterproductive to me.

G. C.:
In other interviews, I have read that you prefer to think about the present while making revisions of your past. What things would you like to do in the future that you have not yet done? I‚m speaking of things both inside and outside the music.
T. L.:
I’ve got a lot of projects that want to be done, but time only permits me to work on a few. (And sometimes these few take far longer than I would wish.) As I write this, I’m hard at work on a solo album, this one will feature lyrics and singing in addition to bass playing, and it’s taking me a lot longer to write and record than any of my previous albums. I’m midway through volume two of Crimson Chronicles - a photo journal of my years in King Crimson. I have a rough plan for another book, which I’d like to get done in the next few years. And, there’s even a half finished painting of my father (he passed away last year) on an easel in my studio, waiting for my attention for the hard part - finishing it off. The main obstacle to my finishing these things, and more, is that when I get called for an interesting tour or record playing the bass, it always takes precedence over what I’ve been working on. I guess that’s because playing the bass with other musicians is my favorite thing to do. (Recently, though I was intensely working on my music, I couldn’t resist taking a break to travel to Italy and participate in a 45 hour non-stop jam session in Padova!)

G. C.:
You have worked with many of the great names in the music of our time. What is the common factor--if there is one--that you have found in these musicians in relation to their perception of music?
T. L.:
I can’t think of many common factors in the great players and performers I’ve met. What comes to mind is Paul Simon’s careful dedication to his music, honing every note to be just right, contrasted with the three other players in the 80’s King Crimson (Belew, Bruford, Fripp) who happily risk dangerous tonalities and uncomfortable rhythms in the quest for great performances and making a kind of music that hadn’t been heard before. Then there is John Lennon’s ease in the studio, moving quickly to final takes of his songs and having fun all the while, contrasted with Peter Gabriel’s years-long journey that each studio album takes him and the musicians on. And some of the finest players I can remember, say guitarist Hugh McCracken and pianist Richard Tee, are instrumentalists whom I’ve never heard play one chord or note that wasn’t just right for the music (a very special and unusual talent), yet other players I admire make lots of mistakes along the way.

G. C.:
What are the qualities you hope to find in other musicians when you meet with them to play in concerts or to record?
T. L.: I dont’ have anything specific in mind. I hear the music (like we all do) and if I like it, I want to be part of it.

G. C.: Who were your favorite musicians, your influences--those you listened to when you first began to play music?
T. L.: Let’s see, that takes some thinking - I’ve been somewhat influenced by a lot of music. As a youth I listened to Classical music a lot, and there’s a quality to most of that which can be applicable to other music. My older brother Pete was a jazz player, and though I didn’t dig into it, I grew up hearing the bass playing of Oscar Pettiford, whose impeccible solid playing I now think had some influence on me in the way I would later approach rock bass parts. In college I was very lucky to play with drummer Steve Gadd, who virtually taught me the way to feel time in jazz. We both played, in those days, with Chuck Mangione, who brought a melodic talent to his trumpet playing, that influenced me a lot. On to my move to New York, and the superb players, vibes player Mike Mainieri and pianist Warren Bernheart - I played a lot with them, in duos, trios and larger band, and their spacial approach to thier playing and improvisation was something brand new to me, which I tried to imbue into my playing too.
On and on, I met Robert Fripp and Peter Gabriel in 1976 and again heard some kinds of music I hadn’t known about before. Progressive rock especially captured my imagination, and to this day I still think of myself as mainly in that genre.

G. C.:
You are now in the middle of recording your next album. From your past work, you are perceived as a "spontaneous musician” when creating melodies or arrangements. Do you agree with this perception?
T. L.: I’m very comfortable lending my bass parts to the songs and compositions of others, whatever the style. Sometimes, in a band situation, or with my solo albums, there’s a chance for me to be part of the writing. I’ve had fun with ‘collaborative’ writing, where you all contribute to the piece (as with King Crimson, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Liquid Tension Experiment, Bozzio Levin Stevens, and others) and I also like just writing material by myself (often it comes to me while I travel, and I make notes, then later at home, if I don’t remember it exactly I try to make sense of the notes I’ve scribbled down. Through the years, these notes (and poetry, now) become the base material for my new solo efforts.

G. C.:
Who will be on your next album? Will you have guests or will this be a solo album?
T. L.: I’m not sure yet, but the basic band will be the musicians I’ve been touring with in my band; Jerry Marotta on drums, Larry Fast on synth (both are alumni of the old Peter Gabriel Band) Jesse Gress on guitar (Jesse is from here in Woodstock, and also plays with Tod Rundgren) and this coming tour and album, my brother Pete will join in on keyboards. I plan to have some guest players too, but haven’t got that far yet.

G. C.:
What is your technique for those days when the inspiration is not forthcoming? Do you think it is natural, this low creative period, or do you think that it is possible "to train" our capacity for consistent creativity?
T. L.: I have no special information about that. I find that my ideas for music build up during the time I’m on tour (i.e. playing the same music each night) or just home doing other things. When I “use them up” is when recording albums for people, or writing my own material.

G.C.: How can a musician optimize his level of playing and performance in a live concert?
T.L.: I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve seen a lot of players with a lot of different approaches, and I don’t know of any rules that could apply to all. In fact, what I treasure in players is how they sometimes take a different approach to music than others had before them - I’d never want to be the one to advise some young player “oh, you should do it THIS way” only to discourage some more unique way they were on the path of.

G. C.:
The latest news is that you finished publishing a wonderful book of photography that documents your 19 years with King Crimson. Also, you are known as the "official photographer of the audience" and these are photos that you publish on your own web page. Is photography your "second love"?
T. L.: I do love photography, and still take a lot of pictures, though not the amount that I used to do when I had a tripod set up on stage every night. I have, for years, seen that from my viewpoint on stage, there is something very special to be sensed about audiences, and maybe seen if I take the right photos, and that it’s a great opportunity to share that with some of the audiences if possible. The musical performance each night seems to me to be a product of the band and the audience - I’m not just playing in a vacuum - and I’ve learned from the web site that people really enjoy being shown how they, as a group, looked during the show. I think it brings back the memory of what happened musically during the performance. There are some aspects to a live show that I think are not understood yet, and maybe we don’t words to explain what is, really, something magical that happens when the players and audience are right - we know we won’t ever forget those moments, and they move us emotionally, but why, among hundreds of concerts, those are the special ones.. .that’s hard to explain. Photos help bring them back.

G. C.:
Some of your photos have been used in the artwork for your musical albums. Do you do all the hand-painting on the photos yourself?
T. L.: Yes, I went through a period of mildly coloring them (‘hand tinting’) and that expanded to slapping more oil paint on the photos - I had fun with that. But, when doing the cover for “Bruford Levin Upper Extremities” I was moved to try the paint without the photo (I had great photos I’d taken of our hands reaching up) and have had fun with painting ever since.

G. C.:
At any point in your career, did you attempt perfection in your music? What does this word mean to you?
T. L.: I’m far from a perfectionist. We each pick the level of correctness we need to reach for our art, and then deal with the many other things that enter into a project. For me, some noises, some mistakes, can be acceptable if the style of music permits it, and if it doesn’t distract from the direction of the music (sometimes I feel it helps.)
In Classical music I admire some players whose technique is so advanced, you expect a technically perfect performance from them. Alas, I was never that kind of player even when I played Classical.

G. C.:
There were many musicians in our history--painters, writers, artists--who were not satisfied with their own work, or highly affected by self-criticism or the criticisms of others; many younger musicians suffer from this lack of security and self-confidence to make their own music. Do you think that high self-esteem is an element necessary to create music˜ or do you think the art comes from a different place?
T. L.: I have worked with a few players though the years, who are always unhappy with what they played - but most of us (and probably them, by now) learn to accept what we can do, while working to become better players. Also it’s an unfortunate habit to always tell others you didn’t like the way you played that night. I stopped that early in my career when, one night after a jazz gig, I complained to the leader about my playing. “Keep it to yourself” he said, “I don’t care.” It was good advice, and after that, regardless of how I felt, at least I kept quiet about it.
I think that different societies (i.e. Europe and the U.S.) have different ways of supporting, or battering, their artists. Most of us have to learn how to deal with that, or we’ll just leave the field and become something else. Being a rock player or studio player, sooner or later most of us face rejection from a band or project. There are no rules about how to deal with that, but perhaps it’s helpful to know that it happens to most players, and at all levels of success in the music field.

G. C.:
There is a new album that you are preparing and that we will be fortunate enough to listen to in September. Will it be published through your own record company, Papa Bear Records? Do you think that the best deal for a musician at the present time is to have their own label and do CD sales through the Internet?
T. L.: I think I have just missed the deadline for September release! So it’ll be sometime like next January. Anyway it will be on a ‘normal’ label here in the States. I don’t know what companies will pick it up in other countries - that’ s not in my control. It is a very different experience for me than releasing on Papabear. Then I have to do all the promotion, and the cd’s don’t get to stores. But there’s more control, which can be nice. Really I haven’t had a Papabear cd release in a while (but I will in the future.)

G. C.:
How is Papa Bear Records run and organized? How many people work for Papa Bear?
T. L.: It’s very small. Only Laurie, who handles taking orders and sending the things out quickly. The promotion and advertising... that’s up to me, and rarely do it!

G. C.:
What is your opinion of the communication of information through the Internet (peer to peer) in regard to the world of music and record labels?
T. L.: The internet has been very useful to me for lowering the barrier between performers and audience. For years I’ve been keeping a diary on my web page, which gives a lot of the sense of what it’s like to be on, for instance, a Peter Gabriel tour. People have told me they like seeing the photos and stories, and also seeing the photos of the audiences, taken from the stage.
I’ve also used the web site to sell my Papabear releases of cd’s, books, and art. The sales are modest, but I’m lucky to keep the company going, and have an outlet for my work.

G. C.:
In the future, will it be our good fortune to see you playing and/or recording with King Crimson?
T. L.: We have rehearsed a number of times now - the lineup being Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Pat Mastelotto and me. But there are still no plans to tour, or even record. That could change at any time, but right now I don’t know of any plans for Crimson shows.

G. C.: What is next for the Tony Levin Band (Jesse Gress/guitar, Jerry Marotta/drums and Larry Fast/synth)?
T. L.: For a long time I have been wanting to bring the band to Europe. We finally have a few bookings, in October. At the time I’m writing this the bookings are just Italy and Switzerland. It’s my hope that, after going the first time it will be easier to book tours there in the future. I know we have a lot more fans in Europe than in the States.

G. C.:
Will you bring back the trio of Bozzio-Levin-Stevens?
T. L.: There are no plans to do another album, or any touring. You never know - it was a surprise to me that we re-grouped for a second album a few years ago. I really like the music we made together, and would love to do more in the future.

G. C.: You have played on many albums and with many artists in situations where you were called by a producer to come in and play bass. What type of sessions were you most comfortable with, enjoyed doing the most, and left you feeling most satisfied with the final result?
T. L.: I have been lucky to have played in a lot of different situations, and many of them in studios doing recordings. I don’t have any type that is my favorite - in fact I find that most sessions have their own unique character to them. I am happiest when the music is good, and then all the players are usually enjoying the experience.

G. C.:
We are accustomed to seeing you with your Music Man Bass, your fretless, the Chapman Stick, the NS Electric Upright, the NS Electric Cello played with a bow, Funk Fingers--your own invention..... (each instrument will have its picture).
Did you find in this listing of instruments all your favorite ways to produce great low notes?
T. L.: Those are the instruments I am playing lately. I am using all of them on this new album, and I used them all on Peter Gabriel’s last tour (a few more too!) The Funk Fingers came about from a tour of Peter’s, when I needed them to play the bass part of the song “Big Time” The Chapman Stick has been a favorite instrument of mine for many years - it gets a unique sound and I can do things with it that I cannot play on the regular bass. The NS Electric Upright has turned out to be very useful to me too - it’s got a lot of low end, and I’ve played it on things as varied as King Crimson songs (with bow and fuzztone) to Peter Gabriel’s song “Barry Williams Show”

G. C.: What were the advantages of the Music Man bass of three strings which you used for a long period of time while touring with Peter Gabriel?
T. L.: The three string bass I asked Music Man to make for me was not a very serious thing - I did use it quite a bit, and still do, but the idea was just to have less on the bass (as opposed to more and more strings and controls.) The bass not only had just three strings (low E, A, D) but no tone or volume controls. Just a bass.

G. C.:
Your excellent “World Diary” album is in my collection of Stickistas. One of the many enchantments of this disc is the austere and clean sound of the Stick--achieving moments that are truly captivating. Is it one of the characteristics of your style to try to use few processes/effects in your sounds? Will you maintain this style in your next album also?
T. L.: I always thought I used a lot of effects on the Stick - I’m surprised to be reminded that sometimes I don’t. I know that in King Crimson, in the 1980’s, I had over 30 foot pedals, and sometimes I used most of them with the Stick!
But it does sound good without the chorusing or flanging I used back then. I still compress the sound a bit (sometimes a lot) and often use a volume pedal to swell the notes in. On my new material I’m trying to develop a powerful distorted sound for the Stick, on some of the heavy pieces.

G. C.:
When will we see you playing in Spain? You have here a lot of fans!
T. L.: I would love to tour in Spain again, and I’m sure I will sometime. It’s not up to us musicians when or where we get to tour - but I, and all the players I know, really enjoy coming to Spain.

G. C.:
Finally, how do you define the meaning of "success" in the career of a musician?
T. L.: That’s a good question. I have advised beginninmusicians to give some thought to what success means to them, and not to just accept the aims that other people have. To some, success might mean being famous, or being respected by other players. Or just being a great player, or making a lot of money.
I didn’t think about these things when I started in music, but now looking back, I guess my goal was just to play good music, of any style. I have been very lucky to have a career of doing what my ‘success’ entailed, and not having to spend years and years getting there. But I suppose some of my goals have enlarged and changed a bit - and I would also advise young players to remember to be free to change their mind, as they go, about what success means to them, and where they want to be as players.

G. C.: Tony, we know that you are a big fan of your own audience, and we asked them to send us their questions through the Internet in order to include them in this interview. Here are some of their questions:
Andrés De Marco: When will the OLP signature Tony Levin model be available and on sale? Will you be making the Funk Fingers again any time soon?
T. L.: Ah, the OLP. I am sorry it wasn’t ready in time for the January NAMM show. They said it might be ready by Spring, but I guess it wasn’t! Well, one of these days it will be ready, and will be a nice bass to have - we are aiming at a bass like the Music Man 5 string Stingray I’ve been playing since it was developed. But the OLP will be a quite inexpensive bass. For now, I can’t predict when they’ll have it done right - hopefully not too long away!

Gastón Nosiglia: What makes a player a good player?
T. L.: First of all, a player that seems to be good to me, may be not so good to someone else. We each have our own way of evaluating players, and music itself. To me, the speed and flashiness someone plays with doesn’t impress me much - it’s how good the music is that’s being played. (Yes, some very fast players are also playing great music!) So I listen to the phrasing, the tone, the musicality. On bass, sometimes it’s just a matter of what notes the player has chosen. To sum it up, to me it is the music that’s important, not the instrument. Those who make very good music are, indeed, very good players.

Javier Fresneda: What do you think has been the most important advance from the classic contrabass to the latest model of electric bass?
T. L.: Wow, what a deep question that is! I wish I knew more history of the bass. The Fender bass was sure a big step. But now there are so many types of basses - many strings, a variety of pickups with interesting sound... I don’t think I can pick out one advance that stands out to me.

Jan Staff:
Will you bring your band (TLB) and tour Europe soon? Scandinavia, perhaps? We have excellent coffee here too! Any chance of a release from the duo of Trey Gunn and Tony Levin? You both did magnificent work together in KC and IMHO should be explored.
T. L.: As I said before, I will be in Europe a bit, touring, in October. As for Trey, he’s a great musician and amazing player. I’d love to do some duo playing with him, and maybe we’ll get around to that one day.

Magalí Vázquez: Are you working on a new album with Peter Gabriel?
T. L.: Peter has a lot of tracks left from the last recording period - I don’t know whether he’ll finish them up, or record new ones, but my hope is that he’ll complete an album sometime in the coming year.

Francisco Serdoch: What projections do you make for the world of progressive rock?
T. L.: There is a huge amount of new music being made now, progressive and otherwise - and it’s a good time for music. But the hard thing is, and will remain to be, getting people to hear your music - there’s so much out there. I think groups and players need a lot of luck to get successful - but if you are making the music you want to, then the adventure of trying to get it heard will be fun for you.

Teddy Baxter: What effects did you use to record the riff for Elefant Talk? Is this the most popular Stick’s riff?
T. L.: Elephant Talk is a pretty distinctive riff for the Stick, and most new Stick players find that it’s pretty easy. (at least, if you de-tune one of the strings like I did, to be a flatted fifth instead of a fifth.) I used a Dynacomp compressor, and an MXR phasor, when I did that track, way back in 1981.

Manuel Sanchez: What it is your favorite amplifier to play direct?
T. L.: Lately I am back to using the Ampeg amps I started out with. For big shows, I still like the SVT. (My first amp ever was the Ampeg portaflex) When you say ‘play direct’ I’m not sure whether you’re talking about recording, without an amp. For that I have used a number of ‘direct boxes’ - my favorite, that I’ve used for the last few years, is called Radial JDI.

Juan Ramon: Why have you not made instructional books or videos?
T. L.: I don’t have too much to say about technically playing the bass or Stick (though I know quite a bit about it). I find that I admire players who come up with unique music or new approaches to their instrument - I would never want to discourage some young player from finding his own way by urging him to do something the way I did it.
Having said that, in my book, “Beyond the Bass Clef”, there were some chapters of advice for bass players (though not much about playing technique.)

Guillermo Cides: Mr. Tony Levin, thanks for your time. We look forward to seeing you on Spanish stages soon!
Tony Levin: Thank you Guillermo.




Toni Levin official Web Page

The Stick Center thanks Toni Levin's collaboration for this interview.
Traducción:Linda Cushma.

© The Stick Center