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.
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 tonylevin.com.
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
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
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?
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
Who were your favorite musicians, your influences--those
you listened to when you first began to play music?
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
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
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
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?
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.
How can a musician optimize his level of playing and performance
in a live concert?
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"?
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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
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?
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.
What is next for the Tony Levin Band (Jesse Gress/guitar,
Jerry Marotta/drums and Larry Fast/synth)?
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
G. C.: Will you bring back
the trio of Bozzio-Levin-Stevens?
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.
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?
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?
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
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
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
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
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!
What makes a player a good
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.
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.
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.
What projections do you make for the world of progressive
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.
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