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Interview: King Crimson Bass Player Tony Levin
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Bass Player Tony Levin

For over 40 years bass player Tony Levin has been one of the very best in the business. He has played with King Crimson, released a number of solo albums, and has recorded and played with countless artists including Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Brian “Head” Welch, and Alice Cooper to name a few. Recently he teemed up with guitarist David Torn and Yes drummer Alan White on the fantastic new album, Levin Torn White.

The original blogger (he was doing it before it even had a name) gave me some great answers to my email questions, and explains just what in the name of prog ‘funk fingers’ is.

Geeks of Doom: Hello Tony, how are you?

Tony Levin: Quite well. Writing from the tour van, on a 7-hour drive from Atlanta, GA to Carrboro, NC – doing what I love to do (well, not driving in the van…) bringing my music to people.

Geeks of Doom: How did your latest band Levin Torn White come together?

Tony Levin: The idea was Scott’s. Scott Schorr is the producer of my last solo album Stick Man and wanted to put together a few notable progressive players who didn’t usually team up on albums. Alan White and I had almost played together a number of times, so this was a meeting, in that sense, that was destined to happen. Alan is well known, of course, for playing in Yes. I’d played with one incarnation of the band, and in fact on the Union album, there I am playing with some of the other band members, but not Alan. And we’d both played with John Lennon, though at different times. David Torn was a different story for me – I’d played with him numerous times both on recordings and on the road. Long ago he brought Bill Bruford [original Yes drummer] and me in to record his Cloud About Mercury album – a radical step to have progressive rock players join in on an avant garde jazz album. It worked out very well, and is a landmark recording to this day. Then we played together in a band, called Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, both in studio and touring.

Geeks of Doom: Levin Torn White has recently released its first album – are you pleased with it? What sort of reaction have you had to it so far?

Tony Levin: It’s only been out a few days, so it’s early to hear reports from listeners. Reviews have been great, and the buzz from the Yes fans has been such that we’ve had many more sales right off than are usual. We signed the first 1,000 to be sold off my website, thinking they’d last months, and they’re almost gone now – 6 days after the release date.

Geeks of Doom: How does the Levin Torn White songwriting process work? Do you get together and jam or will one of you present ideas to the others?

Tony Levin: Pretty unusual and uncharted writing method on this one. You’re close to it when you suggest ‘present ideas to the others’ … we started with Alan recording wild drumming, lots of it, with some organized time signatures, and some free-form playing. Then Scott, our producer, did some compiling… making a ‘best of’ from all the material. Next in, I pretty much improvised to that playing, but many times, even layering multiple bass and Stick parts – but trying not to organize the structure too much, better to keep its wildness and jam energy. Then back to Scott compiling my many parts, and David had a week of playing to it all.

Geeks of Doom: You were one of the first professional musicians to play the Chapman Stick. Could you explain what it is and what drew you to it?

Tony Levin: I was drawn to its unusual sound in the bass end — very percussive, of course, with hammer-on technique. But also, with its unique pickup, there was a clarity and power in the low end, especially on low notes, that let me devise parts quite differently than on the usual bass. Then there’s the tuning – with the strings in 5ths, and many of them, I can do big jumps and chords way above the low notes, that aren’t what you usually find on a bass. Through the years I picked up more of the guitar side of the Stick (there are 12 strings, 6 of them separate guitar output) and now, in the Stick Men group, and much of my writing, I’m using the guitar side too.

Geeks of Doom: You created the ingenious method of playing bass named “funk fingers”. Could you explain what “funk fingers” is and where the name came from?

Tony Levin Chapman StickTony Levin: Making Peter Gabriel’s So album, on one song named “Big Time,” I had the drummer, Jerry Marotta, drum on the bass strings, while I fingered the notes. Later, playing live, I was struggling to play that part with a drum stick in my right hand. One day Peter, seeing me, suggested attaching drum sticks to my fingers hence (after quite a bit of experimenting) I began to use cut-off drumsticks with elastic fastening devices, to play bass parts when I deem that a very percussive sound will be the right thing. After a year or two I named them Funk Fingers, and sold some on my website for a time. The manufacturing part of that wasn’t what I want to be doing, so I’m happy now just to have my few sets to use.

Geeks of Doom: You’re about to go on a Stick Men group tour in America and Canada – do you enjoy touring?

Tony Levin: As mentioned on the first answer, I do love it. And this is a considerable tour for us — 6 weeks in a van, touring the U.S. and Canada.

Geeks of Doom: In your years in music you must have played most places in the world. Where are your favourite places to play? Do you notice a difference in crowd reactions in different countries or areas?

Tony Levin: Crowd reactions are different in various places, to be sure. There’s no pattern to it, but big differences. And the reception to progressive music is varied too. If I had to choose a favorite place to tour it would be Italy — a combination of great people, great food of course, and a receptive attitude for new music and the kind of rock I like to play.

Geeks of Doom: Most people will know you as the bass player of King Crimson. How did you come to join them? What were the reasons behind you leaving and why did you go back?

Tony Levin: I was asked to join the band back in 1980, and have been very influenced and inspired through my years in the band. I never left the band – there were some tours I couldn’t do, and in the 2002 era, Robert (Fripp, the leader of the band) felt that since I couldn’t make the start of rehearsing and recording because I was out on another tour, it would make sense to have Trey Gunn play the bass parts, and I was “the 5th man”… still sort of a band member, but not along for that segment. Not too long after, I was back doing some playing with the band. Now, Robert doesn’t feel it’s the right time to do any recording or touring, but I’m hoping there will be a time that we’ll put Crimson on the front burner again. That’d be great fun.

Geeks of Doom: Apparently you were one of the first bloggers; you were posting your tour diaries online way before it became popular. Is this true that you were one of the first? What made you decide to post them online?

Tony Levin: I started my website in 1994, first as a way to sell my solo CDs. I soon recognized that people liked seeing my diaries from the road, so I featured more of them (the word ‘blog’ and ‘weblog’ only were coined a few years afterward). In the ‘90s, putting my road photos up online was tough – I’d have to have the film developed every few days on the road (remember film?) and then mail the photos to my web master, who would scan them, and put them up in a tiny format (maybe 250 pixels wide – because some people had very small screens then). So I jumped on digital photography when I could, and it’s become pretty easy to put diaries up while on the road, including, of course, photos. I especially love using photos of the audience, so web visitors can see how they look to us on stage. It’s pretty inspiring.

Geeks of Doom: You have played bass with or for just about every musician I have ever heard of! What albums or tours are you most pleased with? Is there anyone you would like to work with that you have not yet?

Tony Levin: I have been very lucky to play with some great artists, and also quite a few great instrumentalists. I don’t spend my time looking back to think what I’m most pleased about or which albums I like better than others. Like a lot of musicians, I’m pretty much in forward motion – enveloped in what I’m doing now, and giving a little thought, in spare moments, to projects that are coming up. Anyone I’d like to work with? Yeah, Jimi Hendrix. Can you arrange it?

Geeks of Doom: What do you have planned for 2012?

Tony Levin: Lots of possibilities for the year, but none are confirmed yet, so I’ll just let it come together when it does.

Levin Torn White is available now.

  • The Chapman Stick is a no-easy instrument to play on, considering its diverse structure and strings. Mastering the Stick can really give the player the right to excellently play in a band. Tony Levin is a phenomenon. Thanks for the
    inspiration!

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