Tony Levin is perhaps best known for his work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson but he has appeared on over 500 albums. He has worked with Lou Reed and our own Tim Finn; with James Taylor and Carly Simon. He even appears in Paul Simon’s cult film, One Trick Pony.
Over a series of emails I asked Levin some questions ahead of his 2010 visit to New Zealand for activities at this week’s G-TARanaki Festival. Levin wrote at length about his times with Crimson and Gabriel, told me that he considered Tim Finn “an amazing talent”, saying the one short tour he completed with Finn was a joy. “He’s a great guy to be with and great both in the studio and live, maybe even more of a talent in the live arena.” That’s not Levin’s only connection with New Zealand (and no, I didn’t ask if he had been to our Levin).
Tony has toured here with Peter Gabriel, “he had us go out on boats after our show; a few days of ocean fun!” He also visited New Zealand in a non-touring capacity for some time out after Australian shows (“I just wanted to check it out”).
When not playing music, Levin says it’s about “family mostly” and mentions that he updates his website (see here). Levin was one of the world’s first bloggers. He says he toured with a laptop early on and from there started the site and blog. He did it because he “likes technology” but found “the surprise benefit was seeing that the website removed some of the barrier that exists between artist/performer and audience. You’re there to ‘share’ but there has to be separation too at live shows”. Tony goes on to say that he used the site to show photos from backstage which were “really popular with fans”; with the ones of the audience showing them what a great experience it is for the performers on stage “looking out at that energy, letting it carry you forward”.
Levin says he is mostly a bass player, also using the Chapman Stick but not a guitarist. (“I have two Chapman Sticks, a number of electric upright basses and a cello, an electric piano…and a whole lot of basses!”)
He is “not a hero kind of guy”, when asked about musical influences, saying “I listened to the music my older brother Pete was playing – jazz and classical. Oscar Pettiford was one of my favourites. I went into classical for my career and I did admire the great bass players in it. I suppose when I first heard Pavarotti, a bit before his great fame, I treasured being in the inside group who knew how great he was.”
From there it has been to rock, pop and prog – to playing instrumental music and backing singers. Levin says he would have loved to work with Jimi Hendrix but since you can’t go back he hopes he might work with Carla Kihlstedt.
Levin tells me it is “hard to have enough work no matter what level of musician you are”. He uses the down time between projects to write his music and plan tours with his band. He’s also released a book called Beyond the Bass Clef, “a mix of anecdotes and essays with some instruction”. He has also released two photo books, Road Photos and Crimson Chronicles. He’s now midway through a volume of poetry but jokes “at this pace it’ll be the 22nd century before I release that!” (See here for a clip of The Tony Levin Band.)
Tony told me he’s not usually a fan of the clinic/lecture/master-class circuit but considers the G-TARanaki Festival to be “very special” and with travelling so far he wants to fit in as many things as he can. He’s hopeful that he’ll have some time to look around on his first visit to New Plymouth.
Levin’s answering of my questions was so detailed and thoughtful I felt like I was in the room with him chatting, or at least, as is the usual case with interviews in this part of the world, having an actual phone conversation with him. So I will leave a Q&A portion to close this off.
Among your best known work is that with Peter Gabriel. Certainly it’s a working relationship of great longevity. What do you like about Peter’s work, about working with him? And what do you think he likes about working with you?
It has indeed been a long relationship with Peter – and a great one for me. As an artist, Peter has had extraordinary movement in style during his career. Recently I heard a show (a dramatic show) put together from his songs through the years. I was struck with how many styles are covered – many of them invented by Peter, later copied by other rock bands. So playing with Peter hasn’t been a static experience – always surprises, always looking for new ways to do things. I like to think that his innovative spirit has rubbed off on me a little as a player.
Personally, it’s been an even better experience. The public is aware how Peter has used his success to bring attention and aid to organisations that are trying to make a real difference in the world, and in human rights. Again, he’s been the inspiration for other rock artists using their notoriety to do the same. Well, Peter is also that kind of person in a smaller context. The band has always been like a family – treated equally and because of Peter we have a lot of fun and adventure on the road; far from the shows only-experience that is usually what you have on tour.
As a session player you are perhaps asked to play on albums by artists you are, at first, unfamiliar with. Perhaps you don’t like their material. Are there sessions you have walked away from because of this? Can you find something ‘good’ in the work of anyone you’ve played with? What’s your philosophy/approach to being a supporting player? And how has that changed over the years?
That’s a very good question. To start at the end, it has changed through the years. Now I am successful enough (that is to say I generally have enough work) I can listen to the music involved and decide if I want to be part of the project. I listen not only to whether it’s good, but to whether I feel I can contribute something to the music. So it might be very good music in a genre I don’t do well, or one that doesn’t require creative bass parts – in which case hopefully I’ll pass it by.
Yes, alas, I’ve been on some recording sessions where the music wasn’t good. Not so many, really, considering how many I’ve done. It’s a very awkward situation because to do a recording well you focus on the positive of what will make the piece better. Sometimes it’s only later when you look up, figuratively, that you hear: hey, we’ve done what we can to improve this, but it’s still junk! Anyway, different producers deal with that in different ways. For myself I prefer to focus on and appreciate how many great musical situations I’ve been lucky to be a part of. And how much I’ve been able to learn from the other players.
King Crimson is another musical project you’ve had some longevity with and people know your name from working as part of the band. How was the double-trio lineup to play with live and record?
The quartet from the 1980s was a great challenge and a great experience for me. I learned a great deal from the other three players; each a master in his own right. Then the “double trio” in the 1990s presented new challenges. Maybe the end result wasn’t as special, but I think we did an honourable job of continuing to break the mould, to try to find new ways to play progressive rock – that is to be a truly progressive band. That means taking risks musically, and some of your attempts will come out badly. We joked a lot about the musical horrors we made ourselves go through to try to come out on the other side with valid new music.
So that band also had a big influence on my approach for future music. I try to not get stuck in what I’ve done before, try not to worry about what styles are at the present time; try to keep creating valid music that’s different than what I did the last time. Even if I don’t always succeed, that seems a good basis for making your music. [Click here to see the ‘double trio’ in action.]
Can you describe your attraction/endorsement of the Chapman Stick?
As a bassist looking for different textures it gave me a lot to work with. And the unusual tuning helped me to come up with different, distinctive bass parts. But then, years later, I dug further into writing material on the instrument, using both the bass and guitar sides and put a lot of work into getting a particular sound from the top side. So it was ideal for solo recording and then I formed a band, Stick Men, to feature that music and write more. [Here’s a clip of Tony playing the Chapman Stick.]
You’ve released records under your own name, with groups you’ve been a member of or created and as a session player working for others. In terms of recording, what’s the least preparation time you have had working on a session? Is there session work you are particularly proud of? And is there an album under your name that you had hoped would see a bigger audience?
I would have to spend days thinking back over years of work to correctly answer that but as for speed of sessions, I can say that some albums are recorded very quickly – maybe the rhythm section (bass, drums, guitar) in six hours for the whole album. Of course, some go for years! If it’s a group or project and you need to write the music in the studio, that’s different of course. But with Liquid Tension Experiment, I was amazed at how quickly the other players came up with ideas, and mastered difficult sections. So that writing and recording took only a bit over a week.
I can’t think of a particular album to be more proud of… I don’t go back and listen much; my focus seems to be more on the present and future. And as for my albums reaching a bigger audience, yes, that would be very nice but really you don’t write the music and release the album to meet a certain number of sales. You work hard to make something meaningful to yourself, then you let it loose in the world. Hopefully somebody will be moved in some way by that music or lyrics and then it’s more than worth it. [Click here for a track from the Liquid Tension Experiment reunion featuring Levin with Jordan Rudess and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy.]
Peter Gabriel’s shows are theatrical. It seems the whole band gets a chance to play a character of sorts. Do you enjoy being able to move about on stage, to extend the role of the bass-player?
I love the dramatic side of Peter’s show and try to jump into that aspect in any band where there’s a chance. [Here’s a clip of Tony Levin on stage with Peter Gabriel].
What was the most difficult pattern or part you have been asked to replicate?
That’s easy: everything that Liquid Tension Experiment played was the hardest part/s for me to learn and then to replicate. For the last tour we did I practised for about six months. [See here for another Liquid Tenson Experiment clip.]
A lot of session players never make it out of the studio. A lot of touring musicians rarely make it into the studio. You have managed both. Regularly. How do you divide your time? Do you have a preference for either playing live or on a record? Is it a case of taking work because work is there?
Through the years I’ve found that I prefer live playing to recording. I still do lots of recording – but I treasure the live shows. Something about reaching people, connecting, all around the world has captured me as very precious.