We sit down with Tony Levin just before his rehearsals for the upcoming “Music Is Our Friend” tour. King Crimson hasn’t been together for three years and surprisingly for myself – Tony Levin is still in the process of preparing for it. I think about “Discipline”, “Beat” and “Three Of A Perfect” pair.
Levin had been known long before King Crimson, but joining King Crimson, he started his experiments with instrumentation and approach – following Robert Fripp’s desire to get back from any old standards. Tony Levin was the perfect addition. An artist who has always been beyond any standards – with solo-creativity or numerous collaborative projects.
Boston Hassle caught up with Tony Levin, discussing preparation for the current King Crimson tour and Stick Man, writing solo-material and exploring the depths of The Chapman Stick, getting back to Liquid Tension Experiment, lyrics and Discipline.
I was informed that the next week you’d start your rehearsals for the upcoming “Music is Our Friend” tour. What’s your rehearsals usually like ?
Good question! The reasons I’ve been late today is because I’ve been practicing and packing. I’m leaving in two days for rehearsal. We go to Tampa for eight-days of King Crimson’s rehearsals. First of all, let me say, we rehearse a lot. This year, because of other difficulties for a rock-band, we rehearse the great deal. Because, we like to begin the tour up to speed and play difficult material really correctly.
Most bands to a warm-up show where you’re breaking in with the new material. We do warm-up rehearsals and we’re ready to go from the first show on. The band is seven people. Now, we have three drummers [so] it’s very noisy when everybody’s practicing. Three drummers and a lot of strategies for playing a piece. They don’t just bang around. But everybody’s warming up and practicing (it can be very noisy.)
King Crimson’s rehearsals almost always start at ten in the morning and end at 6 p.m. There’s Robert Fripp’s way he likes to do things. There could be exceptions, but we know we’re gonna be free for dinner. And we’re there early! If we’re gonna practice alone – we practice before then. And then after, maybe back at the hotel.
We take some breaks, because it’s very hard work. I mean, hard work – not physically of course, but mentally– because, King Crimson’s material is very complex. It takes a lot of concentration. This year, it’s gonna be especially challenging because we haven’t played together since December 2019.
I don’t remember the pieces as well as I used to. I have to repeat them a lot. Like I said, they’re complex in a way if you forget a little bit or a few notes it can be a disaster for the band on stage. It’s important to really have it under your fingers and being able to really play it.
When the current incarnation of King Crimson was formed, the drummers got the task to re-invent rock-drumming. As a bass-player and a member of the rhythm-group you still need to feel the connection with the drummers. Is it more difficult or easier when you have two or three drummers to work with ?
That’s a very good question! You’re right that Robert said to the drummers: “Re-invent rock-drumming!”. When first presented with the idea of three drummers, I took a deep breath. I knew it’s gonna be a big challenge for the bass-player. It’s gonna be different than it was before. But my history in King Crimson is this: when Robert suggests something that’s very unusual, that’s maybe nobody’s done before – even if it seems like a crazy idea to me, it worth embracing the idea. Every time it’s gonna work in the way I can’t foresee.
For instance, in the 1990s, he invited Trey Gunn – a wonderful Stick-player to join the band. I play the Chapman Stick also. You had two guys playing the same instruments, both of which can be guitar and bass. It meant a lot of work for the two of us, to find the strategy or way of not been stepping on each other or to have a musically worthwhile, very special.
As always – it was a great idea, it was a very King Crimson and the same is with the idea of three drummers. At first, I thought there would be a lot of clattering and I would have to change my sound to find the way to fit in with the law-power when there’s gonna be three drummers. But the reality is different.
It was challenging, still challenging and interesting, musically, but in the way I thought, because three drummers divide strategies and ways to play each section of each piece in different ways. But always with no flaming. What we call “flaming” of bass-drum – there’s never two of them flaming the bass-drum at the same time. The overall product of the drums is in fact very clear and clean. In fact, these are reasons for me to play maybe a little busier than I used to play back with two drummers in the 1990s, and when it was one drummer in 1980s.
I can’t say that it’s always the rule but the reason we practice so much especially, at the beginning of any incarnation [we] work out the best strategies and the ways musically it’s gonna work best. We try a lot of ideas that’s not gonna work and we settle one or two. Over a lot of weeks and months of rehearsing, I found that I can tail my bass-sound a little bit to work with these drums. I change it a little bit, but I found that I could play a little busier than I used to, in the band. As usual, I found a very creative and a very challenging way to play. And that’s what King Crimson is. It’s very gratifying, but also always challenging. It’s never easy with King Crimson and that’s partially why I treasure my years in the band.
By the time you joined King Crimson, you already got the massive background being a collaborator sideman and working with lots of artists. What was this transition like for you and how much the approach you’ve taken affected the sound on “Discipline?”
It did affect me a lot. It was a learning experience to join what became King Crimson in 1981. I had played in a lot of situations, like you said. Most notably with Peter Gabriel. I had played with Robert Fripp, then Peter Gabriel’s man on tour, and on record. So I played progressive rock, but I hadn’t played with Bill Bruford and Adrian Belew, who are amazing artists in their own right, at playing very different than anybody else plays their instrument.
It was a learning experience. Again, we rehearsed a lot in those days also. In 1981, to be rehearsing with three players who each have a unique sound and unique approach to their music together we were writing unique new music. I definitely began learning what it is they do, from them. They were very patient with me. Understanding. And I fit in pretty well with them. It helped that I’d played some unusual instruments – like The Chapman Stick. That really lent itself to this unusual music we were making in the Discipline-era of King Crimson. And…You know, it’s funny.
After all these years, the players have changed but I’m still learning from the other players, from the great musicians in King Crimson. Even though I know quite a bit about the bass and maybe I sometimes like to think I know it all, when I hear other players who are really good. When I hear guitar-players in King Crimson, the horn-player, and the drummers, it challenges me to up my game– to become more creative myself at bass. And to find other avenues to do things a little different then I had been doing them. That’s sort of definition of progress in music to me. You keep changing within the musical contact. You keep changing and not just play what you used to play 20 years ago.
Commenting on those years, you said that Robert refused to play any of Crimson’s old material and you tried to find the new language of things. What was the process like back then and what did you get into as a result of this search ?
Well, the history of King Crimson is long, longer than my time in it. The band started in the 60s and to be Robert Fripp’s vision determines where it goes, but he doesn’t really dictate what that vision does. What he does in my opinion – he chooses the right players to implement the vision. Then he directs somebody, lets it go where those players take it. That’s definitely was the case in 1981 with Discipline-era.
As I said before, we were doing things we hadn’t done before and maybe other bands hadn’t done before. In each incarnation we take 5 or 10-years off and start working again. As it happened in 1986 to 1994. When that happens, we work very hard to not pick-up where we left off and not to do what we were doing before. Maybe something who listens to the band thinks that we were doing that. We were trying very hard not to do that. To keep on creative force going forward. I think in the 80s, Robert thought it would be good to not do any King Crimson classic material. And have all new material. I guess some people were unhappy with that, but that’s the way the band was. It was an unusual approach. Over the years it has changed. Now we do almost all King Crimson classic material. We had it in our fingertips – 40 or 50 pieces of King Crimson compositions through the years– which means a lot of effort on our part to learn them so they’d fit with our band.
With three drummers and a different lineup, we’ve done that. On any show, we do that in the morning. Robert decides which of those 40 of 50 pieces we’d do that night depending on what we’d played last time in the last city, what we’d played the night before. He’s the one who decides that. That’s a very different approach for the same band. In Discipline-era, we played only new music and not historical King Crimson music.
It was Discipline, where you first started using The Stick. What drove you to step away from traditional bass, per-se?
Thank you! I used Chapman Stick on some of the material on that album. I had been playing it a little bit on albums before that, including with Peter Gabriel. What first attracted me to the instrument – it’s played with a different technique. It has the same bass-notes as my bass-guitar. It also has guitar strings and guitar-chords. What attracted me – it has a different sound than the bass and a different technique. You play it by hammer on touch-guitar, it’s tuned differently.
In a progressive-rock context, all of those things help me to come up with different ideas, I’d come up with the same old 4-strings or the same old 5-strings I’ve been playing since I was a child. I tried to come up with different ideas in my mind. And implement them on bass. But being honest with myself, I have to say that having bass tuned differently helps me to do that. It helps me!
I hear the piece and instead of my fingers going to the usual approach they’d have done in the years before. Everything is different with the Chapman Stick. And that’s particularly helped me. Back in Discipline album, we did the piece called “Elephant Talk.” That Stick part particularly laid well in the instrument. I think, looking back historically, a lot of guitar-players or bass-players heard that piece and got attracted to the instrument. They got the instrument becoming Stick-players and then did things I can’t do on The Stick.
There are great players doing amazing things on the Stick. Let me add: they’re amazing young bass-players doing amazing things I can’t do on the bass, also! I’m not embarrassed with what I do on the Stick or what I do on the bass. It’s an interesting feeling to be lucky to be a part of the people who got the instrument when it was pretty new in the late 70s, when I got it in 76 and influence some of the players who then took an instrument in different places through the years.
One of the unique qualities of The Chapman Stick is the fact that it unites both guitar and bass sounds. It works as an advantage in trio like Stuck Man. But when you’re working with a big-band – like Crimson of THRAK-era, doesn’t it create a conflict ? Especially, you said in terms of your work with Trey Gunn.
Good question! It changes through the years. I don’t look at it as a conflict. I don’t want to get too deep into the thing but the music wants good musicians, not only good players, but the players who play musically when the music says to me what needs to be done. It’s easy to become too clattered in a bad way, if you have two instruments right at the same range. If I’d play right at the top of the Stick with the guitar players that would make three instruments in the same range playing essentially the same notes.
In the Discipline-era, with interplaying guitars that worked on some of the pieces. And I played at the top of The Stick on some pieces. Since then, I played quite a bit less in King Crimson and not on any or much of the new material.
Pretty much I stay with the low end of the Stick, which means six strings that don’t get played. But that’s okay! If I did play them, it would clutter the music up or take it into direction it shouldn’t go. Back when there was Trey Gunn and I in the 90s, we had to work pretty hard. I know individual parts and it took a lot of time for each one to read out what was conflicting between the two of them.
We developed some patters where we’d play an octave – he’d gravitate to the top of the stick and me to the bottom. You make your plans. The worthwhile thing I have to say about it is the music dictates it all, because it wants to be done with the quality that helps the composition along.
Prior to our interview, I was listening to the Stick Men show – Italy, 2009. I couldn’t help but notice that compositionally it’s different to what you’re doing as a band-member and a collaborator, since you’re mostly exploring compositional structures on a textural level. When have you started gravitating towards these tendencies?
It began when I did a solo-album called “Stick Man” back in early 2000s. Which was solo-compositions but featured some of the compositions on the Stick where I played more than one part. I liked the way the album came out, I wanted to play it live but I couldn’t, of course. I had the one Stick! So I got the idea: “What if it’s a really small band? A trio. We’d really challenge ourselves having two Stick-players with Pat Mastelotto on drums…” – one of the drummers in King Crimson, who’d also played on that album – “Stick Man.” He plays both acoustic and electronic drums.
In a way, with three players, we were like six players but in a good way! We could have a unique sound and approach. In this sense, Stick Men has been a very successful band and tours all the time. When King Crimson is free and Pat and I are free. We toured all over the world many times. It’s very musical, satisfying and challenging. There are only three of us to fill up a lot of space. Also, it’s changed compositionally – we don’t stop playing those pieces I wrote. The other players compose music. In particular Markus Reuter, the touch-guitar player living in Berlin. He’s one of our members. His writing is very different from mine. We like to chuck the positions in comparison with my composition and his and we also each, of course have a big input to the other persons’ composition.
To me, [Stick Men] it’s a valid band, because it has its own approach, its own sound. I made the rule in the beginning that I’m only gonna play The Chapman Stick in that band. I’m not gonna bring bass along or a tuba or things like that. We have our sound, our approach and its progressive rock. Something like King Crimson, but the music is different. It comes out differently. It’s a progressive rock-band, for sure. Unlike King Crimson [where] we like to keep changing ourselves and come up with the new music to push ourselves to a new territory.
One of the things that unites Stick Men and King Crimson is your improvisation sets, but how different are your approaches to improvisation in Stick Man compared to King Crimson ?
Let’s start with King Crimson. We improvise some within pieces. There are sections you can hear when you listen to where there are no rules and we’re just playing along. Usually, that gravitates to one or two soloists playing with other people, playing behind. As often happens in bands. That’s a part of some of our pieces we do in King Crimson and within some compositions, there’s a room for an improvisation. Certainly, as a bass-player, I can improvise my bass-part almost every-time. I can do it within the way I perform or change it a little bit or a lot of it. I’m free to do that, hopefully, in a musical way.
Stick Men, being a much smaller band and more flexible, we can do kind of improvisation as the whole piece where there are no rules at all. In every concert we’ll do one or two or even three pieces where we don’t know what’s gonna happen at all. We might do a heavy-rock thing or we might not. I might solo, or Marcus might solo, or none of us might solo.
There’s room for this completely free improvisation that’s really gratifying to do when all the players are good and when there’s room for everybody. With King Crimson, maybe seven years ago, when we started this incarnation we did one piece that was kind of like that. With a little bit of conducting by Bill Rieflin, one of our members. In the middle, it was like that, but after a few times playing, it was a little unwieldy, so it was dropped out of our set. I don’t even remember the title of this piece. It was pretty wild doing it.
So, King Crimson doesn’t do any full pieces of complete improvisation, but there is plenty of improvisation within the structure of King Crimson pieces. With Stick Men, we take it step further doing a number of pieces each show. We’ve done the whole album. I can’t remember the name! We’ve done an album or double album that was all improvised and then we play the pieces. There weren’t pieces, but somehow, some of them became pieces. Some pieces we do, we call “a piece” and it has a title now from that album.
When you think about it, that’s a pretty special thing about improvising. It might not lead to a great place or might somehow magically come to be something that’s almost a composition. You can listen to and learn and play it another time. It’s a good alchemy to think: Where does this piece come from? We don’t really know! But Stick Men is the piece that have a composition…By the way, the name of that album finally came to me! It’s called “Open.” We do a piece called “Open. Part 3”.
Unusual time-signatures and the general expressivity of Crimson’s music sometimes create a mixed feel. With compositions like “Neurotica” – and it’s quite a fragile balance. Between total chaos and something beautiful that could have happened out of this. What leads you in these cases?
Well, it’s interesting to bring the subject of mixed time-signatures and unusual ones which Crimson’s been doing since it started in the 60s. Some of the pieces we do in this incarnation are very complex and especially because of that we are relearning them. I haven’t been played them for a couple of years. Some of them, I have to write charts out again and it takes me days to write a chart. Even though I might not think of the time-signature while I’m playing it – it is complex in writing out the chart. Let me add that King Crimson started doing [it] in the 80s and has done consistently on some pieces ever since, [which is] to have different players in the band playing in intertwining parts that are not on the same time-signature.
That makes it a lot more complicated when guitar-players or maybe offset maybe 1/8 note from each other and let’s say for example they’d playing in 5 but their downbeat is different from each of them, I’m playing the Stick in 1/7 and the drummers are playing something again, very different. Those are very complex from my description. Even if you aren’t a musician you can say it’s complex! There’s no point in piece when you can go 1-2-3-4 and there’s a downbeat. All of our downbeats are different. It’s musically valid because the composition is good. And it’s very challenging to play live because we have found that if anybody messes up their part there’s no way to bring it all together.
We musicians who play live, we rehearse not only to get the piece right but to know what to do if the piece goes wrong– how to bring it together. In those time pieces, sometimes there’s no way to bring it together. You just have to keep on playing and hope that it magically would come together and that has happened. We have had times when we almost had to stop on stage, but I have to say that in my memory it never got so bad! The train has never got so far off the rails then we had to actually stop and start again!
Jazz and classical music has been the foundations of your style of play. At the same time, your creativity has always been different. I always compared your early works like “Waters Of Eden” and “Pieces Of the Sun” to those like “Resonator” where you changed your focus from heavy orchestrations to something more minimal. What pushed you to do this?
Well, thank you for doing all that homework! That period, I don’t remember the year. I was playing a lot of progressive-rock and hard-rock and enjoying it. When I had an opportunity to do the solo-album I thought “I’m missing the kind of music I played with Peter Gabriel and had played a lot before…” I was playing it a lot before but wasn’t playing in those few years.
I thought, “I’m gonna take out some of my compositions that are not-so-hard-edged.” Even though it wasn’t particularly what the record-label wanted, it wasn’t what fans of mine wanted. Sometimes, you just have to do what your heart says. So, I did a few years of that. I put together the band. I called it “Tony Levin Band” We toured.We played a lot of Peter Gabriel material, because I had a lot of Peter Gabriel band alumni in the band. It was much more gentle then King Crimson and Stick Men were to become after that and before that.
I felt very good about that material. Felt like I got lucky about the composition. Usually, I don’t go and listen to my older albums at all. Sometimes for one reason or another, I hear the track and think “Oh, I’m very pleased with that! I like the work I did on that!” Overall, looking back, I’m glad I made the choice to break from harder-edged material and get it recorded. It’s out there for the world. Of course, I was glad to go back to harder-edged material in my own albums and on Stick Man album and in Stick Men where I write half of the material. I’m very happy to be in a hard edge-era again.
There are quite a few models of songwriting you follow. It may be percussive, like with “Places To Go” or quite emotional and dark like some of Stick Men material. Does the rhythmics of words, phrases and sentences written play an important role for you while writing?
Yes. I’m not primarily a vocalist or a songwriter with lyrics. I’m primarily an instrumental writer. But when I do, like every writer, I have journals I write while I’m on the road. They are full of poetry and ideas. Sometimes with Stick Men, I’ve taken a poem I wrote that seemed to be appropriate for our music and then write music behind it. I don’t sing to Marcus, I speak it. Once in a while, I do that. I think the important thing to me is to be creative with my writing, whether I release it or not. By writing I mean writings of lyrics, poetry and prose. But to be creative with it. And when it seems appropriate to bring it to Stick Men and bring it to my solo work – then I will. If it seems inappropriate, for one reason or another, I keep it for myself. I think that’s part of my creative process that I’ve been working so far over these years.
This April you released the third Liquid Tension Experiment – your first release in more than 20 years. What was it like to get back to work with John, Jordan and Mike after such a pause and the logical development of your skills?
The first thing, when it happened – last June 2020, I was emailed by Mike Portnoy. I think it was Jordan’s idea. What if we’d got together and wrote another album and recorded it. Just to get together in a room for two weeks and very quickly make up compositions and record them.
As we were making them up, it was a very fast process for a rock-band doing an album. Of course, it was problematic doing it. Getting together. We decided to bite the bullet and go through the logistical troubles. Over the period of three weeks, we were in the studio on Long Island, staying in hotels. We did it safely. The first surprise was that it was just like it was 20 years ago as soon as we were together. In the 90s, we were together in another context. Since then, we have played together. We’re friends, but we hadn’t played as that band. Immediately, we started writing the material. We come up with one idea and another, one added to another and three-minute idea became eight-minute idea and became twelve-minute composition.
Within days, we had many good pieces and within two weeks we had more than an album of Liquid Tension compositions, which is very specific to that band and that’s what we play! We might do other playing in the context, but when we get together for some reason, it’s always– I don’t know the words to describe it – it is certainly fast, certainly technical speed-metal playing, but very progressive and with grandiose big themes that hopefully let you go home with a melody in your head being unable to get it out of your head! That’s a part of our music I really like. When we’re lucky and we’re doing really right – we do very good rock-themes. It’s all instrumental!
There were some tours of Stick Man when you did some of the Crimson material. What it was like to you to overthink those pieces in more minimal context?
Very interesting! Two of us are in King Crimson and many of our fans in the clubs we play are the fans who come to the theaters and bigger places King Crimson plays, we know that the fans know it and even for us doing some of King Crimson pieces mixed with mostly our own pieces and Markus Reuter, I mentioned, who’s fantastic touch-guitar player, it’s an interesting situation.
I play the same piece and I’m just a player with five other people doing a melodic part and then we go with King Crimson and it’s up to Markus to play that other stuff. He does that amazingly well. But also, sometimes I will unleash the top side of the stick and help him out and play twice as much as I would play for the same piece.
So, both for Pat and myself, it gets a little complex keeping it straight when you play it one way for the 90 shows and suddenly you’re on your first show. With different band and you have to play different parts. Because, the compositions are the same – it’s not that hard. And It’s safe to say that Marcus is doing heavy-lifting, not me. He’s covering it and making it feel and sound like full King Crimson.
Interesting thing about compositions – they’re gratifying for me to play as one of seven players and for me to take over a lot of it and play as three players. Either way is gratifying and the reason for that is they’re very good compositions.
Photo credits: Scarlet Page