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Progressive Rock Interviews

Tony Levin

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Tony Levin From 1998
Audio of this interview is available in our members area.
MSJ: How would you describe Papa Bear Records, and what would you like to say about Bruford Levin Upper Extremities?
Tony Levin:It`s my own company, and like any musician who starts a company, it`s under-resourced. It`s very small, and I would say my objective with my company was to put out my own music the way I want to. I could, to some extent, do that on a small label that`s not my own, but I`m so interested in graphic arts, and my photography and in painting that I just didn`t want to put myself in a position of going to a company and asking them to do something that I know historically they don`t really love to do--spend more money on a package. Also, musically, I could probably find a company that could live with my music, but there is almost always an inevitable, subtle pressure, eventually, to do the kind of music that the audience wants, or more specifically, that the record company thinks their audience wants. Just for this small, little aspect of the musical world (my music and the way I`d like to put it out), I just thought I don`t really need to do that. I can start my own company and not think at all about who`s gonna buy this record. I`ll just think about what I, and the musicians that I really like and that I`m playing with, what we want to do, musically. And then we`ll put it out and if hardly anyone gets it, that`s fine. I`m not looking at it to earn my living. I`ll even spend some of the resources from a tour on putting out a record the way I want to, it`s just artistically worth it.

The first record I did, World Diary, I recorded around the world in hotels and in people`s houses, mostly duets and trios, with interesting musicians around the world that I had just wanted to play with. I didn`t have the resources to bring them to a studio in America, and anyway, I felt like with that one (as I hoped for), I captured something very special just musically, really musical communication that happened among me and the other guys. And the studio wasn`t such an important thing in it.

Then my second offering from Papa Bear Records was this record called From the Caves of the Iron Mountain, which I recorded in a cave near Woodstock. The idea came about just when I heard about that cave. I thought "Wow, I wonder if anyone has made a record in there." Of course, they hadn`t. Of course, once again, I didn`t bring in a multitrack and do a number of takes. It wasn`t quite live, but it was a way musicians who are players for their whole life want it to be. You want to run it down a few times and get it right, but you don`t want to play it to death, trying to get perfection. Something changes when you have the ability to do overdubs, and fix mistakes, and play to a click and things like that. I try to get away from that. So many albums I do have that, that`s fine, but with my stuff, I just try really to capture the magic that the players can do. If I do my job right, and I have the right players, and present them with the right kind of music, it`s gonna happen. I feel like, not only has that happened so far, but I feel like the peak of my little career (as a guy putting together really good musicians) has been this Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, where I knew the players very well. I even dared to go into the studio, and risk doing a couple takes in the studio. I felt like I knew how to capture what we are all about musically. I feel like we succeeded.

I wanted to get out of the studio a little bit, so I recorded bits of the album in and around Woodstock, where I live. For instance, there is a band dinner where we`re kind of playing and drumming on the table and stuff like that that intercuts with the piece. I`ve know Bill for so long and so well, I just thought this it`s gonna be great when he does this. I have this old derelict piano in my garage; it has no keyboard anymore. It`s just the strings and the soundboard, leaning against the wall. So if you can picture the two of us in there, with him drumming, crazily drumming on it (with car keys, or whatever is within reach), and I`m crouched down on the floor with microphones in my ears, recording it binaurally, while the rust from the strings is falling on my head. We ended up using those little bits of Bill`s piano drumming, not only within pieces, but they musically were so nice that I thought that they could stand alone. So they`re little short thirty second interludes between some of the pieces.

There is more to it than just the music we played. I wanted to get a feel of us and what we`re about, and the area. I tried to put that into the music. Whether people can hear that when they hear it or not really doesn`t matter anymore.

As usual, I was pretty scrupulous with my notes. I really like having two levels of notes in the CD. I love having it kind of sparse, I like having it so that you can just pick it up and see what the song titles are and then listen it to it. I hate seeing other CD`s where people do copious thanks. However, I also like the more in-depth insights that the fan didn`t have before. This is partly because I`m familiar with the King Crimson followers, and some of them (not all of them, but some of them) really want everything they can get about Robert Fripp, or about Bill Bruford. So, I like to just kind of throw in (usually in small print, but somewhere) extra stuff for those guys. I`ve taken different approaches on my three albums to that, and different shapes of the inner booklets.

This one I devoted a whole one side of the inner booklet to my painting, so that it could be really like a mini poster. On the other side, instead of just technical information (I`m getting a little tired of that), I asked Bill Bruford to write his comments about each song, then I wrote my comments about each composition really, not song. So you get the song title and all the technical information about what instruments were played on it. By the way, if you get a chance to read it, that alone is fascinating, because the way David Torn described what he played is as fascinating as his playing. So you see the song and the interesting instruments, some of which are unique instruments. Then you see my kind of technical comments about maybe where we recorded it, and how we came up with the idea, and Bill and I did this and that. Then you see Bill`s outlook, which totally shocked me. He`s always surprising me, with his drumming and he writes poetry. The guy`s a drummer, and I asked him to write his notes about the songs, and they`re poetry. I thought that was great and really funny. Again, the devoted followers of King Crimson will get a big kick out of that, that Bill, who plays in this kind of multiple cross rhythm, very scientific way sometimes, you ask him about the piece and he`s talking about climbing up a hill and reaching the top. I paint that way, but I don`t even talk that way. Talking about the piece, I`m talking about what I did on the piece. Especially if instrument was made for me, and it`s something to particularly mention. I tried to give the person who ends up with this package more than just some music to listen to, and kind of two layers of ways they can get into what information is in the package.

Here`s what I feel good about about the CD. I`m not surprised that the guys played well, and that our composition was pretty good. I`m pleased that the concept came through. I really wanted it to have a feel of these musicians and what we`re about. I wanted it to feel not scattered. For that reason I didn`t ask everyone to bring in a lot of ideas and kind of go through the process of trying out different directions. I tried to keep the direction (as much as I could) fairly in one direction. I feel like I was successful with that. To me, that gives the music a platform where you can just hear the players, such good players. I had a lot of fun doing it. I enjoy listening to it, still, that`s good, but I had fun doing it. With Bill I always have fun, whatever I do with Bill Bruford. Needless to say, what I`m really excited about it, is going on tour with it, because none of the pieces got so stale that we have to do them the same, so we don`t really know where it`s gonna go musically on the road. That`s gonna be really a pleasure.

I don`t envy anyone trying to describe the music, because it`s a trumpet in there and a guitar, so you almost want to start thinking in terms of jazz. I tried as hard as I could to avoid any jazz in this stuff, maybe just a little bit in the one piece "original sin", but I tried to avoid that because it`s just not a kind of playing I like to do. But when it`s a trumpet, and he`s got a mute in, my god it sounds like Miles. A good way (to describe it) is Crimson meets Miles. When I`m kind of in charge, and kind of giving guys direction about what to do, if I hear any of the chords, there are certain chords, a certain kind of approach to harmony that is a common thing to Jazz and to playing on the harmonies. I just don`t want to do that with my music. No problem with David Torn. Even though he came from being a jazz player, he doesn`t really play harmonies that anyone else plays. He doesn`t ask me what the chord is. I can just tell him E and he doesn`t even care about the E. He`s almost approaching it from he gets noises going or sounds, it`s almost beyond harmony. I don`t know really how he thinks about it. Anyway, Bill, on the other hand is completely different. Bill can either play rock or jazz. On his own projects, he likes to play jazz. Which is different than me, and I really needed to kind of discuss a lot of stuff with him, especially if he`d bring in a composition he wrote on keyboards that sounded jazzy to me. I`d say, "this is not right for this project, this band." I was afraid of it starting to get a way that I`m not comfortable with. However, I like that description of Crimson and Jazz, because for those who know Crimson, it`s not like saying rock meets jazz. Crimson means like whatever the players wanna play at that moment, or something like that, I don`t know what Crimson means.

Chris has a simplicity of his playing, he`s very melodic guy. He writes songs a lot. He`s quite a successful songwriter. His albums are just songs played on the trumpet, but he also has kind of a coolness to his playing, which is a very un-Crimson thing, and it`s a very Miles thing. Like many musicians, Chris can do many things. I played with him enough that I knew that he could, aside from what he does on his own albums, step in to being with Bill Bruford and David Torn and not be out of place. That`s why he was the right guy for me for this.
MSJ: The artwork to the album is very unique and dramatic, is it available as a print?
You can buy the Bruford Levin Upper Extremities poster, which is a much bigger version of the mini poster in the album booklet.
MSJ: In the credits to the CD, there is a reference to "big vile winged things", what is that?
I don`t think it`s an instrument he (David Torn) took out. I think it`s a sound that he regularly uses that he has named that. His sounds are not buttons that you push on a pedal you buy. His are a wild combination of stuff that he has. You really can`t tell with his playing whether he`s even playing a guitar or screaming into a microphone. You can`t tell what it is. I think he might have played juice harp on some stuff that sound like a guitar. It`s so uniquely his sound. I love his playing, and I love his comments about what they are.
MSJ: Do you personally have a favorite song on Bruford Levin Upper Extremities?
There is a lot that I like, I`ll give you the milestones. The first piece, Cerulean Sea, works very well for me in two ways. Bill`s just full of surprises as a drummer. He`s the one guy you never know what he`s gonna play. I know that, so I thought, what if I just play 16th notes on the bass, in a repetitive way, and do what the drummer would do. What`ll he do? Nobody knows, so I`ll do that, and I`ll sing completely a drone (one note) through the whole piece, and then I`ll let David Torn do his undescribable loop things. What Bill did, it surprised even me (I didn`t know he could get that far out). He started hardly playing at all, and by the end it`s almost like a drum solo to me. He played every counter rhythm possible without ever playing the same rhythm the same way. It`s just beautiful, and I still laugh and it just gives me joy when I hear it. So that was a success in that way. I also feel like it`s a very evocative piece of a mood, which is exactly what I was going for, and indeed my plan was to do paintings to these pieces. That`s why a lot of them are named after colors and Cerulean Sea was a pleasure to play it and paint with a lot of cerulean paint. It was just a joy. So it was successful in that I achieved A mood.

Another piece I`m particularly fond of, from a personal point of view is Fin de Siecle where I took over on the stick more than I usually do. I`m kind of noted for playing the stick, but really usually I play the bass end of the stick. The stick is a guitar and a bass. When I play the guitar side in King Crimson, of course, I`m pretty much buried under the other great guitar players in the band, and that`s as it should be. Then if I play the stick with Peter Gabriel, for instance, I only play the bass side. However, I do play the top part, so this is kind of the first I`ve stepped out into a kind of heavier rock style of playing the top of the stick. I felt I was pretty successful with that. It`s also one of the first stick solos I ever took, maybe THE first, I don`t really know. So, for me, that was a personal pleasure. I don`t think I can pick a favorite piece, but it would be Cerulean Sea, if I had to pick one.

It`s a pleasure to be able to paint to my own music. I would loop it. It was before the album was done, but we had recorded it. I would take the mix, and I would loop one piece, and paint all day to one piece. A few of them became the outer and inner artwork for the CD. It was also a pleasure then to be able to put it out with the CD. To let other people see.
MSJ: Why is this such a limited tour?
The nature of that, unfortunately, is that when you get really good and in demand players, (I should know this, I am one of those players. I`m usually the hard guy to get). In this case, I`m the one who wants to tour endlessly with this project. When you get in demand guys like Bill Bruford, you just can`t get them for very long, unless you book far ahead.
MSJ: What type of material are you going to do on this tour?
I know we`ll do pretty much the whole album. We won`t be able to do some of the quieter acoustic things, because David Torn can`t take all those acoustic guitars on the road. There`s a few pieces that we won`t be able to do. We will probably do some of the material from Cloud Above Mercury, this wonderful old record of David Torn`s, which had Bill Bruford and me on it. For lack of other material, we`ll probably do that. We will probably do a good deal of improvisation, and I mean totally improvisation where we don`t know what we`re gonna do. That`s the thing that Bill and I love to do. That`s the thing that David Torn almost exclusively does. It`s a safe bet that we`ll do some of that, and, in addition, I`m hoping that we`ll write a little bit of new material before the tour, at least one piece. For no reason other than something new. We`ll do something that nobody`s ever heard, but that`s a piece. That`s my prediction, but I know we will not do any King Crimson music. We won`t do any of Chris` music. Neither of those would be appropriate. I think it`s pretty important to me, and probably to some of the other guys, that we, even though there`s four of us, I wanna do a lot of breaking down into groups of two and three. It`s important to me, and I can predict that it won`t be a monolithic show, four guys playing. There will be a lot of just one guy.

Bill Bruford and I used to do a duo section with Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, unless Bill refuses to do it, I`d like to resurrect that. We won`t play the same music we used to do with Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe. We played it different every night. I didn`t even take the same instrument. I`d walk up to him with the stick sometimes, and sometimes with the bass with the funk fingers, and sometimes with the bass with the fuzz tone on. Sometimes I would jump up on the drum riser, which meant I couldn`t hit any pedals. So we`re making the (Yes-Union) record, and someone said "OK, let`s do one of your duos here. Let`s do a Levin/Bruford duo. We looked at each other and said "What are we gonna do?". We didn`t know. So, we chose, for one reason or another, kind of a ballady stick thing, I think where Bill plays the melody. Which is one of the type of things we used to do, but there were others. So, we devoted one piece on the Yes album, but that was only our little concept of what we might have done on one night.

When you have a group like Yes, or King Crimson, or, hopefully, Bruford/Levin Upper Extremities, there are a lot of people who are following you around and coming to every show. I find it embarrassing to play exactly the same show every night. I don`t play the same piece exactly the same anyway, but those are subtle differences. I like to have big differences, and if you don`t have enough material to just play different songs, or if you just love your set list and you don`t want to change it (that`s more common), it`s good to just have a piece like this duet. What the audience heard one night is just completely different than what they`re gonna hear the next night. They realize that, and the sophisticated followers that we have with King Crimson will really appreciate that. It won`t be lost on them. With Peter Gabriel, Peter can be pretty spontaneous, but through the years that`s just had to be cut down, because so many of his stage moves depend on lighting cues. He just can`t suddenly run up to the bass player and start dancing with him, the way he used to, because there is a varilight trained 50 feet away, where he`s supposed to do something else. So, he has to do it night after night. Varilights are computerized, and that`s it. There`s no human being following him with that light.

MSJ: How would you describe the difference between the sound of bass guitar and the bass end of the stick?
The stick has a lot more percussion on the attack, and the stick has less variation in tone. Stick, at least the way I play it, just kind of has one sound. It`s because you hammer on the note. You can`t hammer soft and loud, you just kind of hammer. You don`t play with a pick, you don`t play with funk fingers, you just hammer it on. So it has that one, whereas the bass has a lot of subtle variations in tone. Stuff that you do with your fingers. Even without thinking about it, you do it, or you thumbslap it, or something like that. So the stick has this one sound, but the biggest difference to me is that the stick has the clarity, for some reason, maybe the percussiveness, gives it a very distinct clarity on the very low notes.

So, I know for a fact that I can play fast low notes on the stick that come out very clearly that the same notes on the bass you just wouldn`t hear at all. There`d be a big rumble. The stick can cut through on very low notes.
MSJ: You said that Bill Bruford surprises you all the time, do you still surprise him musically after all this time?
:I don`t know, you`d have to ask him this. I`m afraid not, but I`d have to say this, within King Crimson, we`re certainly the two loose canons. In other words, you can pretty safely bet, if there`s a mistake, a big one, that happens on stage, it came from one or the other of us, or both at the same time. So, we`re kind of stuck over on one side, and I think that the band likes that. In someway, I would say the band needs that. It`s hard to say who`s the looser canon. I would say maybe I make more mistakes than Bill, with a smiling face. I don`t mind that. I would say that he probably does more totally unpredictable stuff than I could ever do. Of course, he has more weapons in his hand. You can do a lot with sounds, but really it`s his brain where it comes from. It`s his whole concept, and he`s just not interested in what he did last night, ever, on any piece. No matter how much everybody else wanted to hear that part, he`s just not interested. He`s gonna do something different.
MSJ: :Is this going to be a one-off thing, or are you going to do more albums, more tours with this lineup?
Don`t know. Really, this is impossible to predict. I know I can`t get the guys for the summer to tour. I tried. So, we`re looking at the fall now, but if we tour in the fall, it would probably be Europe. So, I really have no plans that I can say that are definitely going to happen, and as far as predicting the future, in any of my projects, it`s just a waste of breath to try to say. People will see it, and come back to me and say "Hey, wait a minute, you said you were gonna do this", and it never happens. It`s really only when things get within a few weeks of happening, that we can count on them ever happening. Ideally, things will go really well, and the guys will be really happy with this tour. Another aspect of touring these small clubs is it pays very little. So, even though it`s worth it for me, because I`m trying to promote the records, the other guys are just doing it as a favor to me really. Not so much Bill as Chris and David. So, we`ll see how much fun it is for them, and what kind of money we can scrape together to call it a paying job. Ideally in my head, it will be a success on all fronts, and we`ll all really enjoy it, and when another chance comes up to do it, we`ll jump at it and do it. Even though there`s no plan for that, things do change quick in our business. I think it`s Bill who has a summer tour. If his summer tour were to be cancelled suddenly, and this would be fun, we`d suddenly all be on the phone. We`d say, "Hey let`s do it", and we`d be out in no time.

MSJ: On the Bruford Levin Upper Extremities album, you use an unusual instrument called a DrumBass. Is that instrument available to the general public, or was it custom made for you?
Well, it sort of is and it sort of isn`t. I don`t really know. My friend Ned Steinberger is a great bass designer, very famous for Steinberger basses. He sold the Steinberger bass, but he`s still a great designer. He sometimes shows me his ideas, his prototypes. A few years ago he had this thing which I called a box bass, which is really a big box, looked like an amplifier, a hollow box with an upright bass neck coming out of it, and strings strung over the box. It was pretty wild sounding, pretty awkward to stand at it. I played that a bit, but there was only the one. It was just a wacky idea of his. Simultaneously, I play a lot with Jerry Morrota, a good friend of mine, and a great drummer. He plays Taos drums, made by a company called Taos Drums, out of Taos, New Mexico, which are really wild shaped drums. They`re not round. They`re made from cottonwood trees, I think, whatever shape the tree was. Somewhere along the line, I got the idea wouldn`t it be great if one of these bass drums, one of the bigger ones of that, had a neck sticking out of it and the strings strung over the drum itself. So, I introduced Ned Steinberger, my friend to Taos Drums, my friends and left it up to them. What they made in the end was something I call the Taos Drumbass. I think they might call the NS Taos Bass. So, there is I think only the one, but I think the Taos drum company was interested in making more, if they got any requests for them.
MSJ: With all the projects that you`ve been doing, how do you find the time for them?
First of all, like a lot of musicians, especially bass players and drummers, I`m a very hard worker. I can work really hard. Second, sometimes I don`t have any time at all. Third, sometimes these things don`t take as much time as you would think. The recording of the album actually is sometimes a week or two or three. Then a year later when it comes out, and two other things come out, really we`re just looking at a few weeks of studio work. Of course, just finishing the album up and putting it out yourself, that is a lot of work and very time consuming. Once in a while I, very sadly, have to turn some work down that I really want to do, cause I`m too busy. Surprising amount of the time, I`m not working at all, and I wish I was working more, like every musician on the planet I think.
MSJ: With all of these assorted projects, do you have any in the pipeline that you are considering working on?
Not right now. In fact, I have hopes for a few things I might play bass on coming up in the future, but none that`s definite. As for projects that I kind of initiate, I think I`m going to take at least a year off, or maybe a year and a half off, because I feel I`ve just had too many kind of progressive projects come out within the last year that I`m an integral part of. It`s a great thing for me, musically. It`s been great, probably my best year creatively, artistically and musically, but it`s just too many in a short space. There isn`t time to follow up and tour with any of them. We did one called Bozzio, Levin, Stevens-Black Light Syndrome we haven`t had time to tour yet with that, and they`re talking about do we want to make a second album. The trouble with doing six different things like that is you can`t really give the fair time to any of them. So, I`m gonna fix that by stopping doing more and sorting out which I want to proceed with.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought?
That`s easy because I bought it last night. I bought two. I bought one of my favorites, a second one for a friend, and that`s Lyle Lovett-Road to Encinada. While I was there, in the Lyle Lovett section, I got Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. What I listen to most lately is digital hardcore. It`s called Alex Empire, Squeeze the Trigger is the name of the album, DHR is the label, Digital Hardcore Records. It`s not a bunch of players, it`s a bunch of machines going.
MSJ: What was the last concert you attended?
:I went to see Yanni. It wasn`t bad. My lovely girlfriend, who works for Virgin Records, and knows more about rock music than I`ll ever know, just dragged me along kicking and screaming. She said "it`s not going to be bad, you won`t hate it." It wasn`t bad. He had a great bunch of musicians around him, and surprisingly, he featured them. He didn`t feature his own playing at all. It was kind of an orchestral setting. I like orchestra music. Perfect world, it would have a little more rhythmic influence, he keeps the drums very soft.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 5 at
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