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Progressive Rock Interviews

Tony Levin

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview With Tony Levin from 2002
MSJ: You are definitely amongst the busier men in the music business. What projects have been on your slate recently, and what will be coming up soon?
I think there are a lot of very busy musicians - it kind of comes with the territory - you spend your early years trying to get gigs of any kind. Then when you finally have some decent gigs, you've developed the attitude of never turning down any offer unless it's really hideous. If you're lucky, like I've been, you do get to a point where you can check out tapes of people before you play on their album. But the fact is, there is so much good music being made all over the place, in so many different styles - there's a lot I want to play bass on, and even more that I hear other bassists doing great stuff on. Lately what I've been doing is; mostly preparing to tour with my band and the music of Pieces of the Sun (takes a lot of preparation to set up the tour, not to mention practicing the music, which is kind of tough in this case.) I've done some albums lately - Jim Weider's new CD, a California Guitar Trio plus Pat Mastelotto plus me release, due out this summer. We toured a bit to put that music together. I've just been recording with Vonda Shepard, with whom I'll tour a bit this summer. I recorded and toured with Quebec singer Kevin Parent last fall - that was a lot of fun. I did sessions with Willie Otieri, Holly Figueroa, Willy Porter, Lynda Thalie, Mitch Winston... oh yes, David Bowie used me on a track. Gee, now that I start listing it, I guess I have been pretty busy.  

MSJ: What new artists out there have really caught your ear?
Well, here on the bus without my CD's, I can't really give you any names. Generally, though, I think a lot of great new music is being made, and though I don't have a lot of time to listen, I try to keep an ear out for inspiring music.
MSJ: There are many who really look up to you as a bassist. What bassists really impress you these days?
Pino Palladino, Benny Rietveld, Victor Wooten, Carles Benavent.
MSJ: You mentioned that this tour the music was particularly challenging to practice. How so?
When I recorded the "Pieces" material, I had the live show in mind. But it's a different thing playing the pieces live than recording them - it's not that it's more difficult material to play (although it is) but that different sounds were used in recording, and overdubs, and I played some multiple instruments. On Geronimo, for instance, I played NS Electric and overdubbed fuzz Stick lead. Live I need to cover it all on the Stick. I edited the piece for the album, and the band (who hadn't heard that edit until recently) need to learn the new form. On "Apollo" the CGT plays acoustic guitars in one section - live Jerry and I will pick up acoustic guitars, move to the front of the stage and play the section with Jesse. But getting in and out of that section means some rearranging of the piece. Things like that are what makes the rehearsals intense.
MSJ: And, you said that you worked on a track for David Bowie. Had you ever worked with him before?
I hadn't worked with David Bowie, and in fact it had been a hope of mine that someday I would get to play with him. This was just one track for a CD, but still quite a thrill for me.
MSJ: Have you done any new books?
I've got stalled on a planned photo/journal book of my 19 years with King Crimson. I've got all the (b&w) photos done, including some great old ones, but haven't had time to compile them and finish the book up. Sometime this year, I hope.
MSJ: Do you see yourself back in Crimson on the next CD?
Always surprises in the Crimson plans and future - so I try not to predict. I know there's a lot of mutual respect, so I imagine, and hope that I'll be back in some Crimson lineup one day. It's really the tops of my musical inspiration and challenge as a bass player.
MSJ: What about Bruford Levin Upper Extremities? Do you see that project coming together again?
Well, we'd like to -- often one or another of the band calls the other guys up to urge getting together again. But we're all so busy with other things; there's never the window. Sometime in the future, I hope!
MSJ: Any word from the Peter Gabriel camp on upcoming projects?
Yes! Just recently I heard that there will be an album release in September and tour next fall in the U.S. (How's that for news!)
MSJ: And the two Magna Carta operations, BLS and Liquid Tension Experiment will we be seeing third albums from either of them?
There was talk about a new BLS project - but as with these others, no time. I'll re-surface after touring this year and see if I can't urge that group to make another album. I really like the musical combination. I think it's less likely that LTE will re-assemble, for the reason that, with 3 of the guys in the same group now, there's less musical imperative for an album with only the bass player differing from their band. Having said that, you never know what'll happen in the future, in rock!

MSJ: How about coffee discoveries, come across anything that true fans of the bean should know about?
I'm still finding out new great beans. This tour I hope to encounter some new exciting roasts - maybe I'll put a page up on the site about it!
MSJ: Why are your albums now coming out on Narada rather than your own label?
Long story - basically I need to do a major tour (Peter Gabriel or Crimson) to finance making an album of my own. I've been doing less of those long tours lately (though I do like them) so it's very handy to have somebody else to pay for part of the recording expense. Then when the record is released, Narada is good at distributing it, getting press, and stuff like that, all of which I'm terrible at. It's especially important when you tour to have some awareness of the record out there, or nobody will hear about your show.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Probably when I got mirror sunglasses to wear on Peter Gabriel's show in the '80's. Looked so cool, but when I put them on the first time, completely blinded by the spotlight, stepped on my pedals (which in those days had no "on" lights) and went into solid fuzz feedback. Had to get down on hands and knees to unplug them one at a time (without sunglasses.) Another, on Peter's Secret World tour, where we ran sometimes underneath the two stages to get to the other - in the U.S. the walkway was an inch lower than it had been in Europe - one night in San Francisco, I bashed my head on a strut - the road crew was right there, with gaffer tape to hold the cut together until it could be stitched after the show.

MSJ: You have always been an innovator in gear - Chapman Stick, funk fingers - any new toys that you have been working with?
I've been playing some different basses - an old Gibson EB2 and a new Music Man 5 with extra low end - these give me subtle differences in playing, but nothing like the radical difference of Funk Fingers or the Stick. No plans for new low-end-devices, but you never know when these ideas will pop up!
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought/what have you been listening to lately?
D'Angelo's Voodoo - which is a masterpiece. The bass (Pino Palladino) is so unusual I've been studying the playing like a student.
MSJ: How about the first record you ever bought, do you remember?
Probably it was, ironically, the single: Tequila.
MSJ: What was the last concert you managed to find time to make?
Last week, in L.A., bassist Carmine Rojas's band.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 3 at
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