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Progressive Rock Interviews

Tony Levin

Interviewed by Bob Cooper
Interview Tony Levin from December 2002
MSJ: Hi Tony. Glad to see you back in Portland. I love your new cd and was wondering if you used the same band as on your Waters Of Eden CD?
Yes, I used these guys on that album and tour, and during that tour even the Waters Of Eden material got stronger and more bandlike as we toured. So when I sat down to write this material, it's really because playing with these guys brought me back to more of a prog head with stronger playing, so that is the type of material I wrote, and this time I wrote it specifically for these guys because I knew they would be on the record and tour. Last time I just wrote the pieces that I felt like writing and then went about finding the right player for each particular piece. When we toured that album it grew stronger as we went on.
MSJ: This CD definitely shows greater group effort, and I have to tell you that I love the whole album. Being a fan of progressive rock since day one, I recognize elements of prog ranging from Yes at their most beautiful to Crimson at their best.
Thank you. That was specifically my intention this time, to harken back to my rooks in progressive and to write new music but with some elements of that. I didn't want it to sound like a copy of Yes' music, but I like specifically like the forms of those types of pieces. Songs that are more symphonic, themes that come back, and I like that it can come out strong and heavy like Apollo does and then go into a quiet acoustic section, and those are things that you don't do in a normal song form or rock form, which is verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus. It's okay, I mean that form is fine, but I like that other thing. And frankly I like non-4/4 material, which there is more of on this record. Not nearly as much as with King Crimson, which is almost all non-4/4, and Waters Of Eden pretty much stuck to 4/4, and this one goes away from it a bit, but only in a small way. I can go WAY out with it, having been a King Crimson player. I can also find things that are in 7 or 5 that feel pretty natural, and I like throwing that in too.
MSJ: I think the odd time signatures have changed the way we listen to music, as there is a little time that it takes the brain to "latch on" to what is going on. King Crimson did that to a very large extent, but in lesser doses as on your new record it just seems to make the tunes more catchy.
There is no right or wrong. It is just how the writer feels about it, and the way I feel about it now is that I want to write music that is a little deeper than the jam-based collaborate writing I've done so much of with Bozzio, Levin, and Stevens and with Liquid Tension Experiment and Bruford Levin Upper Extremities. I don't mind that kind of writing but having done a great deal of it, I would like to write music for my next few albums that is a little deeper-in other words it takes a few listenings to get used to it but consequently you will enjoy it for longer. That's the way it is with classical music- the more effort you put into becoming familiar with the music, the longer you tend to appreciate it.
MSJ: That is exactly what I look for in the progressive music I listen to, and it's very seldom I run into an album I like on the first listen. But with subsequent listens certain elements embed themselves into you until you eventually reach a point of oneness. Talk about value for your music dollar! Regarding Bozzio, Levin, Stevens, will we see more music from that band.
There is talk of doing a third album, and we would like to tour. I felt very good about that combination, and musically we hit it off well. However we had a great deal of trouble trying to agree to a tour, so we've never toured, which is a shame. The desire is there on the part of all three of us, it's a schedule problem to get together and record, so I would predict that eventually we will. It tends to be hard if one or more of us is busy, and this year I have been very busy. And this time I would like to tour a bit if we record. It seems a shame to have that good a band and not tour with it.
MSJ: Yeah, because I was listening to it, and I just kept noticing that it just sounds too much like something off "Highway to Hell".
I have done a lot of those pre-fab things with bands, and this one really had something special to it. It is an unusual combination of people, but it worked so I hope we do more. There is talk about it, it is just a matter of finding time to get together, but it will be a little hard to squeeze it in this year.
MSJ: Well Terry is working on numerous projects, and Steve is touring with Billy Idol again- in fact they will be playing here in a few months. It's funny. I didn't really latch onto Billy's talents all through the Idol years until recently I heard them doing an unp-lugged version of Rebel Yell that just made me stop and go "whoa".
Steve is an incredible guitarist.
MSJ: How was it to play with Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe?
I haven't heard much from those guys since the tour in 1990. They are friends of mine, but I haven't gotten around to see them since then. I have toured with Bill Bruford a great deal since then, but I haven't heard from the other guys so I have no idea what the Yes story is.
MSJ: Well it was once rumored that, back in more "fragile" times with the Yes band you were being considered as a possible new bassist for the band, and are even credited with some of the bass on their Union album. That must feel great to have played with them. I remember seeing an early copy of an ABWH show on tape and remember saying to my wife "gosh- the rest of the guys are here- wouldn't it be cool if Chris Squire came on? But after seeing you doing Close To The Edge, I was thinking "Chris who?"
Thank you. Actually Chris is great, and his vocals were a big part of his contribution to the band, and I certainly couldn't do what he did vocally. It was a treat to try to fill those shoes, which is what I was doing basically.
MSJ: Unfortunately you weren't at the Portland show, and the other bassist they had was okay except when it came to Close To The Edge. He made that bass line very staccato-ish and it didn't have the feel.
I was sick that night, and I think they grabbed a local guy.
MSJ: I see from your website that you have done a lot of photography all through your career. Are you still doing that?
Absolutely. A little less on the road, but some digital stuff, especially because I get so busy with the web. I try to really have a massive amount of photos on my web, including audience photos which is fun, but that means less fine art for me unfortunately. I will get back to it though, especially my black and white. I really love the years that I was shooting all my concerts in black and white. There are so many years that I had a tripod on stage and a foot pedal that eventually I inevitably got tired of the setup. It was a lot of extra work, and I had so many thousands of photos of tours that I couldn't even collate them. It was so much work to go through ten or twenty thousand of them-all of the same guys-every night, so inevitably I had to ease up on that. I put out a photo book in the eighties, which did pretty well for road photos, but unfortunately I ran out of copies of that. I published it myself and I lost the plates so I don't think I'll be releasing that, but that's cool in a way because it makes it more of a collector's item. And I am about ¾ of the way through my next photo book, which will be photos and journals of my 19 years on the road with King Crimson. I actually predicted that I would have that out a year ago, but I just haven't had the time. The fact is I have the photos and I have the journals ready, it's just that big editing job of putting them together. Which photos to use, which journals to use opposite which pictures, and that's a relatively easy job compared to developing all the pictures and getting them done right. But it will be a heck of a book, but I'm afraid I just don't have it ready yet and probably won't this year, because Peter Gabriel is going to tour this year and I won't even have time to look at them.
MSJ: I also saw the hand-tinted print on your website….
Yeah, the one of Robert Fripp.That's the way I went. Actually you can see on…well, I can get it for you later, but for a long time I did black and white and I got into hand tinting quite a while ago in the eighties and seventies, and my first solo album that I put out on Papa Bear Records, my own label, called World Diary has that gentle hand tinting. It looks like a color photo, but it isn't. It's subtly tinted and a little bit pastel, but it looks normal. The second album I put out and did the artwork for is called From The Caves Of The Iron Mountain, and you can see that the picture of the cave is very brightly colored and there is even blotches of paint so by that time a couple of years later I was tired of gently hand tinting like a '50's post card and I was kind of slapping on the paint. The third one, Bruford/ Levin Upper Extremities, I actually took the photo of mine and Bill Bruford's hands. I pretty much had the visual idea for the cover before we even recorded the album, and I was just so much into the paint aspect of it that I just didn't bother using the photos, I just bought myself an easel and took the same paint and painted the picture without it. It kind of began with photography and I sort of eased into painting through hand tinting.
MSJ: I noticed on the Robert Fripp print that you used these beautiful colors in tinting, like the green on the canopy. Did you use color reference pics to choose colors, or did you just use what you thought the mood dictated?
It was a black and white photo of a very dingy place, and I didn't refer to anything. As I do with all of these hand-tinting things, it all begins in black and white and I then choose the colors according to the mood that the pictures give me. The canopy above his head is actually meridian. It is such a bleak backstage room anyway that I wanted to brighten it up but leave him black and white. I wanted to have some radical shards of light in some parts of it so I used meridian in it and some orange as I remember on the right side.
MSJ: Yeah, on my screen it wasn't true color I don't think. That picture says a lot.
Thanks. That is the only picture on my site that, because I am selling it, I used a particularly low resolution picture on there. Just due to the nature of people on the web, if I used a high rez picture there, nobody would buy it. I took a photo of the print itself. What is nice about that is I found a very nice connection for making high quality prints at this outfit in Vermont, which is very expensive to make, and they use very high quality paper, so I had a ball with it. I thought I am going to do it in a small way, and if I eventually sell out of them I'll continue my series. I have similar pictures of Bill Bruford and Adrian Belew, and I would like to have a nice series of those. It's clear at this point that I will sell out probably by the end of this year of the standard edition.
MSJ: I want one! How much are you asking?
I am getting one hundred twenty five apiece for them. In pricing them I wanted to keep them under a hundred dollars, but the process itself was expensive itself, so I figure that true fans will be the ones who own these. Being a limited edition thing there will never be any more made of this print. But there are prints, and there are prints-I learned about that one when I investigated into how good was the quality, and I found the best quality prints but then there are a lot of choices on the size, the quality of the paper, and even the edges. It's cheaper to have sharp edges, but there's this feathered edge stuff-I don't know what they call it but it looks like it's torn on the edges of the paper, and you pay by the tear. Something like two dollars a tear. It's outrageous. The first time I decided this is going to be hanging in my living room and I am doing it the best possible way, and then I'll adjust the price later, so I had to raise the price.
MSJ: So you will continue the series with Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford. Are there any others that you'll use along with these?
No, the first one I'd like to do is a series that will keep me busy for a long time of at least three of the four guys in the original King Crimson. I might take one of myself in a portrait to make it a full four, and those will be the first four I do. Believe me I have no plans past that. That's enough hand tinting to keep me busy, at least to offer for sale. As for pictures at home, I'm always doing stuff like that anyway for myself. I just discovered pastels and will be doing some of that too. I have an office with my computer. I spend a lot of time on my computer, and I have a piano next to it in case I get ideas, and I've always wanted an easel that could stay up but I didn't have enough room in there. Only last December we finally moved into a bigger house, almost completely so that I would have enough room to keep the easel up. So now that it's up I just leave the pastels set up and just kind of work on it as I walk by. It's a great treat. Frankly it took me all these years of my life to get to the position where I could leave the easel set up in my house. I tried painting on the road and I raised all kind of troubles, especially with the red oil paint takes ages to dry so I found I had to pretty much paint with green in order to be able to pack it up by the time I had to go to the next city. That was when I was touring with Seal. It was very suitable to set up in a motel room when I had a couple days free.
MSJ: It's gotta be very therapeutic to have an outlet like that, and to be able to create in a way other than what you do in your job. It is apparent in a lot of your music too, and a lot of the songs show a lot of different feelings and emotions that seem to flow out through your hands to the bass, which in a way is creating a mental painting.
Yeah, I try to do that with most of my writing. I have a mood in mind. I don't always bother to mention that about the piece or composition, but I always have something in my little mind and it's very easy for me to translate into music because music has been my medium for so long. With graphic arts it's not so easy but I still enjoy the attempt, and I don't have to reveal that to the public so much so they don't have to know when I utterly fail at graphic arts.
MSJ: That's right-you aren't under any pressure to have your intentions understood.
Absolutely. In photos in particular, you see, because you can take a thousand of them and only show people one of them and they think, "Hey, he's really good".
MSJ: Now in painting, you probably start with a picture or sometimes with a mental image of what you want to paint, which comes from memory, or something you've seen, or something you've done or experienced and it's translated to canvas. How do your musical images come to you?
It varies a lot. It depends on the time that I am writing and really where I wanted to go with the writing. As I mentioned, with this one I wanted to get a little more progressive so I harkened back to some of the early stuff I did with Peter Gabriel and I really thought about the mood with them. It really varies with different pieces. Apollo, the first song on the album, I had very much in mind the Stravinsky Ballet that I had seen. Not the music from it. Frankly I don't remember the Stravinsky music, and anyway I am not good enough to go imitating Stravinsky, but I had this vague memory of what the ballet was about and the feeling I got from it and I thought that is as good a way that I can think of to start this piece. It was about the sun god, Apollo, and the different aspects of him. That wasn't something I wanted to talk about on the CD liner notes, but that was the beginning of my inspiration.
MSJ: That's interesting. Do you go out and see movies much?
When I can. Frankly I don't have much time but I do read a lot and sometimes I get really deep into some particular things and sometimes I hibernate and get away from everything. For instance I will spend months listening to Shostakovich and really get into it because I have a lot of records, and I'll even go buy more records and get way into it, then I'll just put them away and not listen to anything for a while. Both of those things help my writing. It helps for inspiration to listen to somebody I can't really copy or sound like, and it helps to listen to nothing, and just sit alone with my brain with no other input, and things just flow. Either on my instruments-on my stick, keyboards, and I play a little guitar-or more likely they just come to me. Actually when I am writing mode I carry around music paper with me at all times, and am always stopping in the car and writing new ideas, because I could forget them too. After a few weeks I can look through these notebooks and get enough material for quite a few albums.
MSJ: That's right. You are one of those musicians who actually know what all those little black dots mean!
Yeah, I am a trained musician and that makes it a lot easier. Reading them is the easy part. It's writing them that is harder. It's a lucky thing if you are musically trained enough that if you get a musical idea you can stop and write it down and say goodbye to it. Of course you can do the same thing with tape, but it would sound funny trying to sing all the guitar lines and beat and all that.
MSJ: So then you have something to show the other players I assume.
No, that's not the end of it at all, it's just a basic idea or theme, or a couple themes or sections. It is pretty rare that I think up a whole piece in one sitting. And then I go to the piano or guitar or stick and really work on it, and that could take a week on one piece. Or even longer, and sometimes I get stumped for a section and have to work it out, but I try to get it all worked out before I lay it on the rest of the band. It's really a financial reason to do this, because I just can't afford to go into the studio before the pieces are completely ready, because studio time eats up the album budget. So what I do is get it completely ready and then do a demo version of it with me playing all the instruments and give it to the guys in the band so they learn it, and then when we go into the studio we can make changes if anybody wants when we know where we are headed.
MSJ: Do you have a minimal home studio set up for the demo making?
Exactly. I do it on my ADAT at home. I think next time I will do it on computer, but this time it was on ADAT. Very simple.
MSJ: Do you use ProTools on the demos, or save all that for the final recording?
Not even. Not at all. Later on I had to use ProTools to get it into a form that we could play to on the album. The demo was on ADAT, and then the scratch track was on ProTools. Technically the guitar and keyboards went right to ProTools, but the drums and bass went to analog tape because we find it sounds better to analog those instruments. So we use both in the studio.
MSJ: Do you play in strange tunings much?
Not the bass too much. I mean I am capable of doing different things on different songs, but on bass I pretty much play in the normal tuning. I have a couple where I will go to a low B or a high C, but it's usually normal. And I play the stick, which has many strings that you can tune any way you want, and I generally tune them the way most stick players do it, with the bass side in fifths and the guitar side in fourths.
MSJ: That is so cool. It has always amazed me how that stick works. Did you come up with that idea?
It wasn't my invention. I bought it when I heard about this very unusual instrument called the Chapman Stick and I was one of the first ones to get one, but I didn't invent it by any means. I wish I had! All kinds of things are going on with it, and there is a whole community that plays it. Mostly I just play it as a bass. It has a guitar side to it also.
MSJ: Do you have a huge monstrous bass collection at home?
Not monstrous, but a few. Actually I had a fire in my barn about five or six years ago and I lost a lot of the ones I had, and I realized at that point that frankly I hadn't paid that much attention to my old basses, and I would tend to just put them aside and would move on. I didn't have a whole lot, but when I lost them, as will happen when you lose something, I realized how valuable they really were to me both musically and to my heart so since then I have been a little more scrupulous about collecting the basses that I feel that I might need to have on certain projects and taking better care of them. So now I am aware of the basses I have and I use them all and spread the attention out a little more evenly. I'd say I have maybe twenty basses now.
MSJ: Do you listen to your old records and start to get all teary-eyed that you don't have those basses anymore?
If I think about the bass I get teary-eyed, but I don't really listen to the old records anymore at all. Some of the basses I was able to replace, but many I wasn't. And one or two of them survived the fire. One in particular survived, which was pretty cool. It was kind of char broiled but I was able to inject it with epoxy and make it usable again, so all was not lost.
MSJ: That is very cool. Now you have an axe with a story and character marks to prove it!
It certainly does, and it is close to my heart.
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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