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Progressive Rock Interviews

Tony Levin

Interviewed by Grant Hill
Interview with Tony Levin from 2011

You've had such an amazingly productive and long career, and just as in the early 70s, your work has always had a cutting edge quality in your creative process. I recently dove back into some of your early material, and really enjoyed hearing your work with Chuck Mangione at Ronnie Scott's on his brilliant Alive! album with Steve Gadd and the late Gerry Niewood. Considering that was nearly four decades ago, how does your approach to playing back then when you were fresh out of Eastman contrast overall where your playing has taken you all this years?

I am sure my approach has changed a lot, but I don't go back listening to old things I've done, so I really don't have any specifics. I played a lot of rock after leaving the Rochester jazz scene, and then was introduced to progressive rock -- I am sure those things influenced my approach and sound a lot, as did playing with the great musicians I was lucky to be thrown together with.
MSJ: What originally drew you to the Chapman Stick, and how did that open up creative opportunities for you?
I liked, and still like, the sound of the bass end very percussive and clean. And, with the many strings and unusual tuning, it gave me the chance to get away from the same old strings and sound. I was able to try to refresh my bass ideas in the settings I was playing in, Peter Gabriel Band at that time, and soon after, in King Crimson.
MSJ: You've played with so many great artists, which is not something every bassist can say. Looking back, who among them have given you some of the most memorable as well as unique experiences you've encountered along the way, and how?
I think any chance to be a part of great music is a memorable experience, and I have been lucky to have a lot of those. Probably it's Peter Gabriel who gave me the most experiences, since I've toured so much with him, and he combines a number of things on his tour; great music with exciting staging ideas, great people in the band in a family-like atmosphere, and also a lot of side trips for fun on the road.
MSJ: My son wants to know, and I'm sure many other young aspiring players do, too, at what point did you feel you took the bold step from student player to knowing you wanted to be a professional player?
I didn't really think about that. From maybe 13 years old, I was offered gigs. The first ones were school dances. I was paid five dollars and I had to have my mother drive me to them.  In summers I would either go to music camp or get a job in a combo band at a summer resort. It wasn’t  great music, but I suppose that made me (officially) a professional in my teens, so I didn't particularly think or worry about that. What I had wanted, from when I chose the bass, was simply to play the bass. I didn't ever think, "I will become a pro at this." I just wanted to do it.  And, I suppose, that's still true now. I would certainly be doing the same thing if I were an amateur, or if playing music didn't pay anything. I'd just have to have a day job to pay the bills!
MSJ: In a difficult musical era dominated by pop insensibility, we seem to see an undercurrent stemming from this unique confluence of progressive rock, fusion, experimental jazz and pop, and ears across international boundaries just dying to hear great music live again. It seems that you are one of those writer/performers that can be defined about as soulful, yet edgy, perhaps even dominant in this trend as one can get. I'm finding many eager young ears crossing over from progressive metal to King Crimson, certainly Stick Men, and Adrian's offerings, as well. It's a notable trend. What are your thoughts?
I don't keep an eye on trends. In fact, I have little time to listen to new music that people are fond of. I would like to, but usually am immersed in what I'm doing. 
MSJ: I think it's also notable that there has been a buzz internationally about this current tour. I found both Stick Men and Adrian's power trio to be well prepared and dynamic, and the King Crimson set was really over the top. You've had sold out shows, standing ovations, encore requests, and the grind of the road. What's been your overall impression of this tour?
The tour was a big success. We knew the music would be excellent, but were very pleased to see a lot of the Crimson fans coming out to hear both the new music and the encore set of Crimson music. The realities of touring the U.S. nowadays are that you need to bring in enough people to fill the club in each city, or your future of coming back to those clubs is in doubt. With both Adrian's Power Trio and with our Stick Men tours, we sometimes fall below that line, for example bringing in 200 people to a 300 seat club. That used to be quite okay, but not any more. So I'm grateful, yet again, to the folks who got a sitter or did what they had to do to come out and see us. Just being there was the support that's necessary for a tour like this to succeed. And because of that success, there will almost certainly be more tours with this lineup.
MSJ: How has the music of Stick Men evolved since working with Michael (Bernier) compared to working with Markus (Reuter)? My first listens to Absalom feel to me like the current edition of the band may be a bit more melodic than the first incarnation. What are your thoughts?
We love what Markus has brought to the group. It’s hard to be specific. He's a different musician, and the compositions come from the three of us together. I know it's working out well, and Absalom is just the EP start of the new CD we hope to have ready for next summer's touring schedule. 
MSJ: What's been your most challenging musical experience, and do you feel musically fulfilled?
I'm always looking for challenges as a player, and they're not hard to find!  And I do generally feel fulfilled musically. It depends a bit on what music I'm playing. For sure on the tour that's just finished, I was both challenged and fulfilled. 
MSJ: Given the collapse of the traditional music business and the proliferation of technology do both advantage and detriment, do you see a model for music as well as financial success any time soon for the up and coming artist?
I'm not the one with the business vision to make predictions about that. I think, like me, up and coming artists are lucky if they have the chance to make their music the way they hear it, and share it with the public.
MSJ: What's next on the horizon for you, project-wise?
Next week I'll be sitting in with the California Guitar Trio at a show.  Right now I'm practicing the music of L'Image, a jazz band, with drummer Steve Gadd.  We are just mixing our new album and have a one week stand at a club in Now York City called “Iridium,” so I have to learn the new material! Next year, I have nothing booked yet except the music camp that Adrian Belew and Pat Mastelotto and I started last August. That'll be in mid-August. I plan to book Stick Men tours in Europe and South America. Maybe the double trio will go to Japan and do another US tour.  Hopefully Peter Gabriel will do something with his band, although he's been great with the orchestra, and if Robert Fripp decides to do something with King Crimson, I'll be there for that.
MSJ: What was the latest concert you attended for your own enjoyment? What CDs or MP3s have you been listening to lately?
I haven't had a chance to listen or to go out much. In August I slipped away from a music trade show to catch "Die Walkure," all five hours of it! Tomorrow I'll see the following opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle, "Sigfried.” The last rock show I attended was Jeff Beck when he came to Kingston. It was awesome.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 6 at
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