Tony Levin Talks Stick Men, King Crimson and More: Exclusive Interview
On both the bass and the Chapman Stick, Tony Levin has become famous for bringing the bottom end into the spotlight, with vivid, visceral lines that are as immediately identifiable as the songs’ vocal melodies or guitar riffs. Other than bandleader Robert Fripp, Levin’s been the closest thing to a constant (and a crucial force) in the ever-changing world of King Crimson since 1981, becoming the Stick’s primary ambassador with tracks like “Elephant Talk.” And the Boston-born bass man has been by Peter Gabriel’s side both in the studio and onstage for the latter’s entire solo career. Along the way, he’s worked with everyone from John Lennon to Yes, playing on hundreds of albums and countless tours.
But one of the projects closest to Levin’s heart is Stick Men, a trio he started in 2007, which includes Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto and German guitarist Markus Reuter, who plays an instrument he co-designed called the Touch Guitar (sort of the guitar equivalent to the Stick with its fretboard-tapping technique). This year, the tireless Levin will spend the spring on tour with Stick Men, a sizable chunk of the summer on the road with Gabriel (as part of a co-headlining bill with Sting) and September performing with the current three-drummer, seven-man Crimson lineup in Europe. Though he’ll be achieving septuagenarian status in June, easing off his workload is clearly not a part of Levin’s agenda.
If all that wasn’t enough, Stick Men have a new album, Prog Noir (which will initially be available only at shows but will subsequently have broader distribution), as well as a new live album, Midori, recorded in Japan last year with guest David Cross, violinist in Crimson’s mid-‘70s lineup. In a rare moment of repose before the onslaught of activity, Levin took the time to answer our questions about Stick Men, Crimson and Gabriel.
What can you tell me about the new album, Prog Noir?
I'm feeling like it's a milestone for the band. We've taken a lot of time to fashion our new compositions, to record it right and to do some things that are pretty unique to this band. I hope when people hear it, they'll not only enjoy it, but recognize that it doesn't really sound like what anyone else is doing. That's what I feel a band should aim at, to do music that's distinctively their own and to try to make classic music that'll still be exciting years later.
What initially made you decide to include Crimson material in the Stick Men repertoire? How did you choose which songs to use?
It seemed natural with two members of Crimson in the band -- and of course much of our audience is Crimson fans. I don't remember how we chose the earliest ones we did …we've done quite a few through the years.
What will the repertoire for the current Stick Men tour be like?
Haven't set the list of songs we'll do yet. For sure many from our new album. And this tour we're digging into more of our Stick Men repertoire, less covers than before. Though we love doing some Crimson material, and it seems appropriate with two of the three Stick Men members actively working in King Crimson. Though they're fun, we will pick a couple to do, including maybe one or even both that we haven't played before. Sets usually vary a bit from night to night -- depends, really, on how much material we decide we want to do on the tour, and if there's a lot, then night to night may change quite a bit.
You've got a Crimson tour coming up this year too, what's it like playing live with the current three-drummer lineup for you? What can we expect on the set list?
It's been a wild couple of years working with the new seven-player incarnation of King Crimson. And three drummers — yeah, that makes it quite different than anything I'd done. Part of the challenge is just hearing what the drummers are doing — they brilliantly switch the bass drum function among them during each piece, not to mention the drummers being set up across the front of the stage, in front of those of us on the back riser. So our individual monitoring system has been very important to me. It's all worked out happily, at least so far. This year, we'll rehearse a lot more before our fall touring, will add some more material, new and old, though I don't know what at this point.
You're also going out again with Gabriel, what will those shows be like? I gather they'll be somewhat different due to Sting's involvement.
It's going to be a fun tour, and I'm looking forward to it. I have no inside information on what Peter will be playing … yet! I'd guess that he'll split the show with Sting and his band, and that they'll each join the other for a song or more … but really I heard that online. It won't be until late May that I'll find out which songs we'll do. Gonna be fun regardless, and I'm looking forward to getting some good photos during the shows.
How closely do you stick to the template of the Stick Men songs in concert vs. improvising on them?
Varies with each piece. Most have solo sections, where both soloist and the other guys can wail, play whatever they want. A few call for playing it quite a bit like the recording. My end of things includes most of the bass lines, and if there's a cool line I'll play that every night, but the other bass parts can be varied depending on how it feels that night.
What are the similarities and differences between your Chapman Stick and Markus Reuter’s Touch Guitar?
There are different touch guitars -- Markus plays one he designed. It's got a lot in common with the Chapman Stick I play, but the sound is different, and my Stick has stereo output [guitar and bass strings] -- while Markus' can be set up that way, he usually plays it in mono in the shows, which affects the sound too.
How does the compositional process generally work with the songs you write for Stick Men?
Varies a lot. Whoever starts the piece, the other players add their input and things can change quite a bit, even maybe re-do the original idea to work with what came after. And some become vocals after having been instrumentals. It's a fluid process for us, and we keep refining the pieces, trying to make them better, till album release date comes along and we have to stop!
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