Tony Levin

Stickin' with the Low-End
Stickin' with the Low-End

It’s not surprising that Tony Levin has always been a player of instruments in the low end of the sonic range. From his experiences with upright basses in classical and jazz music through his ongoing, innovative efforts with his Chapman Electric Sticks as well as his Music Man electric basses, Levin’s been a force to be reckoned with for decades. Small wonder he’s been heard on hundreds of albums, and has been the musical anchor for King Crimson, as well as Peter Gabriel’s band.

Levin now owns Papa Bear Records and has written a book titled Beyond the Bass Clef, which includes numerous commentaries, recollections, and tips… as well as Levin’s personal recipe for carrot cake.

However, a new album by the Tony Levin Band, Pieces of the Sun (Narada) was the primary impetus for VG‘s dialogue with the veteran bassist, but Levin was up for discussing all facets of his long career.

It’s not surprising that Tony Levin has always been a player of instruments in the low-end of the sonic range. From his experiences with upright basses in classical and jazz music through his ongoing, innovative efforts with his Chapman Electric Sticks as well as his Music Man electric basses, Levin’s been a force to be reckoned with for decades. Small wonder he’s been heard on hundreds of albums, and has been the musical anchor for King Crimson, as well as Peter Gabriel’s band.

Levin now owns Papa Bear Records and has written a book titled Beyond the Bass Clef, which includes numerous commentaries, recollections, and tips… as well as Levin’s personal recipe for carrot cake.

However, a new album by the Tony Levin Band, Pieces of the Sun (Narada) was the primary impetus for VG‘s dialogue with the veteran bassist, but Levin was up for discussing all facets of his long career.

Vintage Guitar: You aren’t a converted guitarist, like a lot of bassists…
Tony Levin: I’m a bass player from the beginning. I asked my parents awhile ago if they remembered what made me choose the bass back when I was about 11 years old; they said they asked me then, and I didn’t have a reason – I just liked it. It turned out to be a good decision, ’cause after 44 years I still just like playing the bass. It’s kinda lucky, I think, to be able to do what you enjoy.

You had an early affiliation with (drummer) Steve Gadd.
I went to college with Steve. He took me under his wing and showed me how to get the feel right when playing jazz; I’d been a classical player up till then. It must’ve been tough, with me always playing right in the middle of the beat, oblivious to the nuances going on around me.

When we both moved to New York in the ’70s, we got into recording and did quite a few records as a rhythm section. To me, the striking thing about Steve isn’t just that he plays the right thing, but that he is always learning from other players, practicing, and trying to improve his playing. That’s pretty amazing for a musician of his caliber, and though I can’t claim to be as conscientious, I try to use him as an inspiration keep my playing moving, without settling into complacency.

When you made the move to pop/rock music, what were your earliest instruments and amps?
After upright, I made the standard moves; first an Ampeg Baby Bass with an Ampeg B-15 amp. That bass had, of course, a great tubby sound for Latin or dance playing, but I was trying to coax jazz out of it, so I soon moved on. When Andy Mouzon came to Rochester (New York) with Jackie & Roy, I heard him play a Fender bass and asked where I could get one. He said, “Go to Dan Armstrong’s guitar shop in [Greenwich] Village, get a used Fender Precision, not a new one.”

So I did. The ’55 Precision I got at Dan Armstrong’s for $180 was my main bass for many years. I used the B-15 for ages.

You got into studio work in New York before really breaking out in a band, and the earliest events I could find on your discography were two 1972 dates, a Cher album, and Chuck Mangione’s live album, Friends and Lovers.
I did Chuck’s albums back in Rochester, with Steve, before moving to New York. In the big city, I joined a spectacularly unsuccessful band called Aha! The Attack of the Green Slime Beast. Not much happened with that band. The first New York session was Rock Encounter, with guitarist Joe Beck and a rhythm section jamming with Sabicas, who was, I’m told, “the father of modern Flamenco.” Pretty odd session, because the Sabicas brothers spoke no English and the jams were different each time, meaning I had to guess at the chord each downbeat. I’m not sure I want to hear that one!

You began using the Chapman Stick in the ’70s, when you first affiliated with Peter Gabriel. What was the appeal of that instrument?
I heard about it from a lot of people, mainly because at the time I used a tapping technique and incessantly practiced during record sessions, I’m embarrassed to admit. So it was a pretty easy transition.

In those early days, I took the Stick to many sessions, only to be told to, “Put that thing away,” because it looked so different. I liked it for two reasons; the different tuning inspired me to come up with different bass parts, and the tone was extremely different; lots of attack, but also great clarity in the low notes.

One of the most recognized “Stick licks” is the intro to King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk.”
Yeah, “Elephant Talk” is a popular piece for Stick players, not only because the instrument was finally mixed up-front so you could hear it, but it’s damn easy. It can be done with two fingers if you’re sneaky like me and de-tune one string a half-tone.

Is there an organization – loose, official, or ad hoc – of Stick players? has info about lots of players, and there is a community of Stickists who stay in touch and share techniques.

Tell us about Funk Fingers, your invention for bass players.
The Funk Fingers are drumsticks that attach to a player’s fingers. You can hear them on Peter Gabriel’s “Steam” and other songs from that record (Us). They came about from doing Peter’s song, “Big Time,” with Jerry Marotta drumming on the bass strings. When I tried it live, the results were less than stunning! Peter suggested I try to attach drumsticks to my fingers. V”ila, a year or so later, after having broken many strings, having sticks fly into the audience, and having my fingers turn purple, I got them adjusted right.

I later sold Funk Fingers on my website. About 1,000 players got them before I got tired of the stress of getting them manufactured.

The ’80s version of King Crimson was originally slated to have been called Discipline, which ended up being the title of the first album. There weren’t many Mellotrons in that lineup, so was the name a marketing strategy?
I wasn’t comfortable with the name “Discipline.” Hey, why mince words? I thought it was a real bad name, and so did some others in the band. So we had some discussions; Bill (Bruford) and Robert (Fripp) having been in King Crimson at one time… gee, that might be a good name for the group! I’m sure the name change involved a lot more issues to Robert, who’s controls it. But to me it was just our best option.

Your friendship and musical association with Bruford continues to this day. What makes you two so compatible, musically and otherwise?
He’s a great drummer for a bass player to be with and to learn from. Bill never plays things the same way twice; never plays parts anybody else would play. He has a wonderful, refreshing approach to his music, is a unique player, and inspires those with him to try to also be unique.

One of my favorite experiences with Bill was on the Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford, Howe tour. When they gave Bill his “equal time” solo, he requested it be a duet with me, and each night we played a completely different piece.

Didn’t Jeff Berlin have to sub for you on part of that tour?
Yup. I got sick near the end, and had to be hospitalized after our Houston show. Jeff was asked to come in and learn the very difficult material for the last few shows, which included a video shoot of the concert. It must’ve been a tough thing to do with such short notice, but they got the right guy.

You’ve favored Music Man basses for some time. Are you an endorser? One of your instruments was painted yellow, with the logo from the Three of a Perfect Pair album.

Before that, the same bass had a black hexagon on a white background for a Peter Gabriel tour, where that was the stage theme.

I’ve been playing Music Man basses since my friend [“Tonight Show” bassist] Joel DiBartolo mailed me one! I put my Fender away and stayed with the Music Man from then on. I do have a loose endorsement with them; every few years I ask them for some ridiculously difficult modification to a bass, like making me a three-string – and oh yes, please don’t put any knobs on it; just fixed volume and tone. And then there was my “Graffiti Bass,” made at a NAMM show, where just about everyone at the show had a go at it with markers and chisels.

My latest was a five-string piezo – they weren’t doing them then, though they are now – with some extra low-end in the magnetic pickup.

I play their basses because they’re right for me, customized or not, and I’ve played them on many albums.

I was on the road a few years ago when my barn burned down. Sadly, a lot of my instruments were in it. One remnant was some charred thing that seemed to have been a bass. No neck left, but the truss road was bent in half from the heat. I could tell from the melted electronics that it had been the new three-string they’d custom-made for me. So I sent them a fax noting that I was having some trouble with the neck adjustment on the new bass, then I shipped it to them.

I waited weeks, then got a fax reply saying that the warranty didn’t cover playing in smoky bars!

You’ve played on some high-profile albums, like Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms.
I’m on all of Momentary Lapse but only one song on Brothers in Arms. I’m always surprised when I get a call to play on a high-visibility album. Sometimes they’re fun to do, sometimes not.

It was producer Bob Ezrin who asked me to come in for the Pink Floyd album; their first without Roger Waters, as I recall. Bob had used me before, on Peter Gabriel 1, on Lou Reed’s Berlin, and on a number of Alice Cooper records.

As for the Dire Straits release, I really didn’t do much on it. I’d played on a movie track for Mark Knopfler before, which I suppose is why I was called.

In the ’80s, you and Bruford were guest hosts on VH-l’s “New Visions” program, which was really more about New Age. How did you feel then, and how do you feel now, about videos being practically requisite for musicians to garner notice in the marketplace?
Well, I’m so far off the video thing that I haven’t thought about it for ages. Most groups I play with now are working hard just to keep themselves going. Playing live is the key to that, and maybe it always has been, and I think less and less is being assumed about record company help, let alone radio play, let alone MTV playing your video. Jeesh, that’s about like winning the lottery!

I don’t think it’s all a negative thing; there seem to be more small labels than ever, and more non-label ways to get CDs out. It seems to me that more good music is being made and heard, from all over the world, than ever before.

But you used the phrase “garner some notice in the marketplace,” and that is for sure tougher than ever, even for record companies, let alone a band that’s selling its own CDs at gigs.

The quality of music is the most important thing, and some darn good players are making some darn music nowadays.

Tell me about your progression to utilizing a five-string bass. Do you play a 12-string Grand Stick, as well?
Just having five strings on the bass wasn’t a big change for me. I’ve been playing an NS Electric Upright a lot lately. That took some readjustment, even though I started long ago on upright. The 12-string Grand Stick is also a very easy adjustment from the 10-string, especially since you can adjust the tuning of the individual strings.

The latest lineup of King Crimson in which you were a part was the ’80s version, plus another bass/Stick player and drummer. How did it evolve?
Any question involving Crimson always has a complicated answer. It was the idea of Robert Fripp to have six guys in the ’90s group. One way to look at the new arrangements we were trying was to divide the band into two trios, answering each other musically, and sometimes joining. Sounded like a good plan, but things worked out differently.

Right now, I’m not touring or recording with the band, and neither is Bill Bruford, so maybe it’s a “double duo” for the time being. Whatever the description – and I’m told I’m still a member of the group – I’m sure Crimson will continue to come up with unusual ways to do things.

You now own your own label, called Papa Bear. Details?
In the mid ’90s I started it just to release my solo projects without having to go begging to record companies. My first release was World Diary, a CD of duets and trios with players I like from around the world. Since it was my own label, I had the freedom to design a special package, record the music I wanted without regard to radio play or genre, and do the artwork myself. And best of all, to not get booted off the label when it didn’t sell a lot!

Then I topped myself with music out of the mainstream with the next album, From the Caves of the Iron Mountain – Stick, bansuri flute, and Taos drums, recorded binaurally inside a cave. Try taking that project to a record company!

I’ve continued to do special projects with Papa Bear, and I sell only on the web and phone; distribution is too complicated, and the business of it would take too much of my time.

I’ve released a book, Beyond the Bass Clef, and have started a series of prints; hand-colored black and white photos, the first being of Robert Fripp. Those who’ve bought products from the site feel they’re getting music and art directly from the artist, and are kind of in on a well-kept secret.

Your new album, Pieces of the Sun, is your second Narada solo release. How does it differ from your first, Waters of Eden?
When I toured with Waters, I was able to get the musicians I most wanted, Gabriel band alumni Larry Fast and Jerry Marotta, and a good friend, guitarist Jesse Gress, who’s played with Todd Rundgren for many years. The music got a lot stronger as we toured, and we got tight as a band. So this time, I composed music specifically for that lineup, especially wanting to feature Jesse’s lead playing.

I also wanted to delve back into my history in prog rock. When writing the previous CD, I’d been missing the World Music playing I used to do with Peter Gabriel, so I wrote in that vein. Not this time – there are references, subtle and not-so-subtle, to my early days with Gabriel, to Larry’s Synergy music, and to the complex time signatures I lived with in King Crimson.

There are other differences; a lot of my early composition was collaborative, on whatever project I was doing. I’m just now getting into the swing of being free to compose however I like, which is leading to some fairly complex forms and lengthy pieces. This time around, there are seven-, eight-, and nine-minute compositions, and because I like it all and didn’t want to skimp on the CD, there are about 67 minutes of music.

To what extent does Fast feel his earlier Synergy material from the ’70s is technologically antiquated?
Well, you’d have to ask Larry, but my feeling about his playing is that while there are lots of very good synth players out there, when you think about how many have their own sound the field narrows a lot. Larry has found ways to develop a distinctive sound on synth since the early days, when it was done with wires, and he’s still got that unique thing going.

And for this album, I asked him if we could play one of my favorite Synergy pieces from a long time ago, “Phobos.” We actually had Larry do the same parts he did then, although it was a pickle for him to organize the separate loops – technology has changed a lot in 20 years! He did the same parts, and we played on top; Jerry gave it a completely different drum feel, I played Stick bass lines, and in the second half, Jesse devised a great guitar solo section.

The lead-off track on the new album, “Apollo,” starts off like a movie theme. How did guest artists the California Guitar Trio end up in the middle of it?
That’s one of those big compositions I was mentioning. “Apollo” starts with a short statement of the main theme by guitar and synth, then drums and Stick enter, and it goes off into “prog world,” with some interesting bandplay around odd meters. That morphs into a section we named the “mother-in-law” section, ’cause it’s got a kind of “naggy” guitar sound. After a couple of those, the sun breaks through the clouds, figuratively, and we’ve got the C.G.T. with their crystal-clear acoustic sound, playing in a relatively simple 5/4 theme. I’ve toured and recorded a lot with the Trio, and I love their musicality and their distinctive sound. It’s an honor to have them appear on the record.

The acoustic bass joins in on the repeat of the C.G.T. theme, and Paul Richard of the Trio has a solo on fuzz bottleneck acoustic. Then, suddenly the full band blasts back with “mother-in-law” time, rising to the recap of Theme one, this time good and strong, with a counterline on French horns and eventually a neat guitar second counterline.

Whew… see what I mean about complex forms? It takes eight minutes just to describe this one!

There’s more than one extremely rude bass tone on “Geronimo.”
It’s an electric upright, played with a bow; a pretty solid bass sound, but with some raunch to it.

Congratulations – I didn’t recognize “Tequila,” so in accordance with your liner notes, you succeeded with the oblique arrangement. One wouldn’t think you’d even be obligated to pay royalties.
Ah, legalities! I’m no expert at this stuff, and just do what the lawyers tell me to do. I do think the original writer is Chuck Rio, and he’s credited, as are the publishing companies. Because the arrangement is radically different, we asked the publishers to share credit, and not having heard back when the CD went to press, it was decided to put my name and publishing company there, too, just in case. The original writers and publishers will certainly be paid part of the mechanical royalties, but what share will be determined not by what it says on the package, but by some arrangement still to be made. I was told I could have just kept the publishing if I gave it a different title, but then, it wouldn’t have been funny, would it?

Some may think they hear material that is King Crimson-like – certain Fripp-ish or Belew-ish guitar tones, some Bruford-like drum licks.
Well, whatever a listener hears is valid for him, and I’ve got no right over it. I’d say that sometimes Jesse goes into a Crim-type lick – “Geronimo” comes to mind – and we’ve certainly gone there in the live show, when we do both “Sleepless” and “Elephant Talk,” where Jesse covers both Adrian’s and Robert’s parts.

My Stick playing can’t help but seem a bit like Crimson, because it’s what I played in the ’80s Discipline stuff. But Jerry rarely, if ever, plays like Bill Bruford, at least, not to my ears.

But I don’t mind being compared to that great group. What I think will happen more is the comparison to Peter Gabriel’s early records, simply because three of us were lending our sounds to Peter’s music. Take away Peter and there’s still a heavy resemblance.

“The Fifth Man” is another prog rock-type of effort; it too has more than one facet.
It starts with the Stick doing cross-rhythm chords, a la Crimson. Then drums join in. When the guitar and synth enter, the piece changes but stays in the same key. Guitar and Stick share the lead and harmonies, which is a direction I’ve been wanting to go with the Stick. I think it’s a neat lead instrument, but my ability on it is mainly on the bass side, so “The Fifth Man” is kind of my entrance into the lead field with it. The intensity grows until guitar and Stick play a few choruses in harmony, a la “Hotel California,” with some blazing licks that I’m wondering how I’ll play live!

One more thing; the name comes from a meeting I had with King Crimson. They were touring as a quartet without me or Bill Bruford when I joined them for breakfast one day. Robert assured me that although I wasn’t on the tour, I was considered the fifth man in the group. I don’t know exactly what that means, but it sure has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

“Silhouette,” the final track, sounds like it could fit into the credit sequence at the end of a movie, and it seems to draw a bit of influence from Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore.”
I hadn’t heard that similarity, but it’s possible; maybe I’m getting a clarinet-like sound out of my fretless? Seriously, it’s the one reference to Waters of Eden, where the fretless often took the melody on ballads. It seemed a fitting way to end this album, as it winds down from the intensity throughout.

Didn’t you participate in Gov’t Mule’s The Deep End project?
I really enjoyed the chance to play with the Mule guys. I guess the track I did will be on the next release, but the real fun was being part of their show in New York City. I was inspired to see how hard they work, how well they play, and what a beautiful attitude they have about touring, sharing the joys of playing, about their audience, and about doing their music business. Sometimes in this world of being a musician, the best thing that happens to you is that you get to create music with some very special people, and hopefully, a little of it rubs off on you.

As we’re doing this, you’re about to get into rehearsals for a tour to promote Pieces of the Sun. What’s after that, and what of Peter Gabriel or King Crimson?
Well, in the world of rock you never know what’s coming. No plans for me to go back to King Crimson, but the option will always be there. I know I’m gonna be very busy touring with my band. Then, I’ll play a bit in Europe with Vonda Shepard, and will hopefully come back to do some more Tony Levin Band touring in the mid summer. If Peter Gabriel manages to finish up his album, touring with him in the fall would make this just about the perfect year for me, musically.

I know this is detailed in your book, but can you give us a brief version of your performance at the White House in the early ’60s?
(chuckles) I was playing in an orchestra for John and Jackie Kennedy on the White House lawn. This was when the White House was used as a center of cultural promotion, and being a teenage lad – in other words, having occasional lapses of sanity – I wondered what would happen if I took a water pistol to the concert and squirted the President?

So I did… take the water pistol, that is.

JFK walked near me, up the space between the basses and cellos, but I didn’t have the nerve to do it. Who knows what would have happened if I had? All I ended up with was a wet inner pocket in my black suit.

By the way, on my website is an excerpt from the recording of that concert, with JFK commenting on the great value of our youth learning to play music. I wonder if he’d have altered that speech if one of the brats in the symphony had doused him!

It speaks well of Tony Levin that he’s not only perpetually active as a musician, he’s also perpetually attempting new sounds on unique stringed instruments. Like his mentor Steve Gadd, Tony Levin doesn’t seem to want to ever stop learning how to improve his musicianship and music, and it shows.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.