Tony Levin: Mr. Deep
by Rick Suchow
(This article was published in the March 2013 issue of Bass Musician)
If there were ever a bassist who excelled at thinking outside the box, it’s Tony Levin. A session veteran with over 500 album credits, he has pushed the boundaries of bass playing farther than most, from his unique approach to crafting lines to the actual instruments and tools he delivers those low frequencies on. He’s been a major force in the prog-rock arena via his work with King Crimson, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Peter Gabriel and others, although his prolific discography and touring history indeed covers the entire musical spectrum, and includes artists such as Pink Floyd, Stevie Nicks, John Lennon, Buddy Rich, Seal, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Lou Reed, to name but a few.
In addition to playing electric and upright basses, Tony also plays the Chapman Stick, an instrument he first began exploring in the mid-1970′s. He’s been one of its most prominent voices, and it’s his axe of choice in his own band Stick Men. The group has just released their new album Deep (available on Papa Bear Records), and features Levin on stick and voice along with Markus Reuter on 8 and 10 string “touch guitar” and Pat Mastelotto on acoustic and electric drums. The band begins a tour of Japan this month, and will return for some U.S. dates in the spring. 2013 will no doubt be another busy year for Levin, with various recording projects and the next Peter Gabriel tour coming up in the fall. In the high-profile department, Tony can be heard on David Bowie’s new comeback album The Next Day, which will be released March 11. I caught up with Tony earlier this year, and was honored to interview this great pioneer of bass.
One of 2012′s highlights was the re-release of Peter Gabriel’s landmark So album, marking it’s 25th anniversary. You were a big part of its creation. What stands out most in your mind when you recall the sessions for that album?
Well, it is a long time ago that we recorded So. Most of what I remember is because I’ve mentioned it in interviews before! I had my 2 month old daughter, Maggie, with me, and used her diapers under the strings to dampen them on the song “Don’t Give Up”. We enjoyed being in the barn studio, so close to Peter’s house, and playing croquet on our breaks.
Are there any particular tunes on So that started out quite differently than the final recorded version?
Typically with Peter, that happens on a lot of songs. The only one that I can say stayed the same was “Sledgehammer”, and that was because he squeezed it in quickly, at the end of the recording month, so there wasn’t time to make any changes.
Can you describe the musical connection you and Peter have with each other, and why the two of you have worked so well together for 30+ years?
It’s certainly been great for me. From when we met (in ’76, for the first album) Peter seemed interested in forging new musical ground, not only with his writing, but with the bass parts. So he allowed me to try new directions (like the Chapman Stick, and later the Funk Fingers) and he inspired me to try to find better and more unusual bass parts than I’d first come up with. He’s also great at finding simple bass parts himself – playing them on synth bass – and sometimes we stick with those, or I re-do them on one instrument or another.
Another nice example of that inspiration is the piece “Don’t Give Up”, where Peter had an early drum machine playing a rhythmic figure on tom-like sounds. I took the same figure for the bass line, put the right pitches to it, and some two note chords on the top, and we had a very cool bassline that was a product of both of us.
Your band Stick Men turned to PledgeMusic to help raise funds for the public release of your newest album Deep. How did you discover PledgeMusic, and can you describe how it works?
It worked out great for us. Basically, we wanted to have our upcoming release come out in a better way than we’d be able to afford lately — i.e. with things like the mixing and mastering engineers we want, with an accompanying DVD release with live concert footage, and things like that. We had heard about fans helping to fund projects, and we chose PledgeMusic because some musician friends had liked their experience there. A big surprise to me was that it’s the kind of company where you can actually communicate with someone there about your project, which was very helpful to get going — and the biggest surprise was that friends and fans jumped right on it, and we reached our goal with no problems.
In your opinion, can the PledgeMusic model become the future of the record business?
I have little ability to predict the future, especially in the music business! But I’d say that the funding model is the present of the business — i.e. groups are finding that it helps with funding albums and projects, and the bonus is that having your fans be closer to the music and the release is a win win situation for everyone.
Tell us about Deep, and the direction Stick Men have gone with this new record.
We do a lot of touring, and love playing the music live. So, at this point in the band’s life, we feel we’ve found our sound and direction, and wanted to do a longer term recording – take a year or so to really get the music and performance right, and choose our best new material. This might sound easy, but with the touring schedule, it’s not so simple. In fact, during the interim, we recorded and released a different CD, titled Open, which was all improvised (hence pretty quick to record).
We feel the Deep CD has the power and the sound we were aiming at — and a range of material with some… well, depth! Most fun for me was a piece I’ve been slowly writing for years, titled “Whale Watch”, it’s a kind of tone poem musically describing the experience (available in Boston, where I did it, but many places around the world) of going out to sea in a boat to have encounters with whales. The adventure is pretty special, and it was a nice challenge trying to capture it musically. We’ll start performing that piece live in our upcoming tours.
You’ve had an incredible career that includes playing credits on 500+ albums. Do any stand out in your memory?
I wouldn’t say that any stand out, but I’ve had many special musical experiences, and I treasure that. The fact is, like a lot of musicians, I don’t spend time looking back at what I’ve done. More involved in the music I’m doing now, with a little glimmer of peering ahead to decide where I’m going to go musically in the future.
What’s the best musical advice you’ve ever gotten?
That’s a very good question, and I don’t have a great answer for it. Spoken advice; I can’t remember any. But players communicate musically to each other, and I’ve been lucky to play with a lot of great musicians, and I have learned from all of them, in a variety of ways.
It would seem to me that it would be a difficult adjustment mentally and physically, to switch back and forth between the Chapman Stick and the bass, especially in regard to the tunings and stringing high-to-low. How did you overcome this challenge? Does your brain just accept them as two completely different bass instruments?
It’s not really hard at all – probably because I’ve been playing both for a long time. In the shows I just played this week (with jazz band, L’Image) I switched between 5 string bass, Chapman Stick, and the NS Electric Upright. All no problem because I’ve been playing those a lot this year. But if I had a four string bass in the group, that would have presented challenges for me because my fingers aren’t so used to that lately.
What advice can you give bassists who are striving to find their “own voice” on the instrument?
I think it’s important to listen to the music around you, and learn to fashion bass parts that help make that music better. Whether that means taking a fundamental role or stepping out in front, or finding radical approaches… that’s all up to the player, and with experience, players learn to express their inner selves with those choices.
You’ve lived in Woodstock for 30+ years. What is life like for you there, and how has the town changed over the years?
It’s a town with a lot of musicians for sure. But not much work around here for them, so there are a lot of road players who come here to be home. But when we need players for a pickup band, to do bar shows, or New Year’s Eve at a restaurant… there are a lot of choices of really good players, and that’s great.
Of course I have to ask you about your equipment: Are you still playing your original Music Man Basses? What other basses are you playing these days, and also what strings, amps, and pedals do you favor?
I do play mostly Music Man basses — usually 5 string, and on Peter Gabriel’s recent tour we unveiled what I call the Sledge bass… a fretless that best gets the sound of the older model Music Man fretless I used originally on that track. The NS Electric Upright is another bass I use a lot – on recordings and certainly on Peter’s recent albums. And the Chapman Stick is my constant companion, especially because a lot of my year is with Stick Men, and it’s a great convenience to have only that one instrument, that covers so much ground in a band.
I use Ampeg amps — have a big SVT-2 Pro in my home recording studio, but use much smaller Ampegs on tours where I’m humping the gear every night. Strings are Ernie Ball heavy gauge, and pedals… well I have lots and lots. Choosing which I use for a live show depends more on the logistics of flying and weight restrictions than on which pedals I’d ideally like to have. When going to Europe, for instance, I need to use a multi effect board for the Stick top, to save on the overweight charges of having all the individual pedals. That gives me the option of taking more of the analog pedals for the bass side.
How do you generally prefer to record your bass in the studio (direct / amp / equipment, etc) ?
I go through a Radial JDI direct box, thru MOTU converter, into Logic. If I’m using an amp track in addition, it’s, as I’ve said, the SVT-2 Pro, 4 x 10 cab, with a Beta 52 close miked on it. I have other d.i. options, including a Neve channel, that I hook up once in awhile, for a particular sound on a track.
What is the current state of King Crimson? Anything planned?
Alas, no plans that I’ve heard of.
What is one of the best onstage experiences you’ve ever had? What is the worst?
Too many great experiences to choose among. Bad ones… also quite a few — I’d maybe choose way back in the 70′s when Peter Gabriel, in his punk days, inadvertantly bopped me on the head with his microphone stand. Ouch!
Has your approach to playing bass changed over the years, or are you still essentially the same player you were when you first came up?
I’m more interested in finding new techniques and ways to play, than I used to be. Probably the result that comes out is pretty similar, but the way I’m thinking about it is different.
You mentioned an an interview once that John Lennon had planned a world tour to promote his Double Fantasy album, which you played on (and unfortunately turned out to be John’s final work). Were you going to be a part of that tour?
Yes. The plan hadn’t been booked yet, but taking the band that had recorded the album on a world tour was the idea.
Did you have any preconceptions about working with John before that album, and what surprised you the most about him in the studio?
Not really – just happy to have been called to be part of it.
Name five albums that dramatically affected your early musical development.
Can’t tell from memory which albums I favored, but they’d mostly be Classical, because that’s what I listened to when I was young. Probably some Shostakovich and Stravinski had more resonance to what I was to play later than most of the rest. When I was young, my older brother Pete was playing jazz albums a lot, and I believe now that those had some influence on me, though I never specialized in jazz. The great bassist Oscar Pettiford was on many of the albums he played, and when I now listen to his approach; giving the band a solid foundation, but with wonderful melodic choice of notes and a distinctive, beautiful tone, I think I unwittingly was trying to emulate that when I started playing rock.
Though it’s not part of your question, I’d like to add that I’m always hearing great bass playing, and I think it does influence me in a way, even though I try not to copy people. The range of styles I like varies quite a bit – it’s joyful, as a bass player, listening to a really strong pocket by someone like Hutch Hutchinson. Pino Paladino amazes me with his versatility, playing at the top of the genre in many different styles you wouldn’t think one player could master. Dan Rathbun’s power and unique-ness are always there for me to learn from, and that’s inspired me in my playing. And when I want to re-awaken my awareness of all the bass can do, there’s Carles Benevent, and Esperanza Spalding. Lots more bass players, around the world, doing great stuff – and not just the famous ones.
You’ve worked with some of the best drummers in the business over the years: Bill Bruford, Terry Bozzio, Manu Katche, Jerry Marotta, Steve Gadd, and the list goes on and on. From your vantage point, what do you think great drummers most want to hear from the bassists they play with?
Funny, you’d think I might have asked them that, but I never thought of it. (anyway, maybe they’d tell me they want to hear something I can’t do!!) I don’t think I play the same way with each drummer, either — sometimes it seems appropriate to lock in with the same rhythm (as bass drum) but in other styles it sounds okay to me to play differing parts. Then, if the drums are really busy, I’ll tend to go simple, to give it a foundation. If they’re really simple, I might lock with that, or get more adventurous because there’s room.
What are your upcoming projects?
2013 will, I think, be a different kind of year for me than last year. I was lucky to have lots of separate tours in 2012 — with Stick Men, with Peter Gabriel, with The Crimson ProjeKct, and a bit with L’Image. Also completed the digital eBook (app) version of my photo book, Crimson Chronicles. That was all great, but gave me less time to record new projects, and I have some lined up that should be challenging and a lot of fun.
Peter will tour again in 2013, but only the month of October (in Europe.) Stick Men tours being booked start with Japan in March, (with The Crimson ProjeKct) and we’ll do clubs in U.S. in March/April. Beyond that, I don’t know what will come up, but it looks like I’ll have time to record some projects, get going on the next eBook, write new material, and hopefully practice enough to get my playing to another level.