Tony Levin interview
March 18, 1998
by Steph Perry
Bassist Tony Levin is appearing at Toad’s on April 13th with the group Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (BLUE).Levin formed BLUE, an instrumental quartet, with Bill Bruford (drums, electronic percussion), David Torn (guitar, loops), and Chris Botti (trumpet). Their debut release can be purchased from Tony’s record company Papa Bear.
Levin said that he came up with the idea for BLUE as a project to work on with Bill Bruford. He and Bruford have played together in King Crimson since 1980 and have, as Tony putsit, “been powering that rhythm section for a long time.” He said that doing a project away from Crimson had been a percolating idea for many years. When they toured together for AndersonBruford Wakeman & Howe, there was a section of the show where they did an extended duet.“That inspired us and we knew we could do some interesting stuff.” Tony goes on to describe the remaining two musicians in BLUE, “I just sort of arrived at David Torn, this very futuristic, far-out guitar player, it’s hard to describe his style, but he fits in perfectly with me and Bill…And I just felt this time that we needed something to hold it down to earth…so it wouldn’t get too far-out. And I knew this great trumpet player, Chris Botti, who has a cool jazz style of his own…so we asked him to join in.”
Tony is also an avid painter and photographer. His oil paintings, which were inspired by the musical compositions, adorn the BLUE CD package. In 1984, he published a book called Road Photos.
Tony Levin plays an eclectic assortment of instruments including bass, Chapman Stick, Box Bass, and DrumBass, and is noted for making very unusual sounds. He also uses Funk Fingers, drum-like sticks strapped onto his index and middle fingers, to tap on the strings and body of the bass guitar.
Tony plays with both King Crimson and Peter Gabriel on a full-time basis. He’s got two solo records, World Diary and From The Caves Of The Iron Mountain. BLUE is just one of many projects Levin has done with other musicans — most recently he composed and made records with Bozzio Levin Stevens and Liquid Tension Experiment. Over the years, Tony has also played bass as a hired gun for various performers, including John Lennon, Pink Floyd, and Alice Cooper.
Levin has played and toured with Peter Gabriel for over twenty years. He told us that back in the 70’s, Peter Gabriel’s whole band got arrested in Switzerland! The story goes that they were driving from Switzerland to their next gig in France, and were running late, so they pulled over to call ahead. Tony got out with Peter and took a picture of Peter talking on the pay phone. Turns out that there was a bank behind the phone booth and they were mistaken for terrorists planning to rob the bank! They spent hours in the police station with guns held on them, trying to convince the police that they were musicians, not terrorists. Finally a call to their French promoter, and singing a barber shop quartet, convinced the police that they were just musicians and they were set free.
What follows are some selected questions from our talk with Tony. Be sure to catch him with BLUE on April 13th at Toad’s. For those looking to meet Tony along with Bill Bruford, they’ll be appearing at Cutler’s Records on Broadway from 4:00 to 5:00 on the day of the show.
What can we expect at BLUE’s appearance at Toad’s? Will the group play the entire CD? Will you play the DrumBass?
We’ll certainly play most of it. Some accoustic pieces require instruments we can’t drag along on the road (such as the DrumBass, which would need a van of it’s own!) We’ll also do some improvising, and probably play a piece or two from DavidTorn’s Cloud About Mercury album, which Bill and I played on many years ago (that material hasn’t been performed live by us before). We might also make up some new material for the tour.
What’s the status of King Crimson?
We’re in a period where we just can’t find the right material. We get together and write a couple times a year. Crimson is a very adventurous band, so we’re always pushing ourselves to do stuff we never did before. When the writing doesn’t please us, we don’t want to put it out. So we’re working at it, but we just don’t have what we consider our next very special big studio album.
What was it like to record and tour with Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe?
The main factor about playing with ABWH was having the pleasure / pressure to learn Chris Squire’s great basslines. They were the centerpiece of the old YES material (which ABWH played all of on tour) and those classic basslines are not easy! When confronted with all that practicing to play with a pick (I do it a bit, but not approaching the Chris Squire technique) that I decided I might as well devote the practicing time to a new technique, and I put on my Funk Fingers and got down to some serious practicing! It was very useful because now I have the technique to do some of the old King Crimson fast stuff with the Funk Fingers too. As to the other players, that was fun, and as you might expect, quite an exciting thing – playing “Roundabout” with Rick Wakeman himself, and so on. I toured with the band over two years – for a short period in the middle I got sick, and couldn’t do a couple of shows — amazingly, bass player Jeff Berlin was able to learn all those parts that gave me so much work – in a day! Certainly humbled me!
When did you start working with Peter Gabriel?
When Peter left Genesis — right when the earth cooled — I was lucky enough to have been called to play on his album. That same album was when I met Robert Fripp, the founder of King Crimson. I toured with Peter for that album and have toured with him ever since.
Will you continue to play with Peter?
Yes, we’ve recorded the next album — the rhythm tracks — he is still writing the lyrics and finishing up the songs…I don’t know what stage it’s at but I know that the music is good.
Did Peter Gabriel really suggest you tie drum sticks to your fingers?
That’s true. Full story is on the Funk Fingers page on my web site, but the short version is that I had drummer Jerry Marotta drum on the bass for the song “Big Time” in recording. Then, live, I was trying to play it with a drumstick, when Peter suggested I attach them to my fingers.
What was the very first rock concert you attended?
That’s a very good question, I’m afraid I’m not going to remember, I’m so damn old…Does James Brown count as a rock band? That’s the first big concert I remember. Sam and Dave were opening for him.