Adrian Belew and Tony Levin in King
Crimson in Buenos Aires at Teatro
Broadway. Photo by Max Pierrot.
Finally, the third and final part of my interview with Tony Levin. As one of progressive rock’s most esteemed bass players, there could have been many more tangents to take during the interview, but I only had so much time. Levin, after all is much more than a sideman. He is one of the great innovators on the bass in the world of progressive rock. He also has his own catalog of solo and collaborative work, which can be found on his website. But I had my own curious questions of his work with King Crimson that continues to this day. On to the interview…
I caught you in Buenos Aires with King Crimson.* I had a chance to interview drummer Bill Bruford and saw some amazing shows at the Teatro Broadway. Are you still a member of King Crimson?
As usual with King Crimson we find different ways to do everything, so the status is not what it would be in a normal band. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m not fully a member, and I’m not out of the band. I mean most bands, frankly, if you’re not touring and recording with them then you’re not in the band anymore, but in this case, Robert assures me, Robert Fripp, and I actually believe him, that I’m kind of on reserve duty, and I will be called up to active duty some time, probably in the not too distant future. I don’t know if there’s a chance of me doing some work this year. I don’t know quite what’s going on right now, but typically with Crimson, I get busy with other things, when I don’t know what they’re doing, and then when they start doing something I kind of have to wait . . . so I would describe it as: I’m the fifth man in a four man group, whatever that means. I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll be doing something with them in the near future.
Mind if I ask some King Crimson stuff I was always curious about?
Not at all.
On Three Of A Perfect Pair you are credited as playing synth. Do you recall what songs you played synth on?
No, I don’t remember the songs at all. What I do is (I have a synth actually here on the road with Peter, too) I have a simple synth with bass sounds, and I never play it for a whole piece, but sometimes I kind of fashion a part that’s a back and forth of eighth notes between the bass and the synth or between the stick and the synth. The more I accent certain bass notes with the synth. So it’s completely used in conjunction with the bass, not on its own. It’s very hard to pick it out on the record because really I just use it as a “texture difference” from the bass.
For instance, on “Man With An Open Heart” I can’t tell if you did that with a bass or a synth.
Yeah, I know. I’d have to listen myself to try and figure it out.
And as far as Beat goes, how much of that record was influenced by the jazz of the Beat Generation’s age?
I think a lot of the lyrics were, and that was kind of the inspiration point, but musically we weren’t actually thinking about that generation at all. We just kind of were using the vibe of—especially Adrian [Belew]—was using the vibe of that generation as the inspiration for the names of the songs and the lyrics.
“Requiem” has a certain John Coltrane influence. It sounds like what Coltrane was doing at the end of his career.
It could be. Well, it’s hard to say. I mean it was nothing conscious, but we did that at the end of the album, having done the rest of the album, and it was totally improvised, so maybe it was similar. There was nothing specific said about that.
So you guys don’t like listening to music when you’re working on albums?
Not really, no. In fact we try not to listen to other music.
One day, in Buenos Aires, I could have sworn I saw you in a crowd taking pictures of a pair of tango dancers in a plaza. Do you remember ever doing that?
Yeah that would have been me! In fact, one or two of those pictures are going to come out in my book, which I hope to finish by the end of this year. It’s about my travels in nineteen years on the road with King Crimson and those are mighty good pictures. You’re right, it was me. Yeah, that’s funny.
So you’re planning on releasing a book?**
I can’t promise a date, cause I’m pretty slow at these things. I hoped to have it done a year ago, and I didn’t, but I have great photos from back in 1980, when I started in King Crimson, and they say not to release them all is a [unintelligible]. I don’t know what the title will be but it will be all my photos and journals from the years on the road with King Crimson.
Do you still take lots of pictures?
Lots! Yeah, now I take digital. I used to take black and white film, but I still take lots. In fact, I just up-dated my website with photos from yesterday’s rehearsal. They’re very up-to-date. I should have shots from tonight, pictures from tonight’s show, up by the middle of the night tonight at tonylevin.com. If you ever want to see what’s going on in the tour—whatever tour I’m on—I’m pretty good about up-dating it.
Are you documenting this current tour? Will anything special be done with the photos?
Lately, I only shoot digital in color, and I pretty much just use it for the website. I’m kind of distracted with that. Someday I think I’ll regret I’m not shooting film in black and white anymore, but that’s life. You can’t do everything, and I really enjoy the immediacy of being able to present the audience with a photo of them. I take pictures of the audience every night, and I know from their cheering I know a lot of them go up on the website.
Who’s the better actor you or (old time band mate and session drummer) Steve Gadd?
Actor? I would say we’re both pretty bad. We were both playing ourselves, in the movie [One Trick Pony], and I thought he would be better at acting like himself than I was at acting like myself. Don’t ask me why. It sounds like a pretty easy job, acting like yourself, but I thought Steve was particularly good at it. I don’t think I’d want to see either of us in a part where we’re not acting like ourselves.
So you’ve watched One Trick Pony?
Actually, I probably never sat and watched the whole thing, by the time I finished touring to promote it, it was already closed in the theaters, so I got a video copy of it. I’m not sure I ever sat all the way through it, but I enjoyed making it, though, and I like everything Paul [Simon] does.
*In 1994, I interviewed Bruford as King Crimson warmed up the then new double trio format for the recording of 1995’s Thrak. One story that resulted is a piece that appeared in Florida International University’s student-run newspaper, “the Beacon.” Someone actually transcribed it for the KC fansite Elephant Talk. It can be found here. The other story, on King Crimson itself, appeared in a regional Florida music scene called “JAM Entertainment News.” It cannot be found on the Internet, but maybe I’ll provide a scan of the original document, if there is demand for it.
**Levin did release a photo book entitled Crimson Chronicles Volume 1, the 80s in 2004. On his website, Levin promises a book chronicling the 90s KC sometime in the future: “The photos have been printed, but it might be some time until the book is ready. (!).”
The interview continues…
Read Part 1 (on recording with Peter Gabriel)
Read Part 2 (on touring with Peter Gabriel)
Great interview. I had a chance to spend the day recording Tony for my new CD. There’s a video of that session that might be interesting for your readers @ http://www.shambhumusic.com/2010/05/05/video-shambhu-session-with-tony-levin/
Very cool! Thanks for sharing that video. Nice stuff, indeed.