It may be easier to list the musicians Tony Levin hasn’t played with rather than the ones he has. The legendary bassist has made an indelible low-end imprint on more than 500 albums, including the works of artists as diverse as Alice Cooper, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, Dire Straits, Sarah MacLachlan, Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Buddy Rich, Todd Rundgren … even Cher (among many others).
Tony Levin was the bassist on John Lennon’s final sessions. He not only recorded and toured with Paul Simon – Levin also acted in Simon’s 1980 film One Trick Pony. He’s been the bassist for Peter Gabriel throughout the latter’s solo career, and he’s played bass with most incarnations of King Crimson (there have been a lot of them) – including that iconic band’s current offshoot The Crimson Projekct – since 1981.
In addition to his high-profile session and touring gigs, Levin has also participated in a number of more adventurous side projects with equally virtuosic musicians, the latest of which, Levin Minnemann Rudess, finds him collaborating with drummer/guitarist Marco Minnemann (Steven Wilson/Joe Satriani) and Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess (see our interview with Jordan Rudess here).
We recently interviewed Levin about this new project (the CD ships on Sept. 5, 2013), asking along the way about his other associations, his favorite tech, and those sticks he puts on his fingers for a more percussive approach to the bass guitar.
Tony, tell us how your new project with Marco Minnemann and Jordan Rudess came together?
I love doing projects with great musicians – and with producer Scott Schorr, I’d been thinking about who to do a trio album with (after the critical success of our last one, Levin Torn White, with guitarist David Torn and YES drummer Alan White). I have worked with Marco Minnemann, on a tour playing the music of UK, and I knew what a great drummer he is (though didn’t realize until making the album that he plays guitar too, and really well!) Jordan Rudess and I have made a few albums together, as Liquid Tension Experiment, and I’d wanted to do something else with Jordan.
Speaking of which, how do you feel LMR relates to Liquid Tension Experiment? Do you consider this a continuation of sorts?
I don’t think of the two in the same way at all (though I admit that musicians like me tend to see each album and band as a new situation, even though others will hear continuity). On the LTE material, which came out great, we wrote the pieces together, and recorded right away – all in one time segment in the studio together. And some of the material was based on jams we did. The LMR material was composed individually; the other players then brought in to do their thing on it. No jamming, (well, Jordan and I did do some jams, but instead of fleshing them out and editing them, we decided to include videos of those jams, as they happened, on the Deluxe Edition DVD).
Any touring plans for LMR?
Not at this time. Of course, you never know what’ll happen in the future, but my thinking is that, with only one album of material, it’s tricky to put together a decent 90-minute show. Better to wait until there are two albums (hopefully that will happen down the road) and then you can have some selection of what material to play in the show.
Tony, I had the good fortune to see you live with The Crimson Projekct supporting Dream Theater in 2012. What is the current state of The Crimson Projekct? Future tour plans? Any possibility of recording new material with this group?
We are just looking at some dates in 2014 for the Crimson ProjeKct. And, as last year, we’ll do a summer music camp next August, featuring Adrian Belew, Pat Mastelotto and myself. (Oops, I’m not supposed to announce that until September. Well, I’m sure I’ll be forgiven.) I don’t know yet where the tour will take us–probably Europe in the Spring will be first. There are no plans to record with the Crimson ProjeKct – not counting the live CDs we’ve just released – that would seem to impinge too much on King Crimson territory. Speaking of which, I’m asked all the time what the plans are for Crimson, and I really don’t know of anything coming up. It lies in Robert Fripp’s decisions, and he hasn’t said anything about recording or touring. Like all the fans, I do hope there will be more Crimson, and soon!
You’ve been at the forefront of innovating how bass guitar is played. How, for example, did you start playing bass with sticks attached to your fingers?
The sticks on the fingers, which I call Funk Fingers, came about in an odd way. On Peter Gabriel’s track, “Big Time”, I had asked Jerry Marotta, the drummer, to drum on the bass strings while I fingered the left hand. Then, when the tour came around, I was trying to play that part with a drum stick in my right hand, when Peter suggested to me I find a way to attach drum sticks to my fingers. With the help of Andy Moore, my bass tech at the time, I did work out a comfortable way to do that. Back then, I briefly offered them for sale on my website, but I quickly got tired of the manufacturing end of it and stopped. Recently, I’ve given approval to Kevin Andrews, who has been making improvements on the Funk Fingers, to market them. So they’re finally available again.
Any other innovations in bass technique/instrumentation you can update us on?
Other innovations – I’m not sure. From my way of looking at it, I’m just trying to come up with good bass parts that suit the music. Sometimes, with innovative music, there’s the chance to try something unusual, and that’s a treat.
You last toured with Peter Gabriel in 2012 on the Back to Front tour. Any prospects of future touring/recording with PG?
I’m about to tour with Peter this October – the same show, but touring Europe. I don’t know of any recording plans, and I’ve just today heard that Peter is releasing a new album of other artists doing his songs.
Tony, you’ve played on countless albums with legendary artists. Is there anyone you haven’t played with that you’d like to?
I would love to play with Jimi Hendrix (hah, you didn’t put any restrictions on it!)
What is your favorite session memory?
I do have a lot of session memories, but I’m not good at pulling up any one or two. I’d say that I’ve been very lucky, through a long career, to have been with great musicians, and some great artists – all just trying to make some good music. I like to think the something has rubbed off on me from those players, and I think of myself as a player who is still trying to get better at my craft and who still has a lot to learn.
I greatly admire your photography work. How did your efforts in this area come about?
I always liked taking pictures, as many people did. I did a couple of photo books from my b&w film days, and a few exhibitions – then I switched to digital about a decade too early, I think – so I was able to put lots of pictures up on my website from those years, but the quality of them doesn’t allow for much other use. Nowadays the quality and flexibility is there with the digital cameras, so I can again find other uses from pictures I take for my web diaries.
Tony, our magazine TELL is primarily about electronics and technology. What kind of tech (smartphones, computers, recording gear, home entertainment, etc.) do you use?
I’m primarily a road guy – out travelling a lot of the time, so the iPad has become my most useful item, if only for the books I’m reading on it all the time. (Kindle was great too, but of course the iPad does more.) I was pleased, early this year, to finally have a photo book of mine turned into an app – or maybe you’d call it an e-book – but glad the book (Crimson Chronicles) can now be accessed on iPad or iPhone, and it was fun adding interactive features and music to the photography. I still need my laptop (MacBook Pro) for all the web updating and Photoshop editing late at night after a show (when I find out whether my shots during the show were decent, or need major work!) I have a iPhone – nothing surprising there. At my home studio I do a lot of recording, not just for Stick Men and for big projects like Levin Minnemann Rudess, but musicians send me files to play to, for their albums, and when I’m home, I spend a lot of my time recording from home. I use Logic (9.0) and after trying a few computers, I found that just the Mac Mini was suitable for me (maybe because I’m usually recording only one or two channels at a time) – I like that it’s not too expensive to update the computer when significant improvements come out. I currently monitor through Krok speakers, and I think the results are pretty darn good. (Frankly, with bass, the actual instrument that starts the recording chain is the most important part, and with a very good bass, it’s not hard to get a great sounding signal on ‘tape’.)
There is finally some (slow) movement in the recognition of progressive rock artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What are your feelings on the exclusion of King Crimson (which I feel is most deserving of induction) from this institution – and do you foresee Crimson’s recognition in the future?
I’m afraid I don’t follow that stuff. I think awards and honors are best left out of one’s awareness until when and if they come knocking. King Crimson has a lot of wonderful, discerning fans, who have stuck with the band through a lot of years and a lot of very challenging music. That’s worth more than all the awards that exist.
For further information on Levin Minnemann Rudess, go to www.levinminnemannrudess.com