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Interview With Tony Levin

By Gary Wien

It will be another one of those special nights at the Saint in Asbury Park when Tony Levin, one of the world's greatest bass players, brings his band to town on Thursday, April 20th. Mike Black will open the show which will be a progressive rock fans dream bill.

Levin is probably best known for his work in the Peter Gabriel Band and King Crimson but he's recorded with just about everyone from John Lennon to Lou Reed, Tom Waits to Warren Zevon. The list of credits goes on and on and on.

We had the chance to interview Levin via email as he was doing final rehearsals for the tour in Woodstock, New York.

How have the rehearsals been going? You all set for the tour?
Rehearsals are always fine with us - we're good friends, and have a history going way back, so we enjoy being together, and working out the music. There's also a lot of fun stuff for us on this tour, more vocals than ever, some jokes in the set... so it's been nice.

Tell me about the new record. It's been a while since your last solo one.
This CD is still in what I'd call progressive rock vein (though I'm not good at categorizing my own music.) The big difference for me is that there are vocals now. I've had a lot of subjects I wanted to write about in these past years, and didn't feel I could express what I wanted this time just instrumentally. Having said that, we've got a couple of instrumentals too.

The delay from my last studio record was for two reasons - first I released a live (double) cd, called Double Espresso, and toured with that. Then, there's the making of Resonator - it took me quite a while, and I stuck to it because I felt this material deserved to be recorded right. I never do a sloppy job recording, but usually on records there's some degree of settling for some parts because you run out of time, or budget, or it's just what happened when you were in the studio. This time I worked slowly, adjusting the material a lot before bringing in the musicians. I also arranged some guest playing (from Adrian Belew and Steve Lukather) on the songs where it seemed best to have it.

Is there a story or idea behind the cover art?
Not really. In the past I've presented the record label with very specific title and art themes - sometimes the art itself. This time, perhaps because it's a vocal album, I chose a title with no specific image, and asked the label art dept. to give me some options. Took a while to come up with the x-ray one, but when I saw it I knew it was the one (only change; I asked them to shake the head up a bit, to get some 'resonating' in there!)

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I think my favorite song is "Places To Go" - it's almost like a short story in a way. In fact, several songs seem that way. Was that planned?
The song is pretty odd when I start to describe it, but holds together in practice. There's a theory called Panspermia, that maybe life came to the cooling earth long ago, as bacteria or spores, maybe from another planet. So, when the Mars rover landed (I happened to be at NASA's JPL Lab to watch it there) I mused, what if there's some element of homecoming to this. Thus began a song about homecomings, all a bit humorously presented - the second one is coming home to Boston being a road musician, third verse is about Heaven, and feeling at home there. ("Say is that Grandpa I see running around not using his walker? I had some trouble getting in here, gee those entrance rules are a shocker!")

Which song is it? I think "Fragile As a Song" which was inspired by jamming with Peter Gabriel and some apes. Can you tell me about that story?
Peter called me, a few years back, from Atlanta, where he was spending a couple of days trying to make music with the apes in a language research facility there. I did join him, and the experience was amazing - especially in seeing how well they (bonobo apes) communicate and understand language. Gradually, the processing of that event led to the song "Fragile As A Song" which doesn't seem to be about apes, but about connections.

Tell me about Funk Fingers. Will you be bringing them on tour?
The Resonator cd starts right off with Funk Fingers on the bass (in the song "Break It Down") and yes, I'll have them on tour. They're drumsticks chopped off, and held on fingers with tape. Get a nice percussive sound that is slightly different on the bass than anything else. So when it's appropriate for the music I like to use them.

Rather than talk about all of the people you've played with, how about - who haven't you played with that you'd like to?
The first name is Jimi Hendrix - it would have been great. Otherwise, there are many many great players, and when I hear them, of course, I'm wishing I'd get the chance to join in on bass. A few years ago I would have mentioned David Bowie as a favorite, but then by luck I was asked to play a couple of songs on an album with him. So, though more would be nice, I can't say I haven't played with him now.

With most of your tours such as Peter Gabriel, you're playing large concert arenas and stadiums. How different is it for you to be playing club shows again?
Clubs are more fun, for sure. Even to Peter. Any performer feeds off the audience, and when you can SEE the faces it's a better connection than when it's a sea of people. Also, you know they can see your face - so you dont' need to run 30 feet across the stage to have some movement that'll be seen in the back rows - and you dont' always have the camera aimed at you, for the video projection.

However, I have to say, that special magic thing that can happen at some concerts - it can happen in any size venue - it's a product of the music and the audience.

A while ago you released a book of photos called Road Photos. Are you still avidly taking shots while on tours? Any plans for a second photo book?
In fact I put out another photo book a couple of years ago - it's "Crimson Chronicles Vol. 1" photos of King Crimson in the '80's. I had so many, covering the whole incarnation from it's beginning in 1981 in Dorset, England, that I couldn't weed it down to the 96 pages I'd had in Road Photos without losing a lot of the history. So it's a large photo book with over 200 pages. Volume 2, the '90's, will be awhile coming (I AM busy with other things!) but eventually it'll present a full history of my years in the band. (not counting what is coming in the future.)

The first book, Road Photos, is out of print, not available anywhere. Crimson Chronicles is published by my company, Papabear Records, and available at my website. Likewise "Beyond the Bass Clef" a written book I published some years ago.

Did you take a lot of shots while in Russia? What was that experience like?
The experience was great. The photography was a disaster - I forgot my camera! But more important was the music, and I got to participate in some very good stuff. And diverse - I played with Uganda's Geoffrey Oryema and Russia's Olga Arefieva.

I wasn't aware of just how much classical training you had while growing up. Does that background influence or affect your songwriting or playing?
The Classical training doesn't directly affect any of the music I do now. But it does, of course, make up a part of my musical heritage and experience, so I'm probably drawing on it in ways I'm not aware of, when I write and when I play.

It's always amazing to me when I see people who did things as kids at the White House in front of the Kennedys. It's like you probably didn't
know just how special that experience really was until years later. What do you remember of that day?

I'd say that we did know it was pretty special. Played the concert on the lawn, then a lunch (organized by Jackie) in the White House - it was our first experience at buffet stand-up dining. You have to hold a plate, a drink, and eat... without spilling. A politician's technique for sure, and I remember that we musicians weren't very good at it. The President was too busy, he said, to stay at the concert or come to the lunch - said he'd keep his office window open though. I think I have an excerpt of his speech in my web archives - it's really pretty special - hearing how he believed in encouraging the arts, especially musical training in America's youth.

I really enjoyed reading your Road Diary on your website. I think blogs are a great way of connecting with your fans. What do you think of them?
For me, the website has been a great thing. I was an early user of the web, and e-mail for that matter. And I saw the website immediately as a way to slightly lower that barrier between performer and audience. I can't communicate with everyone who comes to shows I do, but the web allows you a bit of distance, but you can still share much more than, say, over the phone!

And I learned soon after starting it, that people were very interested in sharing what it's really like 'behind the scenes' on tour, especially on a big tour like Peter Gabriel's or Seal's. So, photos of the bus, the crew, the backstage... they're fun for both me and the viewers. And I've always taken photos from stage, so it was a natural progression to start putting up audience shots on the site. I think when people see the energy they project as an audience, they can start to realize what a great effect they have on us performers.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 04/10/2006



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