When the opportunity landed in my lap to interview musician Tony Levin, I said yes.
To be specific, what I actually said was “Yes, wow, seriously? Wow, yes! Wow, please!” Because I’m wonderfully eloquent, you see. I’m also a huge fan of progressive rock (as my longtime readers know), so to have the chance to get to know a musician with the colorful and amazing rock history that Tony Levin has, what else could I say but yes? And how else could I say it but in the style known as Yammering Fan Girl?
Tony is a bass guitarist who has played with the likes of King Crimson, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, John Lennon… you get the idea. Hard core prog rock fans already know who he is. For everyone else, allow me to introduce you to the amazing, multi-talented (and very witty) Tony Levin.
Me: First of all, I have to ask this. Thanks to being raised by music-loving parents, I’ve long been fascinated with any musical instrument that’s out of the ordinary (I seriously remember asking my dad what a wah-wah pedal was), so I’m excited to talk with the man who is pretty much considered the daddy, if you will, of the Chapman Stick. What can you tell me about it and what is it that drew you to it?
Tony: Hah… glad you are interested in that instrument — really it’s the same attraction to the unusual that drew me to the Chapman Stick. When I heard about it (way back the year it came out, in the 70’s) I had to check it out. For me, being a bass player, I used it at first just to come up with a different bass sound and parts. But it also has a side with guitar strings (and good players can play both together) so eventually I expanded to playing that side too, and writing music on it.
The thing that makes it different than a guitar, besides its looks, is that you play it only by ‘hammer-on’ or ‘touch guitar’ technique. Really easy – you just thump a finger on the note you want — no need to pluck the string with your other hand. So, as you can imagine, you can get a lot of notes on it — much like a piano.
Me: You’ve played with some big names. Some freaking huge names. I won’t ask such a ridiculous question as who was your favorite, but maybe you can tell me one or two of them that were particularly memorable, and why.
Tony: You’re right, picking favorites wouldn’t be up my alley. But, gee, playing with Peter Gabriel for his whole solo career has been fantastic, both musically and personally. Lots of fun and great playing experiences in those years on the road.I was honored when John Lennon had me on Double Fantasy – I never asked why I was the bass player chosen, but it was a great experience, and, as I said, an honor to be part of that album. Likewise Pink Floyd, with their “Momentary Lapse of Reason” album. And when I had a chance to play bass on some of the David Bowie songs for “The Next Day,” I was thrilled. (Brought the Chapman Stick in on one song too, which was a hoot.) Let me not leave out King Crimson, whom I’m rehearsing with right now for upcoming US tour… my years in that group have been probably the most musically influential to me, and it’s still my biggest challenge, in a good way, to be part of that band.
Me: I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have been a rock musician in the 60’s or the 70’s, and still be playing today. I understand you’re really focusing on jazz now and we’ll get to that in a minute, but what’s it like, looking out at the rock landscape now?
Tony: The rock scene, playing live and even recording, is changing fast, and it keeps changing. Yeah, things were simpler back in the 60’s and 70’s when, though it was tough, at least you knew what the parameters were. Now, it’s a wide open field and the groups that are the smartest at figuring out marketing and publicity issues are doing better than the ones who just make the best music. For me, (and most of the players I work with), figuring out the biz has never been a priority — just trying to make good music. So I’m one of the ‘followers’… i.e. if I see how somebody else made the right moves, I’ll maybe try it out with my band.
Me: Paste magazine named you the second most underrated bass guitarist of all time. What was your reaction to that? I imagine it was a kind of thanks-I-think feeling.
Tony: Hah, ‘thanks-I-think’ is a good expression — I’ll use it in the future. I didn’t know about that particular thing, but I do find that as I get older, there are slowly more honors bestowed on me… and I’m always gracious about it, I hope, but there’s always a little of knowing, really, it’s for sticking around so long! Or should I say ‘Sticking’ around.
Me: Tell me about your new project, with your brother.
Tony: Interesting back story – we’ve both been musicians since the earth cooled (!) and have played together some, but never set out to make an album together. A couple years ago I found myself re-examining the music we loved when we were kids — a type of easy to listen to jazz called ‘cool jazz,’ and I thought, hey, we loved it, why don’t we write songs in that style and be a band, just for the love of the music. When I asked my brother, Pete, it turned out that, like me, he totally remembered every song and every solo. Hey, that’s the kind of truly ‘classic’ music I want to be writing – that stays with people and becomes a little part of their musical life. So that’s what we’ve tried to do with the “Levin Brothers” album – even for people, like I was as a kid, who are not jazz fans.
Me: What’s one thing that someone would be surprised to learn about you?
Tony: Realistically, I’m not famous enough that even prog rock fans know a lot about me… let’s say this: since I’m somewhat known for having a bald head before any other musicians did… that the first year I did it was a hot summer, and I only shaved off the hair to be cooler. Not to be ‘cool’!