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Tony Levin: A Global Musical Heritage

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At some point, without knowing it, you've heard the individualistic stylings of bass virtuoso Tony Levin. He's recorded with such artists as Karen Carpenter, Cher, John Lennon, Paula Cole, Alice Cooper, Dire Straits, Peter Frampton, Phil Manzanera, Liza Minelli, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Richie Samborra, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Yes, Warren Zevon, and many more. Levin may be best known, though, for his work with Peter Gabriel or Robert Fripp's King Crimson (circa 1980 on), for he is hard to ignore, physically (that bald guy with the thick mustache who plays those weird looking instruments) or sonically (his brand of bass is an instantly noticeable rumble).

In 1984, Levin released "Road Photos", a collection of black-&-white photos taken during his tours with Crimson, Gabriel, Carly Simon, and others. His photography has been featured in exhibitions in Boston, Woodstock, and Zurich.

In 1998, Levin wrote "Beyond the Bass Clef, the Life and Art of Bass Playing", a clever and insightful book which is still widely distributed.

Levin is also responsible for inventing "Funk Fingers", drumstick-like sticks which are attached to the fingers and used to beat on the strings of a bass. Simple as it may sound verbally, the resulting timbre of these devices is incredible, deriving heretofore uncommon tonalities from the instrument. (As if Levin was at a loss for innovative tones, being a master of the Chapman Stick, a technological refinement of a traditional electric bass guitar.)

Enough background. Let's have a few words with this modern renaissance man. Then we'll investigate the awesome music Levin's been producing when he's in the driver's seat.

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Conducted electronically, 07.01
Questions by Matt Howarth and Craig Smith

Q: What attracted you to become a musician in the first place? And why choose the bass as an instrument?

TONY LEVIN: My family was pretty music-orientated. My older brother Pete played first French Horn and then piano (and is a professional musician now), so I was exposed to music a lot. The question of why I chose the bass is a funny one—I asked my parents just a few years ago whether they remembered why I chose the bass (I didn't remember). They told me that I just said I liked it. At this stage of my long career, I realize that the choice, coming from some internal part of me rather than from any idea I had about the instrument, was a very good one; after all these years, I'm still quite happy just playing the bass.

Q: You are also prolific with the Chapman Stick. Could you explain the similarities (and differences) between a stick and a bass?

TONY LEVIN: Lots of differences, but I first got the Stick to cover bass parts, not to play lead parts (which it will also do). I like the different sound it gets in the low notes, and also because of the unusual tuning (the bass strings are in 5ths, and backwards from a bass) it helps me to come up with unusual ideas for bass lines. The other elements of the Stick are its percussive sound, because all the notes are "hammered on", not plucked. And the stereo output has a bass side and a guitar side (that's usually tuned in 4th) so you can play chords or lead with one hand, and bass with the other.

Q: Considering how many bands you've toured with, your extensive travels have undoubtedly taken you far and wide. Any comment on the global state of the audience?

TONY LEVIN: Most touring musicians find audiences different in different areas of the world. There are no hard and fast rules, but reception of a band is much more excited in some places, and of course, you like that and tend to look forward to it. There is also a lot of variation depending on who the band is—each band has some cities and countries that are particularly passionate about them.

Q: Of all the musical instruments, the bass is particularly physical, in execution and perception. The vibrations of a bass can be perceived by the entire body, not just the auditory canal. Do you have any thoughts on the use of subsonic sounds to affect human physiology?

TONY LEVIN: Nope. But maybe you've uncovered the reason I first was attracted to the bass. It's interesting that I didn't have to know why to just like it!

Q: Again, considering your years of live concert experience, what problems do you suspect will have to be overcome to perform in outer space (i.e.: a zero-G environment)?

TONY LEVIN: Well, as in most situations, it'll be easier for the bass player than for others. Especially the drummer!

Q: Being a musician who also does photography, you utilize sound and vision in your creativity. What might you perceive as apt visuals for your own music?

TONY LEVIN: The two are quite separate for me. I don't have any visuals in mind when I play or write music—in fact, music is usually swirling around my brain anyway. When I do photography or art, I focus on the visual only—don't use any music then. One exception is that when I painted the cover art for the "Bruford Levin Upper Extremities" (BLUE) CD, I looped the rough mixes and tried to create abstract art that was based on that music. That was fun, but not the way I usually work.

Q: Can you tell us a little about "Beyond the Bass Clef"?

TONY LEVIN: I'm always writing, and parts of this book go back many years—especially the anecdotes of unusual happenings out on the road. The book is a combination of those anecdotes, and some advice about playing (but not technical bass lessons—more generally about music), and some essays about music and bass playing. I decided to accompany the writing with a series of cartoons, utilizing the bass clef in them all.

Q: You seem to prefer instrumental pieces when you're in the composing seat. Why so?

TONY LEVIN: Not so. I equally enjoy the three types of musical situations I get involved in: Being a backup player on somebody's album or tour, in which case I use my experience of the bass to come up with the best parts I can to enhance the music that's been written. Then, sometimes I do collaborations (King Crimson, Bozzio Levin Stevens, Liquid Tension, Bruford Levin, etc.) where we create the music together, and feed off each other's talent. Sometimes I do my own "solo" CD's, where it's time for me to do the writing myself, and either instruct the players what I want them to play, or choose the best player for each part and let them create the part.

Q: What was the inspiration behind "Funk Fingers"??

TONY LEVIN: On Peter Gabriel's "So" album I'd asked the drummer, Jerry Marotta, to drum on the bass strings of one piece, while I did the left hand fingering. On the road, it was pretty hard to reproduce that by myself! One day at soundcheck, while I was practicing with one drumstick, as usual…Peter walked by me and saw the technique, and suggested that I try attaching two sticks to my fingers.(Brilliant!) So, with much experimenting over the years of the tour, a workable solution with stretch velcro holding on just the right sized sticks came up. I sold them over my web site, just for fun, for a couple of years, till they sold out. Latest development is that I'm trying to have them made of Polypropalyn, so that I can mass produce them, and I hope to have them back on the site within a year. Meanwhile, I'm happy with my original wooden set.

Q: Who do you envy among contemporary musicians?

TONY LEVIN: I try not to waste energy envying people. All of us "freelance" musicians or artists, fall in and out of work, sometimes getting to play with great talents, sometimes going quite a while without good work. I do hope, for myself, that I'll continue to be as lucky as I've been, and to get the chance to play high quality music with some of the many great musicians out there.

Q: "Waters Of Eden" appears to have been recorded all over the place. Isn't it hard to write for and work with musicians who are not present?

TONY LEVIN: There are a few ways to record an album. Because of a small budget, and wanting to use musicians who were very busy, I did "Waters of Eden" by visiting each musician at their home studio and getting their parts done there. That method is easy for the players, but means I need to have the whole concept from the beginning—i.e. not much can change from the input of each player. It worked fine for that album, but I'm looking forward to beginning recording (next week) on my follow-up album, where I'm treating myself to have all the musicians in the studio for a couple of weeks in "real time."

Q: Do you foresee any application of computer technology to your music?

TONY LEVIN: Well, it's usually recorded onto a digital (computer) system, so there is that element. I am also considering sometime in the future doing a totally computer album. But with current projects, I'm generally trying to avoid the digital influence (i.e. we won't play with drum machine parts, I avoid watching the computer screen in the studio) because I find it takes me away from the kind of music I usually want to make.

Q: What's the last scientific discovery that made you go "Wow!"?

TONY LEVIN: I spend some time reading about the science that's COMING, or that's being developed but we don't hear much about it, and I'm awed by the changes coming to our culture. I think this century is going to have challenges thrown at our human race unlike any in the past, and I envision a lot of conflict coming from them, but awesome progress. I guess the "scientific discovery" that most wows me is the gradual replacement of parts of the fallible human body, soon to be followed by improvements in other aspects of our physiology, which will lead not too far in the future, to a life form that looks like us "natural humans" but is really an evolved species. Very exciting, I think, but the human race going extinct may not be a pretty picture.

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