Photo by Juergen Spachman
BY JAMIE KNERR There’s no sensible reason why King Crimson bassist Tony Levin is not a household name. Think about it. He’s rightly revered–not only by his peers but also by discerning listeners around the globe–as a Jedi-level master of his instrument. In an illustrious career spanning over four decades, Levin has provided the bottom end for the likes of John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Asia, Alice Cooper, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Stevie Nicks, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Dire Straights, Lou Reed, Cher, Tom Waits, Buddy Rich, The Roches, Todd Rundgren, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Warren Zevon, and of course King Crimson. And many, many more.
Absorb that list. Take all the time you need.
Born in Boston in 1946, classically trained at the Eastman School of Music, Tony Levin was already a highly-respected and much sought-after session bassist by the early 1970’s. Now widely regarded as a towering figure in the heady realm of prog rock–his contribution to that genre alone can’t be overstated, and bears testimony to the unique talents of the man–Levin might also be accurately described as something of a musical nomad. Apart from his substantial impact on the world of prog, Levin has lent his formidable bass lines to a wide array of artists in the diverse genres of pop, rock, jazz and world music (see above). In short, in the sheer scope and diversity of his achievements as an instrumentalist one would be hard-pressed to find his equal. This is not hyperbole.
Also a self-admitted and unrepentant “road dog”, Levin still thrives on the experience of touring and performing, in venues both large and small. Enter Stick Men [pictured, below]. In his rare time away from his role as bassist for King Crimson, Levin embarked a decade ago on a solo endeavor which culminated in the 2007 album Stick Man. The album, comprised of pieces composed on the Chapman Stick, featured King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto and stick-guitar virtuoso Michael Bernier. The group took the name Stick Men. When Bernier left the band in 2010 his duties were assumed by German touch-guitar master Markus Reuter.
Firmly rooted in progressive/ art rock, Stick Men is an uncharacteristically lean three-piece most notable for its power, subtlety and adventurousness. Having released six studio albums to date, as well as several live recordings, the band continues to compose, record and perform together, and is currently touring in the U.S. They’re perhaps best appreciated in a live setting; their presentation is nothing short of breathtaking. It includes interpretations of well-known King Crimson material–deftly arranged and adapted for a 3-piece–and original compositions, offered with a liberal helping of jaw-dropping improvisation and on-the-spot invention. On stage the players favor spontaneity, giving one another the latitude to explore tributaries that may lead to uncharted musical waters; for this reason no two Stick Men performances are alike. Which brings us to August 15th 2017, when Stick Men will be performing live at Havana in New Hope, PA. I had the privilege of speaking with Tony Levin last week about all things bass, and about Stick Men and their current tour. Here’s some of what he had to say:
PHAWKER: What was it that first attracted you to progressive rock?
TONY LEVIN: Progressive music turns out to be a little bit like the classical music I grew up with, so I had a head start in progressive rock. As a listener I liked the challenge, the unusualness of it. What got me playing in bands like that was simply that they asked me! I don’t really know why Peter Gabriel asked me…on his record session when he left Genesis, which was 1976, I was called for that, just luckily the producer knew me. And that’s the day I met Robert Fripp and he heard me play on Peter’s stuff, and he thought ‘Well maybe this guy would be good for King Crimson’. So I just kind of fell into those situations. With Peter it was easy from the beginning and it got easier through the years; with King Crimson it was hard at the beginning and it stayed hard through the years (laughs).
TONY LEVIN: We won’t let ourselves do things the easy way, we won’t let ourselves go out and do it the way we did on the last tour, or the way we did it on the record. Mind you, one never knows, I could get a phone call in an hour saying that the band no longer exists! Robert Fripp is always surprising all of us, not just you, but the guys in the band. In the 90’s he said, ‘I think there should be two stick players’, and Trey Gunn joined the band. And recently he said, ‘I think there should be three drummers. And then he said, ‘There should be four drummers!’ He doesn’t just get the idea, he finds the right people to do it. So he doesn’t have to tell the three drummers constantly what he wants them to do, he just gets those three drummers for the band, and sends them off in their own direction. It’s not accidental that he gets people that are willing to face that challenge.
PHAWKER: What’s it like to tackle King Crimson material as a three-piece with Stick Men?
TONY LEVIN: Two of us, Pat Mastelotto and myself, are in King Crimson, and we will have just done a version of, say, Level Five with eight people, and then we’re going to do it with three people…it’s quite different, a different kind of challenge for us. We feel this music is so important that it really deserves to be explored in different ways.
PHAWKER: Are you influenced much by other contemporary artists?
TONY LEVIN: I think I’m like a lot of musicians, certainly bassists and drummers, when I hear good music on the radio or live, anywhere, part of me as a listener is saying, ‘I love it’ and then another part of me feels like, ‘Oh, I wish I was playing with this’. Then a third part of me listens to what the bass player is doing and thinks, “Wow that’s cool, is there some way that can inform my bass playing a little bit?’
PHAWKER: You’re a self-described “road dog”. Why do you think you’re so well-suited for the job?
TONY LEVIN: It’s hard to say why. Every once in awhile a quote ‘normal” person comes out on the road, and they usually go home and don’t tour anymore! It’s not for everybody. If you’re particular about what you eat, about where you sleep and when you sleep and how much you sleep, if you’re fussy about that, it’s not the life for you. With Peter Gabriel we stay in 4-star hotels, we travel on a private jet. With King Crimson, we stay in nice hotels. In both those cases we have crews to set up our stuff…so there’s that world. With Stick Men we drive the van, we do one-nighters, we don’t take a night off for four, five or six nights, we do as many one-nighters as we can get. We load our own gear after the show.
PHAWKER: What do you see on the horizon for Stick Men?
TONY LEVIN: Our plans are the same…Whenever Crimson’s not touring, which is quite a bit of time, Pat and I put our heads together and think about where we can play. We hope to do two tour legs a year. But I know better than to predict the future in ‘Rock’!