It’s difficult to summarize the force of nature that is Tony Levin without geeking out a little bit. A master at the bass guitar, Levin is recognized as creating the funk fingers style of bass playing, which is a series of percussive tools (like little drum sticks) for your fingers that render some especially slap bass friendly tones. Re-read that: he invented a new way to play an instrument. But maybe I’m burying the lead here, because Levin has collaborated with musicians like John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Cher, and a ton more. Yes. That John Lennon and David Bowie (and every other name I mentioned). Currently, Levin is a longtime member of Peter Gabriel’s band and legendary prog act King Crimson, as well as his own project The Stick Men. All that and he has a boss mustache. We caught up with Levin to ask about his first band, touring, and collaborating with legends. Listen below and catch him play with the Stick Men on May 13th at Headliners with the incomparable Watter.
Never Nervous: How did you get started as a musician? Did you naturally gravitate towards the bass, or did you start with something else and pick it up later?
Tony Levin: Took a few years of piano lessons as a kid, and then I just wanted to play the bass – not sure why. But after all these years, I still just want to play the bass!
NN: How have you evolved as a bass player? Can you recall any particular breakthroughs that you had early on with the instrument? What do you register as some of your greatest contributions to bass?
TL: I keep trying to get better as a bassist, with practicing, trying new techniques, listening to other players. I don’t often look back at what I’ve done, so I don’t have any contributions to bass of mine that are on my mind.
NN: You have a long and storied career that has involved collaboration with an enormous wealth of talent. What was the first band you performed with?
TL: My first band, in 8th grade, was called “The Cavaliers”. Then, “Mike Holmes and the Rhythm Boys”…. then “Aha, the Attack of the Green Slime Beast”… none of these were quite the big hit that we’d have liked!
NN: How did you get into session work? What is the difference between performance as a hired player and a member of a band?
TL: There’s certainly a big difference in those. In the 70’s, when I moved to NY City, there was a lot of studio work to be had, and room for new players in town to do some — far different than it became decades later. I became quite busy as a session player, but was looking to play rock and to go out on the road – playing live has always been my favorite thing. So when the chance came, in ’76, to go out with Peter Gabriel, that was pretty much the end of my being exclusively a studio player. I’d describe the difference as this: Studio playing is kind of a craft — being familiar with styles, being able to get the part quickly if that’s what’s called for, and being very reliable in takes to play them right every time. In a band there’s much more time to experiment, to find your own voice, to try to be true to the spirit of the band and what it’s about, and, in the case of the bands I’ve been in, to not try to play in a particular style, but to try to progress out of the style and come up with something new.
NN: When you work with an artist like Peter Gabriel, are you an equal collaborator in the composition, or are you a part of an ensemble that tries to realize a particular vision?
TL: We don’t define that — sometimes Peter suggests bass ideas, sometimes he leaves it to me. Technically, I’m not part of the composition, just the bass part.
NN: I could spend this entire interview asking you about one collaboration or another. Instead are there any musicians that you haven’t worked with that you wish you could? Is there any younger act that you would like to work with?
TL: I’d like to have played with Jimi Hendrix!
NN: What can you tell us about working with King Crimson? How did that come to pass?
TL: Lucky to be asked to join the band, back in 1981. And I’ve learned a lot from the great players in the band, starting with the 80’s lineup of Belew, Fripp, Bruford. All really innovative players whose approach to creativity, I hope, rubbed off on me a bit.
NN: Relative to that, what challenges do you find most rewarding as a musician? Robert Fripp and company certainly seem like they would keep anyone on their toes, but you’ve certainly got plenty of experience to pull from. What gets you motivated now as a player?
TL: I do like challenges, and Crimson is full of those. Sometimes just being able to play the piece at all requires a lot of practice and a lot of concentration (especially if it’s a bass part one of the other Crimson bassists made up, which I want to learn, but then fashion it to be a bit my own.)
NN: What are the stresses involved as a professional musician? How have you seen that change from when you started to now?
TL: Travel can be tiring, and doing club tours in a van (like I am now) is probably best suited for young people… when us older guys get a cold, it passes around the van quickly and never really goes away! But those two hours you’re playing your music every night make it well worth the effort. And, in my experience, the people I’ve toured with, in Stick Men, in Crimson, in Peter Gabriel’s band… they’re all a lot of fun and it’s a pleasure to be around them.
NN: Tell us about the Stick Men. How did that project come together? Are you the primary composer or is it collaborative?
TL: We’ve been making our music for 8 years now. We try to have a unique sound, and I guess that’s a a given with two ‘touch guitar’ players, and Pat Mastelotto, Crimson’s drummer, playing drums with a combination of electronics and acoustic drumming. We write collaboratively, but that usually means Markus or me coming up with the basic piece and the others adding their input. Sometimes, though, we jam and sometimes those become compositions. We’ve tried all the permutations of writing that we can think of.
NN: How would you describe the band to someone unfamiliar? What should people expect at the show?
TL: Progressive music – not all head banging, some quite melodic and ‘nice’ but a lot of it is quite powerful. And you’ll see the players interact in ways that are part of the music (Markus and I each have bass and guitar strings, and can trade who is the lead or bass player, or both do both!) It’s a personal feeling show – you’ll know each of the guys by the end. We’re friendly – come out to sign cd’s and take pics after the show. And yes we do some King Crimson pieces too… which ones vary from night to night.