Bass legend tells FBPO all about his lengthy career, how he became a “Stick” player and more!
Tony Levin is a virtuoso of both the electric bass and Chapman Stick. Born in Boston, MA, Levin studied upright bass and tuba while growing up and even formed his own barbershop quartet. After attending Eastman School of Music, Tony relocated to New York City, where he ultimately became an extremely prolific session bassist.
Well known for his longstanding tenures with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, as well as collaborations with Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford and several others, Tony has also worked with an incredibly wide range of artists. Throughout the course of his brilliant career, Levin has recorded and/or toured with Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Etta James, Buddy Rich, James Taylor, Yes, Phoebe Snow, Warren Zevon, Pink Floyd, Mark Knopfler, John Lennon, Melissa Manchester, Liza Minnelli, Rick Springfield, Carly Simon, Kenny Loggins, Peter Frampton, Chuck Mangione, Todd Rundgren and countless others.
Tony is a founding member of Stick Men, where he showcases his talent on the Chapman Stick. Levin continues to record, perform and tour regularly throughout the United States and abroad.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
TL: Two influences were quite strong: My love of classical music and my older brother, Pete, playing jazz albums all the time. I listened mostly to classical and took piano lessons, then bass lessons, in that genre. I was also in a “combo,” of course, from about 11 years old, but my main focus was on orchestral playing.
Though I wasn’t passionate about the jazz I was hearing, I realized years later that it did indeed have an effect on my musical sensibility. I’d venture to say that the way I heard Oscar Pettiford playing jazz bass – he was on a lot of the albums Pete was playing, and I still know those bass lines by heart – the way he was approaching jazz bass lines is similar to the way I would, much later, try to formulate rock and pop bass parts. It’s not so easy to describe exactly what it is, but, in simple terms, it’s finding just the right notes and playing them with just the right feel.
FBPO: You were pretty well steeped in classical music for a long time. How did you get so immersed in the whole rock scene?
TL: I was lucky, in music school, to team up with drummer Steve Gadd for local gigs. Though mostly jazz, we had a group with keyboardist/singer Mike Holmes that we tried to make a go of in NYC much later. I’d say after classical, I played more jazz than rock for a few years, then made a direction change to try to play more rock. Since then, I’ve always thought of myself as a rock player who plays some jazz, rather than a jazz player playing rock.
The classical music influence helped me quite a bit in rock, especially progressive rock, with its complexities. I remain a fan of classical music, though I rarely get to play it now. One exception was the California Guitar Trio, who asked me to play on a few pieces on their recent record. We played some Bach and Shubert’s “Ave Maria,” which I played on the NS Electric Cello.
FBPO: I remember seeing an interview with you once where you said you never really set out to be a session player, but it started happening little by little until, eventually, it just snowballed. Did I understand you correctly?
TL: I moved to New York, fell into a band called “Aha, the Attack of the Green Slime Beast,” which had offers from record labels – remember back then? – but very little work. I was offered some jingle sessions, then record sessions, which helped pay the bills. The band ended and the sessions got more frequent. I didn’t mind doing them, but really had my eye out for a rock band I could join.
When fortune brought me to Peter Gabriel’s first solo album after he left Genesis, he asked me to tour with him and I happily pretty much said goodbye to being a full-time session player. In those days, to be that, you had to stay in town all the time. My thanks go to Bob Ezrin, the producer of that album, who liked my hard rock playing and had already brought me in on Alice Cooper records and Lou Reed’s Berlin. Years later he invited me to play bass on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason. So there’s a whole career of great stuff just from Bob’s invitation.
FBPO: So that’s when your career really began to take off? After those first Peter Gabriel sessions?
TL: Pretty much. Producer Bob Ezrin having me play on Peter’s first record led me to meeting Robert Fripp and getting out on the road with Peter, which was pivotal for me. Joining King Crimson, in 1980, was another big step I was lucky to be able to take.
FBPO: Tell me about the movie you did with Paul Simon, One Trick Pony, along with Eric Gale, Richard Tee and Steve Gadd. You don’t hear too many people talking about it, but I remember really being able to relate to the story. What was it like being in a full-length feature motion picture?
TL: Being part of a movie was really different than making albums and different than what I’d expected. We were on location in Cleveland for about a month to do the band sections of the film, with other bits done in New York later. The Holiday Inn becomes your home. You’re expected onsite pretty early in the morning, even if you aren’t needed till much later. And there are production assistants to make sure you get there and stay there!
Doing your scenes is pretty easy. Mostly, it’s just waiting around. In that sense, it’s a bit like doing recording sessions, when they’re getting drum sounds, but a month is pretty different than a couple of days.
I was impressed by the film crew, too. There were about fifty people in all, being something like a family, many having worked on other movies together. Everyone enjoyed their job and there was a great sense of professionalism in every aspect of the movie making. As a photographer, I got to share the “short ends” of the 35mm film reels, which can be used in cameras. It’s a cool kind of film, unlike any I’d used before.
There should have been some excitement about the movie finally coming out, but, alas, we toured to publicize it and the album and by the time I came home, the film had closed already! So I don’t know anyone, but my parents, who saw it in a theater.
FBPO: What attracted you to the Stick?
TL: I like unusual instruments and, in the ’70s, when Emmett Chapman came out with his Chapman Stick, I heard about it from a number of players who knew me. I got one pretty early on and took it right to the Peter Gabriel sessions in Toronto in 1976. It didn’t work out on that album – maybe because I could hardly play it yet! – but I took it on the road and started using it for the bass parts on some simpler pieces. Gradually, I became comfortable with using the bass side in many different musical situations. It was only with King Crimson that I was also playing the “guitar side” of the Stick. I’ll admit I didn’t focus on that until much later, when, in Stick Men, I wanted to cover both sides, the way the other Stick players were doing it, not just being the bass player.
What appealed to me on the bass side was how the percussive attack sounds quite different than anything I can get on a bass. It’s also clearer on the low notes, enabling me to play them fast while still hearing the articulation. Also, with a volume pedal to ease the attack, I can get very cello-like sounds over a wide range. And, perhaps the best part, with the tuning in 5ths, it inspires me to come up with different parts than I do on the same old bass tuning in 4ths. Big jumps and wide open parts lay nicely on the instrument, as do chords in the high register.
FBPO: How did the formation of your current group, Stick Men, come to be?
TL: In 2007, I recorded a CD, titled Stick Man, that featured the instrument a lot. Pat Mastelotto, my King Crimson bandmate, played drums on it, but most of the rest was my overdubs. It turned out so well and was a harder-edged style than I’d been doing live with the Tony Levin Band that I wanted to go play the material live. Of course I needed another Stick player, at the least, to do that. Michael Bernier is an excellent player who lives close to me, so he was an obvious choice. We toured, then recorded another album and toured more, falling into a groove where we had reliable tours available in the U.S, Europe and South America. Not really big numbers, but enough to enable us to get out there and do our music, which is great fun.
After two years, Michael found that his family life required him to be home a lot more, so we faced a difficult moment for the band. The decision was that we needed to keep touring. Since we couldn’t exist as just a recording band, we had to part ways with Michael. Again, the choice was pretty easy because Pat already played in a duo with touch guitarist Markus Reuter, who plays an instrument he designed himself. We got together to try it out and, right away, had some new material that sounded good, so we proceeded on the next album and more tours. Since then, there have been a lot of tours and some very good CDs released. The most recent is titled Deep, which has both a CD and an enhanced DVD version.
FBPO: I understand you have a brand new release coming out next month.
TL: Yes! My most recent work is more than “recent.” Its release has just been announced this week. It’s a trio project, with Jordan Rudess, the keyboardist of Dream Theater, drummer/guitarist Marco Minnemann and me. The CD title is Levin Minnemann Rudess. We’ve done an enhanced DVD as well, with interviews and extra tracks. We had been working on the material for months and just finished recording in mid-July. The music is pretty complex progressive rock, which you’d expect, and I enjoyed playing lots of basses on it, including the Chapman Stick, a few Music Man basses, the NS Electric Upright and the NS Electric Cello.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
TL: Right now, I’m on tour in the U.S. with Stick Men. Europe gigs are coming up later this month. After that, I’ll go to L.A. to tape a video of an album I was part of. In September, I hope to catch a few football games before heading back to Europe to tour with Peter Gabriel, doing the So concert that we did in the U.S. last year. Stick Men will tour some more next January and then maybe more PG touring – I hope! – after that.
FBPO: What about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
TL: Plenty that I’d like to accomplish! Like most people, I feel I’m not getting as much finished as I ought to. I’m in early stages of forming a jazz group with my brother Pete, have written the music, but practicing a lot to keep up my end of the playing! I’m part way through a solo album, which, again, needs a lot more time and practicing devoted to it to be a worthwhile release.
We in Stick Men have started writing the next album and, hopefully, will continue to play live a lot. I also hope to continue being invited to play bass on albums with some really creative musicians. I’ve been very lucky though the years to be part of projects like that and I’ve received a lot of inspiration from them.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass (or stick) player?
TL: Hah! Do something outside of music? It’s a little hard to say because I’ve been single-mindedly playing the bass since the earth cooled! I like writing and I like photography, neither of which could support me, so I’ll say I’d do both of those.
See our interview with "Stick" inventor Emmett Chapman, who is mentioned here
See our follow-up interview with Tony, too!
"Rock Bass," by Jon Liebman, is endorsed by Tony Levin