King Crimson bassist and Chapman Stick champ shares the scoop on the Liquid Tension Experiment reunion
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
April 19, 2021
Believe it or not, this is FBPO’s 700th bass player interview. And to celebrate, we’re speaking with the inimitable Tony Levin. An unorthodox musician, if ever there was one, the bassist is well known for his associations with both Peter Gabriel and King Crimson as well as his embrace of the Chapman Stick, an instrument he helped popularize. He’s also a co-creator of Funk Fingers, drumstick-like tools that allow bassists to make funky percussive sounds with their instruments. Beyond that, Levin is a prolific session musician, who’s appeared on more than 500 albums, including works by Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Paula Cole, Buddy Rich, Warren Zevon, Sarah Brightman, Bruce Hornsby, Sarah McLachlan, The Brecker Brothers, and Judy Collins, to name a few. Over the years, he’s released numerous solo albums, including 2007’s Stick Man. Levin has also been involved in a variety of collaborative ensembles, including Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Bozzio Levin Stevens, Levin Torn White, Levin Minnemann Rudess, Stick Men, Levin Brothers and the recently reunited Liquid Tension Experiment.
FBPO: What prompted this reunion of Liquid Tension Experiment after so many years?
TL: Pretty simple. I think the idea was Jordan Rudess’, or Jordan and Mike combined, Mike Portnoy. All I know, as soon as they talked about it, they wrote me and John (Petrucci) asking if we’d be interested and, “Hey, what do you say we use this down year to record with Liquid Tension?” And it took about a nanosecond for me to reply. And likewise, John. So the idea was hovering somewhere in space. But once somebody thought of it and we shared the idea, it was no time at all until we were making logistics and making the plans to do it. It was a great idea.
FBPO: How did it feel getting back together with the guys in this context after so long? Did it feel like you could pick up right where you left off?
TL: It was surprising to me how similar it felt. It felt like we never stopped. Of course, we have been in contact with each other plenty through the years. We played in different ensembles, not with the full four of us, but with … I’m in touch with the guys and we’re friends. So it wasn’t that shocking an idea to get together and do it. But the mechanism for Liquid Tension, for writing our material, we always write together and then record kind of at the same time as we’re writing. And the mechanism hadn’t changed at all. As soon as we were rolling tape, and I say that figuratively, rolling tape…
FBPO: I was going to ask…
TL: Well, Liquid Tension. There are other styles of music each of us can play. There are other approaches, there’s ways to discuss, “Well, where are we going to go with this?” We didn’t do any of that. We just rolled tape, started playing, either jamming or one guy said, “Hey, here’s an idea of mine.” And that led to right away to another guy saying, “Well, I got an idea that would follow that nicely.” Before you know it, we have a three-minute piece and a five-minute piece. And before you know it, it’s a 12-minute piece, and that’s the way we worked before, 20 years ago. And that’s the way it went down this time.
FBPO: The record kicks off making a very strong statement with “Hypersonic.” That’s a lot of notes!
TL: You’re telling me! [Laughs] In fact, I noticed that. I remember the first time we got together, over 20 years ago, making the first album. The other guys said, “Let’s just be crazy.” And I, a little bit being an outsider, I didn’t know what they meant by “Let’s be crazy.” And what they meant was, “Let’s play as fast and insanely fast as we can.” So this time right away, I heard the guys saying, “Let’s be more crazy.” And indeed, “Hypersonic” was that. It’s just this … So fast I can’t even think that fast, let alone play that fast. But as usual in this band, I’m the guy kind of tagging along a step or two behind the other guys. And they very kindly wait for me to catch up. And often that means overdubbing my part to really get it right. It’s a good feeling. It’s a good combination. I feel respected in spite of the fact that I’m not quite as much a speed player as they are, and it works for us musically.
FBPO: This record pretty much follows the same format of the first two LTE albums, as far as the number of songs and the way they’re performed. Would you say you’re just sticking with what works?
TL: Yeah. Like I said, we didn’t really think about it or discuss it at all. We just started writing material and we took two to three weeks. The third week was pretty much overdubs and fixes and stuff like that. So in three weeks’ time, to write an album of compositions and get it recorded correctly, it’s kind of moving along. So we started right out, and one thing we do, we would spend a day writing and recording, and then around nine or 10 o’clock when we’d think about stopping, either we would do a jam, or a couple of us would go back into the studio and just jam for an hour because we liked doing that and it’s a way to unwind. And also it’s a way to get seed material for other compositions, exactly as was the case with the early albums. Some of those jams went edited down from an hour. You don’t want it to be an hour long. When edited down, they made it to the album as pieces on the album.
FBPO: I’ve got to ask, who are “Chris” and “Kevin?” And what’s that song all about?
TL: Thank you for paying attention to the titles! Titles is a funny subject with me. I’m usually clueless about how things are titled, especially in this band. So I think any musicians know that in most bands, the title comes after you play it, and you have a working title and then later you kind of refine it. Well, I’m one of those guys who kind of never learns the finished title. And so it’s still song one, song two, song three to me. Likewise with “Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Whatever,” on the first album, Mike Portnoy named that afterwards. To me, it was just, “Hey, Mike, let’s jam, just the two of us.” That was the name of the song. And that was as fully as we thought it through. And then later it became “Chris & Kevin,” and I never asked him why. So this time he’s revisited the same title with a slight difference. And I never asked why again. At least I’m consistent.
FBPO: You’re not curious?
TL: Not really. Plenty about the music to occupy my little brain without worrying about the titles. Actually, in this band, and in any band, even if it’s Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, before we tour, I have to brush up on what the title is and what that equals in my brain. So song three, song four equals “Hypersonic” for instance.
FBPO: The version of “Rhapsody in Blue” on this record is quite a production. I know the band used to perform that arrangement live, but I don’t think you ever recorded it before, did you?
TL: You’re right. You really know your stuff! In the 2008 tour, we did that. A typical idea of Mike Portnoy just a week or so before the two days of rehearsing, he said, “Hey, what if we do … We never do covers, let’s do “Rhapsody in Blue,” which just made me laugh because it’s essentially a piano concerto. Hard enough to ask me to learn it in a week or two, and then play it with a rehearsal or two. But Jordan Rudess, as good as he is, that’s a lot to ask of a pianist. Not only learn a piano concerto that you might never have played, but we’re going to change it. We’re going to make it a metal piece and make it our piece. So that’s what we did in 2008, and it worked really well live and gave people a little bit of a familiar song so they could hear something that they know the melody of. So I was really thrilled when … I don’t remember who suggested … maybe it was Mike again, suggested recording it for this album. One of the reasons is it’s just kind of a personal reason for my … how should I put it? For some of my friends and family, the kind of metal that the Liquid Tension plays is not their favorite thing. So this is, to me, this is like a gateway drug. This one, I play them and all of them unanimously say, “That’s fantastic. It’s got these melodies and then you guys go playing fast.” And then I can say, “Well, okay, there’s that one, but here’s one of our other, perhaps our gentler songs. One of our gentler songs,” and sooner or later, I can hope to get them into Liquid Tension Experiment and what it’s like.
FBPO: It’s almost as if you have two sets of fans.
TL: Now I know there are, of course, fans of the band who love the fast stuff and the technically amazing stuff that the band tries to do. But I think “Rhapsody in Blue” doesn’t really leave that because we made it … We really made it ours. Another thing about that piece is it has a whole lot of sections. Unlike a normal piano concerto, it has a whole lot of different directions it goes, and I think a characteristic, again, of Liquid Tension is we go a whole lot of directions. So my overall feeling is, well, we can really do that piece justice if we’re going to … If someone’s going to interpret and make it their own piece. And it’s quite a piece. I have a lot of reverence for Gershwin and that piece, but I think we did a good job with it.
FBPO: What do you think Gershwin would have thought of the arrangement?
TL: I shudder to think. I wouldn’t really go there. [Laughs] I’m reminded of when I asked my bandmates in Stick Men to do Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” and I just had to hold my breath and never think about what Igor would have thought of that rock and roll version of his intense composition.
FBPO: Did it feel awkward being face-to-face with everybody in those conditions?
TL: Personally, it felt great. It was fantastic. But yes, of course, awkward as it still does when you see good friends and you can’t hug them, you can’t even shake their hands. And so it was that way. We spent the first, probably day or two confronting that awkwardness in the studio and wearing masks all over. And eventually we realized that we were in the same small control room for hours a day hearing in playbacks, and like it or not, we had become a bubble. And so we had to make it as safe a situation as we could in that circumstance.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear. Let’s start with what you played on the record.
TL: Well, as usual, the first thing I reach for is the Chapman stick with Liquid Tension Experiment, because not only is the sound appropriate, it’s very clear. It speaks well if you’re playing low and fast. Not only that but I can play a little faster on that than I can on the bass. The technique is just a little bit quicker on the stick. So there’s this Chapman stick.
FBPO: How about your regular basses?
TL: My go-to bass is the Music Man StingRay. Nowadays I have the StingRay Plus, which is a lighter weight. It’s a StingRay 5. It’s kind of complicated, the electronics of it, but it has a little more output, a little more bass, a little more highs and a little more mids, which come in handy. I’m sure the people at the company could put it better, but yeah, that’s the bass I play more than any other bass. And I played that on most of the album. I don’t have it straight in my head, which instrument I played on which track, but mostly I played the Music Man StingRay Special, it’s called.
FBPO: What about your NS Design bass?
TL: When I was packing my car to go down to Long Island, which is a few hours drive from me, I was going there for a few weeks. Just on a whim, I threw in the Ned Steinberger NS electric upright. That’s the “wrongest” bass to bring to a Liquid Tension Experiment session because it’s an upright and it’s got big strings and it’s not meant for playing super fast. And indeed, I didn’t play it on much of this stuff. But one of those, I mentioned that Mike and I went in to jam on the piece that became “Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey.” So he started playing something, we’re just alone in the studio. I think John and Jordan had gone back to the hotel or something. Something he played on the drums just inspired me to put the bass down and walk up to the NS. I had all my instruments set up, and all my pedals in a kind of a guitar booth that was separated from everybody else. So I went over to the NS and I thought, “Well, let’s try that with this.” And he reacted musically to that in a way that kind of made me pick up the bow. I don’t even know why I packed the bow and brought it, but it was there and I picked it up and I ended up playing most of that piece with the bowed bass. Really, like I said, the last thing I would’ve thought of intending to play with the Liquid Tension Experiment. But thank goodness it’s a band that values improv, really improv, improvising, and letting things go where they go.
FBPO: How many strings are on the NS upright?
TL: I have the 5-string with a low B. And then there’s the Dingwall. During the making of the album, someone who was our engineer suggested that style of music, that the Dingwall was a very good bass for that. And though I was happy with where I was, I found a store nearby in Long Island that had a Dingwall that I could try out and I did try it out. And I played it on one piece. I can’t remember which piece it is, but I did play the Dingwall 5-string on that. It was very handy. It speaks really well in the low end, and in a way it is appropriate for this kind of music. So that was a nice discovery and I’m the kind of bass player, even though I’ve stuck with the same instruments for many years, I do kind of like knowing what’s out there and what the options there are. I think looking to the future, I’m sure I’ll mainly be playing my Music Man, but it’s good to have other basses there. I played a whole bunch of pedals, including a Kemper amp profiler, very handy for me. I use at least one of those in almost all of the live situations I’m in lately. I love Ampeg amps and I have one here in my home studio, but I can’t really honestly say I remember how we worked out the amping.
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
TL: I have all the strings that came on the basses. With Music Man, that would be Ernie Ball strings because it’s the same company. I play them so much that I do change the strings, and those are Ernie Ball heavy gauge. The Dingwall came with strings, the Chapman stick came with Chapman stick strings, and the NS came with NS strings. So nothing shocking to reveal there.
FBPO: For Bass Players Only is fast becoming known as the premier site for learning bass online. What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn to play bass?
TL: Boy, for one thing, I’m trying to learn to play the bass. I’m trying to learn to play it better, which is not exactly the answer to your question. But I think it’s interesting that those of us who are lucky enough to have played music for a lifetime or a career, for many years and such, many of the guys I find are like me. And then I’m still exactly the same as I was when I was starting out. I’m trying to learn how to play the thing better, and what I mostly enjoy doing in life — I would have answered the same when I was 14 years old — is playing music with good players. Playing good music with good players. So how lucky is that? And it’s kind of a good … I can say at this age, at the age I am, it feels like a healthy attitude to have about your playing. That you’re still learning. Instead of, I wouldn’t be comfortable with the feeling of like, “Well, I can do it all and that’s it. And I’m done learning.” And it would be inappropriate because whenever I turn on YouTube, I realize that I can hardly do any of it, the things that people are doing online. And young people amaze me the way they amaze everybody else.
FBPO: You make a good point about playing with other players.
TL: I’m more of a player and a learner than a teacher, but I would say that it’s important to really value the chances you have to play with other players. You can practice all you want, but playing with other players ups your game and you learn things. And if they’re good players, if they’re better players than you, it can be maybe a little scary or intimidating in ways. But it’s really good for you in more important ways. It doesn’t have to be a bass player. It could be a drummer who’s really good. You learn about time from him. However it works out in the end. So I would advise players to do as I did, to take any opportunity to play with other players, especially if they’re better than you or if they’re equal level to you. Never forget the enjoyment of music and how lucky one is to be spending your time, even if it’s not full time, to be spending your time playing music is a great thing and a lucky thing. And I see the difference between musicians who appreciate that, and musicians who kind of forget about that and just fall into paying attention to the hurdles, the obstacles that are in our way if we’re trying to be professional musicians and earn a living from it. There’s plenty of obstacles and that drives plenty of people away from the career of being musicians. But there is always the other side. The music, to a lot of us, the music makes it worth it.
FBPO: What lies ahead? Are you going to do any more with King Crimson, Peter Gabriel… maybe your brother?
TL: Yeah. All of that. And more. There is a King Crimson tour tentatively booked for this summer in the US, going into September. There is a Stick Man tour tentatively booked in Europe in October. And there is another King Crimson tour, tentatively, but very likely to happen, booked for Australia and Japan in November, December. In between I’ll squeeze in Levin Brothers as soon as it’s possible. Levin Brothers is a jazz band with my older brother Pete Levin, keyboard player, and we’re small and flexible. I also want to mention, I have this photo book that I did. I spent most of 2020 working on.
FBPO: Is it anything like Lee Sklar’s book that he just put out?
TL: It is the exact opposite. Nobody is giving me the finger! It was a brilliant idea I had. What if I did a photo book where nobody gives me the finger? [Laughs] To summarize all my many years on the road, I’ve been taking photos, and in the back of my mind was someday, the photos deserve to be released to the public so they can see them all, this unique situation of … It’s not that I’m a great photographer, but I am in a unique situation backstage or onstage taking pictures of, for instance, Peter Gabriel floating out into the audience from stage and they just deserve to be seen. I might not have gotten around to actually collating that book and choosing which photos for quite a few more years, but 2020 gave me the chance. With the lockdown, I had the chance to do that. I had tens of thousands of photos to go through, both on the negatives in the old days, black and white negatives and transparencies, and then digital for the last 15 years or so. So anyway, it’s called Images From A Life On the Road.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.
Tony’s new book, Images From A Life On the Road is available here.