While Tony Levin may be best known to Peter Gabriel fans as Peter's long time bass player having appeared on almost every one of his albums and tours, Tony Levin's pedigree as one of the premier bass players in the business goes well beyond working with Peter Gabriel. Aside from being a card-carrying member of the legendary (and now unfortunately dormant) Progressive rock band King Crimson, Levin has and continues to play with some of the most noted musicians in the industry. From John Lennon, Buddy Rich, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Yes, and Alice Cooper to David Bowie, Sara McLachlan, James Talyor, Mark Knopfler, Steve Hackett, and Warren Zevon to name but a few, Levin's credits read like a who's who of modern music... not to mention all of the new artists that seek out Levin for his unique sound and playing capabilities.

Being in that much demand by both musical legends and contemporary up and coming artists alike would certainly be enough to solidify Levin as one of the truly great session players, but that's only one aspect of the artistic versatility of Tony Levin. In addition, he has also recorded his own solo projects and participated in some acclaimed group projects like the Liquid Tension Experiment (featuring members of Dream Theater); the one-off covers project Spin 1ne 2wo (with Steve Ferrone, Paul Carrack, and Rupert Hine); and he co-founded the Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (B.L.U.E.) project with ex-Crimson drummer Bill Bruford.

Most recently, Tony Levin released Levin Torn White, a new collaboration with guitarist David Torn and Yes drummer Alan White. The project took nearly a year to complete and is sure to please Prog rock enthusiasts. Tony sat down with World of Genesis.com to talk about this new project, his recent Two of a Perfect Pair Tour, his work with Peter Gabriel, his thoughts on the future of King Crimson, and more.

 

WOG: What lead you to create Funk Fingers?

TL: On Peter's So album, on one song... "Big Time," I asked Jerry Marotta to drum on the bass strings while I fingered the notes. That went fine, but much later, when we were on tour, I was trying to play that part with a drumstick in my hand. One day at soundcheck, while I was practicing that as usual, Peter looked at me practicing with the one drum stick and said, "Why don't you put two drum sticks on your fingers?" So, really the idea was his.

Later in the tour, after much experimenting, helped by Andy Moore, my bass tech, we arrived at the right length, weight and fastening method, and named them Funk Fingers. I made about a thousand pairs and later sold them cheaply on my website, hoping other bass players would use them and they'd catch on. They didn't, and I got tired of trying to be a manufacturer, so I settled for the few pairs I have, and I play them a lot.



Tony Levin Performing Live

World of Genesis: How did Levin Torn White initially come together?

Tony Levin: It was Scott's idea. Scott Schorr is the producer and [behind the] record label ...and played some darn good keyboard parts on the album, too!

WOG: I know you’ve worked with David Torn previously in your career on projects like B.L.U.E. What specifically about his playing style appealed to you for collaboration on this particular album? Also, how did Alan White get involved?

TL: It came about opposite from that. The music began with Scott recording Alan White alone... in Alan's studio. He got Alan really stretching out, playing some wild stuff, and setting the tone for where the music would go. Then, Scott took those tapes to his home studio and 'compiled' them ... going through, probably hours of material, finding the best parts. Next came me, for the better part of a week at Scott's studio - jamming to Alan's playing... First jamming, then sometimes working out parts. Sometimes, playing many instruments on one track, and often without hearing the previous ones... kind of a 'jamming in the dark' approach.

Again, I knew it'd be wild, but I knew it was safe, because Scott would use his ears and good taste to choose which of my tracks were to make the cut.  Then, it seemed to me, David was close to the only guitarist wild enough and open enough to keep this going in the direction it started. So, another week of David Torn jamming to bass and drums.

 

WOG: How did the Stick Men project initially develop? Was that your first project with Scott Schorr?

TL: My first album with Scott was called Stick Man and featured a lot of music with multiple Stick parts. That gave me the idea that it'd be nice to tour with material like that, but I couldn't play it with my current band. So, along with Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto, who had played on that album, I formed a trio, with the other player a Stick player. Two years later, Michael Bernier, [the other Stick player], found he was unable to go out on the road. So, we had to replace him. Luckily, found Markus Reuter, who plays a touch guitar he designed and built himself.

WOG
:
Was having Pat Mastelotto for many years as part of the rhythm section for Crimson what made him your first choice for the project? What was it about his playing that made him the right choice?

TL: Yes, he was my first choice for it. He had played on the album, but also because Pat's approach is very "Crimson-like" to our music - looking for new ways to react to music, and stretching our boundaries. Also, he plays both an acoustic drum kit and electronic percussion - the samples and loops give us a lot of needed options when, with just three players, we're trying to perform complex music like Stravinsky's Firebird.
 




 

WOG: I understand this process took about a year to complete?

TL:
The whole project did take about a year... and Scott was sweating over it all that time! We players had it easy... we did our recording. Then, we handed it to Scott to perfect! Although, sometimes there were second visits to the piece.

WOG: In your experience, does recording together with other musicians in a studio have any benefit creatively (or otherwise) over recording your parts individually and combining them later?

TL:
I love doing the recording with other players. It's better in a number of ways - you can be influenced in real time by their playing, you can discuss little details, you get into a mood which can pervade the album and give it more character, and most of all, you have a lot of fun together.

Alas, those opportunities are not as frequent as they used to be - because of many things, but mostly budget. It's simply much cheaper to hold down studio time by having players play from their own studio. 

WOG: I noticed in the liner notes that you co-produced and co-engineered this album. Was your role a collaborative one with fellow co-producer Scott Schorr or did you each work on specific musical pieces of Levin Torn White?

 

WOG: How did the Spin 1ne 2wo project with Paul Carrack, Steve Ferrone, and Rupert Hine? It was a true session player 'super group!'

TL: It was the record company's idea. We had a good friend at Sony Music in Italy, and the project was his dream. Nice idea, and we had fun, but as usual with projects of this kind, everyone's schedule didn't allow for much touring together. Projects are always limited unless the whole band can make that ensemble it's main priority - then you become a band.

WOG: Did you had an opportunity to see Peter Gabriel's New Blood Tour [the first Gabriel tour without Tony Levin]? At least on the first leg of the North American tour in 2010, there is a point on the jumbotron screen where a picture of you, Ged Lynch, and David Rhoades [all current members of Peter Gabriel's normal touring rock band] popped up on the screen and the crowd goes absolutely crazy! Did you have an opportunity to experience that? If so, did that level of fan admiration surprise you?


Peter Gabriel (center) performing "Sledgehammer" live in 2002
with Tony Levin (left) and David Rhoades

TL: It was pretty collaborative. He did most of the producing. I had a big hand in my parts, of course, and somewhat in David's. The engineering credit is just because I did some recording in my home studio.

WOG:
Having spent a great deal of time working as a session player, does the ideal of producing other people’s projects appeal to you?


 

 

TL: Actually, I rarely produce. I've been asked a few times through the years, and occasionally say yes. I think it's partly because of the time commitment to see an album through from beginning to end. I really love playing live, and going a whole season without touring isn't usually something I'd choose. To do my own recording, of course, takes plenty of time, but generally it gets interrupted by live playing... and that's a good thing for my head.

WOG: Do you have any favorite tracks on Levin Torn White?

TL: No favorites, really. I like it all! Especially the energy and freedom of the playing. 
 

  TL: I did see one show, in New York - enjoyed it a lot. It was the first time I'd seen Peter from the front(!) after, what, 35 years of being behind him on stage?!  Most impressive was his vocal strength and accuracy! Of course, maybe it's easier to sing when you're not hanging upside down (laughs)??!! And the orchestral arrangements were great. Of course, I had mixed feelings, enjoying the music but wanting to be part of it. The staging, including pictures of the band guys, was something I had seen before, on our last South America tour - so I wasn't surprised by it. Having the crowd acknowledge me and the guys in the band is always a treat.

WOG: I seem to recall a while back there was talk of new Peter Gabriel studio recordings being done before the whole New Blood / Scratch My Back orchestral project began. To your knowledge, had Peter done any demos prior to these orchestral efforts with his full band?

TL: Not that I know of.

WOG: Has there been any talk of plans to get back with Peter to work on a new studio album with the full band following Peter's 2011 tour dates?

TL: No talk of plans has come to me... I'm always hopeful that Peter will do more. It's great music and great fun.

WOG:  It’s generally quite a few years in between Peter Gabriel projects. Do you think the completion (or freedom as the case may be) of his contract with EMI will give Peter the ability or desire to increase his artistic musical output? I often hoped we’d see reissues of his studio and live catalog in a comparable manner to what King Crimson, Genesis, and now Pink Floyd did with surround mixes, b-sides, rare tracks/alternate takes/demos, etc. 

TL: I'm afraid I don't follow those things, so I have nothing to tell you about what's coming. 

WOG: Years ago, I recall you mentioned how Peter would take the band on sort of excursions on your days off while on tour. Were there any in particular that were particularly memorable to you?

TL: Many happened, and all were memorable. White water rafting, sailing off New Zealand, visiting islands with wild horses, boating the Amazon, visiting the West Bank of Jerusalem, mountain pass ski resorts, deserted beach resorts, late night flights to Sardinia, and many more.

WOG: How did the “2 of a Perfect Trio” Tour come about?

TL: It was Adrian's idea... Adrian Belew, that is. We were planning on doing a music camp together - Adrian, me, and Pat Mastelotto [the drummer from King Crimson], and Adrian thought, "What if, right after the camp, we tour with each of our trios, and then combine... the three of us for some Crimson music, then all six of us... including the other players in the two trios, for a 6 musician set of more Crimson music?" It was a great idea, and it worked out even better than we thought... with a lot of new music for the audiences, from Stick Men, and Adrian Belew Power Trio, and then about 45 minutes of encores of King Crimson music.

WOG: Do you think the “2 of a Perfect Trio” project is the closest thing we’ll ever see to a reunited King Crimson? What, if anything, has Robert Fripp said about the “2 of a Perfect Trio” concept?

TL: We get on well, so there's no personal problems among us in the group. I have no idea if there will be more Crimson recording or touring... That's up to Robert, and to me the heart of King Crimson lies in his sensibility about where it should go. So, I happily follow his instincts on that, and if there is to be no more touring, I'll be sad, but will accept it.

He did know about this recent tour, and in fact he relayed a good natured message, though his sister, in front of the audience in San Francisco.

W WOG: With the King Crimson catalog starting to get the deluxe treatment with remastering, 5.1 mixes, bonus tracks, rare video, etc. What if any involvement do you expect to have with the albums you appeared on? Is there any rare material (audio or video) in particular that you would like to see included when they get to essential Crimson albums like Three of a Perfect Pair or Beat?

TL:
I know nothing about the Crimson catalog. It gets done really nicely without my input. One of these days, I'll have time to sit down and give a good listen to all the re-mixes and re-masters!

WOG: There was a rumor that around the Pink Floyd Momentary Lapse of Reason Tour in 1987 that you were asked to join the band permanently. Is there any truth to that? If so, why did you decide to turn that offer down?

TL:
I was asked to play on the tour... not the same as joining the band. Sadly for me, it conflicted with the last few weeks of Peter Gabriel's So tour, which I was already in the midst of.

   WOG: I understand that you met Bob Ezrin through your work on Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare and Lou Reed's Berlin. Was it through Bob that you initially met Peter Gabriel? What are your recollections of your early meetings with Peter?

TL: Yes, Bob produced Peter's first album and brought me in to play bass. Incidentally, I met Robert Fripp that same day... Peter was great - very likeable, very talented. I didn't know Genesis' music at the time, so it was all new to me. I was most impressed in how well Peter wrote, how distinctive his musical style was, and how open he was to radical ideas of how to play it. I suggested tuba... he said, "Sure!" I suggested barbershop quartet ... He said, "Sure!"

WOG: Through the Tony Levin Band, you've brought a new collaboration with Larry Fast and Jerry Marotta. Had you remained in contact with Jerry and Larry after they parted with Peter's band? How did they get involved with the Tony Levin Band project?

TL: Those guys are good friends of mine. We live not far apart. So, it was a natural thing, after some years, to get together for touring. We had a lot of fun as the Tony Levin Band, and it ended mostly because having five players in a band at the club level just isn't practical anymore... bands need to be more flexible, or popular... or both in order to keep touring.

WOG: Was it strange the first time you returned to the studio with Peter [Gabriel] and Larry and Jerry weren't there?

TL: Way back when Jerry first wasn't in Peter's band, and later Larry... Yes, it was strange to me. Nothing we're not used to, of course, but it was very much like a family, and though the new players were great, and nice people, it did take some adjustment.

WOG: Did the Liquid Tension Experiment/Liquid Trio run its course, or do you think you'll ever work with the guys from Dream Theater again on new studio material? 

TL:
You never know what's going to happen in the future with groups. There are no plans now for more LTE, but it could easily happen - depends mostly on people's schedules, and those guys [Mike and the Dream Theater players] are very busy most of the time. I get pretty booked up myself. The hope is that someday we'll do more.

 


Tony Levin (center) and the Liquid Tension Experiment


WOG
:
How did you get involved with Steve Hackett's Genesis Revisited project?

TL: As often happens, I was simply asked to play on it. It only took an afternoon, and was a very pleasant experience.

WOG: You obviously were one of the key musicians who made popular the use of the Chapman Stick and the NS upright bass. In fact, many consider your playing a big part of the "sound" of artists like Peter Gabriel, because of your distinctive style. How did you first come to use the Chapman Stick in your playing?

TL: I heard about the Chapman Stick when it first came out - maybe because I was playing 'hammer-on' style in those days. I went right to Emmett to get one, and I started playing it right away... in Peter's live show - first only on the piece "Moribund the Burgermeister." Then, gradually, on other pieces. When I joined King Crimson, the Stick seemed an ideal instrument to play bass parts in a more individual way, and to help form a new sound for the group.
 
 

WOG: When I interviewed Bill Bruford a few years back, he mentioned that he thought the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe project was a decent record, but he wasn't satisfied with the Yes Union album which, at least in part, was derived from early sessions for a second ABW&H album.

How did that project transition into becoming a Yes album?
Were the initial ABW&H demos you participated in for that second project that radically different from what Union ultimately became, or did it never get that far into the creative process before it evolved into a Yes album with a new set of players? 

TL
: I was pretty much in the background, not a band member, so I wasn't aware of all the issues. But the music was cool, and it was obvious that the label and producer wanted it to slot into the type of record the 'other' YES had done -- something that's not going to happen easily with the ABW&H players. My opinion was, and is, that they should have been allowed to make their own kind of recording - it would have been great... But I'm just the bass player
!

SELECTED TONY LEVIN DISCOGRAPHY


Levin Torn White (2011)
Levin Levin, David Torn and Alan White combine forces
for a fantastic project! Includes: "No Warning Lights", "Ultra Mullett", "White Noise", "Monkey Mind", "Crunch Time", and much more.
 

  WOG: I noticed you worked with Jack McDuff and O’Donel Levy in the early 1970s. During this period, did you ever cross paths with session drummer Chester Thompson? If so, on which projects? I know you both share a credit on O’Donel Levy’s Hands of Fire

TL
:
No, I actually met Chester much later than that, when he was touring with Genesis, and I would go see them a lot.

WOG: You've worked with countless talented musicians, many of whom have been considered true musical innovators. Looking back on your work with musicians ranging from Lou Reed and Robert Fripp to John Lennon and Peter Gabriel to Paul Simon and David Bowie... Not to mention the great Buddy Rich! The list goes on and on...


Tony Levin - Stick Man (2007)
Includes: "Gut String Theory", "Speedbump", "El Mercado", and "Metro."


Spin 1ne 2wo (1993)
2010 digital remaster of Tony Levin's project with Paul Carrack, Rupert Hine, and Steve Ferrone! Includes covers of classic rock favorites like Cream's "White Room", Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and "Black Dog", Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower" and much more!


Are there any commonalities in the style or approach in which these artists have worked in the studio? Does any one session or artist stand out as particularly enjoyable to you as a session player?

TL: I can't think of any commonalities among those artists. The fact is, I've been very fortunate to have had the chance to rub musical shoulders with even a few of them, and it's been a great pleasure for me to play bass on music that's special. I don't really spend time looking back at music I've done or artists I've worked with, but just the list you mention reminds me how lucky I've been.

WOG: Were you surprised to hear about Bill Bruford's self-imposed retirement from public performance? Do you envision a time when you'll make that announcement yourself?

TL: I was very surprised. No, I won't be retiring from playing as long as my fingers can still twitch!




King Crimson - Discipline (1981)
Tony's first album with Crimson! This amazing CD+DVD KC 40th Anniversary Remaster includes a new stereo mix with bonus alternate mixes. The DVD-Audio disc features a stunning 5.1 DTS mix, hi-res stereo mix, original album mix, new album mix and even a rough mix from the original sessions. As if that's not enough, you also get the 1981 12" dance mix of Elephant Talk and other audio extras plus footage of The Old Grey Whistle Test performances, new notes co-written by Robert Fripp and much more! Absolutely essential for Crimson fans!


For more Tony Levin CDs and DVDs as well as tour information and news on up-coming projects, please visit the official Tony Levin site (and be sure to check out the impressive Tour Diary while you are there!)


 

 


Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (1999)
Tony's project with Bill Bruford, David Torn and Chris Botti. Includes: "Cerulean Sea", "Original Sin" and more!


Peter Gabriel - Growing Up - Live (DVD) (2003)
NTSC/Region 1 video taken from Peter's Up tour!


 

Special thanks to Tony Levin and Scott Schorr from Lazy Bones Records for this interview. For more on Levin Torn White, please visit the official Levin Torn White website. This interview © 2011-2012 Dave Negrin and may not be reprinted in whole or in part without permission.

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