Around the world in a disc
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1996 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
If there was a Most Valuable Player award in the bass world, Tony Levin would be a top contender. A quick glance at his musical resume reveals how highly-regarded the Boston native is. Robbie Robertson, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and Lou Reed are just a few of the legends who rely on Levin for his highly versatile and melodic approach.
Beyond his session work for the stars, Levin is best-known as a member of avant-rockers King Crimson. After a 10 year hiatus, the group resurfaced in 1994 with a heavier, darker sound than its '80s counterpart. That's likely the result of the band choosing to operate largely at the indie level through Robert Fripp's DGM label. Free of music business pressures, it was allowed to explore its collective muse without the burden of delivering radio-friendly material.
Levin chose a similar route for his first solo CD World Diary. In fact, he went one step further by establishing his own label—Papa Bear Records—for its distribution. The album features Levin performing with worldbeat musicians he’s encountered during life on the road. They include doudouk master Levon Minassian, percussion ensemble Nexus, drummer Manu Katche and violinist Shankar. The disc also lives up to its name in that it was recorded in Germany, Britain, Canada, Norway and France.
When Levin isn't recording or touring, he can be found exploring his passion for photography. Many of the photos featured in this interview were originally published in his book Road Photos.
It’s been more than a year since you released World Diary. What sort of perspective do you have on it?
Well, I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t release it in an organized way and I fully planned on having it exist virtually as a new record for about a year-and-a-half. For that reason, I haven’t started recording a second one. Partly it’s because I’m very busy with King Crimson and other things. Running a small record company is new stuff to me. I had a lot to learn and I still have a lot to learn and I don’t have the full time to devote to it that I figured is necessary to announce a new release and I was correct about that. It’s really hard to get to your constituents who know the groups you’re in and let them know you have an album out. Frankly, the ’net has been a big help to me. I’m pretty confident that Internet users, who are King Crimson fans, know that there’s an album out. The general public—the ones that come to our shows—don’t know yet. It’s not easy for me to reach them.
I wanted to do a very non-commercial record and I know plenty about the record business. I decided near the beginning to form my own little record company just so I could do it the way I wanted. And having decided that, that led me to the decision to have it be mail-order only. Using a distributor and then getting it in record stores would be wonderful, but that’s a whole industry that I’m really not prepared to jump into. I could get a distributor to take a certain number of my CDs and put them in stores, but they would want the stores to sell them and re-order them, otherwise it would seem to be a failure. The stores, in order to sell them and re-order them, would want me to get radio play and they would want the general public—and I mean the big general public, not the ones who read Bass Player Magazine—to know about that record and so I would need a department in my record company to send it to all the radio stations in the country and to then try to get them to play it.
Now, this is a very esoteric album. It’s not for every station and the record company just consists of me. I don’t have someone to pester radio stations and I just don’t want to get into that. Selling through mail-order appeals to the musician in me. I’m in direct contact with the person who’s buying it. He wants to hear my music. I send him the music. If he doesn’t like it, he sends it back—it’s not problem. It’s not a big company, there’s nobody in-between. That appeals to me a lot. I think if I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t do the whole rigmarole of having a record company. But consequently, I have a lot less sales, but that’s okay. It was never my intention to have a big, huge, selling record anyway. And with less middlemen, the $15 that a CD costs goes directly to my record company.
It's surprising that a musician of your stature chose to go this route.
Anyone who’s had my experience without making their own record would have made the same decision. I could have picked a nice record company but there would still be an inherent pressure on me to sell records or cut corners with the music or compromise the music. I’ll give you a few examples. I’m intent with having packaging the way I like it, not the way some art department wants it. Frankly, some of King Crimson’s recent artwork appalls me. If it’s my record, I’m certainly going to do all of the artwork and the packaging itself. I don’t like jewel boxes. I hate them in fact. I don’t see any reason why I should use them. Record companies, big and small, tend to avoid cardboard packaging, because it costs—and I’m not kidding now—a few pennies more. Those few pennies mean a lot to a company that’s business-conscious. For me, I just don’t understand why they don’t do it, but I knew that I was going to do it and probably the hardest work I did on the record had nothing to do with the music—it was trying to get manufacturers to make the package I wanted. I couldn’t find any manufacturers who were willing to make such a package. I had to start from zero, from the cardboard to the printer, and then a different company to fold it.
The truth of it is, I never wanted to get into that stuff, but darn it, I was gonna have the package I wanted. I’m very satisfied with the way that came out and it’s not only the music I wanted but it’s the packaging I wanted. I don’t mean to imply that I was inventing some type of new packaging. I’ve seen other cases where companies used that type of package, but the record companies only did it as a favor to the groups and it was in a limited edition. I also decided against shrink-wrap and bar codes as well and that was causing a problem in export sales and the countries were saying "We need to have shrink wrap on them" and I would tell them "Well, I guess you’ll have to put it on there."
How do you look back at World Diary from a musical standpoint?
Once an album is done, I don’t listen to it anymore. And when I’m actively doing interviews and talking about the tracks, I kinda become focused on the stories about how it was done. In the case of World Diary, that is very interesting. It’s a good story. But the actual tracks I haven’t listened to in a while. I hope they still hold up when I hear them. I felt good. I felt like I had achieved the mood and the musical direction that I had hoped to. This was my own album and I was in charge. I wanted to focus on the thing that instrumental players can do, if they’re allowed to. And it’s really cool, it’s really great because there is no shortage of great instrumental players. I know I’m lucky. I can travel and I know some great guys. So I chose guys who live the way they play. I wanted to give them the opportunity to just play with no rules.
In the case of one guy, we didn’t even speak the same language—Levon Minassian who plays the doudouk, an Armenian double reed instrument. In all cases I did minimal technical set up. I got a tape player and a mike ready and ran it. In some cases I did go into the studio. There were never more than two takes, and often there was only one take. That was the direction I wanted to go in—to let the other guys just do what they do. And I guess that’s the kinda thing that I do well too. So, I think that I succeeded in that the music that came out was wonderful and warm and very real and very, very analog. I don’t mean that there were big mistakes but there were none of the subtle, modern devices to keep things studio-friendly like a click track or drum machine. Whenever I was in a studio and there was an engineer, they couldn’t believe I didn’t want a click track and they would say "How are you going to intercut in between the tapes?" These are things that are nowadays standard kinds of things, but I just wanted to be sure that I focused on the analog side of the music.
What else do you recall about making the album?
I had some adventures. I found this Koto player named Brian Yamakoshi and was really fascinated by what would happen when the koto—which has about 20 strings and is a percussive string instrument—and the Stick were in the same room. We didn’t know. I spoke to him a few times and we laughed about it. We didn’t know what would happen musically. In that case, we didn’t just start recording. We had to play quite a bit together before we could do a take. But it was interesting and successful. I also went to Oslo to meet my friend Bendik, a sax player from up there. I wanted to him to take me to the fjords and record outdoors. Musically, he plays in a very pure way with a kind of open harmonic structure and I thought that would be perfect with a Stick and that we’ll get something that is impressionistic of the fjords and we’ll name it "Freedom" or "Purity" or something. The reality was very different from what I thought it would be. Oslo was a zoo, the Olympics were going on and it was very crowded and we couldn’t get to the fjords. So, we went to a studio and a club. There were a lot of drunks around in this smoky jazz club we went to, so the real song we ended up doing was utterly different than what I had envisioned. I had some fun in that I had to go with the way it was and not impose my idea of the music on it—we were being influenced by the time and the place.
It’s interesting to hear that the album was recorded under so many different circumstances. It hangs together very cohesively.
That wasn’t difficult because there’s me—one of the two other players in each case. Or in a sense, if I’m playing Stick, I’m two of the three players. I tried to avoid getting too focused on technical stuff. I do know a bit about technical stuff, but I didn’t know much about recording. I had this DAT recorder which is easy to use, but I didn’t know how to set the levels or anything. So I’m relieved that the thing ended up sounding good because I could have fallen down there—especially since my focus when we are actually working was not wasting even five minutes on technical stuff because the machine always worked. If the machine didn’t work, I would have brought a cassette player. I didn’t want to lose a moment. The moment is very important. It's more important to me than the technical stuff. So, I was relieved that the technical stuff worked out.
You’ve recently started selling Funk Fingers—sawed-off drumsticks that attach to a bassist’s fingers. Where did the initial idea for them come from?
I’ve been playing the bass with them for quite a few years now. Its basis was when I recorded a solo album with Peter Gabriel and we did the track "Big Time" and I asked Jerry Marotta, the drummer, to play on the bass strings while I did the fingering—it just seemed appropriate for that song. I had first heard that technique when I heard a Gene Krupa album that was recorded in the '40s or early '50s.
How difficult is it to adapt to playing with Funk Fingers?
Some people just pick it up and have an easy time with it and some people are just utterly puzzled by it. I would say I practice quite a bit. At first, I did it in a simple way with Peter Gabriel onstage—it wasn’t very hard. I had to do some practicing to hit the string that I aimed at. It’s a small target with the bridge not curved and I would say that’s very hard. The hardest thing was to dampen the other strings to keep them from ringing because really it’s a Stick hitting the whole instrument. It takes some left-hand technique. I would say it’s not the easiest way to play in the world, but it’s not extremely difficult. I’m hoping during the Crimson tour to do a little duo segment with Bill Bruford similar to what we did on the ABWH [Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe] tour. I’d like to combine the funk fingers and the bass, and get Bill playing on the bass and maybe the funk fingers playing on the drums. I don’t know if he’ll do that, but I’d like to and I’ll see him in a few weeks and I’ll lay it on him and see what he thinks.
The ABWH duet was great fun to watch. It was far more mercurial live than it was on record. [The track was released as "Evensong" on Yes' Union album]
It was utterly and completely different every night. When it did get recorded, we were in a different headspace. The piece that we recorded was a quiet ballad. That’s what it was like on some nights. It wasn’t always raging. Bill and I have many things in common and one thing is when you say "improvise" it gets really loose.
Which brings us to King Crimson’s THRaK aTTak. Whose idea was it to put together an album of improvised music based on "Thrak"?
I have the feeling it was a letter on the Internet on Elephant Talk [a King Crimson mailing list]. I’m a big follower of that stuff. I’m not saying I read Elephant Talk every week, but I know what some people are saying on the Internet and I read it to the band on the bus. My memory’s not so great, but I think that’s the way it came about. We kind of chuckled about it and later Robert [Fripp] said to himself "Hey, that would be a darn good album." When he first told me that it was in the offing, I was excited about it. This side of King Crimson—the improvisational side—which frankly only appeals to a small segment of our fans, I feel is the least represented, certainly on records. We kind of struggle to have more of that in the show and that’s not always easy either. On this last tour, I felt there was a good amount of improvisation. Consequently, we’re getting better at it and I was very pleased to think that something could come out of it. To me that’s about the most important thing we do. It’s amazing how different "Thrak" can be and that brings us back to the duet between me and Bill in ABWH—it’s just a completely different piece of composition every night.
How does THRaK aTTak hold up as a long-term listening experience in your opinion?
I’m pretty confident that it’s great as a composition. I would listen to it as a classical piece. There’s no problem for me because I mostly listen to classical music. I think it’s gonna be an instrumental adventure for the listener. [laughs]
Describe how King Crimson has evolved since the Vrooom sessions.
It’s still very much evolving. I think we have a good combination of people onstage and we have so many options with six of us, that it’s really taking years to settle into which of those options works best for us. You’ve probably heard about the "double trio" idea which was an idea from the beginning of how we break down the six of us and it just didn’t work. We spent a little time trying to do it. In another sense, we’ve been waiting for it to work out that way. This year we’re going to attack new directions and new material. Robert tries to lead us, to direct us towards his vision, but sometimes the ‘Crimson-ness’ of King Crimson just kind of takes over no matter what anybody wants or thinks. In that sense, I think we’ve come a ways and we’re certainly going to go in directions I don’t know about. It was a theme from the beginning for me and Trey [Gunn] to play two Sticks and do duets or be the basis of tracks with the Sticks and then other people add on their parts and that didn’t particularly work out. We did do a duo live, but generally I kind of moved away from the Stick with King Crimson and towards the electric upright. I don’t know why two Sticks wasn’t helping. That’s a good example of everybody thinking "Hey, two Sticks, two drums" but it didn’t work out.
It sounds as though you’re talking about this incarnation of King Crimson as a long-term entity.
It is. I hope so. You never know, do you? [laughs] For sure, our plan is to stay together indefinitely, which is always the plan of a rock band. I think the last time, maybe we had a 10 year plan. That changed pretty quickly. Was it four years we were together? It’s really foolish to predict what a rock band will do, but even though I know that, I predict that this band will last longer only because we spend less of the year together. I think it’s great and smart for the longevity of the band.
The internal tension during the '80s incarnation of the band has been well documented. One assumes that's dissipated.
The four of us from the '80s group are very intense guys and that hasn’t changed. We had some sense in the early '80s that we’d better spend limited amounts of time together, especially in the creative writing process—something which is very, very intense. So, we had that plan but we just didn’t stick to it. Tours got longer, the albums got longer, pressure built up and whatever it takes to see that coming and change it, we didn’t do. We let the pressure build until it just disintegrated the band. This time one would hope that we’ve learned from that. We certainly have periods like I’m in right now—months where we don’t get together to rehearse or do anything except plan our next thing. It’s a funny way to have a band in that part of me wants to spend all year on King Crimson and focus on it and work hard at it. Like I said, we’ll last longer this way. Our output will be a little slower. We’ll do it every few years now, but we won’t do it every six months.
Can you define how your role in the band is different than it was in the '80s?
I haven’t really thought about it much. I don’t really actually think about my role in any musical project. I’m a guy with a bass and I have to say I don’t think about it. I don’t have to define it. I hear the music and I have a bunch of basses that hopefully fit my hand. Some part of me feels that a certain bass part will be right and that’s not my intellect. So, I don’t even know what the logic is or the rationale is behind that decision, but that’s about as far as it goes. There have been times in the '80s where the main writers of Crimson kind of dried up a bit. Robert and Adrian [Belew] were a bit burned out from doing their own albums and there was room for me to come up with basic ideas for tracks on the Stick. I did that and they weren’t bad tracks, but I think we all felt it wasn’t our best stuff. None of us wants to go back to that way of writing—where Tony Levin brings in the basis of an idea and then the guitarists try to add onto it. We can do that, but it’s not the best way we write.
King Crimson has been around in one form or another for almost 30 years. With that comes a great deal of expectations and baggage. How have you dealt with it?
To me, Crimson is about Robert’s vision and I have great respect for him. I did the first time I heard him play. I met him on Peter Gabriel’s session and the more I heard of what he did, the more I developed a good respect for his musical vision. I think that a band like Crimson really needs to be somewhat led by one person’s vision, so I’m happy. I think we have the right guy, whether I’m in the band or not. He’s got great vision and he’s a very good musician. But we need to have our artistic input to be able to influence the way things go and we get that. But the overall vision continues to lead the general direction we’re going. I think we’ve been successful with that. Part of the definition of King Crimson has to come from what Robert has percolated in his mind about the way we’re going to go in this decade and so far he never fails to surprise me and impress me with radical ideas. He called me and said "How about another Stick player in the band?" There was probably a long silence on the phone after that. [laughs] It’s probably the way I still feel—that’s not the easiest way to go. But if I’m going to do it with anyone, let’s do it with this band. I didn’t know Trey. I didn’t know his playing, but I have enough confidence in Robert and I can’t say this about everybody I work with. I had enough confidence in Robert to feel that he would pick a guy who’s good. So, I accepted Trey as a good player before I heard Trey. Of course, I was very pleased to find out that he’s a great player that has a lot of ideas and plays the Stick in a way that’s utterly different from the way I play. So, even though we play the same instrument, we’re two different players. I know I’ve learned quite a bit about Stick playing by being in a band with him.
Earlier, you mentioned you disliked recent King Crimson artwork. Why?
Well, partly because I had to autograph 2,000 CD inserts. I wrote an essay on my feelings about signing 2,000 inserts. You get really familiar with that piece of art. I think some of it is okay. I think I expect King Crimson to have artwork and music that will hold up for many years. I don’t want to hear or look at it ten years later and think "Oh, that’s what was going on in 1984." I want to see and hear it 10 years later and think "Wow, that looks and sounds very adventurous today." And our album covers in the '80s were classic. They were simple. They didn’t make any kind of big statement but they still look great. So do the t-shirts. They look fresh and not dated. I think some of our recent covers are going to look a lot more dated someday. If you were taking a close look at it, you couldn’t help but notice that there is something of a similarity graphically between the World Diary cover and the '80s Crimson albums. I copied the idea of a basic color and a little piece of artwork in the center.
Where can one find your essay about autographing CD inserts?
It will be in my upcoming bass method book which I hope to have out soon on Papa Bear Records. I’ve been working on that book for almost as long as I’ve been playing bass. It will be a bunch of anecdotes and stories about things that have happened to me as a bass player. And a bunch of essays and possibly a fiction story will be one third of the book.
That doesn’t sound like a standard bass method book.
No, it is not your standard bass method. It will be a bass method that actually has nothing to do technically with how to play the bass but is all about bass playing. I really thought I’d get it done a decade ago and I didn’t. I’m going to take it on the road with King Crimson and work on it mornings.
You’ve been in this business long enough to see many ideas about the role of the bass come and go. Do you feel the instrument has overcome the stigma of being perceived purely as a support instrument?
I don’t see a big difference between the '90s and the '80s. I think that there have, for a long time, been occasional innovators who stretch the function of the bass to a place where it has not been before. I first heard a guy like that when I was a kid playing bass, so they have been around awhile. Sometimes that innovator, as in the case of Jaco Pastorius, will also not only take the bass somewhere else but will have a talent for doing what I would call ‘valid music’—very good quality music. And the bass has been taken to more of a lead role. I think that’s cool. I had nothing to do with that movement myself, nor have I followed it. But I think that is a good option for the bass. I think there are others that have not been explored much that are good options for the for the bass. I don’t really know what people think of in respect to the bass or what its role should be. And not only don’t I know about that, but I’ve got to say the groups and the circle that I work in don’t talk about it either.
What are some of those unexplored options areas you just mentioned?
I don’t know what the unexplored options are. I’m just saying that every few years or maybe every six months there is a bass player somewhere doing stuff that no-one ever did before. And sometimes that person is heard and gets out on record and sometimes it captures the attention of other players and people start following. This happened back in the '70s with thumb-slapping. We all had to deal with thumb-slapping in the '70s. It happens with certain effects once in a while. There was a flanger movement on the bass and then putting it on phase and goodness, Jaco with all his phenomenal technique and use of harmonics in more of an out-front way. Here I am trying to define the movement of the bass! [laughs] Jaco used harmonics in a more out-front solo kinda way and it never happened before. And he was just kinda brazen about his technique in the middle of other things. And it worked, so people started copying that. Then we have finger-tapping on the bass. So again, it takes it to another place. I think there has always been stuff like this around. I would say in general that the bass is more prominent on a lot of records than it used to be, and that’s nice. At the same time it’s nice that there is still basic bass playing going on in a lot of records in just a groove way that does not step out and take a solo function. I think it’s all valid to me if it‘s all done well. If it is inappropriate to the music for even five seconds, to my ears it makes me want to go home or turn off the music. But it’s that way not only with the bass but with every instrument. So when I listen, I listen to what I think is the quality of the music and not the technique. Only later will I become aware of the technique of the player.
You had a three-string bass custom-built for you. Were you trying to make a statement about your views on the instrument?
Yeah, I guess so. I think nowadays six-string basses are not unheard of and I have a five-string bass, but generally I play a four string bass. And it occurred to me at some point—I don’t know why or where—that I don’t really use all four strings that much. Now, since we talked about King Crimson, this is a little inappropriate. [laughs] The fact is, a lot of the playing I do is not with King Crimson. In King Crimson, I need all the strings I can get. [laughs] I don’t know how many strings is enough with King Crimson. Most of the stuff I play is low stuff. And I don’t mean it’s not interesting. Peter Gabriel stuff and a lot of other good stuff I have done I began thinking I don’t need all the strings. I started thinking "Well, how many do I need?" I’ve never had a bass made and originally I thought about two strings and then I had problems with the neck being that small, so I compromised with three strings: E, A and D. I considered B, E and A at one point but that didn’t work out either. So, I went with E, A and D and I worked with Music Man [bass guitar manufacturer] on getting the spacing right. I did have them do the spacing a little further apart so that it made it easier to play with the Funk Fingers—easier to stay on each string. By then I had a pretty good technique with the Funk Fingers with the normal spacing anyway. I also wanted a bass with no tone controls or volume control. Especially the volume control—I never use that thing. So they made me a bass without that and with no knobs on it. It was just a bass. I say this in the past tense because unfortunately there was this fire at my place and it burnt up. There is no more three-string bass.
Are you going to have another one made?
Music Man tells me they’re gonna make me another one, and we’ll get that replaced. It was a bass that I took on the road with Peter Gabriel and not with King Crimson. And I won’t take the replacement one out with King Crimson. I don’t do a lot of stuff with it. I just like the way Music Man basses sounds. I don’t really fool around with the EQ on them much. Once I get it the way I like it, I pretty much leave it that way. So, I like the concept of having a bass that just sounds good. It plays notes low and kinda high but not real, real high. Yes, it is a personal statement in that it’s enough and more is unnecessary. I’m a player who feels good having that instrument. I did a lot of gigs with it. It feels very good having an instrument that does that and no more.
Many have tried to place or situate your contributions to the evolution of the bass…
Here comes the dreaded question.
Fortunately, I play more than three strings. If I didn’t then probably no one would be interested!
What do you consider to be your impact on the instrument?
I’ve never really ever thought about that. I mean if you ask me when I’m ready to retire… I’m more interested in just about anything than that. I am more interested in what I’m going to do and what I’m trying to do right now. Right now, I’m practicing more with the Funk Fingers. I’m having a new Stick made—it’s a little bit different electronically. I’m trying to work on my playing at the top end of the Stick, which is tough. The Stick is a whole different thing than the bass, but to me as a player, it’s all wrapped in because I don’t know which I’m going to play until I hear each song. I’m working on some new techniques, but I’m trying to go further with some old techniques. So, that’s the type of thing I focus on with my playing. Not what I’ve done or what it means to anybody.
What are some of the sonic challenges in having two Stick and bass players in King Crimson?
There were some. Less than we might have thought because Trey moved up on the Stick, but not always out of the bass range. I’d say about a quarter of the show we’re playing the same parts in unison or in octaves. We spent a lot of time working out the bass parts when writing material. We also alternate and I don’t think you can tell if you see the band live or hear a record. There are times when he’s playing the bass part eight bars and then I’m playing it. The obviously hard thing for any bass player is having another guy in the bass range—even if it’s the keyboard player with a synth sound down there it’s a problem. What bass player isn’t very sensitive to what is going on down in the bass range? I’m very sensitive to it. The sound of two guys playing different notes down in the bass range is awful unless you’re trying to make a point with it. If you’re playing the same part and you’re playing it with the same phrasing, I have a problem with that. If you’re just doubling bass parts, I want there to be a reason for it—I want it to make a better sound or something.
So, yeah, two players on the same instrument is largely a matter of staying out of each other’s way and finding something good to play. It’s not easy. It’s easier when one guy has the Stick and one guy has the electric bass, which I play a lot ‘cause I have the option of bowing the notes which is an entirely different animal. So, our challenge was staying out of each other’s way. In Trey’s case, he wanted to establish the kind of playing that he likes to do. With me it was obvious. I’ve been in King Crimson. He knew the kind of playing I like to do. It’s been interesting. It’s been a challenge and I feel like we are doing okay with it. We haven’t shaken the world of bass players with new ideas, so obviously we have further to go. But we haven’t embarrassed ourselves from the point of view of what me and Trey are doing. The shows are good. It is very hard for the listener at the concert to hear what is coming from each guy, but I think we have been successful in allowing each other some room.
One thing I've noticed about you is that you're always diplomatic when talking about your many musical associations. I can't recall a single occasion in which you've dissed a fellow musician.
I’m just the way I am. I don’t think I’m particularly aware about how I am about that stuff. I’ll say that bands are political animals—there are politics in any band and I didn’t know that until I was in King Crimson. It’s a dreadful part of being in a band [laughs] and you have to deal with it in some way. If I’ve managed to avoid provoking people, then that’s something to feel good about. It’s good doing an interview in which you learn stuff about yourself.
I understand you have some very definite ideas and opinions about the interview process.
For many years, I was dead against interviews at all. In the beginning when I was in King Crimson and was finally asked to do interviews, like anyone else I did them. In interviews, you’re asked to talk about yourself and it kinda feels good. But at the end, I always felt very uncomfortable. And I figured out why as the interviews went on. First of all, most interviews—unlike this one—are with people who really don’t know who you are or what a good question would be to ask. What I figured out made me uncomfortable was there is an expectation from both the interviewer and the person who is doing it that a certain kind of event will happen and a certain kind of mood will be presented, especially by a rock guy or a rock band together. I just never wanted to go into that role and I didn’t quite understand for awhile that there was a role required for me to play. In my reluctance to play the role, or in my confusion about what the role was, I was giving bad interviews and was not giving answers in the way that was expected. I felt like I had failed and the interviewer certainly felt like he had failed. Anyway, I just said "I won’t do them anymore" and I didn’t do them for a long time—eight or 10 years. And then, with that three string bass, I felt so good about it when it was made, I said "I think I’ll do some interviews and talk about this bass." Having decided to engage the interviewer and be willing to do it, I tried to take responsibility for what is it that I wanted to say and what is it that I won’t say.
Now, I go into an interview quite differently than I used to. I’m more aware that I’m allowed to just be myself and I don’t have to present an image that the interviewer might want. Sometimes they kinda steer you towards that. For instance, an interviewer might keep asking about other players that I might say something bad about because provocative statements make for a better-reading interview. I have nothing to say about issues like that, even if I hate the guy an interviewer is asking about. [laughs]. I can’t think of anyone I hate. But there are some unpleasant things that have happened to me in all these years of playing music. That’s not something I want to talk about in an interview. Why? Because my purpose in doing the interview isn’t really to help the interviewer find something provocative that he wants to present to his editor. My purpose is either to talk about King Crimson or to talk about a bass. I have an agenda to do the interview. What never falls into it is the quote that says "Hey, I’m a happy-go-lucky rock player!" And especially with a video interview with a camera running, you’re expected to have that. But that’s not a problem in King Crimson because we’re generally an anything-goes band. [laughs] The interviewers, when they get us together, don’t expect us to be happy-go-lucky.
I could probably go on all day about my feelings about interviews. It made me happy when I realized what bothered me about them. And as will happen, once I realized what bothers me about them, I could think it over and figure out a way that it wouldn’t bother me anymore. It was a little bit coming from interviewers or just from the nature of the way interviewers are, but most of it was coming from me—from my preconceived ideas, or my lack of thinking about the whole thing. So, now I can do a bad interview or a good interview and it doesn’t ruin my day if it is not a useful interview to the person.
I had been around Adrian [Belew] and Robert for a lot of years, hearing them do interviews—all those years in the '80s when I didn’t do them. I heard them and I wasn’t listening to what they were saying, but I was kinda following. I was thinking to myself "How can they do this?" and "What are they up to?" They have very different approaches to interviews. What I learned about doing interviews probably came about from listening to the two of them. To a smaller extent, Bill Bruford too, but Adrian and Robert were called up to do really a lot of interviews. Robert tends to come into an interview with an agenda—a complete agenda of what he wants to talk about. Adrian kinda bounces around with the interviewer to wherever they want. Bill is more like me. I’ve done a lot of interviews on the radio with him—especially when they want someone to come to the radio station and only Bill and I are willing. [laughs] Bill brings a very good sense of humor. I’d have to ask him if it is conscious, but I think he feels it is necessary to counterbalance the heaviness of King Crimson. So, even though the playing we do onstage is not generally terrifically humorous, Bill’s direction in interviews is usually humor which I find amusing in some way. You got to find some humor in THRaK aTTak. [laughs]
You’re well-known by the public for your look, if not your name. I've met several people who know you only as the "tall, bald bass player with the moustache."
[laughs] Yeah. I saw this very funny website last night. It was called the Tony Levin website and the guy was playing a Stick the way I do with his legs widespread the way I do. He had the very outfit I had on during a Peter Gabriel tour back in the '80s—an English mechanic’s outfit, only he had hair. "I know I don’t look like Tony Levin" the caption said. It was pretty funny. It’s a funny feeling to have a quote unquote "look." I think I am very grounded about this stuff largely because I live with my daughter—a wonderful 11-year-old girl—and we joke about these kind of things. Regardless of how a person is, it is one thing to be out on the road with a rock band and to be getting all the attention of the press and things like that. It’s very different to be taking your kid to school and to be just one of the housewives or parents in the schoolyard. And I spend most of my time doing the latter. So, I kinda smile whenever I think about anyone knowing or caring what I look like. "The Tony Levin Look" doesn’t mean much around Woodstock, New York where I live. And that’s the way it should be.
Describe the fateful day you decided to adopt "the look."
It was one day in the early '70s when it was very hot. It was a heat wave in August and I lived in New York City at the time. I said "I’m getting rid of anything that is getting me warm" and I shaved my head, dealt with the sunburn and all that kind of stuff. By the end of the summer I kinda liked the way it looked. For a few years, I would grow all my hair and beard from the first cold day—September/October through the winter. As soon as it started getting warm in May, I would start shaving everything. I did that for maybe two years. In a streak of vanity, I felt I looked a lot better and certainly younger without the hair than I did with the beard and the long hair, so I stuck with this. I don’t remember when I grew a mustache. I never had a plan that "Hey, it will be a look." I do remember that when I first did it kids would say "Hey!" Sometimes they would associate it with Yul Brenner. This will date me quite a bit. Later, they would say "Hey, Kojak." [laughs] This was particularly in Europe. First, when I shaved my head it was the Yul Brenner thing, then it was the Kojak thing. And in the years since then, I gotta say a lot of rock bands have bald heads. It had to happen. Every look has to recycle itself and be popular.
What’s in the future for you in terms of solo music and your photography career?
I have been buried in getting my web site going and Papa Bear Records—just doing the things to keep it functioning while I’m home so that I can go on the road and ignore it. The main thing of that little record company is that it can be a vehicle for whatever I want to put out. So, I have the opportunity, but lately I haven’t been able to focus on what it is that I’ll put out because I’ve been doing the nitty gritty work of it. This year I’ll finish the bass method and I’ll put that out. I will try to re-release Road Photos, the photo book I did in the '80s which had Crimson and Gabriel pictures. I’ve been gradually working on a new photo book. To have enough for a photo book, you really need years of photos. So, since we reformed Crimson, I’ve been documenting the band intently and there will someday be another photo book of that. I’ll be doing a photo exhibition almost a year from now in Italy and as soon as Crimson gets off the road in September, I’ll have to bear down and get the photography ready for that. Eventually, I’ll record another album of my own. I have a few ideas.
The main thing I’d like to do of to take a trip across the United States on my Harley with a Stick on my back and record duets and other ensembles with American musicians in the houses where they live—kind of a complement to World Diary. World Diary was recorded pretty much in Europe in hotel rooms and with a lot of world musicians and no American musicians. I consciously did that as I wanted to leave room for an American version with different music—more American music. The Harley’s kind of an integral part of that. It’s important to me that it be an adventure, not only musically, but in every way. I can’t really do that in January though. It needs to be summer and Crimson tours every summer, so I don’t see how I can do that album. Logistically, that’s a problem. So, I might have to do other albums for a few years and someday I’ll do that album.
I also have an album that I’ve completed. It’s a concept that I got and completed a few months ago now—quite a few months ago on a break from Crimson. There’s a local cave with a lake in it and I wanted to record down there and I got two very good local musicians, Jerry Marotta who’s a drummer and Steve Gorn, who’s an Indian flute player. We recorded down there in the cave and made a very nice album which is kinda done and I don’t really have the time to put it out on my own label. I’m just too busy. I’d like to get that record out somehow and I haven’t done any of the work necessary to get it out like calling record companies. And knowing me, it is quite likely that I’ll end up putting it out myself so that I can have the right kind of album cover and stuff like that. I’m going to have to deal with that in the next year or two. So, I guess that’s what you call an album "in the can." but it’s hard to think of it as a normal album as it was recorded live in a place with a 10-second delay. There’s a huge reverb in there.
Rumor has it you’re a 'net veteran.
I started using e-mail a very long time ago. I forget the year, but there’s a time when I was touring with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel in the '80s when I finally was able to get both managements on e-mail so that we could all communicate while on the road about when the next tour or tour segment started and it worked really well. Of course, you couldn’t do any of the kinds of things then that you can do now, but the system was called Valcomm or something and I was like the 39th person to get on it. About a year later, they started piling up new charges for stored mail and it wasn’t going the direction that I liked, so I left it for a while. I was the first of anyone I know to get a fax. As soon as I saw that technology and even though it was a step backwards towards paper, I thought "this is going to solve a lot of problems for me." So, I jumped on that really, really quick.
You’re one of very few major musicians that's made their e-mail address available to fans.
Well the fact is, when I joined America Online, I didn’t carefully read the instructions, which is a habit I have, and I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to use your own name, but I had already chosen it and have not found that it’s any problem. I’m not a superstar, so I don’t get pestered a lot anyway. I go through periods when I have time to answer all my mail and other periods when I’m too busy to answer any of my mail. And if I get a few messages from strangers, it’s no problem. I’ve found it’s surprisingly problem-free using the ‘net.
I remember when you first started popping up on Usenet newsgroups a couple of years ago. People were pretty skeptical that it was actually you.
Yeah, I got a lot of that. How about this unusual question—I never thought of this until the '90s: "How can I know that it’s you? That you’re really Tony Levin?" That’s a perplexing question for any person on the planet and I usually respond by saying "Well, you don’t, so deal with it. I don’t care whether you believe I’m me. How do I know that you’re you?" [laughs]