1-on-1 with Tony Levin: Rochester legend, bassist, member of King Crimson

Arts

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Ahead of his performance with legendary rock and contemporary music King Crimson at CMAC on Thursday, Dan Gross caught up with all-time great bassist — and Chapman Stick maestro — member of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, composer, photographer, and pioneering internet blogger.

Levin discussed the band, what it’s like to be touring again, his time at Eastman, and what he’s looking forward to now that his bucket list project is.

Here’s our 1-on-1 with Tony Levin.

The one thing I always seem to be leading with these days is how does it feel to be playing out again?

Oh it’s great. Right now I’m on tour with King Crimson, but in early June, I went on tour with my brother. We have a jazz band called “Levin Brothers,” brilliant name for two guys named Levin. And the joy we shared with the audience is everybody was so thrilled to be back sharing… the joy of live music. We were deprived though for a long time. And there was all that excitement and enjoy.

I joked with Pete that it almost didn’t matter what we played for awhile. There was people were so thrilled to be back out. Now with a month, a couple of months has gone by things are different. I’m on with King Crimson. It’s a bigger show, a bigger tour across the country. And of course the COVID news has got worse. So there’s that joy is mitigated by some worry or some concern about what’s going to happen. But for us musicians, we’re thrilled to be back doing it. I was a long year and a half without playing life. It’s great.

I want to stick with the tour for a minute then. I love the poster it’s called, you know, “Music is our Friend” and you talk about King Crimson is famous for these huge shows that range from the songs that people know, to something really experimental, to doing the deep cuts they can be. They are a glamorous montage from show to show. So talk to me a little bit about the tour. Obviously you’re getting back on the road with it, but was there anything different the band was trying to do at this store compared to previous ones?

There’ve been different lineups that I’ve been in through the years because I’ve been in the band since ’81 for quite a while. So now we have an interesting lineup with seven players, three drummers. The drums are a big part of the show. They’re at the front of the stage with the other four of us on a riser behind them, which is kind of interesting, and musically very interesting… Fascinating the ways they find to devise,interesting drum parts to all the classic King Crimson material. So it’s all different than it used to be.

I think the last tour we were playing alone playing three hour shows, which is interesting. And the tour that was the 2019 tour, we have one opening act at the Zappa band or sometimes two opening acts.

And so consequently, we play a smaller show so far at the moment that I’m talking to it’s a two hour show, but what it will be in Canada. And Robert Fripp — the founder of the band and our leader — devises the set list every morning. I only find out at about noon, what we’re going to play that night. We have all 40 or 50 pieces king Crimson pieces to choose among. So it’s an interesting thing, always.

I think anybody who comes to the show is struck by this band is not like other bands. They do it their own way, and Robert’s always devising ways to do the set list, to do the, the format, to have three drummers to, to in a way it’s like we do it sort of like a classical, like an orchestra, if it were playing heavy rock in that we wear suits, and there’s no running around on stage, and very little light show action.

And we asked people to concentrate on the music and, and hopefully on a good night, we play it really well. And hopefully they’ll see some good musicianship too.

I do want to stick with King Crimson cause you’ve talked about it. It’s crazy that that it has been around in some form since 1969, as you mentioned that you joined in ’81… Obviously now it’s 40 years later, but when you’re first getting into that band, how did you sort of find your place?

Oh, very interesting question. And a good question. First of all, when I was asked to join the band in, ’81, yes, I had met Robert Fripp from playing together with Peter Gabriel and touring with him. And also I had played on Robert solo album, but I wasn’t asked to join King Crimson. I was asked to jump to maybe form a new band. And it was quite a day when I met Adrian Belew, the wonderful guitar player, and Bill Bruford, an amazing groundbreaking drummer.

So we were going to call the band “Discipline” and some somewhere in the process of touring and recording that first album, which we (would) call “Discipline…” We had to call the band King Crimson. So we did, I’m not sure why that, that process happened that way.

But I am sure of this: I played some foot progressive rock with Peter Gabriel — you could call it that — and different styles of rock. I played a lot of different kinds of music, but I was suddenly immersed in a real prog, real progressive band, that tries to do things different than anybody else, or even at the same band has done it before. And I was very influenced.

I was among the three great players, the other guys in the band who were experts in that field and in that genre. It was a learning experience, and it still is. And I was lucky to be around that caliber of musician and, and hopefully let some of it rub off on me.

You kind of alluded to this… I think is kind of a funny thing that is, seems to be exclusive to fusion and prog is because when you say to someone fusion, you know, they think like late sixties to late seventies. And I think like it’s “one thing.” And then when they think progress, they think it’s kind of like eighties and another thing. But the reality is, you know, both of those genres are still fresh and they’re new because the whole idea of those two is that they combine new ideas and, it’s sort of like composed rock in a way. You’re a guy who’s really creative and constantly has new ideas… How do you personally like keep it fresh and find enjoyment and in these kinds of mediums?

Like most musicians, I’m going to say that I don’t think about genres… except when I’m doing an interview and I’m asked about. That’s a good time. And I agree with you. There’s confusion about those names. You won’t hear me say prog rock much. I’ll say progressive rock.

I don’t think Robert Fripp would call it progressive rock either. What we do… To me, prog rock kind of implies the progressive bands that played in the late sixties, early seventies, and bands that do that same music that they did, that they created them either the same exact music or the same style and the same visuals, the same graphics prog rock. I’m not an expert at it, but that’s what I think of as prog rock.

Whereas progressive rock, which kind of is almost the same thing but implies to me… It actually keeps trying to change what it is they do and move forward. And in the same way, yes, fusion, I was around and playing jazz and playing rock when, when jazz and rock fuse together. And some bands began to doing that. And so the word fusion takes me back to fix the listener, maybe back to that.

It can mean of course that it can have a broader meaning, and more correct. Meaning those kinds of genre names and even words are not, not great ones when they give a confusing message to the people who hear them about what it is.

I’m pretty sure I can guess this one, considering the caliber of musicians that you play with, for someone who is as established as yourself, played with everyone and everyone do all kinds of different genres, where do you find inspiration from these days?

That gets me back to the answer of your previous question is it’s not about genres. It’s about the music, and when the music is going well, when you’re making good, hopefully you’re making good music. You’re just a happy person that, or most of us are a happy person. That’s why I went into music.

That’s why all the musicians I know went into music, let’s get a chance to get with good players, make good music. And as simple as that sounds after having done it so many years, that’s what I wanted to when I was 12 years old and I’m 75 years old now, and I want to do the exact same thing.

I also want to become a better player, which is something I wanted to do when I was 12 years old and, those a bit satisfying. And I think we, we all realize how darn lucky we are to be doing that for a career and actually often getting paid for it and making a living from it.

It’s a great thing. And as one gets older, the stress of being on the road is something you have to cope with those 22 hours a day where you pay your dues to play the two hours show or maybe three hour show, but we deal with it. And I’m again, lucky that the way Peter Gabriel or King Crimson tours, is not the same as I toured with the beginning in vans and buses. Well, actually we’re touring by bus right now. So sometimes it’s the same, but generally it’s a little higher class and a little easier on our aging bodies.

One thing you said earlier that I wanted to follow up on, you’re out in playing shows now when you first are playing out, back in June, you mentioned how reinvigorated the audiences were. And you know, one thing that was in the press release actually that was sent along, that kind of caught my eye is, you know, you mentioned, I mean, the audiences are so enthusiastic men, do you? And it also said in that, that the audience is changing is that it’s skewing a little bit younger and you might be having a younger crowd out. And some of these are you see, is that something you’re seeing? And if it is, why do you think that is?

It is. Crimson has a bit younger audience, this tour and the last tour before that. And I have no idea why, and we only kind of peripherally notice it. We’re pretty immersed in trying to play the music correctly. It’s complex music. But then afterwards one or the other bus backstage might say, “well, why do young people today?” And I like that, of course I have no idea why I don’t, maybe their parents told them they should check out this band.

When things are going right, and we’re playing a really good concert, I can feel — I don’t so much hear the audience cause I wear in ear monitoring — but I could feel from the audience that it’s getting to them, which means not only were we playing well, but the sound system is good, and in the acoustics of the place are good, because if they’re not, then they can’t really get all of the subtleties of what we’re doing.

So when that’s going well, you sense that it’s a really successful show on, in all ways. And we who go to shows, everybody who’s gone to shows has, has this experience. You’ll see some show and, and just magically. It’s great. And you’ll think “this is the 10th best concert I’ve ever seen, or maybe this is one of my favorite concerts I’ve ever seen.” Well, it’s the same for us on, on the stage.

You might not think that because we do so many shows, but still sometimes everything comes together. And I think, I believe it has something to do with the audience to not how loud they clap, but just to the things that aren’t scientific, they’re more… Magical or something. I don’t know what it is, but somehow when this group of people, this band and this audience gets together, something magical can happen. Well, there’s that potential every night that we go on stage. And that’s pretty great.

I just love this tidbit that while you were at school, you were able to play in an orchestra conducted by Stravinsky. And also Steve Gadd was the one who introduced you to rock and jazz. That is insane. So with that in mind, you know, what was your time at Eastman? I mean you were a teenager 22 or something. What was that time like for you?

I hadn’t really collated the Stravinsky year with the Steve Gadd turning the other jazz and rock, but the both of those things are true. Uh, I like F most everybody who’s gone through Eastman. I found it a tremendous challenging learning experience and a wonderful a chance to be with other really great players. Players bet. When I was a kid in Boston, I was pretty darn good on bass. And I thought I was as good as it gets. And then I went to school and found that there are better players all over the place and a number of them in school. And that was a good part of my education.

I also was lucky to, to meet good bass players and good, uh, jazz players. And I began playing jazz largely because it’s the, how lucky was I, that Steve gap is great for those who don’t know really great jazz and rock player, uh, that he was in school in this classical school.

And he didn’t have a good bass player to do gigs with and he kind of needed somebody. So I fell into playing gigs with Steve. And at the same time, I had the opportunity to play nights with Gap Mangione, a great player who’s local in Rochester — and some with Chuck Mangione — a great learning experience.

I wasn’t a kid, but I was still getting educated, especially about jazz, which was sort of new to me. And it was lucky time for me. And after a few years after school, I left and went kind of just dumped myself in New York city, and had different musical experiences there.

I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but if I think I don’t spend like most musicians, I’m really good at focusing on the music that I have to learn for tonight’s show and for next week and next year, I’m not so good at looking back. But I think, pretty almost all of my careers career has been similar in that I’m around other players and I’m learning other things about, ways to play music and trying to expand my playing options

As I’m getting older keeping a record is more important to me… And one of the things, not that I can boast research because I Google your name and then your website and it’s right on the homepage, your website, but you’ve been keeping the road diary online since basically the start of the internet.. Which is an insane thing to say out loud. And then before that it was the road photos. And I think ’84, there were photos that you took on the road, and you publish to some extent… What made you get started with the road diary? And obviously there was a bit of a break in there, but what made you start the road diary and why is it important to you to keep it up?

I love that you chronicle and keep track of what it is you do. That’s a good, very good idea. I actually am not that kind of person. I never did that…

But it happens that I always had the camera and I always wanted to take pictures, try and get better at that part of our artistic output. You’d get better at taking pictures and capturing the moment. So I started a website, pretty early back when you could just have your name, be the name of your website, Tonylevin.com. That was pretty easy. I started it actually.

I had a solo album at that time — my first — I started it with an eye towards selling my CDs on online. And if you can, you probably can’t even imagine this, that entailed in those days, asking people to write a check and mail it to an address. And then I would mail it. There was no direct aspect to it. And when I found is that not many people wanted to buy that CD and write the check to somebody that didn’t know… But that everybody enjoyed when I occasionally I’d mentioned things about being on the road and backstage. So I started doing more of that and putting up the photos that I took.

It was not easy in the mid, early mid nineties to digitize the pictures. There were no digital photos and digitize them and put them up. And by the way, they were, the maximum I could use was 200 DPI… They were tiny. I can’t stand to look at those pages now. And unfortunately I didn’t save them in a higher resolution, but, the more I did that, the more I find that found (that) this is really fascinating with the internet has provided. I didn’t expect is it’s taken down something of the barrier that exists between performer and audience.

And now that the audience can see if they want, if they stumble upon cross my website, they can see what it’s like backstage. And especially I can take a photo at the end of the show or the audience. And I found that people love seeing, and of course they should seeing what they look like, because it is, you see a picture of a yelling and screaming audience.

It is inspiring. And by seeing that they can share with us how we are influenced by the audience and how special light is. So it was a little bit of: I love things that connect people better than it things have before…

And (then) the internet. I stumbled on this way to have what later became called a weblog. And I think it was maybe I’m guessing ’94, not that far back because when I first stumbled upon email, it was in the eighties and found it very helpful as a way to collate the tours I was doing with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson.

It was really hard in those days to find phones and call someone on a different continent and (in) different time zone(s) and see when this tour can take a break when the other can start. And suddenly when we had email… that was a breakthrough in communicating and it helped (to) schedule tourists.

On to “the Big Three.” They’re kind of big picture questions. We talked a lot about Eastman specifically, but you know, you’re from Brookline. And then you came to Rochester, spent some time in Rochester. So for you, what made Rochester, such a great place for artists and original music to be as strong as it was?

Well, it’s a home in a jazz sense. It’s it has been the home of a lot of great players was then, is now. And so stepping into that, the city I came from in Boston had probably plenty of really good back jazz players, but it didn’t have that kind of community… Maybe because it’s a bigger city or maybe per capita, less really special players. But, actually the Rochester/Buffalo area was noted for then for having a really great jazz scene, and to be plunked down into the middle of that was pretty cool for me.

Although I didn’t envision myself coming out of classical music school coming out of it, being a jazz player when I hadn’t been a jazz player going into it, but that’s what happened. It took a little bit of a turn left. But let me say also that Rochester has had, and has a great orchestra (the RPO).

I was really lucky to get in it, to be a member of it and lucky in a personal sense, but because I was young when I got into it, I found after a year or two, that I wasn’t as much dying to be an orchestra player, as I thought I had been through my promoted my life up until then. So that’s very nice to find at an early age, rather than a later age, and to be able to turn a little bit left figuratively and try some other things.

And I found that I really craved, or I really enjoyed being the only bass player in the jazz and rock bands that I was in, as opposed to being one of eight plays players playing great music, the greatest music. So that was a lucky thing for me.

Part of my Rochester experience, there were great players. It was a great school and I had a great education there. And equally I was exposed to a lot of friends, and colleagues who are great musicians in different genres. And that was very good for me, artistically, and personally beautiful.

Next one, we’ve kind of touched a lot upon what you have done but what do you want to do? What’s kind of the next thing that you want to accomplish, that you can kind of call the next feather in your cap, like the next thing that Tony Levin wants to do in his musical career.

That’s a very good question. Thank you. I have to preface it by saying that the top thing on my bucket list, if you’d call, it was to do a really high quality coffee table sized photo book of all my, of the best pictures of all my years on the road, and 2020 for all the challenges that presented did allow me to do that. So I spent June till December doing that, and it’s called images from a life on the road, and I was able to finally release that book. Otherwise that would have been what I would say…

I would say one of these days, I’m going to have time to do that with that gone and with COVID putting question marks and asterisks in front of everything we plan. I’m going to say, I hope to keep touring with the many bands that I tour with.

I hope Peter Gabriel, by the way, we’ll finish this album and maybe tour. That would be fantastic because I’m not only in his band, I’m a fan and I create more Peter music. I hope King Crimson keeps and keeps doing what we do. Stickmen, for sure. We’ll do that. And Leivn Brothers will do that. And I’m way overdue for a solo album. So if you ask me what project it is that I’m looking forward to doing, it’s that.

And if I can’t tour, it’s a wonderful problem to have that a whole lot of touring for a bit, for a player keeps you from doing that album that you wanted to write at home. So I’m a lucky guy that I’ve been doing. And if the touring eases up, then I’ll get to work on a solo album.

One last thing for you. Do you have any advice for aspiring musician?

It happens to all of us in our careers that there are setbacks there. You’ll do an album, and think you look forward to it coming out, and you’ll find that you’ve been replaced at somebody else’s in it, or you’ll be in a band and you’re replaced in the band.

We joke about the different ways to let people know they’re not in: “Me and the boys have been talking and we think you’re ready for your solo career is the joke that comes up.”

I’m making fun of it, but it really hits you hard. You will find, or you have found when your music isn’t wanted and it’s easy to take it personally. And unfortunately that seems to be a part of the business of, or the career of being a musician.

And so even though it’s not ending on a positive note, I think the best thing I can really can convey, convey to starting out musicians is that happens to all of us and has happened. And what’s best is to find some way to process it, not take it too personally. Remember what I said that it happens. It happened not only early in my career, it happened all through my career and to the Steve Gadd, into great players I’ve played with. So it’s part of what’s there and try to take it in stride and not let it spoil the appreciation of the wonderful opportunity to make music.

You can watch the full interview here:

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