When I was approached by Phyllis Fast (the wife of Larry Fast, who plays synthesizer in Tony’s band) about Tony Levin’s recent Grammy nomination for his solo album "Pieces of the Sun," a jazz-rock fusion montage, I was thrilled that she asked me to interview the greatest bass player alive. Personally, I feel he deserves a lifetime achievement award for his accomplishments in music. He has played with everyone that is someone in music. Levin is content to stay out of the spotlight and, as a session musician, does not get the kind of recognition and attention that artists, who are in that position, receive. This interview could have been more in-depth regarding the scope and breadth of his work and more technically oriented for the questioning musician, but I preferred to keep it simple and ask general questions that would initiate broad answers.
JazzReview: You have played with so many people over the years that it’s mind-boggling. I am amazed at how you’ve been able to do that. Your entire life must revolve around being on the road or in the studio. How much time do you actually have to yourself with such a busy life?
Tony Levin: I think you would be surprised at how much time I (or any free-lance worker in any field) have to work taking me away. There are, of course, tours, which can last some time. In recent years though, groups I tour with are booking shorter time frames, so the overall time is much less than we were spending out in the ‘80s. Albums, too, are shorter than they used to be, because of budgets.
Nevertheless, I do spend quite a bit of time away from home, making music. It’s a mixed blessing, because I do miss my family and home life, but the chance to be part of great music makes it very much worth it for me. When I am home, if there is no music coming up (which usually involves my doing homework to learn or prepare for it), that’s when I get writing for my own releases, or make progress on some of my artwork.
JazzReview: I looked at your discography on your website and it’s quite impressive. I wanted to list it in this review but it’s too long! How does it make you feel when you sit back and reflect upon your career? Do you always feel satisfied and challenged with whom you are working and the projects you are working on? Are you able to work on several projects at once?
Tony Levin: I don’t actually sit back and reflect on what I’ve done. Like most musicians, I’m good at becoming immersed in the music that I am currently working on. We seldom lift up our heads to contemplate even the music we will be doing in the future, let alone what we’ve done in the past. That’s a big part of the satisfaction of making music . . . it really lives in the present and keeps you (hopefully) pretty [much] there in the present.
I am, of course, aware that I’ve been lucky to be part of a lot of special albums. (And, when I’m interviewed, specific albums often come up.) I think that part of the benefit of that are the musical things I’ve learned from some of the great artists and musicians through the years.
JazzReview: I really enjoyed the Bozzio, Levin, and Stevens entitled "Black Light Syndrome." It opened the door to an entirely new sound for me. It was one of my very first reviews and it helped to launch my career. I owe a lot of gratitude to you Tony for helping me find progressive rock. Steve Stevens played some incredible guitar on that album, I think he blew many people away because most folks knew him from his Billy Idol days. And what about Bozzio? You played with him before this project, correct? It must have been an amazing creative process working with musicians of that caliber.
Tony Levin: Yes, that’s the kind of thing I was referring to: playing alongside and being inspired by other musicians. Terry has a wild sense of how to approach the drums. [He’s] totally unique in his playing and his writing. Steve Stevens is extremely able at lots of styles of guitar playing (not just the Billy Idol style). So, when we got to write and record as a trio, it was an eye-opening experience for us all. The only drawback of collaborations like that is that you don’t have much time to write and record the music . . . there’s always the feeling that we could have used another week or two and got it even better.
JazzReview: For those of us who don’t understand all the technical terms and the difference between certain instruments, will you enlighten us on the different style of bass guitars that you use. Also, please explain why they sound different and in what situations you would utilize them? I know you play the Stick a lot. Why is this so?
Tony Levin: Okay, there’s the regular fretted bass. I play mostly the Music Man bass, which I’d describe as having a classic rock bass sound, kind of bassy (as opposed to a jazz sound or a midrange type bass). Fretless, which I play sometimes, especially on my albums as lead instrument, has a more singing tone . . . again I use Music Man basses for that. The Chapman Stick encompasses both bass and guitar range. I usually use it for just bass range, and love its different tone and the inspiration its unusual tuning gives me for coming up with different bass parts. But other Stick players have mastered the guitar side too (I play it some, in King Crimson, and on my own CD’s). Together the range and variety of the Stick make it a very interesting instrument for those who want to take their music to unusual places.
I also have and play other basses, including the NS Elecric Upright that has close to an acoustic upright bass sound . . . I played that a lot on the recent Peter Gabriel UP CD. Then there’s the NS Electric Cello, which, with a bow, is pretty useful to me. I also play the bass sometimes with Funk Fingers . . . wooden drumsticks attached to my fingers for a hammering percussive sound.
JazzReview: You played on John Lennon’s "Double Fantasy" album. What kind of man was John? Was it a memorable experience working with him?
Tony Levin: We only did a few weeks of tracking, from which the two albums were made: Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. John was great to work with, and a lot of fun. I wish I’d had the chance to [have made] more music with him, of course, and to [have gotten] to know him better.
JazzReview: Can you tell me about your recent releases Tony?
Tony: Last spring’s "Pieces of the Sun" CD is the one that just had a Grammy nomination. It’s instrumental music that I consider progressive. By that I mean that it uses different forms for pieces than the standard rock song. And there are different sections to the compositions . . . they may start out electric, go into acoustic, and then back for the ending.
The musicians on that CD are my old friends and bandmates from Peter Gabriel’s band of the 80’s: Larry Fast on synths and Jerry Marotta on drums. Jesse Gress rounds out the band on guitar. Jesse is a long time member of Todd Rundgren’s band.
Just a month or so ago we finally released a live (double) CD, which gives a great feel of what our live show is like. It’s titled "Double Espresso" and, in addition to my compositions, it has some of the music we throw into the live show for fun: King Crimson songs, some Peter Gabriel and even Genesis material, Led Zep’s "Black Dog," "Peter Gunn," "Tequila" . . . lots of fun.
JazzReview: What are your goals as an ever-evolving musician? Can you see yourself playing a certain kind of music in a year or two down the road, or do you usually handle each project with a creative spontaneity depending with whom you are working?
Tony Levin: I don’t think too far down the road. When I get in the writing process, I’ll try a few ideas I have and see which ones work. The music will tell me where I should be going on the next solo CD. I do hope, sometime in the next year or so, to get back to writing and touring with King Crimson. The guys and the band have been a big inspiration for me, and I do miss the experience.
JazzReview: Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the demand for your services or are you more of a take-it-in-stride kind of person?
Tony Levin: The only thing that comes close to overwhelming me is the process of getting my own music out of my head [and] on tape and out as a finished CD in the way I’ve conceived it. Most of my playing for other people is a breeze--just fun to participate in the music. What’s hard about that?
JazzReview: Have you always played the bass?
Tony Levin: Yes, always. Since the earth was cooling!
JazzReview: I know this will be a complicated answer Tony, but can you tell me how you got to where you are today in the music business?
Tony Levin: Well, it’s a trick question, I think, because where I am in the business is a debatable thing.
I do think this: people should decide what success means for them, and not be distracted by accepting others’ definitions of success. For me, success is playing high quality music and lots of it. I’ve been lucky in my bass-playing career to get to do exactly that, and I hope to continue. For someone else, other things might be involved in their feeling successful: fame, high income, respect of their peers or fans . . . or other things. That’s fine for them, as my goals are right for me. So the path I’ve taken--being fulfilled by playing bass well on good music--might not be the best one for everyone. (An example of that: some bass players have a vision of a different way to approach the bass, and struggle to find the setting where they can make their breakthrough music. The rule-breaking players, who have started new styles of playing, have inspired other bass players and me. They were right to do what their instincts told them.)We all have different musical instincts, and I think they’re precious and should be respected.
©"Keith "MuzikMan" Hannaleck
January 26, 2003
Interview conducted by MuzikMan January 24-26, 2003 with permission of Tony Levin.