A conversation with the legendary sideman turned front man with his latest band, Stick Men.
Quick: Name one person who can connect John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, and Peter Gabriel. Too easy? How about throwing in over 500 album credits and innovating how musicians approach bass guitar. Still too easy? Okay, make sure this guy also has been blogging longer than the term “blogging” has existed.
If you can name anyone other than Tony Levin who fits that criteria, please let me know. Levin has been playing since he was a kid (he played for JFK in 1960—how cools is that?), but he’s best known to music fans as “that guy who plays bass with drumsticks on his fingertips for Peter Gabriel,” or “that guy who plays that weird guitar thing for King Crimson.” That “weird guitar thing” is called a Chapman Stick, and it lends its name to Levin’s band, Stick Men. Drummer Pat Mastelotto and guitarist Markus Reuter round out the trio, who are currently on tour. They also have a new album, Power Play, coming soon.
I caught up with Mr. Levin via email just ahead of the band’s January 24 appearance at Harlow’s in Sacramento, California.
Good Men Project: You’ve played on literally hundreds of albums, including John Lennon’s Double Fantasy. In terms of session work, what are some stand out moments for you?
Tony Levin: Surprisingly, it’s not the famous ones that stand out. Any time the music is really going well and you all feel like you’re getting it right – those are special times for us players. It doesn’t matter whether the artist is famous, or whether it’s likely to sell a lot of records. I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of those experiences though the years, so no particular ones stand out — but it’s as great now to me as it was when I first started recording.
GMP: I was 14 years-old when I first heard “Elephant Talk,” and the impact was immediate and permanent. I’m not sure I have a question here, other than “how many times per day do people tell you that you were their gateway from rock and funk to something much more complex?”
TL: Thanks for the compliment. Well, about that song, I must admit quite a few Chapman Stick players I’ve met did say it was the first time they heard the instrument, and they were inspired to get one and try it out. And it’s a bit of a lesson about music for me, because really that part (which is the intro to the piece) is technically easy on the instrument, so those folks who went out and got the Chapman Stick found they could play the part pretty well…and it’s often that way—the power of a piece of music to move people isn’t usually because of tricky technical stuff, but just how ‘right’ the part is for the piece. Those of us who are always practicing and developing more technique need to remind ourselves often so we don’t get blinded by our own technical abilities to the more important factors in our music.
TL: It’ll be a tour, probably starting next fall. It will be a new lineup with a few of the older members. I’m very happy and lucky to again be part of the lineup. The most notable thing is that there will be three drummers! Do we know how they’re going to interact and make things work? No, not yet! That’s why we’re not playing in public til next fall!
GMP: You’re probably more closely associated with the Chapman Stick than any other musician is with a specific instrument; well, I mean I can’t imagine BB King without an ES-335, but if somebody says “Tony Levin” my mind goes to Chapman Stick. How did you and the Stick find each other?
TL: When Emmett Chapman first publicized the instrument, I thought it might be right for me. I’d been playing the bass with a ‘hammer-on’ technique, as is used on the Stick. And also, I was playing progressive music that seemed to call for different approaches. For the first few years I had it, I pretty much just played the bass side of the Stick (it also has guitar strings) and enjoyed how the sound was different than from my usual bass, but it also had a power of it’s own.
GMP: Tell us a little about Stick Men.
TL: I did a solo album, titled “Stick Man” where I did multiple overdubs using the Stick. I was very happy with that release, but found that I couldn’t really play the material live with any of the groups I work with, because it needed two Stick players. So, with Pat Mastelotto, (drummer in King Crimson) I teamed up with Stick player Michael Bernier, and we had a trio that could make a lot of interesting music with a lot of options. Eventually Michael left, and we found Markus Reuter to be an ideal player for the band. He plays a touch-style guitar that he designed himself. With all those strings(!) and Pat’s acoustic and electric drumming options, the three of us in Stick Men are able to play such diverse things as Crimson songs and our version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.
GMP: People seem to want to paint you into a prog rock corner. Does that bother you?
TL: Like most players, I’m not a ‘category’ guy. But I’ll admit that a lot of the music I play on is progressive rock, as is King Crimson, and that’s probably the genre Stick Men should be put in. I don’t mind that, (and I do get to play a lot of other types of music). I like to think of the ‘progressive’ part as really being that—as opposed to being an imitation of the prog bands of the ’60s: progressive in that we keep trying to find new avenues and trying not to be stuck making music the same way each album. Whether we’re successful is up to the listeners to judge, but I do think it’s a valid and worthwhile aim to have with your music.
GMP: How does a guy as perpetually busy as you are keep personal life and work life in balance?
TL: I just had a couple months at home, and it was great—so for once I can say that there is some balance. Seriously, it has become quite a bit easier since my daughter grew up and went on her own. My wife is able to come and visit on the road, so there isn’t that sad feeling that you’re neglecting the ones you love while you’re out there.
GMP: As technology goes, you’re an early adopter. What’s on your technology radar these days?
TL: I’m always trying new pedals, of course, but I haven’t been active in trying new instruments lately, partly because I’m pretty immersed in getting better at the ones I have! Especially challenging to me is the cello: I love my NS Design electric cello, and have been slowly working on a jazz album with my brother Pete, (who plays jazz piano). We’ve got the music right, but it’s my cello playing that’s lagging behind! Hopefully I’ll get it together and we’ll get the album out later this year.
GMP: I’m going to be selfish and ask a question here just for me: Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” is one of my all-time favorite pop songs. Can you share a little about about the making of that cut in particular or the So album in general?
TL: I don’t remember much about the original recording of the song. It’s a great song, of course, and fun playing it to this day (we toured this past fall, and will again next spring!) I guess I changed my approach on it a little through the years — play Funk Fingers on the bass for it now. Anyway it’s a very powerful piece, whatever the bass is doing, and it’s a great feeling to be on stage with Peter while we’re doing it live.
GMP: On this tour, can we expect cuts from across your catalog, or are you guys sticking with the Stick Men repertoire?
TL: We do a lot of pieces from our last release, Deep, and we do a number of Crimson pieces each show. We also do a rarely performed Robert Fripp composition titled “Breathless”, from his solo CD Exposure. We also do some improvising, in a few different ways (including one piece where we have no plan or idea at all what we’ll do each night.) And we’ll do the Stravinsky Firebird Suite, as I mentioned before.
GMP: What can you tell us about Power Play?
TL: That’s our newest release: more than new, I haven’t even seen a copy yet! We should have it in our hands a day or two before our Sacramento show. It’s a live performance from 2013, with most of the pieces we do in our show now. Very powerful, I think—hence the name.
Check out Tony’s blog, one of the earliest on the internet—18 years and still going!
—promotional photo used with permission