Interview: Bassist Tony Levin talks Stick Men, King Crimson
Kai R. Joachim

Peter Gabriel calls Tony Levin the “Emperor of the Bottom End."

It’s a fitting description: Since the early ‘70s Levin has been the go-to bass man for such superstars as David Bowie, Alice Cooper, John Lennon and Paul Simon. He’s also longstanding member of King Crimson—and key contributor to guitarist Robert Fripp’s occasional Crimson-related ProjecKts.

Levin has shared studios and stages with members of Yes (Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Alan White), Porcupine Tree (Steven Wilson), and Dream Theater (John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy) and is known to dabble in all-star combos and super-groups like Bozzio Levin Stevens, Liquid Tension Experiment, Levin Torn White, and Upper Extremities.

Chances are you’ve heard Levin’s low-end work—and grooved to it—even if you wouldn’t recognize him out on the street (despite his trademark bald pate and prodigious ‘stache).  That’s because it’s always been about the music for Levin: Magical noise, not notoriety.  

Accordingly, Levin started up his own little trio a decade or so ago to pursue the strange, beautiful sounds he and his friends were making with hybrid string instruments called the Chapman Stick and the Touch Guitar. Imagine a cross between an electric guitar and an upright bass, and you’ll have an idea what both devices look like. The vertically-oriented “sticks” allow Levin and cohort Markus Reuter to create notes by depressing their digits directly onto the many strings (like fingers traipsing over keys on a piano) rather than strumming or plucking with a pick.

Joined by fellow Crimson associate / percussion guru Pat Mastelotto, they are the Stick Men—and they’re coming to a town near you.

Levin phoned AXS last week to discuss his latest studio effort (Prog Noir) and forthcoming Japanese double-live album (Roppongi) with Stick Men. He also shared a few insights about his and Reuter’s unique instruments and the crucial roles they play in the band.

AXS: You’ve had a busy year, Tony. First a tour with King Crimson, now Stick Men. And then you’re going back to Crimson for a tour in October. What’s it like shuffling between the two groups?

Tony Levin: It’s a lot of fun for me. They’re very different, and yet we do some of the same material. In Stick Men we do some King Crimson pieces, and it’s interesting to do it with three guys only to come back and do it with eight guys. There’s a lot more on my plate with the three of us; this band takes up a lot of parts. It’s a challenge, but it’s good fun. It’s going to be special this year touring with King Crimson. We’re playing better than ever. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something very special about this lineup!

AXS: You have a couple new releases with Stick Men. The studio album Prog Noir came out late last year, and now we have the live set Roppongi. Can you tell us a bit about each?

TL: Prog Noir is our last studio album. We like to tour a lot, so that’s great. But the issue that comes up is that you don’t have time to do a real meaningful studio album, which ought to take a year or so to write. We don’t have the time for that when we want to be playing out all the time. But we finally carved out the time. Then we did six shows in Japan with Mel Collins [sax, flute], and Markus Reuter is a good engineer and producer, so he chose the best of those six shows.  There’s also this element of excitement when you throw something new in the mix, and Mel’s playing does that. Nobody knew how he’d react with these pieces, but we’re very pleased with the way it all came out!

AXS: For the folks just discovering Stick Men, could you explain what a Chapman Stick is, and how you incorporate its sounds into the band mix?

TL: Well, about since the earth’s been cooling I’ve been a bass player. I have a few different types of basses, but sometimes I play the Chapman Stick—which was invented by Emmett Chapman—and it has both bass strings and guitar strings. Normally I play the bass strings, as with Peter Gabriel or King Crimson. There are those guitar strings, and in the band Stick Men I really engage like a normal stick player, who play all the guitar and bass strings at the same time. And Markus Reuter used to play the stick, but he designed his own Touch Guitar, which is similar in that it has both bass strings and guitar strings. So we cover that whole range; we have a lot of coverage in that regard. We can have two bass players and two guitar players at the same time, or one guy can be the guitar player while the other plays bass. Things like that. If that wasn’t unique enough for the band, Pat Mastelotto doesn’t only play acoustic drums; he has an electronic kit, too. So at any time he might be playing samples or loops and other sounds. He’s famous in Crimson for surprising us with his effects. I like that the band has a unique sound to begin with, but at any show we can surprise ourselves when you get the three guys together with all these musical things going on. None of us is the kind of player that wants to just show off; it’s more about implementing the pieces in a musical way. It’s not about shredding or showing muscle, but there is a lot that can be done with just the three players.

AXS: Your Chapman sound—and some of your work on standard bass—is very percussive. You straddle the line between rhythm and percussion, and you can create melodies, too.

TL: You’re right. It’s very percussive. It’s called the hammer-on technique or Touch guitar technique. Frankly you could play a guitar that way, if you threw away your pick and just plunk your finger down—fingers on either hand—on the note and didn’t pluck or pick it. The details on a Touch guitar have been worked out with the Touch guitar and the Chapman for years. It has an unusual tuning, which adds to your adventure of being different from a regular bass player. And sometimes that unconventional tuning helps me come up with more creative, different bass parts than with the same old four strings I’ve been playing my whole life.

AXS: So if you wanted, you could use both hands to simultaneously play rhythm and melody?

TL: That’s what almost all stick players do. I’m one of the few who mostly plays just bass parts. The rest are busy being the whole “band.” Or you can be a guy who uses both hands for just a tricky bass part. Or you play a bass part with one hand, and the other to—oh, I don’t know—write a letter to somebody!  I’m joking, of course!

AXS: You’re also something of a wordsmith, archivist, and poet. Can you talk a little about how you started that popular road diary on your website, which you launched back when few artists even had a dedicated site?

TL:  The world wasn’t exactly waiting for me to do a solo album, but the time was right and I decided to do one, and I was just web-savvy enough to also create a website to sell my CDs. So I began pretty early, back when you could get a name like that. I wish I’d picked a name like!  Just kidding.  But I’d mention the new album, and then I’d do the road diary and tell people what it was like on the road with Peter Gabriel or King Crimson. And I’d do pictures. The pictures were harder to put up in those days. They were smaller, and you’d have to write the code. But people loved the pictures and stories. They didn’t necessarily want to hear more about my solo album [laughs], but that’s okay! So the website stopped being about that and became more about the road diary.  It turns out the best thing I could possibly share with them is the picture that I take of the audience at the end of each show. It’s wonderful, and they should see that! It goes to show how much we’re inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of the audience. You can feel that! So I’ve been glad to share that over the years.

AXS: That’s a cool thing about concerts. You could have a room of 300 people or a stadium of 30,000 people who never met, but for that one night you’re all together for a common purpose. You’re all friends—if not family—for the evening.

TL: Right. And also, we’ve all been to a concert where everything clicks and it’s just an amazing show. The audience and people on stage know that, “This is one of the best things I’ve ever seen!” To this day I’ll still have people coming up to me and say, “I saw you and King Crimson back in 1984 and it was the best show ever!” And it was. It works that way for us, too! And nobody knows why. There’s something with this music thing and the chemistry of the people on the stage where it’s inexplicable, but it’s so darn special. It’s part of why I do this! I love being part of that special thing that might happen and celebrating that! It’s worth doing!