MOUTHY ISSUE TWO
May 2003
TONY LEVIN
interview by Ian C Stewart


Is this your first Grammy nomination? How has being nominated affected you?
In the 80s, King Crimson had a track nominated for a Grammy - probably in the same category (Iím not sure, I donít remember the category.) That track was ďRequiem,Ē off of the Beat album. I didnít attend that awards ceremony. Iíve played at the Grammy show a few times, too. With Paul Simon, Kenny Loggins, and with Peter Gabriel. Thatís a different experience than attending as a nominee - frankly, Iíll have to see what that is like! I certainly don't have an acceptance speech written. My feeling is that Iím honored to have been nominated - frankly, I didnít think that many people were aware of my solo releases - and I have no expectations beyond that. The result of the nomination has been that I have had the chance to do more interviews than usual, and thatís especially useful while on the road, to help with ticket sales in the clubs. I just came home from a few weeks touring with my band, and sales were indeed a bit more than last time.

Do you get more calls to play Stick or bass?
It varies, but usually I am called for bass and I bring along the Stick. A few times Iíve been called just for the Stick, but I brought a bass or two along, not being sure that the producer was correct about what the Stick is. They may have seen me playing, perhaps the NS Electric Upright, live - and because itís long and thin, thought it was the Stick. Or they may have heard, say, Peter Gabrielís ďSledgehammerĒ and because the bass sound is unusual (itís fretless bass with 8va pedal) thought it must be the Stick. Iím happiest when the producer of a record lets me choose which bass instrument I think is best for each particular piece.

When did you start playing Chapman Stick - what drew you to it?
In the mid 70s, many friends and players told me theyíd heard about the Stick, and thought it would be right for me. I used to play the bass with hammer-on technique in those days, and indeed it was an easy transition for me.

Were there any other early Stick players for you to learn from?
There were indeed other players, but I only wanted to use the Stick as a bass instrument in a band, rather than playing lead and bass parts, so I didnít really need to hear what the others were doing. I remember Emmet Chapmanís playing being very good, and there was a band, Kittyhawk, with two Stick players. Nowadays, there are many Stick players, all doing different types of music on it, and thereís a wide range of techniques to learn. Iím still behind the pack in that I donít keep up with the techniques I hear being developed. But Iím constantly inspired by what I hear others doing and very pleased that great things can be done on the Stick.

How many Sticks do you have?
I have two, which I use for different types of playing. One, with the Chapman pickup, is my preference for bass sound. But if Iím doing solo Stick playing, on both sides of the Stick. I often practice for a solo CD Iíd like to do someday. I find the other pickup more uniform between the bass and guitar sides.

How do you respond when people ask you what The Stick is?
A quick explanation is usually fine. Itís a twelve string instrument with bass and guitar strings. I usually play it as a bass because Iím attracted to the unique sound it has.

What's the strangest session you've played on?
Many of them were strange! I think Iíve blocked out the memories. Iíll think this over, and let you know if some come to mind.

What's your favorite piece to play live?
Changes often. On Peter Gabrielís fall tour, it was ďMercy Street.Ē In my bandís January tour, Iíd choose ďUtopia.Ē

What's the biggest audience you've played to?
Half a million once, at Franceís Fete dílhumanite with Peter Gabriel in Paris. Woodstock Festival, 1994 with Peter mustíve been about 400,000.

How's the current label situation working out?
I am very happy with Narada Records releasing my last three CDs. Theyíve brought my music to many more listeners than I could have done on my own. And theyíre very open to my presenting the music I want to, as an artist, with no regard to what kinds of music their other artists are making. I do still run my own Papabear Records, selling only from the web. Itís an outlet not only for my earlier CDs, but my artwork, book, and some fun stuff. Also I always want it to be there so I know I can find a release for any unusual music project Iím moved to do.

What's your favorite place to play live?
Gee, there are many. A lot of clubs give you a great feeling, and draw great audiences. For the big arena stuff, which Peterís been playing, there are still some differences among them, but few sound as good as clubs.

How is your relationship with fans?
When on tour with the Tony Levin Band, we go out and autograph CDs - and vinyl! And chat after each show. So I have no problems being with the audience. Of course, I donít have a ton of time to devote to anyone, even my friends and family when they come, but thatís a situation that everyone understands. When an artist reaches a higher level of fame, like Peter, he just canít go out and chat with everyone. I think Iím lucky that I can be making the music I want, loving doing it, and not have to avoid the people who like it.

How many interviews have you done in your entire life?
I donít know, of course, but not as many as you might think. In the 80s with King Crimson, I wasnít asked much, but I also grew to dislike interviews because I didnít want to talk about John Lennonís tragic death and it was usually the first question. So I refused interviews for quite a few years. I finally got over my issue with that, and felt okay about interviews in the 90s. Anyway, for all intents, this is my first interview, because Iíve forgotten the others! And Iím thrilled to be asked about my music. It was great working with John in the studio, and getting to know him a little. Like everyone, I was deeply hurt by his death, but unlike some, I found myself unable to talk about it or about my feelings. Now, many years later, being able to face how much it hurt, and how special he was, helps me to appreciate, even more, his genius and how precious it is that his music and what he stood for so affected many of us.


www.tonylevin.com


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