Interview done by Paul Adams*
Tony Levin. To most musicians, enough said. The guy's been everywhere and played with everybody who has made a dent in the world of music for the last thirty years. Peter Gabriel, John Lennon, King Crimson, Herbie Mann etc. etc. A musician's musician. The man loves to gig, and he's constantly on the road. But, the last few years he's started doing his own music, and Resonator is the current release on Narada Records. He also releases solo work on his Papabear Records label (Through his his web site only).
Tony is known for being solid and adventurous, and he doesn't disappoint. On Resonator, he opens up the door of his heart all the way, with an emphasis on lyric tunes. And the guy has hit the ball out of the park. The overall content of these songs are emotionally touching, with a dash of humor, irony, and mysticism. "Utopia" has a beautiful epic feel that just melts me. "Beyond My Reach" finds its genesis within the universal theme of grief, and the beauty of letting go of that that never stands still - life. The tune "Fragile As A Song" speaks of an encounter with a wonderful ape named Panbanesha, with Peter Gabriel. Throughout, there's a poignant ballad like approach to his recent decision to "open up" his lyric soul to the world. However, ballads aren't the only thing new and interesting. There are some wild rides here with instrumentals that shake the floor. "What Would Jimi Do" gives a rockin nod to Hendrix inspired music. The premise is interesting. If alive today, how would he Hendrix respond to the state of current music? On "Throw The God A Bone", even his dog Lilly takes part. A humorous movin' and groovin' celebration of our furry friends hold on simplicity and beauty. They have a lot to teach us. Woof!
In my discussion with him, he expressed concern that the lyric in these songs work well. There was also concern about the use of his voice. He wanted the music to stand - to be valid within itself, and not enslaved to a point in time that may not be as appropriate for an audience ten or twenty years from now (Tony expressed this same concern with some of the album covers for King Crimson). The themes are universal. Life, loss, existence, humor, and the sometimes precarious dance between science and the spiritual. These former themes expose Tony as a bit of a mystic, the later, allow him a bit of objectivity. He can acknowledge the sometimes overwhelming impact of these themes, yet balance the heavy, with the "Zen like" willingness to take the impact, dust himself off, get back on his feet, and re-join the dance for all it's beauty.
For the most part, the music industry has lost site of art. It offers us sameness with an ironic emphasis of trying to make itself look groundbreaking. Being an individual - making an artistic statement - is accomplished by sounding like everyone else. Tony and his wonderful band of Gypsy's ("The man" Adrian Belew on guitar, Jesse Gress on guitar, Tony's brother Pete Levin on organ, Jerry Marotta on drums, and Larry Fast on keyboards.) has offered us art. He's met the challenge of pushing the envelope, and taking a risk by heading into new territory. Exposing one self to these elements is being dynamic, involved, and alive. Tony Levin and the boys are alive! Resonator is alive!
Q This album showcases vocals in a prominent way. As someone known as a musician's musician, and one of the "go to" guys for instrumental excursions with many people, do you think you took more chance or risk? Was it frightening?
A Not quite "frightening" but a big leap for me. Like many musicians, I like challenges, and even with my comfortable territory (Bass, Stick, and instrumental music) I'm usually pushing myself to move off the old ways of doing things, learn new techniques, make some up... stuff like that. Maybe it's from being in King Crimson for so long, a band where challenging ourselves individually and as a band is standard practice. So, for years I've had a lot of material brewing - things I wanted to communicate that I couldn't get across with my instrumental writing. And finally it seemed time to take a deep breath, write the material the way I felt it suited me best, and do lead vocals on it. I'd sung backgrounds a lot (with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and some others) so I was familiar with my voice (it's qualities and lack of qualities...) The recording process took me much longer than usual this time, but in the end I'm happy it did so that I had time to adjust the compositions the way they needed.
Q There's a bit of the mystics imagination with this outing. One song example might be "Throw That Dog A Bone". Dogs have the simple mind thing down don't they? So much to teach us! Care to comment? By the way Lilly has great timing.
A "Throw The God A Bone" is somewhat characteristic of this new music - it's humor kind of masks a somewhat deep theme. Dogs look up to us, kind of like we're gods to them when you think about it. And the song is a processing of that fact midst our natural tendency to look up above us, and try to obey the edicts of our God or gods. It's amusing when our dogs, wanting so much to please us, break the rules sometimes, and feel so bad afterward - are we that different about our commandments? And then, science almost always being a component of these songs, what is going to happen when we create some new life (not so far in the future) and need to program it to obey 'commandments' of behavior from us? All interesting fodder for music, I think. Meanwhile, there's Lilly, my dog, happy to perform some barking for the song. I have to admit she did not bark on cue - but getting her barks on tape was as easy as... well, as getting a dog to bark!
Q I think when someone hears Resonator they are gonna get the Tony Levin approach. Music that seeks to use imagination a bit over formula. Can you elaborate about some of the tools and tricks you used to accomplish this.
A I certainly didn't want to sing about "love ya baby..." Maybe it's because I came from the progressive rock tradition, where music at least tried to be intelligent and challenging. And, for me, the themes were already there percolating in my mind before I set about writing the songs. It wasn't a case of thinking what a certain song would be about. I have lots of journals and poems about the things on my mind, often the collisions between where science and technology is taking us in this century, and the structures and traditions of religion. (My bedside reading is a very odd combination of science mags and the Bible.) When I have a theme, and perhaps a poem or a few pages of journal writings and drawings about it, it's kind of fun to form that into a song. The hard part for me comes when I have to shorten it (usually far too many ideas and verses to fit into reasonable length song) and when I need to fashion it into music that's my own style. (Some of the songs I rejected for the album were good musically but didn't suit the rock playing I wanted to do, or suit my voice, which is fairly limited.) (Incidentally, I ended up feeling that my voice limitations were a good thing for the material. There are ways a good singer can 'carry' some weaker parts of the song - maybe some lyrics that aren't up to the rest, but the singer can throw more emotion into those words and give them some resonance that way. Or, even weak melody lines can be made musical by the voice weaving around, adding filigree. Fine and dandy, but I can't do any of that, and so I had to keep plugging away at the music itself, knowing all I can do vocally is present the material. Ended up being better for the music, I think.)
Q I'm betting that approaching music in a non formulaic way may be very natural for you. I believe we are living in a time when formula music has never been stronger and more encouraged. I don't see people looking at music on it's own merits, but rather as a commodity and product to be compared. Consumers ask is that as good as this? Or is this one as good as the previous one - rather than looking at one particular piece on it's own merits?
A It's an interesting time for music, partly because music is somewhat a way of communicating, and it's a wild time for opening up new ways of communicating. I travel a great deal, and am always aware how much music is out there - it seems like almost everyone is making a CD. Listening just to the radio, you could get the sense that there is less unusual stuff being done, but I think it's quite different than that. Of course, the associated difficulty these days is getting your music heard, for the same reason - there is so much out there and so little of it gets media attention.
Q Do you think this new delivery system of selling digital downloads of songs - with the ability to bypass many middle men - is going to be a lasting vehicle for purchasing music?
A I've got no insight into the digital download world - seems to me that things are changing fast, and we don't know how music is going to be shared, and maybe paid for five years from now. It's certainly made things interesting! And maybe there's a lesson there for coming challenges in other areas - I think the rate of change with this new technology is increasing, and we'll have to get better at adapting, if we don't want to get stuck in the feeling of being left behind. It's complex now, in the field of music and music sales, but I think it may get like that with all media, and with information itself.
Q Back to the human and animal kingdom, and lessons learned from our planetary brethren. Peter Gabriel asked to you help him with a project in Atlanta. This lead to "Fragile As A Song". Can you give your fans your impression of what went down, and what this meant to you. What did it teach you?
A The story is in short that Peter called me from Atlanta where he was spending a few days playing music with apes! I joined him for a day, with Panbanesha (a bonobo ape) playing a bit of piano, while Peter and I jammed along. Her piano playing wasn't great, (though not bad for a beginner!) but her language ability amazed me. Later, in trying to "process" what had happened that day, I did what we musicians are lucky to be able to do, that is to process. I wrote a song about it, not explaining the event, but... filtering it through my musicality. So the resulting song ("Fragile As A Song") doesn't seem to be about apes, but covers the emotion and the wonder that I took from the event. It's hard to say what I "learned"' from it, but maybe it opened up my eyes to yet more permutations of what "communication" can be.
Q Tony, there is a bit of humor on this CD. AND, of coarse, the mystics perspective of science as on "Break It Down". You sang of the obsession of over analyzing and breaking things down. Of trying to make the abstract more definable. Even in the music business we have this need to break down the song and compartmentalize it so we can control the product, and assure good sales demographics. Any comments?
A Hah... you've got a good sense of the music business for sure. For me, though I sail into and around the music business. I remain somewhat on an island of just making music. We somewhat ignore the business end of things (until we need to address it, and that's often too late to be effective.) But it's a blessing, to be immersed in writing and recording music, and better still, being out on the road playing your music for the people who appreciate it. All musicians avoid compartmentalizing music, to be sure - we strive while making it, to make it our own and therefore, hopefully, different from the rest. Alas, it isn't ever completely different. To describe it in words, it is necessary to compare it to other music, hence to put it in a genre. We know that. But how nice that it's the job of others to do that - and we can happily sail along feeling our own music is unique!
Q Well it seems I'm going to drift back to the area of metaphysics and the song "Utopia". It offers us a choice of tools. It paints a picture of the many beautiful ways we have of seeing Utopia right before us - if we would just allow ourselves to see.
A Exactly. And in it is some reference to my having lost my father in the year I was writing - the writing I did about the painful side of loss, those poems and songs won't come out - more meaningful to me is the ever-present element in loss, of treasured connection. That's there, a bit, in "Utopia" and in "Beyond My Reach". And connection itself, between us fragile cousins in this human tribe, that's what I sing about, and that may be the function of music itself.
Q Concerning you not wanting to utilize the Music Industry formula approach, you said you certainly didn't want to sing about "love ya baby..." because you came from the progressive rock tradition, where music at least tried to be intelligent and challenging". My friend Gary Green played in a Prog group called Gentle Giant. They worked quite hard with little financial gain. In 1980, all "arty Rock", or "Progressive Rock" was buried in the closet. It's detractors called it pretentious and full of itself. Do you have any feelings about this?
A Well, in fact I don't like pretentious lyrics myself. In my opinion lyrics can be thought provoking and... well, resonant, without hammering you over the head that 'this is art. That naturalness, in writing, isn't easy to come by, and I struggled to try to achieve it - whether I succeeded or not, is for others to judge.
Q I see a strange irony happening in the business today. To be popular, your music has to be unique. One must be an individual. At the Grammys a few years ago Snoop Dog said something like, "we don't influence people, we just make music about what we see. People think for themselves". I'm not sure I agree with this. I hear a "sameness". From the phrasing, to the lyric, rhythm, and even the press photo pose. Irony. In order to be unique, I must be like everyone else. Care to respond?
A In a sense almost all of us who are trying to be unique are settled inside a musical genre with a lot of loose rules of form harmony and content. What we really are doing is bending some of those rules, maybe just combining elements that aren't often used together. It's a very rare musician who is writing outside the harmonic structure of hundreds of years ago. I listen sometimes to Schoenberg, to remind myself of the music (almost a century old now) that really did bust out of those rules - but my ear's not advanced enough to even get it, let alone write that way. Yet it's a good reminder to me - if I'm telling myself I want to be radical with my music, it's best I face the reality of just how radical I'm willing to get. (Add to that that if one is far from the norm harmonically, it'll distract from the other elements, like lyrics, that you might want the focus to be on.)
Q Every tune on the album is valid for me because I trust you. And I trust you because I feel that being dishonest and uninteresting would be a waste of your time. Even if you drive to a place that doesn't quite "tickle" my musical trigger, I'm going to say to myself. "Hmmm. I'm gonna put this away till tomorrow and have another listen. The guys a good driver." I find that it is this "trust" that is missing between the record buying public and the artists. Any comments?
A Well, first of all, thanks very much. Now, for 'trust,' interestingly I find myself grateful to be on a record label that has some musical faith in me. I've handed them albums before which didn't fit the kind of music they put out, yet they stick with me, not imposing anything on my music. And this time I've gone even further off their norm, with rock vocals, and some of them about religion - possibly a red flag to some companies.
As to the fans of my music, I do feel lucky to have a small following of listeners who don't expect to hear the same thing every outing. It's also a result of being in King Crimson, where the band always put its fans through a difficult conundrum - you liked the Discipline album of the early 80's... good, because Robert Fripp had us stop playing most of the earlier music in the live shows. But, next album - you'd like more of the same? too bad, we're looking for something new. Okay, maybe we don't succeed in finding that really new direction each time (definitely don't, in fact) but one thing's for sure - it demands a special kind of audience to stick with a band that keeps trying to forge new directions like that. So in a way the band got the audience it deserved - very astute, ready for the new, and... often frustrated that some of it's favorite music got dropped in the process.
Me, I'm not King Crimson, but I've been influenced by that experience. With my solo albums and tours, I'm just making the music I need to make. There was one album (Waters of Eden) which I wrote after a couple of years of back to back heavy prog bands. The collaborations (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Bozzio Levin Stevens, Liquid Tension Experiment) they were great, but I was craving some gentler, more Gabriel World Music like music. So that's the kind of music I wrote, though I knew the fans of what I'd been playing for the last years would find it too.. nice. Now, 'nice' is gone, I've got things to say, about science, religion, progress, connections among people... and the rock context fits it best.
Q Resonator is a very poetic album. There's humor, as well as keen observation and a desire to touch. You coordinated this with the eclectic risk taking you are known for. Do you have any advise for those who want to create art honestly, yet, find it difficult to find a "place" to gig - or reach an audience?
A I'm not such an expert or icon that I can give advice about how to create art honestly - still doing my best to learn that for myself. But 'places to gig' are certainly becoming scarcer. I'd say my only tip is about the music itself - to try to stick with the music that you love and are happy making. There are often pressures (market pressures, genres that radio or labels like) that push you toward making music that seems to fit a market. I know some artists who have been lucky with this. But I know many more who have abandoned the unique slant they started with to try to please market needs, and eventually found themselves without either sales success or a body of distinctive work to continue to build off of. They can deny you places to play, make it tough to sell your music, but they cannot take the music away from you - that's something only you yourself can do
Q How about a small description of how you felt playing with the guys on the album. They are all so great. I was especially keen about the guitar work by Jesse on "What Would Jimi Do"?
A That song, "What Would Jimi Do" was an obvious vehicle for guitar solo from a Hendrix fan - I know many guitarists who love playing in that vein, and I was a bit torn about who to have on it. Ended up feeling that Jesse would be ideal - and indeed, he went right into 'Jimi mode" and played exactly the part I needed. All the band (Jerry Marotta, Jesse, Larry Fast, and Pete Levin) are excellent musicians whom I trust in their musicality - so having them join in on songs was the fun part of the project for me. ( I usually had done some kind of demo of each part on the song, with me playing, and gradually the real track would reveal itself as player after player replaced my demo parts with the real thing.)
Q You mentioned that you had great album support and that they gave you freedom. You did have your Papabear label. Was trying to be a label and an artist a huge chunk of work?
A Not a lot of work, but that's simply because I neglected the biz part of the work. I've always been better at the artistic side, and with Papabear I would just release good music albums, and let the sales be whatever they are, on web only. (Far too time consuming to send to distribution or record stores - so it kept small and manageable, by just website sales.) When Narada was interested in having me do records for them, I was intrigued by the possibility of actually getting my releases into stores. The collaboration has been a good one, I think - they leave me to do what I need to artistically, even if it's very different from their other artists. And on my side, I tour a lot to support the store sales of my CDs, and have a bit of a following among Crimson and Gabriel fans.
Q Ok. How about short answers when I mention a few of the folks you have played with? It can be what you learned from them, or just your impression of their place in your heart.
Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew
These guys are an inspiration to me - a lot of what I've learned about truly being progressive, about breaking out of the mold, has been from playing alongside them, live, in studio and just inhaling their musical intuition.
I was only in the band a short time - but their musical ability was inspiring. Mike Mainieri (the band's founder and leader) was a band mate of mine from the first projects I did in New York, back when I moved there ("White Elephant" was the band) and Mike is one of those awesome players, who is also a fantastic band leader. The only reason I didn't do more with Steps Ahead was, alas, big commitments in the same years, to touring with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. It's a shame, but you can't do it all.
Probably the luckiest single thing in a career of lucky breaks is that I got to play with Peter. His sense of music is unique, his openness to unusual ideas (only Peter embraced my Stick playing from the beginning) is extraordinary, he's a great guy, and to boot, his tours are the most fun of all tours, because Peter's open to trying different things each day, whether it's camping in the wild, or motorcycling to the Grand Canyon on a day off.
Again, a lucky break for me, and an honor, that I was asked to play on John's album.
Back in my jazz days, Herbie was the force to bring together players of different styles - he threw me in with Potato's Bata Cubana, with Steve Gadd on drums... we started the Disco era (God forgive us) and Herbie was ever looking for new styles to explore.
My Crimson rhythm buddy - Bill's creativity is legendary (the man who never plays the same thing once!) When I joined Crimson I tried to hold things down, in a typical American rhythm section way - soon Bill opened my eyes to a new way to look at rhythm playing, innovative to the max, not concerned with tradition but blazing new paths. I sometimes still try to do it, but never forget who was my teacher in that aspect of musicality - Bill.
The stories are rife - always amusing tales about Buddy and his famous temper. But behind that, an amazing drive and unique ability to power a big band through it's paces. It's precious to me, to have spent a week playing with this master. (Yes, he did fire the whole band mid-session, but hired us back the next day - what else is new!)