On his web site, TonyLevin.com, the bass virtuoso lists some of the most prominent artists he has worked with: Everyone from John Lennon to Alice Cooper and Buddy Rich.
Listed second, after Peter Gabriel, is King Crimson, whom he has worked with, on and off, since 1981. Levin was part of the quartet formation — also featuring founding guitarist Robert Fripp, singer-guitarist Adrian Belew and drummer Bill Buford — that represented one of the undeniable peaks of the nearly 50-year King Crimson story, in the early- to mid-’80s. And he’s part of the always adventurous progressive-rock group’s current eight-man lineup (or, as Fripp has described it, a “double quartet”) that will present a Halloween night show at NJPAC in Newark.
Joining Fripp and Levin in the band are singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, flutist-saxophonist Mel Collins, drummers Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and Jeremy Stacey, and keyboardist Bill Rieflin.
I talked to Levin Oct. 12, by phone, as he and some bandmates were walking to the Moody Theater in Austin, Texas, on a night off, to attend a Herbie Hancock concert.
Q: I’ll start off with my most important question: What’s the difference between a double quartet and an octet?
A: (laughs) Wow, that’s such a good question, and I’m not the guy to answer it. I’m joking, in a way, but also, I hadn’t heard anybody call this eight-member band a double quartet. But somebody obviously did.
I know in the ’90s, we called that incarnation of King Crimson, which had six players, a double trio. And I never understood why we did that. So you’re learning, already: The bass player sometimes isn’t the right guy to tell you the background of the band. I’ll do my best. But sometimes I have no idea.
Q: A double quartet would lead you to believe that there are two of everything: two drummers, two guitarists and so on, but it’s not that kind of thing, with this band.
A: You’re exactly right. In the ’90s, it was. But we still didn’t divide the music up as trios. So it wasn’t completely appropriate in the ’90s. And now it’s utterly inappropriate, unless you count three drummers and bass as one band, and the sax, keyboards and two guitars as another band.
Q: So what do you think are the strengths of this particular lineup?
A: Well, the big, striking thing for the audiences who come is the three drummers. It being King Crimson, it’s an unusual approach, but we carry it off in an unusual way. Or, I should say, they do, because the drummers have devised elaborate strategies for playing counterrhythms and things like that, so you never hear two of them playing the same part. It’s a fascinating thing, especially considering that the music is complex. It’s not usually in 4/4, or anything like that, so it’s kind of a circus act on its own. The drummers, who we have put at the front of the stage — the other five of us are behind them, on a riser … it’s a fascinating part of the band.
So to go back to your question about the nature of the band, Robert Fripp has brought Mel Collins back on saxophone and flute, which … it doesn’t make it jazzy, but it gives it less of a guitar-oriented, soloing aspect than it had before. When I was with it in the ’80s and the ’90s, all of the solos were on guitar. And it’s just different when it’s on a flute, or a sax. In a nice, kind of a mind-expanding way.
So that’s different, and exciting. For me, from my end of things, I’m playing the same instruments, and some of the same pieces, but I’m still trying to progress as a progressive musician, and change the way I play things, too.
Q: Because there are three drummers, do you find yourself keying in to different people at different times? Since they’re all playing different things, you can kind of play off one, then play off another …
A: To go back to when Robert had the idea of three drummers … I wasn’t dreading it, I was along for the ride. But I was thinking, “Well, I’m going to play a lot less, because they’re going to be pounding out stuff.” In fact, it’s very different. I have room to play as much as I want, because they’ve devised such interesting ways to divide up the parts.
I don’t want to get too technical, but a crucial ingredient for us is that we each have monitor mixers right next to us, so I can reach over at any time and turn one of the drummers up and another down, and I’m doing that constantly through the show, so that I can be locked with the guy who’s playing … usually the guy who’s playing the bass drum for that section of that piece. And it varies a lot. I can hear them all, at all times. But when I really want to be tight, I can just turn that player up.
That’s one way the modern technology of the music industry is really helping us. Because we’d have a great deal of trouble holding the time really tight … when these drummers are spread across the whole width of the stage … especially the drummers at the far ends of the stage wouldn’t hear each other without a time delay. But we get around that with these monitors.
Q: On another topic, do you feel that since you’ve been in the band for such a long time, are you kind of a second-in-command? Or is there not that kind of hierarchy?
A: No, there isn’t a hierarchy at all. I can’t speak directly for the other guys, but I think it’s clear to all of us that … the way I would put it is, it’s Robert’s vision, his internal sense of what King Crimson is and what King Crimson isn’t, that directs the musical direction of the band. But one of his talents is that he seems to me to be very good at finding the right players to implement his vision. So, when I joined the band … in each incarnation that I’ve happened to be in, I have very much had the feeling that I’m the guy that can bring off his ideas that he has, musically. And he doesn’t really have to tell me what notes to play. But I’m the guy who’s gonna find them, under the umbrella of going in the direction that he feels the band should go in.
That’s not a hierarchy. But that’s the situation between us. And the whole rest of the band, I think, feels like me. I don’t take command at all, in any situation. I talk about the parts with all the players. The drummers and I talk about the rhythm aspect of what we’re playing, but very much as equals.
Q: Are there any recording plans at this point?
A: I can’t accurately tell you what’s going to happen in the future. But what’s happened in the last few years is, we’ve found this way that really works for us, that’s not the normal way … the normal way is to take a few months and write new music, take a few months to record it, then get that album out, and then you go and tour and play mostly the music of that album. However, we prefer to spend those months rehearsing and doing shows, and we’ll add music gradually, as we write it, which we have done. I don’t know how many new pieces are in the set — new, from this incarnation. Maybe seven or eight. Maybe more, I’m not sure. And we don’t do the same sets every night, so it’s not like we play them every night.
We also record the live shows at a very high quality, so we’re able to release any show that comes off as terrific for us, for some reason. We don’t really know the reason why some nights are better than others, but if something is fantastic, we have the option of releasing that either as a quick, what we call a “bootleg” from the board tape, or really taking it and mixing it and spending a lot of time on it, and releasing it as a live album.
So that’s what we’ve been doing the last three years. There has been no talk of doing a studio album. But I won’t predict that we won’t do it. The minute that’s out of my lips, the management will come up to me and say, “Hey, have you heard, we’re doing a studio album.”
Q: So what other projects do you have coming up?
A: I’m very lucky to be busy … the last couple of years have been very busy ones for me, musically. And that’s what we all want. Not only us musicians, but anybody in any freelance field. So I’m in a few bands. When King Crimson is not touring, we usually book a tour leg right in between those with a band I’m in called Stick Men, named that because I play this instrument called the Chapman Stick. That’s a trio with Pat Mastelotto, one of the drummers of King Crimson, and Markus Reuter, a touch guitar player from Germany. So I do that a lot. And I also have another band called Levin Brothers, with my older brother Pete. That’s a jazz band. We’ve revisited the music of our youth. We grew up listening to jazz when we were kids, and only recently, a good 50 years after we might have done it, we decided, “Hey, let’s form a band and do this kind of music.” So that’s three bands I tour with. And in between, I actually like it when, occasionally, I get a call to record on an album, and I do quite a bit of that.
Q: I happened to see the Sting/Peter Gabriel tour a couple of years ago …
A: Oh, that was a great one. I didn’t mention that when Peter tours, of course I tour with him. He’s not touring this year, so I didn’t mention it. Some of the greatest fun, and some of the greatest musical experiences I’ve had in my life, are with Peter. Which show did you see?
Q: The one at Madison Square Garden.
A: Ok. I think that was near the beginning of the tour. It got even better. The chemistry got better: It wasn’t bad at the beginning, at all. But the chemistry became something very special.
Q: I’ve been following a little bit, some Facebook posts from Adrian Belew saying … I guess he had some problems with Fripp, and then they reconciled …
A: I don’t know what to add to that. I usually am the last one to even know about that stuff. I’m good friends with Adrian and, of course, I admire him, and he’s an inspiration to me. If he feels bad, I feel bad. I’m glad that they worked things out, and there’s no bad feelings.
Q: I think that’s something that fans would really love to see, if he could do even just a few shows with King Crimson.
A: Well, we have no plans on that front. But when people are getting along, everything is possible.
“King Crimson performs at Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Oct. 31 at 8 p.m.; visit njpac.org.