Ahead of King Crimson tour kickoff in Clearwater, Tony Levin shares the albums and collabs that led him to Robert Fripp

The U.K. prog-rock giant is Ruth Eckerd Hall on July 22.

click to enlarge Tony Levin of King Crimson, which plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on July 22, 2021. - TONYLEVINOFFICIAL/FACEBOOK
tonylevinofficial/Facebook
Tony Levin of King Crimson, which plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on July 22, 2021.

Take a minute to skim through your music library, no matter what format it’s in. If you’re a rock fan, there’s a pretty good chance that Tony Levin has worked with at least one artist you have listened to at some point in your lifetime.

The bass legend appears on John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, and Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare, just to name a few. Though he still regularly works as a studio musician, Levin has been with prog rock pioneering band King Crimson since its 1981 Discipline album. Excluding a few years around the turn of the century, he has been one of the most constant members on the road and in the studio, alongside co-founder and key composer Robert Fripp.

We spoke to Levin as the band prepped for rehearsals in Clearwater where King Crimson's U.S. tour kicks off at Ruth Eckerd Hall on July 22.

King Crimson
Thursday, July 22, 7:30 p.m.
$53.25 & up.
Ruth Eckerd Hall. 1111 McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater.
rutheckerdhall.com

I wanted to start by going back a little bit. When you were a kid, you studied classical music. What was the switch that turned you to rock and roll?

Wow, good question, and thanks for doing your homework on me! That goes back so many years ago. I went to music school—a very good music school: The Eastman School in Rochester, New York. And I was playing in Rochester Philharmonic at that time. At the same time, there was a great drummer in school with me named Steve Gadd. Steve, aside from playing classical, was already famous in jazz and rock. He kind of took me under his wing and started doing gigs with me, although they were mostly jazz gigs, not so many rock gigs. But some rock gigs. And it was because of Steve that I had that world opened up to me, of “What if I were the only bass player? What if I was not sitting in the symphony orchestra?”

Although to this day, I love classical music and I listen to it a lot. Yes, I was more comfortable in a rock band, and I'm very grateful to Steve, whom I have played with ever since, on many, many records and tours. If it had not been for him, I might have stayed on the classical route, or I might have made the change at a later age, when it's a little harder to make big changes.

Who are some of those classical composers that you still listen to after all these years?

What are some favorites? Oh, the usual: Mozart, Bach, Rachmaninoff, all of ‘em! Stravinsky I listen to quite a bit. I'm not saying I sit down and listen every day. Luckily for me, being a musician, my days are full of making music, most of them—with the exception of last year, of course, which is an exception to everything. So, I’m pretty busy and I don't actually go home and say, “Oh I gotta listen to some music and relax.” But I do listen a bit. I don't have one favorite composer, but I would say mostly depending on my mood, Mozart or Bach. Or if I'm in a more adventurous mood, Stravinsky.

Before you joined King Crimson, obviously you were—and still are, a legendary session bassist. What record, do you think put you on the map the most?

Whoa, these are good questions and thanks again for looking into my stuff! I'll give you the long answer. I don't think back in those terms, you know what I mean? Like most musicians, I'm focused on what I'm doing, and a little bit on what I'm going to be doing in the future, not even too much of that. And I never look back and say, “Oh, that record was a hit, and that one did this and this,” but if I have to think about it now, I would say in 1976, when I was called to play on Peter Gabriel's album called Peter Gabriel—they were all called that then. It was his first solo album having just left the band Genesis. 

So, on that same day, I met Peter and I met Robert Fripp—the leader, the founder of King Crimson, and to this day, I'm playing with both Peter and Robert all these years later. So I were to pick a seminal session or seminal day in my life, it was that, and why was I called for that? It's just a matter of luck, like most things in the music business. When good players are floating around trying to find good music to play, there is always a bit of luck involved. And once you get called for—the producer’s name was Bob Ezrin, and he had used me before that on a couple of Alice Cooper albums, and a Lou Reed album—the Berlin album. So he felt I was a good rock player and suitable for playing with Peter and it certainly has turned out that way. 

You played with Paul Simon, too.

A great deal, yes. I was part of his movie, “One-Trick Pony.” That was fun, my only appearance in a movie. He had his playing the band in the movie. Not really acting when you’re just playing yourself!

Right, and in fact, I think the last name of the main character was Levin, wasn’t it?

Wow, how’d you find that out?! Yes, Paul's name was Jonah Levin. Therefore, my name had to be different, although my name was only something that came up in the script, it was actually said in the movie, and interestingly, my name was John Dibatista. I have the script somewhere. That's my name in the movie, John the Baptist. But he grabbed my name, who knows why? I never asked him.

Is there anyone that you wanted to work with in all your years, but you never got the chance to do so?

Good question. There are many, really—it’s typical of bass players and musicians for that matter. When I hear something really good, a lot of me just appreciates it, and a lot of me listens to the bass part, and learns from the bass part, even if it's not so good. I kind of grow from paying attention to bass parts, but some of me says—in a lot of music, if it's good, feels like, “Oh, I wish I could have played on that." So in one sense, I wish I could play on everything good that I hear. In another sense, to be actually specific, I would have loved to play with Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. You know, you could predict the famous great players that were around in my earlier years, and are still around that I would love to have played with.

All the big ones.

Yes, it’s true, especially Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Yeah, and I'm not saying that I'm going around thinking this every day, but if I have to think of who I would have loved to have just had that experience with, it would have been them. Had I played with Hendrix, I would probably have lost even more of my hearing, because he was famously a very loud band. So, maybe it's a good thing that I didn’t because like a lot of musicians, I suffer from a bit of tinnitus and hearing loss.

Yeah, Brian Wilson actually lost all of his hearing in one ear and you know, he's getting he's getting older, so he's losing it in the other one too. It's a wonder he still performs.

Wow, that’s horrible. Yeah, it must be horrible. And I have a friend, guitarist David Torn who lost his hearing in one ear—although that was because of a different thing, a brain tumor. But the result of that isn't only that your hearing is worse, but you hear in mono. So, all the records that are mixed in stereo sound very different in mono, so if you're like Brian Wilson and producing your own music, you can't hear it in the way that the audience will hear it. You have to mix it in a way that simulates stereo, but you're only hearing in mono.

King Crimson has had some pretty crazy lineups over the years, with Greg Lake and John Wetton. You joined in 1980. Do you ever wish that you could have joined the band a little bit earlier, and maybe played with one of the earlier lineups?

Wow, what a question. I have never wished that. I have great admiration for those players—for all the bass players that were in King Crimson before me, and having had to learn their parts, I have a special admiration for them because some of those parts are iconic and really define what the piece is. So, a lot of admiration. Frankly, when I was young, in the ‘60s and early-’70s, I wasn't even aware of King Crimson. Not that it wasn't a great band, but it just wasn't on my radar. And in fact, when I joined it in 1980, Robert Fripp, the founder, had a kind of the rule for that incarnation, all through the ‘80s, we didn't play any of the classic material—the older Crimson material, we made up all new stuff. 

So even then, I wasn't learning. I think maybe I learned “Red,” or maybe I learned a couple pieces that once in a while, we’d do for a live crowd, but in general, I didn't really start digging into the King Crimson repertoire and what it's like until seven years ago, when we had a new lineup, and yet another lineup of King Crimson that wanted to focus on the classic material from the whole history of the band. And not only listen to it and learn it, but reinterpret and give it our own slant, in the way that King Crimson likes to do. So, I’m a relative newcomer to the history of King Crimson and the bass players before me, but boy, there were some great bass players in the past.

That brings me to my next question. This is the eighth or ninth lineup of King Crimson, I believe, and it's a wonder that you've held up so long in the band. I think going back, it’s pretty much you, Robert Fripp and Mel Collins. How do you think you got to stay in the band for so long?

*laughs* That’s a good question. I don't really think about it that way, I haven't counted the lineups. Let's see: I joined in 1980, and we didn't really officially break up, but we stopped working in maybe about 1985. And then, Robert called me to—actually, I've done some other things with him too, in between. But in the ‘90s, when he had a new idea—he had abandoned King Crimson for a while, and he had a new idea for a radically different lineup, and he asked me to do it. And of course, I did it, it's great. It’s great to have been in the band, but it's great to be active in the band. 

And then, there was one period in about 2000 or 2001, when he had a kind of sudden idea about a tour and an album that would be really cool with the band. But I was already committed to different touring, and I just couldn't do it. So, in the middle of all these years, there were a few years when Trey Gunn played the bass parts—a great, great touch guitar player. You know, I admire his parts, and indeed, in our show, I do some of his parts and try to pay homage to how great those parts are. But so, I've been in and out of the band, but mostly in the band. I'm just grateful, and it happened through no action of my own. It happened because the guy calling the musical direction, Robert Fripp, felt that I would be the right player for the band.

It's funny that you mentioned the period in time when you were out of the band, because I was going to ask you about where you were at that point. 20 years ago, when you were out of the band, was the last time that King Crimson came to Florida at all.

I noticed that! Yeah, I had heard that the band was there in 2001, and I knew I wasn't in the band then. I’ve been to Florida plenty, playing, but not with King Crimson and it'll be a thrill. And it’s ironic to me, because it's my first time with the band in these cities in Florida.

You've had a road diary since 2016, I believe. How did that come about, and do you plan to keep that going this year?

Oh yes. You got the year wrong. Your information is right, but that was drastically wrong. I started the road diary in about 1995.

There was no such word as “blog” even! I'll tell you the whole story, you can add it: I started a website in the early-’90s—that was kind of early with websites, and I started to sell my own music—my solo albums that I put out. And it wasn't very useful for that. In those days, I had to ask people to mail a check. If you could remember what that was like, there were no automatic payments. But what was great is I found out from the feedback on the website that people were very interested in my little stories I mentioned about being on the road and backstage, so I quickly changed the thrust of the website. I started taking pictures early, before there were digital cameras—taking pictures, scanning them, and putting them up, having what we call a road diary. People really responded to that.

I think the web helped us take down some of the walls that exist between performers and audiences. We can't have the audience backstage, but since there is the web, we could show the pictures of what it’s like backstage. So, I started a diary, and I say a lot about what goes on traveling and at the show, and I share pictures. And the most special pictures turned out to be pictures at the end of the show, of the audience because of course, everybody likes to see themselves, but I think there's something very special about an audience—the energy that they give the band onstage, and the audience isn't particularly aware of that. 

So, I've been very pleased that I can share that with them after each show, pretty much, and show them “well, here's what you look like to us, and isn’t it exciting? And isn't it inspiring?” In a way, that's been the best use of my website, which by the way, is called tonylevin.com Not very creative, but because I started early, I could get that name!

Speaking of all the photos that you've taken, with the recent announcement that you're going to be putting out a coffee table book, I'm assuming that you're an avid photographer?

I am, yeah. I’ve been taking pictures all these years, since the ‘70s, of the bands on the road. And I think what's special about some of them is the unique vantage point I have, because, for instance, I was onstage with Pete [Gabriel] in the 70s when—I think it was in the early 80s, when Peter Gabriel started floating out into the audience during the song “Lay Your Hands On Me,” what later became called “crowd surfing,” when other bands did it. And there I was onstage taking pictures of it every night. So, others might have pictures of it, but the vantage point from the stage with the audience—and the excitement of the audience is pretty special. 

So, I have always wanted to collate all of those tens of thousands of pictures, find the best ones, and put out a coffee table size book. And indeed, 2020 gave me the chance to do that, with suddenly all my tours canceled, and I spent pretty much six months, every day working on that, and was very pleased last January to release the book. And again, that's only available online and through my website. 

Do you use Nikon or Canon these days?

Thanks for that question, it’s a Nikon D750.

In the early years, it was a Nikon Nikkormat from the trips I would take to Japan. I would keep getting better lenses and better cameras back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That’s an advantage of touring to Japan. In those days, things were a lot cheaper, by the way—I should mention that! Things have changed. But back then, cameras in Japan were a lot cheaper than here. But, yeah. It was film—both black & white and color transparencies were shot in the old days. 

I made one big mistake in my photographic career: I switched to digital too early when the quality wasn't really up to what it became later. So, there's a period of about five years in my career where I have pictures that the content is good, but the quality is not good enough to have included it in my book.

Going back to music, you recently finished a mini-tour with The Levin Brothers. How did that go?

Oh, good! It’ll actually finish tomorrow night. We’ve finished most of it, but one more show tomorrow night, which is a local show for us here in Woodstock, New York. The band is very good—it’s a jazz band, unlike most of the bands I played in. My older brother Pete and I formed the band maybe seven years ago. The band is very good but boy, the feeling of being back in a live concert situation is so special to us and the band, and also to the audience. It’s every audience. Every night, people told me after the show how thrilled they were to be out hearing live music again. 

Of course, we all know that it'll be that way, and many people have been out by now, seeing shows. But I can't overstate how special that felt to all of us in the room, and will continue to feel I think, to the King Crimson shows. I’m very thrilled to be touring all summer because it's, of course, personally, I'm glad to be playing music live again. It’s what I most love to do. But also, I love that I'm going to get to share with those audiences the feeling of, “thank goodness we've got live music back.” We really missed it and we appreciate more than ever how special it is.

Yeah, I don't think anybody in any field is going to be taking live music for granted ever again.

Exactly, you put it better than I did. I'll use your words next time I say it. None of us will take it for granted again, that's for sure. That's true.

You also had another project recently. You did Liquid Tension Experiment Three, but that was the first studio effort from that band in, what, 20 years?

Absolutely, yes. Again, with the year off, the guys in Liquid Tension—we’re good friends, and we've talked through the years and played together in different combinations, but we haven't toured since 2008. We haven't recorded in 20 years, and one of the guys, I'm not sure which—I think it was Jordan Rudess, the keyboard player. He just got the idea in June about “Maybe we can use this downtime to get together.” We hadn't even thought about doing it. We're weren’t against it, but we all immediately said “Yes, that's a great idea.” It was not easy. It wasn't dangerous, but logistically, it was very complicated to get together in a safe way, because that band—we only write and record by being together in the same room. We’ll sit in a studio, and that's the way we always did it, and that's the way we did it last July, into August, and we did it successfully. We were very careful, and we came up with a heck of an album that we feel very good about. 

I don't know how to describe genres very well, but this is sort of a progressive-metal band, And the feeling when we got together after 20 years—or 12 years, depending on how we look at it, not even a day had passed. As soon as we were together, we started writing exactly like we used to in the past. The material came together very quickly, and the recording came together relatively quickly. I think it took us three weeks to do an album without an extra CD of bonus material, and that's very quick for a rock band to write and record an album. So, we feel very good about it. The release was I think last January, maybe February, or even March—maybe it was March, We feel good about it. The nature of that kind of band is it's very difficult to schedule a tour, because all the guys are in other bands: Myself with King Crimson or Peter Gabriel, the other guys are in Dream Theater, and Mike Portnoy, the drummer, is in about 12 bands. 

So, as you can imagine, to schedule eight months ahead of time when we can find even a week to tour is not easy, but the feeling in the band when we were last together—I'm only saying this for fans of the band who might be reading this: The feeling is that we will tour as soon as possible, in the next year or so, since this year’s already booked up with other stuff. 

I would go see that show. 

Thank you. Yeah, it's always been a problem for us. Even when we toured, we toured for a week or 10 days at the most. It was just too many obligations from the other band. That could change in the future, you never know. If it does, we could do a more extensive tour. Like I said, the feeling in the band is that we want to do that, but the obligations to one's primary bands are something that you can't just set aside, and have to do that first.

A year or two ago, Jon Anderson did a record called 1000 Hands, and it has all of these huge names in the progressive rock world. Chris Squire, Ian Anderson, and Steve Howe are on there, but you're not. Did Jon reach out to you at all, or did you just not play on the record?

Jon and I are friends and I can't tell the timeline. I know he didn't reach out to me to play a track on the record. I think we had talked a little bit in the years before that about collaborating in writing some material together, and I was very busy on tour and I didn't. I dropped the ball. So as far as co-writing with Jon, I dropped the ball a bunch of years ago, and that kind of just didn't happen. But as far as my playing on this record, no, I wasn't asked. I would have loved to be on it but, how can I describe this? Being a player who gets to play with all these great players is a very wonderful situation—I’m very lucky for that. But I'm also a fan. And when a record comes out with other bass players who are great, I'm a fan of that, and I love hearing what they did. But I don't have to be on every record that’s got a bunch of well-known prog players on it. At least, that’s the way I feel about it. 

Even Tony Levin needs a break.

Well, we freelance musicians all love a break. We feel very lucky if we can keep working. I think that comes from a youth: Many years when you're starting out, when you can't get enough work. When you really want to play well, and you want to do it, and just can’t be in enough bands, or get enough work to satisfy you. So somehow, that instills in you, maybe—in some of us, a lifelong desire for, “Oh gosh, three weeks with nothing to do? I wonder what session I could do, or what a little tour I could book,” or something like that. It sounds a little crazy but—maybe it is crazy, but one is very lucky when one is doing something for your living, and for your whole life's work that you love doing. 

What advice would you have to give to younger and up-and-coming musicians in the industry today?

Yeah, that's a tough one for me. I've been asked that before, and I always have mixed feelings, because even though I've had success and been around a long time and been in a lot of stuff, I don't know how. I didn't make that happen—it just kind of happened. I mean, what I did was want to be a bass player, and want to play with people, and then I got lucky and I played with some people. So, in a way I feel not qualified to suggest the path. However, it’s not too positive a thing to say, but what's really worthwhile is for me to just mention that people like me, and all of the musicians that I work who have been at my level of success—we’ve all had disappointments in our career times. 

When you play on a record, and then you find out you've been replaced, or you're playing in a band, and you find out they don’t want you in the band. Things like that have happened to all of us. It can be very discouraging, and it happens at all levels, by the way, of our careers of success. And I think maybe it's of some use for a beginning bass player, or a beginning player, to understand that that might happen to them, and to have no remedy for the feeling. When somebody rejects your music, in a way, they're rejecting you, and it kind of hurts in a way, even if you're tough about it, and you move on. 

So, I would suggest to move on from that, and if it happens to you as a player, to keep in mind that this old guy, Tony Levin mentioned that that happened to Steve Gadd and Tony Levin, and Robert Fripp. It happens to us all. It's just an unfortunate part of the interesting world of being a professional musician.

Absolutely, man. 

Sorry, I have nothing! You know, I am a positive thinking guy, and I'd like to contribute positive things, but in a way, I thought about it, and that's more useful than any silly thing I could make up about how you could be successful, which I don't really know.

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About The Author

Josh Bradley

Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay, even as the live music industry continues to get back on its feet.
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