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From Igor Stravinsky to the return of Liquid Tension Experiment: my interview with Tony Levin

Photo: Kai R Joachim Photography

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

No introduction will be fair enough to describe Tony Levin and the importance he has as a bass player and as an artist overall.

Born in Boston, June 6 1946, Tony started playing upright bass when he was 10 years old. Then, he picked up tuba at high school.

Tony is a classical trained musician. While attending Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, he had the incredible chance to play under the direction of Igor Stravinsky and in the Rochester Philharmonic.

While at Eastman, he met drummer Steve Gadd, who introduced him to jazz and rock.

In his career, Tony Levin contributed to the making of many albums of different artists (Alice Cooper, Carly Simon, Laura Nyro, Lou Reed, David Bowie) and he has a long lasting collaboration and friendship with Peter Gabriel. In fact, he played bass in several of his albums as well as being part of his band.

Levin is also a member of King Crimson, Liquid Tension Experiment and Stick Man.

He is also an appreciated photographer and has published several photography books showing his “life on the road”.

I started this interview asking Tony about the return of Liquid Tension Experiment and their upcoming album, Liquid Tension Experiment 3, to be released on March 26. Needless to say that I had to ask him about his experiences with Peter Gabriel, Laura Nyro, Pink Floyd and, of course, King Crimson. Tony also gives some additional insights on his most recent photobook “Images from a Life on the Road”.

Q.: There are two main things that are definitely connected to your present: LTE come back and the publishing of your book “Images from a Life on the Road”. Let’s start from LTE. Almost at the end of 2020, Liquid Tension Experiment announced their return with a new album. This return happens after more than 20 years since the release of “Liquid Tension Experiment 2”. When did you realize that it was time to come back and who made the first step in this direction?

T.L.: It has been on our minds for a few years. The guys get on very well, and we all enjoyed the music we’d made so long ago, so it was a possibility. Schedules have a lot to do with what happens in every band, and the LTE players are in a lot of bands. So if not for the lockdown in 2020, who knows when we could have found a few weeks to get together. It was Jordan (Rudess) and Mike (Portnoy) who discussed it, and wrote to John and me. We immediately jumped at the chance and booked the dates.

Q.: Who composed the songs and how long did it take to record album?

T.L.: We convened in a studio for about 3 weeks of work. Started writing right away, as a group, with mostly John and Jordan providing some riffs and ideas. Usually Mike contributes a lot too, with a blackboard to organize the different ideas that become sections. Sometimes the guys asked me to come up with a bassline that will determine the next section, and that’s fun for me. At the end of the day we’d also jam for an hour or so. Parts of those jams sometimes became sections of pieces, sometimes pieces on the album by themselves (though edited down, of course.)

Q.: The album will be composed of 8 tracks and it will be issued together with a bonus disc including almost an hour of improvised jams. How did you work on these improvised parts considering the current situation and Covid restrictions?

T.L.: Well, as I said, we were together for the whole project. There were some logistics involved, of course. We had tests just before coming to the studio, we had people find us a safe hotel, we got rooms that were accessible without being near other people. (I brought with me cleaning materials… looked like I was a janitor checking in!) We also wore masks and stayed distant for the first few days. I guess the short answer would have been: “we formed an LTE bubble”.

Q.: After publishing a teaser of the new album back in December 2020, on January 22, 2021 LTE released “The Passage of Time”, the first single. It’s an incredible composition, with great dynamics in it. What do we have to expect from the other tracks?

T.L.: There is another single, and video, coming out in a few days, and there will be a third before the Spring release of the album. I would describe all our music as quite varied – there is fast powerful technical playing, but often followed by some anthemic, big melodic sections. There’s a lot of soloing by John and Jordan, that can be quite stunning. There’s improvising where the band might play quietly or heavy, with or without time signatures. As a band we don’t discuss what our identity is or how to sound, but it just seems to happen organically that the band has its own nature… it’s been that way since we first got together, so long ago.

Q.: I loved the visuals of the video of the song. It reminds me of “A Technicolor Dream”, the documentary on the underground movement during the 60s. Would you tell me more on who’s the creative mind behind them?

T.L.: Christian Rios is his name.

Q.: In 1984 you published the book “Road Photos”, while “Images from a Life on the Road” is the title of your most recent photo book. While introducing this new book on your official website, you say: “(Photos) are presented not as a history or a journal of tours, but as a journey itself.” Would you tell me more about the overall idea of this journey and on the differences with “Road Photos”?

T.L.: It’s a much bigger book, in every way, and it encompasses my touring photos from the 70’s through last year. I felt that some of these photos really deserved to be seen other than on the web, so I designed what we call a ‘coffee table size’ book. And it’s 240 pages – the earlier book was 90. As to calling it a journey, I could have presented the photos chronologically, or by band, but instead there are chapters of each stage of a band’s day on the road, like “Travel” “At the Venue” “Backstage” “Going On” “Showtime” “Bows” and more. I also put in the end, “Index with Elaborations” because I think the stories behind many of the photos are pretty interesting.

Q.: The word “road” is included in the titles of both your photo books. It is undeniable that you really had a “life on the road”. You have played together with incredible artists, both in studio and on tour. One of your long lasting collaborations (and friendship) has been with Peter Gabriel. Is there a specific moment or fact that represent the essence of your work/friendship with him?

T.L.: There’s no moment that sums it up, but since I’m thinking about the photo book, and some of those pictures do tell something of the story of relationships, there is one from the 70’s where Peter had decided to shave off his hair, and stopped by my hotel room to use my razor (!) But he first shaved off only one side of it – quite an unusual look – and I, of course, took some photos, one which looks like a portrait of him, and one of the two of us, with my having stuck his shaved hair onto half my own head. A selfie before its time. And I have a few pictures in the book of Peter’s extraordinary floating on a sea of hands into the audience, in the song “Lay Your Hands on Me”. It’s special to see it from vantage point of the stage, but also there are a couple where he has his back to the audience, ready to fall in backwards, and he’s looking at the camera – a pretty special moment.

Q.: Except from Peter Gabriel, you have collaborated with artists belonging to the most different music genres: from David Bowie to Alice Cooper, from Carly Simon to Tracy Chapman but also James Taylor, Cher, Sarah McLachlan, Lou Reed and I could go on forever. You also collaborated with Laura Nyro. Maybe you are surprised that I’ve chosen to talk about her, but I love her music and I think she’s still one of the most underrated female artists of all time. Could you tell me how did you start your collaboration with her for one of the song included in her album “Nested” and recall how she was?

T.L.: Well, she’s quite popular here in the U.S. It’s sad, of course, that she died at a pretty young age, and we couldn’t have more music from her. I only recorded briefly with her, at her home in Connecticut. She’d set up her living room as a studio, which was a pretty unique idea. It was an honor to get to play on a little of her music.

Q.: And then, there was a time when you became a “member” of Pink Floyd, at least in the studio. In fact, you played bass and Chapman stick in “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”, their first album after Roger Waters left the band. I’m curious because this album is a “turning point” for different reasons. First, because some fans do not even consider albums after “The Dark Side of the Moon” as being part of Pink Floyd’s discography, secondly because this turns out to be a less “psychedelic” album, having a more “80’s pop sound” and, last but not least, because this album is considered to be a less Pink Floyd’s album and more a David Gilmour’s album as much as “The Final Cut” is considered to be a Roger Waters’ album. Would you tell me more about your involvement? I love Pink Floyd and I love this album as much as I love all the others…“The Dogs of War” is among my favorite songs of the band.

T.L.: Pretty special, indeed, to have been asked to play on that album. Some of the bass ideas were David’s (Gilmour) but there was some room for me to add my ideas, and some Chapman Stick on one piece. I wasn’t considered a member of the band, of course, though I was offered to do the subsequent tour. I’d have happily done it, but it conflicted with the dates of Peter Gabriel’s tour, so I didn’t.

Q.: You joined King Crimson at the beginning of the 80s and since then you’ve seen the band evolving in so many different ways, until the last lineup with three drummers at the front of the stage. Was it easy for you to adapt to these changes? Is there a lineup where you have felt more comfortable with?

T.L.: The constant thing with King Crimson is musical challenge. So it’s not always easy, in fact, almost never musically easy, but that’s part of what the band is, and for a player like me, it’s great for my growth as a musician. There hasn’t been one lineup that was more comfortable than another – though there have been 3 drummers, 2 drummers and 1 drummer… all challenging for me and each lineup has been a learning experience.

Q.: The following is an extract from a recent announcement by King Crimson manager David Singleton, saying that: “…We continue to work around the significant issues created by the pandemic, not least the considerable uncertainty about when large scale concerts will be safe to resume”. Going back to your “life on the road”, how did you feel this past year without having the possibility to play live shows and, in addition, not knowing when they will resume?

T.L.: Of course, 2020 was very challenging. Crimson postponed the summer tour for a year, as did Stick Men, for our Fall Europe tour, now to be done in 2021. For me, being home longer than I ever had has been interesting… though I greatly miss playing live shows, I have been lucky to have plenty of recording to do, as well as putting together my photo book – I might never have had the time for that if not for the lockdown.

Photo: Ueli Frey

Q.: You are a classical trained musician. In fact, you started playing the tuba while attending Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. You also played with the Rochester Philharmonic for a while and you had the incredible privilege of being conducted by the amazing Igor Stravinsky in his Firebird Suite. What memories do you have of that experience?

T.L.: Playing under Stravinsky was an amazing honor, of course. All the school was thrilled to have the chance, and I particularly remember passionately arguing about how he would choose the tempo for the last movement of The Firebird (!) Probably it was in remembering that experience that, many years later, I arranged a few movements of the Firebird for Stick Men do play as a progressive rock piece.

Q.: Quoting Igor Stravinsky: “It takes time, aging, to make a classic. Wine ages in six years, not so with music”. There’s a song you composed and performed which is taken from your album “Resonator” and which is also part of a poetry book you published with the same title: “Fragile as a Song”. Stravinsky’s quote reminds me of a question mentioned in the lyrics of your song: “What makes a little song become a symphony?”. And this is my question for you: What makes a little song become a symphony…today?

T.L.: Well, I’m honored that you’ve paid attention to my poems. I was using a music metaphor to speak about relationships in that phrase, and how we don’t really know what makes some grow into something special. I would answer you with more words from the same poem: “what allows things to grow is realizing that the walls between us are only temporal – as fragile as a song”.

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