The innovative icon reveals which band he'd love to fill in for, his first bass, and what he'd be doing if he wasn't a musician
When it comes to influential bass players, few are as uniquely innovative and original as Tony Levin. From his groundbreaking work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, and his own bands Stick Men and Liquid Tension Experiment, to his playing with such iconic artists as John Lennon, Stevie Nicks, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, David Bowie, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Chuck Mangione, Buddy Rich, Mike Mainieri and Steps Ahead, and many others, the mark he has made on the bass world is indelible. Never taking the obvious or clichéd route with his bass line construction, Tony’s playing has influenced multiple generations through his mastery of fretted and fretless basses, acoustic and electric upright basses, the Chapman Stick, and “funk fingers,” a spark of brilliance in which he attached two wooden drumstick-like extensions to his index and middle fingers, with powerful, percussive results.
Levin somehow juggles multiple touring gigs and constant studio appearances like few in the business can. The ever-prolific low-ender just celebrated the 50th anniversary of King Crimson, which saw the release of a documentary on the band. He also released a book of his photography, Images of Life From the Road, and is currently out performing with the Stick Men while preparing for another world tour with Peter Gabriel. Amid all of these happenings, Levin took a moment to answer our 10 Questions.
1. What’s something readers would be surprised that you listen to?
I got obsessed last week with the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” I researched its history and many of the recordings of it.
2. What’s one element of your playing that you most want to improve?
Technique — or, better put, techniques. There are so many that I’d like to be fluent with, and miles to go on most of them.
3. What was the first concert you ever attended?
Yeesh, the Earth was still cooling. I’ll have to ask my older brother; maybe he’ll remember. Back to you with that. [Later] Okay, Pete doesn’t remember, either — great memory seems not to be our family specialty.
4. What’s the best concert you’ve ever attended?
I’m not big on favorites, but I’d choose Pavarotti doing Tosca at the Met in the late 1970s.
5. If you could have lunch with any bass player today, alive or dead, who would it be?
Carles Benevent. I’m working on my Spanish so we can chat.
6. If you could sub for any bass player in any band, who would it be?
Whoever is playing bass with Joni Mitchell.
7. What was your first bass?
A mid-size acoustic upright — no name, but not plywood!
8. What’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you during a performance?
So many disasters! Cufflinks banging on upright bass shoulder during Koussevitsky Bass Concerto at Boston University … strap broke during a solo in my first time at Carnegie Hall… playing duo to a CD track at Martyr’s in Chicago when I inadvertently turned off the CD player, couldn’t get it turned on again, and had to stop and ask the audience to help me. The good thing about these is that afterwards, when you say to yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen,” it’s already happened, and you survived somehow.
9. What are four items that you absolutely need to have on the road with you?
Earplugs, tuner, camera, more earplugs.
10. If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
I’d be a writer, and these answers would have been crafted much better. –BM
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