Tony Levin has played bass and/or stick for well over a hundred different artists over the years, including Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Bozzio Levin Stevens and King Crimson. He is well respected for his abilities and considered one of the greatest bass players and is always in demand.
We felt he would be a valuable resource for Guitar Noise and he has proven to be. Tony answers questions about his experiences as a songwriter, as a session musician and talks about the bass. He also gives us a great view of the independent industry having worked for independents as well as the majors.
Be sure to visit his site and read his “Road Diary”, as well as an excerpt from his book Beyond the Bass Clef, the Life and Art of Bass Playing. Tony’s website: Papa Bear Records
Questionnaire 1: Songwriting
Guitar Noise: By listening to Bozzio Levin Stevens and King Crimson, among others, it seems that your songwriting work is done on an improvisational level. What methods, techniques do you use in cases like these?
Tony Levin: Not actually done improvisationally at all. Generally, in these group writing sessions (and the BLS ones have some pressure built in – there’s about 5 days to write the album, 5 more to record it) a composition starts off with one guy’s musical idea – sometime it’s a whole piece, more often it’s a section.
The others pipe in, liking it or rejecting it, then changing things a bit, like “how about if the second time instead of going to C, you go to Eb??”.
Often we’ll get a couple of strong sections like that, but be in need of one or two other segments to make a complete piece with some complexity and variation. That’s when things slow down, as we look for a suitable addition to the first ideas.
With Crimson, it’s usually Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew who brings in the basis of the piece. In that case we don’t add other sections, but each adds our own interpretation of our part of the piece.
I’ve done some collaborative writing (the World Diary cd, and Bruford Levin Upper Extremities) where I come in with the bass or Stick part, and have the other player(s) make up their part to it.
GN: A recurring questions with our readers: How do you deal with lack of inspiration?
TL: Well, there’s always the “jam, record it, choose the good bit” method! Sometimes the jam is used itself (i.e. the first record of Liquid Tension Experiment) or when there is time, we can learn a segment that was good, and work on fine tuning it to be recorded as a together section.
GN: What are your criteria for writing songs with others?
TL: I don’t really have any set method or rules. Whatever works well for that particular group will do.
GN: Do you prefer to initiate a song or move it along a certain path?
TL: No preference – whatever comes up with good music makes me happy.
GN: What preparations, if any, do you make before writing songs?
TL: As mentioned, sometimes I, or the other players, come in to the process with some ideas, either partial or complete pieces. Sometimes just some interesting riffs.
GN: Do you set out to write songs or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
TL: Both, but mostly I remember good bass ideas when they come to me, and call on them when needed.
GN: Black Light Syndrome by Bozzio Levin Stevens states: “All compositions spontaneously composed by Terry Bozzio, Steve Stevens and Tony Levin”. Is it safe to assume that to do a project like this, you need musicians that are very much above average in skill?
TL: We don’t really think in those terms, just concentrate on the project at hand. Whatever players are involved – they, and their talent, are what’s going to produce the music.
GN: Did Bozzio Levin Stevens go through many jamming/practice sessions together before recording?
TL: On the first cd we had very little time. This time, in Situation Dangerous, we had more days to write, and we also had a very good idea what we could expect from the other players. So it was an easier, and in my opinion a more productive, writing segment.
Questionnaire 2: Recording
GN: Having played on albums by so many varied artists, how do you deal with playing bass for Catherine Lara, then Peter Gabriel?
TL: I listen to the music, and in my enjoyment of that music (whatever the style) I move to fashion a bass part that works well for that music. Sometimes that means staying out of the way – laying a foundation, while the lyrics or some other element might be filling up the main interest. Sometimes I feel that the groove or style is an often used one, and it calls for me to come up with something out of the ordinary to distinguish the piece. Sometimes I hear room in the music for some melodic bass.
GN: Do you actually get to “create” a bass part or do certain artists go into the studio with a fixed chart for you? How often does the session player get to help shape the overall sound?
TL: It varies a lot. Sometimes I’m given the finished bass part and expected to play it without change. Sometimes I can interpret or vary that part to suit my playing. Sometimes (often) there is no part at all, and I can come up with one from scratch. (my favorite, of course.) There are times, though, when I’ll ask for tips from the song writer, as to what they had in mind when writing the song.
GN: How do you come up with a particular part for someone else’s song? Do you listen to the song and work out some ideas long before you set foot in the studio?
TL: Sort of covered that in the last question. I certainly do not get bass ideas about the track before I’ve heard the music. In fact, I don’t decide what instrument (fretted, fretless, uprite, Stick, etc.) to reach for until I’ve heard the music. In a project where I can only bring a few instruments, I need to hear a tape beforehand to know what to bring.
GN: Are there times when you have gone in with a specific idea and then decided that it wasn’t going to really fit the way you thought it would and then rethink the whole thing?
TL: There are quite a few times when I (or the whole band) have gone down a musical road, only to find out it’s not right – and had to start over. It’s quite common in the studio. Sometimes, also, I may find a part I like a lot, but be asked by the producer or artist, to change it – and I’ve got to try to come up with something different – and as good!
GN: What preparations, if any, do you make before going into the studio or on stage?
TL: For studio, mainly it’s trying to hear the music to know what instruments or effects to bring there. On stage, we know the music we’re going to play, and for a particular tour, I’ll choose instruments and set up pedals for the music.
GN: What are the major differences for you between recording your own projects and recording for someone else?
TL: As anyone can tell you, being in charge is very different than working for others. I have no favorite, though. When it’s my project I try to use my long experience with musicians to get the most out of the other players. I carefully choose the player for each instrument, who will understand and play the style of that piece. I feel that if I’ve done that well, I hardly need to give that player any direction at all – he’ll be himself, which is what I want.
GN: Have you ever found yourself dissatisfied with a bass line you have come up with?
TL: Many times – usually worked out before the final recording. There are often times I was o.k. with the final part but wish I could have created something better.
GN: Have you found that there was a difference playing with an artist on a major label and playing for one on an independent label?
TL: Not much difference there. All artists are different, as are the recording situations; producer, engineer, the relationship among them, and the amount of time to make the record.
GN: Do you truly have more liberty to do what you want with an independent label?
TL: That situation is one that the producer and artist deal with. I (the bass player) am usually coming in to give those guys what they want musically. What relationship that has to the label isn’t a part of my process.
GN: If you were given a choice between a recording deal with a Major international label and one with a small independent label, which would you chose and why?
TL: Gee, that sounds like a great choice to have! My experience with record deals is this: it’s very hard to get a successful cd made and sold – whatever kind of label it is. There are many many things that can go wrong, and if any link in the chain is faulty, the chances of success go way down. (i.e.manager’s talent, managers relationship w. label, label’s interest, label’s ability to promote the music, distribution, press, booking agent, advertising, luck luck luck… it’s almost a miracle that ANY records sell really well.) Big, major labels have their downside, but also have bigger mechanisms to promote your music (should they want to and be able to) Indies can be more personal, and easier to deal with, but some of them will also screw the artist in their original recording contracts. In fact, almost all recording contracts I’ve come across are quite unfair to the artist.
GN: Do you personally feel that there is really a chance for the independents to make a significant mark on the whole recording industry and perhaps change it?
TL: Yes, like everyone else I think the new, changing developments in ways to sell music will give openings to some smaller companies. I’m not naive – I realize that any mechanism for selling music, other than the artist doing it himself, will have a good chance of the artists getting less than their fair share of the profits.
GN: Being independent obviously doesn’t pay as well as being with a major label, nor does it give you the same visibility, but does it give you more satisfaction as an artist?
TL: That depends on the label. In my case, it’s my own label (Papa Bear Records) so of course I can do what I like artistically (yay – I even design the art.) But there is no profit in my company – it’s just for the music. If I were to have someone run it to improve sales, right away there would be some pressure to make music that fits into a specific market. Voila – no more freedom! All these questions about labels unleash business stuff that’s not great. I want to mention that the MAIN thing about making this music, the big advantage we have, isn’t involved with these deals at all. I feel that musicians and artists should try hard to stick with the music that has meaning to them – not to cave into business requests for more sellable music.
The reason is that, when the sales are done (and they’re not usually too big) what you have left – what they cannot take away – is the quality, and meaning of the music you’ve made. People have heard it – some of them may have been moved by it. That’s a very special thing, regardless of the numbers, and we’re very lucky to be in a field where making our art – indulging our deepest impulses to create – is the way we can spend our lives. Very lucky indeed.
GN: How do you value your fan base?
TL: I’m lucky to have been with groups (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson) who’s followers care about the individual musicians enough to stick with their careers. That gives me a small but dedicated following, which is great – it enables me to do a solo tour of clubs and not have embarrassingly small sales!
Also it lets me feel that there is an audience, small or not, that has interest in the kind of music I like to make.
Questionnaire 3: The Bass and the Stick
GN: Most people have seen the Chapman Stick, but few really know what it is. Could you explain, briefly, what it is and how it compares to the bass?
TL: The Stick has 10 (or 12) string – half are bass strings, half guitar range – so to begin with, it’s an instrument designed to play both guitar and bass parts. Both sides are played by “hammer on” technique – i.e. with only one hand, tapping the strings.
I usually play only the bass side (though both with Crimson, or my own music) and I really like the tonal difference the bass side of the Stick gives me. Being so percussive, it has a unique sound in the low range. And I’ve found I can play it with a volume pedal for a cello-like sound.
GN: How old were you when you started playing the bass?
GN: Who were your influences?
TL: I listened to my older brother’s jazz records – Oscar Pettiford is the bassist I remember on some of them – and to Classical music.
GN: Most people want to play the guitar or the drums. Why did you chose the bass?
TL: I don’t really know why I chose the bass at a young age, but I do know that I had no motive in choosing it other than liking the bass – and it was a good decision because after all these years I’m still happy just playing the bass parts.
GN: How did you make your first steps as a professional?
TL: Bands while in high school, joined an orchestra (Rochester Philharmonic) while in college and doing gigs. After college I went to New York to play rock – somehow got involved with studio work, though I always did prefer playing rock.
GN: You play the bass like most of us wish we played the guitar. How did you achieve this speed and dexterity?
TL: I don’t think that’s a good analysis of my bass playing. I don’t have more than the normal amount of speed and dexterity. I try to fashion really good bass parts, and I imagine that I’m more known and respected for that than for my technique.
GN: What would you recommend to someone who wants to start playing the bass?
TL: I would say, to someone starting to play any instrument, that it’s important to have fun with your playing. If you begin to get serious with it, try to play with the best players you can, and to learn from them (there’s much to be learned about music, from players regardless of their instruments, if you listen.) Try to stick with music that means a lot to you, and try to always play well.
GN: Which is your favourite bass and why?
TL: I play mostly Music Man basses – my current favorite is one of their first 5 strings – a peach colored bass whose color got dubbed “Barbie flesh” and once they noticed that resemblance, they dropped the color!
I like the Music Man basses because they have a solid, chunky rock sound. They’re also pretty versatile – I can use the built in dampers and get deader, rounder notes, suitable for World Music parts. I used their fretless for most of the lead parts on Waters of Eden, my latest cd.
I also play, and love, the NS Electric Upright. I’ve played it alot with Crimson and on many other cd’s – both plucked and with a bow (sometimes bow and fuzz tone!) And, as mentioned before, the Chapman Stick is a great instrument and very useful for me to have as another option to bring to recording albums.
Hope that’s useful to you. best, t.l.