Tony Levin’s stellar career in progressive rock, jazz, and world music can be tracked through an estimated 500 album appearances. He has been a longterm member of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel’s band, as well as his own outfit, Stick Men, which he formed in 2010.
Whether playing a traditional stand-up or electric bass, occasional keyboards, or the Chapman Stick with its blend of bass and high-register strings, Levin has always been in demand as a session player.
He has worked with John Lennon, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Paul Simon, and Stevie Nicks, and has toured extensively with Herbie Mann, Peter Frampton, Judy Collins and many more. An innovator and sonic explorer, his inventive methods of manipulating his equipment with all manner of weird and wonderful household goods are legendary.
Levin is regularly voted one of the greatest bassists of all time, and the Boston-born musician continues to work with a variety of artists. We spoke to Tony recently, and he talked us through some selections from his mighty back catalog, including the importance of the drummer-bassist relationship and the role his two-month old daughter played in one particular incidence of instrument manipulation.
Must-have album: Ivan Lins – Awa Yiô (1991)
“Ivan is a fantastic, exciting Brazilian artist. It was an extraordinary opportunity to work with him, because he usually uses Brazilian musicians, but he came to my hometown, Woodstock. We chose the marvellous drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, to play on the album. His groove is unique; you can tell it’s him from the way he puts together the accents on different notes.
“It’s a joy and the music grooves easily, but also one learns a lesson from playing with a great musician, such as subtleties of rhythm. With Vinnie we listen to each other, and learn, and there’s a really great feel, whether that means being in the pocket, or just making the audience want to dance. For a bass player to play with a drummer providing all of that, you just have to sign on for the ride. It’s an interactive situation.
“In a recording situation, we all create our part on our instrument, which is easy on bass, but the vast majority of drummers would play pretty much the same thing. Great drummers like Vinnie have the ability to keep the music grooving, and also to add something of themselves to the groove.
“I used my five-string Stingray in those days, and also the Chapman Stick Bass with both bass and guitar strings.”
Worthy Contender: Robert Fripp – Exposure (1979)
“This allowed me to dive deeper into the world of progressive music. At the time, I’d not played with King Crimson or even listened to them all that much.
“The drummer, Narada Michael Walden, was more of a jazz, groove and funk player, and the two of us, along with Robert, got to create together.
“It was strikingly different music, with compositions that I found very challenging, and I really think it’s one of the albums where I grew as a player, from being in that place even for a short time. I was playing my Fender Precision, which I had grown up playing.
“I recorded with a mix of DI and also through my SVT Ampeg, with an 8x10 cabinet, which was my go-to in those days. The sound is a mix of the two, and when you really dig in, with the amp pretty loud, and almost overplay the P-Bass, there’s a crunch and distortion.
“I’d say about a quarter of the time I used a pick, the rest with fingers. I would put something like foam rubber to dampen the strings, to get a different kind of sound, with less midrange and less sustain.
“There’s a purity to recording with just the bass and your fingers. Some bassists can get great, unique expression with a pick, but I can’t do that, unfortunately.”
Cool Grooves: David Bowie – The Next Day (2013)
“I was thrilled to get the call to play on parts of this album and ended up on a decent amount of tracks. David’s bass player at the time was Gail Ann Dorsey, a great singer and bassist and a good friend of mine. The week of the recording, she was busy elsewhere and I was the backup.
“I was honored to have the opportunity. The session in a studio at Greenwich Village, New York, was a secret, so nobody knew that we’d done it until almost exactly a year later. Tony Visconti, the producer, emailed me and said the single was out at midnight, so I could now tell people!
“David would present a song, play it on keyboard and sing it, then the drummer Zach Alford would take it to the place where it needed to be. He’s a wondrous drummer. I got to interpret the bass end of things in my own way. Tony had plenty of good advice about the sound of the bass and the part; to me it doesn’t matter where it comes from, it only matters that it is supportive of the song and what it is about.
“Sometimes staying out of the way is appropriate, and sometimes stepping to the front is what’s required. David gave me a surprising amount of leeway, said maybe a thing or two, and we ended up with a felicitous combination of all of us that really worked.”
Wild Card: Peter Gabriel – So (1986)
“I have had a long and close friendship and musical relationship with Peter, so it’s hard to know where to begin. Since I met him in 1976, I’ve enjoyed the process of creating bass parts with a man who’s so creative that a ‘normal bassline’ almost never worked for him.
“For example, on Big Time I did the left-hand fingering, while Stewart Copeland drummed pretty fast on the strings. When we toured the album, I was practicing how to recreate it, but I couldn’t get it. Peter said, ‘Why don’t you put two drumsticks on your fingers and play that way?’ And so, with help from my tech, Andy Moore, we created chopped-off sticks attached to my fingers with stretch Velcro. I use those Funk Fingers to this day, and softened the attack by having the ends rubberized.
“Now, the song Don’t Give Up, has a coda which is a very different, laid-back groove. It needed a similar bass sound with no sustain. My baby daughter Maggie was two months old, so it so happened that my bass case was full of diapers. I dampened the strings with a diaper to get short, thumpy notes. It became known between Peter and the producer, Daniel Lanois, as ‘The Super Wonder Nappy Sound’. They loved it! The door was always open to try an unusual approach.”'
Take a Deep Breath... Al Di Meola – Scenario (1983)
“Now this is not an album to avoid, musically, at all, but there are some unique issues I had with playing on it. Al had the very interesting idea of asking me and King Crimson’s drummer Bill Bruford to be on his jazz record, and the session was booked for Caribou Ranch Studio in Colorado; Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and others had worked there.
“But the spanner in the works was that it was way high up in the mountains. Because of the altitude, you just cannot catch your breath. Bill and I came in late at night, and managed to get some sleep, but the next day in the studio I could not speak to anybody; maybe a couple of words before I had run out of air.
“As you can imagine, discussing the tracks was impossible, and because of our schedules we only had one single day there and had to leave straight after. The making of it was very difficult, and it would have been musically better if we’d been able to acclimatize. It was really difficult for us to play.
“Since then, I’ve played at higher altitudes at concerts – I have played in Bolivia and visited northern Chile – but you need maybe three days before you’re acclimated to it. Everything is harder at those altitudes, and the whole experience was absolutely exhausting.”