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Tony Levin has released Stick Man, his first Stick-centered solo release:
feature and interview by Greg Howard, photos by York Tillyer
Since the mid 1970s Tony Levin has exposed more listeners and musicians to the sound of The Stick than any other player. First through his defining two-handed bass tapping with Peter Gabriel, then playing bass and melody parts with the newly reformed King Crimson of the 1980s, Tony introduced a sound and style that was sonically distinctive and compositionally focused. Since that time he has performed and recorded on Stick with many artists, including The California Guitar Trio, Pink Floyd, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, David Torn, Liquid Tension Experiment, as well as his own Tony Levin Band with Jerry Marotta, Jesse Gress, Larry Fast and his brother Pete Levin.
On his new CD, Stick Man, he delves deeper into the melodic side of the instrument than ever before, with a wide range of aggressive, distorted lead and rhythm sounds joining his signature Stick bass style. Tony also sings on a few tracks and plays NS Cello and Upright, bass, didgeridoo, guitar, piano and synths, often in surprising combinations. The record features King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto, as well as guitarist Chris Albers and guest drummers Tim Dow and Scott Schorr (who co-produced the record with Tony).
I asked him a few questions via email about the project, and about his experiences with the instrument over the past 30 years. (see the INTERVIEW below).
He's currently working on a video for one of the Stick Man tracks and making some promotional appearances for the CD, as well as performing a few dates with the California Guitar Trio this fall.
For more about Tony's activities and to check out sound samples from the CD see:
Oct. 19, With California Guitar Trio at Keegan Ales Kingston, NY 845 331-2739
Oct. 27, 28 Bass Player Magazine Live Event at the Millennium Broadway, NYC
Nov. 3, With California Guitar Trio at The Ark, in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Greg: The tracks on your new CD are really varied. Was there a common starting point for composing them?
Tony: Not really a common way of starting out these pieces. My usual method is composing in my head - i.e. I get just about the whole thing worked out, then write out the music, and even the instrument parts. But I'm smart enough to let the players do their thing - only using, say, my guitar demo part as their starting point. And on drums, I usually avoid boxed drum beats to write to -- my experience is that good drummers prefer not to directed as to what beat to play. Anyway, this time I tried a very different approach. Not every song was the same, but on a lot of them I playes Stick or bass grooves, then sent snippets of those, with tempo settled, to Pat Mastelotto (Crimson drummer) and Pat sent back wild loops, done roughly to what I had sent, but the progressive aspect of his parts inspired me to do other playing to react to it. On some other tracks I was given drum loops, and wrote to them. Then there were songs that ended up instrumental - instrumentals where a Stick part inspired a whole chorus of voices... all in all a much more varied approach to writing than my usual one.
Greg: You've mentioned on your website that your recording process for Stick Man was different from previous sessions, how so?
Tony: Kind of dealt with in the last question, but there are other things. For this project I brought almost all of my instruments to a large studio (the Clubhouse, in Rhinebeck NY) and laid them out in the big control room. Just seeing them all -- all kinds of basses, cello, upright, Sticks, digeridoo, keyboard, ocarina... seeing them there was part of the inspiration to stretch out musically on this recording. So, even if I had a bass idea of a track, I would do a number of approaches, often without hearing the first, knowing that Scott Schorr (engineer/producer) could find uses for some of the tracks even if I wasn't sure how it fit in. And indeed he did use some bits that became twisted beyond recognition - up octaves or fuzztone added.
After the days of recording, there were plenty of overdubs, in my home studio, after the pieces had taken shape - and a few Stick parts were doubled then, for power, using different amps.
Greg: You've been the highest-profile Stick player for decades, turning on millions of people to this new instrument. Most of us saw you for the first time in King Crimson or Peter Gabriel's band, where the two-handed bass technique you invented really became a signature playing style for you. This technique has turned into a huge part of what people think of when they think of "Stick music, " and many players have adopted its use in their own music. How does it feel to be a key figure and influence in the development of a new way of making music?
Tony: I don't really think about that. Like most musicians I know, I usually focus on what music I'm doing in the present - and sometimes on things coming up in the future. Spend very little time on what's past, even if it's some really nice recordings. (For example, I don't generally listen to any of my own albums after the long mixing process. And I haven't gone back and heard Crimson and Peter Gabriel recordings, except once in awhile when necessary to check a tempo or re-learn something.)
I listen to Stick players whenever I have the chance, and am usually amazed at how much is being done on the instrument that is way beyond my technical ability. I also like that different players can bring their own sensibility to the instrument, and hopefully do something that is distinctively theirs. So, though a lot of young Stick players may have first saw the instrument with me playing it, I'm more the kind of musician who wants to learn from them than wanting to influence them.
Greg: Do you have any suggestions for new players about how to approach The Stick, especially from a composer's and bassist's perspective?
Tony: Well, it's a very cool instrument to write on, particularly because it has different aspects than the usual writing instruments, guitar and piano. So you can use it to lead you in directions your usual guitar chords wouldn't have brought you. (That's exactly the kind of playing I did on the new CD.)
As for being a bassist with the Stick, I have gravitated toward playing with a heavily compressed sound, for the attack, or, as a second approach to bass parts, doing volume pedal swells - much like a bowed bass - for gentler attack. No need for others to use these same approaches - I'm sure there are many others - but that's what I've usually done on my bass parts with the Stick.
There is the guitar side of the Stick too, of course, and I'm very happy to have dug deeper into that, on this recording, than I have before. Even more than on the bass side, I've heard players have many approaches to playing the top strings. I 'borrowed' ideas from some, and just struggled to find my own sound to some extent. I know that amp use is a big part of a distinctive guitar sound, and I have little experience with guitar amps - in the studio we had four different amp setups for the Stick top, and tried them each out for each piece - often using more than one.
Greg: Can you look back and think of what has surprised you about the instrument, compared to your expectations of it?
Tony: From its beginning, the Stick has been a 'wide open' instrument, in that there are no limitations to what you can come up with on it. This has meshed perfectly for me with a progressive approach to rock, and I hope to continue to find new techniques on the Stick to enable me to continue to grow with my playing.
I guess the surprise to me is that the instrument itself has evolved, becoming more versatile and offering still more options. I was very happy with the bass sound on the very first Sticks - and now, while keeping its unique character, it's added many other subtle options that are very useful when recording.
Greg: In your role with your own band, and all the other artists you've worked with, you've generally made a decision about using either The Stick or the bass depending on what a specific song itself suggested to you. Several of these tracks have Stick and bass at once, or layered parts on one or the other. Did this lead you to approach either instrument differently than you have in the past?
Tony: If I'm playing bass on someone's album I listen to the piece and just let it determine, to my sensibility, what instrument to reach for. Sometimes the first try doesn't work out (sometimes many!) and I'll change instruments. But the key is that it's the given music that determines it to me, not some preformed idea about what I want to play that day.
On my CD, it's a different story - I was using the instruments - usually the Stick - to come up with grooves or moods that would determine the rest of the piece. Kind of the opposite from my usual bass player function. In previous albums of mine, I would just write the piece, then be the bass player helping it out -- not so this time, and that's one of the fun things, to me, about Stick Man.
Greg: I really love all the aggressive, growly, distorted Stick bass and lead sounds you have on this record. There are a lot of new sounds a recording techniques here. What kind of "voice" were you after? Would you care to discuss how you found it?
Tony: As I've written, a lot of amps were used. (only Ampeg SVT on the bass side, by the way.) There were also mild distortions added at many stages of the mix - these mixes went through, really, three engineers' boxes after being recorded. First me, on my home system, though I didn't specifically add any fuzztone, I did favor the level of some of the more distorted amp sounds. Then Scott Schorr compiled and rough mixed the pieces - adding lots of effects of all kinds. Then (whew, not done yet,) engineer Tony Lash did the final mix, tweaking, jumbling, and doing wild things to the sounds yet again. (All with my approving things as we went.) By the time I brought it to Larry DeVivo to master, he told me flat out we did not want to push levels on this master because it already sounded pushed to the max.
Greg: What are your next touring plans? Will there be a "Stick Man" tour?
Tony: I won't tour with Stick Man, for a few reasons. It would involve a different band than my current one (which has two keyboards and guitar -- I'd need another Stick player, no keys or guitar) Also, it's a big undertaking to rehearse and plan a tour, then go out and hopefully stay out awhile - - all great stuff, but having done that last year, this time I felt it wise to give the touring circuit a break from me(!) and aim at a lot going on next year. And, if I needed yet another reason, I was 'semi-booked' to play bass on a big, long tour, to start this September - that fell through late this Summer, leaving it pretty late to get good bookings for the Fall.
Greg: Thanks from the Stick community for being such an inspiration, not just in your music but your whole approach to your life as an artist, and thanks also for taking the time to be so open to your fans, and to answer these questions.
Tony: Well, it is my pleasure. I feel connected to the Stick community, and am happy to be a part of the wealth of music coming out of it.
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