‘It turned into some decent music’: Tony Levin kept David Bowie’s secret while at work on the amazing new Stick Men release

A first-call bassist boasting appearances on more than 500 albums, Tony Levin is giving nothing away to age, even as he approaches his 67th birthday. In the past few months, he’s put out the most ambitious album of the Stick Men’s career, appeared on the surprise new David Bowie single, and is now set to tour with Peter Gabriel; two former bandmates in King Crimson; and his own group through the rest of 2013.

There will be a trio of mid-March shows in Japan from the Crimson ProjeKct, featuring Adrian Belew and Pat Mastellotto, followed by 10 shows to finish out the month with the Stick Men — and then 17 more dates this fall with Gabriel in Europe, as the former Genesis frontman continues celebrating So.

Levin played a key role in that 1986 album, as well as countless others with the likes of Paul Simon, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, and Warren Zevon, among many, many others. Lately, however, Levin’s been focused on his own Stick Men project, featuring Mastelotto and touch guitarist Markus Reuter.

Deep is Levin’s third release with the group in three years, following 2011′s Absalom and 2012′s Open, but easily his most ambitious — both in scope and in presentation. In an exclusive new SER Sitdown, Levin tells us that Reuter (who joined the Stick Men in ’11) has played a major role in the band’s recent flurry of activity …

NICK DERISO: First, describe the creative impetus for Deep, which I understand began with your own whale-watching excursions. How did those trips, seeing these amazing creatures up close and in their own environment, impact the direction of the music?
TONY LEVIN: I enjoyed the whale watch experience a lot, having gone on a few excursions years back. I didn’t plan to do a piece about it, but when that idea came, it percolated for a few years, and then turned into some decent music.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A new live set finally captures the sound of Tony Levin performing with Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, giving a 1989 appearance this muscular thump.]

NICK DERISO: The appearance of the whale, in the album’s fourth segment, is a wondrous moment, full of so much instrumental complexity. How, exactly, did you achieve those sounds?
TONY LEVIN: I spent a lot of time on that section, trying to get an evocative sound. Actually, I was surprised, on hearing the final mix, that a lot of the fuzztone was gone from the Stick bass part in that section — but I chose, as usual, to go with the ears of the mixing engineer. Live, it’ll be fuzzier, for sure!

NICK DERISO: How has the Stick Men project grown and matured with the addition of Markus Reuter? So much of what you do is clearly based on an improvisational fission. How has he changed the way the band creates?
TONY LEVIN: Markus is a great player, and also an accomplished composer. So he’s had a big influence on our music. A lot of the pieces on Deep originated with his writing. He has also been super at picking up the complex older material — like ours, and King Crimson pieces, and the one Stravinski piece we do live — so that made things go very smoothly in the transition. I’d say now we have more sources from within the band, that unusual music can come from, so, hopefully, we’ll be set for writing good material in the future.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The Stick Men's terrific new project 'Deep' is a boisterous adventure, perfectly conveying the quiet wonder and abrupt excitement of whale watching.]

NICK DERISO: On songs like “Hide the Trees” from Deep, you seem to construct a musical narrative, then pull it apart, only to rebuild it again. How much of that is written down in advance?
TONY LEVIN: Each song has its own process. “Hide the Trees” was really written by Markus almost completely. He showed me how to play one of the parts — then let me come up with my own ideas for other sections. We do the same, in reverse, on some pieces that I instigated — like “Nude Ascending Staircase.” And sometimes, the piece arises from the three of us playing together, like “Crack in the Sky.”

NICK DERISO: You also played on the surprise David Bowie track “Where Are We Now,” part of an upcoming album that’s shrouded in mystery. What’s it like to have to hold on to a secret like that?
TONY LEVIN: Not hard to be discreet about it. I think it must have been very hard for him and the production team to keep people about finding out, though. For me, it was a nice honor to be part of the album, but also a treat because the music was so good, and David a real pleasure to work with. I’ll wait ’til the album comes out to see how much of it I am playing on. It won’t be all, but it will be more than that one song.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Rock bassist Tony Levin stopped by to discuss key cuts recorded alongside the likes of Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Yes, Paul Simon and others.]

NICK DERISO: What was it like to return to the road with Peter Gabriel for the anniversary of his legendary project So?
TONY LEVIN: The approach was similar on most of the songs — some, in the first third of the show, were done in a more acoustic version than ever before. All fun, and being back with the players who did the original tour was a great treat.

NICK DERISO: You’re set to return to the Crimson Projekct for a tour of Japan this month. Describe what it’s like, during that final hour, when both the Stick Men and Adrian Belew’s Power Trio are performing in tandem. How close are you to fully realizing the double-trio concept that King Crimson first attempted in the early 1990s?
TONY LEVIN: It’s a hoot to be playing the material again, with six players. But I don’t think any of us in the band confuse it with the actual King Crimson. We’re having fun doing the material, and we usually precede it with a set of Adrian’s music, and a set of Stick Men music — so it’s a pretty complete night of progressive music for the Crimson fans who come out for it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEW: The 2011 trio recording 'Levin Torn White' showcases a group every bit as capable as Levin's old employer, King Crimson, but more intent on having some straight-up fun.]

NICK DERISO: There’s also a Stick Men tour. You used PledgeMusic to help fund this new project, which features the most elaborate packaging and mix options ever for the band. Describe that experience.
TONY LEVIN: We will tour in March, and then again in July/August — and we’re looking at November too. I love touring with the band, and bringing our new music to the fans. We’ve got lots of choices in the show now, with a wealth of earlier material, and the new Deep album and, of course, some King Crimson pieces too. Using PledgeMusic to help fund the project was a good idea. Fortunately we got a lot of support from our fans, and that enabled us to do a number of things differently than we would have — packaging, better mixing and mastering, and eventually there will be a DVD with an hour long film about the making of the new music.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

3 Comments

  1. Cool. Still haven’t heard at all why Michael Bernier left Stick Men. ????

    • Tony has covered Bernier’s departure elsewhere. One of the main things was Tony wanted to tour a lot and Bernier had family commitments which conflicted with touring. I think you can read more about it in a Levin interview on Anil Prasad’s site, Innerviews.

      • Nick DeRiso says:

        Here’s the relevant comment, from Prasad’s 2012 talk with Levin: “In August 2010, we reached a place a band doesn’t want to reach. Michael was having trouble going out on tour as much as Pat and I wanted to, because of family things. We had to face the difficult situation of hardly touring or making a change in the band.”

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