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Stick man: Talking with King Crimson bass legend Tony Levin

Bill DeYoung



Tony Levin and the Chapman Stick. Photos provided.

Bassist Tony Levin is an A-list session and touring player, and has been for nearly 50 years, so he’s got one of the richest resumes in all of rock music.

The native Bostonian is best known for his studio and stage work with British superstar Peter Gabriel (their working relationship began in 1976 and continues to this day) and with King Crimson, the progressive unit founded long ago (and still operating today) by British guitarist/composer Robert Fripp.

His studio credits also include David Bowie, Warren Zevon, John Lennon (Levin was in the Double Fantasy band), Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson, Joan Armatrading, Seal, Alice Cooper, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Sarah McLachlan and many others. He’s on more than 1,000 albums.

Levin will be in St. Petersburg Wednesday with his three-man project Stick Men. The band, which is performing at Cage Brewing, is so named because it features Levin playing the Chapman Stick, an odd-looking, electronic stringed instrument. Markus Reuter plays touch electric guitar, and Pat Mastelotto – also a current member of King Crimson – is the polyphonic drummer.

All three instruments are electronically-processed and utilize effects pedals and synthesizers to augment the sound.

Stick Men onstage: Markus Reuter, left, Pat Mastellato and Tony Levin.

Levin discovered the Chapman Stick – designed by musician Emmett Chapman – in the mid 1970s. “The Chapman Stick,” he tells the Catalyst, “has bass strings and guitar strings, and a stereo output. So suddenly I had the option of playing guitar and bass at the same time. What appealed to me was that it has a different sound, a different attack – very percussive and a huge range. The strings are tuned different.

“And in the progressive rock setting that I live in a lot of the time, anything that help push me outside of my normal, comfortable zone on the bass, is helpful to me.”

And it very nearly didn’t happen. “In July of ’76 I was invited to play on Peter Gabriel’s first solo album. I actually didn’t know who Peter Gabriel was; I hadn’t heard Genesis. I showed up at the session with this new instrument, and the producer took a look at it and said ‘Put that away; I don’t even want to see it.’ So he had me close the case, and I did not play the Chapman Stick on Peter’s first record.”

When they toured the self-titled album, however, Levin used the Chapman Stick as part of his bass arsenal. He has played bass on every subsequent Gabriel album, including the multi-platinum So in 1986.

“Sometimes Peter has literally has a bassline in mind,” Levin says, “and sometimes I mostly played it and sometimes I changed it a great deal. Sometimes we keep a passive-aggressive debate about whether it should be all his, or all mine.”

Levin joined King Crimson in 1981 and discovered that Fripp was keen on the Chapman Stick. “This was the perfect instrument for me to come up with not the usual blues-based basslines that I would have,” the bassist explains. “So it’s been a great help for me through the years. The oddness of it pushes me to be a more progressive player. Which is suitable for the music that I do.

“We have a wonderful working relationship. He just expects me to come up with the bass stuff – I might play it on stick, I might play it on electric bass or I might play it on upright bass.

“With Robert, as with Peter, the trick is to use it when it’s appropriate. Which is up to me. So through the years I’ve used it, but not exclusively. I have a number of basses, also, where sometimes one will be appropriate when another isn’t. The main thing in common is for the artists to have respect, musical respect, for each other. That’s something I feel from both Robert and Peter. And most certainly, I have it for them.”

Levin also developed “Funk Fingers,” a method of “tapping” bass strings with drumstick tips attached to his fingers with Velcro. It was trial-and-error at first, he says. “If they were too tight, they would cause my fingers to turn purple. If they were too loose, they’d go flying into the audience.”

Stick Men, Levin declares, is a different animal altogether.

“We can both play guitar or bass notes, both at the same time or separately,” he says. “So with only three of us in the band, we can do worthy covers of King Crimson material that Pat and I know, and wild stuff …. the bands that I like are not only technically good – and make good music – but they have a uniqueness to them. We try to do that in Stick Men. And I think we succeed, in that we’re not really like anybody else. It’s not only progressive music, but we have our own sound and our own way to do things.

“And from what I hear from the audience, three guys making so much noise is interesting to watch. They try to see who’s playing what, because it’s kind of tricky, and if you were just hearing it you couldn’t figure it out.”

Showtime is 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 6. Find Tickets here.

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    March 4, 2024at5:39 pm

    King Crimson is no longer together, unless Fripp decides to start it up again. Also, it was not Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe, it was Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

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