Interview with Tony Levin

by | Oct 21, 2013 | Interviews and Features

Insane melodies played just fast enough to comprehend combine with extreme examples of proficient instrumentation.  These musical masters deliver patterns that even without vocals project words, as if the men planned to allow the listeners to write that last piece into the orchestra.

If the name of the band doesn’t spell it out for you, Levin Minnemann Rudess comprises some of the most talented players in progressive rock: Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson), Marco Minnemann (Steven Wilson, Joe Satriani) & Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater).

Musicians should instantly recognize these names and immediately wonder how they each manufacture more time, because Rudess just released an album with Dream Theater for which he is now touring and Rudess manages app development; finding spare time in his schedule would seem impossible!  Minnemann has recently appeared with The Aristocrats, doing interviews as well as playing gigs.

Levin took the time to answer a few questions for Performer Magazine readers and musicians:

Do you hear lyrics in your head while playing? If not necessarily words, how do you feel the theme of a song?

I don’t really hear lyrics while playing. It’s hard to describe the process in your head while playing—especially after years of playing, when most of it becomes unconscious. I guess I’d say there’s a lot of awareness of the structure of the music, and then the options of what to play arise out of that.

Did you play the Chapman Stick throughout the whole album? Are there any regular bass guitar tracks?

I played a lot of my basses on this album, often two or three on a single track. There’s the Chapman Stick, to be sure, and I use that not just as a bass, but the ‘guitar side’ of it is very helpful with writing, and I can play a lead line on it, or double the bass line for a heavy sound. I also played the NS Electric Upright Bass on some tracks, and even the matching NS Electric Cello (which sounds pretty much like a fretless bass on those tracks.) And my usual Music Man basses – both fretted and fretless, usually for low-end power, but on some songs the bass takes the lead from time to time.

What is the Chapman Stick, in your words?

Good question. It’s an instrument designed to be played by ‘hammer-on’ technique, or a ‘touch guitar’ – you don’t need to fret it with one hand and pluck with the other; you just tap on the fret part, and that’s how the sound comes out. So you can tap more notes with the other hand – like piano playing, but directly on the strings. Mine has 12 strings: six are bass strings, six are guitar strings, and with a stereo output so they go to separate amps.

I’ve used the Chapman Stick a lot though the years, recording and live, and often as a bass, where I find the distinctive sound, and percussive nature, are helpful in giving me a bass approach that I couldn’t get on other instruments. But, I use the top-end too, playing guitar lines, both for my writing, and it’s been pretty featured in the Stick Men band, and some of my solo albums.

What was your first instrument? Tell me about the evolutionary process that led you to the Chapman Stick.

I played piano as a kid, then chose the bass (the acoustic ‘upright’ kind) as the instrument I liked the best.  Played classical and jazz on that for years before switching to electric bass. Somewhere along the line I became interested in alternative basses, having been the first to play Ned Steinberger’s unique bass, and when I heard about Emmett Chapman’s instrument, still more unusual and challenging, I got one right away. Brought it, brand new, to the record session of Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, in 1976. I didn’t end up playing it on that album, but when we toured with that music, I began to bring it into the arsenal, and have found it very useful ever since.

Do you have influences that also played the Chapman Stick?

I approached it, at first, as a bass, so I wasn’t influenced by the players at that time, who were playing the full range of the instrument. Their technique was far beyond mine, and I did practice a lot (and still do) to get more fluent, but with my focus on relatively easy bass parts, I was sort of on my own with my playing of it, in the Discipline era of King Crimson and on the early Peter Gabriel albums. Since those early days, a lot of great Stick players have come along and done amazing things on the instrument. I try to keep up with those, and though I can’t match all the technique, I find it great to learn what new things can be done on the Stick.

How did the Levin Minnemann Rudess project come about? Had you considered a 3rd Liquid Tension Experiment album? 

Scott Schorr, who had produced my Stick Man album and the Levin Torn White collaboration, suggested we do another progressive trio. We first brought drummer Marco Minnemann into it, and the process sped along quite quickly. We had to wait for Jordan Rudess to finish with his Dream Theater recording before he could get his parts done—and because of that, Marco and I had all the pieces underway by the time Jordan was ready. So the process went pretty quickly and easily compared to how it sometimes goes. A lot of intense work, and then we had this wonderful album ready.

Regarding LTE, there’s always the possibility, of course, but there are no plans or even discussions about it currently. Like all the fans, I’d be very happy if it happens some day.

Tell me about the Funk Fingers. Were these used on the latest Levin Minnemann Rudess album?

I did use them on some of the album – for even more percussive sound than the Stick (basically they are drum sticks attached to my right hand fingers, to drum onto the strings.) I first came up with the idea after recording Peter Gabriel’s song “Big Time,” where I had the drummer drum on the bass strings while I fingered them. Trying to do that in the live show was pretty tricky, so, on Peter’s suggestion, I tried attaching drumsticks to my fingers. Took a lot of adjustment, but eventually they were right (and are currently offered for sale on the web).

What do you enjoy most about being a musician?

I love music, listening and playing… but playing is even better than listening. Having the opportunity to share that music with others is really special, and I consider myself very lucky to have had a career doing that.

What is the most difficult part of being a musician?

I think, for a lot of players, when the potential is there to make great music, it gets frustrating when things stand in your way. And there are many things: monitor sound, the sound in clubs or theaters; the travel side to things: to try to get you to your show; the business side, which can be distracting. When I used to play jazz in Chuck Mangione’s band, he would say there is an 11th Commandment, “Thou shall never really groove,” referring to the many things that, in the jazz world, can get in the way of just letting that great music happen.

I must temper that answer to point out that for me, nowadays, things are pretty easy on that front, especially out here on the road with Peter Gabriel, where there’s a big crew to deal with all the sound issues for us every day!

If you had to choose one genre of music as a career (like session player, touring musician or instructor) what would you concentrate your efforts on (assuming this one choice would pay enough for you to do it full-time).

It’s live playing that I love. Nice to mix in some recording from time to time, but I would greatly miss playing live if I couldn’t do it –and that’s what has brought me the deepest satisfaction in my years in music. There’s something magical that happens at a great show, and it’s not just the audience who appreciate and remember that, it’s us on stage too.

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