Big, bald, brassy and bassy!
By Martin Popoff
Tony Levin and his band of merry progsters are back with a brand new studio album called Pieces Of The Sun, and folks who admire the man's work with King Crimson, will at minimum, see the connection to the rhythmic force that was behind that vehicle. Definitely more prog than '00's Waters Of Eden, Pieces Of The Sun displays prominently Tony's touring band, Jesse Gress, Jerry Marotta and Larry Fast (the latter two, Tony's cohorts in Peter Gabriel's band), all over the record, just like they are at www.tonylevinband.com, the sister
site to www.tonylevin.com, the former designed to show the bench depth of
this great live band.
I caught up with Tony during a flash snowstorm here in Toronto. Just the two
of us at the dark venue, we talked about all things solo, Gabriel and Crimson for an hour and a half. I indeed didn't want to impose on him for that long, offering several outs, but he was the patient picture of gracious civility, diving into intelligent detail on subjects I'm sure he's been hounded about for years. The Gabriel and Crimson info is for another time
and place. The look at the new solo album begins now.
SoT: Why did you title this album Pieces Of The Sun?
Tony Levin: "That came about because a few of the individual titles related to the sun.
Actually, the first piece I wrote I amed "Apollo" and when I played that and a few other pieces for a friend of mine, Robbie DuPree, who is a singer in his own right, he suggested that name and it just sounded right because
it's one of those ambiguous titles that can refer to the sun or pieces of music or pieces of the sun. And in the end, a piece called "Helios," which is a reference was taken off the record, so there are less titles that refer
to the sun than there were at one time. But you still have "Apollo" and
"Ever The Sun Will Rise," so some of them connect to that. That's not a huge
amount of meaning to the title, but it's something (laughs). And interestingly the label helped me work pretty hard on the cover. We were able to get images from NASA's website which are actually pictures of the
sun and we made some kind of collection of them. It wasn't easy to get permission for that."
SoT: Tell me about re-recording "Phobos" for the album.
Tony Levin: "Phobos" is Larry Fast's composition. Let me back up a little and say Larry Fast, the synth player in the band, is known as Synergy when he makes his
own records and on this record, one of the things I really wanted to accomplish was to hearken back to my roots in progressive rock. And actually my touring band is the one I used on the record this time. And I kind of
just wanted to solidify that connection so I particularly wanted to do two
old pieces, one Peter Gabriel one and one the Synergy piece. "Phobos" is, I believe, one of the moons of Saturn. I could have the wrong planet, but it is one of two moons, Phobos and Demos. And I'm sure there are Greek gods
named after them too, because Greeks and the moons always seem to be related
SoT: What is the Peter Gabriel piece on here?
Tony Levin: "It's called "Dog One." The story about that is that I have old tapes of
things from Peter from way back and so does Larry Fast. We both kind of collect old stuff. And I've been very familiar with this piece for years and it never came out. So I called Peter and asked if he would mind if I
re-recorded it with my band, who is really his band."
SoT: Does it relate to "Soft Dog" at all, the Peter Gabriel b-side?
Tony Levin: "Well, that's a really good question and I'd like to find the answer.
Because Peter mentioned that, he said, 'Is that "Soft Dog?"' And I said I
think not. Peter didn't remember what "Dog One" is. I reminded him and sang
it to him. I think it's a different piece or a very, very different version. But I remember we recorded it almost exactly 21 years ago, Larry and Jerry and I recorded "Dog One" with Peter and I have that tape and it's wonderful
and he never released it for some reason. I don't know its relation to "Soft
Dog." But anyway, Peter said immediately, sure, go ahead and do it and then
I had to pester him to name it and have a definite title. Because he didn't
remember it at all. So he said 'yes, "Dog One" will be the name.' And on the
original tape that I have, as on the record here, Peter sings 'Dog One, Dog
Two, Dog Three,' and then where there would be a verse, he never did make up
lyrics for it so there are no lyrics missing. Our version is kind of more modern and Jerry, Jessie and I share the singing of those three words; it's not very hard (laughs)."
SoT: How about a brief contrast between this album and Waters Of Eden?
Tony Levin: "It's more complex harmonically than the last one, but more than that. It's
more rhythmic. There's a lot of non-4/4 stuff. But I would say that the non-4/4 stuff is pretty accessible compared to what I've done with King Crimson and Liquid Tension Experiment. It's a little more organic, because that's the way I am as a writer and Jerry Marotta plays that way. He's not the same kind of player as Bill Bruford; they have different sensibilities
in where they take things. But still, there is quite a bit of non-4/4 stuff and it usually kind of breaks into 4/4 at the end."
SoT: What are some of your favourite compositions on here?
Tony Levin: "I chose the piece "Apollo" to lead off the album, because I thought it best
expressed... not because I think it's my favourite but it best expressed what's coming on the album. It has long sections and you hear unusual stuff right off the bat and you think oh, this is not your normal album or even
your normal Tony Levin album. But it gives a sense of what's coming. Of course I have no favourites. I'm going to go a little off-track here. I found that when I toured with Waters Of Eden, from talking to people, and I
talk to people a great deal after the show and sign CDs and stuff, that a lot of people found that music very healing. Funny word that I never would've thought of when I wrote the music. But it was just a thing I would
hear every night. People were comforted and healed by it. And I'm not doing that kind of music that gentle anymore, but especially on the piece "Ever The Sun Will Rise," where I had a kind of optimistic thinking of the future
concept in my head as I wrote it, I tried to, in my musical way continue in that sense, positive and constructive. It's hard to put this into words and frankly I've never put this into words before and it's a little embarrassing, because I never think, oh, here's a healing progression of chords. But I think I can start that way and if I can succeed at it, then I
feel happy about it, and if I don't succeed at it, I'll still have a piece of music, it just won't seem healing to me (laughs). So the pieces where I succeeded with that, especially "Ever The Sun Will Rise," I feel good about.
Having written four or five big compositions that were pretty progressive and challenging - let's forget the King Crimson challenging we were just talking about - but challenging to the listener, I thought there were points
where I needed to ease up and I had this idea while bicycling one day to just do this very deconstructed version of "Tequila," so deconstructed that it would be unrecognizable until the middle where we say the word tequila. And in some ways I had in mind when I was writing the compositions, the
whole scope of the album that some time you just need a break from the intensity of all this instrumental music to just play a laid-back thing with "Tequila" and have a sax solo; it's just a musical break. And the show needs
that as well. Another thing is that I deeply treasured the quality of the players I have on the road and I love that they are willing to go on the road with me, so they are showcased all over the album."
SoT:How far into this tour are you?
Tony Levin: "Not very far. This is the end of the first week. We started by playing Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Rochester, Montreal, then we had a wonderful day off to travel here yesterday and now we begin again and we keep going until we reach Vancouver. We'll slowly wend our way across the country and then we'll start back on the East Coast once again and then take
a break, when some of us have to go to Europe, to do other things. And then
I hope to start up again in July but frankly those dates haven't been booked yet."
SoT: Is this a regular thing, that you'll pull into town and get somebody up for a cameo? (ed. Tony had just gotten a call from Torontonian Larry Gowan, who confirmed that he would pop down to sit in and sing Peter Gabriel's
"Salsbury Hill," an even that did in fact transpire seven hours after our interview).
Tony Levin: "Well, that's one's vision when one puts together a tour (laughs). My hope
was that every night... among the four of us we know so many musicians who are great musicians. My hope was every night someone would come in and jam but we haven't frankly done it yet. Last night in Montreal, I was hoping Kevin Parent, a great Québec singer who I've toured with, would come and sit
in, but it was Easter so he couldn't make it. So I don't know if it'll happen at all again but chances are it will."
SoT: Tonight is looking good for Larry Gowan from Styx?
Tony Levin: "He just told me on the phone that he will be here, yes. It's ironic that
nobody knows it's going to happen yet, because this interview will air after it happened. So this will be a high point of someone sitting in, because it will be a singer, and it would usually be a guitar player. In L.A. I'm going to have Steve Hunter from Alice Cooper's band. As with Larry tonight, he
will come in and play on "Salsbury Hill." He's the guitar player who played on the song on the first Peter Gabriel record, on the album we did right here in Toronto."
SoT: Humourous live moments...
Tony Levin: "Immediately I think of Jerry. One time, Jerry just goes up to the mike and
immediately people start laughing at him. It was on this theme of me being sexy, which had people laughing. And then somewhere around the third time he came to the mike and somebody else called out, 'you're sexy, Jerry!' And he goes 'I'm 60 pounds from sexy.' And later, after he played a sax solo,
someone yelled out, 'now you're 30 pounds from sexy!' I'm going to find that
clip of him saying that stuff and put it up on the website. So check the websites, tonylevin.com and tonylevinband.com. There's no more papabear.com. I had started papabear.com and then I put a diary page up on it because I wanted to sell my CDs, which aren't in stores. And I think at that time I
sold Funk Fingers too. And so many more people were interested of course in
seeing my road diary, that I was embarrassed that you had to go from the Papa Bear thing to Tony's Diary, so I restructured it to be tonylevin.com. Like any early web user, I'm offended by the commercial aspect, so I really
wanted just to be this little thing, that you can go find it. But for this album and tour I had a vision of so many different kinds of pages and so much stuff that I got a different website called tonylevinband.com. tonylevin.com is so content-oriented, not much graphics, but the band is so goofy, and we have a cartoonist from Montreal who I love, doing cartoons
there (shows me his laminate). With respect to being more interactive, these things are more important these days, with the level that I'm at with this band; the interaction and communication with the audience is probably the best part of this. You know what I mean? Peter Gabriel can't do that anymore
and when you're really small, there are no fans. So I may as well take advantage of one of the things I have been a band this size."
SoT: Are you going to put out a live album any time soon?
Tony Levin: "We will record this tour, especially the last few shows. There will
definitely be a live double album with some of the special events that happen at the different shows. Unless the record label stops me, I'd make it a triple. I want everything on there, all the talking, Jerry... again, it's because I want to give the audience what I want when I went to go see something. And I also wanted to have a page, not only for the tour dates but
I wanted to specifically make it obvious what our policies are, about photographs and taping and videos. Because so many people assume you can't do that stuff, especially because I've been with King Crimson, which doesn't allow photos. I allow everything and anything. All I ask is that people don't sell the stuff and make a profit at it or interfere with anyone else's view of the concert, you know, standing up with a tripod or anything. So I
wanted to make that the big thing on this site."