In 1969, the world of rock 'n' roll was shattered by the heavy, progressive sound of King Crimson. Following a legendary gig in Hyde Park where the band blew away the Rolling Stones, King Crimson toured the U.S. before imploding due to personality clashes and artistic differences. The band re-formed and played until 1975, when it entered another period of dormancy. In 1981, founding guitarist Robert Fripp reconvened the band, using bassist Tony Levin as the foundation for further attempts at moving rock into the future. The noirish, dystopian sound of the eighties lineup was a perfect match for the darkness of the Reagan/Thatcher era.
Beyond King Crimson, you've almost certainly heard Tony Levin's playing, even if you don't know it. He is the bass player for all of Peter Gabriel's solo albums and appears on Alice Cooper's first three records. He's played with David Bowie, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, and has appeared on hundreds of other landmark LPs over the years.
Now in its forty-eighth year of business, the band stops in Raleigh on Thursday with an eight-person lineup featuring Levin at its core. Levin took a break from a recording session near his home in Woodstock, New York, to discuss his continued role in the band.
INDY: You attended Eastman School of Music for classical studies. How did that affect your approach your playing?
TONY LEVIN: I was at Eastman and playing in the Rochester Philharmonic. I wasn't that thrilled being in an orchestra. I started playing jazz, and soon after, rock. I moved to New York City back when there was a need for studio players, but what I really liked to do was play live shows on the road. I've done an awful lot of records, and I didn't dislike doing the records, but my true joy and love is playing rock shows and sharing that experience with the audience.
When did you meet Robert Fripp? How did you get the King Crimson connection?
My memory is not great, but that's easy to answer, because on the same day I met Peter Gabriel, I met Robert Fripp. It was July 1976, and Peter was doing his first solo album. He had just left Genesis and [producer] Bob Ezrin, who liked my playing and had used me on Alice Cooper and Lou Reed records, joined me up with Peter. I did not know Peter, I did not know Genesis, I did not know King Crimson. It was an extraordinary day for me. I'm still very engaged with making music with both after all these years.
When you joined King Crimson in 1981, the songwriting credits switched from individuals to the collective "Music by King Crimson." How does the writing process work in the band?
It was different on each song, but generally Robert would bring in a piece or Adrian [Belew] would. It was pretty rare that Bill Bruford or I brought one in. The piece could be pretty done or it could have room for exploration and "Crimsonizing" it. One of the principles Robert introduced me to in running a band was to share the publishing equally. I don't really love talking about the business side of music. The making of music is what I love, and that incarnation of King Crimson in the early eighties really pushed me to challenge myself as a player, something I've been doing ever since, and that to me is more important than all the publishing in the world.
The music on those eighties albums sounds so different than other music at the time. It's very forward looking, with the musicianship being in service to the music, not the other way around.
That's what we're trying to do. With Crimson, we were trying to actually be progressive, and not do what we had done before. We're still busy trying to not do what we did before. That's not to say we're always successful, but that's the adventure.
Let's talk about the current tour—you have an eight-person band for this run?
Yeah, we have three drummers. They worked out very elaborate strategies to break up the already complex drum parts. We have Mel Collins playing flutes and saxes—he was in a much earlier incarnation of King Crimson. We also have at times three people playing keyboards, which gives us a bigger palette of sound, more orchestral. It's hard to describe in detail the way the band will sound. If we're allowed, we'll play three hours with an intermission.
You've been interacting with fans through the internet since 1996. How has that changed for you over the years?
I started the website in the mid-nineties mainly to sell my solo records, but I quickly realized something wonderful was going on. People were coming to my site to notice what I had said about being behind the scenes at rock shows or even better, taking pictures of them. I stopped trying to sell records and I just made it what later became a blog—there was no such word then. I mostly use it just to communicate.
It's a shame there's a wall between us, which does not happen when I play in smaller rock bands, we just go out and say hi to everybody after the show. But with King Crimson, with Peter Gabriel, we do big shows and you just can't say hi to everyone after the show, so there's this unnecessary wall, and my website has taken down a little bit of that, eliminating some of the distance that we don't really need to have.
What are you currently listening to?
My listening time seems to mostly be doing homework, things I need to learn for upcoming tours. Otherwise, it's very likely to be classical music, just to take my mind off the rock scene and put me in a good place to write. In King Crimson, there is a tremendous amount of homework. We have a gigantic catalog now that we play. Next week, we're going to be rehearsing and we're going to add other material, either new or from classic Crimson that I have never played. I need to be up on that and I need to get back to what we did on the last leg of the tour. It does involve some homework.
I could see Robert Fripp as an unhappy schoolmaster.
[Laughs] When we got out of school, we thought we were done doing homework, but it's different. It's something you love. You enjoy doing it.