Tony Levin is the dean of progressive rock bassists. In his storied career he has been most closely associated with Peter Gabriel, and his smash success of the mid-1980s. As one of the most innovative players ever, Tony has also been aligned King Crimson, as well as other musical luminaries. Tony just added one more feather to his musical cap with his stunning collaboration with Marco Minnemann and Jordan Rudess in their eponymous band. With their debut album they are rewriting progressive music history, and once again Tony is front, center and way down low. Ghost Cult caught up with the venerable Mr. Levin via email, while he is on tour in Europe.
Please tell us how Levin Minnemann Rudess came together to make this album?
The idea started with producer Scott Schorr coming to me to do another ‘project’ recording, with some of my favorite musicians. I’d done one a year ago with Alan White and David Torn, that got some nice attention from the progressive rock fans. So, I chose Marco (whom I’d toured with a bit, in Eddie Jobson’s UKZ band) and Jordan Rudess (from Dream Theater, and we’d done two Liquid Tension Experiment albums together) as a couple of wild players… and I was ready to be surprised by the outcome.
What was the writing process like? Was it more improvisational, or did you all come in with some pieces to work on?
Usually, in this situation, you start out doing some jams, and then use them, or write around them. This time though we started with composing sections, first I did, then Marco — and before long, we had more material than could fit on the CD, and it was GOOD stuff. So though Jordan and I did some jamming, intending to add Marco later, that couldn’t make it onto the record (we did include the video of it in the Deluxe Edition with DVD.)
The important thing to me isn’t how the pieces are formed, it’s the quality of what you end with — I’ve been in other situations where jams led to great tracks — so I’m really happy with this release that I still enjoy listening to all the tracks, and will for some time.
Like much of your work, the bass is equally a lead and supporting instrument on this album. Do you work out some of you more solo-y parts ahead of time or did you record them live on the spot?
Different on different pieces. Some of the stuff I wrote had bass or Stick (or cello) featured in some of the sections — never all of them, because it’s important to me to leave room for the other guys to add their own flavor to the piece.) On other pieces, instigated by Marco, there were bass ideas of his, that I just copied, or a little space for me to come up with something.
I’m okay with the bass being both supporting and lead on the album, but it’s not important to me that it take the lead – just that the level of the music is high, and that my bass playing supports what the band and the compositions are about.
I love the classic sound of the LMR band as a power trio. Marco played guitar on the album, so any thought to adding someone for future live dates or for a next album?
Good point — the guitar added a lot. We have no plans for a tour right now (because we’re all very booked up with other tours!) But we’re hoping there will be a follow up album before long, and that we’ll tour when that comes out. Whether we’ll add another player for that tour will be decided when the time comes.
When LMR eventually plays live, do you envision the songs being performed more freely for experimentation?
Wow, you’re good at thinking off into the future — we haven’t discussed that at all. I know I love improv – whether it’s completely free form, or based on themes – so my vote will be to do some.
I didn’t know you played the cello! What other instruments are lurking around your home studio that may show up on an album someday that would surprise your fans?
I have lots of basses, and a couple of Chapman Sticks, all in my studio, but aside from the electric cello, that’s about it — those are more than enough to keep this bass player challenged!
You have played on countless, classic albums. Do you have an album, or a particular era of a band you consider among your finest work?
No, I don’t. I don’t spend much time thinking back on what albums I’ve done (usually only when doing interviews, in fact!) And I’m also not big on picking favorites… of albums or bands or players. I have a lot of respect for all the players, and artists, and albums that have moved me with their music — whatever the style of it. That’s where a lot of the inspiration comes to me to try to make my own playing and writing as creative and progressive as I can.
Since you are already working with Jordan again, is there any chance you will do another Liquid Tension Experiment album someday, or is that off the table since Mike split with John and Dream Theater?
We’ve got no plans for that – haven’t discussed it even — but using your metaphor of the table, I wouldn’t take any creative music ideas off the table… let’s keep them all there, and hope they come alive.
You were really on the forefront of blogging and social media from the music world. What about that medium is the thing that is most valuable to you as an artist?
I discovered back in the 90’s that on my website I could let music fans see what it’s like behind the scenes on a Peter Gabriel or King Crimson tour — even showing them my photos of themselves — the audience — which I try to shoot at each show.
Since then, progress in digital cameras in web speed has allowed much bigger photos than I started with, but what’s remained the same is the great opportunity to take down some of that wall that exists between performers and their audience.
Nowadays social media have blasted the wall down – so it’s not a radical idea for bands to communicate with their fans.
I know you are hitting the road now with Peter Gabriel soon. When can we expect some LMR dates to pop up?
This tour with Peter will only be for a month – but next year is looking pretty busy for me — pretty soon we’ll put our heads together and choose a schedule for the next recording period. Right now, we’re just basking in the new record, how much we like it, and how great the reception has been so far, from the people who are hearing it.
What advice can you give to a young musician starting out on bass or the stick?
I’m not a great advice guy… more of a student than a teacher. I guess I’d just speak from my own experience, and say that having the chance to play music, with cool players, and sometimes whatever music you want to play – it’s a really special thing. I’ve appreciated it more and more as the years have gone by. You get focused on how many people came to the show, or how many cd’s you sold – but it’s worth keeping in mind how lucky you are to just be doing it, if even for yourself.