Tony Levin: Sticking to What He Knows Best!

By Jeb Wright

Tony Levin is one of the best four string pluckers—err—in this case that is plucker, picker and stick beating low end maestros—to ever play the bass guitar.  He may be humble when it comes to touting his own skills but everyone who knows anything about music knows Tony Levin is at the top of the heap when it comes to talented bassists.  Yes, I am kissing his ass.  Yes, he deserves it.

The guy has played with so many great players it is mindboggling and we talk a few below including Yes and Andy Summers, but the majority of this interview is spent on Levin’s latest release with one of his many bands.  This time around Tony has teamed up with Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess and drummer Marco Mannesmann in the aptly named Levin Rudess Minnemann. The result is yet another slice of Prog Rock mastery.

In the interview below Levin discusses writing the album, playing the album and co-producing the album, well kinda sorta co-producing the album.  He also talks about the relationship between emotion and mathematics in music and how one knows when something is good. 

Jeb: HOT DAMN this is one fine album and one amazing band.  I gotta know how you three came together to create this album.  

Tony: First of all, thanks for spending some time on this. I think the album came out great and is pretty special, so I appreciate the chance to blab about it a little.

Scott Schorr, who runs LazyBones Recordings, is always on my case to team up with some great players and try to make the world's best album. Easy to say... but with players touring, and living in different areas, and not always wanting the same kind of album, and, yes, some concerns about whether they'll ever see a dime, it's not so simple to get a project like this off the ground.

We arrived at Marco Minnemann for drums–I had played with him on a UKZ tour of Poland and was very impressed with his playing. Marco jumped right on it, played drums to all the stuff I'd written in no time, and started putting down tracks of his own and sending them to me–not just with drums, but guitar and bass that he'd played on them. It was a little like The Sorcerer's Apprentice...the spigot had been turned on and there was no turning it off!

The result of this was musically excellent, but, alas, when we brought Jordan on board, shortly afterward, there was no more need for material, in fact, we had too much, so, though I had envisioned Jordan coming up with some material on his end, we skipped that element and went right to the difficult part of Jordan playing on top of tracks that needed melodies, counter rhythms, pads, and musical glue so we sound like a band playing at the same time.  He did great with that element, and I think that is largely why the recording sounds so cohesive.

Jeb:  It is hard to talk about instrumental tracks sometimes so I will be very general.  This album has a LOT of energy…even when that energy is mellow…its still energy.  Was it as electric when it was being made and recorded as it sounds? 

Tony: I can't speak for the other guys, but for me, when recording, I get my music written and my parts ready, then I can be pretty technical getting it down onto 'tape’.  I don't need to remind myself of the excitement that the finished product will have, and if it's a kickin’ bass part, I don't need to jump up and down...more important for me to stay focused on getting that part recorded as well as I can. At least that's my approach.  When it's all done, and we're listening to playbacks, then I can yell about the great energy.

Jeb:  Was this written as a group?  How much is improv?  How much was formatted and lined out ahead of time?

Tony: It was all compositions this time–no ‘improvs’, well, there's a video clip on the Deluxe Edition DVD of Jordan and me improvising, but that's not on the CD. I do enjoy improv pieces, but this time it just got put together in a different way, and I think that worked very well.

Jeb:  When going into the studio for this type of project, complex passages, open spaces, high energy…what are the challenges? 

Tony: Complex and fast parts are, indeed, a challenge for me, and believe me, Marco had written some stuff that I had to sweat over. And Jordan did some heavy bass lines that I revisited and tried to double, but with home studios and plenty of time, it's not that hard to keep plugging at it ‘til you get it right.

Jeb:  What is Jordan Rudess like to work with?  He seems way to smart for the average bear?

Tony: Jordan is indeed a very smart guy. And his command of his equipment is excellent–that's more important sometimes than what equipment a guy uses. In his case, he has lots of innovative keyboards, and a great grand piano–but he also knows when to use each element, and when to pile on lots of overdubs and when to leave things sparse.

Jeb:  What are you thoughts on his playing with Dream Theater and how do you feel he plays differently with this band?

Tony: I haven't thought of comparing those things, because the music is quite different. I think you'd find some passages where he uses an instrument, or patch, that you've heard on a DT piece–that's not too important to me, since, gee, I'm using the basses and Stick that I've used on a lot of other recordings.

Jeb: In wider circles of popular music, Marco is the least known.  What is his story?

Tony:  I'm afraid I don't know Marco's history–I know he's played with Eddie Jobson in UKZ, where I got to tour with him–and he's currently on the road with The Aristocrats. I just today heard that in January, my Stick Men group will share a bill with the Aristocrats, in Whittier, CA–that should be fun. I had wanted him on this project not because of who he's played with, but because he's such a great player.

Jeb:  Is this project just what I call a Moment In Time Project or will it become a living and breathing entity that is allowed a longer life span? 

Tony: It's always hard to predict the future in rock, and I've been wrong a few times before, when I tried. But I imagine that we will probably make another album and follow that with a tour of some sort–depending on touring schedules of a number of other bands. Certainly the desire is there to do that.

Jeb:  This may sound smart ass because of my other questions but I mean it sincerely…are you the greatest electric bass player of all time? 

Tony:  Thanks for the compliment, but, as is probably obvious, I do not think in those terms about myself, or about any players. I've been lucky to make music with some really great players through the years. I don't compare them to each other, or to myself. I just treasure the wonderful things that a great musician can bring to me, in learning terms, and just plain enjoyment.

Jeb:  Scott Schorr and you co-produced this album.  Who is Scott and what did he bring to the table?  In addition, how does one produce such an animal as this when compared to producing a pop oriented album?

Tony: Scott had the idea, had the impetus to make it happen. I have the desire, but often get sidetracked with other tours and albums. Scott did a lot of editing, at least on my compositions, to organize them before passing them on. He oversaw how the music was going, deciding what to reject and what to keep. In other words, he was the producer of the album. Calling it co-produced is just being nice to me for choosing the players.

Compared to a pop oriented album...well, it's very different from the start. You compose what your musical sense tells you to–it's not aimed at a particular audience, let alone at a radio genre that won't accept new things. Then you bring in musicians who are open-minded, and can further the musical vision–not, as in pop, players who will stick to your vision and your parts. And, maybe the biggest difference–when the music starts to take you in different directions than you'd planned, you follow the music, not the plan.

Jeb: I know you are a Pro’s Pro, but is it ever intimidating to have to play toe-to-toe with such great musicians?  Do you get competitive and do you get nervous?

Tony: I haven't encountered any competitive situations at all in my many years making music, nor do I get nervous. I think the biggest musical challenge I've faced was in making the Liquid Tension Experiment CD's with Jordan and John Petrucci, and Mike Portnoy. I did feel, in that group, that technically, I could hardly keep up with the others. I wasn't nervous, though, just … very challenged. It took some degree of reminding myself that they had wanted me there, and if I was smart and made the right decisions about when to overdub…I did a lot of that…that it could work out well, and as a big learning experience for me. That's the way it is with being in over your head can be daunting and it doesn't always work out great, but it can also be an opportunity to grow.

Jeb: To you, as a person, is music more mathematics, or more spirituality? 

Tony: Since you mention it, it does encompass both. And there's something very gratifying and beautiful about math. I see music more as a form of human communication–something that connects us in ways that other things don't, and in ways that are hard to express with our various languages. So, I can't pick the right words–maybe a poet could –but you and the readers all understand the feeling of being at a really great concert, and how that feeling stays with us, and is shared by all the other people there. Pretty special, whether there's math or spirituality in it.

Jeb:  My last two talk about two of your outside projects over the years.  The first one is: tell me about your time with the band Yes.

Tony: It was with ABWH (Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe) that I did recording and touring, and I had a great time with that. My Crimson pal, Bill Bruford, had brought me into the group. It was a nice challenge learning many of those great Chris Squire bass parts, and I had fun trying to use the Funk Fingers to make them sound a bit like me. 

What ended up as the Yes Union album was, for my part, another album with ABWH–the reunion with the other band members came after we'd recorded.  And after that, when Yes re-formed, I went out to catch the show, just like all the fans, and much as I'd liked playing the music, I was relieved to hear Chris himself doing those parts, as it should be.

Jeb:  Last one, as I know your time is limited.  You worked with one of my favorite guitarists, Andy Summers

Tony:  I did a few jazz albums with Andy–mostly I was surprised that it was jazz he was playing. I've always had some ambivalence about myself as a jazz player. I have spent some time working at it, but I was never devoted to playing jazz, and I can hear that in my playing–so generally I try not to get caught not doing jazz albums, unless I'm in on the composing from the beginning.