Already a seasoned jazz bassist and drummer, Tony Levin joined Peter Gabriel's band more than 30 years ago, just as the onetime Genesis frontman was working on his self-titled debut album. Levin purchased a 12-stringed instrument called the Chapman Stick and brought it to the recording session, figuring he'd play it on a few tracks. Gabriel's producer didn't go for it.
"The producer said, 'Put that away — I don't know what to with that,'" recalls Levin, who eventually introduced the instrument to rock audiences on King Crimson's 1981 album, Discipline. "We've come a long way from those days."
Levin says the instrument's tones were just the thing they needed for Discipline, one of the band's best albums. "I play bass on some of that album," he says. "But those interweaving sections are just right for the stick. And the way it's so percussive and has so much range, it worked out that me and drummer Bill Bruford could be a team and let the two guitarists counteract each other."
To play the stick, which looks like a wide fret board, you begin by tapping the strings, which often gives the instrument a percussive sound. "Some people pick it up quickly," says Levin. "If you approach it on its own terms, it's quite easy. I've seen people just pick it up and play it quite well. There are 12 strings, so you can do so much with it. You can play jazz or play bass lines or chords or some other thing, which is what I usually do. I'm constantly trying to imagine new things for myself on it."
One of the guys who took to the stick naturally is Michael Bernier. A couple of years ago, Levin saw Bernier play at a small cafe near his Kingston, New York home and was astonished at Bernier's unconventional method of playing. "I thought he was amazing," recalls Levin. "Not only was he musical — that's the most important thing to me — but he plays with techniques that most stick players don't know. He was doing things that no one else was doing. We both agreed that we should trade ideas and give each other mutual lessons."
They quickly became friends and then bandmates, forming a group called the Stick Men with King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto. "I didn't want to just have drums backing us up," says Levin. "Pat is the perfect choice, not only because he has the same progressive-rock sensibility that I do, but also because he has loops and samples. You never know what sound you're going to get from him. He might surprise you by playing a vocal from another track on the album or you might hear piano or vibe. You might even hear [Crimson singer-guitarist] Robert Fripp reciting poetry. We need that wild card, more sonic surprises."
The Stick Men just released their trippy debut, Soup, and are touring in support of the album. Levin says the songs evolve so much on the road, he doesn't know what to expect from show to show. "What really defines us is that we have solidified what we do with the music," he says. "I want the band to be that way. We're distinctively ourselves. It's taken us a long time to finish the CD. I'm glad we delayed it, because the music kept changing and developing on the road."
The album opens with the title track, a King Crimson-like number about supercolliders. "What makes people want to write another love song?" asks Levin. "I am passionate about supercolliders. I'm a fan of science, and many of my previous songs are about science or the collision between science and religion."
Another album standout, "Relentless," shows off the band's prodigious chops. "It was easy to title that one," says Levin. "We were playing it live for a long time in an almost jam way. It has relentless energy, but it doesn't sound like a heavy rock band. It sounds like a different kind of rock band. And when Michael takes out the bow — and by the way, no one ever thought about playing the stick with a bow — it sounds like an amazing cello and produces a sound you can't get with a guitar."
And don't worry if some of the Stick Men's music recalls some of Levin's past work; he's OK with the comparisons. "It won't surprise me if people think it sounds like Crimson," he says. "I like to be unique, but I'm not that talented. Like anyone else, I fall back on the idioms I'm most comfortable with."
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