Bassist Tony Levin Explains Why It's Important for King Crimson to Continue to 'Push Forward'

click to enlarge Bassist Tony Levin Explains Why It's Important for King Crimson to Continue to 'Push Forward'
Spike Mafford
Since forming in London in 1968, the prog rock act King Crimson has gone through numerous mutations over the years. And yet, the latest incarnation of the band might be its most adventurous yet.

The group performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 24, at Hard Rock Live.

The current lineup features three drummers (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey) and marks the return of multi-instrumentalist Bill Reiflin on keyboards and guitars.

Original founding member Robert Fripp has said that King Crimson’s “double quartet formation” is likely to "make more noise" than ever before. Singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, long-time bassist Tony Levin and saxophonist Mel Collins, who was a mainstay in the band from 1970 to 1972, round out the lineup.

Levin hasn't played with the band from the beginning, but he joined in 1981 after Fripp asked him to hang out for an afternoon. Only later did Levin realize he was auditioning to play in the group.

“I had a wonderful afternoon that day with Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp and Bill Buford,” says Levin via phone from his upstate New York home. “At the time, we weren’t going to call it King Crimson. We were going to call it Discipline. We played some together, and I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know any of Crimson’s music, so when they started playing ‘Red’ and ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic Part 2,’ I didn’t know the songs and had to learn them. They were impressed with how quickly I learned the songs, and that style was something I was interested in learning, so it was a good fit. The main focus was not in playing the old Crimson but on the new interweaving guitar parts that Adrian and Robert were focused on. The Chapman Stick I played worked perfectly because I could interweave with them.”

Levin says he was struck by the “uniqueness” of the guitarist’s writing and his approach to making music.

“He’s always trying to push forward and not do the style he used to do,” he says. “He’s done some remarkable things throughout the years, abandoning what he used to do and doing it a new way. That’s an inspiration to me as a bass player and a writer. That’s what I try to do, not that I’ll always succeed. That’s the correct way to go about making music. As I look at my playing, I keep trying to surge forward. That’s more gratifying than just doing the same thing for a lot of years.”

Levin says that playing material from the time period before he joined the group has been a challenge.

“Those bass parts are great, and I want to stay true to them,” he says. “Of course, I don’t want to abandon the sound, but I need to put my stamp on it. I’m not really a cover band guy. As I listen to live albums of the early Crimson, I realize those bass players didn’t play the songs the same way each time. I don’t do that at all. If I don’t know the piece well, I try to listen to it and make an effort to not learn the bass parts. I try to get a sense of it and, of course, if there’s an amazing bass line like in ‘Starless and Bible Black,’ I’m going to play that bass line as it is. As we tour, I keep adjusting how I do that. I’ll break free from a part I used to play. A good example is ‘Larks' Tongue in Aspic,’ and I’m still trying to find the ideal bass part for me."

For Discipline, the first album that Levin recorded with the group, the band isolated itself in England to write the tunes and then toured to sharpen the songs.

"It did get tight, so when we went to London, it was like a live show," says Levin. "One thing we surely succeeded in was breaking the mold of what was expected from a King Crimson ensemble. The challenge was to break apart from that with the next records. We had mixed success with that, but I love the fact that we’ve tried to progress."

The last studio album Levin played on was 1995's Thrak. For that album, Fripp assembled what he called a “double trio.” The band went to Argentina to avoid bootleggers and rehearsed the material during a set of shows.

“We went into a residence in Buenos Aires,” says Levin. “And we made [the EP] Vroom to break in the material. We went into Real World Studios in England and spent more time on the intricacies of recording two drummers, so they sounded the best they could and that's when we came up with the Thrak album.”

Levin says the group has no intention of putting out a new studio album but will rather focus on releasing live albums. It just released The Elements Of King Crimson 2017 Tour Box as well as Live in Chicago, a recording of a concert it played over the summer in the Windy City. The album represents just how expansive the band's sound has become. "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part One" features trippy percussion and distorted guitars while "21st Century Shizoid Man," a tune that benefits from a squealing saxophone riff, remains as heavy and menacing as ever. Heavy drums and a thick bass riff kicks off the noodle-y "Neurotica" and the band delves into classical territory with "The Lizard Suite."

Levin likes the current 8-piece lineup and says that if he's not careful he can lose his place during live performances and become transfixed by the three drummers.

“They don’t play in a normal way,” he says of the drummers. “They don’t ever bang out the same parts. They have multiple strategies for how to spread out the drum parts. They’re set up on the front of the stage. We’re in the back, and it’s fascinating to me to watch the drummers. I can get distracted just by watching them. Mel Collins is back. He’s playing saxophone and flute, and that gives it a very different sound than the guitar-oriented sound from the '80s and '90s. That’s interesting, and we have a keyboard player and sometimes one of the drummers plays keyboards, and Robert Fripp plays the Mellotron. In the older material, there are multiple Mellotron parts, and we can do that live if we want to or try other approaches.”

As far as what has kept the band going for close to 40 years, Levin says it’s clearly the band’s unconventional leader.

“It’s Robert Fripp,” says Levin. “It’s his musicality and his unique approach to how to run a band and his inherent sense of what King Crimson is and isn’t. I can’t predict where that will send us musically, but I have a lot of respect for it. It’s fair to say that I’m along for the ride as long as I’m wanted on that ride, and it’s a very challenging and energizing musical situation for me.”

King Crimson, 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $49.50-$87.50,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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