From the archives: Tony Levin interview 2003, Part 1 of 3: on Peter Gabriel

April 29, 2010

After my recent lengthy review on Peter Gabriel’s new release, Scratch My Back, I started feeling a bit nostalgic about the old PG days. The last published piece I wrote about my all-time favorite progressive rock musician came around the time I met the man backstage after a show on the Up tour, in West Palm Beach, Florida. I got his autograph on the then new CD, and that was pretty much it. I kind of felt stupid talking to him for such an impromptu moment as he signed paper plates for these annoying Brazilian chicks and another fanboy who brought practically every PG album for him to sign– even Genesis’ the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I even offered Gabriel my service to hold his cup of tea as he signed the ephemera, but I still could not come up with much anything to say.

As much as I wanted to interview Gabriel for a piece in Goldmine during the release of Up, I was really there to meet Tony Levin face-to-face, as that is who the label offered for an interview, and I was quite cool with that. The opportunity to chat with Gabriel’s longest lasting band member gave me a great opportunity to glean some insight into their long-lasting relationship.

<!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:””; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} p.MsoBodyText, li.MsoBodyText, div.MsoBodyText {margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”; font-style:italic;} a:link, span.MsoHyperlink {color:blue; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed {color:purple; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} –> This interview was conducted via phone on June 6 and 8, 2003, while Peter Gabriel was starting up his second U.S. “Growing Up” tour on the West Coast.  I believe the locations were San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Levin was very gracious about talking with me about his work with Gabriel since 1976, over the phone, during one of the tour stops leading up to the West Palm Beach show, where Levin secured me some nice seats and a backstage visit. He has been one of the nicest rock veterans I ever had the pleasure to interview, and I want to share my never-before published, full Q&A with him (Goldmine published an abridged version for their Prog rock issue from October 17, 2003).

This is Part One in a series of three blog postings that I have decided to break the interview up in, and it focuses on his work with Peter Gabriel in the studio. Part two will be all about playing live on the Up tour and related questions, and part three focuses mostly on his work with King Crimson and other tidbits he shared with me about his photography and acting. So, without further ado…

You’re probably the most consistent Peter Gabriel sideman.  What keeps you coming back to work with him?

Well, first of all, I’ve done lots of different music projects.  I’ve done a lot of touring and a lot of albums, but Peter’s consistently my favorite thing to do, so it’s not a matter of just me coming back.  It’s actually—if I had to choose between Peter and anything else, I would choose Peter’s tours.  The reason of that is a combination of them being really good music and really fun and Peter being a great guy, and so he kind of attracts good people, so it’s nice to be around, even in addition to the music being really great.

What are Gabriel’s recording sessions like?  Did you have to be handy for 10 years straight for Up?

They’re different than anybody else’s, that’s for sure.  First of all, I’m only involved in part of it.  I come in early, when we’re doing what’s called the rhythm tracks, and Peter generally has an idea of the song, maybe not completely worked out, and we spend anywhere from a few weeks to a month doing an album worth of rhythm tracks.  And then it goes through a process that really takes longer and longer each album.  It takes years, and Peter fiddles with it and sometimes brings in other rhythm section elements and then, when the final product comes out, I’m as surprised to hear it as anybody else because it has very little to do with the version I heard in the beginning, and often I’m still on it . . . so it’s an interesting process really that Peter goes through.  More than knowing what he wants at the beginning and going directly there is kind of a process that takes him quite a while, and I’m only involved in the early stage of it.

How do you feel about this, for your creative sake?

I’m fine.  First of all, I’m very used to it.  This started this way in, golly, 1976  (laughs).  I should be used to it by now, and also I do a lot of albums that are done different ways, and what I focus on is bringing what I can musically to the project and really becoming a fan of the music and contributing from the bass-end of things.  I don’t really get so bothered about the process itself and the way it’s going ‘cause that’s not really my domain, unless I’m the producer, which is pretty unusual.

How much direction does Gabriel give you when you play your bass parts?

It varies a lot.  Sometimes he’ll have a bass idea that’s pretty good, and I’ll just do it, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll modify and make more bass-player-like, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll kind of go against, and I’ll try something different and sometimes we’ll compromise.  Sometimes, in the end, we’ll go back to his own idea.  Sometimes he likes what I do completely from the first note and just says, “I love that, keep doing that.” It really varies quite a bit.  I certainly am open to his suggestions because, like many people who are musical and who aren’t bass players, he gets ideas that a bass player wouldn’t normally think of, and I like to use him as an inspiration for coming up with unusual parts.  But I also—for me as a bass player, the part has to have some kind of bass-ness to it.  I don’t know really how to describe that in words, but if it doesn’t really move my body in a certain way, then I’m not as happy with it as I’d like to be, so I keep kind of moving towards the part that just kind of organically works for me.

Is that bass opening for “Don’t Remember” yours?

I think it’s just mine.  It’s a Stick part.  It’s this unusual instrument, the Stick, where I can play bass parts that have bigger jumps than on a normal bass and a little bit of a different timbre– much more attack than a normal bass, so that was a typical stick part of mine.  But other parts. . . “Sledgehammer” was my part, on a fretless bass, but “Don’t Give Up” was a part that really he worked out on a drum machine, but it kind of almost had pitches, so he played me this drum machine part, and I said, “Well, that’s a great bass part.  Let me just put the notes that work to that,” so, really, in a way it was three-quarters his part.

What about the beginning of “No Way Out,” on the new record?

“No Way Out” has three different basses on it.  That’s a good example of why I don’t know what the record’s going to sound like till it’s done. One of them is mine, playing an electric up-right bass, but then two other basses, with different players [Danny Thompson on Double Bass and Gabriel on Arpeggiated Bass] were added later.  I’m the beginning of the three.  I’m not sure which is the guy that comes in first.  I forget.  It’s been so long since I did the track.  But I know I have an issue when we play that live—and I’m about to play that live for the first time tonight—about which of those three parts to pick out to play.

How did you first get into playing the Chapman Stick?  What lead you to it?  When was that?

When I first heard about it, which was about 1975.  I heard there was this instrument you play by hammer technique, and then it’s kind of like a bass but different, and it appealed to me because I like unusual music and unusual instruments, so I got it right away, and I’ve been playing it ever since.

And you didn’t play it at all on the first Peter Gabriel album, right?

I brought it to those sessions.  It was pretty new, and I actually showed it to the producer [Bob Ezrin], and he had me put it away.  He didn’t even want to even hear it.  I do remember that.  But I played it on the tour of that album for one piece called “Moribund the Burgermiester.”  I remember playing it a lot on that tour, and on the second album I was playing it pretty exclusively.

What gave you the idea for the funk fingers?

It’s a long story, but I can tell it quickly.  It started from a piece of Peter Gabriel’s called “Big Time” where on that album, So, I asked Jerry Morrota to play with his drumsticks on the bass while I fingered it, seemed like a good idea.  And then a year later, when I was doing the touring I was trying to play that part with just a drumstick in my hand.  I had to practice it a lot, and, as usual, just like now, I was practicing and Peter Gabriel walked by me and said, “Why don’t you figure out some way to attach two sticks to your fingers,” so that’s what that was.  His idea really, and then we fooled around, my bass tech and I, really for a year with different size sticks and different lengths and things like that till I finally got so I liked it.  Then I called them “funk fingers” just for the fun of it.  It ended up on this tour I was playing them quite a bit.  For most pieces I’m playing the funk fingers.

And what’s the advantage of playing with them?

They’re more percussive.  That simple.  There are a lot of disadvantages.  It’s hard to hit the right string.  I had to practice a lot with them to get used to them, but once I’m used to them it’s very percussive, which for some things it’s really good.  I wouldn’t play them on every piece.

So, I heard Peter’s on to the next album, have you done any work on it?

I’ve heard that too (laughs).  I know nothing about it.  I know we did a lot of tracks for the last album, so there are plenty of spares, but I know nothing about it.  You would think being on the road that we talk about that stuff, but actually we don’t.  I don’t know what’s coming next for him.  I know that he’d like to release another album before another six years go by.

In the press kit it says that it’s supposedly called I/O, and he’s set to release it in a year and a half or something like that.

Oh, really?  Well, there you go, as usual you know more than me.  I’m usually the last to find out about these things, but then sometimes what you hear isn’t going to happen anyways, so…

The interview continues…

Read Part 2 (on touring with Peter Gabriel)

Read Part 3 (on King Crimson and more)

After my recent lengthy review on Peter Gabriel’s new release, Scratch My Back, I started feeling a bit nostalgic about the old PG days. The last published piece I wrote about my all-time favorite progressive rock musician came around the time I met the man backstage after a show on the Up tour, in West Palm Beach, Florida. I got his autograph on the then new CD, and that was pretty much it. I kind of felt stupid talking to him for such an impromptu moment as he signed paper plates for these annoying Brazilian chicks and another fanboy who brought practically every PG album for him to sign– even Genesis’ the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I even offered Gabriel my service to hold his cup of tea as he signed the ephemera, but I still could not come up with much anything to say.

As much as I wanted to interview Gabriel for a piece in Goldmine during the release of Up, I was really there to meet Tony Levin face-to-face, as that is who the label offered for an interview, and I was quite cool with that. The opportunity to chat with Gabriel’s longest lasting band member gave me a great opportunity to glean some insight into their long-lasting relationship.

Levin was very gracious about talking with me about his work with Gabriel since 1976, over the phone, during one of the tour stops leading up to the West Palm Beach show, where Levin secured me some nice seats and a backstage visit. He has been one of the nicest rock veterans I ever had the pleasure to interview, and I want to share my never-before published, full Q&A with him (Goldmine published an abridged version for their Prog rock issue from October 17, 2003).

This is Part One in a series of three blog postings that I have decided to break the interview up in, and it focuses on his work with Peter Gabriel in the studio. Part two will be all about playing live on the Up tour and related questions, and part three focuses mostly on his work with King Crimson and other tidbits he shared with me about his photography and acting. So, without further ado…

You’re probably the most consistent Peter Gabriel sideman.  What keeps you coming back to work with him?

Well, first of all, I’ve done lots of different music projects.  I’ve done a lot of touring and a lot of albums, but Peter’s consistently my favorite thing to do, so it’s not a matter of just me coming back.  It’s actually—if I had to choose between Peter and anything else, I would choose Peter’s tours.  The reason of that is a combination of them being really good music and really fun and Peter being a great guy, and so he kind of attracts good people, so it’s nice to be around, even in addition to the music being really great.

What are Gabriel’s recording sessions like?  Did you have to be handy for 10 years straight for Up?

They’re different than anybody else’s, that’s for sure.  First of all, I’m only involved in part of it.  I come in early, when we’re doing what’s called the rhythm tracks, and Peter generally has an idea of the song, maybe not completely worked out, and we spend anywhere from a few weeks to a month doing an album worth of rhythm tracks.  And then it goes through a process that really takes longer and longer each album.  It takes years, and Peter fiddles with it and sometimes brings in other rhythm section elements and then, when the final product comes out, I’m as surprised to hear it as anybody else because it has very little to do with the version I heard in the beginning, and often I’m still on it . . . so it’s an interesting process really that Peter goes through.  More than knowing what he wants at the beginning and going directly there is kind of a process that takes him quite a while, and I’m only involved in the early stage of it.

How do you feel about this, for your creative sake?

I’m fine.  First of all, I’m very used to it.  This started this way in, golly, 1976.  (snicker).  I should be used to it by now, and also I do a lot of albums that are done different ways, and what I focus on is bringing what I can musically to the project and really becoming a fan of the music and contributing from the bass-end of things.  I don’t really get so bothered about the process itself and the way it’s going ‘cause that’s not really my domain, unless I’m the producer, which is pretty unusual.

How much direction does Gabriel give you when you play your bass parts?

It varies a lot.  Sometimes he’ll have a bass idea that’s pretty good, and I’ll just do it, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll modify and make more bass-player-like, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll kind of go against, and I’ll try something different and sometimes we’ll compromise.  Sometimes, in the end, we’ll go back to his own idea.  Sometimes he likes what I do completely from the first note and just says, “I love that, keep doing that.” It really varies quite a bit.  I certainly am open to his suggestions because, like many people who are musical and who aren’t bass players, he gets ideas that a bass player wouldn’t normally think of, and I like to use him as an inspiration for coming up with unusual parts.  But I also—for me as a bass player, the part has to have some kind of bass-ness to it.  I don’t know really how to describe that in words, but if it doesn’t really move my body in a certain way, then I’m not as happy with it as I’d like to be, so I keep kind of moving towards the part that just kind of organically works for me.

Is that bass opening for “Don’t Remember” yours?

I think it’s just mine.  It’s a Stick part.  It’s this unusual instrument, the Stick, where I can play bass parts that have bigger jumps than on a normal bass and a little bit of a different timbre– much more attack than a normal bass, so that was a typical stick part of mine.  But other parts. . . “Sledgehammer” was my part, on a fretless bass, but “Don’t Give Up” was a part that really he worked out on a drum machine, but it kind of almost had pitches, so he played me this drum machine part, and I said, “Well, that’s a great bass part.  Let me just put the notes that work to that,” so, really, in a way it was three-quarters his part.

What about the beginning of “No Way Out,” on the new record?

“No Way Out” has three different basses on it.  That’s a good example of why I don’t know what the record’s going to sound like till it’s done. One of them is mine, playing an electric up-right bass, but then two other basses, with different players [Danny Thompson on Double Bass and Gabriel on Arpeggiated Bass] were added later.  I’m the beginning of the three.  I’m not sure which is the guy that comes in first.  I forget.  It’s been so long since I did the track.  But I know I have an issue when we play that live—and I’m about to play that live for the first time tonight—about which of those three parts to pick out to play.

How did you first get into playing the Chapman Stick?  What lead you to it?  When was that?

When I first heard about it, which was about 1975.  I heard there was this instrument you play by hammer technique, and then it’s kind of like a bass but different, and it appealed to me because I like unusual music and unusual instruments, so I got it right away, and I’ve been playing it ever since.

And you didn’t play it at all on the first Peter Gabriel album, right?

I brought it to those sessions.  It was pretty new, and I actually showed it to the producer [Bob Ezrin], and he had me put it away.  He didn’t even want to even hear it.  I do remember that.  But I played it on the tour of that album for one piece called “Moribund the Burgermiester.”  I remember playing it a lot on that tour, and on the second album I was playing it pretty exclusively.

What gave you the idea for the funk fingers?

It’s a long story, but I can tell it quickly.  It started from a piece of Peter Gabriel’s called “Big Time” where on that album, So, I asked Jerry Morrota to play with his drumsticks on the bass while I fingered it, seemed like a good idea.  And then a year later, when I was doing the touring I was trying to play that part with just a drumstick in my hand.  I had to practice it a lot, and, as usual, just like now, I was practicing and Peter Gabriel walked by me and said, “Why don’t you figure out some way to attach two sticks to your fingers,” so that’s what that was.  His idea really, and then we fooled around, my bass tech and I, really for a year with different size sticks and different lengths and things like that till I finally got so I liked it.  Then I called them “funk fingers” just for the fun of it.  It ended up on this tour I was playing them quite a bit.  For most pieces I’m playing the funk fingers.

And what’s the advantage of playing with them?

They’re more percussive.  That simple.  There are a lot of disadvantages.  It’s hard to hit the right string.  I had to practice a lot with them to get used to them, but once I’m used to them it’s very percussive, which for some things it’s really good.  I wouldn’t play them on every piece.

So, I heard Peter’s on to the next album, have you done any work on it?

I’ve heard that too (laughs).  I know nothing about it.  I know we did a lot of tracks for the last album, so there are plenty of spares, but I know nothing about it.  You would think being on the road that we talk about that stuff, but actually we don’t.  I don’t know what’s coming next for him.  I know that he’d like to release another album before another six years go by.

Iin the press kit it says that it’s supposedly called I/O, and he’s set to release it in a year and a half or something like that.

Oh, really?  Well, there you go, as usual you know more than me.  I’m usually the last to find out about these things, but then sometimes what you hear isn’t going to happen anyways, so. . .

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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2 Responses to “From the archives: Tony Levin interview 2003, Part 1 of 3: on Peter Gabriel”

  1. Anna Says:

    Cool. Thanks for illustrating what funk fingers looks like :D


  2. […] From the archives: Tony Levin interview 2003, Part 1 of 3: on Peter Gabriel « Independent Etho… […]


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