Bass legend Tony Levin talks fan-funded music, gear and the Stick Men
You don't have to dig to deep to see that the progressive-rock trio Stick Men is different from most bands. The most obvious is their instrumentation: As he has done with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, among others, Tony Levin plays the 12-string Chapman Stick; and guitarist Markus Reuter is equally iconoclastic, performing complex riffs and adventurous passages on his own eight-string invention, the Touch Guitar. Two men, 20 strings – what other band has that? Answer: none.
When it came time to produce their new album, Deep, Stick Men (which also includes drummer Pat Mastelotto), marched to their own beat, as well, utilizing the fan-funded service PledgeMusic and promising deluxe and, in some cases, personalized CD-and-DVD packages to patrons who coughed up as much as $200 each.
Deep is an exhilarating, involving listen, full of intricate, propulsive playing and transporting, enchanting songcraft. Levin sat down with MusicRadar to talk about why Stick Men went the PledgeMusic route, how the new music took shape and what new gear he's using.
How did you arrive at the idea to raise funds for the new album on PledgeMusic?
"Like a lot of bands, we'd heard about this method of helping to finance an album, and it was also recommended as a good way to give the fans a chance to get a bit closer to the band and to the project. It was Markus who recommended that we use PledgeMusic, and we're very happy with the way it came out."
I notice that you stopped the pledge amounts at $200, with anybody who donated that amount receiving a whole trainload of goodies. What if somebody pledged $500 or $1,000? Would they win a date with you?
"Frankly, I didn't notice where the pledge amounts ended or even what they entailed. We had so many 'band meetings' with the three of us in a hotel room, me taking notes – which I would then lose – and everybody having different ideas each time. There must have been a hundred pledge awards floated at one time, including things like riding between East Europ gigs with us in the van. We should pay them for that something like that!
"The last meetings, as we were getting closer to starting the drive, were in Russia hotels, adding to the oddness of it, and we were simultaneously making videos of ourselves – partly to update the pledge drive and partly for footage for the 'band on the road' video that's part of the DVD/CD package.
"Anyway, please don't test me on what the packages offered – I know that since coming home from the road, I, and the other guys, have been starting to package and send out the stuff. The CDs were easiest, once the early pre-release run came in – but getting the right ones signed, some personalized, some to wait for the pledgers' T-shirts, some to wait for the deluxe edition with DVD… We've sent out what we could in December and are awaiting the manufacture of other parts to send them out.
"All in all, it's much more fun than a plain old CD release that gets sent to stores or a website fulfillment place – this is right to the people who care enough about the music to support it directly, and they're all over the world."
Stick Men are (left to right): Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Markus Reuter. © White Crow Pictures
It's an interesting concept, actually. One day, we could see Adele doing something like this – on a slightly bigger level, of course.
"I know better than to try to predict the future of the music business!"
You've done several albums now with Markus, but what happened with Michael Bernier, your previous guitarist?
"Two years ago, we made the change in the band – it was because Michael wasn't comfortable going out on the road as much as we had been, having family issues to attend to at home. We couldn't think of a way to work that out because Stick Men really need to bring our music to the audience – we're not well known enough to just put CDs out and have them become widely known. Also, Pat and I love to tour and, in fact, wanted to tour morethan we had been.
"So we made the change – choosing Markus because of his musical talents and the fact that he was already in a duo band with Pat and has similar musical instincts. We started writing and recording as soon as we hooked up, and some of that material was used on Absalom, the CD we released in Spring 2011.
"We toured a lot with that music and began writing the music that was to become the Deep CD. But we wanted to take the time with this one to have some choices of material, to get the engineers who seemed right for it… lots of things that you sometimes toss to the side when you're in a rush to make a release before a tour.
"Still wanting to have new material to tour with in the meantime, we decided to do an improv album – based on themes prepared ahead by Markus and Pat. So that became the Open CD, released in May 2012. It was an interim album in a way, but pretty significant to us, because improvising is something we do in the live show, but it rarely gets featured on the recordings. And with the theme ideas, we can do at least one of the pieces live, and we've found it's quite popular in the shows."
How does Markus' playing differ from Michael's?
"I don't really think in terms of comparing players to each other. I'll describe Michael's playing, or at least some aspects of it: he's amazingly talented, has a great ear, is a wild and exciting soloist, likes fusion musical aspects and brings them into the rock context when he can.
"And Markus is a wonderful composer in many forms aside from just what our trio does. He's highly trained in all aspects of music, he's an excellent teacher, and his command of his instrument issuperb. He's great at soloing – thank goodness, since that's not my specialty – and he can cover whatever complex parts are needed to make our music come to life in the live show."
The song Concussion is aptly named – lots of kickass force. The riffs at the top and bottom are like heavy metal. Who's the big headbanger in the band?
"I think we all have some interest in it, and as said before, we try to keep the sound of our band hard edged. That writing is by Markus."
Crack In The Sky is very pretty and certainly ethereal. How did that song come about?
"Classic group writing. Back when we first got together, I brought in some ideas of a simple harmonic structure. The guys made it pretty magical right away. Then, quite a bit later, listening to the great melodic stuff Markus had done in the B sections, I thought it'd be effective to have that grow out of a vocal section, so I put on some lyric ideas I'd had floating around in my head – very much spoken, not sung – and let the B section melody be the main focus of the piece."
To my ears, there's a little bit of King Crimson in Hide The Trees. The riff is very circular and hypnotic – it starts to feel as if there's no end.
"We can't deny the Crimson influence, not just because Pat and I play in the band, but Markus was also influenced a lot in his studies with Robert Fripp."
"When we started the band was to stay with the tapped instruments, mainly so we could develop our sound and style," says Levin (right), with Reuter and Mastelotto. © White Crow Pictures
Nude Ascending Staircase feels like Primus – the bubbly, funky bass and the serpentine guitar lines. But then I remembered that Les Claypool has called Primus a "blatant King Crimson rip-off."
"I suppose there is all kinds of mutual influence among bands. Really, though, it's not something we think about when writing. You just compose your music and leave it for others to point out if it's similar to something else In the case of Nude, I just liked the fast bass line, and I started from there."
Any new pieces of gear you've been using in the last year or so that you're particularly excited about?
"I'm always fiddling with new gear, both on the floor and in the box. Nothing comes to mind that I need to point out over the rest – I generally try to keep the bass side of the Stick, like my bass sound, pretty analog, so I use gear that's in that direction. For the top of the Stick, especially on tour, it's not practical to take along the big amps that I prefer, so there's some multi-effect gear being used, just to save weight on those flights."
Just curious – what would you guys sound like if you played "traditional" instruments? You on a four-string bass, Markus on a six-string guitar – a Silvertone, perhaps – and Pat behind a four-piece drum kit. Have you ever tried it?
"Good thought. But my idea from when we started the band was to stay with the tapped instruments, mainly so we could develop our sound and style, and then hopefully grow musically but while keeping our distinctive sound. Yes, we could play all kind of other instruments, and I won't guarantee that we never will, but I don't think we'd then sound like Stick Men."
OK, bonus question: I love your blog, especially where you list and discuss your current reading selections. I looked and looked, however, and I couldn't find Fifty Shades Of Grey…
"I downloaded the free sample, as I often do with books, and I didn't feel it was for me. I'll re-visit it. That reminds me, I've fallen way behind on that section – maybe 10 books over the last tour that didn't make it up there. More work to do!"