Level 42 bassist Mark King has a new supergroup with a difference - and we couldn’t wait to hear all about it. We get the inside info from the man himself...
“I had a text from Stewart Copeland at the end of June 2016, asking if I’d like to join a band in Italy,” says Mark King, relaxing in a comfortable sofa on a sunny summer day. “I just said ‘Yeah’ very flippantly - simple as that! I had the following two weeks off anyway, so seven days later I flew out to Milan and we started putting down ideas...”
And that, readers, is how the formation of this year’s most exciting project, Gizmodrome, came to pass. If only life was always this easy, right? When word came through that King was involved in the new group, we were as eager as you to hear all about it.
As it turns out, the project has been in the pipeline for just over a year, the fruits of which are about to be unleashed. With musical illuminati such as drummer Copeland, ex-King Crimson guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew and renowned keyboard player Vittorio Cosma also involved, it’s no wonder the musical world is itching to hear about Gizmodrome, whose self-titled album is due for release in mid-September.
“Stewart is so creative, and had some good solid stuff,” remarks King. “We worked together on a BBC show back in the mid-80s, although our first encounter goes back to 1981 when Level 42 supported the Police in Europe. I’ve always liked his playing. He’s completely my sort of drummer, because he’s so identifiably ‘him’: no-one else really sounds like him. Adrian is incredibly inventive too - and it’s impossible not to spark off people like that.”
He continues: “My initial feelings were that this could be really great, just by virtue of the people involved. The whole process started on 7 July 2016 and after 10 days, I thought we’d made a great start, but I felt that we needed to go the extra mile and look for some extra material. We reconvened in early February and again in March, and laid down another five songs - and suddenly we knew where we were going with this.”
Has King contributed to the songwriting, we ask? Yes indeed, it turns out.
“It started off being Adrian’s band,” he explains. “He asked if I had any ideas, and I said ‘I can certainly dig some out’, which I did, and Vittorio has done exactly the same. The finished product doesn’t sound like any of the ideas I took out, apart from the basic riffs, but it started to follow its own lead which is what makes it so exciting. You just need to remember to not be precious and to go with it.”
At the still-to-be-announced live shows, the drumming community will be well catered for, King tells us.
“We’ll be using [Level 42’s regular drummer] Pete Ray Biggin for the live stuff, as Stewart is vocalising a lot of the tracks and wants to get up and do all of that. In fact, we’re going to have three kits on stage - I’m going to have a go, and Adrian is a mean drummer as well. There’s too much fun to be had here not to do this...
“At the moment, I don’t know what form or shape a tour would take. I wanted to make a great album first, and if people like it and want to go and see it live, then we can start booking the shows. I don’t want to get up with Gizmodrome and have to play three or four Level 42 numbers, because that’s not the point of the band. Similarly, I don’t want to be singing Roxanne either!”
Let’s chat about bass gear. The eagle-eyed among you may well have spotted King playing a Fender Jazz at a recent festival in Slovenia, alongside various selfies taken with the splendid Stu Hamm. It was evidently a meeting of bass legends, although not in the most stress-free of circumstances. What happened there?
“We were booked to play at a beautiful festival in Lasko, Slovenia, and we had a connecting flight in order to get there,” he says.
“I had a feeling when we changed planes that the gear might not make it! As I watched the baggage ramp, I didn’t see any of our stuff going onto the second plane, so I asked the baggage handler to hang on and wait for the gear, but he wouldn’t. Basically we were told to get on the plane or it would take off without us.”
King continues: “When we have backline and gear supplied by the promoter, we stick a Fender Jazz bass on the gear list as well, just in case, and a Mark Of The Unicorn [MOTU; backing tracks software] interface. I had my MacBook, which is like my office, in my suitcase, and I’ve always got a USB stick with a backup of the set on it. Be warned, children at home - always carry a USB stick with any information you need in your pocket!
“I knew that if it came to the worst, we could run some of the bass sequences and stuff. I spent the afternoon loading up Logic into my laptop and seeing if it would all work, and then downloading drivers. Such are the times we live in: sitting up a mountain in Slovenia, you can download a MOTU driver and away you go.”
Only strings remained an issue - which is where Mr Hamm enters the picture.
“The strings on the bass were awful, which was a big deal for me,” explains King. “When we got to the hotel, Stu Hamm and his band were rehearsing in the back. We went and said hello, and Stu and the band were very sweet trying to help us out. They weren’t playing until the next day, and offered us all their equipment, but what I really needed were some strings. Bless Stu, he gave me a couple of sets, which were great but they were still big compared to what I normally use.
“When we got to the second song, To Be With You Again, my forearm was starting to have a go at me for being a big jessie, because that’s a tricky bassline with lots going on. I was thinking ‘Be calm Mark, be calm - these are man’s strings you’re using!’ And the gig was brilliant - it was the first time we’d lost our gear in 37 years, yet it was one of the best gigs we’ve done.”
Talking of bass gear, your eyes aren’t deceiving you if you think Mr King’s weapon of choice looks a little larger than normal. That’s right, he’s entered the realm of extended-range basses, but don’t expect an album of jazz odysseys just yet.
“I saw Thundercat on TV and thought I’d love a six-string bass to noodle about on,” he tells us.
“Status happily obliged with a six-string Paramatrix model, and I have such a lot of fun with it that I tend to take it around with me. It’s really another instrument in itself. I’ve only used it in the studio at home, but it’s an amazing bit of kit: so well-balanced, and the profile on the neck is really something else.
“The green LEDs are great too. In fact, after one of the Ronnie Scott’s shows back in 2012, I received a letter from a chap who said he’d had to leave the show because they were too piercing and that maybe I should consider turning them off once in a while. Cheeky!”
It’s been a busy year for Level 42, with various festival dates through the summer fitting around a recent run of shows as special guests of UB40. As two staple touring bands of the 80s with sizeable fan followings, the bill seems like an obvious fit. King explains:
“As Level 42, we go out and do our tours and it’s lovely - our fans have been so great, they come out and see us every two years en masse which is absolutely brilliant. But I want to get more people to come and see the gig, so we need to try and reach new people. If we’re not troubling the charts anymore, and there’s not a wealth of new material, then how are we going to make new audiences?
“The best way to do it is by playing festivals and being the special guests on something like a UB40 tour, because then you’re playing to 8,000 to 10,000 people a night who are the perfect demographic for us. If your band is at the top of its game, which we are, then you’re potentially going to win over a lot of new fans.”
Talking of the '80s, King is equally amused and proud that Level 42’s set at Glastonbury 1986, performed alongside co-headliners the Cure and the Psychedelic Furs, was recently voted in the popular press as the best festival in Glastonbury’s history. With a twinkle in his eye, he claims that he knew this all along.
“Well, I told them that at the time!” he chuckles. “Who decides these things? I can’t dispute that it was a great gig, and also great for us as a band. Everything was seriously taking off for us at that point. That show really ignited my love affair with playing festivals. If I’m not working, I go to Glastonbury as a punter because I just love the event. The last one I saw was Dolly Parton’s year - there were 200,000 people there on a Sunday afternoon, which is pretty amazing.”
He reminisces: “When we played there, we played Kansas City Milkman and I got Paul Crockford, our manager at the time, to sing the ska lick part in the song. He was a secret mod, so he loved the whole ska thing. I always said I’d get him up on stage - and the one gig I got him onstage was Glastonbury! I remember I announced to the audience we had a special guest coming up, and all 86,000 people looked really excited. On comes the manager, and there were blank expressions all round.”
Does he look back fondly on those far-off days?
“At that time, it was a rollercoaster: we were working towards all of the things that were coming our way at that point. In hindsight, we should have supported each other more within the band. No-one tells you these things or prepares you for success. There were four of us in the band, but we were four individuals and we weren’t really communicating on any kind of level. Nowadays, we would’ve said ‘Hey, isn’t this amazing, guys? Isn’t this incredible?’”
King’s excitement and enthusiasm for the new Gizmodrome project is tangible - and like a kid at Christmas, he leaves us for an afternoon of press with his new Gizmodrome bandmates. They haven’t seen each other for the best part of six weeks, and their closeness is obvious.
“I just bumped into Stewart coming into the hotel,” he says, “and to walk up to each other, shake hands and say ‘We’ve got an amazing record on our hands’ with beaming grins on our faces, is an amazing feeling.”