Even as a rejuvenated King Crimson hits the road again (the prog rock band comes to Cleveland on Nov. 24), Crimson bassist, Tony Levin, has continued to find the time to devote to Stick Men, a side project that includes Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto and guitarist Markus Reuter.
“It’s not difficult,” he says via phone when asked about juggling time between the Stick Men and Crimson. The Stick Men perform on Wednesday, Aug. 30, at the Beachland Ballroom. “I’m very lucky at this stage of my career to be as busy as I am. I’m busier than I’ve ever been. Crimson is reenergized and Peter Gabriel still tours. Stickmen is my first priority. When Crimson isn’t touring, we look at that part of the calendar to see what we can do with Stickmen. After a few years, it occurred to us that a month at home might be nice, so we added in a few weeks where we don’t tour.”
Levin originally studied classical music. After high school, he attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and played in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. After moving to New York in 1970, he began working as a session musician and played with the likes of Buddy Rich and Paul Simon.
He joined Peter Gabriel's band more than 30 years ago, just as the onetime Genesis frontman was working on his self-titled debut album. At the time, 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.
“I took it to the session, and the producer told me, ‘Put that thing away. I don’t want to see it. It looks so weird,’” Levin recalls. “I didn’t know how to play it then. It’s not difficult to play, but it’s a touch style instrument.”
While Levin learned to play the Stick (and would play it on Gabriel's albums and with Crimson), the Stick Men first came together about 10 years ago. Levin had just released Stick Man
, an album featuring the Chapman Stick.
“Usually, I just played the bass side of things,” says Levin. “I had never done an album where I did multiple sticks. That was Stick Man
. I liked the album so much, I thought it would be nice to tour and the drummer on it was my bandmate from Crimson. I thought that with another stick player, we could have only three guys and make a lot of noise and play the songs on the album and maybe tackle some King Crimson material. That would be a challenge for the players and hopefully a worthwhile and unique show for the audience.”
The Stick Men have been going strong ever since. Last year, the group issued Prog Noir
, an album that shows off the band’s songwriting as much as it shows off the group’s chops. The eerie title track features Bowie-like vocals and distorted vocals.
“Stick Men tours a lot, and we play a lot of different territories,” says Levin. “The downside of it is that it doesn’t give you a lot of time to write new material. A proper album takes months of devoted time. We had done our last major album a few years before that and I was missing the commitment of making a major album so I asked the guys if they would indulge me and spend a few years working on new material. I wanted the lyrics to be something I would feel good about it instead of just something that rhymes. I wanted to go beyond that. All the lyrics are meaningful, and there’s a good balance between my writing and Markus Reuter’s writing. A great composer, he writes in a different style. We like to represent both of us.”
In the wake of the release of Prog Noir
, the Stick Men have also released the digital only live album, Roppongi - Live in Tokyo 2017
, which also features Crimson saxophonist and flutist Mel Collins. The Stick Men have also released a free digital download companion album to the limited edition promotional Kollekted
, a free download. That’s a lot of product for one band.
“To be a proper band, I like the band to have its own sound and music, whether it’s a big following or small following,” says Levin. “You want to keep putting out material even if you’re busy. You have to have some product out there, so people don’t just hear the same old music. We do our best to have a flow of new material, whether it’s a live thing or collaborations with other people.”
Levin says it’s simply a coincidence that Crimson is hitting some of the same markets at the Stick Men.
“We’re on a five-week tour, and then we head to Austin with Crimson to rehearse for a week,” he says. We always do that before starting the second leg of a tour because we add in new material. Even people who saw the last leg will hear some new stuff. After a few years of doing this, we have a huge catalog and after a few shows, we’ll solidify some new things.”
With Crimson’s eccentric band leader Robert Fripp manning the ship, Levin says he must prepare for just about anything.
“Just today, I received a short list of [Crimson] pieces to rehearse,” he says. “[Fripp] is always surprising us in the band. I have no idea what we’ll tackle. I like that situation. It’s always challenging. It’s a challenge for me because the bass parts from back when before I was in the band are very special. I want to keep what’s special about them and not be a cover band.”
Given the recent induction of Yes into the Rock Hall, does Levin think prog rock might be getting its due?
“I’m not the guy to know,” he says. I don’t read a lot about what’s going on in music. I have my head down and I’m busy playing. With Stick Men, we play small clubs, at least in the U.S. and with Crimson we played theatres. With Stick Men, when we play Argentina, we play big theaters. That doesn’t really enable me to make a good judgment of progressive music. That’s up to you guys, the journalists, to make the analysis. I’ll just keep my hands on the bass and my head down.”
Stick Men, CuDa KrishNa CuDa, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $22 ADV, $25 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.