This interview was from the April 98 issue of Bassist magazine – I was already a big Crimson fan, but hadn’t – crucially – been involved in much free improv (well, I had, in a ‘band’ I was in at school called Pigfarm, but I didn’t realise it was a free improv band until much later…!) – as a result, reading this interview back, my questions are pretty rudimentary. I’d love to sit down and talk improv with Tony and Trey again now, in less bass-mag-ish terms. But here it is. Incidentally, the version in the mag was butchered from this – for some reason they were doing a ‘Minder special’ (you guess is as good as mine) so rewrote all of my bits as though I was Arthur Daily having a go at Trey every time he spoke!! It was the weirdest most inappropriate bit of magazine editing I’ve ever witnessed, and I think I emailed Trey and Tony to apologise afterwards…
Tony Levin and Trey Gunn Interview
(Reproduced from the April 1998 issue of Bassist Magazine)
When a group known for pushing back the boundaries of modern music announces a series of concerts consisting solely of freely improvised music, one wonders what on earth the end product will sound like. But this is exactly what ProjeKCt 1 – 4/6ths of King Crimson – did at the Jazz Cafe for four nights last December. The concert were of particular interest to low-enders due to the presence of both Tony Levin and Trey Gunn, so after many e-mails and a couple of phone calls, Bassist managed to collar them both one afternoon part way through the series of shows, to get the low down on ProjeKCt 1:
Tony Levin: “First of all there are only 4 of the 6 Crimson guys here, Trey and I, along with Robert Fripp (Guitar) and Bill Bruford (Drums). ProjeKCt 1 is one of the many planned variations on the King Crimson theme and this one will play totally improvised – by which I mean we don’t have any plan for the music each night.”
Bassist: So, no Crimson material at all?
Trey Gunn: “It doesn’t even sound like Crimson.”
TL: “The day before the first gig we had a rehearsal day, just to check that all the gear was working. No two of us played at the same time, to avoid falling into any groove that we might later repeat. We’re trying to keep it totally fresh, and we’re pretty much doing that.”
Bassist: Is there an ulterior motive for tonight? I read somewhere that Robert referred to it as a ‘research and development’ ProjeKCt?
TG: “Well, we’re taping all the shows, but then we always do.”
TL: “Robert finally discovered that some great stuff happens but the only record of it is bootlegs, so for years we’ve been taping every concert, just in case it’s great. If something sparks, and has a good writing impetus for KC then we’ll use it, but that’s not really a plan.”
Bassist: What instruments are you using for these concerts?
TG: “I have an 8-string mono Warr Guitar, and a couple of rack effects and pedals.”
Bassist: No 12-string?
TG: “No, I haven’t played the 12-string in about two years. I really liked the 12 but it’s a stereo instrument, allowing you to have two different sounds from the two sets of strings, which seems a bit ludicrous in a six piece band like Crimson! I’ve stuck with the 8-string for a while, although I think I might go back to a stereo 10-string, as there are some cool things you can do with the interlocking strings that you can’t with the mono’but I like having less options right now.
Bassist: That’s the first time I’ve heard using an 8-stringed instrument referred to as going for ‘less options’!!
TG: “I also have a MIDI pick-up fitted. I resisted it for ten years, but I finally gave in.”
TL: “I don’t really go for MIDI stuff. I’m the opposite of Trey; I have a whole bunch of instruments on stage and a pile of little old guitar effects pedals. Though sadly I couldn’t get the Box Bass on the plane. It’s pretty un-portable!”
“I have the Musicman 5-string, the Chapman Stick and the NS electric upright that I’ve been using a lot with King Crimson, which gives me the option of playing with a bow. And I brought along a Nordlead synth, just for the heck of it – because it would fit in the case. I programmed about 30 bass sounds into the synth before we came.”
Bassist: When you get on stage, how does it start? Or is that a stupid question?
TL: “It’s not stupid at all. Sometimes it doesn’t start to begin with – the audience assumes it’ll happen and we assume it’ll happen, and nothing happens! Sometimes we all get on stage and nobody wants to start. In which case Bill starts!”
Bassist: And is any pattern or formula emerging?
TL: “I’m not an expert at this kind of thing, any more than anyone else is, but my feeling is that we’re pretty good because we do it a lot. We’ve been doing it with one song a night – ‘Thrak’ – for years. And more importantly, we all listen to the other guys, so no-one’s up there playing licks or riffs. Everybody is reacting to what’s happening, so if one guy does get onto something interesting, the others will generally lay back and leave room – generally, not always. That’s why I feel it’s successful.”
Bassist: With both of you having the capacity to play bass parts, have you had any difficulties working out who’s going to take the bass role at any one time?
TG: “I think we’re doing pretty well regarding low end. I’ve been playing a lot more low end than I thought I would – and we’re still talking, which means we must be doing something right!”
TL: “Firstly, if I hear Trey at all, it’s because Bill isn’t playing too loud! If I hear Trey playing a bass part, I’ll do something else. I might go up high on the Stick or the upright. Or I can stop, or do some sound on the synth that’s neither high or low, it’s just noise. Or I can put the funk fingers on and play percussion. I can do a lot of things. Or I can play bass as well! In fact, what has occurred, maybe too many times in this series of gigs (and you Bassist people will be overjoyed to hear this) is the sound of three fretless bass players soloing incessantly, as both Trey and Robert can get a fretless bass sound from their rig. And we’ve gone long stretches where it’s just basses galore. But my sense, if I hear Trey laying down a bass line, is to stay away. Other times, I’ll go half an hour just playing ‘bass’ bass. Trey has a way of going in and out of the bass register.”
TG – “all I do is switch string!”
Bassist – Tony do you switch instrument mid song?
TL – “This is improvised – there is no ‘song’, but yeah, I switch instruments a lot. I spend a lot of time just listening with my hand on the neck of an instrument and then pick it up and put it down before I’ve played it – people in the audience may be a little puzzled why I don’t know what I’m doing!”
TG – “when Tony’s fiddling, I go to the bass register!”
TL – “the irony is that Robert, who doesn’t need to be in the bass end, is playing quite a bit of bass!! And that’s the cool thing about this, we don’t have any rules. I think if someone were playing really badly, and taking over, then Robert would probably talk to that person.”
Bassist – Has there been any conflict?
TG – “We’re all right on the end of that thing that’s unfolding so there’s no right or wrong.”
TL – “I would say that King Crimson always has an element of what I would call tension rather than conflict. There’s a tension level in the band – not this week but generally in the band – an inner tension and friction, there’s plenty of that in KC, but less of it this week.”
TG – “As there are only 4 of us this week it OK. If there were six of us and we were doing this, that would get hard.”
Bassist – So where does the material evolve from? Do you sense a chord progression developing, or just a general feeling or what?
TL – “There are no chord progressions – that’s one problem we don’t have! No, actually last night I played some but nobody knew them.”
TG – “the ones I couldn’t find I didn’t play on!!”
TL -” there’s not much point in chord progressions as, being King Crimson, we don’t generally play like, E7 anyway, in any of our stuff, so if I laid a progression of bass notes, it wouldn’t lead to the normal chords – it’s a little further out than the jam that would result from laying down chord progressions – not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Bassist – Do you think you’ve gone beyond chords and theory to pure feeling..
TL – “I’m not beyond that, I just don’t enter it. I think you’d get four different answers to that. Bill has xylophones so he can play notes as well. Of course if he plays notes, life gets easy as they are very easy to recognise. In my opinion Trey and Robert play a harmonic style that is really nothing to do with the chords that the rest of us imply. If I’m hinting at chords they are more accessible more normal chords, but this week I’m not hinting at them very much. So what we have is kind of cross harmonic stuff all the time. I don’t know what the other guys are doing, so what I have to do is pick the notes that either blend with that or don’t and ideally I’m trying one or the other, sometimes I’m trying to make it sound nice and it sounds like The three of us – Trey Robert and I – are blending into a moving contrapuntal thing that’s not tense. Other times, in fact most of the time, I’ll sense a hovering around one key base, and I’ll go to a different one, or sometimes two, as I can play around say G on the synth bass, then reach over to the upright bass and play in F# simultaneously.”
Bassist – What has the audience reaction been like to ProjeKCt 1?
TL – “I didn’t expect the audience to be able to stand it for 2 hours and if they hadn’t done I wouldn’t blame them, but it’s been really good.”
TG – “I was not much of an early Crimson fan, but I guess that there are some people for whom this is a real treat. I think the band used to do this kind of stuff – a lot of improvising’ and a bit more jazz stuff. Actually that’s why I enjoy what we do, because we’re not jazz players, and what we play isn’t jazz,”
TL – “I get scared that the subject is even coming up! We’re not jazz but I don’t know what would define us as jazz – maybe if we had a sax player!! You got the wrong guy for a talk on jazz!!”by