Tony Levin doesn’t like to feel as though he’s speaking on behalf of Robert Fripp, the driving force behind King Crimson.
Asked if something in particular inspired them to focus more on playing live since Fripp rolled out another incarnation of King Crimson in 2014, two years after saying he’d retired, the bassist replies, “Good question. I don’t think I know the answer.”
This is true, he says, of many questions one might care to ask about King Crimson.
“I’m the bass player,” he says. “I go along. We’re gonna tour?! Fantastic! We’re not gonna tour? OK. I’ll find other things to do.”
King Crimson’s current tour comes to town at 6 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 7, at Talking Stick Resort.
Who’s playing here: These concerts are coming to metro Phoenix in August
A more viable way to work
If Levin were to hazard a guess, though, as to why the only year they haven’t toured since 2014 is the year they were kept off the road by a global pandemic, it’s because they’ve arrived at a “very agreeable” way to tour, recording shows for possible release.
“We just found it to be a more viable way to work than the traditional ‘quote, unquote’ plan, which is you spend a year doing an album, then you go out and promote it,” he says.
“And then, after a few years of touring, you take another year off to write and record the next one.”
By putting the focus on touring, they’ve been able to unwrap more of the classic old material, approaching it as though those songs had just been written.
Levin says they’ve mastered maybe 40, 50 pieces from across the Crimson catalog.
“We have all of them hopefully at our fingertips,” he says.
“And then, the morning of the concert, Robert decides what the setlist is gonna be. It could be anything. So we found that to be a convenient, really workable way to do what we love to do, which is to play the music.”
The key to reinventing old material is knowing the original recordings well enough to understand what made them special without simply copying what’s on the record.
“It’s an interesting challenge to consider what’s iconic and great about those bass parts,” Levin says.
“But I don’t want to play that part the way it is. Nor do I want to get the sound of that bass player. I want to have my current sound and interpret it as a musician will. We’re not a cover band.”
How Levin came to join King Crimson
There was a time when Fripp refused to play those songs at all.
The year was 1981 and the iconoclastic guitar virtuoso had assembled a group called Discipline with Adrian Belew on vocals and guitar, Levin on bass and King Crimson’s Bill Bruford on drums.
By the time they released their first album together, Fripp had decided to call the group King Crimson and name the album “Discipline.”
“We steadfastly refused to play anything from the King Crimson catalog,” Levin recalls.
“We only played new music. And after a tour or two, we added one piece, maybe two, but very little. That’s how Robert wanted to present the band and that was fine. Somehow, touring has taken us to where we play a huge repertoire of older material.”
The only member of the current lineup involved in King Crimson’s iconic debut, 1969’s “In the Court of the Crimson King,” is Fripp, although Mel Collins joined on saxophone and flute in 1970, appearing on a handful of recordings before leaving and eventually rejoining in 2013.
Levin met Fripp on a recording date when Peter Gabriel enlisted both musicians to appear on his solo debut.
“I think about it often, that on one day, in July 1976, I met Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp, and to this day, I’m still involved in making music and have a great relationship with both,” Levin says. “It was a pretty darn lucky day for me.”
It wasn’t long after cutting that Gabriel record that Fripp invited Levin to appear on his first solo album, “Exposure,” which the bassist now looks back on as his first exposure to King Crimson music.
‘I don’t think I knew anything about King Crimson’s history’
You may think that being a musician, Levin would at least have been familiar with King Crimson, but he swears that’s not the case.
“I don’t think at that point that I knew anything about King Crimson’s history or had particularly heard their music,” he says with a laugh.
“I certainly didn’t come in knowing ‘Red’ or ‘Larks’ Tongues’ or something like that. It was later, when I was already in the band and we had changed the name from Discipline to King Crimson, that I first started listening to those pieces.”
He’s been in nearly every version of King Crimson since he joined, although when Fripp decided on short notice that the time had come to reconvene in the early 2000s, Levin had other commitments.
“So I was kind of a member of the band who was not involved in these albums and tours,” he says.
“I felt funny about that. But the fan in me was excited about how they would be without me, with Trey Gunn on bass. And I still am a fan of the music they made for the subsequent three years. It’s some of my favorite music King Crimson has made.”
‘One likes challenges in one’s field’
Levin jumped at the chance to rejoin for the 40th anniversary tour in 2008 and again in 2013, despite finding Fripp’s concept of using three drummers a bit daunting.
“I took a minute to gather my thoughts before replying to the email,” Levin says.
At first, he thought, “My gosh, there’s gonna be a lot of clattering and booming and banging down low, leaving less room for me.”
That thought was quickly followed by “OK, I’ll do it.”
And it’s turned out really well, the drummers having managed to arrive at what Levin says are “wonderful” and “fascinating” strategies.
“It was a radical idea,” Levin says. “And Robert chose the right musicians to implement it. I think his instructions were simply, ‘Reinvent rock drumming.'”
It’s presented quite a challenge for the bassist but he likes that.
“One likes challenges in one’s field,” Levin says. “To feel like one is growing as a player, not just coming back doing the same thing over and over again, year after year.”
King Crimson remains the most musically challenging project he’s done.
“Often not in an easy way, not in a fun way,” he says.
“But it’s very gratifying. And when I meet my expectations for myself and progress as a bass player, even in a small or subtle way, that enhances my experience of playing music.”
The true meaning of progressive rock
It’s the essence of progressive rock, he says, drawing an emphatic line between that term and prog rock.
“To me, prog rock implies progressive rock bands from way back — the ’60s and ’70s — playing that same kind of music,” he says.
“In King Crimson, we’re trying to progress beyond that. We’re not trying to be dinosaurs. In that sense, I feel that we’re being progressive and true to the original ethos of what those wonderful players were trying to do in the late ’60s in England.”
In addition to getting creative with older material, the current lineup has been adding new songs to the repertoire — which doesn’t meant they’re necessarily any closer to releasing their first album since 2003.
Not that Levin is ruling it out.
Predicting the future of King Crimson
“I know better than to predict the future of King Crimson,” he says.
“In a way, I’m tempted to say we’ll never make another album because that way we will make one. I’ll be proven wrong and I’ll be happy. But let me be more accurate and less facetious and say there are no plans.”
It’s well within the realm of possibility, he says, that Fripp could email him before the day is out to say, “I’ve got a great idea. When the tour ends, let’s do a new studio album.”
Levin is, however, comfortable predicting that this U.S. tour may be their last.
“There are no plans for touring next year,” Levin says.
“We have not been told we won’t tour next year, but I think it’s quite possible. I keep telling my friends who want to see the band, ‘You don’t want to miss this tour because it could be the last time we travel across the U.S.'”
As to why he thinks that, he says, “Normally by this point, we’d be asked to put aside next June through August or something like that. And we haven’t been.”
So does it make him sad to think this could be it?
“I haven’t really entered into thinking about how I feel,” he says.
“I don’t know. When I get that news, I’ll see. I certainly won’t be jumping up and down like, ‘Wow, we did our last tour! That’s great!’ It won’t be like that, for sure. But how sad I’ll be or how much I’ll miss it? I really don’t know.”
Regardless of where Crimson goes from here, Levin has no interest in retiring.
“I have no doubt that I will keep making music or trying to make music until they pull the bass from my stiffening fingers and put me away,” he says.
“Music is what I love to do and what I’ve done my whole life. I have no plans to stop.”
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7.
Where: Talking Stick Resort, Loop 101 and Pima Road, Salt River Reservation.
Admission: $35 and up.
Details: 480-850-7734, talkingstickresort.com.
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