Tony Levin | Liquid Tension Experiment (Interview): "With this band, the action comes fast!"
Updated: May 9, 2021
A conversation with bass legend Tony Levin about the comeback of Liquid Tension Experiment, instruments and photography (including flying drones).
There is one thing that Tony Levin enjoys about working remotely: namely having all his basses at hand while recording. So when he got the reunion call from his bandmates in Liquid Tension Experiment — a supergroup consisting of Dream Theater's John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess, prog rock's jack of all trades Mike Portnoy and Levin himself — he packed as many instruments and effect pedals into his car as he could and drove down to the studio.
Recording and rehearsing together in the same space is certainly not the usual way that most albums were created during this pandemic. But Liquid Tension Experiment is no ordinary band, either. The group, which has just released their first album in twenty years, "Liquid Tension Experiment 3", does not function in a remote work setting. Things need to go down in the same room, as Levin explains — and then things go down fast.
It's not the only project the bassist (who has worked with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, David Bowie and many more) was working on during the lockdown. Levin also released his third photography book called "Images From A Life On The Road". In the book, available via his website, Levin shares a couple of hundred images from his life as a musician: off stage, on stage, traveling, waiting.
I spoke to Tony Levin about Liquid Tension Experiment, his photography (including his love of flying drones) and his bass arsenal. Read the full conversation (done via Zoom) below.
After twenty years and seemingly out of the blue, Liquid Tension Experiment returned with a new album. How did this comeback come about?
It was Jordan Rudess who had the idea. When he wrote to me and John Petrucci, we didn't need to think about it for one second. We said: "Of course!" What a great idea to make something good happen out of this year — a year that is looking so useless. We quickly decided to do it and then it was just a matter of logistics and of finding a safe way to do it together. This is a band that doesn't write remotely. We don't send each other ideas. We always work well together in the studio, we're very fast, we come up with ideas and put together the pieces very quickly. That's exactly what happened this time. The challenge was to find a safe studio, a safe hotel to stay in. We then did the whole thing in two or three weeks. We feel very good about it.
How did it feel to get back together?
Surprisingly, it felt exactly the same way it did twenty years ago. As soon as we were together in the studio, one guy comes up with something and the other says: "Well, that gives me an idea". And so a two-minute piece turns into a five-minute piece and that turns into a ten-minute piece. By the end of the day, we have written a 12-minute symphony — one that we couldn't have done remotely. As soon as that happened again, we were all laughing, saying that this is exactly the way it always was. We haven't changed all that much. It was a great experience all around.
You worked with Jordan Rudess, together with Marco Minnemann, in the more recent past. Did you keep in touch with the band members as well?
I've been in touch online with John a bit. Mike I see every year on the prog rock cruise [Cruise to the edge], we're there with different bands. Sometimes I jam with him, sometimes we just hang out. He's a good friend, but I don't see him every week. For that matter, I don't see anybody every week, even my friends who live near me. So yes, we were in touch. Musically, we don't need to play together all the time to stay tight.
Where did you record the new album?
In Long Island, New York.
So you packed your gear into the car and drove there?
A few of the guys live near there, but for me it was exactly what you just said. I packed a lot of basses in my car. Including an electric upright, which I thought I was never going to play on this record. It's not the kind of music that this instruments calls for, but I wanted to have it with me anyways. In one jam I did with Mike Portnoy, something he played made me think of it. I had it with me, so I used it. It's good to have the most tools you can. I brought five to six basses, maybe 20 to 30 pedals, not knowing which I'd use. It's different in every recording situation, but with this band, you start writing the piece and the action comes fast. There's too much to do to pull out a different pedal or a different bass. So it becomes whatever pedals I had in the chain were the ones I used.
Of course, you also brought the Chapman Stick.
The Chapman Stick was a no-brainer. I know that from my experience with these guys. They're very fast players. I'm not quite as fast as them … but who is? With the Chapman Stick I can play significantly faster than I can with the bass. I did play it, but not as much as I thought. I played more bass than I would have expected. I should call it regular bass, five string. But yes, I did play the Chapman Stick on two or three pieces.
Do you usually bring that many basses to a recording session? Do you have projects where you just rely on two or three?
That's a very good question. Everything was different in the last year. Looking at long term, no. If I do a project with Peter Gabriel and I go to England for a month, I can't bring that many. Although that's exactly when I would love to bring a lot of instruments. I'll bring three basses with me, and maybe I can rent some more. If it's a local session around where I live, around Woodstock, north of New York City, it's usually one or two. I need to hear what the music sounds beforehand, and then I can choose which basses I'll bring with me. This is a very big exception. First of all, because I knew I was going to be there for a few weeks. And secondly, because I did not know what they were going to throw at me musically. I wanted to be ready for it. So I stuffed the car full of basses. It's kind of fun when you think of it. Especially after being in lockdown for a few months, not even walking down the street, suddenly I'm loading basses through the windows of the car. We allowed ourselves an entire night to set up. We arrived in the afternoon and we spent five, six hours just setting up the instruments, amps and pedals, so that we could start the next day. We know what we're doing in that kind of situation.
But if there weren't logistical issues, you'd also bring your whole arsenal to other places?
Yes! The arsenal! I'm spoiled from being at home and doing remote recording, which I'm doing a lot these days — and having all my instruments here. Even though most of them are Music Man basses, five strings actually. Somebody could say that they're all the same instruments, but there are subtle differences. You know it, you're a player yourself. Having access to that many instruments spoiled me. And with Liquid Tension Experiment, I was making sure to bring as many as I could. But when I go back to a "normal" world, where I have to pack one or two and fly with them, I'll have to readjust to that situation.
Are you a collector — or do you just happen to have many work horses that you use regularly?
I never thought of myself as a collector, but I guess I should be embarrassed by the number of basses I have. Partly that's because I have endorsed Ernie Ball/Music Man basses for a long time, even already when it belonged to Leo Fender. For example: When they came out with a special revision like the StingRay Special, which is electronically similar but much lighter weight, I thought: "I don't really need the lighter weight, that doesn't bother me". But the preamps are a little different, have a little more bass, more output, more low end. So I thought: "Well, I'll try it". And they very kindly let me have one. As soon as I was playing it, I realized that the weight indeed makes a difference. Not even so much only during the shows, but also during the soundchecks and the rehearsals, which are a big part of our day as musicians. You stand there for five or six hours with the bass on your shoulders, so it made me very happy to have a lighter instrument. If you multiply that through the years, I have a lot of Music Man basses. And once in a while, something old catches my eye, like a Gibson EB-2 that has the sound I couldn't get any other way, and then I'll also get that one. So I have quite a few basses.
"For Mike Portnoy, it's not a challenge at all!"
All the Liquid Tension Experiment records are like explosions, giant bursts of energy. Is that what the sessions are like — you meet in a room and blow the place up sonically?
Yes, basically that is what it's like. There was a lot of laughter, because we were so happy to see each other. We had a business meeting on the first morning, which is something we have never done before. But we just wanted to be sure that we all agreed about how we want to put the album together. Around noon the first day, we got into the studio. Everybody did their line check, got ready to record. A typical situation is: John Petrucci says: "I've got this line", and he plays something very tricky. Jordan and Mike pick it up immediately, and I struggle just a bit because I’m not as fast. So we repeat it a few times and in ten minutes we a have section. Then Jordan will say: "That reminds me of a riff, an idea I have with these chords". And Mike asks: "Yeah, but how about if that was in five instead of in four?". So one hour into the day, instead of a minute or two minutes of music, we already have five or six or seven minutes. Then they’ll maybe ask me: "Tony, why don’t you just do a heavy rock part, we'll go into the key of G". They'll solo over that. By mid afternoon, it's already ten minutes long. It's becoming a symphony right under our eyes. We'll then take a break, have lunch and by the evening it's twelve minutes long. To write and record fast is special. I won’t include myself, but the other three musicians are extraordinary in the speed in which they can absorb music and process it. And the techniques that they have available at their fingers! The fast parts that John is playing: the other two guys can pick them up immediately. They are very unusual musicians and talents in that respect.
It must be quite intensive work to learn those parts before going on tour, whenever that will happen.
You're absolutely right. The challenge is different for each of us. I think for Mike Portnoy, it's not a challenge at all, because he spends so much time with his music. He knows the piece by heart. We record it on and then go back to our hotel rooms. But Mike stays up half the night, and by the next morning he knows which sections need to be fixed. He knows the pieces by heart; he knows his parts by heart, and he will know them for the rest of his life. That's Mike. For me, I haven't even learned any of the sections yet. I write down the music, and some of it I have to overdub and fix later. John Petrucci learns it very quickly, the next day he knows it by heart, the next week he knows it by heart. But, as I found out, he has that musical mind that a year later he doesn't remember the piece at all so he has to learn it again. Not that it takes him very long, but I'm just trying to give you an example how each of our musical memory and our musical minds are very different. But for sure, the challenge of playing the pieces live is completely different from trying to get the best recording of it. For most of us, it will involve somewhat starting again. In my case, when we toured in 2008, I spend six months before that practising the Liquid Tension Experiment pieces. I was far behind, I had to relearn that technical aspect of playing those pieces. I was on tour with Peter Gabriel at that time and I was sitting in my hotel room, practising Liquid Tension for six months. By the way, that was for a six-day tour.
Did you bring a camera to the sessions?
I certainly did! I only just got this in the mail [shows the booklet of the deluxe edition of the LTE album with his photographies in it]. Just about everything in the packaging is my pictures. If they wanted a picture of me, I’d just get the look I wanted, set it all up and handed my camera to our studio manager, for instance saying "Take a picture of me with that King Crimson mask".
"Music is much easier for me than anything else"
Which photo equipment do you take on tour/to sessions these days? What's in your camera bag?
Not so much. I shoot with Nikon; I have maybe three, four lenses that I bring with me on the road. I also have a tripod that I'll use occasionally. Lately, I've been bringing a drone. None of those drone pictures made it to the book, but I have a lot of cool King Crimson pictures from when we played outdoors. When I am allowed to, I'll send a drone up. I also got some cool stuff from outside of Berlin. Although that was near an airport and they weren't happy about me getting my drone up. I'm getting kind of sneaky about the drone, though. I set it up very quickly, take the picture and walk away as if it wasn't me.
What camera do you mostly travel with?
A Nikon D750, not top of the line but it's pretty nice.
You used the time of the pandemic to publish your new photography book "Images From A Life On The Road", which is already your third one.
You're right, it's already the third book … I haven't thought about that. It's very different from the other two books. I just had a wealth of photos from all my years on the road and I felt that many of them deserved to be seen by the public. I always thought that someday I'll release them as a book. Around last June I thought: "If I'm ever going to do this, now's the time". It involved going through tens of thousands of negatives and positives. I didn't have consistent material, as I of course started out with film. I had to pick which ones to use and then digitize them in a high-quality way. Obviously, the later ones were digital, but I had to connect them so that it seemed like one photographer and not different eras. I never counted how many tens of thousands of photos it were, because I always end up taking too many pictures. I ended up with a thousand. The difficult part was not only cutting it down to 250, but picking the ones that made a coherent story that would be worthwhile on its own. That had a theme, a flow to it.
What's more difficult: Cutting out pieces that won't be on a record or deciding which pictures won't make it into a book? Quantitywise, the picture process must be more exhausting, I suppose.
Music is much easier for me than anything else, let alone photography. The trickiest part for me was getting a sense for how to present the book. If I had that in the beginning, I could have easily chosen the photos for it. But as I printed out photos and created test pages, so that I could physically put pages next to each other and simulate the book, my sense of the flow changed. A book that doesn't go chronologically, that doesn't go band by band, seemed the right thing to do. To present the reader what life on the road is like. The first chapter is just travel pictures. Experiences in broken-down cars, airports, overhead views of mountain views. There's a chapter for venues, one for backstage, one for going on stage … which is by the way a pretty poignant part of our day. It only lasts a minute but I found that I have a lot of meaningful pictures of bands and how they go on stages. Once I had all the sections and the photos printed out, I started again, trying to find the best photos that create the best flow and the best visual experience. I don't think I have never talked that much about that process!
It's funny, you're one of two bass legends that has released a photography book during the pandemic: Leland Sklar also has one out ["Everybody Loves Me", where Sklar took pictures of famous musicians giving him "the finger", M.B.].
I joked around in another conversation that I was inspired by his book, where everybody gives him the finger, to do a book myself, where nobody gives me the finger. I do want to get his book, I don't have it yet. I didn't use pictures that somebody else took of me, even with my camera. One of these pictures was one showing Lee Sklar and me. Those who don't know him: Lee has very long hair and a very long beard. And I have no hair and no beard. We have that picture where I'm sitting and he is standing behind me, holding his beard on both sides in my face, so it looks like that's my hair. It's a funny picture that I was tempted to put in — but it broke my rule of no pictures that other people did.
So what else have you planned for this year?
The story of 2021: Everybody has booked tours, and everyone hopes those tours can happen. Next June, just in a few weeks, I'll be touring with my brothers, the Levin Brothers, a jazz band. We'll just tour locally and play four to seven shows. That would be very exciting, because we haven't played live in quite a while. July to September will be all King Crimson US dates, October to November I will be touring Europe with Stick Men, and then November/December with King Crimson again, in Australia and Japan. So either it will be a very busy year or it won't be busy at all. In theory, in June I'm back to my usual life of too much touring and not enough time to do books and recordings. And I say that with a sense of humor, it's been nice doing all the recording and the photo book, but of course I miss touring. My favorite thing is to play concerts.
Well then, let's hope for the best.
That's a good expression to cover that whole year!
"Liquid Tension Experiment 3" is out now. For Tony's photography book, visit his official website.