SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A half century ago, King Crimson fired off one of the first shots in the progressive-rock revolution with the mellotron-heavy pomp and fantasy-laden lyrics of the band’s 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King. Formed from the ashes of the psychedelic pop band Giles, Giles and Fripp, the group made an auspicious live debut a few months before the album’s release, playing the a massive concert headlined by the Rolling Stones in London’s Hyde Park in front of 500,000 people. Injected with elements of pastoral folk, frenetic jazz — the dizzying tandem saxophone and fuzz guitar lines on the classic “21st Century Schizoid Man” — and modern-classical dissonance, the album set a new standard for ambitious rock as art and spawned legions of imitators.
But while British contemporaries like Yes and Genesis got bogged down with ponderous concept albums, guitarist Robert Fripp (the sole constant throughout Crimson’s existence) and his ever-changing cast of collaborators were exploring much darker, more experimental territory. The band’s searing efforts Larks Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black featuring Yes drummer Bill Bruford — who was poached from Yes at the height of their popularity — drew much more heavily on improvisation with violinist David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir, who had worked extensively with English free-jazz players Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. The band pushed boundaries with angular experimentation and challenging time signatures that later influence such alternative-rock mainstays as Primus and Tool (who invited the band out on tour in 2001).
After dissolving the band in 1974 following the release of the stunning masterpiece Red, Fripp concentrated on collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel as well as his solo guitar experiments with tape looping he dubbed “Frippertronics” before finally reviving the group in 1981. With a brash new line-up featuring Bruford, accomplished session bassist and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, John Lennon, Paul Simon) and fellow guitar phenom Adrian Belew — who had played with Bowie, Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads — Fripp and the new King Crimson recorded three critically celebrated albums that touched on new-wave, minimalist composition and Indonesian gamelan music before Fripp again put the group on hiatus.
That break would last almost a decade before the iconic guitarist reconvened the musicians with an ambitious “double trio” version of the group that added Chapman Stick/WARR guitar player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto that toured and recorded to wide acclaim. Crimson would have one of its most productive periods over the next decade with the players assembling in a variety of offshoot side “ProjeKcts” for tours focused more on improvisation in the late ’90s before a return to a quartet line-up and a heavier guitar sound for The ConstruKction of Light in 2000 and The Power To Believe three years later.
While there were some concerns that Fripp might have put the band to bed permanently after claiming he was retiring from the music industry in a 2012 interview, the guitarist surprised fans in 2013 when he announced a new seven-piece version of King Crimson with three drummers and players from throughout the band’s 40-year career arc. With Mastelotto, late 2000s drummer Gavin Harrison (best known as a member of modern prog rockers Porcupine Tree) and former Ministry/KMFDM/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin in a percussive frontline joined by Fripp, Levin, ’70s era saxophonist Mel Collins and new addition Jakko Jakszyk on guitars and vocals, the Mark VII version of King Crimson has been wowing audiences with fiery performances that have featured revamped and dramatically rearranged takes on songs from the band’s early albums that haven’t been performed in decades.
The group has toured steadily since then, releasing a string of acclaimed live recordings of the group through a couple of line-up shifts — it expanded to a “double quartet” for a time with the addition of drummer Jeremy Stacey and Rieflin making the switch to keyboards, though he is taking a break from the band on the current tour. Earlier this year, Fripp and company announced an expansive set of vinyl and CD reissues of the back catalog of albums to mark King Crimson’s 50th anniversary — including the significant move of making the band’s music available on streaming services for the first time — as well as a tour spanning three continents over the course of 50 concert dates.
Longtime Crimson stalwart Tony Levin recently answered a series of questions for CBS SF ahead of the band’s return engagement at Oakland’s Fox Theater this week. While he has been busy with King Crimson dates this year, the busy bassist has still found time to tour with a number of his own projects including his more jazz-oriented group the Levin Brothers with his piano-playing sibling Pete Levin and his progressive-minded band Stick Men with Mastelatto and fellow Chapman Stick player Markus Reuter.
CBS SF: The band is just coming away from a string of concerts in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Mexico has a reputation for having rabidly intense music fans. What was your experience at those shows?
Tony Levin: The fans are indeed fantastick [sic], both in Guadalajara and in Mexico City. We knew this from playing there two years ago, but still it’s a wonderful experience to have the audience singing along with solos, knowing all the songs, and generally behaving like they’ve been waiting for years for your show.
CBS SF: Judging from some of the tour diary entries, it sounds like a number of the band members faced some gastrointestinal challenges. Were you among the stricken? Was the group able overcome adversity and deliver a show that was up to KC’s high standards?
Tony Levin: I was lucky and had no problems. We did an honorable show that first night, but it was hard on a couple of the guys, and probably, to us in the band, not quite up to how we usually play.
CBS SF: In the five years since I last got to ask you questions, the band has gone through some evolution as far as the line-up. The biggest recent change seems to have been Bill Rieflin’s departure from live performances. How much of a challenge was it distributing the keyboard parts he’d been covering?
Tony Levin: Jeremy Stacey is a super player both on drums and keys so he’s taken up most of the slack. That means his playing drums less, so the drum parts have been re-arranged somewhat when he’s playing keys. Worked out okay, and there are times when others chime in on keyboards too.
CBS SF: The band played three nights as part of a festival in Spain and will be playing Rock in Rio in October. Does King Crimson approach those types of performances differently than your own headlining concerts given the different audience make up and expectations?
Tony Levin: Well, the Spain one was changed to solo shows, and the Rio show hasn’t happened yet, so it’s hard to say. Surely it’ll be shorter setlist than we like to do, but we’ll handle that. It’s Robert who determines our setlist each night. I’d guess he’s already thinking about what we’ll do in Rio, because we’re used to two sets covering 3 hours of a wide range of Crimson material.
CBS SF: What was the writing process for the new songs that have been added to the band’s repertoire since this line-up came together? Are some of the instrumental pieces coming together through onstage improvisation the same way the 1972-74 version of the band wrote songs?
Tony Levin: Most of the new material was either Jakko and Robert working thing out, or the three drummers bringing in drum compositions (yes, I do consider those new material, and we do 1, 2 or 3 of them each night.) So no full band writing at the moment.
CBS SF: Are there any plans for KC to produce another studio album?
Tony Levin: No plans for that, though you never know with Crimson what the future might bring. We do like our current working approach of doing a lot of live concerts, recording them at high quality and if some magic happens one night, we have the option to release that as a live recording, but with studio quality.
CBS SF: Is the band playing as much of the new material on this tour given the concentration on KC’s 50 years of history?
Tony Levin: It varies from night to night, but we do a lot of classic Crimson repertoire. Each day Robert suggests a setlist to us, and they vary quite a bit, so I don’t even know what songs we’ll play until I arrive at soundcheck. If there’s something we haven’t played in awhile, we’ll usually run it at soundcheck.
CBS SF: Are there any particular songs from the band’s back catalog that you were happy to get a chance to perform on this tour that you hadn’t played in the past (or for a long time)?
Tony Levin: I try to look at each piece we do as a challenge for me to keep refining the bass part – whether it’s something I recorded, or one of the wonderful parts the other bassists in the band have come up with. All of the back catalog is special music, so good for me to have the chance to be part of it.
CBS SF: I noticed in one of your tour diary entries a mention of Bay Area musician Dan Rathbun, who I’ve been following since we were both in college when he was in his earlier band Acid Rain. I was wondering how you ended up discovering Sleepytime Gorilla Museum? Any chance of you two collaborating his latest group Free Salamander Exhibit or some other project?
Tony Levin: Yes, I admire Dan’s playing a lot, and am a long time fan of SGM. We’ve never discussed doing anything together… maybe your suggestion will spawn something!!
CBS SF: Did you get to see the movie Mandy? I was curious to hear if someone from the band had a take on how the director used “Starless” in the opening of the film…
Tony Levin: Sorry, didn’t see it.
CBS SF: Despite how busy you’ve been with the extensive 50th anniversary tour, you’ve still managed to get out on the road with your other band projects this year. What are your plans with the Levin Brothers and Stick Men coming up?
Tony Levin: First on my calendar are the Crimson tour legs. Then in the spaces between them, we’ve had good luck booking Stick Men tours, in U.S, Europe or S. America. Then, with any time left on the calendar, I do enjoy doing shows with Levin Brothers, a jazz quartet with my brother Pete. I feel lucky to have those opportunities to play live, which is my favorite thing to do.. but I’ll admit that next year I’m trying to carve out a little more time at home to progress on some other projects like a solo album and a photo exhibition.
CBS SF: The early ’80s quartet line-up of King Crimson with Adrian and Bill Bruford will always be one of my favorite versions of the band as it was the line-up I first heard on record and live (on the Three of a Perfect Pair tour at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre). In our last interview, you said you don’t like to compare different tours or band, but I was wondering if you felt any nostalgia for that group as it was also your first experience being part of KC?
Tony Levin: Pretty much the same answer – I very much enjoy the music we’re doing now and don’t spend much time looking back at the things we’ve done before.
CBS SF: Is there enough time in your busy schedule that would allow you to work with Peter Gabriel again should the opportunity arise?
Tony Levin: Like any fan, I do hope Peter does more touring and recording, and I certainly hope I’ll be free to do it. That will take some luck of scheduling – but the main thing is to wait and see when Peter plans something big. I have no word about anything coming up, but as I said, I’m like the fans and hope there’ll be something.