As Los Angeles rubs its collective eyes, crawls out into the sun and tries to put the prior era of unpleasantness into the rear view mirror, it feels like a particularly good time to scream. The last year has left a lot of crap strewn across our collective emotional landscape, and it’s necessary to issue the barbaric yawp every now and again. Just let everything come out at once, and scream like the guy on the King Crimson album cover is screaming.
You know the album I’m talking about. It became iconic because the music inside sounded like the cover. Some of it was pretty and artful, but some of it was screaming like that guy was screaming. As they grew and changed, the palette changed a lot, but the band’s potential for both great beauty and great horror has remained part of their act.
Time hasn’t exactly softened the King Crimson lineup that tours today. With a front line of three drummers, it’s a multi-headed screamer par excellence, but it has a new capacity – the ability to play music from across its career, in addition to its new music. Attentive listeners can find and hear this current stuff on the band’s website, DGMLive, but they don’t really release “albums” in the conventional sense any more. I suspect that casting off the practices of the traditional recording industry is something bandleader Robert Fripp does with giddy enthusiasm, normally reserved for the insane, spirit-lifting Sunday Lunch videos he makes with wife Toyah and neighbor Sidney Jake.
In anticipation of their show at the Greek Theater on August 6 – click here for tickets – we spoke to bassist Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto, whose tenure in the band overlapped during its 1990s “double trio” formation. Levin had been the bassist in the group during the 1980s, introducing the sound of the Chapman Stick to rock audiences via the intro to “Elephant Talk,” as well as his concurrent work in Peter Gabriel’s band. Mastelotto stayed on during the 2000s when the band tightened back into a four-piece and created some of the most harrowing and algorithm-like compositions of its existence. We spoke about some of their quirky proclivities and what to expect when they arrive in town (spoiler alert: God only knows, they might even do “Jailhouse Rock.”)
One of the unusual things that this current lineup of KC has done, is introduce new music and make it available to fans, without the traditional medium of a “new album”. Instead, the material is appearing in the context of live show recordings, alongside the recent versions of older songs. It’s a bit odd not to have a “new album” we can consume and digest, as the current record tends to define an era of a band – we talk about the shows from the “Discipline” period as distinct from the “Beat” period for example. Are you trying to deliberately avoid that kind of era-defining release and consciously alter the way we in the audience perceive this music?
Tony Levin: A good question – of course the overall thinking on this comes from Robert Fripp, and he’s been making creative and unique decisions about how the band would present itself since the beginning. My sense is that we’ve arrived, these last years, at a way of managing our time and music that works well for us, and for the fans of the band. The paradigm we used to use, and most bands do, is to take maybe six months off from touring, write new material. Then into the studio for some weeks or a month, then finish up the album, present it to the record label, and then there’s a six- month delay while they arrange the packaging and promotion, then you go out and tour with mostly that new material, to promote the album sale. As I put it that way, it’s not hard to see that to instead keep doing reasonable tour legs around the world, to have all the band’s repertoire at your disposal, and to record those shows, which all have different setlists, for possible release… well, it lets us play in public, which is what we love to do.
Follow-up: If I have misunderstood and you do have a new album on the way, then please do tell us about it.
TL: The amusing part is, having said that we’re going to keep touring rather than plan a studio album, it could be that I’ll be proved wrong… it’s happened many times with Crimson.
Pat, in the King Crimson lineups that have featured two drummers, starting with the 1972 pairing of Bruford-Muir, it seems to me that there has often been a division of roles that includes a Disruptor. One person has to stay in the pocket and lay down the pattern that drives the piece, and one is dropping bombs in unexpected places and interrupting the pattern, or turning it on its head. The more-than-two-drummers approach of the last decade though, has altered that dynamic. It seems now like everyone is in the pattern, and everyone is expected to step out of it and dance around from time to time. How does that division take place in the modern band, do you have to draw straws to figure out who the Disruptor/ Agitator/ Firestarter will be in a given section? Do you trade off that responsibility from bar to bar?
Pat Mastelotto: In this Crim, the drumming is more scripted and we divide the parts lots of different ways. On some of the material from the 2000s Crimson, we act more like one 12-limbed drummer, on the 70s Larks Tongues In Aspic material that yin/yang, good cop/bad cop drumming works well. I often get to go after the “Jamie’isms” you mentioned and on those tunes I can play a bit more freely. On some early material, we each take a section rather than play on top of each other, like on “Schizoid” we swap every bar in seemingly random schizoid fashion. On songs like “Discipline,” we all three play throughout with interlocking parts not unlike gamelan drumming. So really, each song has its own unique needs.
Splitting a taco three ways is tricky. Lucky, Gavin and Jez are fucking ace players and come up with great parts.
As this band writes new music and introduces it in these concerts, are you cognizant of how a particular piece will sit in the program, what its natural neighbors would be on the set list?
PM: Yes, very much so, but we don’t have a fixed set list. Robert draws up a new set list each and every show day. However we do organize pieces into chunks, even in rehearsal it’s good for us to practice patch changes along with the music, as you know the placement can alter the dynamics of adjacent songs. Occasionally, Robert alters the chords or form to make the link more satisfying. So yes, the flow is important.
Tony, you are that rare player whose playing has completely defined an entire instrument, the Chapman Stick. Are you still exploring the potential of that instrument?
TL: It is a fascinating and challenging instrument. I wouldn’t say that my playing has defined it, but that I was one of the first to play it on stages to large audiences, back in the 70’s, so quite a few players picked up the Chapman Stick after seeing me play it with Peter Gabriel or King Crimson. There are a lot of things that can be done on the instrument that are distinctive to it, and I love hearing what other players are doing – there are now many expert players making very creative inroads in bands, and as solo or duo performers. The Chapman Stick has both guitar and bass strings, so it can cover a lot of ground musically, and is played by ‘tapping’ technique, so players have found different approaches to their technique.
How important is it to maintain improvisation as a component of this band?
PM: Not as much as the old days, it’s there but it’s not like the first 40 years of the band. This septet is more of an Orchestra, that rocks, with jazz sensibility. We can be spontaneous, and then there are the mistakes that lead improvs in search of an exit.
This is the first time a KC lineup has done concerts that encompass the whole repertoire of the band, with sets that touch on virtually every era of its recorded history. What are the traits that unify these songs, what makes it hold together when you do a show that covers the whole thing?
PM: Well, of course, the unifying trait is Robert, and from Robert springs Crimson Modus Operandi- a way of doing things unlike the norm.
TL: Robert has asked us, as we’ve approached classic Crimson material we haven’t done before, to consider the piece as something that’s just been written. So we’re not engaged in trying to cover it exactly as it was. (That wouldn’t be feasible anyway, as we have 3 drummers… very different than any of the other Crimson lineups.) So we have spent a lot of rehearsal time, mostly in England, finding our way to make this incarnation of the band our sound and approach, but still, of course, try to stay true to what’s iconic about the original versions. That’s often a challenging factor for me, when playing, say, a wonderful John Wetton bass part – I want to be myself, with sound and notes, but I don’t want to lose what’s iconic about the bassline. So it’s a fun way to keep engaged and keep trying to improve my performance on those songs.
Tony, I’m wondering if an updated edition of your book Road Photos might be in order? That was one of my all time favorite purchases at a merch booth.
TL: How timely that you’ve asked that – and thanks for having that original, it’s long out of print. I used the lockdown year to collate a new photo book encompassing all my years touring. Called “Images from a Life on the Road” it’s a large (coffee table sized) book that came out last January. (Available through tonylevin.com and on the site, I have lots of examples from the book.) It’s been a pleasure to have had my unique vantage point through the years, with artists like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Seal, Peter Frampton, and others – and to be able to get some photos from stage and backstage that, hopefully, convey the flavor of what it’s like at the concert.
Without spoiling any particular surprises, are those of us who attended your last couple of appearances at the Greek Theater likely to see an expansion of the group’s repertoire when you return on August 6?
TL: Our process is to do a different setlist each show. On the morning of the L.A. show, Robert Fripp will spend his breakfast with the long list of compositions we can do, he’ll listen to a few ideas, and by about noon, he’ll email the rest of us the proposed setlist for that night. Then, when we rehearse at 3pm, if anyone has an issue with some particular segue, we can revise it. Makes the tour much more interesting than just doing the same set each night – but alas, I can’t say even a day ahead of time, what we’ll be playing.
Do you guys jam cover tunes during band practice? If you were to spontaneously break into one during an encore and have the whole band follow your lead- not that you really would do that but I’m fantasizing here – what might it be?
PM: Nope… That doesn’t happen in this band, I can’t remember us ever breaking into a spontaneous jam of any cover song besides maybe a few bars of “Jailhouse Rock” or “Wild Thing” or me drumming “Tomorrow Never Knows” beat in an improvisation in Poland in 2000 and Adrian jumping right in singing and doing his magic guitar psychedelia,