An interview with Tony Levin: life on the road

Hello there. This is not one of my regular updates. A lot has been going on, but I will write a different post about it all, sometime soon. For now, I thought of something different – Covid measures are still pretty strict here in Brussels, and with a travel ban in place, I’m starting to miss airports, trains, and the exhilarating feeling of being someplace else. I decided to send a few questions to my good friend, legendary bass player Tony Levin, to ask him about his life on the road. Tony is an experienced traveller, and I wanted him to share some insights about the life of a touring musician. He has recently published a new photography book, called Images from Life on the Road (I will include a link to the book in the interview), therefore it seemed a good time to carry out this conversation.

Without further ado…

Marco: Here we are in 2021. I think it’s been a whole year since your last gig in a foreign country, because of… well, a global pandemic. You haven’t been able to travel extensively in a long while. What do you miss the most about traveling? 

Tony: It’s not the travelling specifically, that I miss, it’s the concerts. What I, and players like me, love to do is play good music for audiences, to share the special experience of that.  So I’m missing that a lot – the travel part of it is what’s necessary to get to the next city to play your show.

M: You have been touring the world for the last 40 years, I guess. It’s an exciting and special life for sure, but still… were there moments when you felt very much homesick?

T: To travel a lot of the time, there is a necessary disconnect with your life at home, and that can be pretty hard. First, let me say that in my experience it’s easier than it used to be. I was touring when the only way to reach home was by phone, and aside from the time zone differences and coordinating when to call, the expense for overseas calls was very high, and hotels added a lot of their own charges to it. So a common sight was a band checking out of the hotel and one or two memebers dejected, finding they’d spent $100 on a phone call, maybe to have an argument with a girlfriend. Aside from that, I’ve found that a significant marker is the 6 week period. Up to that time, the psychology of being away from home is what you’d expect, but in tours longer than that it seems you kind of lose touch with your home life. A different way to put it is that the concerns of the band, the music, the travel, the logistics of shows, and the family of people that’s travelling together, they kind of become your whole world, and the life and things you have back at home start to feel only theoretical. That apartment or house, those things in it, your other clothes, your bank account, the neighborhood, friends and relationships… they’re mostly inaccessible (less so the relationships now with cellphones and internet). So a little thing like leaving a jacket you like in a hotel room, finding in the next town you no longer have it… those take on a bigger meaning to you, because that jacket was part of the small amount of things you have with you, and it feels like that’s all you have, that’s what your life is.For me, it’s notable that in the last few years, I haven’t had many tours that went beyond the 6 week timeframe, maybe because those bands like taking breaks between tour legs, and because those bands have more say than we used to, in how the tour is planned… that used to be done by management and record labels, who want the band out as much as possible (and still is done that way for some bands, especially starting out.)

M: Have you ever experienced a cultural shock, so to say, visiting a foreign place? Something that really surprised you or offered a different perspective on life; or maybe something that simply amused you.

T: Early trips to Japan and to parts of S. America were certainly culture shocks, but in most countries you visit for the first time, there’s some adjustment to the way things work, the way people behave, the way the food and its industry works, the way trains, airports, and even rental cars or vans are organized. Here in the U.S. those of us who haven’t travelled assume that everyone does it the way we do. Our first trips abroad are lessons that we were wrong.

M: Are you a foodie? Are there special dishes / drinks that you can’t wait to taste again, whenever you travel to a specific country, or a specific town?

T: I’m not a foodie, but I greatly miss the food of Italy, and as soon as the travel is permitted, I plan to go back, not even on tour, but a small trip just to write, see friends, and have some great meals. 

M: What are some of the essential items in your suitcase? 

T: Suitcase is as you’d expect, but to me the essence of travelling successfully is managing your pockets! One could say, as rhythm players, the pocket is the most important thing to us… and it has a double meaning. Sooner or later you need to develop a consistant pocket for each important thing… cellphone, wallet, passport, hotel room key, glasses, plane ticket, and maybe a few others. The reason; when you check out of the hotel (daily) there is the chance you’ve left something behind. Most of us do an “idiot check” and go back into the room after we’ve brought our bag out, but still, you don’t want to get into the van and find you left your phone charging in the bathroom because that was the only outlet available. So patting the appropriate pockets and feeling that they contain what’s needed becomes an hourly habit, and saves a lot of fuss and grief.  Then, still leaving aside the suitcase, there is the carry bag that most of us use. And more and more, through the years, that’s been a story of electrical chargers… so many nowadays, and if you misplace just one of them, your road life becomes a mess!

M: What do you enjoy doing when you have a day-off on tour?

T: In my case, on days off or even late night after a show, taking my camera out on a walk to maybe catch something of the nature of the place I’m in, is a common practice. It’s ironic that usually I don’t have time to actually experience the place, but still am busy trying to capture it’s flavor.

M: Is there (possibly) any place you haven’t visited yet, that you hope to see one day?

T: There are plenty of exciting places I haven’t been, though I’ve travelled a great deal.  Tours tend to go over and over to the same cities around the world – nothing wrong with that, but when once in awhile, say every year or two,  I see a new city on the itinerary, or a new country… it’s reason to read up about it and get excited about that part of the tour.

M: You have published a new photography book, Images from Life on the Road. Would you consider your photography as a travelogue of some sort? 

T: It was the work of my lockdown… organizing the tens of thousands of photos I have from all my road trips. And I’m very happy with the book that came out of it… some of the pictures are from a vantage point nobody else has, for instance my shots from stage of Peter Gabriel when he first started floating out into the audiences, on “Lay Your Hands on Me”… they’d never seen such a thing before, and you can see that in the photos.I organized the pictures, not chronologically or by band, but by the experience of being on the road… so there are chapters of travelling, of arriving at the venue, very colorful pictures of backstage activities with various bands and players, then going onstage, photos of during the shows, of course. Bows, and then an extensive index with my notes and stories about the photos. 

M: Speaking of ‘travelogue’: how about your album World Diary? I really like that record – when I listen to it, it’s like I’m looking at a world map. I love the instrumentation, too. I see the album as a great bridge between music, people, places – all those sounds and cultures blending in. I remember reading that you have recorded those songs in hotel rooms around the world. Could you talk a bit about the process of composing those tracks and recording them? 

Thanks for reminding me about that album. It was a lot of fun, and came out well. I’d been wishing I could do my first solo album, but was on the road most of the year and didn’t have the time. Then came the idea that with an ADAT (at the time a new technology that got you high quality recording in a small device) I could take that with me and record in the hotel room with various musicians I encounter on the road. It turned out that I also did some tracks in studios, but kept the music to duets with bass and one other player. The writing process was just that I’d have worked out a bass part, then just played it for the other player and let them join in. So the compositions were equally done by the two players, and after a few takes we were usually able to make some special connection.

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