Interview with THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT

March 2014

THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT

THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT:
Tobias Ralph, Markus Reuter, Adrian Belew,
Julie Slick, Pat Mastelotto, Tony Levin

The news of KING CRIMSON’s resurrection caused a stir in the prog rock fans’ circles, yet in the band’s absence the void has been filled nicely with THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT, an aggregation of Adrian Belew’s POWER TRIO and STICK MEN led by Tony Levin. The two veterans got the blessing of Robert Fripp and enrolled Pat Mastelotto – who played with CRIMSON through the ’90s and, together with Levin, has recently returned to the ensemble – and Fripp’s former student and collaborator Markus Reuter as well as Tobias Ralph and Julie Slick, to keep the flame alive.

But the PROJEkCT’s new tour, starting in March 2014, may (or may not) be their last. So on the verge of this trek, DME spoke to the half of the group – Tony, Markus and Julie – to see what’s going on.

– Tony, how can you compare your freedom in this band to the time when Robert calls the shots?

T. L.: It’s different, really. In THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT we’re not writing new music, we’re playing all the CRIMSON material that we’d played before, so the word “freedom” doesn’t really come into it; we’re doing what we’ve been doing for years and we’re not bringing something new to that music. What’s new in the show that we do is ADRIAN BELEW POWER TRIO will take up a segment of it and play their new music, and STICK MEN – with me and Pat Mastelotto and Markus – will take a section of the show and do our new music. So on CRIMSON’s pieces I’m free to do what I want, but pretty much I’m doing what I’ve been doing for all these years, playing those same pieces. And it’s fun, it’s still fun, and that’s the sign of how good the music is that it’s still fun to play it after so many years, to find a few new notes and just to be wrapped up in the power of the music.

– Markus, are you having fun, too? And by the way, is this music fun at all?

M. R.: The answer is, “Yes, of course!” It’s a lot of fun, and also a challenge to actually play this music so that it sounds real, because I wouldn’t be interested to play in a cover band. The big challenge was – and this is something I didn’t know before we started – to find out if it’s going to sound real or not, and even after the first few performances it was obvious that it worked and that it didn’t sound wrong at all. Once we started out with this idea of the two trios playing together, the first CRIMSON tune we played – just the four of us: Tony, Pat, Adrian and I – was “Red,” and it was like an instant validation that it sounded correct, and the reaction of the audience was also so positive. I’m very critical about CRIMSON’s music, because I’m a big fan myself, so that was really important to me that it sounded real.

– It would be a humbling experience for a regular fan to be playing alongside your heroes and to be playing your heroes’ music. So how do you feel working alongside Adrian and Tony?

M. R.: Before I actually did it, I asked myself those questions as well, but as soon as I was on stage with them I realized that I’m capable: there was no doubt about my focus and no doubt about my capabilities. I know what you’re saying, because all of the history of those players and the importance of their work, but being a performer and an artist myself I could only hope that I’d be able to stand the energy they create. And it worked very well, from the very beginning.

– Julie, you started working with Adrian first. How did you react when you faced the problem of playing with another bassist, and not a regular bass player but the great Tony Levin?

J. S.: (Laughs.) We just had pretty open communication and I, of course, let Tony take the reins, being the member of the original KING CRIMSON band, being the one who originally arranged these parts. So I let him take the lead, and basically he just assigned my parts – he wrote me an email. He’s open to my criticism, if I have anything to say, open to my suggestions, but he pretty much worked it out: “Here’s where I play low, and here’s where you play high, and vice versa. Here’s where we alternate parts” – so that way we’re not stepping on toes of each other. Because, obviously, in a band like this there’s a lot of room for too many notes happening in a calamity on-stage, so it’s very important that we, again, have open communication and contact not only visually but before the show, especially since we all live in different cities. So it’s really hard to rehearse, too.

– Do you feel like you’re contributing something to the canon of CRIMSON’s music?

M. R.: Um, yes. But I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s in the context of THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT. I don’t know if you know this story, but in 2011 it was the thirtieth anniversary of the “Discipline” album, and that’s why Adrian wanted to go on tour and play this material, but Robert [Fripp] said, “No,” so it was a great opportunity for Adrian that I was around, to make his dream come true. At that point, I don’t think I contributed in the sense that I was changing anything about the material; it’s just the fact that without me they would have never gone on that tour. I think THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT played around sixty concerts in the past two years, so just the fact that I’m around and am available and capable to play those parts made sure that CRIMSON music has been performed all this time. The last time KING CRIMSON was on tour was in 2003 (there was a tour in 2008. – DME) so I contributed to the fact that this music was actually being played live, and that’s good. But in terms of the canon and the repertoire, I think I’m contributing – but I’m contributing with my own projects and my own compositions which are not being played by THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT.

– So what freedom do you have in this framework that you and the others set for yourselves?

M. R.: You know I have all the freedom I like. We didn’t even ever rehearse the material – at all. We just go on stage, together, and each of us plays the parts that he or she wants, so in that sense I have total freedom. But, like I told you, I’m a big fan of KING CRIMSON, and though there is the freedom, I wouldn’t go so far and change the pieces; I don’t want to change the core of the pieces, I think that’s not good. If I want to contribute, I want to play a new material.

– But you’re a soloist and sometimes you should want to go out on a limb and improvise, shouldn’t you?

M. R.: Yeah, that’s what I’m doing. For example, a solo in “Dinosaur”: Robert was playing a very strict kind of thing in terms of which scales he was using and stuff, and I’m coming from more of a free improv background. From the very beginning, I’ve started to open up that section in terms of what I was playing on my instrument, and it was really interesting to see, because at first it was not so easy for the others in the band to realize what I was doing there because it sounded kind of wrong to them because they were used to the symmetrical scales Robert was using. But when I started doing that, it was like slightly pushing and changing the parts so that it became more of an organic process. And that’s what I’m still doing; I mean with CRIMSON’s music there is lot of room for improvisation in very small details; the music is so much about how you play it, and it’s not necessarily in the notes – it’s about how you work with the tempo, how you work with the energies, how you’re holding back the energies. It’s all about that.
T. L.: I can’t speak for Adrian, but my sense is that back in the ’80s and now, he’s doing what he wants to do on guitar and he’s singing the parts that he wants to sing. He brought a little BEATLES influence into KING CRIMSON, and that was great: maybe, if we do a ballad called “One Time” you’ll hear it. As for me, I just don’t think of it in terms of freedom. In KING CRIMSON, when we reformed – we are reforming it and rehearsing whenever we have a chance – mostly what I’m aware of is the challenge; it’s never easy in KING CRIMSON – almost everybody who’s been in the band will tell you that – it’s a big challenge to the band to do things it never did before. And, in addition, there’s a big challenge to each of us as musicians to do things not the way we did it the last time but different way. So leaving aside the discussion of whether we succeed at that, the fact is, to be together and to be trying hard to do that is a very serious and complex and, I think, worthwhile thing to do. But it’s never easy, that’s always pushing yourself just to find new horizons for music. And again, you might not succeed at it – whether you succeed or not is a different thing. But that’s the way it is with KING CRIMSON. With THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT, it’s easy: we go out and play the music we know, and it’s great. Being in KING CRIMSON is great also, in a different way. Being in KING CRIMSON through the years has influenced me a lot, influenced my way of thinking, my bass playing and my music, and the music I write for STICK MEN – it’s influenced everything, so it’s been one of the best musical opportunities in my life to be around that way of thinking about your music and the process of doing your music.

– Tony, you were the first non-singing bassist in KING CRIMSON. Did it give you more freedom on the instrument?

T. L.: You know I try to answer that but I don’t really think about myself in KING CRIMSON compared to what was before, I never thought about it in my life. So you’re asking me the question, and I’m first thinking about it. I don’t think how I’m different from the other bass players – I guess I am different and they’re different from each other. Actually, I sing background vocals on some of the KING CRIMSON things, but yeah, that makes it easier to focus on the bass parts for sure.

– Also you don’t have to worry about the look of your hair!

T. L.: (Laughs.) No, that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about!

– Does a sense of humor play a major part in THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT?

J. S.: Oh yes! It’s extreeeeemely important! I mean touring in general is just chaos when you think about it, especially in a band like this where we’re all flying off from different cities and hardly getting any rehearsal time, just throwing it into a plane, and here you go. And now we’re traipsing across Europe and doing all these gigs. You have to have a sense of humor, because if you don’t you can go crazy (laughing), especially when you’re playing music like this where it can be so serious and you have to be so focused and concentrated. So I think everything needs to be in balance and equilibrium, so you have this sort of ridiculous… you have to have your serious nature out of your business to get things done. So because of that you have your funny side and your relaxing time. I wish there was more of this time but, of course, we can’t always have that.

– And where would you draw a line between a cover band and a real thing? Yes, there are Adrian, Tony and Pat but it’s not KING CRIMSON.

T. L.: That’s a good question! The truth is, I didn’t think about that before! We’re playing our music, and for quite a bit of it Adrian wrote the lyrics and Adrian is singing it, and Adrian wrote the guitar part, so we don’t think of it as a cover band. I think that people who see it decide for themselves… We played a lot of shows, and I can’t speak for all the audience but I think they feel that we’re playing our music and having fun doing it, and I think we do it quite well.
M. R.: I think it really depends on the players. Pat is maybe the biggest expert on what CRIMSON should be like; also for me, Pat is one of the greatest musicians ever. He’s more than a drummer, he’s kind of orchestrating in terms of guiding and guarding the band from his throne in the back. Having Adrian alone doesn’t work. For example, if Adrian is playing with his POWER TRIO, to me that’s never CRIMSON, it never is. And that’s also where you can see what Robert’s influence was – his influence was to kind of say “no” to certain stylings, to certain ways of singing or certain songwriting and stuff. And this is an important point: most of the music we play with THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT originates, to a big percentage, from Adrian – the songs, the choruses, his style of playing and everything, but Robert’s input as a composer was also as a producer, like a producer of what this band could sound like and what they shouldn’t play, and stuff like that. So in a way, where I would be drawing the line – and obviously, I don’t know 100 per cent what Robert would do or what Robert would think; but I had worked with him for a long time and I had studied from him, so I have a good sense of which change in the music would work also from his perspective, and which one wouldn’t work. Like I said before, I’m free to improvise but I would never introduce a certain sound, I would never play a chord that sounds Beatlesque, for example, because that would just be wrong. So having Tony, having Pat and having Adrian there is really the core sound of the ’80s and the ’90s CRIMSON, in a way. Pat obviously doesn’t sound like [Bill] Bruford but he understands how to make it sound right. Bringing me and the other two players into the mix, which are more like wild cards – Julie’s a woman, and that’s already is a revolution in the cosmos of CRIMSON’s music, and Tobias is a wonderful drummer, technically so out of this world, even ten years ago it was totally unthinkable that people could play that way, and he’s adding something on-the-edge, like something that CRIMSON was about in the ’70s and the ’90s where sometimes they were almost close to falling apart but this struggle and the energy they were generating created that sound and excitement of the band. With THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT we’re somehow back to that original excitement; it’s got that sense of being on the edge, and it’s also less inhibiting than when Robert was around. With him, there was a little bit of…

– Dictatorship?

M. R.: No, I wouldn’t say, “dictatorship,” but people were a little more careful, which is a good thing. For me, that’s a really good thing, and I can clearly see where Robert’s wonderful influence was. He is KING CRIMSON, I can totally see that, but now not having him there is also a relief for some of the musicians, because it allows them to play the material with a new or different kind of excitement.

– I believe so. But, having mentioned the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which era of CRIMSON you’d have liked to be a part of if you could?

J. S.: It’s impossible! I mean it’s all good! Obviously, I love the ’80s era because that’s what we play every day but, of course, I play a [Fender] Precision bass with the pick, very aggressive, so I have more of John Wetton‘s style, and I really love that grungey bass tone of the ’70s band, of “Starless And Bible Black”, “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues [In Aspic]” but again, I can appreciate every era, so to place them in any certain order is impossible to me. It’s comparing apples and oranges.
M. R.: For me, it’s very clearly the ’70s band, the Bruford, Wetton and David Cross [line-up]: that’s definitely the band for me, the best version of CRIMSON.

– From that period, THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT play “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues Part II” but if you could play anything from the old canon, which CRIMSON piece would you find the most engaging emotionally?

J. S.: Um, I have to think about that for a moment. (Pondering the answer.) “Frame By Frame” because hearing that beginning, that intro still takes me back to that time when I first heard the track, it transports me right back to my parents’ living room behind my brother’s drum set and still makes me laugh after having played with Adrian for eight years. Playing with my hero: sounds crazy! And then, playing “Thela Hun Ginjeet” live is like a highlight of my career. I think one of the first times I’ve ever played with Tony on stage was in a festival, before we were THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT, and we were playing with CALIFORNIA GUITAR TRIO [instructed by Fripp] as well – we were opening up for PRIMUS, so Les Claypool came out, too – so rather than Adrian doing the guitar solos, during all the breakdowns we were trading bass solos, and to me that was like the highlight of my life. So that song emotionally takes me back, too. I still can’t believe that happened! (Laughs.) What I would like to play? I would love to play “Neal And Jack And Me” – that’d be a really cool song to do – but I would love to write new material, honestly, that would be cool. That would be more fun. My favorite song to play in the set is “Thrak” right now, because that’s the one piece that we really get a chance to improvise; those are always the highlights of the set, especially for the new guys – we get to have our say, in a way, not just playing note-for-note what’s been recorded.
M. R.: To me, it’s either “Fracture” or “Starless”: one of those two pieces would be amazing to play. But I also understand that for Adrian, for example, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, so THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT as it is, where they do belong, there’s a natural limit to what we can, maybe even should, do. There are many fans or even promoters who ask, “Can you play ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ or ‘Schizoid Man’?” Yeah, we could, but we also need to feel that it’s right to do that. Neither Pat, nor Adrian, nor Tony were part of the ’70s band, so what we did was, we looked at the pieces that the ’80s band played – and the ’80s band played “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues,” so that’s why those two pieces are actually possible for us to play in the set.

– But how do you find the balance between being very technical and highly melodic, and also emotional?

T. L.: Well, maybe I think about that a little, because I practice more now than I used to practice. I feel like the technique is only important to me to play the parts that I hear in my head that I want to play. So I used to feel I don’t need much technique, but then quite a few years ago I did some albums with some real technical virtuosos, those with the DREAM THEATER guys, a project called LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT, and I realized that they’re way ahead of me technically, so I began to practice more – not to be like them but to get somewhere on the album. I heard something that I could add to my playing by practicing – to have the option and technique… and I’m still not as fast as the real fast bass guys. But there’s other kind of techniques than playing fast: there are ways you learn to play the sound that you need on the bass. It’s hard to describe what those techniques are, but actually I work quite a bit on that, because when I hear a bass part to play on a piece I also hear the sound of it, and just picking the right basses is only the beginning of it – maybe you want to play it a certain way with your fingers and maybe you want to hit it with a stick or something. So to me, that’s all part of it, the techniques to have, maybe we would say, in your pocket ready, if you need it for a certain sound on a certain piece.

– Do you ever have free time or you’re recording non-stop?

T. L.: (Laughs.) You’re joking! Yeah, when I have free time I’m doing things like I’m doing now: I’m writing pieces and working on the things coming next. Just now I was playing a piece called “When Sasha Gets The Blues” – I’m doing a jazz album with my brother. I grew up listening to jazz. Also I’m playing cello on this album, which is fun, so it is a nice change for me – very different from KING CRIMSON. I’m lucky to be a musician, so it’s not really work, and the more time I can spend on the music the better for me.

– People see you as this highly cerebral, intellectual player but you can rock like you did with Alice Cooper and John Lennon. Also quite a change!

T. L.: From my perspective, it’s not all the same but, in a way, it’s the same: I love to play music, and when I’m asked to be on a project – if it’s KING CRIMSON or if it’s John Lennon – I listen to the music that someone else wrote and I just try to get a sense of what I can do on bass that best helps that music. Sometimes it just wants to rock out and be simple, sometimes very simple, and that’s what I do.

– Everybody who’s ever played in CRIMSON is forever associated with that band – save, perhaps, for Greg Lake, Boz Burrell and John Wetton, your bass-playing predecessors. Do you feel it’s a burden, Tony?

T. L.: Not at all. When I joined the band, which was way back in 1981, I heard about the earlier stuff but I didn’t really care – to me, it was a new band, except when we played a few of the old pieces. And when I learnt those pieces, I realized what great bass players there were before me: I respect them, I admire them but I don’t really compare myself to them. I just play the music that we’re doing. So it’s not a burden, I don’t mind it at all. It’s not just me; the guys like me, we’re very busy doing our music and we don’t pay that much attention to what people are saying about us. We go and play our concerts, and the hope is that people will come to these concerts, love the music and have a great time like we do, and that’s kind of the end of it. In a way, maybe that’s the way music should be – if we thought too much about the meaning of the band and the history of the band, it would start to affect how we play and what we think about what we play, and maybe it wouldn’t be right.

– CRIMSON have always been a league of crafty gentlemen, and now you have a lady in your gentlemen’s club. So what difference does Julie make – is that a revolution as Markus has it?

T. L.: (Smiling) Well, she’s a lady but I think of her just as a very good bass player: she’s very powerful and she has a lot of energy and youth. In the concert you’ll see she really rocks hard. She’s fun to be around, and it’s a good thing for the band.

– So she’s one of the guys?

T. L.: Oh yeah! I know a number of very good bass players who are women, and Stick players also. I play the stick, and Irene Orleansky, one of the famous Stick players, lives in I think Tel Aviv. So I’m familiar with women rock players, maybe not a whole lot of them, but I know a bunch of them, and I can speak for myself and the guys I play with: we think of them as musicians the same as the guys who are musicians. We admire their playing.
J. S.: (Laughs.) I feel extremely honored to be the first woman inducted in this gentlemen’s club. When I started playing bass as a kid, one of the reasons [for it] was because I thought it was one of these things not a lot of girls were doing. I saw a lot of girls picking up guitars and keyboards and things like that, and I thought, “Well, what’s so weird about this instrument that no girl is playing it? Not many at least… So I’ve always been like one of the boys, because I didn’t pick an instrument that was necessarily seen as feminine or typical for a woman to play, so I’ve been used to this thing my whole life and I kind of like this. (Laughing.) I’m not saying it’s a special treatment or anything like that but, like I said, it’s an honor, especially in a progressive [rock] world: it is, in a more broad sense, a gentlemen’s club, too – there’s not a lot of women performing in the community. I would like to see more women there, and that’s hopefully what Adrian and the rest of the guys in the band are helping do by having me as part of it and showing the world: “Hey, women can be a part of the progressive community as well!”

– When did you hear CRIMSON’s music for the first time, Julie?

J. S: I would say when I first started studying bass in this program called “School of Rock” – I was exposed to their first record, I heard “21st Century Schizoid Man” as many of us do. That was probably when I was 13 or 14 years old, and I remember thinking, “This music is so cool!” I was really getting into bass as a melodic instrument, almost like a rhythm guitar, and so I started playing progressive music like Chris Squire, Greg Lake or John Wetton. And then I was exposed to Adrian – actually, previously, before I was exposed to KING CRIMSON – in Frank Zappa’s “Baby Snakes” video, so I saw him play, and just a few months later I finally got exposed to the Adrian era of KING CRIMSON. So I pretty much followed it chronologically. And when I was exposed to the “Discipline” album – I had it on a cassette tape, it was a mix to learn for the show that we were doing for my music school – I remember the first track was “Frame By Frame” and I pressed “Play” on the machine, and I couldn’t even make it past the drum stool – I had to climb over my brother’s drum kit to get to it – because I was so enchanted by how awesome, amazing and beautiful it sounded. I got goosebumps, I had to sit down and I thought, “What is this?” So I was aware of Adrian Belew and I was aware of KING CRIMSON but I had never heard the two together, and I was instantly hooked and became a fan for real from that point on. And to be in the band essentially six years later is still mind-boggling to me. (Laughs.)

– How different is the dynamics of a double trio as opposed to the original CRIMSON four-piece?

T. L.: It’s very different. The main difference the audience hears is the two drummers, and they don’t play like two regular drummers: in KING CRIMSON you’ve got to work out a new way to do everything, so they have a lot of elaborate ways they’d worked out to play two drum parts. And for us, the two bass players, it just means playing less! (Laughs.) There’s not much new or unusual things that I can think of to do with two bass players: we just each have to play less than we play if there’s one bass player.
M. R.: Oh, I think that’s just the wonderful format, and it’s something that I would love to explore much more also for my own compositions. Everybody in the band would agree that the ’90s CRIMSON started out with that idea but then they didn’t take it as far as they could have.

– Yes, they wouldn’t split it into a triple duo sort of thing.

M. R.: Exactly, yeah. As I said, with THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT we’re taking a very liberal approach – no rehearsals and stuff like that – but you can clearly see that some of the interaction between the players is going more into the direction of the triple duo: you will see that. Tony and Julie trade parts more often, the parts switching between them, and the drummers play in the much more interlocking way than it was in the ’90s. And it is nice.
J. S.: You have to be listening – that’s the main thing – and hearing. As I mentioned earlier, the communication is so important because one note dropped can sound huge or too many notes played… Especially for drums that, like Adrian likes to say, can sound like a popcorn machine going wrong, when there’s too many flams and things happening. Having that, you’re looking the whole time to make sure it’s OK. In a way, the easier songs like “One Time” are most hard to play because there’s so much more space. When there’s lots of notes happening as in “Thrack” if somebody’s playing too much, it actually sounds appropriate. (Laughs.)

– You’re not doing “Matte Kudasai”?

J. S.: I’m not, let’s say that, although that’s one of the ones that I would have said I wished we did, but Adrian just started playing it solo, and we played in South America, he opened the show with the solo of “Matte Kumasi” and that was lovely! Hopefully, he does that on this tour.

– Is there a future for THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT now that KING CRIMSON are back, with Tony and Pat in the line-up?

T. L.: Yes. I’m going to say that in rock – I’m very familiar with rock bands and being in rock – you never can predict the future no matter what. (Laughing.) Either you think you can or you think you can’t, you really don’t know, so I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen. The new incarnation of KING CRIMSON: we don’t know how long it’s going to last. I hope it’s going to last forever but I don’t know. But THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT really is there for us – for Adrian’s band and for STICK MEN – whenever we’re free, not doing other tours. And because we like doing it, I’m pretty sure we’re going to continue doing it as long as we can. So I’m not predicting what’s going to happen but I’m saying from the standpoint of how we musicians feel: we like to do it, and if it’s fun and feels good we try to keep doing it. Of course, I realize that KING CRIMSON can be touring Europe, let’s say, in the same year as THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT is touring Europe, so we’re just going to see who books what.
M. R.: I really don’t know, I really don’t know. For me personally, it really is important that THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT… If I would be interested in continuing with it, it would have to transform into something else. After this year, even after the summer, we will have played almost 100 shows as THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT, and I would really like to play new material. And if that’s not possible, I would probably not continue with it. That’s my opinion at the moment, but that might change once we get to play together again. But as soon as KING CRIMSON is playing again this autumn, I don’t think there will be THE CRIMSON PROJEkCT anymore.
J. S.: I would like to say that we are going to continue but, honestly, I have no idea. You see Markus is very adamant about recording new music and continuing with that, and all of us are still creating music, we’re all still working. So it’s an arduous task to get all these cooks in one kitchen, and I think it would be very difficult to get everybody on the same page: who would take the rein? who’ll be the main writer? There’s lot of egos involved, and I can see why it will be very difficult, but I would love to continue the band, I would love to see that happen. And I know there is always, or at least for the next few years, going to be a demand to see KING CRIMSON’s music performed live. And although Fripp reformed CRIMSON, it still doesn’t play nearly as many shows as somebody like Adrian or Tony does, so you’re more likely to see this music performed by this project rather than KING CRIMSON.

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