Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin | photo by Kuba Bożanowski | via Wikimedia Commons
Two to Tango: King Crimson’s Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto
On this, the occasion of the 50th anniversary of King Crimson’s first masterpiece, In the Court of the Crimson King, Robert Fripp’s shifting-in-number ensemble hits The Met Philadelphia on Monday, September 23, as part of its victory lap tour.
It’s just one facet of the band’s 2019 celebration that includes box sets, a documentary (Cosmic F*Kc) and more. With that, you have to give the drummer (and the bassist) some: welcome longtime Crimson rhythmatists Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin to Two to Tango.
The Key: Did you two know each other outside of any union with Robert Fripp? Like, had you run across each other in musical or social circles?
Pat Mastelotto: Nope, but I certainly knew of Tony through records he played on, and I’d seen him play with Crimson.
Tony Levin: Nope, I only met Pat when he began Crimsonizing, and it was an auspicious day for me because I’ve been working with him ever since.
TK: What can you recall about being brought into the Fripp fold? Did he call, write, what? What was the moment where you knew everything clicked?
PM: I met Robert when I auditioned for the Sylvian Fripp band. After touring together for several months, we said goodbye. Then, a few weeks later, he called and presented the idea of joining Crimson, along with Bill Bruford. Robert laid out about a three-year plan that included making the Vroom record up in Woodstock in the spring and summer, going to South America in the fall to continue writing and playing in new material, then going to Real World to record and finish by Christmas, then tour the following year. i suggested it was like Bill and I getting married before we had even kissed and I asked if there was a way we could get together sooner and have a play date with Bill, and suggested a date. The following month when I knew I’d be finishing a European tour, we met at Bill’s, Trey Gunn, Robert and I were there to play and Tony actually joined us for the first day as he happened to be somewhere in England with Peter Gabriel…. that’s the day I met Tony, I think he wore a red sweater draped over his shoulders.
TL: For me, that was back in 1980, and I knew Robert from having toured with him in Peter Gabriel’s band in 1977, and played on his solo album Exposure. The get-together, with Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Robert and me, was described to me as just that…trying out a combination of players. I found out much later I was pretty much being auditioned. Glad I didn’t know that. The band that came out of that was at first called Discipline, but then King Crimson.
TK: Regarding the two of you, what do you recall about your conjoined first experience in King Crimson?
PM: Well, we might not have been as conjoined as you think…Tony was also meeting Trey Gunn, for the first time and the two stick players peeled off in one direction as Bill and I were getting to know each other and peeled off in our direction. We first seriously played together in Woodstock later that year while recording Vrooom together, “SexEatDrinkDream,” and later, the song “People.” Those are good examples of us locking in. I have a vivid memory of Robert bringing a skeleton idea for “Vrooom” including the “fairy fingers” B section and wondering how to decipher it. Then the following morning, T-Lev arrived with a three or four page chart where he had written a beautiful melody that brought the section into focus. That was a moment that brought smiles to the whole ensemble.
TL: When the band reformed, with Pat, for the “Double Trio” era, we rehearsed in Woodstock, where I was living, so for me it was quite a relaxed and enjoyable period…writing and working things out in a barn that I could walk to from my house. Pat and Bill (Bruford) had a lot of drum things to work out. At that time, playing with two drummers in the band was a big challenge…now it’s three drummers and a bigger challenge. Back then, I was working closely with Trey Gunn, a great touch guitar player, who was, like Pat, new to the band. Playing the same instrument, we had to work out mechanisms to keep things musical and stay out of each other’s way.
TK: On a personal level – honestly – what did each of you like about the other? The cut of one’s jib, so to speak?
PM: Cut of the jib is pretty accurate; Tony is just one of those guys that ooozes cool. He’s relaxed and casual with boundless energy.
TL: Pat’s a wonderful person, warm, friendly, and sincere, who’s also very musical. So without having to think about it, he finds ways on his drums to make the piece better than it was. In addition, he’s a very hard worker, and I’ll admit that through the years I’ve been inspired by him to do more work myself during the day, before our shows. I still don’t reach his level of practicing, but still…my musical life is improved for having known him.
TK: What is the evolution of your relationship – to each other? To the music? To Fripp?
PM: Hey, this is like a marriage therapy question. [laughs] Yeah, in Crim we’re all pretty different people. I recall the first time going down to a hotel breakfast room where Bill, Ade, Robert and Tony each sat in a different corner with their backs to each other….mmmmm unlike any other band I’d been involved with, these were mature men leading separate lives. I’ve gotten to know T much better these last 10-plus years recording and touring with Stick Men when it’s often just the two us in the car or van for hours on end. His energy is unreal as he likes to do all the managerial duties like booking hotels, flights, doing the itinerary and most of the driving.
TK: Has the music at all become roomier in terms of improvisation, or stricter? I feel as if I have witnessed Crimson so often since 1970-blah-blah-blah that I’m starting to forget?
PM: Improvisation? The Y2K double duo crimson did a lot of improvising, the ProjeKcts in the late 90s did a lot of improvising, the Double Trio Thrak band in the 90s did a lot of improvising, but, the current Crimson band not so much.
TK: Do you think that Fripp is easier or harder to work with now? Strictly from an outsider’s perspective, he seems relaxed and smile-ier?
TL: Robert seems to be happier in this incarnation of the band – that’s just my impression, and I can’t give reasons for it. As for him being harder or easier to work for, I’ve always, from the beginning, found him to be very easy to work with. Robert has his vision of what the band could be doing, and he chooses the right players to implement that vision – so he doesn’t really need to tell you what to play, or how you should be playing – he indicates the direction and leaves us, or at least me, free to use my own musicality to get there.
TK: This might seem stupid since this is what you do, but, going or being on the road – both of you have been at this game for a minute — do you dig touring? Does the road get harder or easier by this point — especially considering that, for the most part, gigging rather than record sales, is the principal manner in which you earn money?
PM: Yeah, I definitely enjoy touring. I’m a lucky guy, you know? I’m living the dream, right? So I count my blessings every day. Certainly there are days of complete exhaustion…takes a toll on your body, on your hearing , more over it takes a toll on your loved ones. Things happen when you’re away: births, deaths, graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries. And that part does get a little harder every year.
TL: Playing live shows if my favorite thing to do, so I’m lucky to be busy doing what I love. Yes, the 22 hours you’re not playing have become a bit harder with age, and with travel becoming more fraught, but the bottom line is the same; those two hours — 3 hours in the case of a Crimson show- more than make the travel worth it.
TK: In the course of a pre-show evening: what is the routine from your perspective? Will the two of you chat before the show? Is there a big plan of attack going into this showcase?
PM: Yeah, well I tend to practice between sound check and the gig. I don’t think anybody, even another drummer, wants to sit in a room while I do that…so no, not much chitchatting.
TL: Don’t need to chat much before a show. Keep in mind, Pat and I have played hundreds of shows in various conditions…neither needs to tell the other what it’s going to be like. Picture growing up with your brother in the next room…you share a bond but you don’t need to explain the plan of attack for the day.
TK: How do you see your audience…the audience? Is there a distinct level of interactivity, even psychic, between you and they, or is there a deep, but passive listenership? Certainly, KC fans – and your fans, as you have been part of the Crimson/Fripp experience for so long – are passionate.
PM: Well I was a fan before I was in the band, so I can relate. I saw them twice in ‘74 and I saw them three times in the 80s. So I feel a certain kinship with the audience, I do enjoy looking out at the audience and seeing their reactions, tears of joy and wonder, so many smiling faces it’s wonderful. That’s one of the biggest reasons we do this, to be able to bring joy to a few thousand peps every show is a privilege.
TL: We’re lucky to have an open-minded, passionate fan base. Well, in a way the historic band deserves that, having never done anything but be conscientious in its pursuit of its music. But I’m aware, every night, how great it is that people support our shows by going out to get tickets. With a smaller base of fans, we just couldn’t tour and rehearse the way we want to. Rehearsals are a pretty big part of what we do, and crucial to adding material and settling into the best way of performing it.
TK: What song are you most curious as to how it will go over in a live setting on a regular basis? What is the greatest challenge of performing it live?
PM: Well, the drum pieces — especially the new “DRUMZILLA,” and the radical action suite — those ones will definitely keep me on my toes. As far as being curious how will it go over, it’s always beautiful to watch the reaction to “Starless,” “21st Century Schizoid Man,” “Epitaph,” “Court”…you know, the classics, the songs Crimson had never played for the past 30 plus years…that’s changed now. Robert wants to pull from the entire Crim catalog and we get free reign to reinvent, we’ve recently changed the vibe on “Red” for this tour, sped it up a little bit, rearranged the drum parts and adding lots of piano! And we really change frame by frame a lot for the tour, so that’s a lot of fun to see reactions as fans slow discern what it is, but most of my attention is focused to just to play honestly and accurately.
TL: All the songs are a challenge for me, in various ways. The classic ones, with some very special bass parts by John Wetton, for instance, leave me trying to keep what’s special about that part, while giving it my own flavor and sound. That’s not always easy, in fact it’s more a journey than a done deal. Likewise with parts that I wrote myself, often those are a process of continuing to refine the part and get it better.
TK: What will you do as soon as your set is done?
TL: We have a ritual of circling, raising our hands in the air, and lowering them together, letting the energy go down. After that, I grab a glass of wine and go meet friends in the hospitality room.
PM: Me? Each night? Well, I mix a Compari and soda…tall with a lot of ice.
TK: Is there any point of asking when and if new, original music will occur within Crimson, and /or a project with Fripp, or is that kinda-sorta moot as he is fairly mysterious?
TL: Can’t predict what’s coming on that front…heck, I don’t even know what songs will be in tomorrow’s set until a few hours before the show.
PM: Oh yes, certainly new original music will occur, every night when we play a live show. Join us and you’ll hear for yourself.
King Crimson plays The Met Philadelphia on Monday, September 23rd; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.