King Crimson Never Stops Changing

Dean Stockings
King Crimson (from left to right): Robert Fripp, Jeremy Stacey, Bill Rieflin, Tony Levin, Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, Jakko Jakszyk and Mel Collins.
“It’s not a band like most bands,” says King Crimson bassist Tony Levin. “We don’t try to make it the easy way. We try to really be conscientious and put on a show that might change people’s opinion about rock and about music and change directions. I can’t guarantee that we’re successful in that, but that seems to be what King Crimson regularly does. We really try to reinvent things and challenge the listener and challenge ourselves.”

King Crimson, co-founded by guitarist Robert Fripp in 1968, has been challenging listeners over the last five decades with various incarnations, each one unlike the other, with Fripp being the one constant member and the band’s mastermind. When Fripp assembled the current lineup with three drummers, Levin says Fripp wanted to “reinvent rock drumming. That was his instructions to them. And then he left it to them.”

“We challenge ourselves as players and ourselves as a band, but then, yeah, it’s challenging playing with three drummers,” Levin says. “It’s not frankly as hard as I thought it would be when Robert Fripp had the idea a few years ago. I was envisioning I wouldn’t have any space to play, and it would be just sonically difficult.”

But Levin says that drummers Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey work it out so they’re not all pounding out the same part – rather the parts are split among the drummers, as well as sometimes playing in different time signatures from each other.

“With the three of them, they work it out so that there’s only one bass drum playing a bass-drum part at a time. It might just be one of them or it might be divided among the three of them, but there’s never those flams that you get from two guys trying to play the same downbeat. So consequently, it’s relatively easy to play with that.”

In addition to Fripp, Levin and the three drummers, the current eight-piece lineup also includes saxophonist and flautist Mel Collins, who was in the band in the early ‘70s and rejoined in 2013, Bill Rieflin, who drummed for the band from 2013 to 2015 before returning this year to play keyboards, and singer and guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, who joined in 2013.

With the new lineup came new material, some of which can be heard on the more recent live albums, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind and Live in Toronto, as well as reworking older songs from the 1969 prog-rock masterpiece In the Court of the Crimson King or ‘70s albums Red and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. The band just released a live EP recorded last year in Berlin that includes a cover of David Bowie's "Heroes";  Fripp played guitar on the original 1977 recording.

Levin says when the bandmates rehearsed for the current tour last April, they worked on new songs that will be unveiled on tour.

“Even if we didn’t have new material, we kind of look at the other stuff again and try and consider changing it and for some of us, me included, I try and kind of progress with my own playing,” Levin says. “Crimson is kind of a time for me to say, ‘Okay, yeah, I played okay last year, but this year what new sounds or new approaches or new techniques can I try?’ So consequently, those rehearsals are pretty intense, because we’re trying different music, but we’re also, each of us, trying different techniques, and by the end of it we have a pretty good idea of what works and a lot of stuff that doesn’t work.

“We also have rehearsed and have a lot more material than we need for one show for the reason that we like to alternate material, not completely. But quite a few songs we’ll switch out on different nights, especially when we have two nights in one place.”

While some new songs will be performed on tour, Levin doesn’t see any of that material being recorded in the studio any time in the near future.

“There is no plan for a studio album," Levin says. "I have not talked about it with Robert. It hasn’t been discussed. It’s rare that I’ll predict what will happen with King Crimson, but I think I’m safe in saying there’s not going to be a studio album in the next few years. The reason is that we work out these new pieces in rehearsal, and then we play them live, and we record the live shows, and we record them very well, almost like it is a studio.

“And after a while, we play them very well. So, we keep releasing live albums with brand new material, and that’s just a way that we can function and keep going on the road and keep rehearsing, and we rehearse a lot, in a way that works for us. If we were to change course and do a studio album, that means usually taking nine months to a year off to write the material, then go in the studio for three, four months and mix it for three more months, so a year-and-a-half is gone. And then you hit the road and you promote that new album.”

Levin’s been part of quite a few King Crimson studio and live albums, starting with 1981’s Discipline, released five years after Levin met Fripp and Peter Gabriel for the first time while working on Gabriel’s debut solo album. While Levin would go on to work with Gabriel for the next four decades, he's also part of a few King Crimson incarnations.

“The bands were very different, but of course the thread in common, aside from me being around, is Robert Fripp,” Levin says. “To me, his vision is really what the term is. ‘What is King Crimson?’ With those same lineups, we could have done a few different styles of music and taken in different directions. So, Robert is kind of the last word on what’s appropriate for King Crimson.

“I don’t know if even he knows how to describe that. I certainly don’t. But it’s very helpful in a band. I’ve been in a lot of bands. It’s very helpful when one guy really has a sense of where you’re going and even if something’s good the guy can say, ‘You know what, that’s not right for this band. Let’s turn and go this other way. Or let’s give up on that direction and try something else.’”

Levin says that was in common in the different versions of the band, but each group was different things. The ‘80s lineup, which included Fripp, Levin, guitarist and singer Adrian Belew and drummer Bill Bruford, was doing “those inter-meshing guitar lines, and I played the Chapman Stick with guitar lines myself, and we’re doing something really we hadn’t heard before and hadn’t been done before.”

The next incarnation of King Crimson, which formed in 1995 with Fripp, Levin, Belew, Mastelotto and Trey Gunn, was trying to avoid that.

“It would have been easy to keep doing that and bringing in more material in that style, but we were trying to look for new styles,” Levin says. “We had what was called the double trio in the ‘90s – and even though it never ended up breaking down into two trios, it was six guys the whole time – but we thought sonically it would be two trios – but it ended up being three duos of two guys on each instrument, which was very interesting.”

For Levin, those kinds of experiments demonstrate how flexible King Crimson can be.

“What’s thrilling to me is to be on this journey that doesn’t stop. We really do not try to just do what we used to do because we like doing it. We love doing it, but we try to really progress and arrive at a new musical place and maybe inspire some young players or maybe not, but certainly challenge ourselves.”

King Crimson, 8 p.m., Saturday, June 24, Bellco Theatre, $45-$129.50, 303-228-8000.