Pick any song from King Crimson’s massive catalogue over the past five decades and you’ll hear varying degrees of complexity, whether it’s the prog-rock band’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, or the live albums with the group's most recent lineup. And the music is still challenging for even a veteran bassist and Chapman Stick player like Tony Levin, who joined the band in 1981.
“King Crimson is complex because of not so much that it’s shredding and playing very fast notes, although some of it’s pretty fast," Levin says. "It’s the concentration. It’s the time signatures, which are very complex. And sometimes, in fact often, not all of us are playing in the same time signature.”
On King Crimson's fiftieth-anniversary tour, which stops at the Paramount Theatre on Sunday, September 8, the band is touring as a septet that includes Robert Fripp; Levin; saxophonist and flutist Mel Collins, who was in the band in the early ’70s and rejoined in 2013; singer and guitarist Jakko Jakszyk; and drummers Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey.
“They don’t just pound away the same drum parts, but they’re doing very complex and interesting things,” Levin says. “They’re spread entirely across the front of the stage, so you can hear drum fills go from left to right across the whole stage.”
Levin says keeping it all together can be a challenge, particularly if bandmembers are a little tired or they’ve done a number of shows in a row.
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“We have one of those nights where people do make little mistakes, but it adds up to a big challenge for the band to stay together,” Levin says. “It’s very complex music. In a way, it’s like classical music in that it’s complex — not that we can’t play the parts, but you need your full concentration, and any lapse could have big repercussions.
“I’m talking as a guy inside the band. So we in the band are aware of all of that," he continues. "The audience really enjoys the pieces, and unless we have to actually stop the piece, they don’t usually realize the little mistakes that are going on within it. It’s been a few years since it was such a train wreck that we had to stop.”
Levin says there have been some near-misses over the years, but the closest they’ve come in a long time to stopping was during the first show of the North American leg of this tour, in Mexico City, playing the complex song “EleKtriK."
“Somehow we kept going, and somehow, magically, we were able to get on the same path again,” Levin says. “It’s easy in most bands, where just the drummer will turn around and say, "One-two-three-four," and you all hit on the same beat. But when you’re not counting in the same time signature, there’s no such thing as one-two-three-four.”
On this fifty-city fiftieth-anniversary tour, King Crimson can draw on 55 to 60 songs to choose from on any given night, from early material to newer songs written by members of the current lineup.
“Robert [Fripp] only decides that morning, and we find out early afternoon what he proposes as the set list, and if it works for all of us, we do that," Levin says. “Each night is a really different show. And each year is a very different show.”
Levin says that with the seven-piece lineup, the band is able to sonically do a lot of the things that the band did in the ’60s and early ’70s ’ — “actually, all the things that they did years ago that we weren’t able to do in previous incarnations of the band. We have a wide choice of what to do, and it’s fun and very challenging for me as a bass player to keep up with the other guys. The musicianship is very high-level in this band.”
Levin says that people coming to the shows on this tour seem to be enjoying the music not only in a historic way, “but they seem to agree with us that there’s something special about this incarnation and about reimagining the whole catalogue of King Crimson. And I feel that this is a band that doesn’t at all try to repeat itself, and there’s something musically validating about that, and we feel great about our live show.”
While Bill Rieflin had originally joined King Crimson in 2013, first as a drummer and later as a keyboardist, he isn’t joining the band on the current tour. Instead, Stacey is playing keyboard parts in addition to drumming, and Collins, Jakszyk, Fripp and Levin also play occasional keyboard parts.
“Five of the seven of us have keyboards,” Levin says. “It’s somewhat more orchestral. There are a lot of sonic options we can bring to the table. And we don’t overdo it, but we try to cover what’s just right for that song.”
Levin says there aren’t any immediate plans for a studio album, but instead they're recording the live shows in high-quality audio in case something magical happens.
“We don’t know when it’s going to happen,” Levin says. “If something like that happens, we will release that album in as good a fashion as we can. And it gives us more time to do what we really primarily love to do, which is play our music in front of people. Unfortunately — not always — but you have to take half a year or a whole year off from touring to get a studio album. Then it behooves you to tour with primarily that music, and that’s not what we want to do right now.”
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In addition to the six live albums King Crimson has released since 2015, later this month the band is releasing the five-CD boxed set King Crimson Live 2014-2018 (Audio Diary), which includes one live set per disc. The recent live albums are snapshots of just how technically proficient the musicians are — but also how Fripp’s vision as band director has shaped King Crimson.
“One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate through the years is how good a band director he is, in that he suggests the direction of the band, but he really doesn’t tell people what to play,” Levin says. “He indicates in other, more subtle ways the way he senses what the band ought to be, and he allows everybody the freedom to be themselves as a musician, which is pretty important with guys who play at a high level.
“So one feels respected and one has the freedom in the band to really be oneself," Levin continues. "And partly the way he does that is he doesn’t just get a direction in mind. Let’s say, for example, three drummers might be a good idea. But he specifically chooses the three drummers that he has a sense can work together and can work in a musical way to find some drum attitude that no one has ever done before.”