STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Stick Men, the progressive rock trio comprised of Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter, start the U.S./Canada tour at Havana in New Hope on April 13. The tour and the band’s new album is titled “Prog Noir.”
Last year Levin performed at Havana with Levin Brothers, the jazz ensemble he formed with his brother Pete. Whereas Levin Brothers perform traditional jazz in the style of Oscar Pettiford, Stick Men is stylistically more along the lines of Levin and Mastelotto’s work in King Crimson. However with a trio format — as opposed to the most recent incarnation of King Crimson that was a septet and included 3 drummers — all the band members have a lot more room to fill the space sonically. They also have more opportunities to improvise.
Most of Stick Men’s material originates from Levin. In fact, the band was born out of what began as a solo project for Levin.
“Tony was making a solo record… and asked me to make some drum loops,” said Mastelotto from his home in Texas. “He told me he wanted to feature the [Chapman] stick a lot more. So I contributed to that record, which became ‘Stick Man,’ [Lazy Bones Recordings, 2007] and then afterwards he said ‘well, let’s do some touring.’ He found another stick player in upstate New York, Michael Bernier. We became Stick Men, and we did gigs with Michael for a few years.”
Subsequently Bernier left the band and he was replaced by Reuter, who is not a stick player but who plays his self-designed touch guitar. They kept the band name Stick Men.
Because Levin lives in upstate New York, Mastelotto lives in Texas and Reuter lives in Germany, the band members are rarely in the same room during the writing and recording process.
“The majority of it is done long distance, through e-mails, Skyping and Dropbox and YouSendIts and all that,” explained Mastelotto. “Occasionally, we do actually get in a room together and rehearse and we’re going to do that in a few weeks before this tour. We’re going to have almost a week of rehearsal and preparation to try and learn to play some of this material live.”
Mastelotto also touched on Levin’s unique approach to writing and doing preliminary recordings while on tour with King Crimson.
“Tony had a studio set up in the hotel room and he did a lot of writing and was (sharing) MP3s almost daily while we were touring with Crimson.”
In an e-mail interview Levin elaborated, saying that the hotel room sessions were “pretty late in the writing process… in fact, about a year after it started. Working on music in the hotel room isn’t great fun; you have to lug the instrument and recording stuff there each night. But with Crimson’s tour schedule — multiple shows in each city — I was using the 2nd show days to practice anyway, so it wasn’t a big stretch. I couldn’t get really good quality sound that way so it was very useful for making a map of the piece, and finding the right tempo… stuff like that. All my parts had to be re-recorded later.”
Those who are familiar with Stick Men’s previous work will notice a change — the addition of vocals to more of their newer material.
“It was not an intentional goal,” said Levin. “Sometimes you have something to say, and so you use the record as a vehicle for that, as the song ‘The Tempest,’ which encompasses a poem I wrote about 9/11. But sometimes a piece will start as instrumental and you start hearing a song over it. The great thing about this album is that we took our time with the process, so there was opportunity for pieces to develop in the way they wanted to.”
One interesting thing about Stick Men’s live shows is that despite having a written framework the band also utilizes the opportunity to improvise.
“We have always done some improvs, and by that I mean not making up a solo… but playing a piece from scratch, with no plan for it,” said Levin. “We do it to different degrees on each tour and show; it depends a little on what material is sounding good, and on the upcoming tour we’ll have a lot of new material.”
Mastelotto added: “We try to improvise (something at) every show… and extract some of those ideas. We might come to sound check the next day and maybe Tony has a riff or Marcus has a riff and we’ll present that or put a little beat together and say ‘okay, when we improvise tonight maybe the second time we’ll try and use this little motif’ and just see if it helps us kick start any other ideas.”
This is a rare opportunity to see Levin and Mastelotto in a smaller, more intimate setting than when they tour with King Crimson and when Levin tours with Peter Gabriel. With the intimacy comes a lot more hard work for them.
“It means we’re loading the gear, we’re eating whatever backstage food is available, if we even arrive in time to get a meal,” said Mastelotto. “We’re driving ourselves, we’re booking our own flights… Stick Men is just like any other garage band, really. Any other bunch of guys in a band trying to make it happen. You might think at our age it’s all a big time routine, but it’s not.”
It is clearly a labor of love for the trio.
“We’re lucky as musicians,” said Mastelotto. “We get to do work that we enjoy. I feel sorry for a dude that has to work all day at a gig he hates. I’m a lucky guy. I realize I’m a very very lucky guy.”