MUSIC WRITER IN JAPAN
4th February 2015
Q: Good to see you Mark; how are you doing?
MK: Ooohhh…we are really struggling with jetlag. It’s the most bizarre thing because over the years I’ve come here a lot and this just seems to be the worst one. All I want to do is sleep and stare at people. (laughs)
Q: Well it’s good to see you back anyway. I think this is your seventh trip here.
MK: We love coming here – we really do. I know that artists say that all the time and I’m sure that anyone who does say that means it and it’s genuine because it’s such a culture shift for everybody. We love the respectfulness that the people have for each other here, the lovely manners, wonderful food and the efficiency. That’s probably something here everybody takes for granted but when you come in you really see it. My wife and I love good restaurants with good food and we notice very much that European staff that work in good restaurants are much nicer than the British. The British waiters and waitresses are horrible and it seems to them to be a massive inconvenience to them that they have to do their job. (laughs) Here, you get into the hotel and you know that everything works and everyone seems to be happy with their life.
Q: I know exactly what you mean. Moving on, I read great reviews of the Bluestfest at the RAH.
MK: It was good wasn’t it considering we are not really Blues. (laughs) Actually I’m not really sure where we do fit in. I’m always interested in where people think we do fit in: where do you think we do?
Q: I guess the obvious one is British Funk but then what is British Funk? You probably started it!
MK: (laughs) There is a lot of good Funk bands in the country it has to be said.
Q: Well I was a fan through the ‘70s and ‘80s and I remember seeing you on The Tube doing that fantastic solo…
MK: That was 1984. It was bizarre. It just happened to be the week… I remember Jools Holland - who along with Paula Yates was very ‘hands on’ in the show – he said ‘There was a bit of a bass theme running through the show this week and you are the man of the moment, would you mind while I’m talking standing behind me and doing your stuff and then we’ll let the camera come onto you’. So I said yes and just got up and did what I do and it had such an effect and it was very good for the band. There was a good notch up in the band’s popularity after that but it was also a good crossover for a lot of people who watched The Tube but wouldn’t necessarily have been party to the British Funk movement that we had just come in on the three years previously. It was quite a transitional time for us because in 1984 we were running with the True Colours album and the single from that was Hot Water. We know that time was running out for us in terms of the contract that we had with the record company and they had made it pretty clear that even though we were doing all right, we needed to crossover and sell to a wider audience if that was at all possible and that appearance on The Tube was a very important part. We then wrote Something About You and Leaving Me Now which were two hits for us and Something About You became our first Top 10 hit in the USA so we managed to achieve that crossover. That then took us down another route which is what prompted me to ask you where we fit in because the band did change quite a lot.
Q: Well I remember watching that solo on The Tube and the next night I was down the Marquee and everyone was talking about it. There was a group of Heavy Metal bass players all sitting around saying ‘What do we now?’
Q: Your reputation as a live band is still intact. In 1987 you did 7 nights at Wembley Arena: 1988 you did 6 nights at Wembley, and in 1990, 15 nights at Hammersmith Odeon.
MK: Yeah it was phenomenal wasn’t it? Unreal…
Q: I think that record stood until Kate Bush took it last year.
MK: Yeah it hung in there a long time. I think the only guy who came in was Billy Connelly and did a run.
Q: Dylan came in the same year as you and did 14.
MK: Oh did he. What a shame. (laughs)
The ‘80s Revival
Q: There is currently a big resurgence in eighties music in the UK…
MK: Is it the same here?
Q: Oh yes. Midge Ure and Tom Bailey were here quite recently. Nik Kershaw as well, Howard Jones…
MK: I think they’ve just been out in the USA together…
Q: Yes thay have. What do you attribute the revival too and is it a reflection on the current music scene?
MK: Well I think that half way through the 90’s, music lost its way a little bit. When R&B took over, the whole broad spectrum that music had been through the ‘80’s suddenly became a lot more polarized and I think a lot of that you can attribute to earbuds and iPods, particularly earbuds because big sounds didn’t work that well through them. A lot of R&B is very basic and the voice comes through very well so Rap and the odd top line that comes in work and the rest of it is very simplistic drum patterns and a repetitive thing. It’s Beatboxing with a vocal and it works really well through earbuds so I think that was something that changed the way music was moving. Now, when you listen to it for the first time, you think ‘Yeah this is good’ but there is all this other stuff that has been forgotten. Then, because of iTunes and being able to download music, the record companies seemed to lose their way of what was required of them for a good ten years. When they realized that they were not selling music anymore, they wondered what to do and thought ‘Why not redo all this catalogue that we have got? Re-package it and sell it again.’ It started with us in early 2006 when Polydor came to us and said they wanted to do the Level Best album or whatever it was with the Rubik’s Cube on the cover and it went Top 20 and sold over 20,000 copies in the UK. Suddenly, that was good numbers again for record companies and they started putting out everybody’s music again and now of course, it’s fifteen years down the line and you have a whole new generation that had no idea that these bands existed. Combine that with You Tube and all the other social media where you can go online and see all this footage, if some young kid comes along and hears Level 42 or anybody else and they like it, they type it in and ‘bosh’ in the side pane you have all this stuff and they have this whole world of music that they have no idea existed. That must be really exciting. I do it a lot after gigs and stuff, just sit in my dressing room with my laptop and put something on I like and they are very clever because they put up other stuff that goes from one thing to another and this is the way that music has gone and what has shaped it for the last few years. Consequently, bands like us, Tom Bailey and Midge are being rediscovered.
The band and playing
Q: It’s astonishing that somehow, having 20 top 40 singles, there was never a No. 1.
Q: How did that happen?
MK: Well to be quite honest, I think we were punching within our weight but if you think back from where we started from, we were Punk-muso kids who were not interested in writing songs or singing. Our heroes were all the Jazz-Fusion guys, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis when we were growing up. Being British we loved a lot of the British Rock as well so Eric Clapton was fantastic, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and the bands they were associated with but Top Of The Pops didn’t mean much too us other than it was the only show that had music on it. When we got together as friends back in 1979 to jam, I don’t think any of us thought that Level 42 would be the vehicle to see us through. It really was just jamming, thinking that something else would come along. I would have a riff and someone else would and we would put them together and add it to a list of pieces. Our set lists in 1980 were ‘Funky Idea No. 1, Funky Idea No. 2, Latin, Bossa No. 5, Bossa No. 3, Slow-Ballardy Thing…and that’s all it was because there was no songs! The first producer we had, Andy Sojka, came along and he wasn’t that impressed with what he heard. He made that quite clear, sitting there scowling at our ideas and we were swapping instruments too! (laughs) Then when we got to the end of ideas he said ‘Well there was that riff you were playing which was a slow thing and I think you were playing bass’ as he pointed at me and Boon was on guitar so we swapped back again and it was the riff from Love Meeting Love. ‘That one I quite like’ he said ‘but it needs a melody. Find a singer and a melody and if you can come at me in two weeks and we’ll see what we can do.’ So we went off and I came up with the top line because it was my riff anyway and me and Boon were living in the same place in Walthamstow in North London and he just started writing lyrics which as it turned out he became really good at doing as was his brother Phil, who was the drummer. Their father was a journalist so they were quite into words and I think they felt it was a natural thing for them to do but anyway, it was just this thing with Andy that kind of pushed us down this road which ended up with me on bass. Really I was just waiting for a gig in a band as a drummer – that’s what I wanted to do – but Phil had the kit and was a fantastic drummer as well. Mike in fact was studying percussion at the Guildford School of Music and I think he thought he was going to be a drummer too but it just never worked out that way. Then when we started to put songs together, it transpires that Mike had a good falsetto voice and bearing in mind that Earth, Wind & Fire had Maurice White and Phil Bailey doing the split-octave thing, it seemed like a natural way for us to go. All this was coming together and completely unknown to us at the time was the fact that there was this Brit-Funk movement that had bands like Light Of The World, Linx and Central Line. All of these bands were going and when we first came out with the first record, Andy Sojka tapped straight into the DJ’s. they were playing it as a white label (with no wording on it) assuming it was a band from America and when they found out it wasn’t, the Brit-Funk movement went ‘’Yeah! We got another band!’ From nothing, we went straight to doing all-nighters, Soul-weekenders and gigging so much which was great for the band.
Q: Singing and playing bass is very challenging. Sting has said that when he plays he has to simplify some of The Police’s bass lines to enable him to sing the melody. So when you’re writing, does the melody lend itself to the bass line or vice versa?
MK: My role as a bass player in the band and I think it’s any bass player’s role is to do the right thing for the song and support it the best way you can. We spoke about Midge Ure earlier. He was recording The Gift album back in the ‘80’s and he asked me to come in and play. He was writing a song called If I Was and he was just playing straight and it was great but I could hear what it wanted was a moving bass line underneath it. He was playing eighths and the melody was nice so I almost lifted the Jackson’s Can You Feel it idea – if you listen to it, it’s very much like that. Writing for myself, riffs tend to stick around with you for ages just because of harmonically the way you play. Your hands just fall to the same sort of thing so I’m terrible for just pulling the same licks out the bag every time. If I go into the studio and think ‘I’ve got to write now’, I have to force myself to do it. Part of the remit of being a musician is that you are idle and a bit lazy so you have to go at it or the inspiration doesn’t come. When you get in there it’s all right but you know it’s that kind of walk across the back garden to the shed where the gear is – the longest mile. (laughs)
Q: I always remember a quote from John Entwhistle who said that when The Who used to rehearse, the first day was just rehearsing how to actually get to the rehearsal room.
MK: (laughs) Yeah! I can relate to that! (laughs) That’s it. You rehearse about how to get back into the idea of rehearsing and in the studio it’s the same. The first two days I’m almost thankful they are trying to get a drum sound because I have to remember how to get into that zone which usually combines sitting at the back of the control room with a crossword and a pen colouring politicians faces in newspapers.
The ‘80s Charity Gigs
Q: There’s a hundred different stories about Level 42 and Live Aid out there on the internet. Can we clear up once and for all the story about whether you were invited and then later dropped or you were never invited or…what happened?
MK: I’ll tell you the way the manger told me. He said we did get a call because the band were big at the time and I think we were one of the first ones who actually did get a call from Bob Geldolf but as the thing started snowballing with more and more artists, we were getting bumped further and further down the bill as bigger bands came on and suddenly we were off. It was a bit like qualifying for the Grand Prix (laughs).
Q: No Live Aid but you did do the two Prince’s Trust concerts in ’86 and ’87.
MK: ’85 was the first one for me. I also did 2011 an 2012 as well.
Q: With George and Ringo at one of them.
MK: Well it’s more what George said to me. He got may name right when he introduced me to his son: ‘This Mark, our drummer.’ ‘Ermm…bass player’ I said and then the only other thing was when he came over to me and said ‘Could you turn down please?’ (laughs) That was during While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I had a huge array of 4 x 10 cabinets that ran the entire length of the riser. It was so great being involved in those and the reason I got involved was thanks to Elton John because it was him who asked if I could come up and play in this super-group house band with himself, Eric, Mark Knofler and Phil Collins. One of my prize possessions is a photo I have at home of that first show. When the concert was going on, Bowie and Jagger showed up because they were in the charts with Dancing In The Street and Paul McCartney was the headlining act. So in the photo I have McCartney, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, me at the back, Mark Knofler, Bryan Adams and you can just see the head of Eric’s guitar. Elton and Phil were just out the shot but that’s quite a stellar stage.
Q: Would be running around naked in the pouring rain if that was me.
MK: Yeah I do! (laughs) I very often think of it when I have a shower.
Present Day and Future Plans
Q: Sirens was the last thing you put out?
MK: Yeah Sirens was an EP and this is what prompted me to put together a bigger band. We are a seven-piece at the moment with a great horn section who recorded Sirens in the studio. When I started putting that into the live set, it was so good with the horns it was very hard to go back from. We’re growing it really nicely and we are playing a lot of festivals this year and we are doing this really nice ‘getting there again’ vibe and I love that. There is a real good energy on stage with them and there’s even a bit of choreography that has crept in and it’s great fun. When I wrote Sirens, Nile Rogers had just had some success with Daft Punk and you have Mark Ronson out there now with Uptown Funk and there just seems to have been this good move back to good old Jazz-Funk and it just so happens that that was what was coming out in the studio with Sirens. There are six tracks on the EP and we play a lot of them in the set so you get a good mixture of old and new and it has come full circle. We are back to coming in where it’s good Funk bass, good staccato brass and of course Mike on The Rhodes. The vehicle that Level 42 is, really lets all these guys shine as instrumentalists;: you’ll be blown away by how great Pete is on the drums and you need the right vehicle to do that. You can’t play like that in Queen or Led Zeppelin – it’s a different thing.
Q: Will we ever see another full album from Level 42?
MK: When I was putting Sirens together, I was trying to decide if I wanted to hang on for another year which is what it might have taken to come up with another six tracks but we had a couple of shows coming up in London and I really wanted to play some of the new stuff there so I just did it as an EP. Maybe when another six songs come along I’ll do another EP.
Q: What’s lined up for the rest of 2015?
MK: Lots on. Me and Mike are playing with Billy Cobham at Ronnie Scott’s club. I’m doing a thing at the Bass Guitar Show in London and then we are off into the festival season. There’s a lot of festivals on.
Q: Nice talking to you Mark. Thank you very much.
MK: Nice chatting to you – thank you very much.