Keith Levene:
Musician, Player and Listener, February 1985

Transcribed by Dave K & M

© MPL 1985

Post Punk Pioneer

Unstinting Innovation from a Guitarist Who Doesn't Blink by Julie Panebianco

Keith Levene, skateboard kneepads slung around his ankles, has one leg propped on the board of a Fairlight computer, balancing a bright red Ibanez guitar strapped to his chest. "What do you expect from me? Rock 'n' roll or something?" he laughs to his engineer after recording a particularly dissonant chord onto the disc of the CMI. Levene slams out a rapacious rock riff: "Here, name that program Johnny," he grins slyly, referring to former associate John Lydon. "After Thunders," he emphasizes, "my man."

Levene's collaboration with Lydon in the eclectic, infamous Public Image Ltd. corporation/band came to an end a year ago. It was the culmination of a friendship/business partnership that began after Lydon dumped the Sex Pistols and Levene jumped ship on the Clash (during the recording of their first LP). PiL was an explosive, diverse, much-discussed presence on the music scene, and as they garnered praises (and abuse) Levene was christened the first "post-punk" guitarist.

Indeed, his two-fisted harmonic wallop sounded like two guitars—rhythm and lead—played at the same time. "People joked that there was someone else sitting behind the amplifier," smiles Levene. His hypnotic style influenced the Gang of Four, Killing Joke, the Psychedelic Furs, and especially U2's guitarist the Edge. "He sounds so much like that sometimes I think it is me," Levene mutters sarcastically.

About PiL's fallout, Levene says, "It couldn't have carried on because was hated each other's guts." There was a year of hassles: "I went through hell with all the legal ramifications of quitting PiL. I was imprisoned on their English label Virgin, and there was a total lack of response from Lydon and PiL—whoever they are now—as to my royalty settlement." And there was still the question of what to do with the tapes of the last PiL album. Levene completed and released them on his own label under the title Commercial Zone, while Elektra issued Lydon's version of most of the same songs—with horns filling in for the distinctive guitar parts—as This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get.

"I have every right to release this in American territories," Levene declares on a break from his beloved Fairlight at a New York studio. "This is not a bootleg. But I had to get it out of my system," he stresses. "I had to release Commercial Zone to end the situation and to fight back, because I was being trodden on by major record companies and repulsive manager-type people. It has all been very annoying.

"What PiL did for their record was use the ideas on the original tapes that suited them, but they re-recorded everything with new musicians.

"I don't really know why," he reflects, "I've heard This Is What You Want and it doesn't sound better; I don't know if it was a personal dig at me, or whether they really thought it sounded like shit," Levene shrugs.

He is embittered about the split, but a year off, with time concentrated on his wife, ex-Pullsalama member Lori Montana, and their baby son Kirk, has made him a happier man. He has just undertaken a project for Activision, to design software product for home computers and video games; he has also returned to recording.

"Producing PiL and producing myself is one and the same thing," he smirks, "except they aren't here so I get a lot more done, and it's more fun. What I do is, I make it up as I go along. I don't write music, I write everything around a sound. A similar analogy is when you work on a computer, you can store everything you do to disc and edit it later; that's what I do to tape.

"With PiL, our bassist Jah Wobble couldn't play, which was brilliant," Levene laughs, "because he didn't have any pre-set standards about what rock 'n' roll was, or what guitarists were, or whatever. Nor did I, particularly. So we both just stood around and made things up. The 'PiL Theme' which is the most structured thing we'd ever done—it's got verse, chorus, a lead bit—we made up as we went along in the studio. We had it on the multi-track—this was out first 24-track experience—and we had to cut a big slice out of the actual tape and then glue it together in a certain sequence. I do that a lot."

The sounds he records, states Levene, have to "stimulate people." "Like, I'll bombard the tune with high frequencies," he explains, "or I'll layer it, put low frequency underneath and ultra high frequency on top. The tune is irrelevant. I want them to write the tune. I want them to hear it on different levels—like when they play it loud, or when they play it and they're doing something else. 'Blue Water'—that's a floor shaker—is designed to be listened to really loud, and I used very slow, low frequencies. It can exhaust you, listening to that at a loud volume."

Another tactic Levene favors is repetition. "I like that circular, jangly thing, which is a guitar trademark of mine—it is total repetition; it has an overall effect and an individual effect. For 'Poptones' on Second Edition, each time I play the phrase it has one effect, each note means something else. It's like reggae, I was very influenced by reggae, the deep bass, the repetitiveness.

"If you keep looking at a white wall—if you look at it for a second, you'll see a white wall, if you keep looking at it for five minutes, you'll see different colors, you're going to see different patterns in front of your eyes—especially if you don't blink. And your ears don't blink."

Levene's infamous circular rhythms, he claims, indirectly come from things Yes guitarist Steve Howe taught him. "When I was fifteen I went to work for my favorite band as a roadie—which was Yes—and I was a terrible roadie. Yeah, so even though I play nothing like him, Steve Howe is still my favorite guitarist. I don't copy him. I do get a lot of my internal knowledge, or feeling on guitar, or what you can do and what kinds of sounds you can make from Steve Howe. I think he is so damned good; he taught me a lot, when I worked for Yes, but he didn't know he was my hero."

When Levene formed the Clash with Mick Jones, he didn't even own a guitar: "Yeah, due to my misspent youth. And Bernard Rhodes, our manager, got me an awful guitar. With the Clash, I played really fast, what hardcore turned into, but with 60s rock and roll material—Mick Jones really had the rock 'n' roll romantic bug. The Ramones album had come out, and there was no lead on it, and I really loved that, the heavy rhythm.

"My style came out with PiL, though, and it wasn't what I played, it was what I didn't play. I had this rule, if I made a mistake while I was playing, I'd repeat it twice, just to check it out. A lot of my best stuff came from that, it really did. I'm not saying that to be avant-garde of far out.

"Guitarists always ask me, 'What effects do you use, do you use an echoplex?' I'd say, 'A guitar, through a twin reverb,' and they are really surprised." He points out proudly: "When people say I sound like two guitarists, they mean because of the amount of sounds and harmonics that I generate." He shyly adds: "And I like that."

The music he is making right now he plans to release himself or work out one shot deals with smaller record companies—he has already turned down contracts from two major labels. "I know it's not worth signing the standard artist deal. The only thing they offer is money—it is like an inverted loan instead of borrowing from a bank and paying 12 percent interest on top."

Levene shakes his head, and grabs his skateboard, on his way out of the studio for some coffee. On the street, he wavers on the board unsteadily and almost runs over an old lady with shopping bags. Levene giggles, and confesses that he's recording some heavy metal tunes, "Good stuff, if you like that sort of thing. But mostly I like orchestral things like 'Radio Four,' off Second Edition, or Flowers of Romance's 'Hymie's Hymn.' You know, I much prefer the 1812 Overture to the recent Michael Jackson single."

Inset: Levene's Machines

"I'm not one of your old guitar freaks," Keith Levene makes clear. He mostly uses a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe sunburst. "Got a Kramer with a Floyd Rose on it, and an Ibanez Les Paul, which I like because of the tension—the way it goes back in tune every time is great. I used to have a Valino all-metal guitar—used that for the 'Public Image Theme'—but John Lydon's brother nabbed it." Strings: D'Addario or Ernie Ball Lights.

Levene likes to practice on an acoustic guitar—"a typical Ovation. It's blue, mono or stereo, and it's really nice: an '82 or '83 model." He also uses a Scholz Rockman: "quite expensive, but very good." He has a Roland G-707 guitar synthesizer, "one of those Yamaha String Things, I've forgotten the model," and a Synthaxe—"it's the best guitar synth out, 'cause it works."

For taping, Levene has a Burnell 8-track one-inch, an Ilia audio desk to go with it, and an AMS true time harmonizer. Also, an Otari half-inch 8-track and 2-track.


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