Guitar Magazine, May 200
Thanks to: Jenny Knight & Karsten Roekens
© 2004 Jenny Knight / Guitar Magazine
Pioneering PiL guitarist Keith Levene is back with a new project, Murder Global, and ready to show his imitators how it's really done. Jenny Knight dodges those vicious hooks...
did you know it was me?' the man responsible for some the most searing
riffs of the post-punk years asks suspiciously as we accost him in Hackney's
Ocean venue. This strikes us as odd. Levene is a real guitarist's guitarist;
a man whose steely, glacial landscapes are widely plagiarised to this
day. We're hardly likely to forget him.
Although you may have presumed Levene to have disappeared off the face of the planet 10 years ago, in actual fact he had been working in graphic design and making film soundtracks in the States. Now back on English soil, Levene has plenty of irons in the fire.
'I started working again about five years ago because I was frustrated with EMI for not pushing my back catalogue enough for soundtracks and adverts. So I thought, fuck it - if they're not going to move I'll move, and I made Killer In The Crowd, almost as my new calling card.'
And what a calling card. Killer... is a club-friendly classic that vaults stylistic benchmarks from track to track, allowing Levene to show off his dub roots, caustic soundscapes and remarkably primal rhythms.
Levene's former adversary, PiL drummer Martin Atkins, will be putting the EP and following album out on his label Invisible, a post-punk/industrial stable that has had the likes of Pigface, Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, Killing Joke and Swans pass through the back catalogue. This must have raised some eyebrows, considering how Atkins maintains Levene fired him twice from the band...
'It's all a bit weird me working with Martin again because I was supposed to have left PiL because of him - and I did leave PiL because of him,' Levene states, only adding to the mystery. 'I was very wary about contacting him again, but I finally did and we threw 20 years of bullshit down the toilet and said, "Okay, we're big boys now." I haven't even seen him yet. He sent me some data through the post and I put some guitar on it and it was easy. I said to him, "Martin, fuck all this admin - let's get in a room and I'll get on bass and we can play something wicked." And then he started sending me all these e-mails saying [puts on pretentious voice]: "It would be much more commercially viable if you played guitar on the record" and things like that. I fucking hate being told what to do. It's not a childish thing; it's just that if I want to make a record a certain way I've got a reason for doing it. I'm fucking 46 years old and I just find it patronising for a guy that I consider to be my peer telling me "well I think for the American market you should play guitar" when I'm going to anyway.'
Virgin Records recently released compilation Death Disco - Songs from the Dance Floor 1978-84 that includes PiL's Death Disco and Haile Unlikely from the Steel Leg Vs Electric Dread EP featuring Levene and PiL bassist Jah Wobble, along with Don Letts.
'Oh man, I want them to release anything I've made - as much as possible,' Levene says. 'What I'm not happy with when it comes to PiL is the amount of attention John [Lydon] gets when I could do so much for
Can we take it Levene wasn't an avid viewer of the I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here series then?
'I never watched a second of it but I had people texting me and keeping me posted on it, which I really didn't need. I did see him on Jonathan Ross the other night and to be quite honest he scared the shit out of me. It's so weird because two nights before that I was doing a gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the guy that organises Meltdown said, "What would you do if I got John Lydon and asked you to reform PiL?" And I said, "I wouldn't consider it for less than a million quid. Why don't we reform the band and not call it PiL?" It was weird talking about John and the feasibility of working with him, and it really got me thinking about it, but then I saw him on TV and I'm not saying he was terrible, but I realised he's so far away from my planet...'
Post-PiL, Levene largely floated from project to project without ever dropping anchor. Does he prefer to work alone?
'Well I would have stuck with PiL, man, if they stuck to the plan. I really like working with other people and I've been thinking recently about going back to America because it's so much easier to get access to artists and just work with them - I could have been on Queens Of The Stone Age and Mars Volta albums.'
At this point, Levene is reluctantly dragged off for our photo shoot at local studio Toerag, an analogue-lover's heaven patroned by the likes of The White Stripes. After we gallivant around east London for a bit getting lost and debating whether to get sidetracked by a dodgy pub, we locate the studio and Levene perks up considerably at the sight of all the vintage equipment. He makes a beeline for the upright bass, confessing he's got his eye on an electric version.
In March, Levene continued his long-standing collaboration with label On-U-Sound by joining members of Asian Dub Foundation and Techno Animal with Adrian Sherwood in a live Sound System soundclash. This love of dub that also coloured PiL's music goes a long way back.
'My interest in dub was innate,' he says with his usual wired enthusiasm. 'When I was a kid I used to get all these reggae singles coming out of Kingston on Trojan Records. They started doing this thing where they played the backing track on the b-side without the vocals. That moved on to having a guy toasting over it - not too well - and then that progressed into them experimenting with it, and the dub thing came from that. I grew up in Finsbury Park till I was five and then moved to Southgate, and I used to go to the clubs around there and East Finchley with my older sister when I was 11 and do these silly little dances with my little mates.'
The young Levene then started absorbing records in earnest and practising guitar on average eight hours a day. When asked what he listens to these days, he namechecks John Frusciante, returning the compliment the Chili Pepper paid to him back in our April issue. 'And Peter Green - he's up and running again, isn't he?
'It's all bassists at the moment, though. Mos Def is the most wicked bass player you'll ever hear. I've been listening to everything, though: Aerosmith, hip-hop, Mozart, old punk stuff...
'I play along to Queens Of The Stone Age or Stone Temple Pilots and make up my own backing tracks. I can make up tunes so quick, man,' he says, snapping his fingers. 'The best way to play is you just don't think. Sometimes I get stuck in what I call the "marshmallow department", which comes from Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bass video where he's talking about improvising and he says, "Sometimes I'm just like a stale marshmallow." And it's true - sometimes when you're improvising, if you start thinking about something you're fucked - but within seconds you could be doing something amazing again. If I'm really stuck I'll just do some exercises, and suddenly you realise you've stopped doing the exercises and you're playing a line.'
Is that what you would do if you freeze when you're playing live?
'No, just don't freeze when you're playing live!' he hoots. 'It happened at the On-U gig - this guy on stage grabs me by the arm when I'm playing, so of course I think he wants me to stop, but he doesn't. It was just it was so loud and echoey that he was freaked out and he wanted to hold me and listen to my rhythm to get back in.'
One of Levene's biggest influences is master of improv Steve Howe. While still in his teens Levene was first hired - then fired - as a roadie for Yes, the latter down to his habit of fannying around on their instruments instead of actually maintaining them.
'He's my favourite guitarist,' Levene says of Howe. 'I went to five of their gigs in a row and I ended up working for them when I was 16. The very next thing I did after that was The Clash.'
But surely punks and proggers are mortal enemies?
'Well, before bands like the Sex Pistols you had bands like Eddie and The Hot Rods and The Stranglers who were kind of the missing link, but yeah - the whole punk ethos was to do what the fuck you like and reject the idea that you have to be brilliant at your instrument to be in a band. But I used to know guys who were really good at guitar and just wouldn't show it, so that was stupid.'
The teen Levene would avidly analyse and admire Howe's skills. Did the noodler ever take him under his wing?
'No, but I've realised there's certain stuff I've done like him that I totally didn't notice at the time,' admits Levene. 'There's this tune called Poptones on PiL's Metal Box which is totally ripped off from Starship Trooper, but I didn't do it on purpose!
'Still,' he adds darkly, referring to various individuals and record companies alike, 'I've been ripped off enough myself now...'
You know it.
Killer In The Crowd is
out 25th May on Invisible.
Thanks to Toerag Studios
GET IN TUNE - SOME KEITH FACTS
1. After stints in The Clash
and Public Image Limited, Levene went on to guest on records by Pigface,
Glen Matlock, Hillel Slovak and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, and
countless On-U-Sound artists, amongst others
2. Missing Channel is Keith's production company and studio, currently producing both his own projects and those by new bands FCK and Plakka
3. The (Royalty) Cheque's In The Post: Artists as diverse as The Slits, Massive Attack, Fugazi, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Big Black, Explosions In The Sky, U2 and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs all owe Mr Levene a nod
4. Keith Levene is now, by his own admission, 'like a fucking schoolgirl slut' over bass, playing a minimum of four hours a day on his Fender Precision and Music Man Stingray
5. In 1976 Levene was in an aborted band with Sid Vicious called Flowers of Romance - also with Viv Albertine and Palmolive of The Slits, and Adam Ant guitarist Marco Pirroni - and is the man responsible for padlocking the chain around Vicious' neck... despite not owning the key
6. 'Camera Dodgers' is a project in the making, involving Levene and his crew stalking the streets of Hackney, taking secret footage of illegal arrests and exploring the secret lives of CCTV cameras - all to be set to the man's own score, of course
All of Levene's quirky PiL-era
guitars have been pilfered, but he prefers exploring new equipment anyway...
'It's just straightforward Keith guitar on Killer... - I'm playing a 1956 Epiphone Les Paul, not going through any effects. I get my sound through me through the guitar and I can do it with any guitar,' he declares. 'People don't exploit their guitar enough - they're too busy piling pods and effects on it.'
'My studio has standard digital equipment that pretty much runs like
24-track studios used to run, but it's digital so I don't have to wait half an hour for a tune to wind back.
'I do like analogue sounds, but I just buy a chip of '60s or '70s synths and chump it in something,' he explains. 'Killer... was recorded on a Roland VS-1680 16-track workstation (see, you can make records with one of these things - ed). I then use programs such as BIAS Peak and HyperEngine on the Mac to enhance it when it comes to mastering and post-editing.'
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
Keith Levene, London 2004 © Jenny Knight / Guitar Magazine