Mention Level 42 to anyone who knows or remembers them and you’re bound to get two different accounts in return.
One is that of an amazingly proficient jazz-funk outfit that catered to the U.K muso crowd and beyond and the other is that of a 1980’s hit-maker that landed some 20 toe-tappers on the U.K. Top 40, not to mention a couple of U.S. Top 10ers in “Something About You” and “Lessons In Love.”
The one constant driving the multi-faceted band, of course, is bassist and singer Mark King.
Renowned for his slap-happy lines that echo the likes of Stanley Clarke and Larry Johnson as well as his distinctive vocals, King, 51, has directed the band to over 30 million in sales, while creating a devout subculture of bass-under-the-chin followers who dare try to emulate his rub-your-stomach-while-patting-your-head style on YouTube and other outlets.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Level 42 and to celebrate, King and company – original keyboardist/vocalist Mike Lindup, guitarist Nathan King (Mark’s younger brother), saxophonist Sean Freeman and new drummer Pete Ray Biggin – are playing dates in the United States for the first time in 22 years (see www.level42.com for details).
In this chat with Bass Musician Magazine, King reveals some secrets behind his propulsive playing style, the band’s history and also talks of some soon-to-be-released new material to go with the band’s year of reflection.
Bob: Well Mark, it’s been 22 years since Level 42 graced these shores as a band. So what went into the decision to finally come here in 2010 for some dates? You’ve certainly made a lot of your U.S. hardcore fans happy.
Mark: Thank you, Bob. We are really excited to be coming over there again after so long, but it isn’t really down to us. It’s down to the business end of having local promoters take the risk and bring us over. It isn’t quite as simple as “hop on a plane and do a show wherever we like.” But we are coming this year, so all is well.
Bob: Level 42 may not have been successful here as it was in the UK and Europe, but the band’s success here in the 80s seemed, from a distance, to mark kind of a dramatic turning point. On one hand, it reached new success internationally with some Top 10 hits here and MTV exposure, not to mention your increased standing as one of the world’s best bass players. But at the same time, it seemed to mark a tipping point in the direction of the band with original drummer Phil Gould and guitarist Book Gould leaving the band. So are your memories of the U.S. happy ones or bittersweet in anyway?
Mark: The 1980’s were a great time to be on the road in the U.S. and I have far more good memories than bad. It was very hard work at the time as we were advancing on two fronts, as it were, trying to break out in the U.S., but keeping the momentum we had created back home going where we were having some pretty sizeable success. Inevitably, something has to give under those circumstances and, as you say, we underwent a line-up change in 1987, which was at the height of it all for us. Fortunately one of the perks of loads of work is that we could look for some amazing replacements, which we found in Gary Husband and Alan Murphy – great players, and even lovelier guys to hang with!
Bob: What kind of audiences do you think you’ll be playing to when you take the stage from America?
Mark: Humanoid almost certainly. Ha! But I’ll be very happy to see any and all faces at the shows.
Bob: Before getting into a little bass chat, I did want to ask you what your thoughts of the band’s history and highlights are? You probably didn’t think we’d still be talking about Level 42 when you left your job selling basses at Macari’s Music Shop in London 30 years ago.
Mark: Well, I was 21 when the band began and, at that age, it’s hard to see three years down the line, let alone 30. I do remember thinking that guys over 40 should have the good grace to step aside and let the new talent through and at 50 they should be living in a home for the aged somewhere. Needless to say that, now I’m 51, I consider those thoughts hurtful, not to mention childish. But the 30th anniversary is here and though, in my mind’s eye, I see it as just one more year that follows the last, it is still a long time to be in the in the same band.
Bob: The story of your evolution as a bass player, starting as wanting to be the best drummer on the Isle of Wight, is pretty well-documented. At the time band started, you really hadn’t been playing bass that long – yet your playing quickly became a band signature. Were you ever surprised how naturally you took to the instrument and playing slap?
Mark: I don’t think you see it that way when you are heads down and charging for the line. And to be perfectly honest, I thought my tenure on the bass would be a short one, at least until I could get behind the drums in a band somewhere. But Level 42 was proving to be a great vehicle for an up-coming bass player and because my influences were drawn from the 60’s and 70’s and the fusion, funk, jazz, and rock that had exploded into my ears, I thought it gave me free license to try anything. And as a drummer-in-waiting, transferring that percussive approach to the bass seemed quite natural. Having heard guys like Doug Rauch, Stanley Clarke and Louis Johnson doing their thing, I thought this was the way to go.
Bob: At what point did melody and notes start becoming important to you, versus just playing percussively and fast?
Mark: Developing as a singer within the band, I suppose. We all know that if you play guitar or piano you can support yourself harmonically and rhythmically while you sing. But bass is good for that too if you are willing to move away from the root note and ‘flesh’ the piece out. Throw in a portion of percussive slap and you’ve got yourself a one-man band.