Bob: By the mid-1980s, you’re the house player for the Prince’s Trust band playing among the elite of the rock world with Clapton, Elton, the surviving Beatles, etc. I’ve often wondered what that was like and if your approach for those shows was to let it all hang out to show them what you’ve got or to reign it in for “The Gods.”
Mark: That was a blast! Eric Clapton was the first guy I bought on record so he will always be my hero. And finding yourself on stage standing shoulder to shoulder with all these legends is a surreal experience, to say the least. I was asked if I could “ turn down a bit “ by George Harrison, so I guess I did have to reign it in a little, but I’ve gotten over that now. There is another Prince’s Trust show planned for the end of this year and I can’t wait.
Bob: Toward the later 80’s and early 90’s, you seemed to have a growing interest in playing to serve the song, rather than having the songs as a springboard for your playing. Was that a difficult balance to strike, or was it just a natural progression as a musician?
Mark: The songwriting within the band was evolving, led primarily by the success we were having in the charts. And nothing succeeds like success, as they say. I love playing all kinds of music and working with the guys in Level 42 means we can cross-over musical genres and not be limited to any one style. By the early 90’s, we had certainly moved a long way from the albums we cut in 1980, but the real beauty of the band for me is that we can take to the stage today and play a track like “Mr. Pink” or “The Chinese Way” in the same set as “Something About You” or “It’s Over” and the fans dig it all.
Bob: Fast forward to your “One Man” solo album in 1998, which I don’t think had a note of slap on it…That was a real departure
Mark: It’s just where my head was at the time I guess. No conscious change of direction, just a collection of songs I had written with Boon Gould that didn’t seem to require slap bass.
Bob: You’ve always marveled people by playing with so much dexterity while singing at the same time, yet you’ve also said you’re not so precious about practicing. So I wanted to ask if there are songs in the Level 42 catalog that you actually did have to work out by playing slowly and then bringing it up to speed. Or are you the type that if it doesn’t come naturally, you just move on to something else?
Mark: I suppose it’s a case of painting yourself into a corner. You know, you lay the bass parts down as best you can, then a little while later you lay down the vocals and go to town on that, then a little while later you go into rehearsals for the tour and then it’s… “Mother of God, this is tricky!” But you just have to get on with it. When you look around there are some great bassist/singers out there. Jack Bruce, Colin Hodgkinson, Sting, Meshell (Ndgeocello), Paul McCartney…the list goes on, so I’m in good company.
Bob: My guess for the toughest song you pull off singing and playing would be “Sleeptalking” (off the Retroglide album in 2006) – particularly the end break.
Mark: “Sleeptalking” isn’t too bad, actually. I just lie back on the groove and think of England. But “To Be With You Again” was challenging at first, as is ‘Lessons in Love’, though more from a stamina point of view. My right arm is ready to fall off at the end of that one.
Bob: I’ve always felt your fingerstyle playing gets overlooked because you’re such a groove player. Do any of those types of bass lines rank among your favorites? “To Be With You Again,” perhaps?
Mark: Thanks again. Yes, I’ve always enjoyed playing “To Be With You Again” and it follows a tradition in the band of bass and guitar doubling lengthy sequences. Our first recording was “Love Meeting Love” and that follows the same format, as does “Kansas City Milkman.” I think the whole ‘sixteenths’ feel is the thing with our music, and if it isn’t the hi-hat ticking away at it, then the bass and guitar are.
Bob: You started using loops on your live bass solos on the 2009 tour. Was that an effort to try something new? Did you enjoy it and is it something we may see on the 30th Anniversary tour?
Mark: I used to fool around with a “lock in” switch on an early digital delay way back, and though the sample time was woefully short the effect was the same in as much as you could lay down a short riff off the top of your head and then jam along. A very good tool for practicing, in fact. These days I use an Akai Headrush pedal live and it has become part of my ‘fly pack’ pedal board, along with a Boss Chorus, Boss DD, and tuner. So it will no doubt be heard on our travels in July.
Bob: Are you playing the Jaydee Classic Supernatural again on this tour? I also wondered if you’ll be using Ashdown for your amplification again.
Mark: No, I shall be using the Status Graphite King basses that Rob Green makes so beautifully for me. They are excellent instruments and incredibly robust, which is always a bonus on long tours. My old Jaydee Supernatural 0003SA has been retired to the studio these days, and John (Diggins) very kindly gave the old girl a good clean a few weeks back. So she is sounding as good as ever. I have been very fortunate to know such good luthiers, both Rob and John are superb craftsmen and lovely guys too, so you can always chew over ideas with them. The Alembic guys make beautiful instruments too.
Another pal is Mark Gooday from Ashdown amps. When Trace Elliott went under a few years back, I asked Mark if he could come up with something similar to the amps I had been using in the 80’s as it was a big part of my sound. And though Ashdown were producing very different equipment at that time, Mark got onto it and came up with the MK500 head, with 12 band graphic and very little else to get in the way of the signal path. So I’m very happy with that rig and my friendship with Ashdown.
Bob: In terms of possible new music this year, I’ve read that you’ve been working on a track called “Hiawath’s Mutha.” Can you tell us about it and if it will be distributed online?
Mark: It’s now call “Sioux Song” and is a beauty, if I do say so myself! There should be five brand new songs on an EP that will be packaged with a “Running In The Family” Deluxe edition in time for our October tour in Europe. So a September release would be my guess and it’s all good funk. But in the meantime, I’m working on some acoustic interpretations of a few of our songs from over the years that will be included in the 30th Anniversary 4-cd set that Universal Music are putting together right now for a summer release.
Bob: It seems with most of the tours over the past 10 years, you’ve attempted to bring out songs that have haven’t been played in awhile – even some of which have never been played. Any new wrinkles this year?
Mark: Bob, I can’t tell you what we are going to do, can I? It would spoil the surprise! But we will play as much old material as possible, mainly because that’s all there is.
Bob: It must be very difficult choosing a set list to satisfy the older, hardcore jazz-funk fans, while accommodating the fans who come to hear the hits?
Mark: You said it mate. The old adage “you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time” is never truer than when you put together a set, particularly if you have a large catalogue to choose from. So I try and look at it from the point of view of the whole show and pace the set that way, you know, come in big, take it down, build to a crescendo, exuent stage left.
Bob: So what is the future of Level 42, especially given the changes in the music industry? Do you think you and the band have more to offer in terms of creative output?
Mark: Yes I do, and as much ever these days. As I said at the beginning, I was really lucky to have come along after the 60’s and 70’s had given me so many great players to aspire to, but who can tomorrow’s players listen to now, or go out and see tonight in their home town? No Bob, we’ll keep going at it mate. It’s our duty!
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