Mark King – Bass Musician Magazine Q&A by Bob Considine… Many of the faces were the same when Level 42 front man and slap bass legend Mark King took to the intimate stage of the infamous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London this past winter.
But despite being flanked with his long-time band mates, these shows were a definite departure for the British thumbslinger. Rather that pulling from a safety net of hits and familiar toe-tappers that still make Level 42 a steady draw during his self-proclaimed semi-retirement, King played only his lesser-known solo material.
The results, captured in a new live CD called “Mark King & Friends – Somewhere in Soho,” are much more Mahavishnu than mainstream, but no less blistering. Many of the tracks are pulled from King’s 1984 solo album, Influences, which had never been played live and is arguably the most intricate and fusionist music he has recorded.
The bass sound is as-in-your-face as Level 42 fans have grown accustomed to, but with a greater range of rawness and atmospherics, all thanks to a pair of brand new Status Graphite King basses with new parametric EQ that King says “sound awesome” along with his TC Electronic Blacksmith amp, a pair of TC 4×10 cabs and a slew of TC pedals.
Level 42 will continue to endure, King says. And the last few years have been good to the band, with regular tour dates and festival appearance all over the world and an acoustic version of their biggest hit, Something About You, finding its way into regular rotation on Sirius/XM’s Coffee House in the U.S. for two years running.
But with the feedback and fulfillment resulting from Somewhere in Soho – available on www.level42.com – King hints there could be more solo gems in his crown going forward.
BC: The Ronnie Scott shows were definitely a departure from the typical Level 42 performance, both in music and venue. What prompted you to put this together and what did you get out of it?
MK: I was asked to open the first London Bass Guitar show back in March 2011. And as part of the day, the organizers asked if I could play a short set. I wanted to do something other than the Level 42 material, so I came up with an instrumental piece called Gadaffi Duck – which he should have done! – and I thought it would be super cool if I could get (ex-Level 42 drummer) Gary Husband to play keys for me. He is such a talented guy, and although I’d been playing with him since 1987, I really hadn’t had the chance to play with him tearing up on keyboards. And boy can he shred the ivories!
I also wanted to get (current Level 42 drummer) Pete Ray Biggin involved on drums too, to see how he would interact with Gary. And then I invited (current Level 42 sax man) Sean Freeman in to do his thing. So we did this short set and I absolutely loved it!
But it was all over so quickly and I needed another fix. My agent, Neil Warnock, called me up and said how about a week at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London. Perfect! So fast forward 11 months and I get a call from Neil asking what was I going to do at Ronnie’s exactly… Erm….I dunno. I’d better make some calls and put a band together. What to play? Erm… I dunno. How do I put together a 90-minute set in two weeks of material that hasn’t been seen live before? Of course!! Influences!
BC: Influences, which you played most of the instruments on, came out in 1984. Having been on the shelf that long, was there anything that you re-discovered about the music going through it with a band 28 years later?
MK: Yeah. After 28 years, it really was like re-discovering a side of me that I’d forgotten existed – that freedom to take an idea and just run with it without any concerns about “Will it sell? Will the label like it? Isn’t it too self-indulgent?” It was a very liberating experience and when I put the band together to play the pieces, I was really excited to hear how, or even if it would work.
So I had Gary in mind on keys and Pete Biggin on drums, but needed a percussionist. So I called an old friend, Miles Bould, who had played on the Forever Now album with Level 42 and also my One Man album back in 1998. But more recently, I had drafted him in to play with Pete as part of The Princes Trust house band last November and the two of them worked really well together. I had Sean Freeman down for sax of course. He’s brilliant, but wanted to add trumpet and trombone, so enter Dan Carpenter and Nichol Thomson – great players and vocalists too. Always a bonus!
So, I still needed a Rhodes player and guitarist and the best Rhodes player I know is (Level 42 keyboardist/cofounder) Mike Lindup and he sings beautifully, of course. But better still, he had played on much of the original material. With the guitar, I know loads of amazing players. But with such a wide range of duties to cover here, I had to call my brother Nathan, and it was the best call I made I think, because he was fantastic.
BC: The band members, particularly Mike Lindup and Pete Ray Biggin, really enthusiastically spoke out on how much they enjoyed these shows. Do you think that was a matter of them wanting to do something that was a bit of a departure from the Level 42 material, as well?
MK: Well, this is good, meaty stuff for any player to get stuck in to and it was the sort of opportunity that doesn’t come along everyday. For a lot of these guys who make their living as session players, the chance to just “do your thing man” is rare and they certainly rose to the occasion.
BC: You opened the shows with “The Essential,” off of Influences, which is often viewed as the Mark King Opus, clocking in at nearly 19 minutes on the record with some really thunderous bass during the end ‘Barcelona’ section. How do you feel that translated live and was it a challenge to get it to where you wanted?
MK: It was rather daunting, yes. But when I knew that we would be playing The Essential, I thought ‘Well, let’s just jump in and open the show with it!’ It was a good move too, I think – a real statement of intent. It was a big ask of the guys, though, because we only had four days of rehearsal before Show One and there is a hell of a lot of mood changes through the six parts in the song that really need to be spot on or it just doesn’t work. But to a man they nailed it. I’m really proud of them!
BC: You have two new tracks on the CD, “Headhunt” and the “ATs,” which definitely has that 80’s “Micro-Kid” vibe. How did those come about?
MK: These were from some sessions I laid down in The Summerhouse at my old home on the Isle of Wight back in 1996/19977 with my old buddy (saxophonist) Gary Barnacle. He came down with a car full of saxes and I started filling up my DA88 rack with tons of riffs and melodies that were knocking about. Then I transferred it across to an 8-track Pro-Tools system and spent ages chopping it all into some kind of order. It worked out quite well, but remained on the shelf, as so often happens with me! Until I thought they might work well with the horn section for the Ronnie’s shows. They were great fun to play and it was lovely to see the audience really get into the vibe too.
BC: Level 42 has had a pretty steady schedule over the past decade. With the response from these shows, do you think you will gravitate to including more of these solo shows in your calendar or instrumental music going forward?
MK: I would love to do more of this kind of thing. But I also love playing the Level sets too, so I’m spoiled for choice, really. I think I should come up with some NEW stuff and see where that takes me. But it’s all good though!”