Royal Return: Mark King Leads Level 42 On Its 30th Anniversary Comeback

BEFORE RETURNING TO OUR SIDE OF THE POND this summer, it had been 22 years since Level 42 last toured in the U.S.
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BEFORE RETURNING TO OUR SIDE OF THE POND this summer, it had been 22 years since Level 42 last toured in the U.S. Yet for Stateside bass fans, the ’80s image of Mark King—close-cropped blond locks, thumb ablaze, while singing an utterly independent lead vocal—remains fresh on the mind. Indeed, it was an interesting time for low-end loyalists. With the revolutionary ring of Stanley and Jaco still all-pervasive, a bottom-oriented British invasion was taking place. Sting was fronting and thumping for the Police, Pino Palladino was weaving fretless wonder on everyone’s albums, and most intriguing of all was King: A bloke with Louis Johnson-like slap savvy and fusion-level finger chops singing MTV hits. Level 42 was equally indecipherable, emerging in 1980 as a jazz-funk “muso” band that would soon ride the New Wave to worldwide pop success—here with the single smashes “Something About You” and “Lessons in Love.”

L42 has remained a force overseas— save for a disbanding between 1994 and 2000—with eleven studio albums and countless road miles. Similarly, King, while a global bass icon, never got his full bask on these shores, as Flea, Claypool, and Wooten ushered in a new school of sub-heros in the ’90s. Those who missed the initial royal rumble would be wise to tune in now, as King and crew (original keyboardist/falsetto vocalist Mike Lindup, guitarist Nathan King, drummer Pete Ray Biggin, and saxophonist Sean Freeman) are underway on their 30th Anniversary World Tour. This will be accented in the fall by a 4-CD retrospective from Universal that will include fresh acoustic versions of several of their classics. There’s also a new 5-song EP that will accompany a deluxe edition of the band’s 1987 disc, Running in the Family. We caught up with Mark between European and Japanese legs of the tour.

What can you reveal about the new music on your upcoming 5-song EP? Does it lean toward any particular era of Level 42?

It certainly leans towards the groove, with more than a nod to James Brown on one of the tracks, but it’s never really a case of trying to go back or to go somewhere else; it’s just about making the music you want to hear now. I only hope someone else wants to hear it, too!

You’re including acoustic interpretations of some of Level 42’s classic songs for the upcoming box set. Did that result in having to tailor your original bass lines for acoustic bass guitar?

The songs are all new arrangements so there was very little I felt had to stay from the original recordings. I dropped into a local music store back in March and picked up a used Sigma STB acoustic bass guitar for a couple hundred quid. It suits the job very well, though the jump from 30-50-70-90-gauge roundwounds to the flat-wound telegraph cables that were on the bass was pretty extreme. I could feel the difference in my left forearm for a few days after the sessions!

With L42’s return to the U.S. after many years, how do you reflect upon your earlier tours here?

We love playing in the U.S., and our return shows are long overdue. It’s really thanks to the local promoters taking the risk to bring us over. We’ve certainly experienced all kinds of gigs there, from the tiniest clubs to the biggest “enormodomes” when we opened for Madonna, but a gig’s a gig right? You show up with the band and play the best you can for whoever has had enough faith to buy a ticket, and you hope they enjoy the show.

Who were your key influences when you switched from drums to bass at 19?

Stanley Clarke, for sure. Also Larry Graham, Jaco, Alphonso Johnson, Louis Johnson, Bootsy Collins, Marcus Miller, who I first heard as a teenage bassist on Lenny White’s records. A real key guy for me, who is unsung, was the late Doug Rauch. His playing on Santana’s Caravanserai [Columbia, 1972] and later albums with Lenny and Billy Cobham is it—just brilliant! I think the link between them all is how they make their lines swing and really lift the piece. Whether they play frets, fretless, fingerstyle, pick, or slap, it’s the groove, baby!

Were there any English bassists you saw in person early on who had a big impact?

I owe a huge debt to Jack Bruce; his playing and singing showed me that it could all be done, no mystery to it. You have to check out the live stuff to really appreciate what he’s about. [Cream’s] “I’m So Glad” live is a killer. Colin Hodgkinson is another hero of mine, especially with his work on Back Door’s first album [Back Door, ESP-Disk, 1972].

You’ve described your playing style as drumming on bass, with the right hand as the kick and the left hand as the snare.

Right; it’s no secret that I started on drums and always wanted to be a drummer— still do! But fate seemed to determine I should work in the only music store in London that didn’t sell drums. I needed the job, though, so I would sit in the back and pick up a bass when things were quiet. I’d heard Stanley and Doug slapping on records and I tried to figure out what they were doing. In the absence of a teacher pointing out my errors, I just approached it like a drummer and used both hands to build up all kinds of 16th-note-based patterns. That’s still the way I hear everything, I haven’t pared down my playing much at all. I’m guilty of remaining in my own comfort zone—you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!

You credit your melodic side of your playing to when you started singing and writing.

It was a question of “needs must,” really. Our first producer, Andy Sojka, gave us an opportunity to record a song— though it was no more than a riff at the time—if we could come up with some lyrics and a singer. Our original guitarist, Boon Gould, and I came up with a melody and words for the riff that became “Love Meeting Love,” in 1980. None of us really fancied auditioning a singer, so I stepped up to the mic and had a go. The riff itself is a long melodic pattern that unisons with the guitar and in many ways laid down a template for future L42 songs. Certainly writing songs around the bass lines helped develop both my singing and my note choices on bass.

How do you typically come up with your bass lines, and where in the recording process do you usually lay down the bass?

My bass lines come a number of ways, really. It can be a line you have in your head, like a damned loop tape, usually around 3AM, when you want to go to sleep! Or something you come up with during a good jam with your buddies at soundcheck or rehearsal. However it comes, the fact is if you keep wanting to play it every time you pick up the bass, then there is definitely something there! When I’m in the studio at home the bass is pretty fundamental to the writing process, so it goes down first very often, and the drums go over that. If it needs tweaking at any time you can always re-visit, but most bass lines that end up on record go down on day one.

Can you offer any insight into your gift for playing and singing independent parts, and are there any L42 songs that are especially challenging in that regard?

It really goes back to the early days for us and just having to get on with it. I think the fact we were gigging so much back then was a bonus too, it just seemed natural. There are still moments of panic when you first take a song into rehearsals for a tour and you realize you haven’t actually played and sung it at the same time yet, but you shut your eyes and it soon passes! My advice is, start at the beginning, at the right tempo, and be loud and wrong. You’ll get there! For me, probably the most testing tunes are “To Be With You Again” and the fingerpluck part at the end of “Sleeptalking.”

What initially led you to wear your bass so high, and to use black electrical tape on your thumb?

I’ve always maintained wearing it high is like playing sitting down with the bass on your knee, which I find comfortable. It also lends itself nicely to slap because your right forearm is quite parallel to the strings, very well balanced, and your left wrist is relaxed and able to join in the percussion.

As for my thumb, while we were on tour in Holland, in 1981, I belted the bass a bit too hard and split it across the joint. We had a ton of shows to do and no days off, so I wrapped a strip of gaffer tape around it and carried on. I didn’t like the feeling at all in the beginning, but it worked; I got used to it and I’ve been wearing it ever since. The night I split my thumb I was using a white Jaydee Supernatural “Starchild” bass, which looked pretty gross by the time we left the stage!

Have any bassists in the generation following yours caught your ear in terms of technique or musicality?

So many amazing players have emerged, from Victor Wooten to Meshell Ndegeocello. I’m really impressed by terrific young players like Hadrien Feraud and Tal Wilkenfeld. I think the world of bass is in very good shape, and as the pendulum always swings back, I predict another golden age for players is just around the corner—hopefully as radical and explosive as the transition from the ’60s to the ’70s.

Do you have a favorite L42 album, song, and bass line?

Album-wise, I have a soft spot for True Colours, and recording Standing in the Light with Larry Dunne and Verdine White was a fantastic experience—Verdine is a lovely guy. For songs, “Love Games” would be up there; the bass line is like a counter-melody and that tune got us our first appearance on Top of the Pops, which was cool! Favorite bass line? Ohhh, there are quite a few, but “Mr. Pink” is always a blast to play live.

What advice would you give to young bassists these days?

Though we call ourselves bassists, we are in fact musicians, so don’t get hung-up on technique, it’s the music that’s important. And don’t paint yourself into a corner, stylistically, be open-minded and openeared. I’m blessed to work with the guys in L42 who can play all kinds of music, and that gives you enormous confidence when you come to write or perform. It has taught me one great lesson: It’s all possible!

BASS À LA KING

While Mark King stands shoulder to shoulder with the all-time greats on the slap summit, he’s also a powerful, precise finger plucker, with an innate melodic sense—as an aural expedition through his Level 42 catalogue reveals. Example 1 is in the style of his slapped opening on “Love Games” (from Level 42’s self-titled 1981 debut disc). Note the left-hand pats throughout, a key in King’s machine-gun style, especially on triplets, as in bar 3. Play the part slowly at first, upping the tempo as you fit the left-hand pats squarely into the pulse. Example 2 echoes one of King’s baddest grooves, the simmering finger-funk ostinato of “Kansas City Milkman” (from 1983’s True Colors), for which Mark detuned his E string down to D. The key to the feel is to play the 16ths, especially in the back half of each bar, completely even and identical to each other. Finally, Ex. 3 shows King’s prowess on a fretless Moon Jazz Bass, in the style of his melodic filling on his power ballad “Seven Years” (from Guaranteed, 1992). Dig his touchpoints on such cool color tones as the b9 of the V chord (the D during beat two of bar 1) and the 9th of the I chord (the G# second-to-last note of bar 2), and focus on playing it smoothly, with expression.

NOBLE BEGINNINGS

Mark King was born in Cowes on the Isle of Wight on October 20, 1958. His father bought him a drum kit at an early age. He joined his first band at 13, playing with other local groups until he moved to London at 19. There, he took up bass while working in Macari’s Music Shop. In 1980 he was invited to a jam at the Guildhall School of Music, with keyboardist Mike Lindup and the Gould brothers—guitarist Boon and drummer Phil. The quartet clicked, and through a connection from third brother John Gould, a record promoter who would become their manager, the band was signed to Elite Records. By the time they signed with Polydor and recorded their first album in 1981, Mark and Boon had chosen the name Level 42, after reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. (In the science fiction novel, 42 is the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”)

GEAR

Basses Two 30th-Anniversary-model Status Graphite King Basses

Rig Two 30th Anniversary Ashdown Mark King MK500 heads (with 24- karat-gold front panels), two Ashdown ABM Bentley 410LTD cabinets, two custom-made Ashdown 2x10 monitors

Effects: Akai E2 Headrush Pedal (for looping), Boss chorus, digital delay, and TU-2 tuner pedals

Strings Status Hot Wire, .030, .050, .070, .090

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Solo One Man [Rhino, 1999]. With Level 42Retroglide [Universal, 2006], Level 42: The Ultimate Collection [Universal, 2003], Live at Wembley (DVD) [Polygram, 1988]. With Dominic Miller November [Abstract Logix, 2010], Prince’s Trust 10th Anniversary Birthday Party [A&M, 1987]. With Nik KershawThe Riddle [MCA, 1984]

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