Next Level: Interview with Mark King of Level 42

Posted On 20 Jun 2018 at 2:34 pm

Our reporter (and fellow bass aficionado) Chris Shelley caught up with the legendary bass-player and Level 42 front-man Mark King ahead of his performance at Love Supreme next weekend.

Chris: When did you first take up the bass guitar as the instrument of choice as an alternative to drums?

Mark: I picked up the bass following a disastrous tour around 79 in Europe as a drummer. I only ever got half of my drum kit back from that tour and lost all of my vinyl collection upon return. Then we formed the band Level 42 in late 79/80 and I had an interest in the bass because of my favourite band, being ‘Return to Forever’. Perhaps even the ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra’, in fact Billy Cobham has had a couple of sit-ins with Level 42 on a couple of shows.

Chris: So, the music that mostly influenced or inspired you musically?

Mark: Without a doubt, definitely the music of ‘Return to Forever’, with Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea and Al Di Meola.

Chris: Did you ever have formal lessons, or like any musicians with limited resources during the 70s, did you learn through simply watching TV, going to gigs and playing along with scratched vinyl?

Mark: That was it mate, I just used to watch mainly drummers of course as that was what I wanted to do, it never occurred to me because I’m left handed, and drummers have an orthodox way of using right hand on the hi-hat and left hand on the snare, it didn’t occur to me that there was an option whereby you could turn the kit around and play it left handed! So in the early stages I think that might have been beneficial – t forced me to expand my independence of limbs, whereas I wouldn’t have done it otherwise and because I soldiered on as a right handed player it was exactly the same as when I picked up the bass guitar as a right handed instrument. The way I approached it was really like drumming on the bass as opposed to a standard approach.

Chris: Yes, I agree with that approach, I often teach my students rhythmical skills on the fretboard by simply flipping over the fretboard and allow them to tap on the fretboard as you would do on a desk.

Mark: Yes, for me, that was the approach that I took. The harmony and the notes came along afterwards and any advice that I give, and that I give to my daughter Marlee, who plays the guitar really well, is that when you pick up the instrument to begin with, don’t get hung up with your left hand if you’re a right handed player, don’t get hung up with the chord shapes, make it swing, make it sound like a great thing, simply concentrate on getting the rhythmic patterns working and simply dampen your strings with the left hand.

Chris: So, it’s as much about the notes you don’t play as about those that you do?

Mark: Yes exactly, and it’s the rhythm of the playing that’s important because that’s what makes people want to dance.

Chris: The Love Supreme festival – will this prove to be the ideal opportunity for the band to perform your next live set, especially in light of the upcoming tour around the UK and Holland in October/November?

Mark: Yes that’s right; we haven’t started rehearsals for the tour yet as that’s someway down the line and I’m still having a lot of fun with the festival set we played out in Scandanavia earlier this year, which proved to be great fun to do. It’s that thing too when as a band you’re playing the songs week-in, week-out, you think you’re pretty much getting bored of this, but in fact you come to realise you’re playing to new people every time, people that haven’t heard you for three or four years and they definitely want to hear this stuff, as well as our new music.

Chris: I believe you have a fondness for summer festivals, harking back to the German festivals of the 80s? How do you feel about having a festival at last that champions your music now in the UK? And it’s sold out by the way for Saturday 30th June.

Mark: That is fantastic, and it’s so great to hear that. The band we have now is a seven piece with a full brass section and I love the relationship I have with the drummer Pete Ray Biggin.

Chris: Can you tell me more about who you have with you and Mike in Level 42?
The current band seem to be the most impressive that you’ve worked with, yourself and Pete very much in sync with one another? Comes from an appreciation of your music from an early age I believe, at the age of 11?

Mark: Exactly, he came and sat in with us at Leeds University when we were on tour, and at that time we had some big hit singles and we were working with Allan Holdsworth.

Chris: I would suggest at this point that people do visit and check out the live performance of ‘The Chinese Way’, to see how well rehearsed and tight the band actually are. The songs have been changed in a very positive way to keep them fresh and dynamic for live performance.

Mark: Yes, and that’s the truth of it as the band always seems to be evolving, for example expanding the brass section; that gave the whole thing a new dynamic because when we visited old songs we never had any brass arrangements, so you kind of make room, and that changes the whole texture and feeling of the song.

Chris: Your renowned virtuosity and style has attracted some wonderful collaborations; in fact, if memory serves me well, during the mid 80s, I used to often have conversations with my band in-regards to having a dream band, similar in some ways to having a dream team. It would have consisted of Paul Stanley, or Peter Cox on vocals, you Mark on bass (no alternative), Allan Holdsworth or Alan Murphy on guitar, then finally on drums, Neil Peart, Bill Bruford or Stewart Copeland. Can you imagine then how overjoyed I was to learn that Allan Holdsworth was creating music with you. What was it like working with Allan, from what you can recall?

Mark: It was incredible. I recall everything really, really well because the album he recorded with us, ‘Guaranteed’, I engineered as well. My role was as engineer/producer and I had the jaw-droppingly exciting task of sitting four feet away whilst he created incredible solos. He had a wonderful way of interpreting the songs and he would always be so aware, he would say, “would you run that melody by me again”, and he’d listen to the vocal line whilst using a notepad on his lap which reminded me very much of an RAF pilot, he’d have his own very strange way of notating music and tablature and he just used to write this stuff down. In fact, I’ve still got the Burman valve 50W master volume amplifier he used on that project and it came with no case. It was so great and that went into a Marshall 4×12 stack. It was just incredible.

Chris: I remember the first time I heard the outro to ‘If You Were Mine’, that featured Allan, I shouted underneath my breath, yeah! And raised my first in the air, it was a musicians’ dream come true, very inspirational.

Mark: Well, Gary Husband will be thrilled to know that because that’s his song man. We played it on the last tour actually because the brass boys wanted to get stuck into it.

Chris: And more recently you released the Gizmodrome album with Adrian Belew and Stewart Copeland. The track, ‘I Know too much’, seems to have a similar lyrical content to ‘Miss Gradenko’ with the Police.

Mark: When I recently played with Stewart we played ‘Miss Gradenko’ live actually, Adrian Belew sang on that and it’s been great fun to do, and there’s another song of Stewart’s that we play from the ‘Rumble fish’ film called, ‘Don’t Box Me In’, and that’s one of my favourite things to play on stage at the moment.

Chris: Not sure how many people realise what an accomplished bass player your younger brother Nathan is, after having seen him perform in both Frost and It Bites, and it seems musicianship runs in the family. How does he feel with regards to taking on the role of guitarist, following in such footsteps?

Mark: Well Nathan can play anything, he’s always been this really talented kid, a fantastic drummer, great guitarist, great bass player and sings brilliantly. He’s got the whole thing going on, and I’m lucky to have him in the band!

Chris: I must ask as a bass player what kind of process do you use when creating new music, what works for you? music or song first? Acoustic guitar or bass for initial ideas?

Mark: There’s no one set way for me for doing it. I can find inspiration whilst out mowing the lawn and I’ll have an idea and I’ll pull the mower over, or it can be simply by sitting down and rack something out in front of a keyboard, which is good as you can throw your hands on there and things come out. The whole thing is about inspiration and feeling inspired to create something new.

Chris: Were you deliberately trying to opt for a sound that was somewhat reminiscent of your earlier albums, perhaps anything up to World Machine, for your latest album ‘Sirens’?
The songs are longer, there’s more room for texture and improvisations, the songs tend to develop more over time. The inclusion of brass over the middle and bridge sections, backing singers, Vocoders and Moog? It really took me back.

Mark: Well, thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. That came about in such a short window of opportunity. You were asking about the writing side of things, It is only an E.P., nonetheless it was done in two weeks and there it was. In fact, it was John Morales who was the glue in forming and getting it all together.

Chris: How does it feel in knowing that you are going to be joining the ranks of people like Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Nile Rodgers, and Stanley Clarke (to name just a few) from previous years by performing at the Love Supreme festival, despite its only having started five years ago?

Mark: I’m so looking forward to it. All you have got to know is that I can’t wait to come down and play at the Love Supreme festival. What a great day it’s going to be, I hope to see you at the Love Supreme festival mate!

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