Stick Men discuss King Crimson, Prog Noir and #livingthedream

StickMen portrait against an orange background

Since joining Stick Men in 2010, whenever Touch guitarist, Markus Reuter uploads photographs of his time on the road to social media, he uses the hashtag #livingthedream. They offer glimpses of a life on the move: anonymous airport lounges, ennui-laden baggage reclaim areas, closed restaurants, blurred milage, cramped vans and seedy dressing rooms.

Showing the exact opposite of what most people imagine a professional musician’s life to be, #livingthedream seems heavy on irony, almost chiding the reader and, perhaps, the poster himself to be careful what they wish for. Yet there are other photos offering an alternative take of life in a working band: beautiful travelogues, crossing continents, the camaraderie of colleagues and crew, empty soundcheck stages that appear to pulse with expectation and rooms filled with ecstatic, cheering fans, eager for more.

Together, these photos, and especially those of bandmate and Stick Men’s founder Tony Levin, reflect something of the musicians life as it really is, at a time when the prospect of making any money or a full-time living from recordings or touring is, at best, something of a precarious undertaking.

Formed in 2007 when Tony Levin’s solo album Stick Men was released, the initial idea was to do a couple of shows every now and then. Recruiting Levin’s Stick-playing neighbour, Michael Bernier, they worked live when Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto’s busy scheduled allowed. “Back then I thought we’d be together maybe a year or something and then Tony or I would be too busy to carry it on,” says Mastelotto.

Yet nine years later, and with their sixth studio album, Prog Noir, ready for release, Stick Men are very much a going concern. Of course, Levin and Mastelotto have high-profile roles as long-standing members of King Crimson, and with Levin in upstate New York, Mastelotto down in Texas and Reuter a resident of Berlin, getting all three together for rehearsals and recording is a costly business.

The challenges posed by their respective geography has meant that Stick Men has been something of a guerilla operation, a hit-and-run affair with the players constantly piggybacking onto other commitments and sessions in order to drive Stick Men projects and recordings forward.

(Image credit: Dion Ogust)

“When I got home from Crimson last year it was the end of October,” says Mastelotto. “I was home only a couple of days and I’d already made an arrangement to go into a friend of mine’s studio to cut some tracks for another project. At the same time, I quickly did two or three takes of The Tempest, and Embracing The Sun from the new album, Prog Noir. They were pretty much composed at that point so I spent like half an hour of the other session’s time throwing on the reel and blasting through them. They have a little heavier, better drum sound than I get in my own studio at home and when Markus started working on the mixing, they were a good sonic yardstick to get the other songs to where they needed to be.”

Ask any musician what their favourite album of their own material is and it’s highly likely they’ll tell you it’s the new or current one. Yet Levin, one of the most down-to-earth and realistic players on the scene, senses there’s a real momentum behind Prog Noir.

“Stick Men is really hitting its stride as a band. We’ve been together for years now, touring a lot and putting out albums as and when we can, but our music has taken on its own character – not only unique with two touch-style guitars, but Pat’s drumming encompasses a lot of electronic elements that are crucial to our music. And after a lot of playing together, you develop some chemistry that ideally is there on the albums, not just in live shows, and I think we’ve got to that point now.”

Part of that personal chemistry involved altering the approach to recording Prog Noir. Previously, it was Reuter who was coming up with the bulk of the direction and writing, but not this time.

“I felt the responsibility should be more evenly distributed in the sense of where the music originates,” says Reuter. “Once Tony had that material down, I went to his place and adopted a ‘first take’ approach. So, sometimes when there wasn’t a melody, I was just improvising and decided that this first take of improvisation was the melody.”

Levin adds: “One of the factors that’s different for us this year is the amount of time spent on this upcoming album. For a group at our level of live sales, it’s kind of imperative to have a new release each year or more often. But you also want to keep working on your deeper material, things that don’t come together so easily, or involve a lot of rewriting or practice to master. So for the last two years, whatever else we were doing, we kept hammering away at new compositions and resisted putting those out until there was the right amount of high quality material – and played right too!”

While the distinctive Stick/Touch guitar sound is still to the fore, Prog Noir contains more songs with lyrics than any other previous release by the group. With Levin having recently published a volume of poetry, Fragile As A Song, it was natural for him to supply the words to his compositions. The range of topics are as diverse as they are idiosyncratic. Never The Same reflects upon rejoining King Crimson after one of its many line-up changes, while The Tempest works through the cathartic experience of 911.

“Like most songs, these are probably better heard without knowing an explanation from the writer about the meaning,” says Levin. “It’s intended to be more universal than telling a specific story, and the listener might easily come up with a resonance that works better than my story.”

Levin, who often relaxes by reading the latest edition of Scientific American, has infused that interest in the track Plutonium, adding another dimension to the overall complexity of Stick Men’s sound. Reuter provides the vocals for this one. While he might have a yodel or two in the shower, he’s not been known as a vocalist on stage or record.

“And I don’t think I’m a vocalist, by the way,” he laughs, admitting that stepping up to the microphone for Plutonium wasn’t easy. ”I was happy to accept the challenge, of course, but my personal doubts about using my voice come from a different place, and that’s because I’m already doing so many different things on stage. I’m actually quite good at a few of them, so adding another tool to my toolbox, let’s say, felt awkward to me: why should I be singing now, you know? I play, produce, do marketing. But in a way, it’s wonderful that being in this band isn’t static. It’s always offering new challenges to me.”

That sense of challenge goes both ways, as Levin readily admits. “When Markus brings in a new piece, it’s always a challenge for me to get my fingers and brain around the part he has in mind for me, and takes me a bit out of my usual zone. The best of those situations are those where we intermingle the writing, and that’s happened a lot. For example with me liking a melody he put on some instrumental I’d written, and then making that a vocal, and the main focus of the piece.”

With their keen eye for an opportunity, in 2015 the trio teamed up with ex-King Crimson violinist David Cross in Japan, connecting one part of the Crimson space-time continuum of the 1970s with the 80s and 90s.

“We’d never met David up until the shows and there was almost no soundcheck,” says Mastelotto. “We were exhausted. We flew in, played the next day, then travelled to Tokyo and played the next show and then we were gone. I left on a Monday, I was home on a Saturday and we did four shows and made two records! That’s always how it is with Stick Men.”

Mastelotto also reveals that in 2017, the trio will be joined in Japan by another Crimson colleague, sax player Mel Collins, for a short run of gigs.

“It’s live playing that fuels us,” says Levin. “It’s great connecting with people who are into our music. It’s certainly a community and it has become almost a family of folks with a passionate interest in things Crim-related.”

Standing still isn’t an option for Stick Men, as they move from one job to another. Levin and Mastelotto are embarking on King Crimson’s European tour, while, Reuter recently returned home to Berlin from one of his many production jobs to find a water pipe in the kitchen ceiling had burst in his absence.

“I’ve been away two and a half weeks and the whole wall between the kitchen and bathroom is wet…” he sighs.

#Livingthedream indeed.

Prog Noir is out on October 21 via Stick Men Records. See the band’s Facebook page for more information.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.