Mark King: Ace of Bass

Level 42 frontman, Mark King, is busier than ever. The slap bass pioneer chats to us about the band's evolution and packed out European tour, his love of vinyl, and how playing live shows beats sweeping up cow shit on the Isle of Wight.

“It's a big old year for us,” smiles Mark King. “We recently played Brentwood, then we played in Turkey before that, Singapore Jazz Festival the week before that, and Indonesia before that. Then we headed out into Europe. Almost every week it's a festival during the summer.”

Festivals are still popping up everywhere, King confirms, and they are key these days in making sure bands keep playing live.

“I know for a fact all [seven of] the guys in Level 42 at the moment love playing live,” King declares. “A lot of the lads are young fathers, several of whom have had kids in the last six months, so they can't wait to get on the bus and get hammered and have no responsibilities again for a little while! It was the same with us once upon a time, but it can be stressful, too!”

Part of the mechanics of it is that it's financially necessary to tour now, of course. Back in the day – in King's case, during the '80s and early '90s – a vinyl sale might fetch £18, but you could watch the band play at Wembley for £6. How times have changed!

“Oh absolutely! It's reversed now: the album won't cost you much, but it might set you back £70 to watch us live! There is a business side, of course, which you can't turn your back on; the management, agents, labels, and promoters are all trying to turn a buck by trying to keep the bands on the road. But on the Isle of Wight alone – where I still live, by the way – we have Bestival, Isle of Wight Festival, and Rhythm Tree, the latter of which our mates put on; and there are only 120,000 people living here!”

But it's not what it once was on the Island, King is quick to point out:

“In 1970, they reckon 600,000 people turned up [for the IOW festival], and bearing in mind back the population was only 100,000, that's some shift! Unfortunately, we had a dodgy MP at the time, who was caught with his fingers in the till after he passed a law saying there couldn't be more than a 5,000-person gathering on the Isle of Wight, which is what scuppered festivals for the next 30 years.”

Talk turns to vinyl, and the staggering upsurge of the medium. King is not only a fan on a nostalgic level, selling actual records is part of his livelihood today.

“It does my heart good to see how many records were sold last year,” he reflects. “With mp3, it was a huge trade-off about convenience: yes, you can carry 1,000 tracks in your pocket, but the only reason you can get it in there is the compression that's used to encode the mp3s. Everything I put out through Level 42 Records now always has a really good spice of vinyl, you know? We shipped 200 out to Germany this week, so there is definitely a good market for it. The fact young people want to get a record out – literally – is great. The scene is fantastic, and one of the joys of the last few years for me is discovering [BBC] 6 Music: they champion young bands, and the ethos of having one foot firmly in the past, one foot firmly in the future, is fantastic for the music industry.”

Slap, Crackle, and Pop

King started out as a drummer, and through chance (he claims), became essentially a bass playing pioneer. How did he manage to get slap into the pop mainstream, though?

“Well, I am friends with the guy who started it, Larry Graham. He was bassist in Sly and the Family Stone. The track, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) is almost the first time you'll hear slap on any pop record, but that was very much American funk, though, so it didn't get heard over here,” King reveals. “I was in the right place at the right time with Level 42. Having been a drummer - and I still love drums - me playing bass was a case of waiting until my ship came in; I was treading water, waiting to be picked up as a drummer! But it didn't end up like that in the end, of course.

“I play the bass like the congas: two hands, playing polyrhythms on the strings, damping and hanging on to a note as much as I am plucking it. That combination gives you a linear rhythmic pattern which you can chug along, and hopefully make people want to dance to. It's also an amazing backdrop for singing over. It's a good technique and an interesting one, but on the flip side, yesterday I was put to shame, as BBC Music asked: 'What are the 10 most annoying sounds in music today?' and slap bass was number four! [laughs] As I was crying into my beer last night, I told myself all publicity is good publicity!”

King is a keen producer and overall music maker as well as singer-songwriter. An early adopter of MIDI (and anything that would help him play the keyboard better!), he recalls several pivotal recording points in his career:

“I got my first TEAC eight-track reel to reel in '84; me and the guys [in the band] would get together at mine, as I had the gear and the space to do it. Then I got my first Mackintosh [SE] in '85, which dragged me into the land of sequencing,” he smiles. “I am not a great keyboard player, so the emergence of MIDI was very good for people like me; as long as you had good ears, you could find the note and get the machine to play it for you. Then I expanded up to a full SSL studio - 48 tracks of Dolby SR noise reduction, which was a nice thing. However, what you don't realise when you have that kind of setup is that the maintenance is phenomenal!

“If I'd been on the road, I'd come back and fire the studio up, and invariably two or three of the channels would pop. Then it'd be a £500 call out to get an engineer over to the Isle of Wight! I was so pleased that this was superseded over time: these days, a Mac can run pretty much everything, and there's no maintenance; and many companies have become so good with emulation: tape hiss, tape compression, and all the outboard gear. It's a fantastic way to work. Andy Warhol said: 'everybody will be famous for 10 minutes', and that's been born out of guys sitting down with Garageband and Logic.”

Conversation turns to King's new project: Level 42 are releasing a new deluxe CD/DVD edition of their 2013 Sirens EP, which was put together with the help of deep house guru, John Morales. That record got a five-star review in Blues & Soul mag. Must feel good to know you've still got it in you, Mark?

“[smiles] It's lovely, yes, as that's what you want. It hasn't always been that way, though! We put out Retroglide in 2006, which wasn't received quite so well. It's taking the rough with the smooth, and maintaining a standard; you either wait for inspiration to come, or you go with the flow: 'this is where my head is at as a composer and producer',” he explains. “And Sirens was certainly the latter. I was in the studio, hit a stream of dance stuff, so decided to go to Universal, ask if there were any guys I could send the stuff to, and they suggested John Morales. So I sent him the stems, and I loved where he took it; he got it right away, so his input on that record can't be denied. How it transposes when you go live is interesting; what you have in essence is six songs that were written in the studio, and they're almost written as 12-inch remixes from the get go! There is no vanilla version, they're all dance mixes. And when you take that on the road, it really works."

And being on the road is what Level 42 are all about:

“In 2014, we played shows at IndigO2; it was wonderful seeing the audience reaction. Something [from Sirens] like Build Myself A Rocket has now become a firm favourite, and fits in between our biggest hits such as Lessons in Love and Hot Water. And if you think about that, it's a 30 year span from one song to the other - where you were at as a person - and it still fits! So sliding songs in like that and not noticing it is very cool."

Hence why the DVD box set of Sirens is being released...

“Yeah, the message is that this band is never more at home than when it's up on stage playing live, and long may that continue, as it's such fun. If I hadn't been able to do what I've done, and make the most of my talents, I would probably be working as a farmer, because when I left school, the options were basically to work as a labourer on a farm, scoop up the cow shit, and wash milk bottles. OK, that's got to be done, and someone's got to do that, so I'm not dissing that side of it at all, but it's much better lying in bed in the morning and not sweeping up cow shit, because of music.”

Well said, that man. We wish Mark and the rest of Level 42 the very best with the new release, and their upcoming tour, which will see them play an extensive run of shows in the UK during October, culminating at the Apollo in London, before heading out to Holland for 10 more shows, including one at that great little venue, Paradiso, the place Level 42 first greeted the Dutch back in 1981. How time flies, eh?