How many people do you know who can say that they have partied with both Sid Vicious and Joe Strummer? How about collaborating with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ice T? How many musicians do you know who can play virtually any instrument, have produced music in virtually every genre, and have their own iTunes-esque music distribution network? It could be none other than the creative tour de force known as Keith Levene, which is why we were thrilled to sit down with him and discuss his new solo album, The Search for Absolute Zero, and the process of turning thin air into hit records.
You recently put out an interesting album called Search for Absolute Zero. Can you tell me about that?
It’s not complex, you know? There is a search for absolute zero. I guess you know about that. It’s always intrigued me; it’s an interesting paradox. They are so very close – incontestably close – and to make that last leap you’ve got a twin paradox, two of them which are twice as far away. So, I wrote the title track in one take, and it all just dropped into place.
What did you find out about yourself by making this record?
Nothing, really, except that I’m really good at making up tunes on the spot. There is s tune in there called “Pleasing all the People” It’s improvisational, it’s jazzy, but at the same time it’s one take. That’s all we needed; one take and it worked. If it didn’t work, I would say fuck it. I remember assessing that as I was going along, and essentially, this is what I did with Metal Box. I wasn’t endeavoring to do it, but this is how I found out how I do things. This is kind of how I approach my life as well. This seems to be the way to go, I mean everyone seems pretty into it.
I can dig it. To distribute this album you used a unique process you call a virtual skateboard. What exactly is a virtual skateboard?
It’s not very unique, actually. For example, we were trying to put this piece of vinyl out, yeah? We just didn’t know how to get it out and had so much trouble with that, you know? This thing was taking ages, so I just said fuck it, I’m just going to put it on the site, but we were having trouble with the site as well. Then, one day, the site just started working again and I through it all up then and there. Now, it didn’t exactly correlate together, but it ended up looking like whatever the release is now, which I made available for download.
So, virtual skateboard is just like Keith-tunes.
Are all of your future releases going to be in that same style?
Oh, yeah! Any release I do, it only stands to reason that it should be available on my site. I could do iTunes and all that; I don’t think it would hurt to make it available on iTunes. I just wanted it out. I didn’t want to fuck about. I’ve gone through digital marketing places where they have to do this first and this first and then this and oh fuck off! Why am I even talking to anyone?
I understand; I’ve spoken to many musicians who feel the same way.
Yeah! And it’s well received. Obviously, it’s not the greatest distribution technique. It wasn’t an officially announced release, but there were a lot of people saying, “Keith, when the fuck is this record going to come out!”
Another criticism about it is that it’s really expensive, being $32. That’s easily 7 years of my life. Considering the last time I released a record… well, it’s about a dollar for every year I didn’t release a record. At least one this cut and dry; I’ve certainly been on a few records in the meantime.
Speaking of, are your releases with Jah Wobble going to appear on your site as well?
No, the Wobble release is more of a Wobble release than a Keithy release, although there are a number of interesting different versions that you can probably find in little Japanese places. But with the release, well, we made Yin & Yang first to be released on iTunes, and then there was vinyl. Similar to how Metal Box in Dub kind of progressed. None of this was arranged. Again, it was unplanned, that he wanted to do this, so I told him to go for it. When it comes to the Yin & Yang album version, there is no doubt I am on it and there is no doubt that it is him and I together. Then you have Search for Absolute Zero, which has a lot of live stuff on it, but three of the tracks are Wobble and I which came straight from the Metal Box in Dub process. After the Yin & Yang EP, we recorded some more, and although we didn’t mean to do it, we kind of did it in the spirit of Metal Box. We did it off the top of our heads. You get the more pure version from me. You get the “this is exactly what happened” version on Search for Absolute Zero. It may not exactly have Wobble on it, but they still came from those sessions.
Have you always preferred to record off of the top of your head?
I’ve always done it. Even in The Clash, that one song they credit me for, I did off the top of my head in the sound check. One the first Public Image album I did as well. We were at rehearsal and I said, “Stop!” because I heard it, I heard it [the song] in there. So, yeah, there is a bit of structure, but it’s always kind of been there. Metal Box was pretty much entirely made in one take with the record button switched on. Luckily most of it worked. Yeah, I definitely cut some tape out – I told the gang, “Cut a minute out here”, or “We’ll do this bit but we won’t do this bit.”
Wobble was in on this. He would lay down a bassline and I would tell him to play it again and bang! That was the cut. The same with “Graveyards.” I think him and I were actually in different studios, but we just made it up off the top of our heads. We did that a lot; we did it in rehearsals. It works, though.
How much thought do you put into these tunes before you are comfortable hitting that record button?
Let’s put it this way: the tunes I did for Absolute Zero I never had any notion of it in my head prior. A lot of times Wobble can play a bassline and I can play some stuff over it. If we’re doing something and I’ve got a dodgy second, then I will insert something that I know is in a safe region because I want to see what I’ve done, sort of thing, and just maybe get on something else. But really, I literally improvise a nanosecond of a note, because if you intend to play something and you play the wrong note then you can respond to it really quickly with improvisation. You can respond to what you hear and not rely. You are prepared to fail, but the thing is that no one knows you failed because no one knows what is in your head, and if someone is in your head then what the fuck!
What was the recording process like with you and Wobble doing Metal Box together as opposed to Public Image?
Not too different, you know, and that’s what was so good. We had some unfinished business [with Public Image LTD] and so we wanted to do Metal Box. Wobble liked the “In Dub” bit of it. We went in the studio and it was exactly like we’ve been talking about. The process was that we went in there just to record. Obviously we would use different techniques and stuff, but sometimes, unless we are stuck doing performances, if something is going along then I say play the whole track. I don’t want to play just a bit and paste it. I want to leave the gaps where I want to leave them, you know. But, I wouldn’t mind doing a backing track that didn’t need it.
I’m curious how this is going to transfer to any upcoming tours you may have planned. Will it be more of a Metal Box type of show, or a Keith-Tunes show?
I think Metal Box is done for now.
Okay, but will we get to heard Ying & Yang live, and will it be a one man show?
You will get to hear Yin & Yang live, but not necessarily with Wobble and I. We have no plans, but never say never. Me, I hate touring. Look at Buddy Holly. Enough said. The truth is that I don’t like performances or live events but I think Yin & Yang is wicked and I want to do it live, and I would love to do it with Wobble, but there are no plans for any of that. There are no plans for a tour, but there will be events in Tokyo, Italy, England, America, and what have you. Wobble and I are individually doing things, however, I know Wobble, and if we’re both in America we are bound to do things.
How about a Public Image reunion where you slide in Yin & Yang tracks?
Haha! It could happen!
Never say never, right?
Never say never. That’s actually what Wobble and I like. If we do get together there will be no set list. We never went on with a set list as Metal Box. We never played the tunes the same way twice, ever! That’s just the way I work. Everyone else does set lists and everyone else does tours. I think tours destroy bands. I don’t work for a record company. I didn’t join a band to do tour, I joined a band to make music – to do whatever the fuck I like! At this stage in the game, I’m 55 years old, I’m going to do just that. At the same time, I really want to be in front of an audience and give them everything they want. To show them that this shit is still good, and I wouldn’t be performing it if I looked like shit.
You’ve still got that punk rock fire in you, Keith.
Oh, you aren’t doing me any favors by calling me punk.
What is your next primary focus in music and life?
I’ve got a number of projects. I’ve got 2051, which isn’t an audio project, but it’s always been kind of a video project. It was initially called “Camera Dodgers.” It’s all about being in front of cameras and all of the shit that goes down these days with kids using their phones. It was all recorded on phones buy it’s been upgraded to 2051. The thing is, there is an album that goes with it and it’s going to be wicked. It’s like, wherever violent opposition is recorded and unfinished, this one won’t be. It’s not going to be a re-release, but it’s going to have a third of new material with a cherry on top. 2051 would be a live show, although I’m experimenting a number of different ways to go about doing it, like 3-D. It’s a cool thing, and there is more. I don’t want to just talk about everything all at once.
There will some vinyl releases, as well. There will definitely be a vinyl of Search for Absolute Zero, which will be nothing like the digital. It will have the same tracks, but it will be mastered to vinyl proper.
Hell yeah! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that artists are still putting out mastered vinyl.
It’s really important. These kids are coming out and demanding physical releases without even a notion of CD anymore. Let’s face it, over the last seven years, CDs have been a pretty moot point. DVDs are pretty much gone now, too, aren’t they? You can put something out digitally and say, look, if you want to download it, then you can put it on a fucking CD if you want, but I’m not going to force you to buy the fucking CD. It could be argued that, oh, the record will become warped after a few years and it won’t sound the same, and I’m not sure if they even have a notion of that, but they are demanding a physical release and that is just fucking great.
I love the fact that there are so many different options available today to play music based on the quality, convenience, and budget of the fans.
Yeah! I could just throw out some link and say, here you go, this is my record. I think it’s very important and very exciting because we’re not going to be recreating what listening to music used to be like in the ’60s or the ’70s, no. We’re going to create a new vinyl. I can see that coming in terms of how people get it. You can see more people going to these record shops, but a lot of these vinyl people really piss me off because they’re into vinyl, but they are into money, man. When someone sells a vinyl of Metal Box for $55 that’s nothing. When someone sells a vinyl of Opposition for $120, you know, I don’t see any of that. I see a new commerce coming about because of this.
Now that people can get music in any form of quality available, vinyl has become gold.
If you’re going to buy my vinyl for $25 then buy it from me, don’t go down the street and pay a guy $57. I’m tired of it! The guys who did the vinyl for Violent Opposition really fucked me! Then I kept getting fucked because it kept getting solf for fuck loads of money because there weren’t too many of them around. You know, with Metal Box, we gave 35,000 pounds of our advance back to get it in a metal can and get it out for 14.96 in pounds. I never saw one for less than $50 in America and even in England I never saw one for less than 30 pounds, which would be about 45 dollars.
The record companies change with the times a bit, but these people exploit the times. You know, you go in there looking for a CD and you forget what you went in there for and it takes 50 minutes to get out of there. By the time you find what you came there for in the first place, it’s like, fuck! I’m not even into music anymore! I can’t look at these fucking CDs anymore! Why do we have CDs with 12” artwork? The art doesn’t have to be the size of the record! That’s a no brainer, do you know what I’m saying? That might have helped, but whatever… don’t get me started.
I don’t want to get you started, Keith, but that is about all of the questions I had for you. Final thoughts?
Just leave me with the old spirit of the UK!