“After punk, prog became a dirty word.”
Progressive rock fans know the story all too well. Their music libraries are populated with copies of under-appreciated solo releases and one-off collaborations between their favorite kung-fu guitarists and drummers that garnered little attention before slipping into the halls of obscurity. Stick Men, which brings King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin together with German composer and touch guitarist Markus Reuter, stands apart from those countless other projects. Since the trio’s inception in 2007 (with Chapman Stick player Michael Bernier initially in Reuter’s place), the group has released a series of studio and live records. The latest of those, Prog Noir, provides evidence of a unit that has come fully into its own.
Mastelotto credits the trio’s longevity in part to its dogged road work. Speaking from Los Angeles on the eve of two shows at that city’s venerable muso haunt, The Baked Potato, the former Mr. Mister skin-pounder says, “We keep moving the music forward. We do about 40-50 shows a year in North American, Japan, across Europe. We’ve developed our following that way.”
The material carries all the hallmarks of prog: complex rhythmic, melodic and harmonic maneuvers with flecks of humor sprinkled alongside enigmatic lyrics. Yet there is a sense of accessibility. Those who have come to appreciate Levin’s work with Peter Gabriel or other more commercially-oriented projects can still find something to latch onto in the music’s core.
Given the level of accomplishments shared by the three members, the quality of the music should be no surprise. Stick Men, though, is very much a product of the age of the Internet. Mastelotto lives in Austin, while on a clear day one might catch a glimpse of Levin in the wilds of Upstate New York. Reuter collaborates from his home in Berlin.
The drummer points out that though the compositions might be recorded from a distance, often enough the germs for a song are planted in improvisations that take place on the road. “We do occasionally steal those ideas for songs we write,” he says. “But usually the songs start with either Tony or Markus sending a file with the basic part or outline for an arrangement. I add drums, send things back and they might change something from there or put a vocal on top.”
Mastelotto points to “Smudge” from 2011’s Absalom as an example of a piece that required some thinking and perhaps a slightly more prolonged gestation. Levin found a riff and suggested that it should become a piece about baseball in Boston. “Markus couldn’t relate to it at first, so I put some drums on it. Then he heard that and said, ‘OK, now I know what I should do.’ He added some guitar to it, Tony came up with his part and then it became an instrumental. The first part that Tony had? You can’t even hear it on the record.”
As one might expect there continues to be some guess work. In the case of the new record’s title track, there were no vocals when it came time to track drums. “I just mapped out in my head where I thought the vocals would go,” Mastelotto recalls. How correct were his instincts? “We didn’t recut any of the drum performance. I figured that if the guys wrote a lyric then I might hear the music again and I’d cut and paste my part around. But that didn’t happen. It was all my imagination: Four bars of this, 16 bars of that.”
This is, however, fairly typical of Mastelotto’s rapid-fire method. “I’ll get some songs sent to me that I start putting drums to the first or second time I hear it,” he says. “I get my first impressions on tape and then I can listen a little deeper, maybe add some touches here and there and throw in some of those first impressions, the things that sound really good to me, into the final parts.”
He continues, “There are happy accidents. In ‘Prog Noir,’ in the second verse there’s a tom tom pattern that created a breakdown for the song. I was just giving myself the option of something I could cut and paste if I needed to but it still lives exactly in the spot that I played it.”
In speech, as in his playing, the Californian is meticulous, thoughtful and a deep listener, able to trace parts of a question with a stenographer’s precision. He began playing professionally while still in his early teens, his union card minted at an age when most youths are picking up their sticks or strings for the first time. There were a few pizza parlor gigs, some with a honky-tonk piano player and then his first full-on rock gigs with a band of older kids. “We got a lot of bar gigs,” he recalls, “I just grew a big, hairy beard and pretended that I was older.”
By 17 he’d moved to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a session player on the order of Jim Keltner or Jim Gordon. That changed as his inability to read music served as a roadblock to the kind of work he’d dreamed of. He did manage to strike up a friendship with producer Mike Chapman who employed him on wide range of sessions. He would go on to experience widespread commercial success in Mr. Mister and, later, would contribute to recordings from XTC and The Rembrandts among others.
He made his entry into the world of King Crimson via Sylvian/Fripp, which paired the Japan vocalist with the KC founder. When Krimson was reactivated in 1994, Mastelotto sat opposite Bill Bruford in the double trio configuration of the band. (He’s also part of the reactivated version of the group, which tour North America in 2017 with a total of four drummers.) Along the way there have been stints with Cock Robin, California Guitar Trio and the Crimson ProjeKCt (which included Reuter, Levin, Adrian Belew and, at times, Tool’s Danny Carey).
His work in the King Crimson camp has coincided with a reemergence of prog rock, a genre that was all but dead when that band’s 1995 LP Thrak emerged. Though bands such as Primus and a handful of others flirted with prog tendencies, it wasn’t until the mid-‘90s that a new wave of groups emerged to fly the music’s flag.
“After punk, prog became a dirty word,” Mastelotto says. “It’s always been an influential music to musicians, so even if some hipsters wanted to think it was corny our outdated music, I think the underground population disagreed. You had bands coming up like Tool or Mars Volta or Muse or Radiohead that will directly cite King Crimson and progressive bands. Even though those groups were labeled alternative or grunge, progressive music was in their musical genes. I think that was just an indication of how, by the late ‘90s, you start hearing odd time signatures on the radio.”
Mastelotto has several projects in the works for the foreseeable future: More Stick Men road campaigns are inevitable and the Crimson U.S. tour looms on the horizon. He will also release a collaborative effort with Reuter this spring. Titled Face, the LP is, by the co-creators own account, especially peculiar.
“We started that around 2005 or maybe 2007,” the drummer recalls. “We bit off a pretty big project and got part of the way done. Then I invited Markus to meet Tony and we got very busy with Stick Men. The Face record kept bubbling back there and we actually did the final mixing about three years ago. We weren’t really sure about the record. It’s such an odd record that we stepped back and said, ‘Let’s step back for a year and see if we still like it.’ That’s sort of what happened. We got some interest from a label and now we’re going to go for it and see what people think.”
That it features challenging music should be no surprise to anyone who has followed either Reuter’s or Mastelotto’s work to date. “The way I make music, it’s always an experiment,” he says. “I’m always trying to find something new, a new angle to something old. If there’s a familiar tempo or groove to something I have to ask what I can do to make it unique.”
That pursuit, it seems, is enough to keep Mastelotto and his Stick friends on their toes for some time to come.