Interview with Mark King of Level 42

(This interview was originally published October 22, 2010 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)  

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you. 

This time that awesomeness is Mark King of Level 42. I am so pleased to have had the chance to interview the man partly responsible for two of my favorite songs of the entire '80s decade, not to mention one of the preeminent bass players of our time. Level 42 formed back in 1980 featuring Mark King’s lead vocals and distinctive thumb-slap bass guitar grooves. King was joined by Mike Lindup (keyboards & backing vocals) as well as brothers Boon (guitar) and Phil (drums) Gould.

Level 42 has released 11 studio albums which have produced 20 singles reaching the Top 40 on the UK Singles Chart. In 1985, they would gain U.S. popularity and radio play with “Something About You” and followed that up with another big hit in 1986’s “Lessons In Love.” “Something About You,” from the 1985 album World Machine, would be the band’s first and most successful U.S. hit reaching #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. In case you are not familiar with it, here is a music video for “Something About You” by Level 42…

They would open for huge tours with Madonna and Tina Turner as well as headlining for themselves. The brothers Gould would leave the band in 1987 and be replaced until Level 42 temporarily disbanded in 1994 before reforming in 2001. They are celebrating 30 years now and Mark King has been the one constant the whole time.
Now, let’s get on with my interview with Mark King…

Q: There seems to be elements/influences of jazz, funk, soul, R&B and pop in your music. How do you describe the Level 42 sound and its appeal?

Mark: Well, I suppose the music Level 42 makes is a product of the broad range of influences each of the musicians involved has had over the years. When we began back in 1980 we had been listening to a lot of the fusion music that had sprung from the Miles Davis school, guys like John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, along with the funk pioneers from James Browns bands. But if you look back even further then we had all grown up listening to the British pop scene and The Rolling Stones, The Beatles et al, so it’s no surprise really that there is something of all these styles in our songs.

Q: I have heard some different explanations, so how did the band name Level 42 come about and what is its meaning?

Mark: Having come along when punk was in its death throes we looked for a name that would somehow distance ourselves from it, and numerology seemed as good a way as any. Douglas Adams had just released The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy and the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” was 42, at least according to the super computer deep thought! The level part was bolted on at the suggestion of our first producer, Andy Sojka.

Q: You just celebrated your 52nd birthday and Level 42 is celebrating its 30th anniversary. That means you have known many more years in your life as a member of the band than not. What legacy do you feel the band has left thus far? From your perspective, how has the industry changed over those 30 years?

Mark: Yes, thirty years is a long time to be doing anything really. But I would hope that the energy of the bands live performances today are still an inspiration to the next generation of players that come along to see us as much as we were for Pete Biggin, who came along and sat in with us back in 1991 when he was eleven years old and now has the gig on drums.

The industry has changed radically from back in the day. I don’t think the major labels took on board the huge impact that the internet would have on how we buy, listen to, or share music and they are struggling to adapt. As an artist with a long history the internet has been an amazing thing for me and I started releasing my own “home produced” music back in 1998 direct to the fans. It’s the way to go!

Q: Your two most successful songs in the U.S. were 1985’s “Something About You” and 1986’s “Lessons in Love”. They are two of my favorite songs of the entire decade. What changed for the band as you achieved worldwide popularity?

Mark: I’m glad you like them, thanks. Those two songs did bust it wide open for us, in every territory, and the work load increased exponentially. That was fine, but there were the inevitable casualties too and we lost Boon, then Phil to the rigors of being on the road for too long. But as one door closes so another opens and we were joined by Gary Husband and Alan Murphy, two fantastic musicians and good friends.

Q: Is it true that “Lessons in Love” was rushed to be released because another artist was going to release a cover version?

Mark: Yes it is. The German branch of Polydor liked the song so much that they had it covered by a local female singer and had plans to release ahead of us, which could have been disastrous as it went on to be a number one there for us for seven weeks. It would be interesting to hear her version, I never have, who knows it might have been better?

The single was released in April of 1986, but the album it would be included on, Running in the Family, would not be released until March of 1987. In addition to hitting #1 in Germany, the single would reach #3 on the UK Charts and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a video for an extended version of “Lessons in Love” by Level 42

Q: What are your personal favorites of the Level 42 hit songs? Are there any lesser known songs that you have always particularly enjoyed?

Mark: I like playing “To Be With You Again” and “Heaven In My Hands” is always good to play live, but I’ve no real favorites as they are all great fun to play, particularly for a bass player.

“To Be With You Again” was also from 1987’s Running in the Family album. It would be a top 10 single in the UK, but was not even released as a single in the U.S. “Heaven In My Hands” was from 1988’s Staring at the Sun album and is the first single released after the Gould brothers left the band. Here’s a live performance of “Heaven In My Hands” by Level 42

Q: So many bands who had major success in the '80s seem to “run away from the '80s”, but you seem to embrace it. I think that is cool. Any particular reasons you choose not to run away from those great years?

Mark: The '80s were really good to me and I cherish the good fortune that gave me my career in that era. We were lucky enough to have grown up through, and been inspired by the '60s and '70s, then been able to get our music out there at a time when radio and TV wasn’t so one dimensional. A fantastic time.

Q: I read that you actually switched from drums to bass when forming the band. How did that decision come about? We certainly don’t regret it, but do you ever wonder what it would’ve been like if you would’ve never made the change?

Mark: When we began in 1980 we were rehearsing at The Guildhall School of Music where Mike Lindup was a student, and I had lost my drums in an abortive trip to Austria. Phil had the drum kit so I borrowed a bass guitar and got stuck in on that instead. Phil was a great drummer though so it was all good! At that time I always believed I’d be back on drums in some band or other but it just never happened that way.
Mark’s drummer rhythm and instincts would transition nicely into his distinctive slap-bass technique. This style was more common in funk and jazz fusion, but was pretty fresh for pop music. Here’s a short video of Mark King demonstrating his slap-bass technique

Q: I have noticed that you wear black tape around your thumb when you play. Have you always done that and is there a reason for it?

Mark: When we first toured Holland in 1981 I thumped the bass a bit too hard and split my thumb open, we still had another thirteen shows to follow so I just had to tape it up and get on with it. Now it feels weird without the tape.

Q: I have heard your fun version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on YouTube. I think it is great. Have you ever considered releasing an entire Christmas album? I think it would be outstanding.

Mark: Hey, great idea! I’m a big Christmas fan and love having the family around, it’s what life’s all about, really.

Here’s the video I referred to of Mark King performing "All I Want For Christmas Is You"…

Q: I love your new 4CD Box Set called Living It Up. I particularly love the acoustic versions included and especially the acoustic “Something About You.” It is exceptional. Is that something that came out of your live shows? Also, I have to imagine playing acoustic bass is quite different than the usual.

Mark: The acoustic album came about because we needed to play something on live radio interviews. We’d just released the Retroglide album in 2006 and one of the songs “All I Need” leant itself to the acoustic “treatment” quite well. Then the fans were asking if we could play more of the songs acoustically so that’s what we did and the 30th Anniversary Box Set was the perfect excuse.

Q: What is Level 42 up to right now and what are plans for the near future?

Mark: We are midway through our UK tour and then off into Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland ending mid November. We’ve already been out to Japan in June and the US in July with loads of festivals in Europe sandwiched in between. It really has been a great 30th Anniversary Tour and you can keep up with it all on!

What an honor it was for me that Mark took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I have been a big fan of Level 42 since the first time I heard “Something About You” back in 1985 and now I can appreciate the music of the band so much more. The new 4CD Box Set is outstanding and I highly recommend it to any Level 42 fans. Be sure to visit the website to see the great things that Mark and the band are still doing. Mark King is one of my favorite musicians of all time and he has certainly made his mark on '80s pop culture and music. I want to take this opportunity to thank him for that and for reminiscing with us for a little while.

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