Interview: Mark King is celebrating Level 42

After almost 40 years as a band, Level 42 will be joining UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey on the road for the Grandslam Tour.

It was 1979 when bassist and vocalist Mark King first teamed up with guitarist Mike Lindup and others to form Level 42. Some forty years later the band are still going strong, with both still providing the all-important backbone to their sound. With eleven full-length albums to their name, eight of which underpinned popular music during the 1980s, they are now gearing up to join UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey on the road across the UK for the Grandslam Tour.

We caught up with King to find out what the band have in store, and to look back on the last 40 years.

How are you feeling about the UB40 tour?

Very excited to be going out with UB40, firstly because they are one of my favourite bands. When we began in 1979, if I could have sounded like any singer it would have been Ali Campbell at UB40. I’ve always adored his voice. It’s been amazing seeing that band going from strength to strength throughout the years. For more they are a national treasure, so that’s going to be an absolute pleasure.

I bumped into Ali and the boys at Jools Holland’s Hootanany last year, and it was so nice seeing them. It’s going to be an absolute joy touring the country with them.

Secondly, I’m already looking forward to it because I know we’re going to get the chance to make a lot of new friends and fans. This is very much a reggae bill, and although Level 42 haven’t been known as such, I know the two sorts of music are going to complement each other beautifully. This is a really good package, and with the 60 minutes that we’re going to get to play each day I hope we’re going to swing a lot of new fans our way.

Did you and UB40 know each other well back in the 80s?

Occasionally our paths crossed. I actually did a solo gig back in about 1998, and I was walking into a hotel the lads were walking out. I said “Hey Ali, what are you doing here?” Typical Ali said “I live here, what are you doing here?” I thought that was pretty cool.

So there’s almost a celebration of that time on this tour?

We can both hold our heads up and say that we gave a good account of ourselves throughout the 1980s. The music that we played both became benchmarks for that decade. If you think about how well the 1980s has faired against other musical decades, it’s one that seems to be held in people’s hearts strongly. From Top Of The Pops reruns to the amount of radio stations that dedicate themselves to that time, I think that speaks volumes about bands of that time.

Level 42 - Lessons In Love

How are you preparing for the tour?

There’s always that question of what songs to leave out. When you’ve been going as long as we have, you have more than enough music to fill up 90 minutes and we’re only getting a 60-minute slot. The problem for me is what songs to include and which songs to leave out.

There are the go-to ones of course. The Lessons In Love, the Running In The Family, Something About You, It’s Over… So many songs that we can string together. It’s about getting them in the right order and having the best impact. We want to play everybody’s favourite.

How do you approach that? Do you decide whether it’s going to be a celebratory set?

You want to come in big, and then you have to take it down before you can build up. It’s different doing a festival to doing your own tour. On the last tour we were able to lean a bit heavier onto the newer EP. When you hit the festivals, and with this tour, you want to get as much bang for the buck as you can. You really want to get the hits out. It may take some editing, but that’s part of the fun of being a musician.

Has the way you’ve approached touring changed over the last 30 years?

It’s something that’s always been big in the Level 42 arsenal; the fact that we can cut the mustard live. Now we’re a bigger band than we’ve ever been – we’re a seven piece with a full brass section. That in itself adds another dimension to the music.

Things like adding that in keep it fresh for you as a musician, so it doesn’t feel repetitive. It’s different, and every time it comes around it’s different. I still get that feeling of trepidation. If I ever lose that it’ll be the time to hang it all up, but there’s no sign of that yet.

You’ve changed your line-up steadily over the years. What does the current one bring to the sound? 

Most of us have been playing together for at least 18 years. Pete [Ray Biggin – drums] joined us in 2010, so he’s been playing with us for seven years now. He came to see us when he was 11 years old, and we’ve actually got footage of this kid with his albums wanting them signed. It’s amazing now that you wind forward 27 years and he’s the guy on the drums in the band. And then we have the brass section with a really big, colourful sound. It’s really funky. It’s great having brass in the band.

Level 42 - Something About You

When you look back on that career, is there anything in particular you’ve taken away from it all? 

We sold a lot of records, which is great. You can’t get the tour unless you’re touring with a hit record. It must be really hard these days to be a touring band, where perhaps the only champions playing you are smaller radio stations. We had it so much easier back in our day because radio was really a thing, and you had the chart every week.

It was very simple. You had to make the national chart, if you do that you got a shot on Top Of The Pops. If you did that when you went out tour the room would be full because everybody knew who you were. It must be much harder now.

You hint at the meaning of life in the name of your band. Do you think you’ve found it?

No! [Laughs] You’ve got to be kidding. I’m more confused than I’ve ever been. Nothing gets clearer, but that’s a really good thing. The sillier and more demented I get, as I get older, everything just seems funny.

Everything’s funny except what’s happening politically these days. I’ve never felt so politicised as I have after 2016. I can’t believe where the world is going. I’d much rather that everyone was happier and in a safe place than staring down the barrel of Armageddon.

Does that attitude feed into any news music? 

There’s going to be the Sirens 2 EP, which we never got around to finishing before the tour last year. Now I’ve got a very good reason to, to put the world to rights on record.

But for now you are happy playing the hits?

If people can get an hour and a half or two hours off the grimness of real life to be transported back to a time when they were sitting in the back of their family car having an ice cream, I’m very happy to be the guy providing that sound. New music will come when the new music wants to come. We’re lucky to be in the position where we can do both.

Level 42 will be joining UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey on the road throughout the summer. Grab tickets now through