Innerviews, music without borders

Bill Laswell
Sonic Collage
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1999 Anil Prasad.

Bill Laswell has a unique gift for transforming the intangible into the tangible and seamlessly combining the disparate. The New York-based producer, bassist and visionary is responsible for some of the most influential recordings of the last 20 years. Laswell works without a playbook. He's driven primarily by instinct. And if that instinct calls for fusing rock with turntablism, tablas with reggae, ambience with noise, jazz with Moroccan trance music, or all of the above, so be it.

Laswell’s first musical forays in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s set him on the eclectic trail he travels to this day. That period found him working with the likes of Daevid Allen in New York Gong, Brian Eno and David Byrne. It also saw him establish Material, a musical collective with a chameleon-like ability to shift between genres and styles on any given album.

The musician’s first major public recognition came after working with Herbie Hancock on the seminal hip-hop-funk classic "Rockit" from 1983’s Future Shock. Laswell then went on to collaborate with many legendary musicians, including Laurie Anderson, Mick Jagger, John Zorn, Pharoah Sanders, Zakir Hussain, Tony Williams, and Ginger Baker. Perhaps even more important are the lesser-known performers he has helped bring attention to, such as Buckethead, Nicky Skopelitis, Sonny Sharrock, and The Last Poets.

Laswell's production interests go beyond creating new music from scratch. He’s behind remix projects involving the works of Bob Marley and Miles Davis. His 1998 Panthalassa release saw him reconstructing and recontextualizing early-‘70s Davis jazz-rock tracks. Examples of his mix translation efforts included moving the music’s proto-hip-hop percussion and funk basslines to the fore, and incorporating previously buried-in-the-mix and unreleased passages.

In between his countless collaborative projects, Laswell has recorded several solo albums. His latest, Invisible Design, is a cinematic disc that focuses on melodic bass work sitting atop a wide range of atmospheric approaches.

Invisible Design was released as part of Tzadik's Composer series. Does it represent a more deliberate compositional approach than your other recent projects?

In this, there were actually particular lines that existed in memory that were applied to tape and then juxtaposed from that point. In most cases, there was a fixed sort of structure or matrix for different combinations of sounds. It wasn’t arbitrarily throwing things on tape. I’m playing the things that I felt comfortable playing at that moment. It’s intuitive, but it’s also a collection of ideas that I wanted to put together in one place. Each piece existed as a loose structure—some more organized than others, and I guess that’s why it applies to a composer series. There was a memory of a pattern and a sequence that dictated that it is composed. It creates what people would call a composition—not academically, but musically.

What does composition mean to you?

In 1999, composition means the putting together of sound elements. What I’m dealing with is sound. I don’t pretend to be dealing with music. I’m just dealing with sound elements, textures and sounds. In the collage system, composition means when it’s put together and decorated. You start with the basic skeleton and you decorate that and construct it. Once you call it finished, that’s a composition. Otherwise, composition is an academic term related to notation. For me, notation exists to respect or fulfil memory. But tape can fulfil memory too. Once it’s recorded, it’s a composition. It’s based on catching and capturing sound elements and combining those with other sounds and structuring it towards a finished result. It’s not like writing for a symphony orchestra—which I’m not interested in—because that’s an older, academic way of doing music.

How closely do the sketches in the CD booklet mirror your composition process?

Those notes sort of represent the structure that exists from moment to moment. It’s not really a score or anything—just notes on texture and references.

On "Black Aether," the notes refer to This Heat. How did you draw from the group’s sound to create the piece?

That piece is influenced and inspired by them. This Heat happened in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s. The drummer was Charles Hayward. I’ve always liked this kind of intense push and pull of release and sound they have—there’s a silence and then a stab. I wanted to emulate that.

You play upright bass on that track. That’s the first time I can recall you doing that.

Yeah, but I’m not really playing. I don't really play upright bass, so it's just more for the texture of the sound. I just use it like anything else to create a sound.

So, it was just a case of you plucking a few notes and processing them?

Yeah, exactly.

Several of the album’s tracks find you playing bass in a more melodic mode than we’ve heard from you lately. Were you consciously seeking a change of pace from your recent bottom-heavy stuff?

It's a recent fascination with creating melodic lines based on influences and references that make up your repertoire or language. I think it’s the product of trying to push that to the extreme. There are a lot of influences. They come from hearing other musicians play lines. Everyone has been influenced by somebody, so you get that coming out. The melody being there is also because there’s nobody else playing on the record. I can’t lean on a saxophone or guitar or something or someone to do that. So, I have to try and manifest that myself as well. That style or direction also comes up a little bit in Arcana with Tony Williams. In this kind of project, I'm just using the instrument to create music. I don't know what the difference is between melody and rhythm in that sense.

But as a musician and producer responsible for so many varied projects, there must be an acute intuition at work that tells you where the balance should lie.

As far as bassists playing melody or rhythm, it comes down to whatever the project is. If someone is playing melodically great bass, that's a positive I think. I’m more critical of acrobatics and not knowing how to create a feel or a memorable line. Jaco Pastorius used it as a melody instrument and did phenomenal work with it.

There's a hidden pattern in the album artwork. Is that a visual metaphor listeners should apply to the music too?

Possibly. There's nothing too deep at work. The idea is that it's subliminal. There's a shape that's kind of hard to see at first. And if you look closer, you see it.

Sacred System’s Nagual Site is another significant, recent project of yours. Tell me about the making of the album's key track "X-Zibit-I."

On Nagual Site, I had a lot of support track-by-track from different people. It’s very much a collaboration and a collective effort. It included different people like Bill Buchen, who’s a percussionist and Gulam Mohamed Khan, who is a harmonium player. They constituted a great deal of the emotion and feeling of the music, and they contributed pieces too. "X-Zibit-I" was very much a feature for Zakir Hussain who is obviously a master tabla player. Fortunately, for the rest of the world, he has a sense of humor and doesn’t mind playing with the beat. So, he did that. It’s phenomenal work in terms of time playing. The idea was to create textural chord patterns that weave in and out. They were manipulated by Graham Haynes who worked with Craig Harris who’s a trombone player. I gave the direction, but the actual note configuration and arrangement comes from Graham Haynes.

Why is it fortunate that Hussain has a sense of humor?

Zakir is a master drummer. There's no-one better in the world playing rhythm on any instrument and he's quite willing to sit down and play with a click track or tape loop and laugh about it. It’s very inspiring. He could afford to have an attitude where that means nothing to him because he's above it like people lesser than him musically who have an attitude. He's quite open minded and willing to try anything in a recording situation and have fun with the whole idea.

Hussain told me that you often record musicians without telling them what project their playing will appear on.

Exactly. I think with Zakir it's almost always the case. He almost always doesn’t know what it’s for. We just say "Zakir, here are three tracks we’re working on this day. We do the business, you play the tabla and we see what comes out next time." I’m in the middle of a project solely featuring him called Tabla Beat Science which we recorded about six months ago. It started when we were on Island and then the whole Polygram thing changed, so now that project has moved to Palm Pictures, which is Chris Blackwell's new company. Talvin Singh is interested in helping manipulate some of the music. We’re in the process of making the transition from where we were to where we will be.

I've often wondered what a collaboration between Hussain and Singh would yield.

Oh, it's happening right now. But again, it's Zakir recording a lot of stuff and not knowing exactly what it will be. [laughs] At the moment there's some phenomenal tabla playing that we have to figure out how to construct and put into place. Once it's done, we'll go back to him and see if he agrees. Sultan Khan already played on some things and Talvin will work on some things and we'll try to make it a feature for Zakir's playing—a phenomenal presentation of modern tabla playing.

Elements of Eastern spirituality are present in your work. How closely do you identify with those traditions?

I identify with spirituality naturally, Eastern or not. I just have a lot of respect for the quality of people. For example, with Zakir Hussain, there's just an immense quality to that person that has made him what he has become. There’s an integrity that went into the devotion to his instrument. I don't go much beyond that. I don't pretend to be enlightened on any level beyond the sound or the integrity that goes into manifesting the sound. I'm familiar with different teachers and interests, pursuits and devotions, but I'm still amazed and stuck in the routine and concept of trying to deal with sounds and manifest sound. I haven't gone from recording music to that other area where I'm obsessed with someone's idea of good and bad or right and wrong or where to put your energy.

You once said that the motivation behind dub is bridging science and spirituality. These are issues you must have spent at least a little time pondering.

I know less about science than I know about spirituality. I don’t claim to know anything about spirituality. So, it’s hard to talk about how they meet. I think it’s just erasing thought and trying to disconnect the brain to just feel things. I don’t know what that has to do with science and I don’t know if it has anything to do with spirituality. It’s just intuition. It’s just music. Sound comes out of a life experience, so when you play something or manifest an idea through an instrument or sound, it’s not just a transmission of sound from an invention which is the instrument. It has to do with the life experience based on what you’ve become, what you’ve learned, what you are spiritually and everything else. I don’t know how to divide science and spirituality. I don’t know how to measure in that way. I think it gets down to who you are. When you say "My name is this. I do this," that’s the only clarity I have.

You’re planning on somehow manipulating the music of Blind Willie Johnson for an upcoming project. What draws you to his work?

Well, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" is the classic piece of all time. That's the power. So, whatever I can get back from that is what I'll try to go into—the darkness.

What are you going to do to his music? After all, they’re very simple, mono recordings.

[laughs] I have no idea. I'm trying to figure that out. I don’t have a handle on it right now. So, I don't have an answer. But I'm trying to find a way. I'm just experimenting and trying to get the noise out of the records. The first thing is to minimize the noise. The noise is as loud as the music on the 78s.

What other remix projects do you have coming up?

I have a very interesting remix thing which is Tony Williams Lifetime’s Turn It Over, which to me was a very important record. It was very badly recorded and mixed. I have those tapes and it’s pretty clear that I can make a bigger sounding record and a better sounding record—for Tony, anyway. It’ll be something special. I’m pretty positive that can translate. That’s for Verve. I’m also talking to Carlos Santana about his work with Alice Coltrane and John McLaughlin. I’m pretty positive about that too.

Where do you anticipate going with the Santana stuff?

Step by step. I just try to go into it, open it up and see what's there and try to expand the space of it. I don't know. I gotta get into it. The albums are Illuminations with Alice Coltrane and Love, Surrender, Devotion with John McLaughlin.

Both albums have a very spiritual bent to them.

Yeah, it’s very spiritual music from that time. That spirituality relates even more to what’s going on right now. It takes spirituality to another realm—not just a yoga or new age mentality. It’s on a rougher realm in terms of sonics. But again, it’s very devotional music.

Unlike Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Blind Willie Johnson, Santana is alive and kicking. Will he have a role in this project?

No, I'll try to do it and we'll be in touch about it. We’re talking though, and based on our conversations, he understands the motive.

What is the motive?

The motive is to go into the music, examine the space and extend that space. It’s to re-examine the drone, spirit of it, tonality, the texture and to try to elongate the spirituality of it—the sound. It’s to see what's there and pull things in and out. There's a lot of music there. It's all compacted into the experience that we felt when we got the release of a record, but a record is always just a version of what exists in terms of sound. So, versions are endless.

You’ve received your share of criticism for these remix projects. But what about the positive side? Have you noticed an openness developing towards them?

I don't really pay attention to that. But in terms of Santana, I know that he will be positive because I know where he’s at musically. For audiences, that will be up to them. With Miles Davis, we had a very positive reaction from people—mostly from people that had never heard of Miles Davis. That’s a good start. So, you keep going.

That’s an important achievement in itself.

Yeah, it's good for Miles. That’s what he was about. He'd be into that.

I was amused to hear about the Panthalassa remix album. It’s amazing that we’re at a point in time in which we have remixers…

…remixing a remix. [laughs] Yeah, but a lot of it isn’t related to Miles so much. I'd say 80 percent has very little to do with Miles. It has everything to do with remix culture. I did quite a long piece of unreleased stuff from On The Corner just for the heads—for people that were really into that album. The piece is based on the energy and the concepts that were being developed with On the Corner which to me was already a very revolutionary record—very important. I just tried to extend that energy and experimentation myself with a 16-minute piece of outtakes which should be viable for people interested in that world of Miles Davis. Beyond that, the rest of it is people interpreting whatever tape they were given the way they would interpret whatever tape they were given, which has very little to do with Miles Davis.

Was this project your idea?

Oh no, no, no. I would have done a whole remix album of just On the Corner. I would put out one a week indefinitely. There's so much music from that. Musically, I'm happy with the piece I did. The rest of it? I don't know what it is. I don't know what it has to do with Miles Davis. It's probably trying to get more contemporary DJ-related people involved in it to attract attention to another audience. There will be people that buy it because they see the name of whoever. They will buy it without knowing the difference between Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. So maybe it's positive. It helps the work and the label to push the thing. It's all good. But it's loops and sampling. And there's no spirit of Miles in it. It's not the same thing. I tried to retain the spirit of Miles in my thing because that's whose record I thought it was.

Have you defined what the spirit of Miles is in your own mind?

No, I don't define the spirit of anybody or anything. I just try to move to action and that's what I did with Panthalassa and the tapes I work on. I'm not able to explain or clarify, but intuitively, I knew Miles. I know that music and I was there when it came out and that was very important to me. It made me, so I'm trying to remake it in my own way.

Describe the direction of Intonarumori, the new Material album you're working on.

So far, every track involves a vocalist and it’s a record based on the hip-hop sort of tradition—a rap direction. There’s Kool Keith from Doctor Octagon, Ultramagnetic, Killah Priest from Wu-Tang, and Flavor Flav from Public Enemy. There’s also Zulu Nation, Lori Carson, Dana Bryant, and a singer called Blue who also worked with Wu-Tang. We’re talking to Company Flow too. Right now, there are 12 pieces that exist.

It doesn't sound like there's much similarity to Hallucination Engine.

I'd say nothing at all, yeah.

Is that the whole point of Material?

Well, I dunno. I'm waiting to find out. [laughs]

Will it come out on a resurrected Axiom?

It's through Axiom, but with Palm Pictures. I've done a deal for two records. One is this Material record and the other is the project with Zakir, Talvin and Sultan Khan. We're doing Axiom/Palm for these two and we'll see how it goes. The catalog is still tied up with Polygram. I think I'll get it back soon. I'm trying to work it out. I'm not pushing it too hard. I'm waiting for the smoke to clear at Polygram. There are 30-some titles there and I'm trying to get them back. There are a lot of labels in limbo there. They pulled the plug on everything. They pulled the plug on the entire company. Chris left. There was a buyout—Seagram's bought Polygram, so everyone was fired and everything fell apart. Everyone left. We're in a rebuilding time now—a reinvesting time, a reassessing time. New money's coming in. Everyone that was fired is getting hired and everyone getting rejected is getting signed. It's all good. It'll all come back around. It's just one of those kinds of times. It's a cleansing period. It's good to reassess.

It’s not like you’ve ever been tied to one label at a time anyway.

No, not at all. But there has always been a very strong loyalty to Chris. He made Axiom happen. A lot of money was spent there and I regret we didn't immediately go with him, but he's starting again with a new concept and a new program. I just don’t want to burden him. We're starting small with him. It’s not like he's starting a huge catalog. It’s just a record-by-record, few-things-at-a-time thing. The catalog is immense and we're working on getting that back and finding a place for it, which we will. I'm close to finalizing that.

What I’d like to do now is name some albums you’ve been involved in and get any immediate thoughts that come to mind. First up is Arcana’s Arc of the Testimony. [producer/bassist, 1997]

It was just really important to work with Tony Williams and I felt that Tony played phenomenally. It was great that we even got to do it and hear him playing with that velocity, force and aggression. It was a phenomenal achievement to get him to do that. We had decided to maybe create a live band and do that more and more, but he died before we could realize that.

Ginger Baker’s Horses and Trees. [producer/bassist, 1986]

The whole thing with Ginger came out of John Lydon suggesting playfully that he wanted Ginger to be the drummer in PiL and I thought that was a great idea, so I was stupid enough to go to the North of Italy and find Ginger. I kind of brought him out of retirement and brought him back to New York and we did these tracks with Lydon. I kept the contact and immediately after that, I convinced John Caracas, who was running Celluloid, to do a record with Ginger. So, we put Ginger in the Power Station studio and I brought in some friends like Daniel Ponce, Aiyb Dieng and Nana Vasconcelos to play rhythms. We threw the record together as a rhythm album. It was done quite quickly and spontaneously. I always liked the tribal aspect of Ginger's playing as a rock drummer. That came from his interest in African music. He really has a tribal characteristic to his drumming and that record is a product of that fascination. It was an opportunity to get him not to play in the song form of a rock band.

Swans’ Burning World. [producer/bassist, 1989]

People that were normally living in the East Village immediately got a record deal and saw money for the first time. I was able to hire some real musicians and just work like I normally would, but I think it was very new to them. Also, the label folded a few minutes after the record came out, but I wasn’t unhappy with the work.

Golden Palominos’ This Is How It Feels. [bassist, 1993]

I can't remember because I only played on those records. And I’ve played on so many Palominos records that I don't remember one from the next. It was always just a question of me coming in when Anton Fier was doing the record. There would usually be just a drumbeat and I would play to the drumbeat first and they would write the song after that. I never knew what the music was.

Buckethead's Giant Robot. [producer, 1994]

We just bought that back and it's now owned by Higher Octave, so they'll release it. It will live. Giant Robot will walk the earth. Crazy record. It’s Buckethead's dream. It's his vision. I just wanted to support his vision. I didn't fight him on anything. He had an idea—a vision—and I just helped him realize it. I fought Sony pretty hard on it for him because that's what he wanted. And I don't regret anything. So, it’ll come out and be part of his legacy—if he has one. He'll get there.

Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. [bassist/arranger, 1981]

That was 1979—a long time ago. I used to live on 18th Street in New York City and Brian Eno used to sort of live next door. So, every day I would go out and play, try to get gigs and try to get started. I would see Eno every day and say "Get me a gig. Let me do some recording. What’s up?" I was just trying to hustle anybody I could. I started playing in clubs and doing things and he would see that I was playing around. One day, he said "Okay, I’m doing a session, come over to RPM Studio on 12th Street." The night before, I was playing at CBGB with Denardo Coleman, who’s Ornette Coleman’s son. They took all my equipment back to the East Village and my bass got stolen out of the van, so I had no instrument. I borrowed an instrument from a kid. I said "I’m doing a session tomorrow with these guys Brian Eno and David Byrne, bring me a bass! I don’t have a bass!" So, this guy brought one from the Bronx to me and it was a cheap bass with a sticker on it that said Devo. [laughs] It was kind of embarrassing.

So, I’ve got this bass and I brought it in and I didn’t even know how to play it. I think David Van Tiegham was playing drums and there was a girl they found in Western Square Park playing congas. She kept playing these sort of funk beats and I knew the rhythm, so I played with her. When we started, they would always say "No, no. This is too syncopated. We want to do a very European record." They were looking for Neu or Can—this very European sound. But this girl kept playing this stuff and I kept playing with her. To be honest, she’s the one that started that whole feel that made Bush of Ghosts. It turned out to be this very syncopated, Black music-related record. Before that, that wasn’t really their concept at all. So, we did that for a few days and then I came back to them at Blue Rock Studio and played again, and the record came out after that.

Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock. [producer/bassist, 1983]

I met a guy called Tony Meilandt at the Roxy when Afrika Bambaataa and everyone used to dominate that scene. It was 1982. He said he was trying to get tracks together for Herbie and I said we could do something. I asked Bambaataa "Who's a good DJ? I want to make a track with a DJ playing in time." He recommended Whiz Kid and DST. Whiz Kid was out of town, so I went with DST and we put together some beats in a couple of hours. Then we flew to Los Angeles and made two tracks. One was called "Earthbeat" and one was called "Rockit." Herbie played on it five minutes. We mixed it, came back to New York and all of sudden there was a big interest. It spiraled from there. We’d made this freak hit record. But it was just an experiment based on the information we were getting from DJs at the time.

"Rockit" remains profoundly important to DJ culture. Are you tempted to remix it or revisit it with today’s turntablists?

I've got a proposal with Sony to do a whole remix of that project with all the new DJs. I did this deal with Sony to do three remix projects. One was Miles, one was Santana and the third was Herbie. The idea is to do a double CD of remixes of Sextant and all these things of Herbie's, including "Rockit" with Q*Bert, Mixmaster Mike, Roc Raida, Rob Swift, and everybody. Originally, the idea was to create a track where the turntablist would cut the same way as an alto or horn player would in bebop—16-bar solos. It’s a soloist format for the turntable. I want to get back to that, so I have a proposal to do it again with all the people I’ve been working with in the last three or four years which are these guys—the new generation of turntablists.

How has Hancock reacted to the idea?

We haven't even talked to Herbie because to be honest, he didn't know what was going on when we did the first one. [laughs] So, it's more like if Sony reacts to it, it'll be cool. Herbie wouldn't know the difference.

Let’s finish up with Pharoah Sanders’ Save Our Children. [producer, 1999]

Dealing with Pharoah has always been a challenge. I brought Pharoah kind of back out of obscurity and we did a record called Message from Home. On Save Our Children, we tried to bring more Indian sounds in with Trilok Gurtu and Zakir. It was kind of hard to put together when dealing with Pharoah’s concentration and commitment to it. I don’t really have an overall feeling of how it came out. I just know that a lot of effort went into doing it and that it was a challenge to make it happen. It took a long time to manifest what we made.

I caught Pharoah live a few months ago. The show barely resembled anything on the record.

Well, he never plays live what's on the record. Pharoah’s not the guy who's gonna put together a band to promote anything. He's Pharoah. He’s gonna play Pharoah. It defeats the record company and the record company defeats him. It's not promotional in any sense. A lot of people would like to hear Pharoah blow his brains out and play aggressively. I would too, but I understand that he's done that and we can't make him do what he doesn't want to do. He’s still a presence and he's still a great voice on the tenor saxophone. Records are just moments of achievement. They’re like receipts for work done. Time goes on and people keep playing music. On any given day, Pharoah could be incredible and another day he could be totally complacent, boring, pointless and not even play the instrument. The next day he could be phenomenal. If we capture that one day on record, it’s gonna be part of a good history and not the mundane.

How much of Save Our Children is you and how much is Pharoah?

It's mixed up. It's a balance. It's mostly me just trying to get it done and balance his energy. Doing that is not fun sometimes. It's not my vision. I wouldn't do a record like that. If I was gonna do a record like that, I would do it and have him come solo on it. It would be a very different record. So, I can't say it's mine. But, it's not really his either.

You’re probably the most prolific musician on the face of the Earth. It’s rare for a week to go by without at least one new Laswell-related album coming out. What motivates you to maintain this pace and output?

It's responsibility really. A lot of it has to do with commitment. A lot of it has to do with the responsibility of helping people resolve or realize something. There's a part of it that's me just trying to get it done because I have that commitment. And certain times there's money involved. I have an overhead, so I have to create projects. The only way I make money is by making records. I'm not from a family of money. No-one's given me anything. I have to pay people, so I have to produce. I have to make records. That’s combined with helping people who realize they’re in trouble—you know, somebody from somewhere needs a record deal so they can have a family, so they can have a life. That's all part of it. So, we just keep pounding away to get everybody in place, including myself. It's not that I’m obsessed with an overabundance of activity. It's all just responsibility and commitment to staying alive—to keeping everything in place, not just for myself, but for a great deal of people. So, when people review things, they may not be talking about an artist who sat down and figured out something and said "This is my goal. This is what I want to do and I’m trying to impress somebody." It might be reviewing somebody who’s trying to save somebody’s life. So, good or bad, it means absolutely nothing compared to life. You’re just trying to help.

Do you have a life outside of this stuff?

Life? This is life. Outside of this stuff, there's the stuff. I don't try to separate what I do from what it is, you know? So, that should communicate. It's 24/7. This is what I do.