Innerviews, music without borders

Bill Laswell
Endless Infinity
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad.

Producer, bassist and composer Bill Laswell is responsible for some of the most interesting and important recordings of the last quarter century. He’s a unique sonic architect who doesn’t rely on blueprints. Rather, Laswell works largely from instinct. And if that instinct calls for fusing rock with turntablism, tabla with reggae, ambient sounds with free jazz, spoken word with Moroccan trance music, or all of the above, so be it.

Laswell’s early 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 propensity for shifting between genres and styles including jazz, hip-hop and world music on any given album.

The New York City-based musician’s first major splash came after working with Herbie Hancock on the seminal hip-hop classic “Rockit” from the keyboardist’s 1983 album Future Shock. “Rockit” was one of the earliest and most popular examples of scratch DJ culture infiltrating the mainstream. Laswell’s success with the track helped pave the way for him to work with some of music’s most vital voices. Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Mick Jagger, John Lydon, Iggy Pop, Pharoah Sanders, and John Zorn represent just a few of the legends he’s collaborated with. Even more important is the lesser-known talent he has helped bring to public attention such as Buckethead, The Last Poets, Sonny Sharrock, and Nicky Skopelitis.

Many of Laswell’s most noteworthy projects have been released through Axiom Records, his boundary-breaking label responsible for a variety of impressive world fusion projects from acts including Ginger Baker, Umar Bin Hassan, Jonas Hellborg, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, and Tony Williams. The label is also home to Material’s Hallucination Engine, a landmark record from 1994 that continues to have a massive influence in global fusion and electronica circles. The album featured a remarkably seamless merging of world music, dub, jazz, and ambient elements. The line-up of musicians was equally notable with Zakir Hussain, Wayne Shorter, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, and L. Shankar all making contributions.

Countless artists have since released works inspired by Hallucination Engine. But instead of doing the obvious and creating a sequel, Laswell took the record’s basic precepts of cross-cultural, multi-generational collaboration and applied them to other projects. The most prominent example is Tabla Beat Science, featuring South Asian tabla players/ percussionists Zakir Hussain, Trilok Gurtu, Karsh Kale, and Talvin Singh; sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan; turntablist DJ Disk; and Ethiopian vocalist Gigi. Merging Indian classical music with techno, drum and bass, and dub, the group’s albums and tours have enlarged the spotlight on South Asian musical traditions, while positioning them in a modern context.

Laswell’s production interests go beyond creating new music from scratch. He’s helmed several album-length remix projects involving the works of Bob Marley, Carlos Santana and Miles Davis. For instance, his 1998 Panthalassa release saw him reconstructing and recontextualizing early-'70s Davis jazz-rock tracks. Specific examples of his “mix translation” efforts included moving the music’s proto-hip-hop percussion and funk basslines to the fore, and excavating previously buried and unheard passages.

He’s also found time to record several solo albums that further traverse the intersections between ambient, world music, jazz, and drum and bass. The always-intriguing releases are typically anchored by his dub-infused basslines and influenced by musics he’s encountered during his extensive travels throughout Africa, Asia and South America.

Where did your initial interest in mixing world musics stem from?

I was really lucky to hear music from different cultures early on. When I was 14 or 15, I saw Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha and it stuck with me. It probably didn’t hurt that someone had spiked me with LSD when I saw them. [laughs] So, the memory was the most psychedelic music I had ever heard. And 80 percent of that was because of the music. It was really impressive. At the same time, I started to hear African and Middle Eastern music. I never had the opportunity to be conditioned by a school situation where they would have broken these musics down and said “These are the boxes you put all this stuff in. Don’t mix them up because it’s really bad to do that.” I wasn’t covered with fingerprints or mishandled when I got started, so I was always just open and connected. I was also lucky to grow up in a very interesting time. I could see the end of the '60s and the beginning of fusion and heard what worked and what didn’t. I listened to a lot of Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane and Don Cherry. They call Coltrane a jazz musician, but his interest in the music of India and Africa was pretty immense too. I paid close attention to that. So, I didn’t go from Coltrane back to Charlie Parker. Rather, I took the opportunity to explore Indian and African music.

It seemed like a natural thing to do. I didn’t think it was natural for people to separate cultures and sounds—especially people in world music territory. Those people sometimes seem incredibly stiff, paranoid, rigid, and protective of something they have absolutely nothing to do with anyway. The greatest musicians will always want to mix what they’re doing with something else. They know it’s inevitable that it has to blend together with something else in order to evolve. Those musicians are very open to all backgrounds and cultures. The one common thread is that they can really play. I’ve never been in a situation with someone who could really play from a non-Western background that was opposed to the idea of juxtaposing what they do with something else or trying something different. I want to emphasize that this is based on musicians with very high standards and not frustrated, bitter or competitive musicians who would rather be perfectly aligned with the way the music business, music magazines and music promotion are run, which is very much done in blocks and categories. It’s almost worse than pop music in some ways.

What would you point to as the earliest recorded document of your approach?

To be honest, I remember more about the people, the experiences and the traveling than I do the documented receipts, which are the recordings. Those are more about business than anything else. The records are such a fraction of what was really going on. I know a lot of people know the work from the records, but to me, it’s just an ocean of experience. And like Jimi Hendrix said, “You can’t go into the ocean and pull out a piece of it.” The records aren’t that impressive to me compared to what I experienced during the making of them. I’m glad the records are there and things are documented. I’m also glad that a lot of it isn’t completely constructed and that some of it is real. But I don’t know if there was a specific point where it all came together. It was more like every day and every week some sort of new connection was made in which I could say “I can go from here.” It’s like improvising where you go from point to point. Someone will initiate something and you travel with them for a minute. Then you initiate something else and you go another way. It should always be like that.

I’m surprised to hear you refer to your records as mere business receipts.

It’s because the records involve other people that have nothing to do with music. It has to do with their approval, objectivity and taste. It’s wrapped up in their negative and positive reactions. In some cases you work very closely with people like Chris Blackwell or Alan Douglas, who was Jimi Hendrix’s last producer. Working with those people is a pleasure because they have a lot of knowledge and actually like music. That’s very rare in this business. There are a few people that make it real and personal, but for the most part, you are at the mercy of people who know absolutely nothing about what you’re doing, but are telling you what to do. It’s not all grim, but it’s largely a really absurd process. The more you experience it, the more you realize that to be true.

Having said that, you’ve made some landmark records that have stood the test of time.

I’ve had some landmark opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to get on my own. If you trace those landmark records, they always go back to the business in that those are records I did with people who wanted to help me instead of try to control the situation. The records wouldn’t exist without the business side. The music would have been there, but I couldn’t have made the records by myself. They have to be approved, nurtured and supported on some level, because I’ve never been very good at the business part.

Describe the beginnings of Material and what you sought to achieve with it.

From the beginning, Material was never really a group, but sort of like a production company that would occasionally play live. There was never any extensive touring or promotion related to it. It always changed all the time. If there was ever an idea, it was that it should constantly change. The 2004 line-up is the closest I’ve ever had to a consistent line-up. I was consolidating three or four different directions that existed on record. There was a repertoire that evolved over the years and we thought the more we played it, the more it would evolve into one sound. Currently, there’s a whole section of Ethiopian songs that we do in different arrangements and different ways live. There’s also a whole other area of rhythm that’s sort of based on drum and bass, and dub. Then there are pieces that are taken from various records over a long period of time which are kind of signature riffs and themes. Then that’s mixed with the fact that there’s always been a great deal of improvisation. The idea is to create a unique dynamic. The more we do it, the more it can become one experience that doesn’t feel like it’s being broken down into different cells. Rather, it should flow as one continuous idea. Also, a lot of things are just intuitive, spontaneous, vague, and mysterious. I think music has to have those things in order for it to be of interest.

How do you look back at Material’s 1994 album Hallucination Engine?

I think it’s very important. It wasn’t the standard thing where a record is made by musicians who go into a studio and work very diligently on a musical direction that’s very well-planned. It’s a very good example of how music will be done in the future. Hallucination Engine was done over a long period of time and was based on the energy and contributions of the people that passed through it. I didn’t always know who was going to appear on a track. Then, a year later, someone appears that’s on tour and they happen to be in the proximity of a tape machine and you have the opportunity to include them. It was very interesting to make a record this way. Some pieces just happened and some would start with an idea that served as the blueprint of where things might go. A musician’s contribution could completely alter the whole mood and change the shape, dynamics and arrangements. Sometimes, suddenly there would be a mistake that shouldn’t be there and that turned out to be a theme that became the focus. I think that’s a hopeful, futuristic idea. Music doesn’t need to be a fixed, programmed and formatted idea that goes back to someone sitting down at a keyboard and writing a song. That approach isn’t necessarily an honest one because if the writer is playing a genre-specific style or direction, they’re already doing someone else’s music. What was achieved on Hallucination Engine is a natural fusion as opposed to a decorative idea. It’s something that came together spontaneously and musically as one sound. We didn’t take a beat and decorate it with some ethnic or electronic idea. It all feels supportive of one particular sound. It’s a real natural flow of things juxtaposed that worked rhythmically and harmonically. Overall, it feels like music that’s kind of rare. It has the time stamps of the cast of people that came in and out of it. It established a kind of open-ended music that can go backwards and forwards and never get stuck in one place.

Hallucination Engine sounded like a natural evolution from the previous Material album, 1989’s Seven Souls.

Everything during that period is related. There were a few records where certain combinations of instruments and rhythms that were looking to India, Africa and the Middle East all became one tonality. We mixed percussive sounds from many cultures at once to create a pulse and then used low-end ideas that relate more to Jamaican or African music. On top of that, we invoked harmonic ideas that were more related to modal jazz. Through all of it, we didn’t sacrifice the possibility of improvisation.

Seven Souls came together under weird conditions. Originally, I had recorded three tracks I was going to use for a PiL (Public Image Limited) record for John Lydon. They were tracks I put together with L. Shankar, Sly Dunbar, Nicky Skopelitis, and Aiyb Dieng. I created the tracks based on discussions with Lydon, who was interested in Turkish music at that time. I thought the tracks would fit into a softer take on the PiL sound. They brought another type of chordal and melodic thing into the project. We ended up having a falling out and I didn’t feel comfortable with the band he had. Lydon was doing very well at that time and wasn’t the easiest person to deal with. I probably wasn’t either. So I said “I’ll take my tracks and do something else.” I took the three tracks on a cassette and went to Turkey. While I was there, I was reading The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs and realized that would be a great background for his narrative. I thought it might be a good idea to use his words as opposed to having a singer. It was interesting to have a story and information on top of the music. I made a decision in Turkey to do that and came back and had some people record Burroughs reading from that book. The record came together quickly after that.

Tabla Beat Science also seems inextricably linked to Hallucination Engine.

Absolutely. It goes back to the same kind of juxtaposition of different rhythmic ideas. The focus, as I see it, is Zakir Hussain. Everything is based on his virtuosity, presence and experience. And everyone else contributes and supports that. With a lot of world music, you have sort of Xerox musicians where someone plays a rhythm and the musician feels inclined to learn about it in a kind of musicologist sense. I think learning about music can be dangerous if all you want to do is get close to copying someone’s originality. In contrast, I think Tabla Beat Science is an interesting set-up. You have DJ Disk, who plays what he learned from his culture; Gigi, an Ethiopian singer who’s dealing with melodies from her culture; electronic music and drum and bass; and a bass style that can go anywhere. I don’t want to use categories, but it’s all very supportive. At the same time, the group can bring in more of a rock or dub element at any moment. It makes it a viable entity. It’s exactly like the nucleus of Hallucination Engine. There’s also a direct connection to Zakir who performed on that record too.

Tell me about the seeds of Tabla Beat Science and how the group has evolved since its 2000 debut album Tala Matrix.

The idea began with me listening to a lot of drum and bass and techno, which are very fast musics that have double time with basslines at half time. I realized that tempo and those rhythms are no different from the kinds of tempos and areas the tabla has always explored. Tabla playing always had double time and half time going in the acoustic realm. I thought it might be interesting to develop it electronically with people who were moving in that direction at the same time. I initially contacted Zakir Hussain and we agreed to start the project. Then I played in London with Talvin Singh and Karsh Kale, both of whom are tabla players and involved in developing the electronic side of things. We also brought in Trilok Gurtu who has more of a background in fusion, but was still a tabla player. I also brought in other people I met like Sultan Khan. We ended up playing folk melodies and Rajasthani themes over beats and I thought that was a nice kind of vibe. The first record evolved from that and there ended up being a very big interest in the group. Our first show was for 13,000 people in San Francisco and we’ve played in places as far away as Dubai, Mumbai and Beirut.

You’re very skilled at coaxing amazing performances out of people. What are the keys to being such an effective producer?

I think it’s really knowing the person’s limitations and the highest points of distinction they can sustain. Everyone is different. Some people play incredibly well and then say “It’s terrible. Let’s do it again.” At that point, you have to shut them down and say “No, you’re wrong. We’re keeping that.” And then it can become confrontational. With other people, you have to push and push to get them to play something worth listening to. But the really great musicians that have natural ability and come from a place of artistic honesty usually do their best the first time they sit down to play. Electronic and computer-based musicians seem to be more picky. That process is less magical. But everyone is totally different. You can’t take the same approach to any two people. You develop an intuition about what feels right and what doesn’t for each musician.

Describe your demeanor as a producer.

I was told throughout the '80s that my reputation was one of someone who was really difficult to work with. I think that comes more from record companies. I was very difficult with record companies. I don’t think I’m always that difficult with bands, particularly if I’m working with people I’ve dealt with previously or someone I’m trying to help evolve. But to me, the music has always been the most important thing. I’ve been guilty of actually breaking up bands. I would tell a member of a long-term band “It’s not working. We’re gonna try someone else.” That can be heartbreaking, but this isn’t the Boy Scouts. I’m trying to actually make music. An example is PiL in which John Lydon would grab some kids, come to New York and say “This is my band.” I’d say “Your band’s not happening, so I’m going to use another drummer and guitarist.” Then the drummer would come up to me and say “Who’s replacing me?” I’d say “You’re fortunate to be replaced by Ginger Baker. I suggest you go home and cry.” [laughs] Then the guitarist would ask “Who’s playing guitar?” I’d say “Well, Steve Vai is playing guitar. I think he can handle it. So, let us do the album and then you can all go on tour.” Then you have bands that are just dumb. Spinal Tap was not an exaggeration by any stretch. Working with Motorhead and the Ramones went way beyond Spinal Tap. They were interesting experiences, but nothing I’d want to repeat.


How do you determine what projects you want to take on?

You have to know you can bring something to the project. You have to have some understanding of where it comes from, how it works and what its potential is. On the day you’re considering it, you also need to know if you need money. For instance, if I needed money and got a call from someone whose music I wasn’t crazy about, but thought I could do a good job with, I would say “Listen, I’m definitely into that. I want to do it.” But if they called a week later and I just got a lot of money from elsewhere to do my own thing, I’d probably say “Sorry, I’m too busy, guys.” So it’s not always strictly the creative side that dictates what happens. A lot of it is out of necessity. Sometimes it’s work. Also, I get a lot of calls from people who say “Have you got any work?” Sometimes records are made and situations are put together just to help someone with money. That’s something a lot of critics and audiences don’t understand when they’re judging a record. Sometimes I’m helping people who are in trouble. It can be a situation in which someone needs a record deal so they can take care of their family and have a life. That’s all part of it.

The money, people, time, and schedules are all connected to the music. In a way, the budget can really dictate who’s gonna be on an album. You may want to have someone on a record, but you won’t use them because you know you need a round-trip business class ticket from somewhere for them. Or you might need a hotel for three days and you won’t have that in the budget. That’s why records like Hallucination Engine took a long time. I really didn’t want to finish that record with the budget I had. That record’s budget is probably five times larger than the actual budget, but the rest came from me. I didn’t go back to Chris Blackwell and say “We’re over budget.” I make it my responsibility and I’ll get the money from other projects if necessary.

How do you look back at your days at the helm of the Axiom label?

I thought we made the greatest progressive fusion in the history of time. I have no problem comparing Axiom’s output with anything else. The real test is the music, so take the records, play them and play someone else’s stuff. That’s all you have to do. I stand behind the Axiom records 100 percent. There are other world music labels where you get the feeling that for someone to get a record deal, they have to have a name, be very easy to deal with and have a manager with an office in London and maybe in Los Angeles too. You get the feeling nobody’s on drugs or fighting or stealing. Unfortunately, some of the greatest musicians are on drugs, they do steal and they cause trouble. Trouble is very much a part of music. With Axiom, I went for the heaviest stuff and the heaviest people. I wanted it to be real. I wanted those records to be about true collaboration, not about somebody who’s decorating. We went into very different areas that labels typically wouldn’t risk going into.

Describe the philosophies at work in your album-length remix projects.

I think of remixing in the same way a composer would interpret another composer’s composition. But it can mutate significantly. I usually start with some kind of map and then I proceed to deconstruct the map. There’s definitely a method, as well as a lot of spontaneity and intuition at work. I try to create a shape and dynamic that’s similar to a written composition. A lot of thought will go into that. Sometimes I’ll stick to the plan and sometimes I’ll throw it away in five minutes. What I tell record labels is “It’s not a remix. It’s like a reincarnation. It’s a new life. It’s a new record. You can’t put it out as a reissue or as any sort of re-anything.” I think a lot of the electronic music we did in the past came from the future and it’s still coming. So in certain cases, I think you can consider a remix album a new achievement or contribution.

Your remix projects have drawn praise and ire in equal measures. What’s your response to those in the latter category?

It’s important to understand that a mix is just a version. This comes from dub and the original b-sides that were created because you had no more studio time. So instead, you took a track, mutated it and it became a new version that served as your b-side—your second song. In reality, it’s just the first song done differently. So the number of versions you can create is endless. A mix is just a stereo master that happened to happen one day. One person will say it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever heard and another will say it’s the worst thing they’ve ever heard. So when purists say “This is blasphemy. He’s changed the original,” I say “The original never existed. It was just a version that was for sale that you happened to buy. It’s not the only one you can listen to.” I think the word “remix” is an old word that should be left in the disco age. What we’re talking about now are endless versions that can go on into infinity.

Tell me about your relationship with Miles Davis.

After I did Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock in 1983, Miles called Herbie and said ”What you did is all I ever wanted to do—make a street record. How do I do that?” Herbie said “Honestly, you should call Bill because he’s the one who did it all.” So Miles called and we met in Paris in winter 1983. We talked about lots of things. I had many African musicians in the studio at the time, including Manu Dibango, Mory Kanté and Youssou N’Dour. Miles was blown away by the environment and said “Put a track together and let’s do something.” When we got back to the States, we met again at his place and talked on the phone a lot. I put a couple of tracks together, but a guy named Tommy LiPuma was handling Miles’ career at the time and I wasn’t into him. Miles and LiPuma came to the studio when I was working with George Clinton and said “We want you to do half of the new album and Marcus Miller is gonna do the other half.” I said “How about you and Marcus do the whole record because I have better things to do. Go away.” I didn’t talk to Miles for awhile after that. I met Miles again in Japan after Tutu came out in 1986 and told him I could still do stuff. But time went on and I was in Hong Kong one day watching TV and it said Miles had just died. At that time, I was just getting ready to say to him “Let’s get Tommy LiPuma out of the way and do this thing right.”

Do you have any regrets about not getting to work with Davis?

Yeah. I should have pushed a little harder. I was working a lot during that time and the way I dealt with LiPuma was with the attitude of “We’re making stuff that represents the past, present and future of music. It’s heavy and relevant. And we’re selling records to kids and you’re just old.” That was the vibe he got from me. We didn’t connect. I didn’t need a record company person telling me what to do. I talked to Miles after that and explained to him why I wouldn’t do it and he was cool. He still wanted to do something in the future. My idea for Miles, as I explained to him in Paris, was to do a kind of endless music conceptually similar to how Trouble Funk and Parliament-Funkadelic would start a rhythm and then decorate it with different tunes and themes. With Miles, you could have had an acoustic quintet playing inside of an electric band and you could have had the electric band decorating the quintet. You could have had Wayne Shorter and Miles doing themes that also included classical, African and industrial references. Miles was buggin’ when I told him about my idea. He thought it was great, but I couldn’t take that idea and reduce it to half a record. I had an epic idea and all they wanted to do was just make another Miles record.

Did your discussions with Davis play a role in shaping your approach on the Panthalassa remix album?

I certainly remembered the conversation in Paris during which we talked about making music that would overlap and connect. Panthalassa includes tracks that are actually two pieces playing at once. In addition, there are a few places on the record where a theme from one piece that was previously unheard goes into a rhythm from another tape that was never heard. But the record wasn’t meant to serve as a deconstruction of Miles Davis. Rather, it was meant to bring out new elements in the music. I knew Miles’ music from that era well. I was there when it came out and it was very important to me. It made me, so I tried to remake it in my own way.

You’ve worked with a lot of spiritual and devotional music. What’s your philosophy in terms of respecting the originating traditions while extending their contexts?

I think it all comes down to capturing a feeling. I’d like to think what I’m playing is devotional music. And I respect anything that resounds with a truthfulness and has a kind of soul to it. You feel that right away if it exists in something you’re listening to. A lot of music doesn’t connect anything or give anything to people. In some cases, certain music even takes things away. I don’t respect something just because someone says it’s spiritual. I don’t believe in the idea of “Oh, we have to bow down to this because it’s heavy stuff.” Rather, I respect it when it’s respectable. I think there’s spirituality inherent in all truthful approaches to sound and music combinations. I’ve dealt with a lot of music and people. I’ve worked with spiritual people who are criminals. And there are people who have found a kind of inner peace and you feel it right away when you meet them. They’re giving something back instead of taking something away. A lot of people listen to music and say “that was a very spiritual thing.” I think that’s because there was a serious devotion, focus and intent when creating a distinct artistic impression. That’s what good music is about. You could be the most technically gifted musician in the world and not leave an impression no matter how loud your music is turned up. People will never really hear it.

How did the post-9/11 political climate affect what you do?

After 9/11, we were all really affected, particularly when it came to traveling. I lost gigs in Turkey, Israel, Qatar, and places in the Gulf. I would have been perfectly happy to play in Baghdad and Saudi Arabia, but that’s not going to happen now because of this stupid situation that really hurts artists. My only interest is what things mean to artists. The rest of it is all lies. I don’t know how 9/11 affects the rest of the world because it’s the rest of the world that created the situation. The artists didn’t. But they’re being affected because everyone is losing money, experiences, friendships, and travel opportunities. Recordings are not being made. Things are not being documented. Art is getting lost and destroyed and that’s a crime. The U.S. government as it stands is not conscious about destroying creativity and the arts because it doesn’t have any idea what those things are. It’s all about greed and money.

Do you feel the work you do in bringing musicians together from across the world can play a role in reducing that ignorance?

The fact is, you have people who are so stupid and ignorant in America that they believe if you’re connected with Islam in any way that you’re responsible for something negative. The media certainly isn’t helping fix that perception either. So when you bring together artists from all over the world, those who are ignorant might realize that people from different places share similarities and can create art together. It can create understanding and respect for people of different cultures and religions. So that’s certainly a positive thing when it happens.

Can music create real change in the world?

Yeah, I believe so. If you put on Norah Jones, you go from being awake to being asleep. So you’ve been affected. There’s been a change. [laughs] Seriously speaking, I think I was changed by music for the better. I’ve also had people come up to me—although you never know what drugs they might be on—and say “The things you’ve done have changed my life.” That’s probably the best thing you can say to someone. But creating serious change goes beyond music. I think people in general should be on fire trying to find the truth in order to achieve a better quality of life. Everyone needs to look at the situation we’re in as a whole and use the tools available to help redefine the world around them. If more people tried harder, they could change the situation the world is in. Unfortunately, most people are afraid and asleep. That’s a really bad combination, because it means you’re going to have nightmares instead of dreams.