INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
JazzTimes APRIL 2015 - by Brad Farberman
HOLDING IT DOWN: BILL LASWELL
"And it was kind of magic, as everything should be," says the prolific and imposing bassist-producer Bill Laswell, sixty, seated in the Landmark Tavern in Manhattan's Hells Kitchen neighbourhood. Almost wistfully, he's remembering the road trip that relocated him from Michigan to New York City in the late '70s. The first place Laswell and his associates stopped in New York was in front of a building marked "Musicians' Union", and they moved into an adjacent rehearsal complex.
Kool & The Gang was living there too; Steve Gadd would practice there. Laswell wouldn't stay at the address long though. He moved downtown, winding up next door to Brian Eno. The bassist would bug Eno for work, and, after reading a glowing review of a Laswell concert, Eno extended an invite to the studio. Laswell would play bass on and co-arrange the opening track from the Eno/David Byrne classic My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Then, in response to Laswell's Eno efforts, producer Tony Meilandt connected Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, the bassist's collaborator in the group Material, with Herbie Hancock, resulting in 1983's game-changing Rockit, which was co-written and co-produced by Laswell and features turntablist GrandMixer DXT. And it was all kind of magic: Before the age of thirty, Laswell had cast a spell on the music world.
Of course, things hardly decelerated for Laswell after Rockit. There were collectives like the grindcore band Painkiller (with saxophonist John Zorn and drummers including Mick Harris) and the free-jazz quartet Last Exit (with saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, guitarist Sonny Sharrock and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson). There were his own bands, like Praxis and Method of Defiance. And there was his production work, for everyone from Gil Scott-Heron to Pharoah Sanders. Laswell's latest label, M.O.D. Technologies, is a collaboration with RareNoiseRecords' Giacomo Bruzzo. Its download-only Incunabula Series, a vehicle for concert recordings and unreleased studio cuts, made an impressive debut last year with releases including a live duo set from Laswell and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith; a live duo recording of Laswell and drummer Milford Graves; a merciless metal track from Praxis featuring the cult hip-hop figure Rammellzee; and a live album from keyboardist Bernie Worrell with Laswell and DXT. Also last year, M.O.D. dropped The Process, a crushing funk-rock LP from the trio of Laswell, keyboardist Jon Batiste and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. Almost forty years after moving to New York, Bill Laswell is still rocketing forward. And still going deep with his instrument. And still hitting record.
The duo [albums] with Graves and Smith make a case for the electric bass in free jazz. Why do you think that instrument has been so absent from the music?
Well, I think because in free jazz, the history - I don't really like genres and styles so much, and now I'm pinpointing one - but it's mostly been acoustic bass in the history; there hasn't been a lot of electric bass. And what would you do with an electric bass in that kind of situation? I guess not so many people have done that.
But I'm trying to use a lot of different sounds, and combinations of tone and sounds and elements, so there's a little bigger opportunity for creating sounds. I thought I could create more atmospheric things, not just bass that goes, "boom, boom, boom, boom," whatever they do with those instruments. I thought maybe there's a way to incorporate that. And it's two completely diverse approaches. I mean, Milford Graves does not pin down one bar after another - that's Milford Graves. And Wadada, to me, it's more like a blues experience - kind of an ambient blues - and the whole time I was playing with him, I kept thinking about Mississippi and rivers and things; I didn't know much about it. And [afterwards] I said, "Look up Wadada," [and I found out] he's from Leland, Mississippi. So that came through. Two completely different things. If you don't care, it probably just sounds like people meandering. But if you listen - which is a challenge - you might find something.
What influence do you think DXT and Rockit have had on contemporary turntablists like DJ Logic, who played with you at the Gramercy Theatre recently?
I wouldn't make predictions myself, but I've had the opportunity to work with almost every DJ since the beginning, and nine out of ten say that's what inspired them, for the most part. And a lot of hip-hop producers say that too. Jay Z said that; Pharrell said that. And people who do very successful contemporary pop music say it as well. So I'm not saying it myself but I'm listening, and I hear it a lot. They do say that. So that's the statement - not from me, necessarily. We were just experimenting.
When you say all these people are talking about it, are they talking about Rockit or about DXT?
Both. A piece of music they heard [in which] they look at the elements and they have this electro beat, they have this kind of low-end bass, some kind of melodies that are based on previous Herbie, Manu Dibango pop, funk music and Afro-Cuban rhythm. And then there's the turntable, which is the hook. It's the turntable that kind of hooked everybody.
Did [The Process] come out of improv? Or did you guys write together?
Well, I don't improv, myself. I have this kind of language, and I speak Chinese to French people. But it's a repertoire. So I just sort of go through the catalog of the repertoire. If you're playing patterns, if you're playing repetition, I pretty much can just pull it out. It's like going and saying, "OK, files. Bring this and this and this, and that'll work here." I was doing that when I was a teenager in Detroit. Invictus [Records], they used to hire a bass player and a drummer. "You guys just play beats and basslines." "So what's the music?" "It's whatever you want to play."
But then you build up this catalog. In terms of repetition and patterns, I have that repertoire, so I just supply it. [The Process director] Jay [Bulger] would say, "Oh, make it sound like Ginger [Baker]. Make it sound like Fela Kuti. Make it sound like The Meters. Make it sound like electric Miles Davis." So I say, "Yeah, OK." And Chad kind of adapted to that pretty naturally. I think for Batiste it was quite different.
What's the story behind In Times Of Horror, the Praxis song with Zorn, Buckethead and Rammellzee? Rammellzee didn't record very much, and I feel like it's pretty unexpected to have Zorn and Rammellzee on the same track.
It was at a time where people were colliding. I've known Rammellzee since starting out. He always wanted to make records, he always wanted to record. He didn't always have a focus on how to make a recording, but it was all spontaneous; nothing was ever really written down. And that was one of those moments.
We had done a recording, he was paid for doing something else, and we did this other thing. People were coming in and out of focus. One minute the Jungle Brothers come in, and then the next minute it's guys from Godflesh. And it was a type of thing that was never really documented properly. It's kind of a mysterious, kind of an unknown era unto itself - you know, hidden. And all these other things are going on you hear about, but these things in the lab were not known. That's one of those.
I think there's other people on that track that I've forgotten about. Could be the guy from Brutal Truth, the singer [Kevin Sharp]. Mick Harris may be screaming, I don't remember. But I found the tape; I had always lost that tape. I remember recording this thing with looping chainsaws, and sawing, because, to me, it was the next step from turntable; it was like industrial sounds. And I found the tape.
Rammellzee always was fascinated with not hip-hop so much, but heavy, weird stuff. And Zorn just happened to be around at that time. And Buckethead, we were working with him. It's just "Put everybody together." It's one of those things. Those are the [collaborations] that should be found and collected and documented, because otherwise no one will ever hear. We couldn't do that back then. You couldn't take one track and make it available. Now you can do that. There's probably a lot more strange combinations. There's probably a few more coming.
What inspired you to start the digital label? Is it liberating to be able to release anything you want at any time?
I think the real good thing about the digital stuff is that you can do one song, whereas in the past you couldn't. So people look at it now, even in the press, and say, "Well, he's doing digital 'cause he can't get money from major labels anymore." I went through a period where people were very jealous I could get money. People don't like that. And you could do whatever the fuck you wanted to do. And I did. And now it's come to a time where I could still do records, but it's not that reason exactly that I went to the digital. I think the real reason is you could put out one track. You could put out a thirty-second piece. You could say, "This is what Napalm Death used to do." It's like a ten-second piece. We could do that. I think that's very futuristic.
So it's not just compromise. It's not just caving in to the fact that there's no music business. I think there is a music business. I think if you have interesting things and artistic things, you'll always be able to release it. People are not gonna stop listening to new music because of some economic problem with the music business. I think they'll always want more and more and more. But there has to be something interesting about it, and if there's not, then you shouldn't do it anyway. I mean, there was a time when too much music was available, too much music was coming out. Too many bands. Too many projects. Too many collaborations. And how much of it is really great? Not that much.
What was your relationship with Tony [Williams] like?
Well, he was deep. And probably to me, the greatest living drummer. Probably ever. I'm not talking about keeping time, or "That's a cool beat." I mean as a drummer. I had big respect for him, and our goal was to kind of push him out of jazz and into other areas that would showcase him in a place where maybe he wasn't playing so much mind-changing drums, but he would be heard in an area that would allow many more people to know his name. And that would maybe bring them back to what he's done and what he's capable of doing in the future. So I tried a lot to put him in the context of rock music, with some success and a lot of things we didn't make happen. We tried a lot of things - some of them worked, some we couldn't get through on the business level. But he was a beast. [Tony had] a very different way of thinking, very intelligent.
What are some of the things that didn't happen?
His own projects. Pretty big plans. Work with Jeff Beck. There are a few.
Were they recorded?
No. I did manage to put him on [Public Image Ltd's 1986 recording Album], and we had a semi-hit song [Rise], so you could hear him all over the world. Tried a lot of things. Right before he died [in 1997] we had booked some gigs in Europe - some with Buckethead, some with Derek Bailey. And when Tony passed, we did a few of those with Jack Dejohnette. But it's not the same thing.
It was gonna be you...
...Tony and Bucket. Or me, Tony and Derek. With maybe a DJ or something crazy.
And had Tony ever done gigs like that?
Not really. We played with Derek. We did some weird stuff.
Your tone on bass is instantly recognizable.
Dark and funky and echoey.
Well, I hope there are a few things. Academically, they teach you to play this instrument and play this music, but is it really that? I think a lot of its emulating what people have done. Everything starts with an idea - nothing more, nothing less. Everything. The idea is crucial, but then you have to have a sound. And then you have to have a feel. And that's the hardest of all. Without thinking, of course. So with all this academic thinking, how are you possibly gonna have a feel? Its the difference between somebody hearing something and somebody hearing something and their foot can't stop moving. And that's a gift - that's art. Not everybody has that. I think a lot of this has to do with patience and experience and letting go, and being kind of lost in the moment. And the moment is eternal, if that's your choice of commitment. All this learning and knowing and "I do this and that," and the academic thing, teaching thing, I don't always follow it as a great "Did they feel it? Did somebody really feel it?" Some music lasts; not everything does.
The only [influence on your playing] that comes to mind is maybe Jaco Pastorius. Do you agree?
Only for melody stuff. But that's a very minor thing. I could name fifty people that I got an idea from, a little bit of an idea. Jaco, maybe the melodic thing. He had a tone, and he's singing, kinda. But at the end of the day, was it really bass? In the late '80s, in Japan, I was at this gig. I was traveling with Black Uhuru and Herbie. It was a tour. It was Herbie's Rockit band with DXT and all of them.
No, I didn't play, I just [attended the performances]. And I was coming from England. So it was Herbie's electric band, Black Uhuru with Sly and Robbie, and opening was the Gil Evans Orchestra with Jaco Pastorius as a guest. And Jaco was, at that point, starting to lose it. At one point he ran onstage during Black Uhuru and plugged his bass into Robbie's amp, into the other plug on the amp. And he started soloing over this massive dub. And I thought, "Wow, now we're talking. That was something." And I use that all the time, to this day. And then of course they kicked him off: "Get out of here. You're crazy." I mean, he was starting to lose it. But that was something, 'cause Robbie couldn't play that. But could Jaco do what Robbie does? No way. It's power. He was playing mountains and shit. And the earth.
But that combination was... that's kinda where I built a point of reference: a little bit is that massive dub, but also a little more high register and a little more melodic. But not over the top. It's not Steve Swallow or something. You have to keep the heavy bottom.
I was thinking about Painkiller and Last Exit, these groups that made really intense music. I feel like that side of you is absent from a lot of these recent releases. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, its fair, because you get tired of certain things, and this kind of [aggressive, high-volume] thing is exhausting. You're dealing with a fundamental of music that's pretty marginal. Minor. So you're not dealing with a lot of music. It's mostly to do with energy and impact and shock. It's not necessarily a music statement. What was punk rock? Would you say, "Oh, The Damned were incredible musicians." It's more shock and visceral energy. I think that's what those bands were: They were more of a shock. And you place them in the context of these jazz festivals, where you have somebody's guitar quartet playing Simon & Garfunkel, and this shit comes on, it's like half the audience leaves but the half that stay, their lives have just changed. [laughs] It's a very different kind of experience. Massacre, to me, is more of both, because there's musical content. And that gets better all the time. That's different. I think Bladerunner, with Zorn and [drummer Dave] Lombardo, has potential to evolve into a real music statement - not just impact, not just shock value. There's nothing wrong with that. I like that. In fact, in the face of academic jazz and classical and generic rock, I think it's necessary. What punk did to disco, we should do that to everybody.
But I think Massacre has musical content... And Bladerunner, because the drumming's getting much more evolved. I think those things can evolve into a music. I'm a little tired of the just-noise thing, and that's probably why you don't hear it so much. I like musicians like Wadada, who always play a music content. And it might be avant-garde, it might be a little abstract, but there's always some musical content. That involves memory. It evokes territory - culture, even. I don't know. Geography. It's big. It's a big sound. Big music. So it's not just making noise. Nobody who is just making noise will survive as a memory. You always have to have some content. It might happen for a year or two, and I'll say, "Well, Arto Lindsay was cool." But at the end of the day, who's gonna listen to that shit? It's not Sonny Sharrock.
ESSENTIALS: BILL LASWELL
MATERIAL Temporary Music (Celluloid, 1979/1981) - Before it became a laboratory for Laswell's Frankensteinian genre experiments, Material was a band featuring the bassist along with several of his Downtown compatriots, most regularly teenage recruits Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher and producer Martin Bisi. Comprising the bands two debut EPs, Temporary Music combines no-wave skronk, robotic grooves and ominous synth-punk drones, merely hinting at the fearless stylistic cross-pollinations to come.
MASSACRE Killing Time (Celluloid, 1981) - The trio of Laswell, guitarist Fred Frith and drummer Fred Maher crafted this off-kilter collection, an odd-angled set that evokes an alien garage band masterminded by Captain Beefheart and inspired by industrial rock bands that wouldn't exist for nearly another decade. Their short, uncategorisable tunes are strangely catchy and utterly singular, suggesting rich art-pop pathways yet to be fully explored.
HERBIE HANCOCK Future Shock (Columbia, 1983) - Largely conceived by Laswell and Beinhorn as a Material project incorporating the newborn sounds of hip-hop, the album became a landmark when the always-adventurous Hancock signed on. Jazz royalty thus lent its imprimatur to several underground styles at once, achieving massive success at the dawn of the MTV era with the innovative video for the infectious single Rockit.
BILL LASWELL Baselines (Elektra, 1983) - The first album Laswell released under his own name, Baselines is a prime example of the bassist-producer's eclectic tastes. Ranging from avant-garde freak-outs to dub-inflected postmodern funk, the session gathers a stunning array of collaborators, including guitarist Fred Frith, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, Tom Waits multi-reedist Ralph Carney and AACM trombonist George Lewis.
LAST EXIT Last Exit (Enemy, 1986) - Teaming the voluminous heft of Laswell's dub-inspired bass with Ronald Shannon Jackson's free-funk barrage, Sonny Sharrock's punk-blues shredding and Peter Brötzmann's gut-wrenching howls, Last Exit's live debut is 40 minutes of sheer intensity. The incendiary quartet stirred harmolodics, free improvisation and hardcore into a tumultuous stew that retains its intimidating ferocity a quarter-century later.
JON BATISTE/CHAD SMITH/BILL LASWELL The Process (M.O.D. Technologies, 2014) - Laswell continues to surprise, here joining forces with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and NOLA keyboardist Jon Batiste to forge a typically atypical ensemble. With guest shots by rapper Killah Priest, TV on the Radio vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and multiinstrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, the album is a spontaneous manifestation of tribal pop limned by hip-hop and soul-jazz.