Bill Laswell: Tonal Innovator

November 10, 2015

Electric bass explorer, tonal innovator, production provocateur, and space/time traveler Bill Laswell leads a cottage industry recording adventurous works that blow away musical boundaries. From his late-1970s debut with industrial funksters Material to his role in Herbie Hancock’s global 1983 hit “Rockit” to the noise bands Last Exit, Painkiller, and beyond, Laswell has pursued a profound musical vision.

Even after the meltdown of major-label dominance, Laswell continues to thrive. His recent weeklong residency at New York City’s The Stone focused on his diverse legacy, but Laswell’s current recording output, mainly on his own M.O.D. Technologies label, is equally impressive. A partial list would include The Process, a trio with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and pianist Jon Batiste that illustrates the tribal influence of the Meters and drummer Ginger Baker; On Brion Gysin, with poet Ira Cohen; a maniacal drum-and-bass expedition, Untaken Path, with Japan’s most famous drummer, Hideo Yamaki; a dub journey, Realm I, with sound-shaper Barton Rage; Bill Laswell’s Bilmawn with Akira Sakata; duet recordings with such icons as Milford Graves, Wadada Leo Smith, and Bernie Worrell; and a reimagined re-release, Sound Virus, of Laswell’s pioneering 1990s outfit Praxis. And on trumpeter Bob Belden’s final Animation project, Machine Language, Laswell—armed with an approach that’s deep, playful, and powerful—casts his dexterous low-end tonnage with all the agility of a scurrying alien.

Like all great artists, Bill Laswell is “busy being born.”

You’ve performed and recorded with an incredibly diverse list of musicians. What’s the thread that ties it all together?

I’m not sure my music ties together at all. To me, it’s all application and languages. Sometimes you speak the language, sometimes you don’t. I don’t have a philosophy; it’s kind of day by day. I just adapt. My bass sound is the voice, but I try to change that all the time. I’m not dealing with the pure tone of a bass. Sometimes I change the bass, sometimes it’s the perfect idea, and sometimes it’s a total mistake.

You’ve said that “improvisation isn’t improvisation if you do it all the time.”

I don’t believe I’m improvising at all. I’m presenting my resumé. But being lost is the key for me. Playing lost is what brings the unknown, and the unknown is valuable. Three weeks ago, I played North African music with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. We just played patterns; you’re in the cycle of rhythm. We played in bars of four and six, but they used to play in five, which is the trance rhythm. I have blacked out many times playing with them in meters of five. These are 12 guys playing on a mountaintop stoned out of their gourds.

Do you get lost when you’re improvising with folks like Bernie Worrell, drummer Milford Graves, or trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith?

Yes. I prefer to be lost most of the time. I like this idea that music hasn’t happened yet. And the more we play this unusually lost music, the more we might find a thread, a way to a language where you can play without thought and without systems. Everything started with an idea, and the new music will be an idea, too.

You’ve said that “education is the #1 enemy of intuition.”

[Education] is all about training, but training to do what, exactly? For me, it’s inspiration and motivation. You need technique, of course, but you can pick that up by listening and by talking to and collaborating with people. Anyone who studies this instrument has to love it. Every kind of creative endeavor requires commitment; you have to be willing to live it 100 percent and die at any moment. It seems impossible, but it can be done. But it’s not easy. I have been lucky to meet people who are like-minded.

On your website, you mention a fondness for exploring the “jarring effects of randomness.”

There is a lot of randomness in Miles Davis’ electric period. Miles’ music of that period is what I call “unfinished music.” Unfinished music is open to interpretation and reinterpretation; it continues on and on and on, and it never resolves. There’s no place in that for a purist, because there’s no foundation—it’s just floating through the ether. Miles Davis was not so focused on concepts then. It was just vibe. There was a lot of freedom involved; no one was told exactly what to play. Somebody misinterprets an idea, somebody makes a mistake. It’s a cacophony that turns into a sonic statement. It’s this kind of lost randomness that creates the mystery of those moments. They were in that “we’re lost—where are we?” zone. Miles had the vision to break out of jazz.

You really locked with Chad Smith on The Process. How did you connect?

We connected intuitively, not by analysis or thinking. We were dealing with references. We had [producer] Jay Bulger, who had just made the Ginger Baker movie Beware of Mr. Baker. Jay said, “I want you to play the Meters or this Ginger Baker or Miles thing.” We didn’t think, we just played. The tribal rhythms came from the reference of Ginger and all his tom-tom work. They rolled tape, and that’s it. I prefer not to do a lot of takes. It has to happen immediately or I leave it alone for awhile, and then come back and reinterpret it.

Your low end can go extremely low.

There are a lot of variables involved. I have a DOD Wah Filter 545 Performer pedal I like; it depends on how you set the envelope, and it’s a pressure technique— I don’t play too hard. Live, my engineer Oz Fritz uses a Peavey Kosmos Sub-harmonic Generator/Enhancer for a tremendously low sound. It hears only low end—the kick and the bass—and he puts that across the live mix. We combine that with the DOD and my other pedals, and we EQ the bass, which has everything all the way up. My Ampeg SVT is always set the same way. With those variables, it creates a bottom sound that can be devastating with the right PA.

How do your bands differ, from Painkiller to Praxis to Last Exist to Massacre?

Painkiller is noise. But Massacre, which just played in Paris and Japan, has a special structure and language based on European concepts. It’s kind of a fractured structure—it refers to rhythm and themes. I was using Last Exit to kill myself, and I failed! That was a lot of energy, but it wasn’t total abandon; it had some references. The new band is Bladerunner, with Dave Lombardo from Slayer, and John Zorn. Between me and Zorn, we have a language that keeps rising. He will want to do a live record, but I want to record in the studio.

On Bob Belden’s final album, Animation, was the goal to lock in with the drummer or to pursue a feeling?

It’s more to do with the energy in the room. As for locking up with drummers, that’s a theory that may not have a blueprint. If you’re familiar with a drummer, you’re speaking the same language. If you’re not, you could be speaking two different languages, but maybe you’re saying the same thing. In those situations, it’s more a feel for the environment and the energy the drummer is putting out.

They way you float on Animation reminds me of Alphonso Johnson.

I used the detune setting on an old DigiTech Whammy Pedal for a slightly out-of-phase sound, and I based that on a tone I heard from Alphonso in the late ’70s. I don’t know exactly what he used, but I liked his tone. The DigiTech puts a film over the sound and gives it a smoothness; if you use that smoothness in your phrasing and the pressure between the finger and the string, you can really get a lot of mileage out of the subtleties of that phase effect.

What’s your take on the current state of the music business?

Now we’re dealing with people who don’t know what they’re doing, and they know they don’t know what they’re doing, so they farm it out to people who know even less. I saw this documentary on a label that was reissuing a Jimi Hendrix box set—they had a promotional meeting, and the label publicist came with her notebook and asked, “Do you know if Mr. Hendrix prefers a certain airline or hotel?” That’s what we’re dealing with.

But for people who are really sincere about what they do—if they really feel it and mean it and want to share it—everything is a good thing. You have to make your opportunities. If you have energy, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be working constantly.

Is every musician an entrepreneur now?

We can’t be dependent on some guy who gets a job in some corporation anymore. You have to navigate and think about all territories. You have to find people who can help finance projects. And you have to downscale. Having my own recording studio drastically changes what I have to spend on recording, so that money goes toward musicians. But I think it’s always a great time for music. The best music is always coming; it’s always in the future.

INFO

EQUIP

Bass 1977 Fender Precision Bass Deluxe with a modified fretless neck and Leo Quan Badass bridge
Strings D’Addario Medium Gauge Half Rounds (.050, .070, .085, .105)
Live rig Ampeg SVT-CL head or Ampeg SVT-VR head, Ampeg SVT-810E 8x10 and SVT-215E 2x15 with folded horn (live); mid ’80s limited edition Ampeg SVT all-tube head, Aguilar Tube Direct Box
In the studio “Bill uses the mid-’80s limited edition Ampeg SVT all-tube head,” says James Dellatacoma, Laswell’s studio engineer. “We also use an Aguilar DB900 tube direct box. We mic Bill’s speaker with an Electro-Voice RE20 through a pair of Neve 1073 mic preamps. Occasionally, we use compression, like Neve 2254s or Fairchild 660s.”
Effects etc. DOD Wah Filter 545 Performer pedal, DigiTech Bass Synth Wah, Electro-Harmonix Bass Big Muff π Bass Fuzz Pedal, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, Pigtronix Envelope Phaser, DigiTech Whammy Pedal II, CryBaby Bass Wah, DigiTech EX7 Expression Factory pedal, Ernie Ball passive volume pedal, Moogerfooger Ring Modulator, Boss DD7, EBS Unichorus pedal, EBow, metal slide, alligator clips to generate sounds

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