LEGENDARY PRODUCER & BASSIST BILL LASWELL BELIEVES MUSIC SHOULD HAVE NO LIMITS, BUT THAT RHYTHM IS FUNDAMENTAL. HIS NEW METHOD OF DEFIANCE COLLECTIVE IS OUT TO PROVE IT, BASS-AND-DRUMS STYLE.
Somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike, in the absurdly game show-like lobby of a deco-era Holiday Inn, we’re waiting for Lee “Scratch” Perry. He’s known to his fans as the Upsetter—the nickname he gave himself back in 1968, shortly before he emerged as one of the most prolific, influential, and irretrievably eccentric record producers ever to come out of Jamaica—and he’s in town to track vocals for his next album at Bill Laswell’s nearby Orange Studios. The project is shaping up to be a heavyweight classic, with guest shots from TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, drummer Sly Dunbar, former P-Funk synth magus Bernie Worrell, and many more to come.
Collaborations of this caliber can take years—if they happen at all—but Bill Laswell has patiently bided his time to make this album with Perry. “We really should have connected a long time ago,” he muses. “A lot of it’s just about a contact. [Matisyahu bassist] Josh Werner was playing in Scratch’s band, and I had worked with Josh. He suggested trying to create something with Scratch, and I was certain no record company in their right mind would touch it, which is why we’re doing it ourselves. It’s a real production, and really conscious of bringing out Lee Perry. It’s his presence that’ll keep this thing moving. Is the whole idea crazy? That’s part of what makes it worth doing.”
As if on cue, Perry finally emerges, decked out in full regalia—his signature mirror-covered baseball cap, a black blazer and T-shirt, flame-painted skater shorts, black souvenir socks embroidered with subway maps, and black patent leather loafers. His beard is a dyed shock of vivid blue, and his eyes literally twinkle with anticipation.
Perry extends a strong, sinewy and heavily bejeweled hand in greeting. “So you’re the producer?” he asks with a sly smile.
“Yeah, that’s what they say,” Laswell quips.
“So then, you have visions?”
“Vengeance? Oh, yeah. I have plenty of that.”
Perry chuckles and tries to recover the thread, but it’s no matter; the ice has been broken. For the rest of the day, the two will trade ideas, suggestions and stories, and over some sprawling, bottom-heavy dub grooves, Scratch will lay down the kaleidoscopic, stream-of-consciousness raps that have been his bread and butter ever since he first picked up a microphone.
It’s just the latest in a flurry of activity for Bill Laswell. Earlier this year, he founded a new label, M.O.D. Technologies, designed as an outlet for a series of recordings around his new group, Method Of Defiance. M.O.D. will also be home for the Lee Perry album and at least a half-dozen more projects planned for next year.
The band itself is an unusual departure, even by Laswell’s normally wide-ranging standards. As a rebel purveyor of everything from free-jazz noise (Last Exit, Painkiller, Massacre) to ethnic fusion (Tabla Beat Science) to avant-rock (Praxis), he rarely takes part in a purely song-driven ensemble, but Method Of Defiance is just that. Fronted by singer/emcees Dr. Israel and Hawkman, and featuring Bernie Worrell, turntablist DJ Krush, trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, and drummer Guy Licata, the band has just released Jahbulon—a groove-based call-toarms of roots reggae, dancehall, and dub that’s immediately accessible to just about any audience.
Of course, the twist is that Jahbulon is the first of a three-part release that includes the all-instrumental Incunabula, created by the same core of musicians (with special guest Herbie Hancock) in a completely different improvisational setting, and an asyet- untitled collection of dub remixes by Scientist, Mad Professor, Lee Perry, and more. “It all started as a live collective,” Laswell explains, citing the 2007 Synch Festival in Athens, Greece, as the first incarnation of the group, “but eventually we realized that we wanted to make records.
And it became pretty clear that what we didn’t want to do was make great work and then hand it over to some record company that’s gonna fold in five minutes, so out of necessity, we had to create our own imprint—a place to work where you don’t answer to anyone.”
A brief history lesson, and an old saw that bears repeating: no matter the size of your music collection, chances are you own at least one disc that features Laswell either as producer or bassist, or both. He first moved to New York from Detroit in 1978, and soon made his presence felt on the city’s downtown “no wave” scene as bassist in the leftfield punk-funk trio Material, with keyboardist Michael Beinhorn and drummer Fred Maher. Before long he was tracking sessions with the likes of Brian Eno, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel, but it was his breakthrough 1983 album with Herbie Hancock, Future Shock, and the worldwide hit “Rockit,” that upped his profile for good. Since then, he has worked with an A-list of artists—among them Tony Williams, George Clinton, Mick Jagger, Pharoah Sanders, Iggy Pop, Ginger Baker, Public Image Ltd., John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Zakir Hussain, Sly & Robbie, Yoko Ono, Bootsy Collins, and scores more— across all genres of music from Tokyo to Tangier—and he’s done it with an unyielding need to explore new fusions and new directions in music.
Along the way, Laswell developed a sound all his own. His style and twofinger technique are rooted in the bass as a rhythmic instrument; during his teenage years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he toured with soul, funk, and blues cover bands, playing all the Motown, Stax, and Chess staples of the day. Once he started producing albums in the early ’80s, fans and fellow musicians were struck by the richly textured, low-end stereo spread he was able to achieve in the studio; that sound evolved over time as he incorporated the tricks of dub reggae production, where capturing a gravy-thick, heavy bottom without any rumble has long been an art form.
The secret lies in his Ampeg SVT amp setup, a few key effects, some vintage Neve outboard gear, and the hard work of likeminded partners-in-crime at the mixing desk [see Get It from the Bottom], but lately it starts with his main bass—a circa 1977 Fender Precision with a traditional split pickup and an added J-style pickup above the custom Leo Quan Badass bridge, which gives the bass remarkable sustain. It’s retrofitted with a thin Jaco-style P-Bass neck (formerly fretted, with the frets removed and the grooves filled with wood putty and epoxy), with flatwound strings that have been changed once since he acquired the bass nearly 20 years ago.
Laswell has played numerous basses over the years, and maintains an arsenal that includes a Fender Bass VI, an Ibanez 8-string ST980, a Gretsch, and a fretted 1964 Fender Precision. He’s also gearing up to make a solo recording with a new Warwick Alien acoustic bass, which he hopes to release next year.
But beyond all the gear, the techniques, and the toys, Laswell finds that real, substantive interaction between musicians is where the potential for discovery truly lies. When we sit down to talk about where he is right now as a player and a producer, he resists discussing technical minutiae or any tangible tips that he might be able to pass on to younger players. For him, music is a full-on, full-time commitment, and if you’re not in it to make a statement, you should just get out of the way.
“To me, the key is first you establish a sound, and from that point on it’s all based on your intent,” he says. “Music runs pretty deep. It’s not just about learning the instrument by copying somebody—and you will not learn a thing in school. School does not teach the shit that I’ve been doing. It’ll only teach you how to copy somebody. You have to do the work to establish a sound and establish a feel, and then you have your own signature, and from there you proceed to express your own ideas, you know?”
As someone known for always going your own way, do you have a guiding principle?
You know, one thing that never gets addressed with bass players is the importance of the relationship between bass and drums. And I’ve looked at the drummers that I’ve dealt with, since I started up to now, and I don’t think you could find anybody else who’s had that versatility. I mean, if you list them all, it’s insane [see Give the Drummer Some, right].
And I’d like to make a point that if you’re gonna play this instrument, and you’re gonna deal with that area of sound—and my sound is not just limited to rhythm, obviously— you need to know the fundamental importance of it. If you’re conscious of rhythm, and know how to use it, then you have to interact. That conversation between those two instruments, those two people, is the fundamental of what makes music have its pulse—its feel, for lack of a better word.
The bass-drums relationship meshes well with Method Of Defiance, which draws a lot from dub music.
It’s also vocal music, which means we’re concocting songs. They’re minimal and simple songs, but they’re based on roots reggae and dancehall. So that’s going into this moment with M.O.D.—but yeah, it’s all under the protection of a dub concept, where the feel, low-end strategy, bass-anddrum ideas are most important.
I’m trying to stay conscious of extending the possible sources of that sound, so that you’re not only dealing with Jamaica, but you’re also looking at the space age, where it’s not just the usual reverbs and delays that you deal with in Jamaican-style dub. It’s about new kinds of sound effects, and in some cases, rhythms that are generated by processing and delaying the drums, so that you can merge drum-and-bass with old-school dub. There’s a lot of that in the M.O.D. stuff, plus the low end keeps getting deeper and deeper.
Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I’ve said this before, but the sound I get in recordings is pretty similar to the live sound. It’s essentially generated from the setup [a mid-’80s SVT head with an 8x10 cabinet in the studio, augmented for live shows with a 2x15 folded reflex cabinet], along with the bass itself and a series of effect pedals, which are all set at exactly the same position, whether it’s recording or live. Sometimes I blend that with an Aguilar DB 900 direct box that’s really good for low end, and we use some vintage Neve modules in the studio. But really, most of it comes from the live setup and years of getting that right.
You’re also planning duets with John Zorn, a bass-and-drums project with Tatsuya Nakamura and Hideo Yamaki from Japan, and the solo Warwick project.
Yeah, they’re smaller situations. I’m hoping to extend the vocabulary and just add to the bank of ammunition. Even though it’s improvised music, nothing is ever really improvised if you play a lot in improvised situations, because there’s a natural repertoire that you build up over time. Whether people know that or admit that, or are even aware of it, that’s just a fact. So when I play with someone like John Zorn, whom I’ve played with for years, we’re constantly building the language between us.
When you’re playing with just a drummer, there’s no key involved, there are no rules, and there’s no absolute starting point or ending point—so there’s a lot of freedom, but there’s also a massive amount of responsibility because you’re on your own harmonically. Reduce that to a solo performance and you’re under even more pressure. You can’t hide behind anything. You can’t be a bad musician in a band of good musicians. You’re by yourself, so everything you say has got to be believable, otherwise it’s not worth playing or doing. More and more, I’ve been challenging myself to play in those types of situations.
And then you’ve got yet another project going with Mokhtar Ghania from Morocco.
It’s really a fusion, because we plan to feature a lot of different players. He’s a Gnawa musician from Essaouira, but the project is not just a straight, ethnic so-called world music recording. And this also relates to what we’re talking about, because the sintir, or the guimbri, which is what he plays, is an early form of the bass, like the donso n’goni from West Africa. [See October ’09 for more on this instrument.] With the Gnawa, their lead instrument is really a bass instrument, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. Mokhtar is the brother of Mahmoud Ghania, whom I’ve worked with before [with Pharaoh Sanders]. Mahmoud is the elder and a heavy musician, but Mokhtar is younger and a bit more time-conscious and modern.
What else do you have prepared for release on the label?
Gigi Shibabaw recorded a live album in Austria with Material [featuring Laswell on bass and Hamid Drake on drums]. That same band has an offer to play in Ethiopia in January. And then there’s Morgan Ågren, whom guitarist Raoul Björkenheim brought in. He’s an incredible drummer from Sweden who played with Frank Zappa, and I think he also worked with the guitar player from Meshuggah. The three of us just did a trio record together— it has kind of a free metal direction, which is pretty gone.
Switching gears a bit, what are some of the new effects you’ve picked up recently?
EBS has given me a bunch of pedals, including a Stanley Clarke signature bass wah. For the moment I’m trying everything, and I’ve been using the wah, but I’m still getting familiar with it. There’s also a Pigtronix Envelope Phaser that I use mostly for low end, and a DigiTech EX-7 pedal that I use for this one orchestral sound. But I’m not really someone who studies pedals and learns everything they can do. Usually I’m only looking to do one thing with them, because I don’t change the settings when I play. And at the moment, that hasn’t changed in a while—same with the amp. The settings on the SVT are no different from when I was 15 years old. It goes a little louder sometimes, but that’s it.
You’ve been at this for more than 30 years now. With so much value placed on always doing something new, do you ever worry about repeating yourself?
It evolves as long as you keep doing it, and in this particular moment in time and in my way of doing things, repeating yourself is not necessarily a bad thing. That’s how you create the trance, and that’s how you continue. Just by its nature, a lot of it has to do with repetition. With this music, you can do that. And if I just keep saying, “With this music, you can do that,” that gets redundant [laughs], but if you actually play it, it becomes something different. It becomes a necessity.
GET IT FROM THE BOTTOM
There’s no question about it: The bass just sounds more present on a Laswell-produced recording. While it helps to have a state-of-the-art studio at your fingertips in order to get there, there are a few basics involved in getting that vivid and voluminous sound.
As Laswell maintains, it starts with the setup, which can be live in the studio, direct (using an Aguilar DB 900 tube direct box), or a blend of the two. The volume on his mid- ’80s limited edition Ampeg SVT head usually never goes past 4, with the treble, mid, and bass settings dialed back halfway (roughly the same settings apply to the tone controls on his bass). He’ll record live with the drummer whenever possible, which means enclosing his Ampeg 8x10 cabinet in foot-thick foam gobos and miking that with an Electro-Voice RE20, positioned about four inches from one of the speakers, and pointed toward the part of the speaker where the cone meets the center coil.
For the Method Of Defiance sessions, drummer Guy Licata played to a click track, while Laswell had his own headphone feed, without the click. “He’s always completely locked to the drummer,” says recording and mix engineer Bob Musso, whose tenure with Laswell goes back to the mid ’80s. “When we’re recording, I primarily use our Neve 1081 modules [coming into Pro Tools]. I’ll put a highpass filter on the bass and add 3dB at 100Hz and another 3dB at 700Hz. That’s the standard setup when he’s playing the fretless P-Bass through the SVT.”
Both the live and direct signals always run through Laswell’s pedal board, which is equipped with a few key effects that are usually set to get only one sound when they’re engaged. One of these is a rare DOD Performer Series 545 Wah Filter; when Laswell lays into a straight dub groove (as heard on “Revolution” from M.O.D.’s Jahbulon), he’ll play lightly enough to avoid opening the full range of the envelope filter—a move that cuts the highs and adds a rich fullness to the lower register.
Another vocoder-like effect comes up on the track “Anachronizer” from the M.O.D. instrumental album Incunabula. “That’s another one where the tone changes that you hear him cycling through are actually based on how hard you play,” explains bass tech and assistant engineer James Dellatacoma. “It’s the DigiTech Bass Synth Wah; it’s the bass synthesizer envelope effect that adds that makes it sound vocoder-ish.”
There’s always an unusual sensitivity to how Laswell attacks the strings, whether light or aggressive—an attention to dynamics that renders compression virtually unnecessary during recording. “I usually don’t record him with any compression whatsoever,” Musso says, “but I do use compressors and limiters when I mix—primarily the Neve 2254s. We also have several different plug-ins that I love for bass; one of them is the Fairchild 660, and if we need a warmer sound, we’ll use the LA2A.
“When I have the bass coming back on the digital console, I might use as many as three different compressor/limiters—all very subtly, just pulling maybe a dB or two on each one. They’re all set slightly differently depending on how much attack I let through, and sometimes depending even on the tempo of the song.”
GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME
As a producer and a player, Bill Laswell has made his mission to work with some straight-up drumming giants, always with the intention of sparking a deeper musical conversation and pushing the language to its limits. Here’s the list that keeps on growing:
Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste
Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey
Ronald Shannon Jackson