The Revolution Will be Improvised

LEGENDARY BASS ALCHEMIST BILL LASWELL LETS THE MEDIUM BE THE MESSAGE WITH METHOD OF DEFIANCE IF YOU VISIT THE WEBSITE OF METHOD OF DEFIANCE, A CURRENT concept of bassist/producer and master sound-manipulator Bill Laswell, what you see is not a bio, or a discography, or even any mention of who plays what. First you get a block of stark white text on solid black background: “A musical, sonic, aesthetic, mind and body experience, at once structured, spontaneous, precise, random, brash, beautiful, and above all, unforgivable.” Then at the bottom of the page, a CNN-style text crawl scrolls provocative phrases in all caps.


IF YOU VISIT THE WEBSITE OF METHOD OF DEFIANCE, A CURRENT concept of bassist/producer and master sound-manipulator Bill Laswell, what you see is not a bio, or a discography, or even any mention of who plays what. First you get a block of stark white text on solid black background: “A musical, sonic, aesthetic, mind and body experience, at once structured, spontaneous, precise, random, brash, beautiful, and above all, unforgivable.” Then at the bottom of the page, a CNN-style text crawl scrolls provocative phrases in all caps.


Born in Illinois but clearly bred in the pre-punk counter-revolutionary musical/political culture of late ’60s Detroit (along with Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and the original MC5), Bill Laswell made the natural leap to New York City in the late ’70s and has been successfully avoiding recognizable art categories ever since, breaking ground as an astoundingly prolific bassist, producer, and sonic experimenter with everyone from Herbie Hancock (he produced the crossover breakthrough Future Shock) to punk icon John Lydon, to Wayne Shorter, to avant-garde guitarist Buckethead. Laswell’s specialty is taking disparate musical elements and literally smashing them together, capturing this moment, and presenting the document to the world.

Method Of Defiance is just one of his many such current projects, featuring himself on wildly affected bass, funk legend Bernie Worrell on keys, and a rugged troupe of additional players, DJ’s, and various electronic ephemera. Drawing on techno, dub, rock, jazz, and any musical weapon at hand, Nihon (which features a two-set live DVD as well as the single disc) is a classic Laswell musical portrait in motion. “Nihon is clearly just a snapshot of that particular moment, which was early in the development of the band,” says Laswell, now 54. “We were just beginning to see what we could do. It’s a little rougher, with a little more improvisation—I’m not even that familiar with the titles or anything. It’s just a glimpse of what we’re doing live. We haven’t made a studio record yet. And we’re not in a hurry to do one, because all of the live stuff keeps evolving.”

How was Method Of Defiance originally conceived?
Method Of Defiance started as a drum & bass project, with Guy Licata on drums. Dr. Israel came into that, and various people moved in and out of it, and when we played our first festival under that name, we put together a band which was the same rhythm section with Dr. Israel, but we added Bernie Worrell and Toshinori Kondo, who came from completely different areas than people that I had worked with in the past. So when we put together our first festival and we liked it, this band was sort of born. It’s a collaboration between drum & bass producers and musicians, virtuoso musicians, some of them known, some unknown.

What do you see as your role as a bassist in Method Of Defiance?
My role is for pulse, to centralize the bottomend thrust of the rhythm and augment and interact with the keyboard and the trumpet and whatever other sound exists on top of the low end. I’m not limited to just playing low-end lines, though. There are a lot of sounds that people might not relate to bass. They might think it’s a guitar, or keyboard, or horn, some kind of malfunction, or a disturbance of some kind. There’s noise and spontaneity to it. There’s a lot of frequency range, from high to low, and when there’s a lot of low there’s an extreme amount of sub low. My bass covers a lot of sonic area without being limited to just playing a bass line.

How much of the 45-minute set on Nihon is pure improv? Are there form signposts?
It’s improv within a rhythmic structure. I’ve been that doing for a long time. I create a rhythmic foundation and the top level is an improvisation, so you interact the improvisation with different rhythmic cells, or blocks of fixed ideas. You could make a set list and say, Here’s ten rhythmic programs, all of them have a tempo, a time signature, a key, but they’re interactive. You can move them around, you can implant solos, or themes, or even songs on top of them at will. When that happens it’s hard to say what part of it is spontaneous or improvised, because once you have a repertoire built on improvisation that becomes routine, then you’ve created a language. With that language, you can speak freely, and be understood because everyone’s speaking the same language. So the key is to separate what’s free improvisation and structure and be able to put it back together again at random. You can do that naturally if you create this kind of language that’s born out of improvisation and placed on structured rhythmic ideas. You should be able to go from complete noise to something that sounds like a pop song. It can all be improvised if you perfect the language.

How about sounds? Do you have goto pedals for certain vibes, or could it be anything at any time?
Even though I use the words “spontaneity” and “improvisation” and stuff, it’s very clear that certain pedals are meant for certain things. Probably at this point, even with this band and the amount of freedom involved, there’s a pretty close routine for my use of pedals; when to use something, when not to, when to lay out, when to dominate, and when to leave space.

Other than Method Of Defiance, what other projects are in your musical field of vision right now?
I have a thing we do every year in Japan called Tokyo Rotation, which is a collaboration with Japanese musicians, all from different backgrounds, playing avant-garde, free jazz, punk rock, hardcore, hip-hop, and beat-oriented music. It’s all improvised. Aside from that, I have an ongoing project that I call Material. Currently with Material it’s Gigi, an Ethiopian singer, with a band mixed up of West African and East African musicians … more of an African band, but with a lot of edge and power to it, not a light world-music thing. It’s heavier. That’s kind of a priority. I still work a lot with John Zorn, playing strictly improvisation. And next year I’m doing solo concerts—not free jazz or a quiet thing, but with a lot of amplification.

What do you listen to for inspiration as a bassist, and as a musician?
I used to listen to bass players when I was a teenager, and I just listened to what was current at that time, like Stax Records or Motown, although a little less Motown for me. Duck Dunn, Chuck Rainey, and people like that. Not long after discovering acoustic bass, I realized I could get a point of reference or ideas from, I guess, jazz for lack of a better word. People like Paul Chambers, Charlie Haden, or Jimmy Garrison.

Later I learned that you can take a lot of inspiration and ideas from instruments other than bass, like guitars, horns, and keyboards, as well as from composers. Then later on from sounds that weren’t musical, atonal, non-musical sounds. Then I realized that noise is no different from what you hear in everyday life. So you’re listening to the sound of machines, and nature, and industry. Especially nature, which should be a big influence on all of what you do musically. It all really comes from that.

How do you think someone’s life philosophy affects their playing, specifically on the bass guitar?
On the bass, I think their life, their philosophy and all that, is their playing. Without that, there’d probably be little playing going on. There would be motions, and movement, there would be notes, and things would be established, but I think without that personal background, there is no real foundation to your musical voice, or what you express through sound and music. It’s all connected whether people want to admit that or not. And no matter how simple it is—it might be something incredibly minimal and simplistic— it’s there at the root of every note that you play. There is no way around that.

In your view, what’s the ideal role of music in society? And in that society, what’s the role of the bass?
Everyone’s got different perceptions, different expectations, and a different upbringing. You can’t generalize the purpose of music. But it has been used to enlighten. It has been a powerful force in the elevation of people, of humans. It can free people from things that normally would hold them back. It can enlighten people at a time when it seems to be dark. It can educate and point toward further education.

Bass is the Om, the shadow, the bottom of the foundation, and it shouldn’t be completely kept in the basement, but its role fundamentally is the foundation of that. It’s the earth tone, so it’s the foundation.

Method Of Defiance, Nihon [2009, RareNoise]; Method Of Defiance, Inamorata, [2007,Ohm Resistance]; Bill Laswell, Invisible Design II [2009, Tzadik]

Basses Main axe on Nihon: Modified Fender Precision Fretless with P/J “hybrid”-size neck;Ibanez 8-string, ‘60s Fender Precision
Live rig (2) Ampeg SVT Classic heads, (2) Ampeg SVT 8x10’s and (2) Ampeg’s 1x15’s “of any configuration.” Additionally: “Anytime it’s harsher or noise-related, it could be anything—it might be the Ampeg setup and then another 100-watt Marshall, or even a Marshall guitar amp.”
Effects Vintage DOD FX25 Envelope Filter, Russian-version Big Muff p (black), Russian-version Big Muff (army green), Little Big Muff, DigiTech Whammy Pedal (old black version), Digidesign EX-P (to trigger/control orchestral setting),simple delay (brand unknown),DOD “synthesizer pedal” (used for one “voice” setting), Moog Moogerfooger Studio Aguilar DB900 Tube
Direct Box + miked cab “if I need extra dirt” Strings D’Addario ENR72 Half Rounds, (.050, .075, .085 .105)

“I’m listening to absolutely nothing, and have been for a very long time. I go through the process of hearing everything at least once,but I wouldn’t call it listening, and the reason I don’t listen to things is because listening, for me, is a huge commitment, and it involves really being engaged in something. To sit down and listen to something, when you learn how to listen—which most people never quite get to—is a commitment that I can’t afford. So I hear things, but I hear them briefly, and I just hear them to hear what elements are being used, what new sounds are there if any, what references, what cross-references, how does it connect to anything I’m doing, or if it does at all. I listen to things I’m working on because it’s my job, but as far as the actual listening of music, I haven’t done that in a while.”


Too Much Is Never Enough: Muse’s Chris Wolstenholme Reinvents Art-Rock Bass For The 21st Century

A WELL-WORN CLICHÉ ABOUT THE BRITS IS THAT THEY’RE serious, understated, subtle, and—heavens, no—certainly not silly or anything like that. Well, Muse’s Chris Wolstenholme is having none of it, musically or otherwise. “There’s always been this thing with English bands where it’s a bit shoe-gaze-y, you know what I mean? British bands find it hard to just let loose and rock out sometimes. Back in the ’70s, British bands were great; they had a certain over-the-top-ness. It’s almost like bands are scared to do stuff like that now.” Not so for the members of Muse: “We just think, Fuck it, you know?”

Still Learning: From Stadiums To The Studio,Stefan Lessard Isn’t Done Exploring

BACKSTAGE AT A HUMMING, SOLD-OUT 40,000-SEAT VANDERBILT STADIUM IN Nashville, Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard is quietly pushing towards his own artistic horizons. With a new computer-based preamp in his live rig, film scoring work on the IMAX movie Grand Canyon Adventure, and a collection of quirky covers with his band Yukon Kornelius landing tracks on a recent Warren Miller snow- boarding DVD, Lessard is not just sitting back waiting for the next Dave Matthews Band release to express himself.

Miroslav Vitous Re-imagines A Different Weather Report

IN THE TITLE OF VIRTUOSO JAZZ bassist Miroslav Vitous’s latest album, Remembering Weather Report [ECM, 2009], the word “remembering” carries a lot of weight. He was right there with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul at the beginning of what we now know to be the seminal fusion band of the ’70s, but his era [Weather Report and I Sing The Body Electric, Columbia, 1971] was a more experimental, streamof- consciousness project than the form-and-groove driven, Pastorius-powered version. It’s this earlier vision and spirit that Vitous honors on Remembering. This allacoustic recording is a largely free-form improvised look back to what was, with a hopeful look ahead to the future. As Vitous says, the goal is “awakening the spirit of the direct communication, as now is the time to go in that direction. The old concept is long past-due expired.”

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE's Straightahead Masterwork

HE’S 37 YEARS OLD AND HAS WON A GRAMMY, BEEN COMPARED TO RAY BROWN on upright, toured with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin on electric, gotten first-call treatment from both hardcore jazzers (Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner) and pop stars (Sting), arranged for orchestras, directed the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, obtained artist residencies at the Detroit and Monterey Jazz Festivals, and even conducted his own radio show about jazz and—wait for it—sports. But for Philly native Christian McBride, being referred to as one of the masters still evokes incredulity. “Are you kidding? I’m still the young phenom,” he says, chortling. “I can feel it now. I’ll be 70, and all those old jazz writers are gonna be going, Young Christian McBride, in his brief career . . . .”

Alex Webster: To The Extreme

For the past 22 years, Alex Webster has pretty much been doing two things: anchoring the seminal death metal band Cannibal Corpse, and pushing himself to wreak technical havoc on the bass guitar.

The Ed Palermo Big Band

The Ed Palermo Big Band Eddy Loves Frank [Cunieform, 2009] It’s been said there are eight million stories in the naked city, and one of them has got to be bassist Paul Adamy, a pro who’s done everything you can do in New York—major network TV (The Cosby Show) and movie sessions, Broadway shows, jazz festivals, A-list jingles, the New York Philharmonic, and a list of credits (starting with Carly Simon) that’ll make your eyes pop. For fun, Adamy’s been playing in the Ed Palermo Big Band, which exclusively does Frank Zappa material re-arranged by Palermo for his outfit. Eddy Loves Frank is a session pro’s dream gig to stretch on, taking on the Frank oeuvre and nailing rock, funk, swing, and all manner of involved form and arrangement. Adamy plays with the smooth grace and steady aplomb of a guy who’s been there, done that, and still having a blast. Zappa fans will love the swinging original arrangements (especially “Echidna’s Arf” and

Tweet Beat Steve Lawson Transforms His Career With Twitter. Srsly.

NOT CONTENT WITH JUST TRAILBLAZING AS A LOOP/LAYERING SONIC experimenter and solo bassist, Britain’s Steve Lawson is exploring the wild frontier of modern social networking, building a new career and a new life in the process. He met his wife, singer/songwriter Lobelia, on MySpace just two years ago, while collaborating on her music, and they’re now a unique duo act. But MySpace is so 2007. Through Lawson’s hyperactive presence on Twitter, a newer platform that limits postings to status updates of 140 characters or less, he’s built a network that’s allowed him and his wife to reach thousands of music fans at house concerts throughout America and the U.K. House concerts, you say? Indeed, they bypass traditional venues completely and organize intimate shows in people’s living rooms. Most of the outreach occurs on Twitter, where they gain “followers” one “tweet” at a time. (When you’re on Twitter, you “tweet,” and “followers” are subscribers to your “tweets.”)