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.
I AM A REVOLUTIONARY, NOT BECAUSE I WANT TO DESTROY THE SYSTEM, BUT BECAUSE I WANT TO BUILD THE FUTURE . . . RESIST COMPLIANCE . . . AVOID RECOGNIZABLE ART-CATEGORIES . . . .
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.
HEAR HIM ON
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.”