Listening to Bill Laswell speak, produce and play is very much like hearing the returning report of a deep space traveler.
Known as a “thinking man’s musician/visionary” since becoming an iconic presence on the scene in the late 1970’s, he has folded space with a number of like-minded souls ranging from Buckethead to Zakir Hussein. Long known as a gatekeeper (of sorts) to the musically forward thinker’s club that includes the likes of Toshinori Kondo, Paul Bowles, Tetsou Inoue, Ustad Sultan Khan, Yoko Ono, Bachir Attar, Bernnie Worrell, he is also often associated with those musician/artists more often called “inside the box”: Sting, Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, and Karsh Kale! Then again, Bill Laswell is more likely to comment that there is no ‘box’.
His projects speak of motion, travel, and exploration, and his depth of yearning recall those early days when it was very likely for him to travel around our planet – in search of the lost arts of soul-diving and true heart Language.
After listening deeply to Miles Davis’ “electric period” (1969-1974) that included the iconic recordings He Loved Him Madly and In A Silent Way, he found a new communication in texture and space that has transcended the typical facets of beat, harmony, and melody.
As a result of his very personal, barely earthbound experience, Bill Laswell’s bass tone and function have become a deep, and very LOW, driving pulse of the music he creates and shares with a never-ending cast of creative souls! His musical vibe is one of openness through a mode of world-moving sounds.
BAJ: Let’s begin by asking you to articulate your general concept of the word “sound”… Not, necessarily “your sound”, per se. But, what does sound do to your soul and what is your immediate reaction to sounds that give you pleasure?
BL: I probably don’t have a general concept of the word “sound”. I could say that it’s infinite… like space, and constant. There’s a very detailed soundtrack going on at all times. No such thing as silence. Impossible… Even in the most remote and hidden location. My ears will ring in different frequencies and pitches, and my heartbeat keeps the pulse… with the nervous system and blood stream, moving at a turbulent, chaotic pace. The fundamental bodily rhythm section meets the orchestrated, ambient mind space: The basic foundation of human music.
BAJ: Is there a mental / emotional process for you when moving from project to project – say, between leaving a Bladerunner gig and moving into dates with Massacre? If so, would you talk about that process? How do you seamlessly move from one project to the next – seemingly without taking a break?
BL: There’s no real process that I’m aware of, when moving from project to project. I’ve tried to think of it as all one experience. Or, maybe not to think too much at all! Intuition is key, and this is where training, order, and systems can do the most damage! You know… doing things a certain way, based on preset theories and ideas. Education is the number one enemy of intuition, in this case. There is no distance between one event and the next (even if time is short). We need learn to disregard the distance. In fact, it never existed… like the chains of the law.
BAJ: Taking an aside, would you tell us about M.O.D. and your latest output? You seem to have a very cool approach to marketing product! Or, is it that you produce so much…?
BL: The most recent release on M.O.D. is “The Process”, with pianist Jon Batiste, (Red Hot Chili Peppers) drummer Chad Smith, and many special guests! This release just came out, and it’s doing well! Past releases have included: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bernie Worrell, Sly & Robbie and other guests. There is also “The Incunabula Digital Series”, which features a lot of rare live recordings with Wadada Leo Smith, Milford Graves, Akira Sakata, Pete Cosey, RAMM:?LL:Z??, DJ Krush and others.
As far as a cool approach to marketing… there’s not a lot of hype because of limited funds. The mood is simple, and hoping for the best.
BAJ: You posses a commanding feel and approach to the bass guitar. Whether you are playing melodies, or deep within the pocket, there is “exactness” to your approach. Would you elaborate on aspects of your playing that a new listener might overlook?
BL: I think it’s very important to develop your own signature sound that should be recognized as your sound that incorporates your feel, anger pressure, phrasing, and tone. These things come with experience… especially if you have the opportunity to play with great rhythm musicians!
BAJ: Does travel aid, or hinder, your ability to spend time on your instrument? Also, have you found a remedy for the grind of being constantly “on the go”? Do you have a process for dealing with your very limited downtime?
BL: I think travel is crucial… without spending any time on the instrument! It should come out of the bag only for work! In my life, the work is, fortunately, pretty consistent. I’m not really constantly on the go. But, as far as “down time”… there’s no such thing! If you are thinking… you are working.
BAJ: Your musical approach is varied and yet incredibly consistent! Was there ever a time when you said to yourself, “This is Bill Laswell… and this is where my sound is going next!”?
BL: Can’t say that I’ve necessarily had that experience. As far as what’s next… I often have to look back to see what’s coming – it’s as if the past came from the future.
BAJ: How do you approach composition, and are there parallels between composing music and producing?
BL: If this word “music” is sacred and reserved for eighteenth (and nineteenth) century instruments… we can substitute a more meaningful term. Say, “organization of sound” – (John Cage: Silence). Organization of Sound is my current state of composition and production. The result of experimental production can create totally new compositions. Cage stated in the 1950’s, “In the future records will be made from records.” This was, of course, before DJ culture and sampling.
BAJ: Since you very often blend acoustic instruments with electronic instruments… What sonic factors tell you the music is moving in the right direction?
BL: Blending acoustic instruments with electronic instruments, and all sounds (for that matter), should be an intuitive process. However, sometimes a random event, or a mistake or accident, can drastically change a musical or sonic direction. It’s going in the right direction… when it feels right. Even that can change constantly as it goes along! I have to be able to make quick decisions while also being open. Having a general plan is good… But, not having one can also be good. So, on occasion, I need to be willing to “destroy all rational thought”!
BAJ: Your vocal production is reminiscent of horn production. Was that a goal? What is the perfect placement of melody in your composition process?
BL: I didn’t make that connection between vocal and horn production! It could be the concept of placement, size, balance of a top line, or theme, or melody. As far as melody… sometimes out of a dense cacophony, transient harmonics form at random to produce an inherent, natural, melodic statement. A good example of this would be the throat singing of Tuva and Mongolia. Then, there is noise music – where heavily distorted, out of tune guitars collide harmonically.
BAJ: Whom are you listening to, musically, of late?
BL: I think it’s healthy not to have a fixed routine or schedule for listening. I still try to hear a little of everything and not too much any one music. What I buy consistently (and always have) is current popular music… usually hip-hop related, electronic, reggae, and on. Kanye West, for an example, is usually pushing out some kind of new and unusual production approach that I enjoy! Who says the avant-garde can’t keep up with the Kardashians?!
BAJ: Do you ever find yourself wrestling with your own clichés, or tendencies? How do you escape yourself when producing, or performing?
BL: Wrestling with clichés or tendencies… I think everyone does! Sometimes, I’ll change instruments, or effects. Or, maybe I will listen to something totally unrelated for a moment, or two. I remember playing Gamelan and North African trance music on headphones for Steve Vai right before he played guitar solos meant for a heavy rock context. In retrospect, that had to have been confusing! But, that exercise produced some great and surprising soloing results.
BAJ: Are you still challenged by bass playing, and do you maintain goals for your playing –in the overall sense?
BL: Still challenged? Yes… and no! I think the goals will continue: sounds, ideas, and technique. I think much of this develops naturally, with diverse experience. The things I don’t know how to play are, luckily, the things I have no interest in playing.
BAJ: Would you be able to share any insights about what keeps you motivated and moving forward?
BL: Motivated… Yes. I’m motivated. I’m not sure anybody is really moving forward! It would be fine (for me) to just keep moving! Inspiration and motivation comes from many directions! A quick random scan of sound, nature, industry, writing, film, painting, Brion Gysin, Che Guevara, Alejandro Jodorowsky, William S. Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Tony Williams, William Blake, dub, mysticism, John Cage, science-fiction, alchemy, and / or magic will motivate and inspire me. It is all Endless & Timeless.
BAJ: Finally, what are you hopes for the next musical year?
BL: Hopes for the next musical year… Probably, in a word: “continue”. I hope to continue traveling – which, in spite of my hopes, is getting harder. Also, I hope to do more recording… and to continue developing existing music groups: The Master Musicians of Jajouka (with Material), Bladerunner, Massacre, and projects with DJ Krush, Wadada Leo Smith, Milford Graves, and John Zorn.
Yes. I want to continue Think Beyond the Limit and Talk for the Young Mutants. “NOTHING IS TRUE, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED”