Do Or Die: An Interview with Bill Laswell

There is no use attempting to write some sort of comprehensive biography for Bill Laswell as a lead in for this interview; PopMatters’ server would generate a digital hernia trying to contain it all to a level designed for your reading ease.

To put it bluntly, this bassist/producer has done it all. He has worked with, jammed with, and recorded with the likes of Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Public Image Limited, Herbie Hancock, Buckethead, William S. Burroughs, John Zorn, Whitney Houston, the Golden Palominos … I could go on like this, but I won’t. Rather than flaunt some image of a musical scenester playboy who just gets to rub elbows with a bunch of famous names, Laswell has been spending the better part of 30 years operating behind the scenes as a subtle mover and shaker who specializes in lining up certain talent. His “supergroups”, for lack of a better word, have been textbook examples of disparate parts coming together to form a staggeringly great whole. Material, Last Exit, Arcana, and Praxis are just four examples, out of many, of Laswell spearheading true musical democracy in action.

Lately, Laswell’s label Axiom has moved to the back burner while he heats up things with his new business M.O.D. Technologies, named after one of his latest bands, Method of Defiance. The collective has been fairly active over the past four years, cranking out four albums of original material (Inamorata, The Only Way to Go Is Down, Nihon, Jahbulon) an instrumental mix of the latest (Incunabula) and a subsequent remix album (Dub Arcanum Arcandrum). But as busy as things have been, or always have been, for Bill Laswell, the legendary alchemist of fringe music still set aside time from his busy schedule to have a chat with PopMatters. Laswell was very matter-of-fact about his work but still cordial. He did not trust his own memory in order to reminisce about his past projects and collaborators, but he humbly stands up for the genuine article while only occasionally shouldering that good old fashioned artistic cynicism. Towards the end of our talk, I noticed that the battery on my handheld recorder was about to die. When I warned him of this, he said “That’s a microcosm of what’s happening to the world.”

I started by asking Bill Laswell if M.O.D. Technologies was a new form of Axiom …

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It’s a new form and I guess it relates to Axiom. We’re in the process of trying to bring back Axiom and align it with this new label. So yeah, I guess you could say that. Any time there’s a body of work over several recordings that you can put together, it relates, and we’re trying to put that together at the moment.

So your main goal, in the long run, is to merge it back with what you were doing before?

Yeah, pretty much. Continuing with the work, sometimes it gets fractured and separated and taken apart for reasons that have nothing to do with creativity or music — it has something always do to with business, and that’s why things get all messed up and taken apart. Now we’re in the process of trying to connect some of the things we feel have value, longevity and could be useful for future music/information, however you look at it.

Speaking of things being scattered and all over the place, you’ve been credited with bringing together musicians of really disparate styles and making them really click as a unit. Each time you do that, you probably see a common thread, of some kind, through all these people. What are some of these threads that you see from time to time, particularly with Method of Defiance?

It’s hard to analyze the thread, but it’s more of a feeling that you think that things could align themselves or be compatible or work; bringing people from different cultures, people speaking different languages, different backgrounds, different agendas with different goals sometimes communicate naturally purely by the whole concept of relating to music and sound. And it creates its own sort of new language and new sort of design/matrix/system or however it falls together. It’s hard to analyze what the reasons are why you do something. Lately I’ve had less and less to do with reason and more to do with being pushed and pulled into situations without too much judgment. Lately it’s been more … not really intuitive, it just feels like I’m being pulled.

You trust the process, then?

I don’t know if that’s even the process, but I sort of trust where I end up by this thrust or drive that happens. From there I guess you create a process. Process meaning to manifest a result of some kind, as in a recording.

How would you define where Method of Defiance is musically right now?

I’m not really big on definition. I would say these are documents that have been processed, printed, published and distributed. So you move on now to the next wave of experience.

You’re probably not a fan of looking back on past things, I’m guessing?

No, very much so. But I’m more of a fan of looking in all directions. I think if you look at exactly where you are, you can’t really focus without looking back and forward at the same time.

It sounds like you don’t look back for a great length of time. The last interview I had was with Jack DeJohnette and his account of Miles Davis’ attitude sounded like he was always stubbornly in the present. Most veteran musicians can’t let go of the past so easily.

Yeah, most people are good at repeating themselves. Miles Davis, if you look at what he generated, he was fairly consistent at reinventing himself at different points in time, right up until the end. I didn’t particularly care for the last period, but the one before that, he definitely redefined everything he had done before and he had done that at least three times before that! So it was constant reinvention, reinterpreting, recombinant energy and cross-referencing, but without dialogue, without [analysis]; it was more just energy flow.

So how are you contemplating your next move?

I’m in the middle of a lot of things to finish; it’s all a work in progress and I’m in the middle of that at the moment. A lot of it is related to this label, a lot of it has to do with working in different environments. I’ve built a base in East Africa where we’re trying to generate a really different approach to recording and different music styles; some that are brand new with extremely young musicians, some are quite grounded and come from legendary musicians. I’m also still working a lot in Japan. Even though there’s a crisis there, there’s still a lot of creativity and productivity.

Is there a particular time, place or recording that got you into drum and bass?

Well, it was a long time ago when we, in the states, first started to hear was coming out of England with what they call “jungle”, which was quite a long time ago now. It seemed like what was happening was, and the Jamaicans take claim, it’s when you put a delay on a double-time against a half-time and you create an accelerated rhythm over a half-time bass or a secondary pulse. And that’s where jungle came from. It makes sense, if you isolated a couple of bars of accelerated, delayed rhythm on top of a down-tempo piece. But it’s been quite a long time, and I related it to bass-heavy music, or dub music or Jamaican style, which I relate a lot to West African music. And there’s a hybrid there that just keeps unfolding.

And dub?

I got into dub a long time ago. I was into dub before I even had any interest in reggae, or Jamaican songs, Bob Marley or any of those established artists. I just thought it was such an unusual sound. I would go buy vinyl of dub, I would try to buy everything that didn’t have vocals or didn’t have horns — mostly just interested in the bass and drum, the simplicity, the basic fundamental drum and bass ideas. And then from there I discovered reggae, it came later.

You’ve probably been asked this a lot before, but are you thinking of doing a third entry in John Zorn’s composer series?

That’s the Invisible Design thing?


I am, actually. I didn’t talk to [John Zorn] about it, but I’m starting to do live solo stuff. I want to record one and I was going to talk to him about making that a potential third entry in that series. We haven’t talked about it, but I’m sure he would like to do it. I hope to keep it with him because that’s how I started that series.

I read in other interviews how your approach to composition is something far more hands-on than, say, writing or composing in the way that most people think of when they hear the word “composing.”

Yeah, I hope it’s more futuristic. It has more to do with creating cells and sound environments and then using a kind of collage system — sometimes electronically, sometimes by documenting things onto tape or any other recorded format — and then juxtaposing that, using equipment sometimes to illustrate composition. In terms of scoring and all that, it’s a very old model. That’s why it all sounds the same. If you look at soundtracks, everything to me sounds fairly generic. And then you have the occasional soundtrack by [Wu-Tang Clan member] RZA or somebody that’s interesting because it didn’t come from anything purely academic. Or [Brian] Eno or someone coming from a different place as far as creating a score, soundtrack or a sound environment.

So I don’t use a kind of traditional approach to putting things together. But I also work with arrangers and closely with a lot of musicians that sometimes interact very closely, sometimes very dominantly and other times not at all. So it’s varied, there’s no one particular approach. I try to keep it a little different for each project or commission or whatever you call them.

I came across jazz composer Henry Threadgill when trying to find somebody who’s just not thinking in terms of blocks and melody.

Yeah, that’s a good example. He’s very challenging. Henry keeps stretching and moving. I haven’t heard any recent stuff, but I did probably four records with him. One I did with Axiom (1993’s Too Much Sugar for a Dime) and we did three on Sony (Come Carry the Day, Make a Move and Where’s Your Cup?) and he kept stretching it out and moving it into different areas, in his own way of thinking, way of listening, way of conducting and advising people how to play things. It was original.

It’s funny that you say you hope that your way of composing is “futuristic.” Last night I was poking around on YouTube and somebody had asked you “Is your music ahead of its time?” And your answer was something along the lines of how time just haven’t caught up with it.

I remember an older response to “Are you ahead of your time?” [where] I said “No, I’m just actually right here at this moment.” It might look like that because everyone else is so late, you know.

It does feel like there is some overall lag.

Oh, most definitely, it’s all around you!

I wonder where it comes from.

It comes from complacency, fear, and all these other … we can go on for days, these kinds of negativities. We can go into people not having the incentive or the dedication or the will to sacrifice, to maintain a level of evolution or quality.

Is there somebody you have not worked with yet that you would very much like to?

That’s always a question. That’s a hard one because I’m pretty happy with who I’ve worked with and I guess a lot of the people I’d say would have passed away. It’s a hard question. It would be unfair to say a couple of names because, in an hour from now, I’d say “I forgot all the people I really wanted to work with.” I’m pretty spaced most of the time, thinking about what I’m doing. That’s why questions propose a kind of challenge, or interviews in general because an hour from now I’ll think “I should have told this guy this thing, it could have been interesting.”

I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of drummers closely and I’m pretty happy with that. There are probably some modern ones I haven’t worked with. But no, nothing jumps up.

When a friend of mine found out I was going to be speaking to you, he said “Ask about Sonny Sharrock and Public Image Limited!” And then I wondered, have you ever thought about writing a book just to compile anecdotes of all these people you’ve worked with?

Not like a complete book. I’m doing a book now in Japan, it’s far from complete. It will just be flashes of things. But there is one book in progress. There’s a lot of artwork in it from a lot of artists that contributed to covers. But there are some interviews and some interesting takes on things. It’s certainly not a complete documentary of what happened. I don’t think I could do it now, maybe if somebody followed this up very closely. There are guys that do these, I forget what you call them, the “tree” or the chronological discography, but they branch it out into different areas. There are people out there that know everything and they follow all the stuff completely and they know much more about it than I do.

So they probably have a proper count of how many albums you’ve been involved in.

Yeah, there are people that do. I just met a guy in Austria who does that. He said “I’m your official guy for the tree” or whatever, and I didn’t even know about it. He said he was up to, at his calculation, close to 3000 projects. And there’s another one in Japan and some people here. I’m not really that closely in touch with a lot of them. There’s a guy here in New York who is called Silent Watcher who does a website. He’s pretty accurate, he usually knows everything. He was also doing, I think, Alice Coltrane discography, bio and stuff.

The idea I had for you would be just little anecdotes, funny stories of the people you’ve met along the way.

Yeah, that would work. It would have to be somebody sitting down and doing an interview, and just go record by record. It happens. I just did one for a friend of mine who is doing a film on [Cream drummer] Ginger Baker, and I’m looking at this piece to put a piece of music in. It’s just me talking about going to Italy and finding Ginger, and I was asked to go there by John Lydon, and I found him in the mountains … it’s a cool story. That’s an example, but that’s only one thing isolated into one film. There are millions of those.

Is that film out yet?

They’re working on it now. The guy’s named Jay Bulger. I don’t know the name of the film, but it’s about Ginger Baker’s story. From what I’ve seen it’s really interesting.

Maybe you can give me one funny John Lydon or Sonny Sharrock story?

I sort of helped Sonny kind of come out of retirement. He had sort of stopped playing and he was living in Ossining in upstate New York. I convinced him to come back, and we didn’t have many outlets or opportunities. But we were playing in punk rock clubs, and that’s how we sort of started playing together. And when I started getting production work, I had the opportunity to make a band and I did it with him and Ronald Shannon Jackson and Peter Bröztmann. And we made a rather destructive combo called Last Exit. And that was a heavy band, you know. It was pretty rough living, a lot of drinking and everything that goes into trying to killing yourself at that age. We didn’t quite succeed at that time, not for the lack of trying. There’s a million comic moments in that. I wouldn’t want to isolate one, but it was full of humor, the whole thing. And a lot of power. Sonny was a spirit, he played from a spiritual base, and it didn’t come from an academic side at all. It was purely his life experience coming through the music. He was not a studied musician but a really expressive artist. I don’t really have anything unusual to say about him, but he had great stories himself. He was very good at that, I just forget everything. He had incredible and funny stories from his past with Sun Ra with Pharoah [Sanders, legendary saxophonist], with Miles [Davis, Sharrock appears uncredited on A Tribute to Jack Johnson] and different people — a lot of it was quite funny.

John Lydon I met before I did the PiL (Public Image Limited’s untitled fifth album) thing. We did one song with [American DJ] Afrika Bambaataa called “World of Destruction” [credited to Bambaataa’s Time Zone project]. John was a big beer drinker and there were many, many nights of just hanging out with John. When we did PiL he had put a band together in California of some kids. And I had sort of decided to make a heavy group, so I invited [jazz/fusion drummer] Tony Williams, Ginger Baker, [guitarist] Steve Vai and all these people came. We fired John’s band and there were many nights of really harsh arguing in bars. When the smoke cleared, we made sort of a classic record, an unusual record for the time. We purposely didn’t put the credits of the musicians on the record because nobody would have believed it and most of the critics probably would have only talked about the people on the record and not the music.

We kept in touch a little bit after that, but always had really bad arguments and blowout fights and stuff like that. To this day I still enjoy that, and I like his voice, he’s funny, and he’s still doing it! I think he’s doing a new record now.

I had heard that Public Image Limited was going back into the studio provided there would be enough money to do an album, and I thought “doesn’t Lydon have his own money?”

Not really. He’s not the kind of musician that would enjoy a lot of publishing. I think he was always with a German woman who had family money, so I think that’s where his money was at. I don’t think he generated a great deal of money from performing or selling records. I don’t think he generated a lot of cash flow but I think he has a security base around this relationship. The woman, I forgot her name [Nora Forster], she was the mother of Ari Up, the girl who died recently and was in the Slits back in the 70s.