Bill Laswell Interviewed: Bass. How Low Can You Go?

Prior to his appearance at Montreux Jazz Festival, John Doran caught up with Bill Laswell in New York and uncovered some surprising information about Def Leppard . . .

At this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival one of the returning visitors was bassist extraordinaire Bill Laswell, who was playing some 26 years after his first appearance on the shores of Lake Geneva. Laswell is a musician’s musician, combining an unpretentious, can-do attitude with an aptitude for performing and producing with equally good results whether in the field of jazz, improv, dub, drum and bass, punk, electro or hip hop. His natural curiosity has led to him working in what’s known as “collision music”. This involves seemingly disparate elements being thrown together in an attempt to create new sound. He’s brought hip hop and punk together with his work on the Time Zone project; melded electro, fusion and hip hop as a producer on Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’; and combined jazz with punk and heavy metal as a member of Massacre and Painkiller. Most recently his explorations have been into low end provision and the blending of drum and bass, dub and funk as part of the Method Of Defiance group who will be playing at Montreux.

He talked to us while taking a break from his rehearsals in New York. We wondered what people could expect from his appearance at the jazz festival: “Well, it’s kind of a new idea. Originally the name was used on a compilation of drum and bass producers collaborating with established jazz musicians and it was always rooted in drum and bass. And then we played live in Greece two years ago and we sort of did it for fun. What came out of it was that we were all interested in continuing with it as a band. Again a lot of it is based on live drum and bass, dub and quite a lot of improv in the middle with [Parliament-Funkadelic mainstay] Bernie Worrell (keyboards) and Guy Licata (drums), the frontmen Toshinori Kondo (trumpet) and “Dr Israel” (vocals/console). And there are two newer members, Hawkman from Jamaica and DJ Krush [former Mo Wax turntablist].”

It’s probably fair to say that things in Laswell’s professional life aren’t as hectic as they were back in 1983, when he first played Montreux. He laughs and says: “I think I was playing with Sonny Sharrock [legendary jazz guitarist], D.ST who is a DJ and Henry Kaiser [guitarist/composer]. Again, it was improvised but with a rhythm section. It was a long time ago, and probably a lot more in the avant garde! But we did play pieces that featured the turntable. It was also the first time I had ever seen live music with live painting. So Keith Haring painted live while we were playing and when the music stopped, the painting was finished, which was kind of a trip for the audience.”

I guess that must have been when you were doing Time Zone with Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols.

Bill Laswell: Time Zone was around that time and also right around that time was Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ which we actually played at Montreux. We played it at that gig even though it hadn’t come out because that was kind of the beginnings of progressive hip hop in New York and D.ST was part of that scene down at the Roxy with Zulu Nation and Bambaataa and everything. So that was the beginning of that thing and I was kind of mixing that into what I was doing with Sonny Sharrock and other situations. We mixed it all together. The painter at that gig actually was Keith Harring who was connected to the hip hop scene at that time.

It sounds like it was a very exciting time to be making music. I guess when you listen back to tracks from that period like ‘World Destruction’ by Time Zone and a few years later ‘She Watch Channel Zero’ by Public Enemy, sticking militant hip hop together with heavy guitar noise seemed like the future. How did it all go so awfully wrong and end up as Nu Metal?

BL: [laughing] It’s hard to say. It seemed like a very natural thing at the time. It wasn’t really my idea, I got a call from Afrika Bambaataa who wanted to incorporate what he does with metal to make ‘World Destruction’. And he said to me ‘Do you know Def Leppard?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t know Def Leppard.’ [laughs] At that time I didn’t know many metal people. I would later on but not then. So I told him that I had just got to know John Lydon. I told him that he was Johnny Rotten who had been in this band the Sex Pistols saying: “It’s not really metal, but you might think it is!” And he said: “Yeah, that sounds good!” So we went and did this thing very quickly and it seemed very natural to me.

It still sounds amazing to this day that single. Do you see Lydon and Bam as being kindred spirits despite the obvious differences?

BL: I suppose so. They certainly had the images that kids, or people in general, notice and for a particular sensibility, culture and image. They certainly both stood for something at that time. They obviously had different backgrounds. But yeah, it was important at the time.

I guess listening to a lot of the stuff that you’ve been involved with from Material to Massacre and all the dub stuff that you would be more into the heavier, Jamaican influenced Public Image Limited than the Sex Pistols.

BL: No, I really liked Never Mind the Bollocks – I thought that was a great record, I liked the guitar and production. It was a really great album; intense and believable. And then when I heard PiL I liked that a lot as well because I was already interested in dub and Jah Wobble [PiL bassist] already had that low end sound. I liked them quite a lot, or the first few albums at least.

And the same year you were involved in making the seminal electro hip hop record ‘Rockit’ by Herbie Hancock, which was very groundbreaking on a number of different levels. Not the least for having the first use of scratching on a hit single. Was there any resistance to you using this as an instrument in its own right to solo on rather than just a method of connecting beats together?

BL: If there was resistance, we certainly weren’t aware of it and again, in those days, things happened really quickly. I got a call from a guy who knew Herbie who told me he wanted to put together some tracks. I went to New York, saw Bambaataa and people DJing at the Roxy and I don’t even think he was really paying attention but after that night out I said ‘I’ll come to LA in a couple of weeks and I’ll bring a couple of rhythm tracks.’ So we just recorded very quickly in a basement in Brooklyn. We didn’t really know what it was. We took it and Herbie played over it for an hour or two and then it took like another hour to mix. The whole thing didn’t take very long. We didn’t really know what we’d done. We stopped at a store that sold a lot of speakers on the way to the airport because we wanted to kill some time. The guy went to put on a rock record and we said ‘No we don’t listen to that kind of stuff.’ We had a cassette of the rough mix we’d finished so we said ‘Play this instead.’ We played it and afterwards we turned round and there was just about 50 kids looking at the speakers, saying ‘What the fuck was that?!’ [laughs] I think there was [Grandmaster] Caz from the Cold Crush Brothers and D.ST and we all just looked at each other and everyone was ‘Oh shit! I think we might have something.’

I guess it should be mentioned that you background is not just in drum and bass, dub, hip hop and improv but also in heavy metal. In fact it wouldn’t be wrong to say that you’ve had a big involvement in the avant garde end of heavy metal over the last 25 years or so with bands such as Massacre and Painkiller. Are Massacre still an ongoing project?

BL: Yeah, we played last year; once in Paris and once in Boulogne. The one in Paris is probably the best gig we ever did which is crazy because we’ve been together for so long. There have been different drummers of course but now Charles Hayward [former This Heat and Camberwell Now sticksman] is the main drummer.

Again, on paper Massacre I guess shouldn’t work. Or at least there have been many bands who have tried to combine these threads of funk, rock and metal etc and come away from it with egg on their faces. Do you find that you have to bear certain things in mind when you’re trying to combine seemingly incompatible strands of modern music?

BL: “I don’t know. I started very early with Fred Frith. He was one of the more established musicians that I got to play with. He had moved from London to live in New York briefly. I was discovering Henry Cow and his work with Eno and all those things. There was a kind of learning process going on. I had just started in New York after being in Michigan and Detroit playing more repetitive stuff like rhythm and blues. Coming to NYC and finding out that there was this whole other approach to making music that involved improv. I learned a lot of stuff from Frith at time; from his concepts of structure and texture. And the reason that Massacre sounded like a unified band was that I was learning from him and I still do that actually but I now try and bring more things that I’ve learned along the way.

There are a lot of different strands on ‘Nihon’ . . .

BL: It just means Japan. It is perhaps because it started out as a live recording. We never expected to make a record of it. We were just playing around, having fun, trying to work out what we could do with this and what came out the other end was a live recording. There wasn’t a lot of thought, or analysing or preparation going on; it was just spontaneous. Not spontaneous in the ‘free’ sense of the word; because there is a rhythm structure to what is going on people are working within the confines of repetition, but we’re using dub and all these things. It’s improvised structure really or improvised rhythm.

Do you look to the titans of 70s fusion when you’re trying to improvise in a rhythmical electronic format like this?

BL: No, I didn’t really relate to that kind of music. I mean fusion had a great beginning with Tony Williams’ ‘Lifetime’ when he John McLaughlin and Larry Young and later with Jack Bruce. That is a really good example of a band who play with structure but who also improvise within that structure. That was important and some of the electric Miles Davis things, which were again based round repetitive rhythm. There was a lot of room for people to incorporate sounds and rhythms and structures on top and I think that was important. But then I think fusion got to analytical; too structured; to virtuoso over art or over feeling and I didn’t follow for much after that. The only fusion I became interested in then was through following African music, Indian music and music from parts of central Asia, Japan etc. Looking back I thought Cream was a good improvising band even though it was only in a couple of time signatures and mainly based on the blues I thought that was more inspiring than what fusion became.

Speaking as someone that we regard as quite a radical figure working with the weight and depth of bass culture, what do you think of dubstep?

BL: Well dubstep to me is a style that we’ve been hinting at the whole time. I don’t see it as being anything totally new but I like it and relate to it because I think from time to time we’ve been doing stuff like that already and now there’s a name for it. It’s not so different to things that have gone before. I think there’s a lot you can incorporate into it and I like it.

I agree that apart from the hyper processed beats a lot of it is like the On U Dub of the 80s with bands like African Headcharge and Dub Syndicate. You mentioned Brian Eno before; I believe you had a bit of a difficult task getting to work with him . . .

BL: Not really difficult; it was probably more comic than anything. We lived on the same street in 1979 and I think I used to bug him every day and I would say, ‘If you have any work, any session stuff or anything, just let me know.’ I used to give him my number every time I saw him and I think eventually he saw me play somewhere in New York and there was a review in the Times. One day he said ‘Yeah, we’re doing a session.’ I was harassing him all the time! It wasn’t difficult though. But then after I met him I played on some other stuff and kind of did a summer’s worth of work with him. It was experimental stuff and was also educational. I didn’t know much about studios or the recording process or playing. We used to just go in a cut tracks with a drummer and leave, I didn’t even know what happened after that. Half the time we’d record something and it would go on someone else’s record and we wouldn’t even know what it was. . . .

Bill Laswell Presents Methods Of Defiance is out now via Rare Noise Records.

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