The Strange World Of… Bill Laswell

From making groundbreaking electro to working with Whitney Houston via boozy sessions with Motörhead, plus avant explorations of thrash, drum & bass, grindcore, gnawa and disco, Bill Laswell has been on more great records than you've had hot dinners. Zachary Lipez offers ten points of entry to his bewilderingly vast back catalogue

Bill Laswell courtesy of Orange Studios

The Bill Laswell back catalogue is extensive, bordering on absurd. From his not entirely humility-inducing start, playing lofts in the 80s Lower East Side of NYC (and quickly bopping around Washington Square Park with Brian Eno), Laswell has collaborated – as bassist, band member, or producer – with some of the most visionary (and/or misunderstood) artists, in nearly every musical genre, of the last fifty years. In 1986 alone, his credits include albums with PIL, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Ginger Baker, and The Stalin. And that’s just his sidework. Gigs that most musicians would consider career/life highlights is how Laswell made a little pocket change with which to ride out the Reagan years, maybe take in a movie or two. Concurrent to his years of either being a one man avant equivalent of the Wrecking Crew or producing a couple Motörhead albums for shits and giggles, Laswell has put his focus on work that, made either solo or in collaboration, has consistently pushed against and forward all notions of what constitutes rock, noise, dub, drone, metal, ambient, funk, and all the various no-, post-, and -wave hyphenates a music critic could ever hope to name.

And he’s done all this with nary a passing glance at what might be fashionable or even, god forbid, broadly popular. This disinclination to follow any set path has made Laswell a nexus of a particular type (particular even within the niche type) of iconoclast; there aren’t too many other points where J.Broadrick, Dr. Israel, and members of Labelle, Funkadelic, and Slayer might all converge. The fact that so many of the records he’s been part of were popular at the time, and are now iconic (and occasionally legendary), is undoubtedly nice. But the untrod path is the work.

Recently Bill Laswell has been in poor health. Which has led to financial hardships. Which has led to issues maintaining his work space, Orange Studios. Which has led to financial hardship, which has led to health issues etc. As longtime fans of his various musics, Laswell was already on the short list for this column. But bearing his circumstances in mind (and strongly encouraging those who are able to donate to his GoFundMe page) tQ decided to push him to the top of the list (sorry, Frusciante). And, while gnashing our teeth over every album and song we didn’t have space to cover, we’re gratified that the man took the time to go over a small portion of his back catalogue.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – ‘America Is Waiting’, from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981)

Bill Laswell: I lived on Eighth Street and Eno lived just down the street from there. So every day I would see him and just harass him like, "Give me a session. Give me some work." And you know, eventually he read a John Rockwell review in The New York Times of a gig I did – and I didn’t think the gig was anything but Rockwell was raving about it. So then the next day I said, “Gimme a gig. Gimme some work. What are we doing?” And then he said, “Yeah, come on, come to the studio tomorrow. We’re going to RPM studios on 12th Street near University.” I had been playing with Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s son, at CBGBs. Somebody had a truck that my bass was left in but they left the back open when they stopped in the East Village and someone stole it. So I had no instrument. I called these guys that I knew and I said, “I don’t have a bass, but I got the session with these guys that are pretty famous. Can you help me?” And they sent me a bass, so I went straight to the session without opening. it. I got there and opened the case and the bass was terrible, and it had a sticker on the front that said DEVO, which was embarrassing. And I said, “Well, you know, I’m not really into DEVO, but whatever.” And that session was for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

Massacre – ‘Killing Time’ from Killing Time (1981)

BL: Around the same time I met Fred Frith. We started a band, which we called Massacre, and the drummer was Fred Maher. Fred was, I think, about 16 years old and everything was moving really fast. Every day something new was coming along fast. And when I used to read about the late sixties going into the seventies, I realised that every day was like that, too. It’s not always like that. you can go months and years with not a lot of change, and then all of a sudden everything starts piling up. I have nothing to do with jazz. I mean, I work with a lot of people that are called jazz musicians, but none of them that I know that I think really want that title. You know, Miles Davis, in the seventies didn’t want to be called a jazz musician. So we weren’t calling it any genre; we weren’t calling it prog. I didn’t even know that word. I thought it was improvised rock music. And I thought, “Oh great, it’s about time. Let’s take the idea of improvised rock music, and then we can move onto improvised pop music.” The idea was you would get to the point where you could go on stage with Beyoncé without any written music and no rehearsing and play live. Can you imagine that?

Material – ‘Memories’ (featuring Whitney Houston) from One Down (1982)

BL: Bruce Lundvall was the CEO of Electra and he was always really supportive of Material. I had to do one more song for One Down and I told him, "I’m going to work on getting the singer and a saxophone player." Bruce used to play saxophone himself and I knew that his favourite saxophonist was Sonny Rollins. So I decided, I’m going to get Fontella Bass to sing and Sonny Rollins. I went to meet Lester Bowie, who was kind of controlling the mafia of that scene with Fontella Bass. I felt that it would take years to get Lester to make sense [of what I was suggesting]. And then I couldn’t get a contact for Sonny Rollins. So I was stuck. And Bruce said, “Well, I have a friend whose daughter is singing in church.” And the friend was Cissy Houston. And I said, “Okay let’s just do it.” And that was Whitney Houston. I still didn’t have a saxophone, so I was sitting in a restaurant on Sixth Avenue with a guy called Roger Trilling, who was handling some of the business. And we’re sitting there and this guy walks by with a hat and a saxophone. And it was Archie Shepp. I told Roger, "That’s Archie. Go out and get him." So we brought him to the restaurant and told him, “We have a session tomorrow at the studio.” It happened to be the same studio where I went with Eno on 12th Street. He agreed and we paid him cash when he got there. Then Whitney came and she sang. She did two takes. And I kept the first one. Then we mixed it all. All that happened in the same session. Archie was playing at a club called Sweet Basil, and we went down and we had a cassette and he was doing blow on the table and drinking whiskey. That was him. We played him the mix and he liked it a lot. And he said, “You know, the girl is really good.”

Herbie Hancock – ‘Rockit’ (from Future Shock (1983)

BL: So there was a club on the West Side called The Roxy, and we brought Herbie Hancock there to the VIP room where you could look down on the stage. And that night was all deejays. It was Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Grand Mixer D.ST [now GrandMixer DXT], Afrika Islam, Red Alert. I don’t think Herbie had any clue what was happening. He just kept saying, “Man, it’s like a riot going on down there.” Influenced by these people, I wanted to use the turntable as the lead instrument on a project. I called Bambaataa and I said, “I’m doing this thing for Herbie and I need to get a turntablist that can play in time and play it like an instrument. I want somebody that plays like a drummer.” And he said “You need Whiz Kid.” I called Whiz Kid who had just joined the army, and he couldn’t do it. So he said, “Well, I want to introduce you to my protege. His name is DJ Cheese.” And I said, “I don’t know if I can go to Hollywood with somebody called Cheese.” Finally I talked to Bambaataa again. He said, "Why don’t you just get D.ST? He’s your friend.” So we did that. It took like an hour. I gave D.ST a bunch of records that he was not familiar with like gamelan, Kecak/Ramayana monkey chant… Stockhausen… so he would be considering some new sounds. But we always came back to D.ST’s ‘Why Is it Fresh?’ and ‘Good Times’ by Chic. We went to L.A. and Herbie played for like five minutes on the track, and we left. D.ST was there and a guy called Grandmaster Caz. We were going to the airport and on that road, there were all these stores that sold speakers and equipment and stuff. I said, “You know, we’re like an hour early. Pull over.” And we went in and we said, “We’re interested in loudspeakers.” And the guy said, “Well, here, check this out.” He played a record and it was like Kansas or something. I said, “No, no, no, we don’t listen to stuff like that. Play this.” And I gave him the cassette, which was ‘Rockit’. He played it and in that room it sounded pretty great. Then all of a sudden you start to feel, like, chills and something’s crawling over you, you know? And we turned around. There’s ten or twenty kids from South Central. When it stopped they were like, “What the hell was that?” I looked at D.ST and said, “Oh. This is a hit record.”

Motörhead – ‘Orgasmatron’ from Orgasmatron (1986)

BL: Motörhead was kind of a fantasy because I liked that band a lot. But the reality was fighting a lot with them. With Lemmy mostly. He was doing speed, but it was cheap speed. In London speed was all sulphates and he was drinking this nasty cider called Olde English. He was pretty baked most of the time, but in a good way. I enjoyed the experince. I was with Jason Corsaro, who’s a beast, and at that time was considered the greatest engineer in the world. And he just went for massive impact. And that was perfect for Lemmy. And we would go to these after hour places. Mostly they were Armenian and, you know, Lemmy would be kind of fronting, like he was gonna beat somebody up or be a tough guy. These guys could have killed him at any moment, so, you know, it was fun. I wouldn’t want to do that every day for the rest of my life but it was fun.

Last Exit – ‘Iron Path’ from Iron Path (1988)

BL: That was, for me, a good one. I don’t think anybody got it. Even Peter Brötzmann didn’t understand it. But Sonny Sharrock had started getting into louder and louder stuff, and he got interested in metal, and it was turning into something. I was interested in metal for sure, but it was this whole [huge] genre and a lot of it was pop stuff. Coming up under that, you had hardcore, which is what I was really interested in. But that interest wasn’t in me being sonically precise or professionally into hardcore, you know? But, even going right back, I liked Black Sabbath, you know? Then later on, when all those metal bands from LA were going really pop, I wasn’t too much into that. Then it was a good time to drift into something else.

Painkiller – ‘Scud Attack’ from Guts Of A Virgin (1991)

BL: Painkiller is pretty simple. John Zorn brought Mick Harris in and we put together this trio which was not really playing oriented: it was mostly noise. We played really loud, I had a lot of amplification on stage and Mick could only really do a couple of things, and he was killing himself doing them because it’s very hardcore playing and he didn’t practice, so he was bloody after every gig. I liked it a lot. Again, I wouldn’t want to do that all the time but we had some good moments. We also did some interesting gigs with Tatsuya Yoshida from Ruins. Those were good. But the best band that [John Zorn and I] had by far is the one with Dave Lombardo. Dave was in and out of Slayer for most of his life. And I thought they were great, and improving, and evolving, and pushing forward. So I work with Dave whenever I can. I did a residency in San Francisco with Dave, Mike Patton and and Mike Patton and the electric violin player Dorian Cheah. I hope, if I survive, I’m going to work with Dave Lombardo as much as possible.

Bill Laswell – ‘Digitaria’ from Oscillations (1996)

BL: I think [my interest in drum & bass] was gradual. The Jamaicans claimed drum & bass. If you take a 4/4 rhythm and put it on a dub track and you accelerate the delay on the snare and look at that tempo. We were using that technique anyway. But when we came into [this scene], the whole track was that and I liked it a lot because the bass line could be halftime while the drums and the acceleration of the delays and the effects could be double the tempo; that’s drum & bass. In the beginning, coming out of London, they called it jungle. I had people like Mick Harris sending me all the vinyl that was coming out because you’d have a record – a white label – where they would only press 200 copies. But he sent me everything and I was not only appreciating that, but I was also sampling all of it.

James Blood Ulmer – ’99 Names’ from Blue Blood (2001)

BL: It’s the same thing again; I have a relationship with Blood that goes back to around the time we did Massacre. We started playing together a little bit and gradually we were able to make bands that got record deals on major labels. I mean, we still play today. Blood is not getting any younger, but we have Third Rail with Blood and Jerome Brailey from P Funk and that’s a good band, you know, on a good night. It’s good as anything. Does playing in more standard rock modes ever feel less interesting? No, certainly not. I mean, it’s nice to play free and modulate and move around. But for me, I can play the same bassline the whole night and it won’t matter. I like it, you know? This idea of repetition and trance; I don’t know why but I’ve been glued to that since I understood it was possible.

The Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar with Material – ‘The New And The Ancient’ from Apocalypse Live (2015)

BL: I did [studio album] Apocalypse Across The Sky for Axiom in the early nineties, and for me, that was the best Jajouka record. After that, we made a band with Bachir Attar and his brother Mustapha. Those were great moments and powerful concerts… of just pulverising repetition. And you either get it or you don’t. Like, we would play at these festivals and all the older jazz fans were just running for the door but all the younger kids that were there for something different, they would all rush to the stage and everybody would be dancing.

Means of Deliverance – ‘Against The Upper House’ from Means Of Deliverance (2019)

BL: With Means Of Deliverance I knew that I had to let everything go and just put the work in that moment in that space. I had just gotten this acoustic bass, ‘The Alien’ from the company Warwick and I wanted to make a record of me playing that instrument. The engineer would say, “That’s a little out of tune.” I’m saying, “Yeah, I hear. It’s out of tune.” To me, music was in control not people. I got pulled into the vacuum of the sound and those notes and that way of thinking and playing. It’s very different from just, ‘Okay, I got a new song.’ It was an experience. It was an experience in wide open space. If you have the luck and the gift, the things that come to you when you’re able to manifest them, like happened here… I was very grateful to have that moment.

Is the album [produced by Laswell’s ex-wife, Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw] painful or a sad record to you?

BL: It’s neither, but the pain and sadness are in there, somewhere. I used to say that I don’t think about notes and keys. I wanted to play mountains, I want to play lakes and rivers, you know. So I don’t want to play these instruments that people do from their categories. I want to play big like nature.

Explore the wealth of Bill Laswell’s back catalogue via Bandcamp

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