Bill Laswell: No Boundaries

Nenad Georgievski By

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For some people music is a mere entertainment product, a pastime amusement. For others music is a powerful force and the act of its creation carries within itself a sense of discovery. Bill Laswell's music, production and remixes have always carried that sense of discovery and riskiness. Multifariously creative and independent, he has always been revered by avant-gardists, jazz and improv and electronic music fans with equal zeal. 

In the last 30 years, this incontrovertibly cool producer has emerged as as one of the most important figures in today's music. He has been involved in the making of so many records that chances are that anybody with the least interest of modern music will have crossed paths with one of his recordings. His pieces are like busy intersections of different sounds, cultures and people that in a way resemble global conversations. They are rooted in the process of collaboration and, especially in the '90s, these records represented exciting points of musical confluences. The band Material was a loose aggregation of musicians where many people contributed to these unusual records, ranking from guitarists Sonny Sharrock, Nicky Skopelitis, Fred Frith, Nile Rogers to saxophonists Henry Threadgill, Archie Shepp, to keyboardists Herbie HancockBernie Worrell or percussionist Aiyb Dieng and tabla player Zakir Hussain, to name a few. Laswell's records are much more in line with Miles Davis' or Jon Hassell's explorations of sound and choice of musicians rather than simply creating tapestries of exotic but shallow sounds. 

In 1983 he recorded "Rockit" for Herbie Hancock, a state of the art dance track that sampled beats and turntables with groovy synth sounds. It was an instant and timeless hit, especially in the UK, that brought to light a whole underground movement, and pointed towards the future. This collaboration with Hancock resulted in other records with the first, Sound System  (Columbia, 1984), being awarded a Grammy. Soon after he was so in demand as a producer that He went to produce records for such diverse artists as Laurie Anderson, Mick Jagger, Sly and Robbie, Motorhead, PIL, Ginger BakerFela Kuti, Yoko Ono, Afrika Bambaataa, Iggy Pop and the Ramones, to name but a few. 

Laswell has been a man on a journey and his extensive travels throughout the world have had a significant impact on the way he perceives sound. His interest was directed towards real experiences and real situations which create an atmosphere and environment for a flow of music. On these travels he recorded various kinds of indigenous music, like the famed Master Musicians of Jajouka, Mahmoud Ghania or oud master Simon Shaheen, experiences that always had an influence on his music and creations. Back in 1990, he created Axiom Records in collaboration with Island Records where he created pan-ethnic polyrhytmic musics. Until 1999 it was a playground for the creation of many brilliant forms of expression. 

One of the most interesting endeavors of his was the process of reshaping the music of other artists. Laswell used terms such as "Reconstruction," "Sound Sculpture" and "Mix Translation" to explain his process of making records. Starting from the music of reggae artist Bob Marley, he went onto reshape the music of Miles Davis between 1969 and 1974, as well as Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Sussan Deyhim. These were album length reconstructions rather than singles and they offered fresh perspectives on the material of these artists whilst simultaneously retaining the spirit of their music. 

The new millennium brought a new label, MOD Technologies, and a plethora of new projects and productions that came with the speed of light and carried the same sense of discovery and experimentation. One recent project saw Laswell team up with Red Hot Chili Peppers' drummer Chad Smith and keyboardist Jon Batiste . The work of Bill Laswell is ongoing and continues to evolve unpredictably as he restlessly moves from one sound to the next, always navigating by instinct and with no set destination in sight. All in all, it reflects a true visionary, a restless spirit and sonic alchemist who creates sound worlds where "nothing is true and everything is permitted." 

All About Jazz:  Your name appears on an avalanche of records which is an indication of unseen and unheard diversity. To what can you attribute your interest for various kinds of music? 

Bill Laswell: As you start and continue on, it requires diversity just out of necessity. Actually, you realize that you are repeating yourself by saying the same thing over and over again. So, diversity comes out of nature I think. It's a necessity. And I think that happened to me. It seems to be quite a lot of different things just because it's been quite a long time. Things were able to develop for the most part. 

AAJ:  In the same vein, where did the interest for mixing all of these different styles of music together come from? Many of your records resemble global conversations between different cultures. 

BL:  Yes of course, I think it's just from having the opportunity, having the availability to sort of navigate without being stuck in one place. You can move to different areas and meet different cultures, different people, different geographies, whatever you might call it. It's just moving out—it's from not staying in one area, so when that happens, it's fine. It's a different experience, a beautiful experience to have with different cultures and different musicians, people and areas, so it's from reaching out and moving outwards. 

AAJ:  As someone who has traveled extensively throughout the world, how have those travels influenced your work and how you perceive sound? 

BL:  I think everywhere has a kind of deep influence on you, whether (or not) you are able to pinpoint it or to say what those influences are. But the experience in one territory will provoke influences that will make a mark on what you do, what you've been doing intuitively. So, if you're working in Morocco for a while, and then you are somewhere else, that feeling or sense of experience will carry over and however small it is, it will have an effect on what you do next. 

AAJ:  Would you agree that the band Material reflected your diverse tastes in one place? Can you also talk about the musical concept behind Material? What was its mission? 

BL:  Material is just kind of a brand. It's a name. It doesn't really represent a band of fixed musicians as representatives of a kind of a style of music. It's more like a title or a branding. And you can put that name on anything. It could be a free jazz, it could be metal, it could be everything of it. You just stick that title over it. It's like a label and not a music statement so much. 

AAJ:  Is there a difference between a Material record and a Bill Laswell record? 

BL:  Yes and No. It could be exactly the same or it could be totally different. I don't follow any kind of a code book or rules so it's whatever it is. You won't know until it happens probably. Maybe it's planned, maybe it's not planned, and maybe it's planned (laughs).  

AAJ:  What are your views and opinion about the group's legacy to date, as some of the most brilliant and very important musicians have played in this band? Even Whitney Houston's career as a singer began in this band. 

BL:  Again, it wasn't really a band and for Whitney Houston it was a recording project. I made a record for Bruce Lundval, who was the president of Electra and I had permission to do an album with a lot of people, and I was gonna use a singer called Fontanella Bess (she did songs like "Rescue Me" and all these things) and I thought to get her to sing. When I reached out to her and started the process it was complicated and uneasy, and in the process of that, sort of turbulent period, I reached out to Archie Shepp, whom I invited to play and Bruce sent his friend who was called Sizzy, a pop singer, who said she has a daughter who sang in a church, but she has never been on a record. I was suggested maybe I should try her 'cause we have to finish the record. That's how it happened. It wasn't like she was in a group, but she was a singer who sang under the label or the brand of Material. I'm pretty sure it was her first recording as a soloist. 

AAJ:  What about the thoughts and feelings about the group's legacy to date? 

BL:  I think it's kind of timeless, you know. It's endless and timeless because there is no solid form. You go back and run down a list of people. They were never in a group. There never was a band, but there were live performances, as there are recordings, and you run through names you can see Nile Rogers, William Burroughs, Herbie Hancock , Sly & Robbie, Shabba Ranks—it's endless. Endless and timeless means infinite, so it can happen even if I'm not here. It's an ongoing kind of process of multiple combinations. 

AAJ:  Having worked with collectives and bands in various situations, how do you organize a collective effort with so many people involved in order to come out with something in the shape of a record? 

BL:  That's based on experience and it's also spontaneous. It's not a sure thing. You may have an idea, you put it together -this thing works and this doesn't. It's all a spontaneous juggle. What happens is not the traditional format--- four guys meet in high school and they all play different instruments and they form a band and they stay together for their whole lives. I couldn't imagine that, but it works, you know, for U2 or The Beatles. This is very different and has nothing to do with a band configuration or playing together, developing a sound or`something else. These things don't develop. They stay in one place. It's the consistent redundancy, a repetition of something that keeps it alive because people like to hear the same thing over and over again. Whether they know it or not, they are repeating themselves. 

AAJ:  Regarding labels, is the band Method of Defiance and the MOD label a continuation of previous efforts with Material and the Axiom label? Do you see this label as a successor to Axiom? 

BL:  Absolutely! I think it is exactly that. Again, it's not really planned that way, but this is how it falls. The concept of Method of Defiance is also not a band, but a title. It's a name and it can be used for different configurations of live and recording and otherwise. The label is exactly that -it is a continuation of Axiom and I would like to get these things together and unite them. I wish everything to be together.  I hope. 

AAJ:  So what is happening with the Axiom's back catalog? 

BL:  At the moment, nothing, because the back catalog is property of Universal, so we have to do some negotiating and some business, and bring it back. It will happen and eventually that will come. Again, it will be put next to this MOD concept. Everything will be together. I will make an effort to put all back catalogs together, if I can. It's just time consuming and you are dealing with the kind of people that don't exist. They are there, and then they are not there. One day they are behind the desk, and the next time they are somewhere else. And then, there is another person. One has to deal with the non-existent flux of non entities. It'll come. I'm trying to think about it and work on it. 
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