Bill Laswell: No Boundaries

Nenad Georgievski By

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AAJ:  Since you have an extensive output on that label -your own records and various of your productions, has something remained unreleased in the vaults?  

BL:  Not really. I don't have a lot of unreleased material. There is something, but not like other people where everything is on the shelf and there is quite a lot of things that were not released. I never really had that and I pretty much used everything I had. 

AAJ:  As a label owner, how do you cope with the online piracy and the streaming services? 

BL:  I guess I don't really know about that. I'm not really an owner. I'm a creator. I make things and I try to present them. But it doesn't appear to me as property or ownership. I just see it as creating things and making them further available. I'm not a label owner. A label owner is someone who has power, property and control. I'm not that. I'm someone who creates records, but I'm not someone who understands the business so well, all the different increments of the process of how things are arranged in terms of business. I'm not good at business. I don't think about it, I just make these recordings and make them available. 

AAJ:  So you are assigned to the creative side of running a label aka the making of the music? 

BL:  Yes, I suppose so, because that is my job. Without that there is nothing else really (laughs). Outside of that, it's a job. It doesn't have to do very much with the job concept. It has to do with creating things. 

AAJ:  I'm also interested in what drew you to the world of remixing other people's music? 

BL:  It just came to me that the concept of remixing was sort of re-imagining something and that there is no sort of finite version in terms of sound. Mixing, to me, is all a kind of random, spontaneous activity. A person would listen to a record and say, well this is how it is and that's how it has to be. But that's very naive because that's just a version, in terms of technology, in terms of the moment, the spontaneous mind and the thing that happened between the human being and the technology. It could have gone a million different ways and it can still go to a million different ways. When I got into that, I realized there is no absolute version. Everything is open to interpretations. Everything has another side to it. And when you do one piece why not think of it as endless music, music that can start here and never stops. 

An album remix, no one has really done that, as far as I know, of the major artists I've been able to do Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana , Herbie Hancock and do full album of reconstructions. I think, so far, that has never been done and that's what I want to do more. I want to continue doing that. So far I've been the one who established that concept and did it as re-composition, not re-imagining. I'm continuing, but continuing forward and not just thinking that just because some technicians balanced something that was spirited away, that this is how our music sounds. That's incredibly naive for the audience. 

AAJ:  People aren't always acquainted with the delicate process of working in the studio. 

BL:  But the studio is no different than any workplace. Your home is a studio, a restaurant, a bar where people go. The studio is not a special environment that produces anything of it own. It's just wood and carpets and things that look like equipment. It's nothing. It shouldn't be thought of as place that produces things. It's people that make the thing and its all in your mind. It's not coming from this facility so much. 

AAJ:  What can a great studio or a great producer still add to the recording? These days, most people take the DIY approach when it come to making records. 

BL:  Yeah, you can make a record on an aeroplane. You can do it on your laptop. Technology can help you do that. It's all about ideas and presence character and manifesting the feeling, expressing the feeling. It's not about studio. That is business. It's more to do with business, and not so much to do with creativity. 

AAJ:  So what would be major reasons to go into a professional studio over a home recording setup? 

BL:  It's more about people. If you go into a professional studio with a professional person who has a specific approach and a gift, and maybe a signature that you recognize, and you know exactly what, maybe not exactly, but you'll get an idea, of what the result might be, then it's a good investment in terms of time and money. And you hope for something great. But to say you are going in a great studio that means nothing. It's like saying I'm gonna visit the White House, you know, its white. 

AAJ:  So, how do you operate in the studio? Do you operate on instinct? 

BL:  Yes and no. Sure, instinct is a big part of it. Sometimes it's kind of a routine. It makes you feel you've been there before, in terms of decision making. Sometimes it's a repetition and another time it's pure spontaneity. It depends on the situation. You really shouldn't kind of pattern things or have a diagram for everything. So sometimes it's totally spontaneous. Sometimes you have a pretty detailed plan and sometimes it is relatively intuitive. 

AAJ:  How do you determine what projects you want to take on? 

BL:  That's also pretty intuitive. Sometimes you do it because you need money in the end. Some pay more than the other and sometimes you do it because you are obsessed with it. It's something you wanted to do a long time and it's very important to you. And you do that because you want to attach that to your own important creative things. It's probably history. That's kind of a big thing. Sometimes it's really maintenance. I need to do this to pay for this. If you have the technique, skill and the experience, sometimes you do it as a job, same as most people in the world have to wake up in the morning and go to their job. You might approach it that way, sometimes. I don't do it so often like that, but it has been done. 

AAJ:  So how do you go from producing Public Image Ltd. to Motorhead or Mick Jagger to Simon Shaheen? Where is the common thread here? 

BL:  I don't know if it makes any sense, if it fits together, but everything, like I said, comes from different reasons, different fulfillment, different purpose, different necessity. Some of those things were to gain experience in a place you haven't been. So, bigger names, rock stars and that world. There is a curiosity about it. It doesn't mean you are obsessed with the music that comes from that place, but you become curious about that environment and the only way to know for sure is to be in that environment. It's easy for people outside of that to say I don't like that, this is bad, this and that, but they don't have the knowledge or the experience so it has no meaning. If you are gonna comment on these things you need to know so I wanted them to know, I guess, about rock stars, heavy metal... What is their worth? I had the opportunity to gain that experience. I guess I know more now than I knew before. 

AAJ:  What would you say is the key to being a successful producer? 

BL:  I don't know, I'm not a successful producer. I'm someone who is trying to continue. I'm trying to follow and continue with what I was interested in from the beginning. And the beginning doesn't seem so different from the present time. But a successful producer is someone like Rick Rubin who does successful, million selling records. They have an approach that will justify the budgets and they do big records. That's a successful producer. I don't like the word 'producer.' I became that word because I couldn't hear myself. I just wanted to hear myself and that led to other things. Then they started to call me that word, but it's not something I wanted to be. I sort of wanted to play with people I had respect for and I had respect for very few. So I had to work harder. The word producer to me sounds very corporate. I'm not corporate and I'm not successful. 

AAJ:  When working with other people do you aim to realize the artist's vision or to expand it? 

BL:  Probably to expand it. This situation of making a record with a band or an artist should be a shared experience. It should be a learning experience for someone or for everyone. If it's not, it's probably pointless in a way. You hope that everything can have some kind of meaning.  

AAJ:  You've worked consistently with sound engineers Robert Musso, Jason Corsaro and Oz Fritz. What makes these people so special for you to work with? 

BL:  They are all different and all do different things, but you work with people because intuitively they sort of know what you are thinking, a lot of the time, not all the time. But they... sort of... before you say something, they kind of know that you are gonna say it, a big percentage of the time. This speeds up the process as you can waste a lot of time with mis-communication and lost translations. People sort of know where you are going and they tend to be there as you say so. It's like, let's do this and I'm gonna do that, and they are already there. Because they have that experience of knowing what you are thinking, so those are the reasons you work continuously with people. It's not that they are the greatest thing that ever happened. It's just intuitively everything connects and there isn't a lot of talking or leading to excessive communications, but more to do with intuition. 

AAJ:  I'm mystified by terms you've used when working -"mix translation" and "reconstruction." Can you explain what these terms mean to you? 

BL:  What it means is that it's a term which kind of commends something to a higher level. It's not just a remix. Remix is to me like disco and clubs and people using the fads. The whole concept of the version, which is a remix concept, comes from Jamaica, to me, and it came out of necessity. You create a song quickly because you have limited time and limited funds, so you create a song and you don' have time, enough time and enough money to do a second song. So, a 45 recording has two sides, A side and B side. So, the A side is obviously gonna be the song that's gonna be the on the B side. They are taking the A song and deconstructing it and that's where remixing started. But my concept was to begin with where they began. But to see the whole thing as reimagining the composition. It's like if somebody plays with the music of Beethoven, that have been doing it for another composer; representing it, reconstructing it, arranging it, conducting it. I think of the whole thing as reimagining composition. 

I tried to find names that don't say remix because remix is a kind of stupid word from the '70s where disco people were making longer versions of things with repetitions of beats. No one, absolutely not one person on the planet has taken the concept of reconstruction of recorded music and approached it as composition. It hasn't happened and it won't happen because people don't think like that. There is no educational system for them to learn that process because  there is no process. It's all like playing. If you don't know how to improvise, you don't know how to play. You can learn music, you can read it, write it, you can study it, you can copy someone's solo so well that you sound exactly like them, but if you don't improvise, you don't play, and that's what the reconstruction concept is to me. It has to do a lot with improvisation, spontaneity and continuing the concept of reimagining the composition. It's not a remix. Remix is a money grab for people that aren't even musicians. 
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