Bill Laswell: No Boundaries

Nenad Georgievski By

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AAJ:  When you were reconstructing the music of Marley, Santana or Miles, what were you aiming at? 

BL:  I was aiming at the artist. I'm drawn toward the artist especially Miles Davis because it's a music that I chose, that I listened to, that I found interesting. Miles Davis was very much music that was unresolved. It was unfinished.  It wasn't the pure product of, say, this is my song, this is how my song sounds. This is how it is. I didn't feel that was established. This was the kind of unfinished music. So I didn't plan to finish the music, but I planned to continue the lineage of this flow of sound that came from this period, from an artist of that time, because after 1975 I have no interest in Miles Davis. I met him, I talked to him, we were gonna record. It wasn't interesting. What was interesting was the period between '69 and '75, a period of unfinished music. In the case of Bob Marley, it's reggae, so there is a nature there, natural connection to reconstruction because it's coming out of dub and there is a lot of atmospheric aspects to the music. Santana, similar, same thing. As I go and apply this ambient experience, this dub experience, this ethereal kind of sound collage to all things, at the moment I'm confident pretty much I can reconstruct anything if I can find a center and then move outward from that. 

AAJ:  In many interviews you have stated the importance of Miles' electric music. Can you elaborate more what that music from this period has meant to you? During that period, Miles kind of directed a collective of brilliant musicians much in the same manner you do on various projects. 

BL:  There is not so much diversity in that period. It pretty much stays in one place, but I think it's a combination of having an idea and then there's people who don't have a clue what are they really doing in the middle of that and that energy, kind of a feeling of lost participation, contributes a strange energy. Its very alert, it's very awake because of that and there is repetition which was unheard of coming from a musician associated with innovative jazz. There is some kind of redundancy in the repetition that was really very startling to the jazz people. The concept of soloing over a kind of a metronome, in a sense. For the time, and considering the name of the people, it's pretty brave to do that. It is very extreme, in a way. 

AAJ:  Do you think Miles was aware what the minimalism composers were doing at the time with repetitive music? 

BL: I'm not sure how. He was very conscious of  Sly Stone and James Brown. They had bands that were, what you would call, extremely tight and together playing repetition. Miles' bands were never near that in terms of tightness. Jimi Hendrix a little bit, but that wasn't so minimal if you think about it. Rhythmically it was pretty all over the place. He was certainly conscious of the fact that repetition led to a broader audience, that this concept of a beat and a bass line was what younger people were extremely connected to. He wanted that. I think he thought that maybe something like On The Corner  (Columbia, 1972) represented that, in a way. I think it was way too much far out than people were ready for. That sounds like something that maybe in hundred years on another planet, that would be break dancing music (laughs). But when I made "Rockit" with Herbie Hancock, I think Miles thought that's he should have had that street credibility and a hit record. And that's when we started talking about doing records around that time. 

AAJ:  Regarding street style records, do you keep up with what is happening in the clubs or underground kind of music? 

BL:  Unfortunately, I do and I'm obsessed with that, and that's the only thing that I follow. It's hard because there is so much. Things are changing and happening all the time, so I have to look at Jamaica all time for what's the latest sound and production, which is usually terrible, but still I have to hear, and new vocalists. ...Listen to any new form of pop, or, rather, pop related more to hip hop. Not so much the generic rock or pop music, but hip hop related things, and whatever is new. Not just commercial music, but strange concussions like Flying Lotus and things like that. Bands that play to do more with noise and drone music. It's difficult to keep up with, but I think it has to be done. I need always to know what is happening. If you really believe that, you could lose everything, throw it all away, and it's been done, if you could have just a little bit of a look at what's coming. 

AAJ:  How open are people when you experiment on their records? How open was Herbie Hancock to the idea of introducing turntables and early hip hop sounds to what he usually did? Not that he is a stranger to experimentation. 

BL:  I think he probably could have been more open and it's probably based on patience and knowing the fact, that he is who he is, and he was veritably just kind of patient. Maybe he didn't quite understand at the beginning, but he made the decision if I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it. I'm not gonna complicate it, I'm not gonna waste anyone's time or energy or money. He was open and that's the word. And he is still open. You can do the same thing tomorrow with him. Some people would fight you on things. Miles would have been the same. He would also have been open because he is not challenged by his confidence of his person. He is who he is. 

AAJ:  A while ago, when trumpeter Wallace Roney played here in Skopje at the Skopje Jazz Festival I spoke to him about Miles and his experimentation. He mentioned that Miles wasn't experimenting for the sake of experimenting, but he was curious what would happen if he did something. "What if" was the guiding light for him and he was mystified by it. 

BL:  Probably Wallace Roney is more of a jazz musician. He would get the vision of someone like Miles Davis, its very different. It's not just training and copying people when sounding like somebody else and doing this traditional thing. Miles was very anti tradition. He has a lot of other aspects to his character. There's an ego there. There's power, there's drugs, there's all kinds of things that go into making a human being. He is special. Wallace Roney is a jazz musician. It's like calling someone a sports person. 

AAJ:  He (Miles) was naturally curious about what lies ahead if he tried different things.

BL:  Yeah, that's nature. That's not experimental at all. That was just natural what he was doing. The word experiment wouldn't be there. It's just called demolition. 

AAJ:  For me experimentation in music is an attempt to see what else can be called music. 

BL: Yeah, you have to try to get out of the way of doing the same thing over and over again, and I think a musician like that who repeats himself is quite boring. 

AAJ:  With Hancock's "Rockit" back in the '80's. you brought the underground music from that period into the mainstream. This opened the path for the future turn of events where the underground went overground. How much of that can you hear in today's music? 

BL:  Yeah, there is an influence of underground music even today, just it is not presented as a full blown statement. But if you listen to any pop related hip hop music, you are gonna hear strands of what we did in the '80s. You're gonna hear Africa Bambaataa a little bit, you're gonna hear Sugarhill Gang, you're gonna hear references and you'll hear in choruses pop references that relate to rock music from the '60s. But its not a full blown statement. It's more to do with increments of influence. Things are smaller at the moment. There aren't any big music statements. It's more to do with a riff or a hook. Things go by so quickly you don't really measure it. But as far as underground and more esoteric things existing, you know, when I was 14 or 15 years old I thought pop music was Cream, Jimi Hendrix and that was pretty out, you know. These guys are playing a song for 10 minutes and it entered the mainstream. Later on, we did it with rock, but I think that can happen with some kind of music from outside, it can definitely penetrate the format, but I don't know how it works. I'm not sure how can that make happen. 

"Rockit" was a success for Columbia. They made some money back on him and they didn't even want to put that record out. They were like "what is this?" It's not possible, what's going on? Somebody, somewhere made the decision that made the connection, "Ok, let's try," and what made it happen was they made a video. MTV at the time was a big way to sell a record and there was  zero percentage of black people on MTV. Think about it. It was Michael Jackson, OK, but that's one person. Herbie's video had robots in it so it wasn't like African American culture. Here is this weird electronic thing. It's like Bambaataa was associated with Kraftwerk. It's not Black. So it translated. They thought it could work on street level and they put the money into it, because if they didn't put the money in it, it wouldn't have been a hit. It was all about investment, marketing and the fact that if he hadn't been owing them money, they probably wouldn't have done that. They were trying to recoup on him. 

AAJ:  What about Future 2 Future  (Transparent, 2001)? What was the situation like for that collaboration? That record had similar approach by employing the talents of various underground electronica artists from the '90s and '00s. 

BL: We just did the sound of the moment, where things were happening. there was a lot of electronic music that was influential, but some of it was kind of underground, some of it was Herb, some of it was hip, not a lot of turntablism at that moment, more to do with sequencing and patterns and Detroit and techno. Jeff Mills was very popular, Derick May, Carl Craig. I was listening to those things. Drum 'n' bass was coming. It was just the sound of a moment, in a way. 

AAJ:  How do you approach you bass guitar as an instrument? For eg. on records such as Invisible Design (Tzadik, 1999) and Means of Deliverance (Innerrhythmic, 2012) the bass sounds like a fully fledged orchestra. Its used for various purposes like for adding textures, melodies, moods. 

BL:  I don't come from a school of faking about that instrument, about who played before and what are the sounds. I see it as influential if you hear the low end of the pattern.  If you hear the low sound of the tabla of the one hand from India, and that's a pattern, and these are the repetitive patterns, and if you associate this with what came out of version in reggae in Jamaica, the repetition of the low end but extreme low end. That's pretty much how it starts for me and otherwise it becomes kind folkloric. I don't relate to jazz, I don't relate to even rock. It's folk music and what I see is what I can put to the sound, so it's kind of retro-space where your life is there, and you see things from your life experience. Music is a life experience first, if it's real music and not the things you study, but I see things and I see where I grew up and I see rivers, Arkansas, Mississippi , Kentucky. I see that and I try to channel that. I learned to play train tracks. I don't play jazz and I don't play styles. I just want to establish this picture that moves very quickly from place to place.
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