Meet Bill Laswell: legendary producer, master remixer, bass player extraordinaire and overall psychedelic sonic shaman. Bill Laswell has worked with a mind boggling range of musicians, across many genres and from all over the world, including such giants as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Elvin Jones, Ginger Baker, Pharoah Sanders, Yoko Ono, Iggy Pop, The Last Poets, John Zorn, William S. Burroughs, Buddy Miles, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Afrika Bambaataa, Tony Williams, and Peter Gabriel just to name a few! Laswell's approach seeks to create 'a past that arrives from the future to scramble the present; drum-and-bass, dub, mutant hip-hop, harmolodic fusion, new jazz, world and other world musics all connect to expand the potential of the experience.' (innerhythmic)
August 2001, San Francisco was treated to the exclusive world premeire
performance of Laswell's Tabla
Beat Science with a free show at the Stern
Grove Festival. One of many collaborations with tabla legend Zakir
Hussain, Tabla Beat Science is a 'fusion of Indian classical rhythms
and harmonies with electronic beats'. (innerhythmic).
Don't miss Tabla Beat Science at the Fillmore
in San Francisco on June 21 and at the Sierra
Nevada World Music Festival on June 23. Philzone.com was lucky to
catch up with Bill recently. We chatted about his new releases, and what
playing BASS and making music means to this sonic pioneer...
At the moment, I am in the middle of a record with Sly and Robbie from Jamaica. They're a rhythm section obviously, and it's using a lot of guest vocalists. I'm also doing a lot of remix stuff for Sony. One being a remix of all the electronic 80's period of Herbie Hancock. There's also a new record, which just came out a little while ago, called Future to Future that we did. Also, some World music, an Ethiopian singer, GiGi; we just did an album on Palm Pictures.
Is that a remix or an album?
That's a full album but there's a remix coming also, a whole album remix of that album. Also I just did a record on Sony with Angelique Kidjo, an African singer from Benin. Jah Wobble and I did a record also on Palm Pictures and there's a double live record coming out of Tabla Beat Science, live in San Francisco, which is a double CD.
Cool! Any others which may have come out already?
Carlos Santana, a record called Divine Light, which is reinterpretations of 2 of his records I put together for Sony. And a lot of remix stuff of different artists, international, from all over the place.
Great! So, in addition to producing and remixing music, you're an awesome bass player, and being that this Web site caters to another phenomenal bass player, Phil Lesh, why not tell us how you became a bass player? What drew you to the instrument?
Well, I started really young at around 13. I became interested in playing music, and then I think bass kind of happened because no one else played bass. Everyone played guitar or drums. I probably first started messing around with guitar and then decided that I could probably more quickly adapt to bass if I wanted to interact with musicians without going through a longer learning process. So it had to do with immediate activity that it was, for lack of a better reason, 2 strings less. And it was kind of natural so I immediately got into the whole thing.
Did it precede you doing any kind of production projects?
Well the whole idea of production and making records came out of, I think it was the necessity to control your own sound. I would play on things and it wouldn't sound the way I had imagined it or the way I even thought it originally sounded. So I think it was a need to establish a sound, my own individual sound, and have a little more control on what the end result was, in terms of mixing and creating music. Then you become interested in other sounds and how they relate and that all moves forward to being able to make records.
So what kind of bass do you play?
I've used a lot of different ones, but the last few years a Fender Precision bass which has one jazz pickup and the Fender Precision split pickup. It's a fretless bass but it has the lines on the neck. I don't even know what year it is.
That's your preferred one?
Yeah, it's probably from the 70's, it's not like super old. I have another Precision that's older, I used to have a lot of basses, now I really just deal with a couple of them. I used to use a Fender 6 string a lot and even an 8 string which I still use sometimes for recording but it's mainly those 2 Fenders.
And those are 4 string?
Those are 4 string.
How about equipment?
It's pretty simple, I've always used the same, for low-end kind of sounds, I've always used an Ampeg SVT usually with 2 cabinets. One with the 10inch front mounted, and one usually a reflex cabinet. And then for loud or weird stuff or more distorted, I still use the Marshall sometimes.
When you're playing bass, either live in the studio, what kind of journey are you on?
Well, it depends on what kind of freedom you have. If you're playing a very fixed part that someone else created you're really working for someone else's idea, but if you have the freedom to improvise I think you're constantly recollecting and calling up your own sort of language that you develop, different memories of things that might affect what goes into a sound or a line or a note or a piece of music. I think if you have the freedom to improvise on things, which I do in a lot of cases, I think you reflect on things, you remember, you free-associate, you associate, you reconstruct and deconstruct all the different things that made your sound and your style.
You do a lot of sonic architecture projects, how do you see the bass within sonic architecture?
Well, in most cases, as the bottom of a foundation, but it really depends on what kind of environment you're creating, it can be many things. Using different effects, a bass can be a whole record; you can use it for a lot of different functions, not just bottom end.
Who are some of your favorite bass players?
There's so many, it's hard to say. I'm probably more influenced by other musicians and non-musicians, by writers and painters and things like that more then musicians at this point. But if I had to say, what bass players from a long time ago, because obviously that influence came from starting, I don't know, James Jamerson (toured w/Jackie Wilson in the early 60s, later hired by Berry Gordy to be the house bassist for Motown), Donald "Duck" Dunn (bassist for Booker T and the MGs, house bassist for Stax), Jack Bruce, Jaco Pastorius and then later on, Robbie Shakespeare (bassist w/Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Grace Jones, produces with drummer Sly Dunbar under the name Sly & Robbie) and "Family Man" Barrett (bassist w/Bob Marley & the Wailers), Flabba Holt (original bassist with Roots Radics from Jamaica, later with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound in the UK), and Michael Henderson. There's a lot.
You have a relationship with some bass players already, like Jah Wobble (Public Image, LTD) and Bootsy Collins (Funkadelic, Parliment). How is it that you came to work with these folks and how has your relationship evolved with them?
Well, it's always different I think. With Bootsy, he's a character; he's a lot more then a bass player. He knows how to create records, he's a singer, he's a writer, he plays other instruments and he has a bass style that is unique and still is because of his approach. He's using different effects and techniques to create sounds. I gravitated toward him from his overall character, not just as a bass player. Now Jah Wobble, we have similar tastes and a lot in common in terms of what we like and don't like. So we usually don't disagree on things too much.
Do you, in the studio or live, ever do any dual bass playing with these people?
I have with Jah Wobble, it depends on the recording or situation you're in.
Our community has seen Phil Lesh do some improv dual playing with the bass player from the band Phish, Mike Gordon. They've done some dual playing, kind of improv stuff that is really kind of cool. When you see 2 basses come together, there's just something about it.
Yeah. I haven't done a lot of that in the studio. You know, it is a great thing. I have done sort of simple things, where I play a simpler line and someone else solos and things like that.
Lets see, some other bass players that you have worked with, you did a remix of Sting's BRAND NEW DAY. How did that project come to be?
I met Sting a couple years ago and we kind of stayed in touch. I think I offered at any point to do any kind of mixing and I think at that time, Miles Copeland was still his manager, and they called about doing a mix. I'd like to do more stuff like that.
Sure, yeah. We talked about it, but we just haven't figured out what to do yet.
For one, well to most people it's really a hype kind of area. A lot of people are just grabbing the money in that sort of genre and not always creating great music or redefining something in terms of composition. It's mostly just done as a quick job. I think it's more of a science, when you reconstruct a thing or reimagine or reimage something, you're really dealing with recomposing or creating practically a different composition.
So I think it should be approached like composing and I've been lucky to work in areas, that's not just creating a dance track or a dub track or a house track out of a pop song, but it's actually dealing with catalogues of music that's been heard, like Bob Marley, Miles Davis, and Carlos Santana. And with that music you have to have a lot of knowledge I think of what you're dealing with. I mean where it comes from and you have to do that with respect to the original idea and if you can't make something different or something interesting and respectful, then you shouldn't be doing that kind of work.
are some really strong ones (Marley, Miles, Santana). Did you approach
those 3 projects much differently or did you keep the same style?
They were all different because they all dealt with very strong centered characters who've created these kind of classic pieces of music. So each one took a different type of research and type of listening and a kind of what-to-do / what-not-to-do system and at the same time, be able to still improvise within that plan.
Do you have any more of those coming up in the future?
Yeah, there should be more from the Santana catalogue and there's a lot of stuff of Herbie Hancock with records people will recognize.
Cool! How do you see working with music from that era, the 60's, 70's, psychedelic music?
Well, you know I was around when that music happened so it's very much part of what I valued at the time and still do, so I am very familiar.
Your own music and productions often provide a FEAST for the psychedelic traveler, so to speak. Have you ever been influenced directly by psychedelics or how has it reached into your own music?
I think it's important because it opens up your mind a lot more. You have more possibilities, you SEE more, you've experienced more. And by doing that, you become more open. I can't imagine having NOT experienced that and doing certain things that I do now musically.
Again, PHIL comes from that era as well and the Grateful Dead are known for the EXPERIENCE and a lot of what Phil still carries on is - in the live setting, what is possible with GROUP MIND. Do you have any comments on live performances vs. working in the studio?
Every live setting to me is different and hopefully every studio recording also has its different feels to it, obviously there's a big difference between studio and live, but I think it's really what you bring to the music and what you feel about what you are doing and how it works with what you're trying to create.
One good GROUP MIND audience experience was with TABLA BEAT SCIENCE in Stern Grove Park, San Francisco in August 2001. I attended that; it was quite a phenomenal day in the park! Tell us about the conception of TABLA BEAT SCIENCE and how that project came to be?
I started listening to Indian music really early on and ironic to what we were just speaking about, the first time I ever heard Indian music was at a college in Ann Harbor Michigan, a concert at the University, which was Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakka, who is Zakir Hussain's father. On the way to the concert, I think I was 14 years old, someone spiked everyone's drink with LSD. I had never done that before and around 14 years old, I went to the concert and of course it started to take effect and that became the most psychedelic music that I had ever heard with the tabla, the drone, and the sitar. That was my first experience not only with LSD, but Indian music and it happened at the same time!
So, I've always seen this kind of psychedelic quality in Indian music, especially the tempos that the tabla plays, and the fact that there's a consistent drone, there's not a lot of dramatic chord modulations, which keeps you in a trance, kind of fixed state, and then there's virtuoso playing on top of that which in the case of most of the real masters can be really mesmerizing music. So, TABLA BEAT SCIENCE is probably a direct influence of that experience and just how the rhythms of tabla relate to the rhythms of today, drum and bass, techno and electronic music. So it was a given, obvious thing to put together.
How did you go about selecting the different musicians involved in TABLA BEAT SCIENCE?
It was kind of just gradual. I think I approached Zakir (Hussain) with the idea of making a record based around him, and him being the only tabla player, and featuring the tabla as a focus of this kind of juxtaposed position of electronic and acoustic and trying to create music that would appeal to people that were buying at the time whatever electronic music was at that point. Drum and bass was starting to get popular in England or here a little bit. There was a lot of sort of more syncopated tempos and up-tempo playing and at the time, so tabla made sense.
Originally I was going to center around his tabla playing and as it developed, Ustad Sultan Khan was in town, and we talked about that and I realized there's so many musicians who respect Zakir's playing and also have done a lot to bring the tabla to a wider audience. Like Talvin Singh, who has been experimenting with electronic music and tabla playing for a long time, who's actually a relatively new musician but still a kind of pioneer of electronic music mixing tablas in it. And Trilok Gurtu, who's also a drummer, was also one who has brought tabla into fusion and jazz and into world music, so he was added to it. Karsh Kale, who at the time of that recording, was really just starting to be recognized and has done a lot of work since then, so they were all obvious choices to bring into that recording.
You've done many projects with Zakir Hussain. How did you two come to meet and get a working relationship?
I had heard about Zakir early on. I first saw him play with John McLaughlin and Shakti in the 70's and I finally met him around '85 or '86 through L. Shankar, the violinist. But I was aware of his music and his playing for a long time before that.
Along with Zakir, it really was a solid mix of players; the chemistry at the live performance seemed really in synch.
We're playing at the Fillmore on June 21.
And some other world music festival near San Francisco on June 23.
The Sierra Nevada World Music Festival I believe?
Yeah that's it.
And there will be a release of the Stern Grove show?
Yeah, I don't know exactly when, but I think it's fairly soon.
Fantastic! We'll be excited to see that come out.
It's interesting because there's no editing or overdubbing. It's just exactly what happened.
That's a kind of rarity.
YEAH, exactly! It was a GOOD day. So, how about your connection to World music and African music. How did you come to cater to these styles?
It was gradual. One thing teaches you another thing. So, from discovering music early on, music like Cream or Jimi Hendrix, I was right at the age where you really become obsessed with music and that was the music that was kind of big at the moment and through the fact that they were incorporating improvisation a little bit and that there was a blues reference which ultimately had some kind of a jazz reference, through those types of artists, I discovered other music. Like Ginger Baker, he was the drummer in Cream, and had spent a lot of time in West Africa and he had developed a kind of tribal drumming sound of his own in which he incorporated into playing jazz, but he also happened to be in a rock and roll band.
So that was influential in me discovering John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry. All these people were not only bringing a lot of influences from Africa, but from India, Asia, the Middle East, and through these artists, you wanted to learn more about that reference. Just like a kid at that time, if you heard Eric Clapton, then you might be curious to go and listen to Albert King. It's the same kind of connection. It really was a step-by-step process. I first started to hear, obviously Indian music early on, and then West African music, and from there it's just endless! I'm still hearing things.
Have you ever heard Grateful Dead or Phil Lesh's playing?
Yeah, a lot. I remember distinctly the first album, another one called Anthem of the Sun, and there's a long piece on a double live album that sounded interesting, I forgot the name. I'm not someone who followed Grateful Dead that much, but there was a period where I was aware of what they were doing.
It's interesting; I find connections between some of your thoughts and Phil's thoughts both as bass players, especially in the improv playing and chaos theory.
I am familiar with his playing. I would recognize his playing if I heard.
When did you come to develop AXIOM RECORDS?
It was in '89. With Chris Blackwell. We did about 32 or 34 releases and then Island was absorbed by Polygram and that label at the moment is tied up in the Polygram/Universal kind of empire. But we're working on trying to liberate that and get the records back out.
Well, I think if everybody played music I don't think you'd have any troubles. It's definitely an incredible way to communicate and I think people get a lot of not only satisfaction but also inspiration from music. I think it's a way to open people up not only to sounds but to who makes them and different cultures and it's a tool, a weapon in a way, against narrow mindedness, bigotry, racism, whatever, it's got to be an important weapon that fights that every day because musicians all over the world, the real musicians, are able to communicate, regardless of language, culture or religion, they're always able to communicate. That's the KEY I think.
What might we expect from you in maybe the next 2-5 years, do you have any long-range plans?
If I can just continue I'll be happy. It's enough to be responsible for at the moment. I'm not planning to take on anything else; I'm just hoping to be able to stay in what's already there.
Do you keep a balance in participating as a musician, a bass player in bands, vs. your remix and production projects?
No, it's pretty random. I don't really have a plan. It just falls wherever it falls depending on the work.
Well, thank you very much for your time Bill. We appreciate it.
And we look forward to those exciting releases coming out and hopefully we can get you and Phil hooked up some time. That would be VERY interesting!
- Fillmore Auditorium,
JUNE 23, 2002 - Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, Angels Camp, CA
with Laswell's catalogue?
A VERY special thanks to Bill Murphy for coordinating and editing this interview and to Bill Laswell for speaking with us!BASS - TIME - CONTINUUM
Philzone.com interviews BILL LASWELL
Conducted 4/11/02 by R.Lucente.
Interview composed by Ben Smith and Robert Lucente.
(© 2002. All rights reserved. Philzone.com/2012 Productions.)