Interview with BILL LASWELL


Conducted 4/11/02 by R.Lucente.
Interview composed by Ben Smith and Robert Lucente.
( 2002. All rights reserved. 2012 Productions.)

Meet Bill Laswell: legendary producer, master remixer, bass player extraordinaire and overall psychedelic sonic shamon.

< FOLLOWING BIO from i took excerpts, need to sum up .....

Bill Laswell has collaborated with some of the most illustrious names in music across all genres and boundaries, including Herbie Hancock, Mick Jagger, Laurie Anderson, Pharoah Sanders, Yoko Ono, Iggy Pop, The Last Poets, Buddy Miles, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Afrika Bambaataa, Tony Williams, Public Image Ltd., Peter Gabriel and countless others. He has also organized and produced recordings with master musicians from around the world, having logged extensive travel in Morocco and West Africa, India, Japan, Cuba, Australia, Brazil, and numerous other locations throughout Asia, Africa and South America. In the United States and abroad, his name has become synonymous with a commitment to creativity, integrity and daring -- whether in the recording studio or on stage -- that has earned him the respect (and often lifelong friendship) of all the artists with whom he has worked.

By 1984, after only five years in New York, Laswell had reached the first of many pinnacles in his career by producing the first two of three revolutionary electronic albums for Herbie Hancock -- the hip-hop fusion classic Future Shock, which yielded the worldwide dancefloor and MTV hit 'Rockit,' and the Grammy-winning follow-up Sound System. Few fans of the music today are aware of the fact that Laswell was one of the main catalysts of a real funk and hip-hop fusion, and that he was executing it on stage before anyone had even conceived of adding a DJ to a live unit.

By 1990, Laswell's studio itself have been a magnet for some of the most innovative artists on the planet, including composer/arranger Henry Threadgill, jazz giants and Coltrane acolytes Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, beat godfather William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis alumni Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker, and some of the more illustrious emissaries of funk and hip-hop such as George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Buddy Miles, Bernie Worrell, the Jungle Brothers, the Bomb Squad (Hank and Keith Shocklee, the production team behind Public Enemy), and Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole of the original Last Poets.

In 1997 Laswell furthered his reputation for innovation (and alleged controversy) by exploring the tape vaults of two icons of modern music -- Miles Davis and Bob Marley. Emerging with original source material -- some of it previously unreleased -- he essentially uses the recording studio as an instrument of improvisation to construct radically different remixes of selections from Miles Davis' electric work (originally recorded from 1969 to 1974), and Bob Marley's studio work with the Wailers (from 1973 to 1979). The resulting albums, Panthalassa (Sony/Columbia) and Dreams Of Freedom (Axiom/Island), bring not only a fresh and futuristic perspective to the music of two very important artists, but also represent a new way of experiencing recorded sound in an ambient and almost sanctified environment. Similar remix projects are already planned for the music of Carlos Santana and Tony Williams Lifetime.

Laswell released two new projects in 1999 and 2000. Material's Intonarumori -- a 'mutant hip-hop manifesto' covering a wide spectrum of influences from the breakbeat underground -- continues the thread that started with the founding of Axiom a decade ago. Featuring performances from Kool Keith, Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, Wu Tang Clan's Killah Priest, Company Flow's Mr. Len and old school rap icon Rammellzee (again, to name only a few), the record has conceptual ties to several Laswell-directed projects of recent years, including Altered Beats (on Axiom), the Valis 1 and 2 compilations (on the Subharmonic and ION labels), and the now-legendary Crazy Wisdom Masters with the Jungle Brothers -- an endlessly compelling (and bootlegged) collision of urban beat poetics and live orchestration that was ultimately rejected by the JBs' former record label in favor of the 'safer,' more sanitized J Beez Wit the Remedy. ("That record will come back," Laswell says today. 'They called it Crazy Wisdom Masters for a reason.') In 2000, Laswell collaborated with tabla legend Zakir Hussain and UK-based producer and Anokha founder Talvin Singh to create Tabla Beat Science a fusion of Indian classical rhythms and harmonies with electronic beats that focuses on newly recorded tracks by Zakir Hussain, with Sultan Khan on sarangi and vocals and up-and-comer Karsh Kale on tabla and drum kit.

The range of Bill Laswell's music has demanded a new openness from musician and listener alike, and through his work points of congruence between genres have become clearer and we now have new hybrid forms to reckon with. With a scope of influence that welcomes the traditional and 'trance' rhythms of far-flung cultures as openly as the hip-hop, dub, jungle, jazz, funk and electronic cyber-styles emanating from the DJ underground and beyond, the label stands out as an active realization of the 'collage system' - a system where entirely new forms can emerge almost at will from fusions of the familiar, an ecstatic journey into known and unknown worlds of sound.. Put simply, this is a past that arrives from the future to scramble the present; drum-and-bass, dub, mutant hip-hop, harmolodic fusion, new jazz, world and otherworld musics all connect to expand the potential of the experience. >

Recently wowed San Francisco with a free show in Stern Grove - Tabla Beat Science - cutting edge trantic tabla rythms, classic Indian music, drum and bass , ancient - future..... Look for the live release to be out in July. Also don't miss Tabla Beat Science at the Fillmore in June and a performance at the Sierra Nevada World Music Fest.... was lucky to catch up with Bill We chatted about new releases, and what playing BASS means ... BASS - TIME - CONTINUUM


Greetings Bill, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. We know you're very busy, often juggling a variety of exciting projects, so lets get started with what's been keeping you busy lately?

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've been in this on and off with them for a long time. Also, a lot of remix stuff for Sony. 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. Some World music also, an Ethiopian singer, GiGi; we did an album on Palm Pictures.

Is that a remix or an album?

That's a full album and 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 Benine(sp?). 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 (sp?), Duc Don (sp?), Jack Bruce, Jaco Pastorious and then later on, Ravi Shakespear (?) and Family Van Beret (?), Flava Holtz (?), Yac Jenny Top (?), Benard Saganati(?), Michael Henderson. There's a lot.

You have a relationship with some bass players already, like Jah Wobble (PIL) 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, do 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.

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.

With Sting?

Sure, yeah. We talked about it, but we just haven't figured out what to do yet.

Or when to find the time?


So what is it about remixing that excites you? What draws you to these types of projects?

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, 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.

Those are some really strong ones (Marley, Miles, Santana). Did you approach those 3 projects much differently or did you keep the same style?
(EDITOR NOTE: info on these remixes:
Bob Freedom of Dream, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana)

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 Hussein'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. It started out as idea. 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, (sp?) 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.

Wow, beautiful!

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 (sp?), Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry (sp?). 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.

How do you feel about the importance of music in today's world, with the turmoil humanity is facing these days?

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.

No problem.

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!

OK. Anytime.


JUNE 21, 2002 - Fillmore Auditorium, SF, CA

JUNE 23, Sierra Nevad World Music Festival, Angels Camp, CA


Tabla Beat Science -