Higher Level

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One of the most prolific bass players and producers in history, Bill Laswell has lent his talents to several thousands of recordings. He recently produced “Rise Again”, the latest artist album from legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, himself one of the most accomplished and influential reggae producers of all time. Presented here is the song “Higher Level” featuring Tunde Adebimpe from T.V. On The Radio and an interview with Laswell.

Interview with producer Bill Laswell, by Glasschord editor Phil Moffa:

Phil Moffa: I’d like to begin by asking you a couple of questions about the philosophy of sound and the recordings that you do. After all of your experience and your lifetime in music, are you still amazed by the phenomenon of recorded sound?

Bill Laswell: Well yeah, you have to be, right? Or else you wouldn’t continue. I think it’s not just recorded sound but sound in general. Everything you hear is part of a kind of a cacophony of different orchestrations, whether it’s noise or nature. All of this gets synthesized into music, and I think it’s all relevant. It’s how you put things together. I don’t have a particular philosophy and pretty much what I say will change daily, but I am of course motivated by sound and especially extremes of sound, whether it’s low-end or a symphony or space and silence, it’s all motivating, and if that’s what you choose to do with yourself you need to immerse yourself in it one hundred percent and when you do that you find it all comes to you naturally and it’s still a motivation.

PM: What is your philosophy on making a record and what is your goal?

BL: Well, the philosophy is not to have a philosophy, and the goal is to get a good result that at least you feel good about that you’re not second-guessing – which I’m not too good at – or with the hope maybe that other people also relate and get something positive out of it.

PM: I’ve read that you don’t like to spend too much time on something, that you like to get the sound that you’re going for then move forward.

BL: Pretty much. If I don’t get what I think is valuable I’ll probably wait or move on and come back to something else. I don’t beat away at something for long periods of time. It’s usually if it’s not sitting right, if it doesn’t feel right, I’ll move on to some other area and then come back. I don’t like that idea of getting stuck in one place.

PM: What in your life first attracted you to dub music?

BL: Well I guess it came from the idea of rhythm section coming first because I had experience dealing with repetition and bass and drums. Earlier on when I started it was not that different – it was sort of R&B and sort of country music and blues and minimal rock stuff. I didn’t really come out of rock and rock & roll, I came more from rhythm & blues earlier on and blues and country music. So I related to the minimalism, the simplicity of the rhythms – bass and drums – to start with. When I first heard reggae I didn’t really think about it here or there. It wasn’t that important to me, even though it was at that moment – I think around the time that Bob Marley was just starting and everyone was jumping on that – it wasn’t that interesting to me, but when I started to hear dub I became interested in all of the music coming out of Jamaica and I sort of went backwards. I started with dub records and I would buy anything that didn’t have vocals, or even didn’t have horns. I was kind of just turning on the rhythm. And then later on, through that, I went and worked backwards and discovered all the great artists there with vocals.

PM: Dub requires an active set of hands on the console and I wanted to know in the new record with Scratch did you do any of the mixing, and by any chance did Scratch get his hands on the board, or was he just vocalizing?

BL: Scratch came in and, as he does with most things now and as he does live, he really comes in and lends his presence and his vibe and his history that he brings with him to the microphone and he then recollects and free associates and goes into his museum of languages and metaphors and themes and observations and whatever he just read in the newspaper and it’s all filtered through him as a presence. As far as mixing, I’m always very active with everything. And I always deal with faders, I deal with levels, I deal with dropouts – I pretty much have to make every decision. I always say of people, in terms of engineering, I always say people are very aware of what I value and what I might do next, and usually most people really help in creating the basic sound and then I sort of contour it from there. I have never done anything where I haven’t dealt with active faders. And I don’t deal with programming into Pro Tools, I still actually have to use active faders.

PM: But do you use Pro Tools as a tape machine?

BL: At the moment yes. But I’m not totally opposed to using tapes if we had more machines. I got rid of most of my machines – nobody was using them anymore.

PM: I hear what you’re saying. I have a similar approach where I multi-track into Pro Tools but then bring it back to the board to do live mixing.

BL: Yeah, but I also had three Neves at one time in the studio and we just gradually got rid of them and went sort of modular, I just keep buying the Neve EQ’s and they all sound – if you buy them from different sources – they all sound completely different, so nothing is just a cold computer thing, it’s always passed through all this Neve stuff. The same thing is going through a desk – using different modules for different sounds, and they all sound completely different depending on the source.

PM: In the studio setup, you’re doing the mixes on the board and using a lot of hardware effects?

BL: Well there’s a lot of stand-alone here. There’s obviously the plug-ins in Pro Tools, which some of them are great, but there’s a lot of outside effects that we use. Some are primitive, some are fairly sophisticated. I don’t have a state-of-the-art setup, I never did. That’s sort of why I relate to Lee Perry because he did great-sounding records with basically nothing so that’s the inspiration, not reading these magazines where people are telling you that you have to get an upgrade because that’s the new thing and your other thing is obsolete. That’s got nothing to do with art, nothing to do with music, nothing to do with projects, it’s just commerce, you know?

PM: Yes, I totally agree and understand. So what made you want to make this record with Scratch?

BL: Well I didn’t really think of it. Some guy called Josh Warner – he’s a bass player who I met when I worked on a local band called Matisyahu and he happened to be their music director and bass player and he was really into dub and reggae and other things that I was interested in. And so after that project we stayed in touch and I helped him with the project he had, which was purely an instrumental dub thing called Roots Tonic, and then he went on to play on some stuff with Wu Tang Clan. In the middle of all that he somehow managed to get on some stuff with Scratch and he did some live stuff. He approached me and said, “We should do a record. You should work with Scratch, try to do a record.” And, great idea, but in these times you can’t…the days of going to a record company with a harebrained scheme is over, so you can’t go in and get a budget, and obviously it takes a budget to do a record like this. So, over time I was lucky enough to develop a label with some other people and we started to build a catalogue. And we figured with the help of a label in Japan and our own resources we could probably pull it off. When the time was right, Josh made the arrangements and he helped me on the record, and that’s how we did it.

PM: What’s it like working with the Upsetter?

BL: Well you can’t upset the Upsetter, so you just have to kind of go with the flow. We had tracks prepared and he came in and was himself – I’d say professional and easy and very light, nothing heavy, and not a lot of dialogue, just roll the tape and let’s do business. And it was ‘professional’, is the word.

PM: Can you tell us a little more about the Method of the Defiance label and group and what the philosophy is behind that and what your plans are for that?

BL: Well you know it started two years ago, we made a compilation with a label called Ohm Resistance and Kurt Gluck was his name and we made a compilation of a lot of drum and bass producers. Some were established, some were known, some were up-and-coming, and that kind of made a juxtaposition between these younger producers and people from different backgrounds – for lack of a better word, jazz, or something like that – Pharoh Sanders, Pete Cosey, Graham Haynes, and Herbie Hancock. And I started mixing all this stuff, and when we finished it there was a Brazilian guy who we worked with and he came up with the name Method of Defiance, and I think he always thought of himself as a punk guy interested in drum and bass. So he had that concept and we called it that. And then we started doing live gigs improvising with people from more of a jazz, or noise, background. I started bringing in people doing beats and over time we developed this language of live drum and bass and dub. And I got a gig in Greece at a big festival and I put a band together that would be that. We called it Method of Defiance, and it worked – good response, and everybody felt good. So from there we started a band and gradually added DJ Krush and a guy called Hawkman from Jamaica. And in the middle of all that we gradually put together a label based around that group with a guy called Giacomo Bruso who’s an Italian living in London, and John Brown who worked at Caroline and later on worked with me and with Axiom, and we made a company. And we step by step started to put out the things we were involved in, or interested in, and that’s where the Scratch record came in. We already had created a structure and a foundation that we could be autonomous or independent from the nonsense that goes on in business.

PM: So you’ve worked with so many great people in your life. Is there anybody that you haven’t gotten around to working with that you would like to?

BL: Well, that’s always the question and I never have a smart answer but living it’s hard to say I mean I’ve always had great conversations with Carlos Santana but he’s doing very kind of commercial music at the moment. I don’t think that’s on the horizon, but we always talked about doing things. I got a chance to deal with, at least talk to, most of the people that I thought had influenced me and had a lot of value. It’s good to be able to say down the line that there was an involvement and a record was created with Lee Perry, it’s all good. I was a little too late, I didn’t work with Jimi Hendrix, but I worked with Alan Douglas who was his last producer so I got a lot of that information. Miles Davis was kind of an influence and I got to meet him and I got to know him, and it started out doing some things but he sort of passed and I wasn’t expecting him to go that soon. But lately it’s been just developing new artists, and a lot of work in Ethiopia is in the planning and there’s a lot of new artists there so I’m hoping that the future is gonna be more to do with not just people who are established but actually new artists as well.

PM: In your own personal listening is there anything you gravitate towards – artists or styles – or are you all over the map?

BL: No, it’s a sad truth that I don’t listen to anything. I buy everything that comes out, predominantly pop stuff. I listen to about two or three tracks and then I give it away. And that’s my listening process. If I was doing serious drugs or drinking a lot like I used to I would probably have music playing all the time, but right now I’m thinking I need kind of a blank space, a clear space, to build on. I don’t really listen to anything. I listen to what I’m working on, and I hardly ever listen to the roughs. If I don’t know what it is then I don’t know what I’m doing.

PM: So you just like not to have the outside influence and you just like to have the clarity?

BL: I just need the space, you know, it’s all storage. It’s like a computer. What’s the one thing you want if you could have anything? It’s storage. The brain can only handle so much. I’ve already got layers of things that I need to do some editing on.

PM: So you probably spend a lot of time just listening to nature and found sounds then?

BL: Yeah, I’m just listening to everything and I see it all as potential hit records. Unfortunately we deal with systems that dictate what’s good and what’s bad and what’ll sell and what’s important and what’s not, you know. That’s about as abstract as the rest of the control systems.

PM: I was able to get in touch with John Zorn and he contributed a piece for this issue. So I wanted to ask you since he’s going to be in the issue as well, what’s it like working with John Zorn?

BL: Well, we started around the same time in New York. I think around in the late ‘70s neither of us really had any idea what we were gonna do, and we would sort of run into each other and we started playing just improv things. And he started building his concepts and what would turn into an empire later, but…doing his game pieces…and this was before he was doing a lot of written music – he was mostly improv. And that’s how we met. And gradually we started to play more and more. At the time I don’t think he even thought about making a career or success. And he didn’t care about money, didn’t care about really anything. He just wanted to play and wanted to create things. Over time we went in different directions. During the early ‘80s I started to do more accessible things and bigger label things, and he started to develop his repertoire and his army of musicians, and then periodically we would come together for different projects. So it’s one of the few people that I’ve known…it’s probably the only person that I’ve played consistently with from that time. In fact, we have things coming in the future. We do a lot of duets. We’re very interested in doing this duet thing where there’s no drummer, just two people. And I hope we can continue doing that. And we had a trio with Laurie Anderson that I thought worked pretty well. So we’ve always played either trio or duet and it’s always been with different kinds of drummers, sometimes Milford Graves, sometimes Japanese drummers – x`x from The Ruins, and for a brief time Mick Harris originally from Napalm Death and Scorn. So it’s always been these different things, it’s always been predominantly improv. But it’s someone who I’ve worked with consistently and I will continue to work with consistently, and probably our take on music is completely different, which is I think why it works. We have a completely different value system, and he’s got his world and I’ve got a world…and I think it’s interesting that we’re completely different and that’s probably why it’s able to last – we don’t cancel each other out.

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