Interview: Bill Laswell

1. Hi Bill! How are you?

I am OK, same as always.

2. What kind of music you grow up with? What motivated you to start making your own music?

I started pretty young, playing in bands and most of the early ones were mostly related to R ‘n' B, but not so much rock music. Then I gradually moved step by step into other areas, which took time. By the time I moved to New York 
I had already became interested in quite a lot of music from around the world as well as in musicians related to the jazz category, but as I said, I started out mostly with pretty repetitive Rhythm and Blues.

3. At which point of your music career did you start experimenting and producing different music styles?

I think it was gradual, you don’t always recognize the transition as it is usually a pretty gradual process. Before coming to New York I dealt mostly with the structure and the song form. Improvisation was more based around established forms. But when I came here I started to hear people playing totally free. [People] from a lot different backgrounds and that had a big impact, so I started to incorporate that into structured music. And it is pretty much the same story, I am still doing that.

4. We are really interested to know about your passion of industrial, metal and funk music, basically everything that makes up Praxis. What motivated you to start creating this type of music?

I think it was a hybrid: hearing different things and making compositions out of random elements or influences that came from noise music or industrial, mixing metal with funk and experimental music. It is really endless: once you start layering elements from different genres it goes on and on. You keep creating new directions out of other directions. There is really no end to the combinations. There is no new style or new sound. It comes from the hybrid of different influences. It could be two or three at once, and it could be millions. It is endless.

- So there is no specific motivation?

Only that you become interested in sound or a direction and then you equate yourself with it, you follow it. Somehow you become involved. I think the motivation is always the same: it starts with your interest, which develops an inspiration and then you gradually begin to formulate different combinations. 

Combinations lead to other combinations - it is ongoing - there is no real end to it. You can keep formulating, constructing and deconstructing. Everything is a sound. Most things are music. It is just an application, when you 
are putting things together.

5. Artwork of Praxis albums is surreal with a feeling of conspiracy. Are you interested in conspiracy theories?

As soon as you say conspiracy you immediately delegitimize any authenticity, any proof of any truth. So, if you call something a conspiracy it is already suspiciously ruled out as some kind of hoax or untruth. I prefer to think of it as truth. The conspiracy is really the media and the government and all the things you learn or supposed to be learning at your schools and churches – that is conspiracy to me. But the real life that is happening is considered to be conspiracy. It is turned around quite a bit. But as soon as you use that word it is no longer a legitimate statement.

[I am not interested in any kind of conspiracy theories] because there is no such thing. It is just a tag. It is a word used to degrade the truth and in some cases it is just conspiracy, but then there are so many multilayered elements and information, stories and histories. It is really impossible to say what is the conspiracy and what is the truth. 
It is too complicated to register. Donald Trump is the conspiracy, something like that

6. How did musicians Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell got involved in Praxis? (I am a bit surprised that funk musicians started playing such a heavy music)

Bootsy was always open to heavier sounds. He didn’t always have a direct opportunity to do it, but he was always interested in heavier music. I worked a lot with Bernie Worrell on other types of projects and he was someone that could adapt to any kind of environment in terms of sound. He was there from the early days of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Black Sabbath and all this heavier music, but again he didn’t always have the direct opportunity to express himself in these areas. So it was kind of natural that they adapted to these heavier sounds.

7. Can you tell us about Bernie Worrell? What kind of person he was? What kind of a musician?

To start with, at a very early age he was classically trained and any education he received came through music learnings. He started playing the piano at three or four years old in the classical vein. So he brought that classical background everywhere with him. When he met Parliament/Funkadelic people in New Jersey they all were into vocal music. There was a lot of church music around and he started to incorporate his classical training with the street music and that was the beginning of Parliament/Funkadelic, which is really two bands. Parliament was a vocal group, who started out as a barber shop quartet do-up singers and Funkadelic was more of a rock band. It emulated the rock bands of that time: pretty much Scream, Jimmy Hendrix and others. This was a rock band, which ended up mixed with the vocal groups. This is where the combination created one sound, which is full of all kinds of influences.

8. We are also interested in the project Painkiller, a combination of death metal and grindcore with jazz and ambient music. What made you start Painkiller? Apart from producing hardcore, did the project have any other themes or purposes? 

It was more to do with the people. It was at a time when with John Zorn we became very interested in hardcore. 
A lot of it was Japanese hardcore, because we were working a lot in Japan. That was some of the early hardcore from the Japanese bands that I liked. Later on we discovered Napalm Death and that was Mick Harris. I think it was Zorn who met Mick Harris. We decided to try this idea: even though it was a saxophone, it had nothing to do with jazz. There are dub elements, there is definitely ambient and there is a big noise factor. It was a very loud band and completely improvised, but the more we did it the more it sounded like a structured music.

9. How did your experiments with heavy music and your work with Mick Harris influenced your interests in music?

Mick Harris thinks a little bit like a DJ. He is obsessed with records and finding new things. He will listen to anything and he will assess whether he can incorporate that into what he does, or whether he likes it at all. It is a little bit of 
a DJ mentality, it is like a sponge, constantly trying to find music and that took him through different phases: sometimes very short, blast pieces, 30 seconds and from that he got into a darker ambient sounds, which didn’t involve rhythm and then he got into slow break bit, noise music with Scorn. [He is] somebody who is constantly searching for something a little different and keeps looking for something new. He is definitely not a musician, which joins a band and stays in it his whole life and plays the same songs. It is the opposite, he is constantly looking for new things.

- So it was nothing to do with the ideas of musicians, like DJ mentality, as you said?

I grew with the DJs and they are the ones that inspire you to find new records and get you to try something new, something different. They need to do that because they don’t play any instruments that they can evolve on. 
They have to keep redefining themselves with new sounds. Unless you are a club DJ or an electronic music DJ, you have to constantly evolve as a selector - it is endless on that front. There is always something different to incorporate with something else. As far as recombinant energy and the creation of music made from records, DJs come first. For me they are not virtuoso. Most of the music players play within a form or a genre that started as an idea, that was for the most part created by virtuoso musicians that came before them, whereas DJs play all music with all instruments just with someone else’s music contribution.

10. What about John Zorn, can you tell us about working together? Was it easy working with him? Currently is there any of his many projects, which you feel particularly close to, or like in particular?

We started a long time ago and it was always something a little different. In the beginning it was totally free and later on it started to develop a little more rhythms and structured ideas. We had a few periods of just duets, which I thought was some of our better work. We had a trio with Milford Graves, who was famous from the 60s, he played with Albert Ayler. [It was] nothing to do with jazz, but more just expressive rhythmic ideas. And then in the current time within the last two or three years there was a trio called Blade Runner, which had Dave Lombardo in it, who had spent most of his time in the band Slayer. That is the current situation.

As far as Zorn is concerned, the best for me is the current [project] with Dave Lombardo, but the trio with Milford Graves which was only a few years ago and the duets, some of those were special. There has always been peaks and then we might be consistent for a few years nothing and then back again or something else.

- Maybe with the time he became more professional?

Maybe not more professional, but maybe he became more busy. He went in another direction, which is composition and started to do his festivals and developed a kind of a style, which was based on Jewish music, which sounds a lot like Persian music. It is all mixed up in a way, that there are similarities. A lot of his compositions are from Hebrew and Persian.

11. Can you name a few of your favorite jazz records, which influenced you and shaped up your interests?

Again, jazz was always the word. I didn’t know anything about jazz, I didn’t get interested in the musicians that 
were related to that genre until later and they weren’t really playing straight ahead jazz. Before 1968 I don’t know that music at all. I heard Miles Davis and was interested. And when he started to experiment with electronics, that is when I became much more interested.

I didn’t know John Coltrane’s jazz records so much, but when he started to play more free, more aggressive and at the same time more spiritual music, that is when I started to recognize his music. Cheryl Saunders, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler are the people I was interested in. And the people I got to work with Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter the work I did with them was certainly not jazz.

12. Can you tell us about your contacts with Herbie Hancock and your involvement in his album Future Shock?

I met Herbie in the early 80s and he had a guy, who was helping him with the business. He wanted to see him a little out of jazz and into more of a popular music, so he came to New York with Herbie and we met. This was the early beginning of hip hop and DJ culture. I agreed to do a couple of pieces and I focused more on what was experimental hip hop, using the turntable. That had nothing to do with the jazz history that he had before, but we did one thing really well and we continued experimenting with different things. I just saw him recently, he is still experimenting. 
He is a jazz musician but he is a lot of things. He is always willing and open to try different things.

13. Herbie Hancock sounds in the track Anachronizer (Asteroid B449) on the album of Method of Defiance - Incunabula. What is Method of Defiance, can you tell a few words about this project?  

Method of Defiance started as an experiment putting younger drum ‘n bass producers with established virtuoso musicians, a lot of them coming from jazz history. It developed from that into live drum ‘n bass bands with DJs and 
it is still developing, always something a little different.

- So it looks like Herbie became interested in the electronic music of 80s after doing a lot of jazz records?

He did a lot of interesting electronic music in the 70s, it wasn’t all so accessible. But there are a few records that he made before I met him that were influential and were very electronic based before hip-hop even started.

14. Can you tell us about M.O.D. Technologies label? Why was it created? Was there a specific need? Does this label, M.O.D. Technologies, continue doing what Axiom Records was doing, or is it something different?

I think it is continuation of Axiom, but it probably has the ability to do more experimental things because there is a digital label and a lot of those releases probably wouldn’t be on CDs or on vinyl. In those days with Axiom we just did CDs and vinyl and I wouldn’t have been able to do as many releases. Now that you have the opportunity for a digital format I can continue Axiom but at the same time I can do more experimental things.

15. M.O.D. Technologies released Bill Laswell & Ira Cohen - On Brion Gysin EP. Can you tell us about working on Brion Gysin? Is there anything you remember the best?

I discovered Bryan Gysin a long time ago and I always liked his work. Ira Cohen was a friend of his, a big collaborator, supporter and fan. We all had worked with William Burroughs and Ira wrote three pieces that are based on his experience with Brian Gysin. So those pieces are Ira Cohen’s tribute to Brian Gysin.

16. Bill Laswell/Sacred System - Book Of Exit: Dub Chamber 4. This is an album with an incredibly fine, soft and exquisite sound. Of all the reasons, can you name only one that made you produce it?

It is just an evolution of experimenting with some East African music, bringing a lot of ambient and dub side of it softened up it. There are series of those and they are all slightly different depending on the time.

17. In Bass Culture EP and Dubopera EP you continue experimenting with dub music. Would you say that dub music is the music style you are mostly interested in?  

It goes through different phases: there might be a period where that is a big influence and I apply it to everything. There might be a time when the things are more aggressive. Or other times when there is more form. It is a part of repertoire. People call them styles, but to me it is just different pages of repertoire.

18. When did you discover ambient music? Can you describe what is ambient for you? 

It goes back a long way. It was here before we started realizing what we were listening. It is just a resonating environmental sound. People have been making these kind of recordings for a long time. John Cage and different artists recorded, I guess, what people called ambient and later on in the 70s a few people got popular with that word, Brian Eno. I met him in the late 70s and we did ambient music and that was a big influence, because I continued doing it. I had a period in the 90s, when I did quite a lot of it. But it all goes back for me to the experience with Eno, because he had already established his name with that kind of genre. But ambient music is Miles Davis in a silent way. It is Funkadelic, Maggot Brain. There is a lot of different references you can point to. This kind of stillness or quiet music. It goes in many directions. There is an area of very dark ambient music. There is New Age. 
I don’t even know what you would call it. It still incorporates this piece with not too much movement.

19. Can you tell us how you were recording Ambient 4: On Land with Brian Eno? (I heard that you spent months recording and experimenting with the sounds of water).

It was all kinds of stuff, water, different non-musical instruments, with rocks. Anything that would generate a sound or a tone that was worth experimenting with just to create an atmosphere or an environment. It is a process that could go on indefinitely. I did on land and there was a lot of other recordings that didn’t come out. But he hasn’t done it himself in quite a long time. Every once in a while I keep continuing and just do completely ambient record. There is a lot of artists that still do them.

- But you felt total freedom, creating this album?

Yes, you feel that for sure. You also feel that you are not obliged to be associated with the music. It does not have to be music. It is just a sound experience, which you have every day. All you have to do is stop everything you are doing and listen. That could be your ambient records if it was properly recorded. The sound of nothing.

- Is it more close to you finding new sounds around us, some random noises that could be used when making records?

It is still very close. I don’t think that will change and hopefully that is always there. That’s not a new thing, that goes way back. If you look at the early 70s, Lee Scratch Perry who was a reggae producer, although that was pretty strange reggae, did a lot of dub recordings. He had a studio in Jamaica, he would open the window put a microphone outside and while the band was playing, whatever nature sounds came back through the microphone, he would process those with FX. He had a duck pond in front of the drum kit. In certain records you hear water splashing, birds singing and it is all processed. That’s all nature sounds and the beginning of putting environmental, ambient music into dub and structured music.

20. How often you had to create sounds in an unusual way that made way into your albums? Can you call a few examples of creating sounds for ambient music from the technical point of view?

From the technical point it is always somethings new. At that point you are dealing with technology, which is constantly inventing something different. One day you buy an FX pedal and that changes your whole concept or rhythm section. That is using technology and using technology to capture natural sounds. But the technology is constantly evolving. And you can always go back 20 years and pull out some ancient effect or a piece of gear that 
no one has heard now because it came such a long time ago.

21. Your records are mental projections to different points of the world and universe, I would describe them as trip or travel albums. Have you travelled a lot around the world?

I think that is part of it. I was lucky to get to do that pretty early. I have to say that is a big part of staying conscious and staying motivated. It is a little exhausting sometimes and I am glad that I did the harder things earlier. 
[I travelled] in Africa and in India, Middle East, Central Asia. The conditions are not always the best in these places. 
I am grateful to have done that when I was strong enough to do it.

- Do you have any memorable travels that you did?

It is way too much, there is a lot of them.

22. What was the most exotic musical instrument that you ever played?

Played? I am not sure. I think I have heard everything, but as far as playing it If I did that I wouldnt really be playing, it would be more like producing a sound to use in some configuration. There is so many instruments you cannot single out any one or ten.

23. Eastern philosophy, meditation, yoga – are you interested in any of these?

I did a lot of sound and music for yoga people. Meditation for me is that any time you can just stop and think. 
I haven’t practiced any of those things seriously the way that people know how to do, but I have been surrounded by that a lot, enough to get the point of it, the necessity of it.

24. Can you tell us about the work with Boris Feoktistov on Russian Chants «Parastas»? How did you get to know him and decided to start working together? What do you think about church choir singing?

That was a really long time ago. I think that project came through Japan. There was a label in Japan and there was some connection with him. I knew a person who was working at the time with Ryuchi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono, who were both in the Yellow Magic Orchestra. One of their partners was a big fan of choir music. 
He gave me tapes and I just experimented with it and sent it back. There was no real close relationship with that style of music, but it was interesting to work on. That was a really long time ago, I even forgot it happened.

- That was like a piece for the work?

It was like a commission and don’t really know what it is until you start experimenting with it. I don’t remember it that clearly, but I remember everybody around that project. Everybody was serious and somebody was obsessed about that music.

Church choir singing really depends. There are so many different areas, genres and styles. A lot of it to me after a 
few minutes seems a little bit overbearing, but I am sure there is more detailed and more intimate version of that.

25. You have produced several libraries of music samples: Sony Media Software - Bill Laswell's Ambient Grooves Collection, Bill Laswell Collection Box set. What do you think about making music from pre-recorded samples? Or is the live music the only real thing?

I think it is equal. I don’t take credit for those sample releases, because it is just information. I had a room full of information. I remember just telling engineers: ”Just scrub a bunch of things and put it together and let’s listen to 
it and let’s see if this works for the people”. I never really worked hard myself on any of that. It was mostly just grabbing what was available. Making music with samples to me is no different to live, because once you play it, it is already your sample. You cannot play it twice at the same time. It is already put in the catalogue of sounds. 
50 years ago, maybe a lot longer, John Cage said: ”In the future records will be made from records” and that was 30-40 years before hip-hop. It is all music if you assemble it right. It is just recombinant sound collection.

26. Are you interested in jungle music as a style and when did you discover it?

Pretty much right away, when it came out. In the States it was never really called that. It was always drum ‘n bass. 
It is the same thing, Jamaicans take credit for the style because of half-time bass and then you put a delay on the drums, which accelerates to double the tempo. It is true that that is the beginning of jungle rhythm. Drum ‘n bass had a moment, where it has found its way into a lot of different styles, even into pop music, but less now. 
I am sure it can come back if the right artist is doing something unique with it.

- So the revival is possible, do you think?

I think so. The music never really goes away, it just waits for someone to grab it again.

27. Dub, jungle, hip-hop, funk, jazz, rock... Are you open for these styles of music? And is there music that you are definitely not interested in or dislike?

I think I am open to almost anything. If there is such a thing I don’t like, it is never aggressive. I am probably not very big on Hawaiian music. There is certain pop music that is kind of pointless, but there are other elements that are very strong. It is not much I would say that I really dislike. It is all propriety. You have certain things you value more than other things, just like everything else.

28. Can you name a few interesting and inventive contemporary bands or musicians from New York scene? What about Flux Information Sciences? 

I don’t know that, but I have heard the name. There is always a lot of interesting projects and bands. A lot of them are not strong enough to keep going. It is hard these days, but there is always something different. I don’t think that will ever change. It is not easy anymore, but there is always something very different coming out from every area. 
At the same time there is redundancy, there is just people copying other people - that will also never go.

- Can you mention a few names that come to your mind?

A lot of things on Zorn’s label are interesting. Some of it is more hardcore. There is a band called Abraxis, there is another one from Philadelphia called Cleric. These are more heavier sounds. There is the whole scene in California with the Brainfeeder label, which is Flying Lotus and those guys. A lot of bands that are struggling, that haven’t 
even recorded yet.

29. Do you think that today a completely new music style can appear, such as jazz in 20s, or something as remarkable as rock ‘n roll? Do you think that everything has been explored and discovered and there is no time for new experiments?

It might not seem obvious, might not seem possible, but there is always going to be that possibility that something very different would happen. At the moment we have to settle for hybrid music, recombinant music, music that is made up of great elements that would make a new impression and there is an audience that hasn’t heard the references, so to them this is a great new music. 

If you are familiar with a lot of the references, you are just going to say: “Well that is good, but it is just the continuation of what we have been doing”. But I believe that there is always this possibility that something will turn the corner and there is this completely new music. I think we might even be hearing it sometimes without realizing it.

There is never a point where you say: “Well, that has all been done”. I am more of an opinion that nothing has happened yet, that we are just getting started. Sort of a fusion, a mixture of the genres? And from that could come something surprising, but you have to start somewhere, but that doesn’t mean that you have to end somewhere.

30. What inspires you and empowers you to create?

This is a good question, because you never really question if you are obsessed with something or deeply interested, you just follow that impulse, that feeling. It is very hard to break it down into words and say: I am inspired by this because of that It is more to do with what I have become. My goal (if there is such a thing) is to continue and what comes from that would hopefully bring something of value to someone. And if even if it is one person, that is an achievement. You keep going, because that is the direction you move in. You cannot go anywhere else, you have to continue.

Is it like your personal mentality, because a lot of work has been done? I think this is the mentality of every musician.

Yes, just keep going and try to stay open to other things and don’t be too quick to criticize something based on whether or not you feel you have an understanding, because understanding changes over time. It is not all it is meant to be. People change, things turn around. There is something you have heard yesterday, it might affect a lot of people. The next thing you hear, no one might understand, but it could be the best thing you ever heard for yourself. What is good is that there is no real limits and there is no exact way that things have to be and that is what keeps it live.

The world is changing and the people are changing too.

The world is definitely changing, not for the best. But sometimes that is what gives people motivation to fight different elements and to stand up for something, to defend something. Nothing wrong with disagreeing. 
The world is changing very quickly and in a very bizarre way.

31. Any future gigs coming up this year?

Not a lot, I just did a lot of stuff in New York. I haven’t done Europe or Japan in a while. I think I have something in Poland in November. I did a lot of stuff in New York in smaller places with Dudley Smith. I did a bunch of stuff with the drummer Hideo Yamaki from Japan, but mostly in art spaces, Dave Douglas. All of that recent stuff was pretty experimental. With Method of Defiance we did a couple of gigs, which were more drum ‘n bass. 
We played with Matisyahu. I worked with them ten years ago, so that was kind of reunion thing. But lately it has been more like Dave Douglas, Zorn, sometimes, Milford Graves, those kind of people.

Questions: Ilya Kudrin
Photos by Hiroshi Ohnuma

Big thanks to Yoko Yamabe and SD.