Bill Laswell: The Bassist with a Thousand Faces
Bill Laswell has a superheroic work ethic.
According to a Japanese discographer Laswell knows, the almost absurdly-prolific producer, bassist and raconteur has worked on some 3,000 projects since 1978, when he played bass on a vinyl single (“Scoring Power” b/w “It’s a Lie”) by Michael Blaise and Cheater, an act long lost to the mists of time.
In the past six months, Laswell has released more than a half-dozen albums. These include Jahbulon and Incunabula by his reggae unit Method of Defiance; the delayed Profonation (Preparation for a Coming Darkness), which his experimental funk-metal ensemble Praxis recorded in 2005; and Mesagna Ethiopia, a live album that Ethiopian singer Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw recorded in Austriz, who Laswell also happens to be married to.
But that’s nothing compared to more prolific periods in the past—particularly during the ‘80s and ‘90s, when Laswell seemed to be remixing the sonic fabric of New York City’s cultural and racial diversity into a bigger, better and faster version of itself.
Where does this prodigious urge to record and perform come from? “Good question,” replies Laswell. “There was always a certain amount of discipline in everything I did, but I don’t know where it comes from.”
Bill Laswell has good stories about most things he’s produced. I like the one about former Sex Pistol singer John Lydon mistaking studio visitor Ornette Coleman for John Coltrane during the recording of Public Image Ltd.’s Album. But Laswell doesn’t rest rest on his considerable laurels.
During the hours we spent together in the back room of the Chelsea restaurant that’s functioning as his conference room this evening—a Russian promoter and actor/producer Hugh Jackman are scheduled after me—Laswell returns repeatedly to his plans for assembling a base of operations in Ethiopia, where he performed several days earlier with Gigi and the latest iteration of Material, the constantly evolving rockish band he formed in 1978.
Gigi herself left Ethiopia prior to the release of her 1998 album One Ethiopia —an influential hit, according to Laswell—and had not performed there since. Because of this, and because of her success abroad, much anticipation surrounded Gigi’s prodigal-daughter reappearance. For the gig, Material included jazz drummer Hamid Drake, trumpeter Steve Bernstein, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, P-Funk keyboard linchpin Bernie Worrell and, of course, Laswell, who declares the concert an unqualified success.
Like so many other musical visionaries, Laswell has long been—as they say—big in Japan. “I’ve been to Japan like 300 times,” he says. “It feels like home. I got addicted to Tokyo but now I’m totally into Ethiopia.”
If the stars and funds align, the city of Addis Ababa will serve as the next outpost of M.O.D. Technologies, which he’s released his recent albums through. Laswell describes M.O.D. as a “collective” consisting of himself, his longtime associate John Brown and Giacomo Bruzzo, who Laswell characterizes as a “hedge-fund mathematician” who “loves music, puts his money down and helps a lot of people.”
Since the music industry’s skyscrapers have crumbled, Laswell is keen on seeking financial angels elsewhere. “All it was ever about was getting enough money to make a record,” he says. “In the past, I knew how to grab it from a major label. But they don’t exist anymore, so you have to work with people who have the funds to make things happen. It’s not easy. The majors are pretty much gone—and that’s good,” he continues after a sip of white wine.
“A&R people have hopefully moved on to better jobs at Kinko’s and grocery stores,” Laswell says. “You’ve gotten rid of all the middle people and the people at the top level who didn’t know what they were doing. They were in the way. They were OK when they signed the check, but that was about it—and those days are gone. So it’s an incredible time to build an international cultural and financial exchange.”
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