Bill Laswell: The Bassist with a Thousand Faces
Bill Laswell has been hustling, scrambling and generally busting his ass as a musician since he was a teenager. His father worked on oil rigs and the family traveled a lot. A quiet, attentive kid—from what he’s been told—Laswell was born in Illinois in 1955 and later picked up his gentle drawl in Kentucky. His father died when he was eight, and he and his mother moved to Michigan. They resided in Albion, not far from Detroit.
A music-loving high school teacher took him to see shows, including a particularly memorable triple bill consisting of jazz singer Nina Simone, Miles Davis with Wayne Shorter, and headliners Sly and the Family Stone. Laswell picked up a guitar around age 14 and switched to bass when it became apparent that a good bass player could always find work. He was covering R&B, country and rock hits in working bands by age 15 and spent the next several years paying dues and touring as far south as Key West, Fla.
“I kept doing it and doing it,” says Laswell of his early days as an itinerant bassist, “and somehow it brought me to New York around 1976. I was lucky. I just stepped into a bunch of things that were moving along. I made contacts, paid a lot of attention and listened. I followed people around but I never had any mentors. Coming here, I thought it would be interesting to talk to people like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis, and I managed to do that early on.”
One of the people Laswell followed around was Brian Eno, who finally hired him in 1979 for early sessions of what would become My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a seminal polyethnic collaboration with David Byrne. Laswell arrived at the studio with a cheap borrowed bass sporting a Devo sticker, since someone had stolen his own ax the night before following a gig at CBGB with Ornette Coleman’s drummer son, Denardo.
In 1980, Laswell began a long, productive association with Celluloid Records, for which he worked as house producer. Founded by Jean Karakos in 1976, Celluloid was as sketchy and inspired as the wildly eclectic New York scene it captured. Jazz, funk, rock, R&B, salsa, reggae and hip-hop were all thriving at a high synergistic boil and Laswell was just the guy to mix it down.
In 1983, Laswell struck gold with a Herbie Hancock tune that he co-wrote and produced called “Rockit.” Laswell has said that Hancock spent as little as five minutes on the track, which featured the young turntablist known as Grandmaster D.ST and sold like hotcakes. It also made Laswell a very hot commodity and earned him production gigs with the likes of Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, PiL, Motörhead and Iggy Pop.
Laswell always saw these lucrative jobs as a way to pay for the music that he really wanted to produce. So in 1990, with Celluloid in financial shambles, Laswell bought Greenpoint Studio in Brooklyn and launched his own label with the help of Island Records’ Chris Blackwell. The Axiom label was a cosmic version of Celluloid.
In addition to harboring his own increasingly arcane experiments in improvised punk-jazz, dub reggae and future funk, Axiom gave Laswell the latitude to branch out and record the music of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Music is all about mixture and collision for Laswell, and Axiom became a Hadron Collider of disparate sounds.
Formed in 1992, the funky-aggro avant-rock group Praxis was one of the more popular creations to issue forth from Laswell’s sound factory. In addition to Laswell, Praxis’s core consisted of the pseudonymous guitarist Buckethead (so-called for the KFC bucket he sports onstage above an expressionless white Japanese mask), Primus drummer Brain and keyboardist Bernie Worrell.
Released this past March, Profonation (Preparation for a Coming Darkness) is the group’s fifth studio album. It sounds no less timely and hauntingly pissed-off today than it must have at the height of the G. W. Bush’s presidency (at the center of the album’s intricate and psychedelic cover art is a molten black hand descending upon the White House). One of Laswell’s more intensely rhythmic concoctions, Profonation features inspired apocalyptic raps by the late hip-hop pioneer and performance artist Rammellzee along with one of Iggy Pop’s finest vocal performances ever, on “Furies.”
“It started as guitar-bass-drums structures,” Laswell says. “We reached out to what seemed at the time to be a lot of up-and-coming drum-and-bass people. They gave me loops and structures and we played off of that—not so different from how you’d make a hip-hop record.”
Laswell says that Profonation took longer than usual to complete due to the number of guests involved. But similar guest performances spice up and lend celebrity cred to countless Laswell productions. I imagine a revolving door at the entrance to Orange Studio (the West Orange, N.J., facility that he moved to after the Greenpoint one began to attract too many hangers-on). And I envision John Zorn skulking in as Wayne Shorter strides out, with Pharaoh Sanders trapped in the middle.
The Orange Studio scene, however, is more prosaic—especially in an era when musicians can file-transfer their parts from anywhere on the planet. The only real problem, Laswell says, is the desperation that comes when he can’t get the right guy for the gig simply because they’re already booked.
“And that happens a lot,” he complains. “When people are good, they’re busy; that’s how you know they’re good.” Does he have any “best practices” for negotiating with all the egos involved in making as many albums as he does? “We just improvise,” he says. “And dealing with people in the studio’s easy: If somebody’s a problem you just fire them.”
“Buddy Miles was a little tough.”
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