Interview with Bill Laswell: ‘I think everything’s experimental whether you like it or not. I think that people who do generic pop are experimenting with clichés’
Bill Laswell is telling an anecdote about Ginger Baker, the scandal-prone Cream drummer and star of this year’s cult film Beware of Mr Baker: “In Tuscany, when I went to visit him in his abandoned farm house, nobody knew who he was. I remember Jimmy Page came to visit him and they wanted to play, so they played in this abandoned bar in town, and this guy comes over and says: “You got any Zeppelin?”
Next month, Laswell is filming a movie with Jay Bulger, the creator of Beware of Mr Baker, in Morocco. The film will attempt to retrace the footsteps of Paul Bowles’s Afro-Asian travel writing. Put to music by Laswell and directed by Bulger, the film aims to explore the rites of passage and music of nomadic Northern African tribes.
Bill Laswell is perhaps the most prolific explorer of 20th century music. He was the Grammy-winning producer of “Rockit”, Herbie Hancock’s single that invented the concept of the scratch. As a bassist and producer, Laswell has been a lynchpin of the New York underground scene since the late 1970s. He is credited on just under 4,000 albums. He played bass with Afrika Bambaata in the Bronx River Armory club in 1980, has travelled the world to work with musical dignitaries such as Zakir Hussain and Fela Kuti, as well as producing albums with Mick Jagger, John Lydon, William Burroughs and too many others to mention.
I met Laswell in Łódź, Poland, at Soundedit Festival, where he was receiving the coveted “The Man With The Golden Ear” award. He is staving off the cold in a black wool hat and a Michelin-Man puffa.
I ask him about Lady Gaga, and the difference between a formulaic and experimentation: “I think everything’s experimental whether you like it or not. I think that people who do generic pop are experimenting with clichés. It’s no less than I am experimenting with noise, or unknown music – until you say ‘This is my song, or this is my composition’ – it’s all experimental, whether you like it or not.”
Laswell’s most striking memory of William Burroughs was when he had just returned from reporting on the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978. “He had gone to do an interview for Vanity Fair. He turned up at the airport in Guyana and everybody had been killed. He was delayed because nobody could leave Guyana. He was due to appear at a conference in New York where I was.
“He walked onstage in a giant cowboy hat, and said: ‘I’ve just returned from the Republic of Guyana, and I’d like to report that everything is going as planned.’”
Laswell then went to visit Burroughs and recorded his album with him, Seven Souls, under the aegis of Laswell’s band, Material. Laswell had worked with Burroughs previously, with Laurie Anderson – he credited Burroughs’ fascination with Anderson for being because “Burroughs thought Laurie was a boy”.
Laswell was a massive figure on the infancy of New York hip hop, playing bass guitar with DJs and crews (once while Keith Haring painted) at the turn of the 1980s like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Islam, back when Bambaataa was a member of the Bronx gang, the Black Spades. He is known for his work with The Last Poets, which acknowledged the link between rap and the old black prison tradition of ‘jail toasts’.
He once courted controversy for erasing Fela Kuti’s saxophone solos from his arrangement of Kuti’s Army Arrangements. “His solos were awful…” he told Down Beat magazine. “Prison or not, politics or not, he can’t play the saxophone. So we just erased everything.”
Laswell moves on quickly. His latest collaboration with Ginger Baker’s documentarist, Bulger, seems like a good match of minds. Bulger is gaining increasing fame as a journalist and filmmaker – lately he’s embedded himself with Lee “Scratch” Perry for Rolling Stone, and has a past as a male model and ‘Golden Glove’ New-York boxer – whose career was curtailed by skin cancer.
When I speak to him, Bulger is reminded of when he first told Laswell of his commission from the US Library of Congress to do a film about Paul Bowles in North Africa. Bill handed him a CD – Paul Bowles, Baptism of Solitude. ‘Produced by Bill Laswell.’ “Basically meeting Bill is like meeting myself, who has been everywhere I would like to go… 20 years earlier.”
They will be going the same place, simultaneously, in the search of Bowles’s sheltering sky. With Bulger’s storytelling verve and a musical behemoth like Laswell on music credits, it promises much.Tagged in: Bill Laswell
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