For almost two decades, Bill Laswell's music has traced a long, humid trail across continents, genres, moods, atmospheres and numerous collaborations. David Toop met him in Paris to hear about hidden webs, dark trances and the whooping sounds of alarm. This article originally appeared in The Wire 130 (December 1994).
A quiet courtyard in St Germain. Leaves flutter down the face of a high wall of ivy, falling in scrapes and whispers into a stone water basin at the wall's foot. A bird, or maybe a dropping twig, splashes loudly. Muted evidence of a vacuum cleaner; bursts of heavy metal construction work. Warm sun for autumn, but the duration of this two hour conversation is determined by a gradual drop in temperature.
Black beret, long hair, some streaks of white now, matted dreadlocks at the back. "This is the longest year I've ever experienced," says Bill Laswell, "and it's not yet over." Between last Christmas and now: more than 30 albums of productions and/or collaborations. A random shuffle through the deck: Bootsy Collins, the late Eddie "Maggot Brain" Hazel, various Last Poets (and all the controversies that follow in their wake), James Blood Ulmer singing Schoolly-D's "I Wanna Get Dusted", Jonah Sharp, Jah Wobble, Blind Idiot God's Andy Hawkins, a rendition by painter Julian Schnabel of Tammy Wynette's "Apartment Number Nine" accompanied by Ornette Coleman.
Between now and Christmas: a trip to Kansas to record William Burroughs for a collaboration with Ornette Coleman; a trio improvisation album with Tony Williams and Buckethead; a tour of Japan with the Painkiller trio of Laswell, John Zorn, Mick Harris. "If I ever have to pull out all the stops," he says, "I've got some back catalogue."
In Parishe is spreading some good news of the current labels which carry his projects: Axiom, Black Arc and Subharmonic. "I'm pretty spaced most of the time as far as communicating. I'm thinking about doing stuff all the time. I reserve the more clarified statements for the business side, usually."
The business side and making music happen. 1978: Zu Place, a Manhattan club for New Music run by Giorgio Gomelsky (manager - Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Soft Machine, Gong, Magma, etc). Living upstairs on the second floor with Gomelsky's two dogs is Bill Laswell, helping to organise concerts, making flyers, learning the runnings. If you walked to the back of Zu Place and looked behind a curtain, you realised that the room had no back wall. Behind the curtain, black night and the whooping sounds of alarm.
"The classic thing about that place was we always made a lot of noise but the sound was only coming out of the back. One day some people came there and they said, 'Giorgio, it's really bad news. They're building a school right behind you.' He said, ' Oh fuck, I have to find out what is going on.' So he was gone for a long time and he came back with a bottle of wine, he was really happy. I said, 'What's going on?' He said 'Man, it's incredible. It's a school for the deaf!'"
A telephone meeting is arranged for 6pm with Jean Georgakarakos,
notorious owner of the Celluloid label (early issuer of Laswell' s
Material) and BYG (French 60 album series, mostly American free
jazz recorded in late 1960s: "According to history, only Anthony
Braxton and Alan Silva got paid"). He says he's importing mice,
says the go-between. "He's going to jail i s what he's doing,"
Hustlers and players "That's [Zu Place] where I met Karakos. He just come out of BYG. That was a trip. I learned a lot about... well, bootlegging, I guess. And just the weird things that go on in business. They'd say, ' Do you have a copy of Magma's Kohntarkosz?" I'd say 'Yeah, I have vinyl copies of that but it's not in great condition.' They would go across the street and put it on two-track, you can hear the vinyl popping, and then they would come back and they would have the master and write the name on it. I would say, 'Oh, that's it'."
Telematic nomads Soon to New York, then Kansas, but here now Paris, direct from Pete Namlook's studio in Frankfurt where the fruits of another trip are absorbed into the retrieval system. "I actually went to Mongolia two months ago. I had a big tour from the Japan Foundation. It was all Japanese traditional and classical and jazz musicians and musicians from West Africa and America. The idea was to travel, create a film, a CD, and collaborate with musicians from these areas. In some cases there was interesting music and in some cases the government would pick the musicians. So in Uzbekistan you had guys looking like The Village People and they're singing to a backing tape, or a Heavy Metal band that only played ballads. That was pretty great, actually."
Drones "We went to Uzbekistan, to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, to Hohat, which is Inner Mongolia. It's really Chinese but a lot of Mongolians are living there. In Ulan Bator I re corded a lot of singers and instrument players, but actually told them it was for a recording and could they just make drones and play long tones and I would mix them with something else. I made a record with Pete Namlook using that recording. So it's all bass, with bass feedback, loops of bass and no rhythm, except for the repetitive bass sounds with this Mongolian stuff."
Myths and pure fiction (Ryuichi Sakamoto interviewed in The Wire 128: "Laswell was from Chicago and he was working as a roadie... he met Miles by chance, and somehow Miles liked this boy, which was Bill, and gave him some cash to help him.") Laswell laughs in disbelief. "God that is incredible. He's just making it up as he goes. It's so much of an act that even he [Sakamoto] doesn't know." Try Detroit, rather than Chicago. Forget the po' boy routine, but inject some key names: MC5, Funkadelic, Tony Williams Lifetime, Vanilla Fudge. Groups from the late 60s/early 70s, breaking the rules of who you are supposed to be, or what should go with what.
Next, maybe a label for sound ("music that doesn't depend on a predictable form or a cliched style to determine a texture or a feeling or shape") with readings, what they call spoken word. "I hate that term". Readings to be released from Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles, Joseph Beuys, Jean-Luc Godard. Not necessarily literature, but not "decorating the metronome", either.
"Wordsbecome especially interesting; things interesting or things even just abstract that give quick images of things. I did this thing where William Burroughs spoke [Material, Seven Souls, 1989] and the only reason I was thinking of Burroughs was because I was looking through this book - The Western Lands - and I realised how powerful some of the things were he was saying. People always looked at Burroughs as some kind of a subversive, or a hip guy. That it's very dark and sarcastic. I always thought the opposite and that book was really about freedom. There's a lot of hope in that writing and I thought it was amazing also to connect with the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and the Story Of The Souls. I thought, this is great information."
Behind the curtain "Real music, sound. The work Burroughs did with Gysin, which wasn't really known at the time they were doing it, was all about deconstructing language and form. The only way to arrive at some new way was by deconstructing or changing - by the cut-up method or by erasing the w ord, rub out the word - all that is incredibly valuable for the musician.
"I won't even say musician, because normally musicians are no
different from sports people. But let's say an artist. That's
pretentious too. A person that's trying to be creative. I think all
that is vital information and you can cut that up too. That's the
stuff that really opens up a lot of doors that people didn't even
recognise as doors. It makes you think and then not to think. It's
really to bypass the brain and get to the knowing of something by
direct contact and not always taking the maze of the learning
experience which is, for the most part, systems based on other
people's discoveries which might have been random."
"Collaborations - that's the key." An archaeology of figures who have warped consensus reality. Curating, retrieving, connecting, fragile links between a graphic here, a text there, a sound, a lost soul, a smothered history, or a recorded momentwhich disabuses the notion that we are all on the same path. Creating what Burroughs and Gysin called The Third Mind.
Listen to spoken word as manifesto: Hakim Bey's TAZ (Axiom, 1994): " Chaos comes before all principles of order and entropy, it's neither a god nor a maggot, its idiotic desires encompass and define every possible choreography, all meaningless aethers and phologistons." Then look. Front cover image a James Koehnline shrine for late 20th century hoodoo; back cover the rippled reality photography of Ira Cohen (poet, imagist, traveller, trance archaeologist).
Building a temporary autonomous zone"I liked that text [TAZ] when I read it. It had a humour - the way it was also looking at systems and form and religion and everything. It can also be attacking in an encouraging way as well. In fact, when I saw that book I didn't know anything about Hakim Bey or who he was. I'd seen the name a little bit and I assumed it was probably a Muslim from the Middle East, or maybe it's an African guy living in America. But whoever it is, it's obviously a terrorist or anarchist of some kind. And then you go on to find other things...
"I was attracted by the cover when I first saw it. James Koehnline - who had made that cover - I immediately contacted him before I had any contact with Hakim Bey, and started licencing things and getting him to create images. His way is all very primitive collage. No different than cutting up words or tape and it's all done with paper. I thought it was computer art, 'cause I was obsessed with Tadonori Yokoo, the guy that used to do those Miles [Davis] covers. He did Agharta and Pangaea and those weird collages, very colourful. When I saw Koehnline's thing it related to this Yokoo work. Recently in Japan I started to work with Yokoo finally."
Then make another connection, to Mati Klarwein whose paintings have been used by Jon Hassell for three albums. "I'd been licensing some of his old stuff and he did one for Last Poets. I think we've done three. He lives in Majorca. He's lived there since the 70s. He's a strange guy. He was born, I think, in Israel. He was really pro-Arab but his family was Jewish. They were pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian so they had a hard time, in their way in those territories and then they moved to New York when he was young. There's a few books that are impossible to find. Most people don't know his work except for Bitches Brew and a few other things.
"I finally got to see some of the older stuff he had done. A lot of things for and about Hendrix. Alan Douglas, who was at the time helping to introduce Hendrix to a lot of things, some good... all kinda things, but he was responsible for turning him o n to a lot of music. Especially the connections with Miles, Tony Williams and Larry Young. He introduced Hendrix to Mati Klarwein, I believe. There was a whole scene around Hendrix of women who were connected to Mati. Alan's wife, Stella, was very much part of that scene. They used to have a store, like a boutique. She's Moroccan. They would fly to Marrakesh and buy all these weird coats that Hendrix and Brian Jones used to wear, and they'd bring 'em back and sell them to like Miles and Santana and people buying hippy stuff at the time. So that was all this little clique around Hendrix.
"Ira Cohen was a writer and a really strange photographer, 'cause he did Mylar photography. He did the cover of Devotion [John McLaughlin, Buddy Miles, Larry Young, released on Douglas Music]. He just recently found some stuff of Hendrix that he had done. It's exactly what people are doing now with computers.
Hidden Webs "That's the network that will leave a shape, I
think. A pattern. The rest of it will come and go. Those points
connect. They've always been connected and we're forever just
discovering that is connected to that, but they've been there the
whole time. Ira had a magazine. He printed it in Marrakesh in the
60s, called Gnawa , and that magazine was the first to publish any
poetry of Paul Bowles. Gysin as well, they had a big connection."
He starts to talk with enthusiasm about Peter Lamborne Wilson's history of Islam in America, and the anthology edited by James Koehnline and Ron Sakolsky - Gone to Croatan: Origins Of North American Dropout Culture (Autonomedia) - about the multi-racial, nomadic, isolated tribes which formed during the early settlement of America. "This goes back as far as Sir Walter Raleigh, when they established a village or a city in Virginia. They went back to England to bring more people and when they came back, the people they had left had gone and joined the Indians and they had left this message: 'Gone To Croatan', which was a tribe.
"I see a connection even today with that. Like I have a studio where I'm seeing everyone's trying to get away from a certain way of thinking into a more autonomous space. Into an independence and into a way out of racism and judging people. Everyone's working together and it gets beyond the structure of what you're supposed to be, racially. Where your place is because of colour or how you've been educated."
"Plagiarism as a cultural tactic should be directed at putrid capitalists," writes Hakim Bey, "not potential comrades... There is no exotic other." Laswell concurs, but offers another angle. "I appropriate music from everywhere. I don't think it's possible to own a piece of music. To me, we're all playing the same stuff. It's just combinations that make it new. And there is such a thing as someone who has a voice, that plays a certain way and has a style. I think everyone does that to a certain degree and to me, it's all available. If I did something and it was a piece of music and it had a beat and a theme and even a word or something and if somebody took the exact same thing and put it out and made a million dollars I know that I wouldn't contact them. I know that I wouldn't try to sue them because I don't believe you can own a sequence. I think we're all trapped into playing sequences unless it's totally experimental and then you're doing something else. And that's where it gets interesting. Only then. The rest of it is we're all playing somebody else's stuff. To me, it's chord-changes music."
Not chord-changes music: Cymatic Scan(Fax)... "That was done really quickly. I don't think he (Tetsu Inoue) realised we were doing it. I set up a bunch of guitars and stuff, like with E-Bows. He works all analogue, so it's like Electro Harmonix pedals and a bunch of keyboards. You just set it all up and because of the effect of the pedals, they all start talking to each another. And that's incredible. It's always different. I'd set up the same with string instruments, which I never touched this way [mimics normal playing position] but I'd just do stuff with them when they were down flat. Because I had a volume pedal and primitive pedals, the pedals were doing all the talking. We did that for like an hour and then I said, 'We got it.' He's like, 'OK, I think I'm ready.' And I said, 'No, we shouldn't mess with that. That was really good.'"
The third Painkiller album - Execution Ground - reworks loud live performances by the trio into studio processed volcanic landscapes. "I was kinda stressing that I didn't think it was possible for me to be interested in music that people played anymore. That if five people came into a room, knowing their influences, knowing their backgrounds, knowing maybe what they had for dinner, it's not interesting. It's been done a million times. I thought maybe if you change that even slightly, then I would be interested, whether by processing it, whether it was by killing one of the guys while they were playing. Anything, but just make it different. Find another way to determine a creation of something."
The eternal driftat "Lizard Point". For one whole summer in New York City, Laswell worked with Brian Eno on material that would be edited and processed into a part of On Land. "One by one he fired everybody and it was just me and him. We would go to Canal Street and we'd buy junk - those hoses you twirl around and gravel, put it in a box and put reverb on it. All these weird things to make sound. We'd be in this bathroom with these overhead mics, making sounds for days. A friend of mine was a photographer from Chile [Felipe Orrego]. He got these tapes of frogs and the frogs sounded like an orchestra. There was like thousands of them but they had it totally hooked up. Occasionally one would start a riff - it's like Monkey Chant where one voice will start and the rest will jump in. Eno really was into that tape and that's all over that record."
The black night and whooping sounds of alarm On the morning of Sonny Sharrock's funeral, Bill Laswell and Pharoah Sanders boarded a plane for Morocco. After Gnawa Music Of Marrakesh: Night Spirit Masters, Axiom recordings of Morocco's trance music brotherhoods, comes The Trance Of Seven Colors, by Gnawa master Maleem Mahmoud Ghania with Pharoah Sanders.
"Mahmoud Ghania is really strong. It's also a guy I always tried to get to and people would always say, 'No, you don't wanna mess with those guys.' Finally, I had a connection in Canada with a guy who had lived in Essaouira and he said he could make that connection with this guy. When I went to Marrakesh I bought all of his cassettes - he had made about 30 of them. It was the heaviest bass stuff. I would always say, 'What about this guy?' No, you don't want them. They're doing something bad. It's evil. It's the dark side. But this guy had the connection and we went and met his family and his father, who was about seventysomething and was still alive.
"Basically, they came from Guinea, which means all that sintir [guimbri] playing is rooted in doussou n'goni playing. But in that Gnawa, they play seven trances, seven styles of playing songs, and dances and narration, colour and scent, seven times go into seven sections. And of those seven sections of colour, one isblack. In the black it's very heavy. People can do performances where people crawl inside of a skin, a bag, and as they play, that person can decide if they wanna live or if they wanna give themselves to that music. And it's said with that music, they can lift th em into a better way of living. They can also take them out.
"There's also mutilation. Like his mother was an adept who would take a spear or sword, somehow stick it through her, and they swallow needles and shit like this. It's like in Brazil, Bahia, people do that, and drink boiling stuff and just go out, completely outside. His sister, I think, is learning that way even now. The mother died. She was very scary. That's why, when you mention that with people about the real thing - they don't want to risk being around the real thing. That's heavy. You'll hear it in the way he hits his strings.
"I wanted to bring something from our end of it which I thought would be a spiritual contribution, which is Pharoah's presence. I think when we go there everybody was suspicious. These Gnawa don't like jazz. To them, it's confused music so the guy came to Pharoah and said, 'I'm a little worried that the master doesn't like jazz.' And Pharoah said, 'I don't play jazz. I'm playing avant garde.' And the guy said, ' OK, I guess that'll be fine.' I was not encouraging him to play crazy. I thought it was more about the experience of hearing that music. I said, if you want to bring a phrase, maybe everybody can play; they're all playing repetitive cycles on layers of phrases. He played this riff and I said, that's cool, where'd you get that? He said, ' I think I learned this when I was a kid from the Seminole Indians.' It sounded good, and then they started playing the same riff without discussing it. Then they had a vocal already prepared for it. When he stopped he said, 'How you guys know that stuff like that?' And they said, 'This is the name of that song', and this song is like 2000 years old."
Trance and the funk "Playing stable phrases with feeling and every time you play a cycle it's as important as the first cycle you play. Same with dub. I could listen to one bassline for years. To me, it's all different. Somebody say, ' No, this is a loop, it's all the same.' It's not the same.
"I think it's always been there, any time we're doing repetitive
music, that quality is there. I think it's a real force and it's a
thing that can get into a dimension that we're not aware of how to
navigate inside of, but we all bring that to sound, on different
degrees or levels. We all have that. Inside of that, if you have
any kind of power, it's laying in there. And this kind of
repetitive thing, call it trance or call it whatever, can be inside
of that without realising you've changed spaces. I think that's a
real thing and very few people have experienced what it feels like
to go into a trance while experiencing music. We don't get to do
that with the kind of music we hear.
"In Joujouka [hear Apocalypse Across The Sky: The Master Musicians Of Joujouka, Axiom] it happened to me twice and I realised what the feeling was. It's like if you're in this chair and you lean back a little too far and you catch yourself. That's when you're flipping into it. I've seen people possessed by it, by listening to that music in Marrakesh. I know what the feeling is now and I know how powerful it can be and I know it has nothing to do with the experience that we're getting from listening or what people are saying about trance. They're way off. Like this woman who did this thing with the spear - that's like complete removal. That's like the real thing.
"Yeah, the eye goes up. I've seen that in sanctified churches, like circus tents in the South. I used to play in churches. My friend was an organ player in a black church and we would play in a rhythm and blues band. I would go on a Sunday when there was no bass player and I would play in this church. People would lose it completely in exactly the same way - not as intense or aggressive as the experience with these Gnawa - but they would go somewhere else. And that's the real magic.
"There's mutilation ceremonies where people are so far in trance that they play rhythms with really sharp knives all over themselves. They don't feel anything. Then they'll just fall out and the next day they'll be fine. In some cases they'll be hardly even scarred. That's got everything to do with something we don't know about and rightfully so. Those things you can't know.
"That's the energy and the mystery and the power of it. You can't know that. That's why it's worth being there. That's why it's worth pursuing. That's why it's all possible. The rest of it is just already figured out and already been done and you're just rearranging the words so that it can fit the occasion."
Both shivering now, we go inside.