Interview with Bill Laswell

Interview conducted July 26, 2004.

Originally published at http://www.theartofmusicproduction.com/Bill_Laswell_interview.html

You’ve had a really interesting career. You swing in and out of the mainstream working with big artists and then some more unusual things.

I guess I never really cut anybody loose. A lot of the things are improvised from what people call avant-garde music or ‘free’ music, and I kept that. I never let that go. I thought that was useful motivation, even for the other work. It kind of keeps you focused on the playing, and your intuition; and the spontaneity of putting things together is pretty extreme in those areas, and it helps feed the other work as well, so it’s a pretty broad spectrum. It goes from very small and obscure things to things that get a lot more attention.

You’ve worked with [Mick] Jagger and [Peter] Gabriel — huge artists.

Yeah. It changes all the time. It goes through phases. For the last few years there has been quite a lot of travel involving music from different cultures and a lot of world music. That’s been the focus lately and I got back into playing live again. So there has been that combination of world and live playing. Some of that is totally improvised. So there hasn’t been a lot of band production in the genre of rock music.

What feeds your career? How does work come to you and how do you choose what you do? You did Rockit — it turned out to be a mainstream hit and you may not have thought it would be a hit when you did it?

I had no idea. It was really experimental at the time. It was experimenting with what would become hip-hop or electro. I didn’t really have any clue that it would have any impact on the mainstream. It was the introduction of turntablism into the mainstream, that was the gimmick. Looking back we didn’t really know what it was until it got a response from kids, and then I thought, “Well, I guess there is something there that will translate.” Without the support of a major label that would have gone overlooked as well.

There was an amazing sort of convergence there with the track, MTV and the video.

It was the right time between the company and the video. We got lucky with that one. I thought of it as an experimental project, certainly not a commercial project.

Is that how you think about your career: you go out there and do whatever it is that strikes you, and it occasionally strikes a chord with the mainstream? Or, do you occasionally think, ‘I am going to do something more mainstream now?’

I think if I sat down and tried to fashion something that I thought was mainstream, I’m pretty sure it would fail miserably. I’m pretty sure if I tried to do something I thought was experimental or left of center, that would probably have more commerciality. I don’t quite understand the programming, that way of working until it’s too late. I was never really able to create something and know that it would be something that people would buy. I actually don’t know how to do that.

That’s probably your greatest asset?

At least you are aware of it, so you don’t waste a lot of time.

Do you make most of your living from producing, or do you supplement it by playing live?

Playing live has been really helpful recently. I’ve tried to move into the area of remix. I’ve tried to do reconstructions of entire albums, and tried to push for doing more of that. Not dance mixes or … remixes where you can’t tell the difference between that and the original, [but] actually trying to reinterpret music the way a composer would play another composer’s music. I’ve done that with Miles Davis, Bob Marley, Santana, Herbie Hancock. What I’ve tried to do is continue that work and also… move closer to doing 5.1 audio mixes, and really trying to generate my own projects as opposed to producing other groups. I do have a kind of collective of people, and I am in touch with a lot of people that I have worked with over the years. We kind of trade off doing different projects with each other. There’s a wide range of musicians from all over the place.

I did want to focus on your reconstruction work. It must be nerve-wracking working on Miles’ material knowing that he is not here.

I wouldn’t pick up something if I didn’t think that I could bring something to it or enhance it in a way that is positive. I knew Miles, and we talked about working together, so I knew what he liked or disliked. I also felt that during that period [i.e., Miles Davis’ first electric period output], this is not jazz necessarily. This is a music that he started playing around 1969 up until the mid-seventies. In a sense it is unfinished music. It’s not compositions per se, as in the jazz idiom he was in previously; he would play a head and then play solos, and you play a head and play solos, and you’re done. There’s no particular format. It’s still a music that’s looking for its own beginning middle and end; it’s really versions of things. When people do mixes of that music they are not absolute mixes, they are “versions.” In the case of Miles that’s a perfect example of an unfinished area of music that lends itself to endless reinterpretations. Purists could argue that but they have no place in that music. There is no such thing as a pure result, it’s unfinished music.

In the case of Bob Marley, that was a dub mix that was treated with a more ambient approach. Dub comes from that area anyway so it’s not unusual to do a dub mix. The Herbie thing I’ve just finished, I was responsible for helping create the feel of the music so I was very much aware of what it was. Future things are the Trojan catalogue for Sanctuary which, again, is dub mixes. I wouldn’t just go out and grab somebody’s music and butcher it without having a pretty deep background knowledge of where it’s coming from and where it’s going to be going.

I read an interview where you talked about all the background research you did on the Bob Marley. You wanted to understand the thinking behind Marley’s music. Teo Macero was very opposed to the purist approach. From [In A] Silent Way on, those records were cut up, very heavily edited.

It was totally the product of pretty severe editing from that point on.

When you worked on Miles were you working from multitracks or two-track masters?

No I was working from eight and sixteen tracks bounced to the two inch format which were safety copies.

So the instruments were separate?

In a Silent Way, I think there were eight musicians and eight tracks.

And then from there you would use what you wanted to use and discard what you didn’t.

In some cases I took outtakes and would try to transplant a theme from one outtake onto a rhythm track of another outtake. Then [I would] mix those together. Then there’s a lot of editing. Very little sound added; whatever’s added is more supportive, it’s not real obvious.

So you were really reediting the original masters more than adding stuff.

Moving things around not adding so much.

Were you working from the original unedited masters or the edited Teo Macero versions that were on the original albums?

I had everything. I had about twenty five or six reels of two inch.

There was a huge amount of stuff generated on those sessions because they recorded everything didn’t they?

They kept tape rolling the whole time.

So there would be fragments. They would start playing and you would hear them talking in between.

Exactly.

That must have been pretty exciting to deal with that.

I’ve done that before with Jimi Hendrix. I got the two inch tapes, sixteen and eight track tapes from Alan Douglas, who was the last producer of Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t end up doing much with them because I didn’t feel like there was a whole lot we could do except just make the sound bigger and some of it was pretty raw. Looking back I think it would have been possible to make a raw blues record but it wouldn’t have established anything that he hadn’t already established.

But then you approached the Fela Kuti record from a very different angle.

But that was kind of a mess the way it was recorded. That was out of necessity. Things were not played well. There was a real sloppiness to the whole thing. I always felt that Fela had a great band in the seventies and going into the eighties that was not such a great band, it was more hype and there wasn’t a lot of music going on. It wasn’t the best.

So you generate these projects? You approach the label and say, “I think I could do something here,” and they say yes or no?

Well, it depends. In the case of the Miles’ stuff my attorney is Peter Shukat who was Miles’ kind of manager. Miles didn’t really have a manager the last five or ten years of his life; he had Peter handling the business, so he’s the head of the estate. I was friendly with Sony, with Steve Berkowitz, and we had a mutual agreement to try something because it was obvious you could do a lot. I’ll probably do more of the Miles catalogue. There are a lot of things that would only work if they are treated as a sampling record. It would almost be like putting together a hip hop record — nothing to do with jazz so much.

Well that was the way he was going really wasn’t it?

Kind of, yeah. A lot of repetition, a lot of cycles of sound and dissonance, and a lot of texture, not always a defined theme, but repetitive themes everybody’s playing off each other. Everybody really had a concept of what they were doing musically, which makes it interesting.

I spent about a year straight trying to figure out what Bitches Brew was about when I first got it.

Because it was minimal and just repetitive. On The Corner is a really bizarre record, much more abstract.

I saw them live a number of times at that time and the live shows were anarchic and unstructured. There were the cool nights and the uncool nights. It was pretty free within the confines of the harmonic structure and the rhythmic structure.

Yeah, harmonically free but rhythmically straight.

Do you have a store of ideas that you think about and then you approach labels with those ideas.

After doing a few of these projects, especially with Sony, they would call me and say, “We’ve got an idea, could you look at the classical catalogue? Is there something you could do in the nature of ambient or something more contemporary, take this stuff and make something else out if it the way a DJ would think?” So I just did a classical thing but I didn’t come up with the idea, the idea came from Sony.

But because you’ve already put stuff out there, they’ve got you pegged as the guy who does that stuff.

Exactly. And with Sanctuary, which is a label that seems to be coming up quickly, they’ve got a huge reggae catalogue and, based on the fact that I had done the Bob Marley stuff, it was their idea to do mixes of the Trojan catalogue, which is a pretty huge reggae catalogue. So I don’t always go looking for stuff. A lot of times its people I’ve been in touch with over the years.

But you’re proactive in the sense that you’ll generate something that makes a noise that will generate more work which is really the way it always works isn’t it?

Yeah, that’s what’s happening. I’ve never really gone after things too much. I guess I’m just lucky that once you start something it continues.

Are you working digitally now? Are you on a Protools, Nuendo, Digital Performer system?

I still have a lot of old gear. I use Protools. I’m not very technical. I just listen and put things together musically. I have a studio and in that studio there’s a Protools system but I still have a lot of Neve stuff, Studer, old machines, Pultecs, Massenberg…. still a lot of old stuff. I still use the Neve console even when I am using Protools.

Yeah it’s great stuff. I have a Neve console as well. Something amazing happens when you go through a Neve console.

You can hear the records where people go direct in and out of Protools

It’s sort of one-dimensional.

It’s got a sound but it’s not full enough.

I went back to Neve after years of working on SSL and I was wondering how I was going to deal with not having parametric eq, and then you put one dB of the 63 Hz on the kick and remember, ‘Oh that’s how we did it.’ Do you use samplers? Is the digital element a key part of what you do because of the cutting and pasting? Obviously you are not so much a fan of the sound of digital, is the facility that you get with digital exciting to you?

Well, you know, I’m using Protools the way we used to use analog half inch for editing. Whether you are using automation or a lot of memory I still work in very short pieces. I might mix eight bars and then stop and do another eight bars. And that’s very quick to do in Protools. It’s not hard edits. I can do crossfades and everything is smooth. It’s really not so much a sonic thing — it’s the editing thing and crossfades and obviously now there are a million plugins that simulate the different things you would use if you had mountains of outboard gear.

You said you are not very technical, so do you do all the technical stuff yourself or do you have somebody in there with you?

Well for Protools I always have somebody programming stuff, but for creating balances and dropping reverb on things, and different things that enhance the texture of the sound, I always do everything manually myself. But I don’t deal with the computers and I haven’t put any time into [it] and I don’t know that much about it. But I do deal with the console and the balance and the feel of things.

So it sounds like you are making all the creative decisions and the creative moves but you have someone else take care of the housekeeping of the computer and the programming side of it.

I usually have someone engineering as far as getting sounds and helping me put sounds together and then I have another person doing Protools.

When you said you mix things in eight bar pieces in Protools in the end, you would have one continuous mix or would you bang each eight bar piece down on two track and edit it together later?

No, I haven’t used the two-track lately because by going through the Neve I haven’t felt like I needed it. I tried that and it sounded muddy compared to the combination of the Neve and the Protools. At least the two track I have, which is the Studer, I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. I used to use that all the time I did everything like that, mixing everything onto the Studer and cut[ting] little pieces.

I used to do that in the seventies where we would focus on one eight bar piece and get that onto two track and then move onto the next piece, get that down and edit the two together to make sure the edit works.

I hardly go more than two or three edits into a piece. I put it together as I go.

Otherwise you can’t tell if the edits are working and the levels are consistent

Well sometimes if it’s an obvious thing I will go two or three before I put those together. If it is a really detailed thing, you have got to do it right away.

Going back to the reconstruction, you feel very comfortable with that because the original artists didn’t approach their music with a purist attitude?

No, they certainly didn’t. In every situation I’ve been in, in terms of re-imaging things, I don’t think that was music that should be considered too precious, especially by someone who had nothing to do with it.

If you had anything you could put out there to aspiring producers, is there anything you would say to them?

It’s hard to say because what happens with music is it either has an impact on someone or it doesn’t. It all comes down to an artistic imprint. You create something that makes an impression and that’s kind of a magical area and it’s also mysterious. I’m not sure you can pinpoint it. It’s the difference between hearing someone play two or three notes on an instrument, and all of a sudden you are motivated, [or] you might hear someone play incredibly virtuoso playing and you are bored. It’s impossible to explain but I think the ultimate is that you give this artistic impression, that you leave someone with this impression. I think that is probably all about commitment and devotion to what you do and putting everything you have into whatever that statement is at that moment. But it is kind of hard to pinpoint that and recommend anyone to go one way or another with it. If there is such a thing as advice it would be to be honest about it. And if you think you’re not, then leave it alone because you are just going to confuse people.

I think that is excellent advice. You can go out there with all the intention and all the techniques in the world and people will either respond or they won’t.

It can be very confusing and I think everybody moves in and out of these cycles, and I think more than ever you have to slow down and make sure this is really something you feel. Understanding probably has very little to do with it. It’s just how it feels.
How do you feel about the state of the business right now in terms of mergers and radio consolidation etc.
Well, radio I’m not familiar with. As far as the labels go, I’ve been really lucky: I haven’t had to learn that much about them. I’ve had a lot of really good opportunities where I’ve met people who can make decisions; you get primed by somebody and the next week they have another job. I’ve been lucky to work with Chris Blackwell for twenty years and he’s helped me a lot. He always controls his own situation. I’ve always been lucky with Sony by dealing with the people higher up; with Alan Douglas, who I learned a lot from, and who has worked with a lot of jazz artists and Hendrix. If I was just starting right now, I wouldn’t be feeling too encouraged. It’s tough right now for people just starting.

So longstanding relationships have sustained you.

Yeah. Without that, I think it would have been pretty close to impossible to have done what I have done.

Did you consciously go about creating those or did it just happen as you went along?

It just happened. I didn’t seek anybody out or even have a decent understanding of who the people were. It just evolved.

I guess you just collect likeminded people along the way?

Yeah. It’s not that different than musicians. You know what feels right. There are a lot of bad people in the business, there are a lot of stupid people in the business, and you can pretty much blame them for the state of the business.

I don’t detect any sense of bitterness and anger from that. It seems like you have charted your own course through the stupidity, as it were, and figured out what it is you want to do.

I guess the word is “grateful” and you can never overlook that. I’m just glad to have done the things that I’ve been able to do. I could’ve made a lot more money, should’ve made a lot more money according to everybody. But I always feel like I’m just starting. I feel like the music we made in the past really came from the future so now the future can only be better. There’s a lot of up and down in it but I think that always keeps you in reality as well.

If you’ve gone as long as you have gone, and you’ve had a certain amount of freedom, and you haven’t had to compromise too much, that seems like a pretty incredible deal to me.

I don’t know if I’ve compromised or not. I was prepared to compromise. I don’t pretend to represent any particular way of doing things. There’s a lot of music I probably wouldn’t care about hearing but I certainly wouldn’t say no if somebody said, “Can you help me with this?” Maybe I can, I don’t know. And as far as being bitter, I’ve seen too much of that. There are so many people who are bitter, who don’t really have the right to be bitter. They should just be glad that they have any opportunity.

The one thing I always hear people say is that major labels aren’t interested in developing new artists anymore. I always point out that RCA bought Elvis from Sun so they weren’t interested in developing them even then. Maybe as you get older you tend to think the world is getting worse but maybe it isn’t, maybe you just move through your own perceptions in terms of what goes on.

I think that every day there is great potential for a music that nobody has ever heard. It’s not going to be such a thing as a new sound or note or chord but there can be new combinations of things, and people can say, “Well, I just experienced something new!” There’s always that possibility.

Well I think Rockit is a great example of that, because people do cite Rockit as the moment when hip-hop DJing came into the mainstream and clearly it was good five years after the early stuff happened but it was the way it came together. You’ve got a jazz artist who has been around forever and not expected to have a pop hit; you’ve got scratching techniques that have been around for a while but have not moved into the mainstream; and you put two unlikely things together and you wind up with a hit — incredible.

I think those things can always happen and, again, it’s a lot to do with timing and who’s calling the shots. But it can happen.

Thank you for taking the time. It was really good to talk to you.