METHOD ACTOR Bill Laswell

 

The composer, production
and bass maestro talks about his Method Of Defiance ensemble, the future of music, and
what’s “worth stealing.”

 

BY
BOB HAM

 

In
spite of Bill Laswell’s long, illustrious career as a musician, a producer and
co-founder of the influential Celluloid record label, the 54-year-old bassist
is not one to look backward. An innovator of the highest order, Laswell keeps
adding new listings to his already packed discography, remixing and recording
with people that challenge both his abilities as a musician and as a musical
theorist.

 

These
days, that means working with an all-star lineup of fellow forward thinkers as
part of the group Method Of Defiance. This new project sees Laswell busting out
long form improvisations alongside keyboardist Bernie Worrell, electronic
trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, drummer Guy Licata and vocalist/electronics
specialist Dr. Israel. As witnessed on the band’s latest CD/DVD Nihilon, this means the driving,
skittering energy of drum ‘n’ bass meeting the low grumble of dub and reggae.
It’s potent, fiery music that befits a group of this stature and musical
history. Blurt spoke with Laswell
from his home in New York City about Method of Defiance and the method to the
group’s unique strain of musical madness.

 

***

 

BLURT: How did this
project and this group come together?

 

LASWELL:
I guess it’s really come together over the last couple of years. I have worked
with Bernie for many years on many different kinds of projects; some of them
live and some recorded. Toshinori I got to know a few years ago and started to
work with. Guy Licata, I know from a record I did on Ohm Resistance and from
the drum and bass scene. I started doing live drum and bass things around the
same time, I would do things on and off with him as he’s one of the few
drummers who can really play that style of music well. So, when I got an offer
to play at a festival in Greece and things and players that were coming from
different areas that might work, without preparation. This idea worked and we
added, starting in Japan, DJ Krush and Hawkman.

 

When listening to the
album, it was hard to tell where any structure began and ended with the songs.
Is there much of the music that is structured or is it all improv?

 

When
you can’t tell structure from chaos from organization from randomness, you are
in a unique situation where people have developed a language. You navigate in
the fairly broad perimeter for this language. It goes in and out of focus, but
it never leaves the line that holds it together. Structured improvisation is
really based on experience and human repertoire, your back catalog of musical
experience. It’s not really abandonment, not randomness and not experimental.
It’s communication with one another using the tools that you have gathered.

 

The performance that’s
on the CD features the group before you added DJ Krush and Hawkman to the mix.
How has the band changed now that they are involved?

 

I’d
say it’s a completely different band and experience. The turntable is now
adding a whole orchestral backdrop, harmonically and rhythmically. I wouldn’t
call him a DJ. I would call him a musician or a composer. He’s someone who
deals with composition and structure, pitch and harmonics and a subtlety with
high-level improvisation that is not often found in hip hop and DJ culture. If
I had to compare it, I would have to say someone like Stockhausen who used
electronics and cacophony and texture in a musical way. He or Cage or Ligeti
would be more appropriate than trying to align him with a hip hop comparison.
And Hawkman adds a new vocal aspect, one that derives from a song form and adds
a strongly Jamaican influence to the music.

 

I also noticed that
almost all the instruments played on the record have been subjected to some
sort of process, altering their sound in some manner. Is that a conscious
effort on the band’s part?

 

Really,
they are just doing what they do best, bringing what’s expected from their
experience. Everyone in the band has a lot of production experience and that
has evolved their work as musicians not just playing live and in studios, but
in processing and adding effects and the different experiences of working in
remix culture and dub. It’s happening to everything: the drums, the vocals.
Everything is subjected to a process with various effects and experiments. Some
programmed and precise as possible, some happening in the moment.

 

What can you tell me
about the manifestos you have up on the Method of Defiance website? Were you
involved in the writing of those?

 

It’s
not meant to be a sermon or to preach or to be a manifesto of any kind. I’m
involved in collecting information and distributing it, no more so than anyone
conscious of what’s going on in the world around them. I’m just creating motifs
and themes and pieces of information that you could graft on to music. Some of
it very furious; some of it means absolutely nothing and not to be understood.
I want it to spark some kind of thought. It’s no different with sound in that a
lot of it is a reminder, exploring realities that no one cares to look into, a
realization of conditions.

 

There is one piece that
talks about the business of music and how that is hurting musicians. What can
you tell me about that?

 

Musicians
have long been at the mercy of money and of corporate situations: companies,
A&R people, and presidents. It’s a structure that dominates pretty much the
entire life of artists. If you’re strong enough and clever enough to resist it,
you can find your own way. Most people are at the mercy of these systems and it
will only get worse if they don’t react to it and find other systems to be
dependent on. The systems are crumbling record companies, and the situation has
changed drastically so that less companies means less bands. But there is more
live playing, which is good. Which means putting energy into less of this other
activity on the periphery that should have been on the work.

 

What, then, do you make
of a group like Radiohead who is trying to subvert the system?

I
think they’re setting a standard for the future, that you can do things the way
you want to if you have enough courage to persist and proceed with your work.
There is a true alternative. I’m glad that there are several good examples on
several large levels. Their statement makes that clear. My only concern is that
I don’t hear a lot of music there. It’s clever and well done, but I don’t see
it evolving too much musically. As far as playing music, I hear nothing. For
sure it is interesting, but it’s not quite enough.

 

You recently played some
shows around New York City. How did you feel about those?

 

Musically,
they were what they should be. They did really well and felt at times powerful
and open to something that could move forward when we play in Japan.  One was a venue in a club and one was a
festival. It’s interesting to see how it works with small audiences and large
audiences. But I thought everyone played great. I didn’t think the attendance
was what it could have been but that is something you can’t control.

 

One of the shows was on
September 11th. Did that anniversary affect the performance in any way?

 

I’m
not sure that the band remembered that fact. I remember being conscious of it
when I was booking the show and I was conscious that it’s the date that people
don’t forget too easily, especially in New York. But I would likely remember it
now from playing on that day rather than some tragedy.

 

You’ve worked with a
number of musicians and artists over the years. Is there anyone you haven’t
worked with that you’d like the chance to collaborate with?

 

Pretty
much everyone that I would have liked to have worked with has passed on. But
I’m interested in a lot of music and interested more and more with new things.
I’m glad to hear what’s coming along, and the new things are what interest me.
Doesn’t have to be necessarily young people. I don’t limit it to that. I want
to hear new things coming from anyone. I love the freedom of working with
somebody I haven’t worked with before. I’m usually on the verge of doing that.
I’ve talked with Carlos Santana about playing with him. That could happen at
any minute.

 

What music are you
listening to these days?

 

Almost
nothing… practically nothing. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time
constantly listening to everything and I got too full. I hadn’t taken advantage
of not hearing anything. I’m interested in electronic music and pop music. So I
grab everything and listen to it for 5 seconds, simply to see if I hear
anything unusual or worth stealing. I don’t sit down and listen to music. That
is way too demanding. Most people never experience truly listening to music.
Once you learn how to do that you’re stuck doing that. I can’t afford it. I
can’t arbitrarily and committedly listen to sound. So whenever someone comes to
me and asks, “Do you want to hear something,” my answer’s always
“No.” I use it only for research.

 

[Photo
Credit: Dieter Mai; view more images at www.flickr.com/photos/dmai]

 

 

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