Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Bill Laswell Interview: Holding It Down

A rare chat with the bassist-producer

Bill Laswell (r.) with Milford Graves at The Stone, NYC
Chad Smith and Bill Laswell during sessions for "The Process"
Charles Hayward, Bill Laswell and Fred Frith in Massacre
Bill Laswell

“And it was kind of magic, as everything should be,” says the prolific and imposing bassist-producer Bill Laswell, 60, seated in the Landmark Tavern in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Almost wistfully, he’s remembering the road trip that relocated him from Michigan to New York City in the late ’70s. The first place Laswell and his associates stopped in New York was in front of a building marked “Musicians’ Union,” and they moved into an adjacent rehearsal complex.

Kool & the Gang was living there too; Steve Gadd would practice there. Laswell wouldn’t stay at the address long though. He moved downtown, winding up next door to Brian Eno. The bassist would bug Eno for work, and, after reading a glowing review of a Laswell concert, Eno extended an invite to the studio. Laswell would play bass on and co-arrange the opening track from the Eno/David Byrne classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Then, in response to Laswell’s Eno efforts, producer Tony Meilandt connected Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, the bassist’s collaborator in the group Material, with Herbie Hancock, resulting in 1983’s game-changing “Rockit,” which was co-written and co-produced by Laswell and features turntablist GrandMixer DXT. And it was all kind of magic: Before the age of 30, Laswell had cast a spell on the music world.

Of course, things hardly decelerated for Laswell after “Rockit.” There were collectives like the grindcore band Painkiller (with saxophonist John Zorn and drummers including Mick Harris) and the free-jazz quartet Last Exit (with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, guitarist Sonny Sharrock and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson). There were his own bands, like Praxis and Method of Defiance. And there was his production work, for everyone from Gil Scott-Heron to Pharoah Sanders. Laswell’s latest label, M.O.D. Technologies, is a collaboration with RareNoiseRecords’ Giacomo Bruzzo. Its download-only Incunabula Series, a vehicle for concert recordings and unreleased studio cuts, made an impressive debut last year with releases including a live duo set from Laswell and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith; a live duo recording of Laswell and drummer Milford Graves; a merciless metal track from Praxis featuring the cult hip-hop figure Rammellzee; and a live album from keyboardist Bernie Worrell with Laswell and DXT. Also last year, M.O.D. dropped The Process, a crushing funk-rock LP from the trio of Laswell, keyboardist Jon Batiste and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. Almost 40 years after moving to New York, Bill Laswell is still rocketing forward. And still going deep with his instrument. And still hitting record.

To read the rest of this story, purchase the issue in print or from the Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

Originally Published