Monday, March 23, 2015

Bill Laswell

 "Music makes mutations audible"

Music is more than an object of study: it's a way of perceiving the world.  A tool of understanding.

- Jacques Attali

Bill Laswell at the board with pioneering turntablist DXT

The first session I worked on with Bill Laswell involved mixing an album called Taboo by Ronald Shannon Jackson. This was either at the end of 1987 or near the beginning of 1988.  I was assisting Robert Musso in the Platinum Island East room, the SSL room. Platinum Island was on Broadway just south of Great Jones St. (3rdSt) in Greenwich Village, New York.  I remember being told about the gig in advance, I didn't know anything about Laswell, but one of the techs thought highly of his work and considered this a prestigious and important session. The studio also gave it top priority. Though I was the senior assistant engineer at the time, I was out of favor with the Studio Manager who would rather have assigned it to his favorite assistant except that he was already booked with something else. I was also working with Fred Maher at the time on the Information Society record. He knew Bill from drumming with him in Massacre and Material. He dramatically told me in a very serious, hushed voice that Bill was evil.  I flashed on Ouspensky's break with Gurdjieff when he considered Gurdjieff evil and forbade his students from visiting him even though he taught Gurdjieff's system.  I later discovered from this and other experiences that what some people call evil is only a kind of energy or manifestation they don't understand. Aleister Crowley appears the prime cultural example of this misunderstanding.

Bob Musso seemed the most efficient engineer I had worked with, very tech savvy with a professional demeanor of a NASA scientist by way of M.I.T. He let you know in a friendly way that crucial business was going down here. The music was free jazz, by far the most progressive music I'd heard at Platinum Island which had a heavy dance music clientele. Bill would give Bob time to set up the mix. When a good balance was achieved, Bill would get behind the SSL and automate tracks one at a time while Bob operated the SSL computer. The automation was often quite radical creating a performance in itself as well as determining the final song arrangement when it was all done. Each automation pass was an improvised studio performance. The song was run straight through and there wasn't any going back to change something.  A free jazz mix, music born from intuitive technical operation right on the spot. It was the most interesting music I'd heard mixed in that room so far and the first time I saw the SSL “played” like a musical instrument.

The Ronald Shannon Jackson mix was a trial session, a studio audition for Bill and Bob. It worked out so they were back right away recording then mixing tracks for what became Asian Games by Yosuke Yamashita, Bill Laswell and Ryuichi Sakamoto. The style of music has been called Electro, Future Jazz which is about right. Here's an example … it's very atmospheric, a trip through one particular bardo. The piano playing, the guide through this sonic land of the dead is Yosuke. The Fairlight industrial sounds were programmed by Nicky Skopelitis and other metal percussion and bells by Aiyb Dieng. Bass and other sounds by Laswell. 

This album was mixed by Bill and Bob at Platinum Island using a process similar to how they mixed Taboo.  Arrangements and performances created in the mix via Laswell writing it into the computer while Musso was the tonemeister and knob spinner.  With these mixes I started to notice a fundamental difference between their approach and most of the other commercially minded clients.  It's hard to explain except to say that they were striving for utmost artistic integrity, looking to create the next thing in music, creating the future of music without thinking about it.   Doing it for no other apparent reason than it needed to get done, always in motion to go beyond.    A good example of what Crowley means when he writes, “For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect."  

A popular notion in esoteric circles concerns the Secret Chiefs or Hidden Masters, advanced Initiates who influence and guide the evolution of the human species or at least attempt to.  According to Robert Anton Wilson this works as a "useful metaphor."  Perhaps not all the Masters are metaphysical?  True artists, those that communicate transformational information or "data cells" through the medium of their art, help shape the culture and society of their times. 

Not long after Yosuke was the nearly ill-fated mix of Iggy Pop's version of Family Affair, the Sly and the Family Stone song which I wrote about here.  That was the session where the SSL computer crashed about 6 hours into it and lost all their automation.  Of course, all the sound processing and the basic initial mix balance was still there.  Bill and Bob appeared to take the crash in stride and said get it fixed, they'd be back upon the morrow to finish.  Well, the techs couldn't find anything wrong and I had to resort to more magick than usual to ensure it didn't crash again and thankfully, it didn't.

During the years I assisted on sessions with Bill he would introduce me to an incredible number of world class musicians some of whom became lifelong friends:

Aiyb Deng

Sengalese percussionist on any number of Laswell productions.  Responsible for unique
atmospheric sounds with his varied collection of unusual metals, pitched springs, ceremonial bells, gongs and the like.  Also the low liquid hand rhythm of his clay drum Chatans found its way on many records not the least of which is Public Image Limited's Album.

Bernie Worrell  

- keyboard virtuoso and string arranger with Parliament/Funkadelic, sideman with the Talking Heads, various solo albums of his own and Keith Richards, etc. Laswell's go-to for a Hammond B3 organ player and any kind of funk keyboards.

Nicky Skopelitis

 - session guitarist, solo artist, very knowledgeable about certain kinds of folk music from around the world.  At some point he took it upon himself to educate me in World Music with various recordings and concert recommendations.

Bootsy Collins

- played with James Brown at the age of 17 then later with Parliament/Funkadelic as well as being a solo artist.  Watching Bootsy record with his Star bass in front of a semi-circle of various pedals punching them in and out in time on a single pass through the song he seemed like the Jimi Hendrix of bass playing at that moment.  Bootsy is also the living embodiment of funk rhythm guitar playing right up there with or beyond Prince and Nile Rodgers.  We would begin recording Bootsy immediately as soon as the track was up because he would instantly come up with these great ideas for parts that he would almost just as instantly forget being as the music was flowing out of him 'bout as fast as whitewater rapids on the Columbia River.  But we got it all on tape.

L. Shankar

 - best Indian classical violinist I've ever heard, plays with incredible feeling, but that goes for all of these musicians.  A career highlight for me was working with him in Madras, India  for about 10 days.

Trilok Gurtu

 - a very unique drummer, I don't know what you'd call his style.  At a recent show he used 3 bass drums and a pair of tablas as part of his kit along with heavily processed water percussion.

The Ramones

 - didn't spend much time with them, just a few hours while they listened to some mixes of their album Brain Drain, but it felt good to be in the same room with these legends.  Dee Dee came separately as he wasn't getting along with the rest.  Joey was the only one who went to the mastering.  I saw that he was listening while I was speaking with Bill about Aleister Crowley.

Iggy Pop

 - needs no introduction.  Instinct was an important album for me in multiple ways.  I wrote a little bit about it at the end of this post, but intend to expand the comments on it.

William S. Burroughs

- also needs no introduction.  Wrote about working with him here.

Foday Musa Suso

 - griot extraordinaire; collaborator with Philip Glass, Herbie Hancock, and the Kronos String Quartet among others.

Anton Fier

- best known for his group The Golden Palominos as well as being a remarkably tasteful drummer.  I worked on 5 or 6 records with Anton starting as an assistant then engineering.  Also toured Japan and Central Asia with him along with Suso, Bill and Nicky mixing sound for the Flying Mijinko Band.

Akira Sakata

 -  premiere jazz sax player from Japan.  Played in Yosuke Yamashita's group in the '70s. Musical organizer of the Flying Mijinko tour which he named from his training as a marine biologist.

 - probably the best funk/rock drummer from the SF Bay area at the time, I first met Brain on the Limbomaniacs recording of their.Stinky Grooves record. It was one of the first projects where I started engineering for Bill.  Brain introduced us to Buckethead when they both came to New York to record Praxis Transmutation.  More on that later.  In the late '90's, Brain recommended my services to Tom Waits which worked out really well.  I worked again with Brain on Antipop when he was part of Primus.  After that he joined Guns & Roses for awhile.

Ronald Shannon Jackson

- played drums with Ornette Coleman before forming his own group, The Decoding Society.  One of the heaviest dudes I've ever met, a shamanistic musician.  I wrote about him earlier on the occasion of his transition.

Fred Frith

 - I  first met Fred when he played a violin overdub on something.  When I reflect back on it, back then and up to the present, he reminds me of one of the Invisibles ( part of the Invisible College) because at that session I had absolutely no idea of the respected stature of his corpus of work which included being a guiding influence to Brian Eno at one crucial point. 

Stevie Salas

 - a legitimate guitar hero, he astonished me watching him overdub on Shannon Jackson's  Red Warrior album. Played with Rod Stewart at one point.

Bernard Fowler

- incredible singer; background vocalist for the Rolling Stones since 1989.

Michael Gira

- leader of The Swans.  Their Burning World album was an important project for me especially during the mix because that's when I met Jason Corsaro.  Musically, it's  one of my favorite releases and I still listen to it from time to time.  It's an important record with multiple messages from the desert.  Gira was channeling Paul Bowles at the time.

Jason Corsaro

- working with him was a game-changer, the best thing that ever happened to this engineering career apart from meeting Bill.  I wrote about my experience working with him here and continued here.

This is a good selection of people I met through working with Bill Laswell at Platinum Island.  I recall early on Bill, Bob and Nicky had just arrived for a session and were sitting in Platinum Island West waiting for another musician.  They were talking amongst themselves passing along the latest news, all having to do with other highly respected musicians and projects.  Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Lydon, Ginger Baker, Sly and Robbie, Bootsy Collins etc.; speaking informally of familiar friends, colleagues and what they were doing.    I don't remember the exact details, but do remember a sudden realization when I grokked what they were discussing, a moment of crystal clarity, that this was the real deal.  In other words, this was the part of the music industry I had listened to but never had direct contact with until now.  Music that strives to go beyond boundaries to ever re-create and redefine, de-territorialize and re-territorialize its content and expression.  This experience was like waking up, i.e. a transition into a space of real intent and extreme awareness.  I was here, I had made it to the chamber where real music was made.  Not pop music or club dance music, rather music intended as a springboard into unknown territories; music with multiplicities of intention; multiplicities of becomings.

Later, I realized that through his work Bill had assembled an informal community and network of musicians and technicians that cohered around his endless forward motion in the studio and the dollar bills this evoked.  You can call this assemblage Material, an extension of Laswell's ever-changing group of the same name.  The money was a byproduct of serious shamanistic work in the realm of music, but it helped a lot of people stay alive doing what they loved and staying somewhat out of the Corporate/State economic slavery system.  Any group that gathers together regularly for the purpose of invocation - music, when it happens, can be a powerful invocation - is a "School" in the esoteric, Sufi-like sense.  It seems accurate to call Material an informal shamanistic School with Bill Laswell as the primary musical invocant.  The recording session spaces at all times had the cleanliness and sanctity of invocational chambers one associates with a School.  Everyone always reaching for maximum presence, attention and creative endeavor.  Setting new levels of penetration into the mystery, new tracks into the unknown, then stretching to go beyond that.  Maximum velocity and alertness, I felt totally in my element.

I would describe this Material network as a rhizome, a nonlinear, underground mass of roots branching out laterally in all directions as opposed to the arborescent model which would define it as a singular, static identity of some kind.

"A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.  The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance."

- A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guttari p.25

The tree is filiation refers to the arborescent model and, in this case, means music derived vertically from its preceding caste and culture.  Bill liked to break those barriers and was all about alliance frequently coming up with unusual combinations that ignored genre boundaries such as, for instance, introducing Cecil Taylor to the Jungle Brothers; Pharoah Saunders with Moroccan Gnawa music; forming Praxis which combined a rapper/turntablist - Af, Next Man Flip Lord of the Paradox from Jungle Brothers, with a rock guitar prodigy - Buckethead, two funk legends - Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell with Brain to rhythmically tie it together, etc.

"...the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs and even nonsign states.
... The coordinates are not determined by theoretical analyses implying universals but by a pragmatics composing multiplicities or aggregates of intensities."

- ibid

In NOISE, The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Atalli presents the idea that in times past, before it became a commodity, music commonly served the societal function of channeling and sublimating violence regulating ancient society as a result.  Atalli makes a good case though on one hand I am skeptical of his logic and conclusions, on the other hand, the height of the Axiom period, Bill's label courtesy of Chris Blackwell and Island Records, coincided with the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  The extreme fundamentalism of certain Islamic cults bans music, and those appear to be the most violent cultures of all.  You know there is no music scene in the Islamic State or probably anywhere in Syria to speak of.  Violence and music don't co-exist except when the music is violent and then the violence is taken off the street and turned into something else sometimes.  Turn up the music if we want less violence.  Fund music production and performance, increase funding to all of the arts and see what happens.  Building more efficient killing devices doesn't appear to be working to de-escalate the violence in the world, quite the opposite.  Anyone in a position to present good music of any kind might take to heart Atalli's idea that music reduces violence through ritual re-enactment.

Laswell released several significant recordings around the time of the dissolution of the Cold War and before Bush I invaded Iraq.  Hear No Evil - his solo record, Material's Seven Souls with William Burroughs, Ramellzee and Suso, Next to Nothing by Nicky Skopelitis, Middle Passage with Ginger Baker, Talip Ozkan's The Dark Fire, the list goes on.  The band Painkiller with Bill, John Zorn and Mick Harris which formed and recorded coinciding with the start of the first Gulf War definitely channeled violence in their music quite literally and psychically.  One only needs to hear any Painkiller recording to verify that.  I vividly remember recording Mick Harris screaming nonsense vocalizations hardcore style and he kept repeating this one sound: "scud, scud, scud, SCUD, SCUD!!!" and within a few days, the phrase scud missiles, something I'd hadn't heard before, was all over the news.  Harris hit a precognitive space with that one. A little more on Painkiller here.  That took place at Bill's Greenpoint studio.  More about that when we continue.


  1. Such a great look into this amazing music. I have a been into all of this since the first note I heard. I then searched out who the musicians were and where it was being created. It has made me a more thorough musician and led my sounds to wander freely. Thanks for sharing the magick with us :)

  2. "a sudden realization when I grokked what they were discussing, a moment of crystal clarity, that this was the real deal. In other words, this was the part of the music industry I had listened to but never had direct contact with until now."
    What a fantastic highlight! I can only imagine the feeling of awe that must have been upon you. So inspiring!

  3. Oz, you've worked with so many musicians and listened to so much music. Have you ever attempted to list some of your favorite recommended albums?

  4. Thanks everyone! Good idea, Tom, and no I haven't tried that yet. My favorite all-time piece is 4'33' first realized by John Cage, which is always on.

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