Interview: Bill Laswell
Bill Laswell photo courtesy of Maarten Mooijman. Check out more of his work here!
For many people . . . OK, most people . . . jazz and metal exist in different worlds. Perhaps on some people enjoy listening to both types of music, but the two combined seems like something that just wouldn’t work. Hank Shteamer, too, enjoys both types of music, but he intentionally seeks out nodes of intersections between the two musical forms and tries to understand them via in-depth conversations with musicians from both worlds. His blog, Heavy Metal Be-Bop, is where those conversations take place. Here he shares with us his sixth foray into the topic, with the following abridged interview with musician Bill Laswell. As Hank says at the end of his intro, read an unabridged version of this conversation (which will be published on his site on Friday, January 13) along with the earlier installments of Heavy Metal Be-Bop.
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You can’t really call Bill Laswell a jazz musician, and it doesn’t make sense to label him “metal” either. But when it comes to the murky territory between these two styles, the bassist-producer is an unavoidable presence. He was an obvious choice for Heavy Metal Be-Bop.
Laswell’s mid-to-late-’80s project Last Exit was the definitive noise-jazz band, an improvising quartet that reveled in sweat, volume and ugly machismo. Last Exit weren’t playing metal, but the parallel was clear; Painkiller, a trio with experimental saxophonist John Zorn and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, connected the dots with their grindcore-and-dub-fueled free jazz. (In Bladerunner, a later Zorn/Laswell group, none other than Dave Lombardo took over the drum throne.) Laswell also pursued mutant-metal hybrids with Praxis—whose diverse cast included Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Primus/Guns N’ Roses/Godflesh drummer Brain—and Arcana, which paired jazz drum legend Tony Williams with masked guitar fiend Buckethead. On the production side, Laswell has worked with bands ranging from Motörhead (Orgasmatron) and White Zombie (Make Them Die Slowly) to the avant-hardcore power trio Blind Idiot God.
Bill Laswell and I met in Manhattan in June of 2011 to talk about jazz and metal. To read an unabridged version of this conversation, as well as earlier installments of Heavy Metal Be-Bop, visit heavymetalbebop.com.
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I’ve read that you were into the Stooges and MC5 growing up in Michigan. What were your other early touchstones in terms of hard rock or punk?
Hendrix was the big thing for me, because I was 14 or 15. I saw him twice, two years in a row, in Detroit. It was kind of mythical. Because you’re young, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint and say, “Great gig.” It was out; it was weird. I remember I went with a friend who was a black guitar player, and we sat in the balcony. I think it was Cobo Hall, which is a huge place in Detroit. Hendrix came out and he was tuning up, and my friend yelled at him and said, “Jimi, louder!” And he looked up at the guy and went, “Louder? Alright.” And he went over and looked like he turned up his amps; I’m pretty sure they were already cranked up. And then they started to play. It was not an experience where you say, “Yeah, I went to a gig and I saw music.” It was something else, because at that age, it’s too much.
I saw Blue Cheer, which was really loud and really . . . not dissonant, but there were a lot of transient harmonics and clashes with that kind of volume. And I saw Cream around that same time, and then later Zeppelin, who wasn’t really a big name yet. We thought of them as the Yardbirds, and they had just started calling themselves Led Zeppelin and put out their first record. It was the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, which was a small theater—probably 1,000 people, maybe less. You’d have to go really early and wait in line, and I remember I got really close. I remember I didn’t like the singing. I wasn’t crazy about the guitar; I thought it was very scratchy in comparison to the more fluid things that I liked, which were Hendrix, and at that time Clapton, Jeff Beck. But I really liked the drums and bass, and that’s kind of stayed with me to this day. If I have to comment on something like Zeppelin, I always say I really like the drums and bass.
What about Sabbath?
Well, that’s more when you get into the heavy riffs, which I like. But it’s all about the riff, and to me, that’s the beginning of metal, where you have those monstrous riffs, like “Iron Man”. And then from there, the floodgates open: You have endless generic metal. And very rarely something pops up that’s unique, or song-oriented, whereas those early Black Sabbath [pieces] were songs—a great riff, and then a song came together inside of it.
Can you tell me what the concept or the goals for Last Exit were at the outset?
It wasn’t set. The way it happened was, there was some work in Europe, and I had met Peter Brötzmann in New York; we’d done an improv thing in a loft, and I knew his background and thought he was interesting. Not a virtuoso jazz player at all, just a sound generator. But I liked him, and he said, “Let’s do something in Europe; let’s play.” We had plans to do a short tour, and I think Fred Frith and Anton Fier were the musicians. Somehow it didn’t work out for Fred, and Anton was in a rock band at the time, his own band. I had been playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson and Sonny Sharrock, and out of nowhere, I said, “I got an idea; I’ll just bring some people.” And we showed up somewhere in Switzerland; I think that was the first one. And when we played, I just immediately went with the drums, for a more aggressive sound, and it was very shocking to the audience, because we played pretty loud, pretty raggedy and very high-energy. We stuck to it for about four years on and off, doing about two or three short tours every year. Never more than two weeks; we’d have killed ourselves.
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Last Exit – “Destination: Out”
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Last Exit seemed to be taking noise and aggression to a level of pure provocation. Was that something you set out to do?
Last Exit wasn’t based on any heavy, formatted training and respectful notion of music. Punk is not a bad call on that. If you look at the background of those people, they come from a pretty raw background. Nobody’s pristine and perfect and trying to emulate someone else. It’s more art as opposed to musicality. It’s macho, visceral.
It seems like Painkiller was tapping into something similar, but with a whole different set of influences.
Yeah, Painkiller came right after. The last things of Last Exit would’ve been about ’89, and Painkiller came right in, in ’90/’91. And that was John Zorn. We’d been going to Japan a lot; we’d been buying tons of vinyl of Japanese hardcore. Pretty brutal stuff, mostly pretty badly recorded so you could hardly hear anything. It was just this wall of sound, just noise and people screaming. And it was incredibly energetic and reckless. And by just getting into that more and more, Zorn had a connection with Mick Harris, who was just at that moment coming out of Napalm Death. We liked Napalm Death because in the beginning, it was pretty eccentric: Guys doing 30-second songs and stuff like that. I thought that was interesting, for whatever reason. It seemed like a cool thing to do, so we just started working with Mick.
And again, Mick’s not a virtuoso drummer, not somebody you really talk about rhythms or backgrounds of people with. He was interested in dub and the beginnings of mutant hip-hop when I met him. That didn’t translate in Painkiller; it was still coming out of Napalm. That was Zorn’s call. It was very loud, extremely loud, and we did manage to end up doing short pieces and stuff.
I’m curious about that transition for you, especially as a bass player, because in Last Exit, you had Shannon Jackson often rooting it in these bluesy, backbeat grooves, but in Painkiller, it’s a whole different rhythmic language. What was it like to move from one to the other?
Well, it was a transition. No way it’s the same thing. With Shannon Jackson, he’s addressing rhythms, and you hear something you recall as a country song or blues, and you relate to that. That’s not going to happen with Mick Harris. You’re going to get the blast-beat concept, and the quick, fast-as-possible, which is interesting; you have to learn how to adapt to it. I was into it, so it wasn’t a stretch. And I think it was interesting for Zorn, because I would read these reviews that would say, “John Zorn is now playing with real rock musicians”. Because I had just done Motörhead and the Ramones and stuff like that and was interested in rock, clearly, and Mick was in Napalm Death, so Zorn had positioned himself in a real rock context, playing the way he plays. And still in that context, you hear Lee Konitz, or you hear Ornette Coleman, so there’s a jazz element for sure, and also the klezmer and all that stuff. Whatever his cross-referencing language is, you hear it.
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Painkiller – “Skinned”
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Yeah, what I really like about Painkiller’s Buried Secrets is there are some tracks where it slows down and what Zorn is playing is really lyrical. It’s a nice contrast.
Yeah, when it was really working, it was about the contrast: this dark, humongous, stupid thing crawling along and then this guy playing something nice on top of it. It did work sometimes, and a lot of times, it was just exhaust, just blowing out—you never know what’s going to happen. There were whole gigs where we didn’t have a clue what happened; it was just like [Imitates static] noise the whole time.
You mentioned how people said that Painkiller was Zorn playing with real rock musicians. I think what’s really interesting about his band Naked City is that it was jazz musicians doing metal, like Joey Baron playing blast beats with traditional drum grip. There’s a big difference between that and Mick Harris.
Joey and those guys can pretty much playing anything. With Mick, it’s Mick—nothing between you and what he’s telling you. It’s just raw; that’s what it is. And he’s living it; he’s going for it, and he’s ready to kill himself doing it. And this is a guy who didn’t get the chance to practice a lot, so when you play like that, you have to really build up your hands and everything. You can kill yourself playing. And I remember gigs where, if he hadn’t been able to go practice his drums, there would be blood everywhere. It just cuts through your hands if you haven’t built up the callouses.
Reviewing your work, I started thinking about the connection between dub and metal. You mentioned that Mick Harris shared those interests, and that duality was all over Painkiller. Then, you worked with Blind Idiot God, who drew on those traditions. Where does that connection come from?
I saw that dub fit in well with the darker stuff because it is dark. If a song stands up, the shadow it casts is dub. And the low end is there, and it can be very haunting-sounding. And I think it has a place in darker music, especially on the slower things. Like when Godflesh came out, I thought, “This could be dub”. When you have a drum machine playing double time and the guitar ideas are half time; it sounds like a dub idea to me. Then it turns out that as with punk, a lot of those guys were listening to dub: John Lydon and those guys. And Jah Wobble, who I met later and got to work with, he brought a lot of that into punk. So I thought it was something that fit with the heavier stuff.
There’s also a connection between funk and metal. I was checking out that Zillatron record that you worked on with Bootsy, and I know there are some metallic elements in Parliament.
Yeah, it’s not quite as heavy, but Eddie Hazel was really the rock element in Funkadelic and Parliament. I started working with him too. He was, everyone thought, trying to be sort of a Hendrix guitar player, but he was much more original than that. He liked playing loud and was good at emulating a rock guitarist—he was a rock guitarist. And Bernie Worrell brought in this sort of gothic, weird classical stuff. Bernie could fit into a metal thing in two seconds: Yngwie Malmsteen, or something. He hears it; he could just go and do it. But Funkadelic, they were lucky to have those kind of people. And Bootsy, I always tried to push him to play more distortion, more aggressive, more just playing, as opposed to James Brown stuff, where he’s playing two notes, repetition.
This brings me to the Praxis project that some of these people were involved in. I was thinking about the distinction between a musician like Mick Harris, who comes from a straight-ahead metal place, and Buckethead, who has a metal aesthetic, but it’s not the same.
No, it’s warped. It’s like taking Randy Rhoads and putting it through Disneyland, or Paganini, or something. You mix all that up and you get this mutation, like a Buckethead. You can’t come up with that, really; he’d have to be the one to do it. It’s whimsical, and sometimes it’s powerful. When he decides to play and emulate something memorable that he values, it comes out. And Brain is more of an advanced hip-hop drummer than anything else. That’s what he loves; he plays that the best. He does a lot of rock stuff, but I think it’s boring for him. He likes this kind of bounce. When he was in Godflesh, that’s all he was listening to, all day long.
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Praxis – “Rivet”
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One of my favorite Praxis records is Sacrifist. What do you remember about that?
Yeah, that’s one of the nastier ones. I like that one; it’s more interesting. It’s a little grimier than most of them. Some of it’s just block riffs over guitar solos, little structures. Sacrifist, I remember, we were right in the middle of starting to deal with screamers. Mick Harris was doing vocals then and Kevin Sharp from a band called Brutal Truth. He used to come in and go crazy. Eye from Boredoms sometimes. We were hearing that energy thing. Zorn used to scream too, and Mick was good; he used to stick the whole mic in his mouth and just go berserk.
Did you check out a lot of death metal, where the vocal style is more guttural?
I did. I like that. I don’t know how they do it for more than five seconds. There were those early bands on Earache, like Bolt Thrower. I wrote liner notes for a Bolt Thrower record in Japan. I had only heard one record [Laughs].
What about working with bands like White Zombie?
They weren’t really a band yet. It was just some kids and they were starting- just experiment with stuff and put it out. It wasn’t very memorable and not much to write home about musically. I saw them live and I thought they were interesting. And then later on, I don’t think they ever made a definitive record that meant anything. Later on, Rob Zombie got into the whole movie thing and that’s what made it happen.
Did you enjoy producing Motörhead?
It was funny. We recorded in London, and there was a lot of comedy with the whole thing. We mixed it here, and there was fighting all the time. They even called us back for a second record, and we got into arguments, fighting again.
You were fighting with the band?
Well, Lemmy. But it was more comedy; it wasn’t serious. We were arguing all the time. But they did call us back to do a record; we did two songs on a record called Eat the Rich. I was working for free. There was no budget; the conditions were pretty raggedy, so finally, we just bailed. But looking back, I’d have to say it’s positive. It was funny. It was comic. But they’re a legitimate rock band; they have their fan base and people love them. To me, it’s a little limited, the way they think and what they do, but that’s my problem. They have their own thing, and people love them.
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Bladerunner with John Zorn, Bill Laswell, and Dave Lombardo
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What do you remember specifically about being onstage with Dave Lombardo? I was checking out Bladerunner, and I was thinking about how Lombardo does bring a metal element to the table, but it’s not the primitive style of Mick Harris. It’s much more refined and musical.
He’s a much more refined drummer. He has serious technique, a technique that’s geared toward that one dimension, that one idea, but it’s serious. You can’t just jump up and do that; it takes a lot of work. And he does it perfectly. Like Reign in Blood—to me, that record is all about the drums. Mick is just that raw nerve, but Lombardo is a serious technician when it comes to that. And not everybody can do that, even the really great technical drummers; not everybody can get up and just decide to do that.
Another thing I wanted to bring up was metal imagery. It seems like metal-style imagery has been important to your work even when the musical influence wasn’t necessarily there. Even on the first Arcana record, The Last Wave (http://www.discogs.com/Arcana-The-Last-Wave/release/386552), the song titles and the art seem to allude to it. Was that a nod to metal?
It is in a way, but it’s more of a nod to just the heaviness of it, and to the fact that that stuff is still semi-defiant, in a way that you’re not trying to join the club- you’re not trying to just complement the way things are done. You’re always rebelling against whatever structure exists that promotes or presents or champions music; you’re always saying, “Fuck off” to that a little bit.
I have this project Method of Defiance, and we clearly use a gothic logo that looks like a metal logo. That has nothing to do with metal; it’s a good example. And the titles, yeah—the darker titles, I lean more to that, consciously and I’ve spent a lot of time looking for them.
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