Interview Liane Hansen  


Liane Hansen visits the Brooklyn studio of producer, bass player, andAxiom Records founder, Bill Laswell.

GUEST(S): Mr. BILL LASWELL, Producer, Bass Player and Founder of Axiom Records;Mr. HENRY THREADGILL, Composer; Mr. NICKY SKOPELITIS, Guitarist; Mr. SONNY SHARROCK, Guitarist; Mr. SIMON SHAHEEN, Violinist

Liane Visits Musician Bill Laswell in His Studio

LIANE HANSEN, Host: This is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. If you were to take a random sample of rock 'n' roll records from the past 20 years, sooner or later you'd run across the name, Bill Laswell. As a producer, he's credited with shaping the music of, among others, Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, Gil Scott Heron {sp}, and Yoko Ono. Laswell's own recordings may be harder to find, although artists from pop star Whitney Houston to experimental guitarist Fred Frith sat in on the sessions. He's a 38-year-old Illinois native and like many of the angry young rebels raised in the '50s and '60s, Bill Laswell took up the cause of rock 'n' roll because of its wrong-side-of-town, tough-as-leather image. He once said a band was like a gang. As a youngster, he gravitated toward the guitar, but later switched to the bass.

BILL LASWELL, Producer, Bass Player, and Founder of Axiom Records: I think it was just cause of two strings less than a guitar and everybody played the guitar. And it was simple.

{cut of jazz recording, highlighting the bass guitar}

HANSEN: With the perseverance of a pit bull, Bill Laswell went on to become one of the best bassists, both up and downtown. The wicked bass line on Laurie Anderson's 'Mr. Heartbreak' is his. Brian Eno has sought his services. So has Herbie Hancock. He exhibited equal tenacity as a composer and producer, releasing several records under the name 'Material.' The revolutionary sound is hard to categorize. In 1980, Material sounded urban, industrial and you could sort of dance to it.

{cut of music by Material}

HANSEN: By the decade's end, Material's recording 'Seven Souls' set poet William S. Burroughs to a world beat.

{cut of 'Seven Souls.'}

HANSEN: On 'The Third Power,' released two years ago, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, and the horn players from James Brown's band, drove Material into funk's fast lane.

{cut of 'The Third Power.'}

HANSEN: Bill Laswell's list of accomplishments doesn't end there. Under another name, Praxis, he released two recordings. The latest takes the funky stuff of bassist Bootsy Collins, and pumps it up with injections of techno-noise.

{cut of Praxis recording}

HANSEN: The strands of Bill Laswell's musical web stretch across genres and continents. His singular dedication to music has won him a loyal following of musicians and technicians. He works constantly. Although we were invited to his studio in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn for an interview, when the burly, bear-like man in the beret actually sits down to talk, his eyes barely disguise his annoyance at the interruption. I tried to start things off with a few questions about Material and Praxis. He denies their very existence.

Mr. LASWELL: Well there are no groups, and there is no Material.

HANSEN: Is what you're trying to express with Material different than, say, what you might try to express with Praxis.

Mr. LASWELL: Praxis, again, is not a group or a name or an attempt to express anything. It's- it was an event that was documented. I do music all the time and I call it something else, you know.

HANSEN: What do you call it?

Mr. LASWELL: Whatever. Material. Praxis. Whatever.

{sounds of Mr. Laswell working on production of recording}

HANSEN: Bill Laswell likes to be in control. He opened his own spacious recording studio in this warehouse loft across the river from Manhattan. There is a collection of basses in one corner, an old Hammond organ in the other, and exotic instruments tucked in spaces in between. Another wall is a ziggurat of shelves housing master tapes from Laswell's sessions with, well, everyone it seems. Today, Laswell is mixing a new Bootsie Collins project, but some friends have stopped in to hear what's going on. One of them is composer Henry Threadgill, who has collaborated with Laswell for a long time, and who appreciates the environment of Laswell's Greenpoint studio.

Mr. HENRY THREADGILL, Composer: It's a work room for things made to happen and fit it.

HANSEN: A kind of place that's conducive to creation?

Mr. THREADGILL: Yeah, I think so. And it's isolated from, like, the Manhattan type of energy and distractions, so you can kind of settle down in a different way. I think it's a lot more peaceful for the people that's working. It's not as much activity outside- atomic, sub-atomic particles jumping all over the place, you know what I mean? {laughs}

HANSEN: {laughs} Yeah, there's not a lot around here.

Mr. THREADGILL: Exactly.

HANSEN: What attracted you to Bill Laswell?

Mr. THREADGILL: It wasn't really like- I don't think that's the appropriate word- attraction. It was our paths just crossed. That's really what happened.

HANSEN: How is he to work with, as a producer?

Mr. THREADGILL: Excellent. Bill has imagination and he has very, very broad interests. He's somebody who sees the big picture- a world that has come together where there's a lot of people involved and a lot of ideas and cultures all across. I think I was looking at something in yesterday's New York Times and they listed the languages spoken in New York City, and a lot of people want to ignore things like that. The world has gotten very small and he's that type of producer that sees how things have all overlapped- one thing has stacked upon another thing and permeated into something new. That's why it's interesting to work with Bill.

HANSEN: Bill Laswell could perhaps be compared to a gardener. He nurtures the multi-cultural, world music community of New York City, but he also digs very deeply to expose the roots of that music. In 1989, Laswell launched his own label, Axiom Records, which released the work of his 'non-group,' Material. The label also offers the music of Middle Eastern composer, Abdel Wahab, Turkish music from sax player, Talip Ozkan, and music recorded in the caves of the Moroccan foothills by the master musicians of Jujuka {sp}.

{cut of Middle Eastern music on the Axiom Record label}

HANSEN: Can you tell us a bit about your trip to record the musicians of Jujouka?

Mr. LASWELL: Yeah, we stayed a couple of days in Tangiers and then went to Jujouka which is a couple of hours south of Tangiers.

HANSEN: And you schlepp all the equipment up into the mountains.

Mr. LASWELL: Yeah we did. Yeah.

HANSEN: What were you- this is not just a- a little tape recorder and small mike.

Mr. LASWELL: It was a digital 12-track with a console and mikes and it was quite a bit of equipment to move, you know. And in that location there's really no sort of transportation to the village other than mules or- that's what we finally did- just take a truck to move the equipment, but everyone else had to walk or take mules. And there's no electricity there, so you have to bring also a generator, and voltage regulator and it's kind of an operation to do.

HANSEN: How much time did you spend making the recording?

Mr. LASWELL: I think about three days.

HANSEN: Really.

Mr. LASWELL: Yeah. But that was pretty much non-stop and it wasn't- you're not really in real time there. You're sort of- you could record- you could start recording at 6:00 in the morning or work from 6:00 til mid-day or- there's no- there's no such thing as time in those places.

{another cut of Middle Eastern music}

{sounds of musicians setting up for a concert}

HANSEN: Back in Lower Manhattan, at a performance loft known as the Thread Waxing Space, because it was an old thread waxing factory, three of Bill Laswell's star musicians are setting up for a concert. Avant-guitarist, Sonny Sharrock, Middle Eastern violinist Simon Shaheen, and Nicky Skopelitis, a guitarist who has worked with Laswell since he was 19 year old. Skopelitis has a new CD, Extasis, just released by Axiom.

Mr. NICKY SKOPELITIS, guitarist: I'd say right now I've been on a lot of records- done a lot of recordings, and all of them, almost exclusively, are for Bill Laswell. I've had a couple of experiences where they weren't, and I refuse to go through them again.

HANSEN: What are the differences?

Mr. SKOPELITIS: Well the differences are certain things that most people make you feel certain pressures or certain things on the peripheral outside of the music. With someone like Bill Laswell, what you have there is yourself, a tape machine and the music. And that's the only priority that you end up feeling by working with him. It's just about really getting a result. It's a result-oriented activity. When I leave I know that Bill wouldn't let anything get to tape that wasn't going to be there or wasn't right.

{cut of Nicky Skopelitis' recording}

HANSEN: How does he work with you as a collaborator? Has there ever been a time when you disagreed?

Mr. SKOPELITIS: I don't think you really work per se as a collaborator with Bill. I mean Bill is in total control of what he's doing. On certain records you'll see I've gotten certain production credit or assistant production credit or certain things, but I think at this point it's really in a way misleading because it's really Bill's agenda, Bill's program, Bill's result and mind. And he happens to be very generous in handing out credit along the way and a lot of times I picked up a record- I saw I got an assistant production credit or a co-production credit and I laughed because it's not really the way it necessarily went. It's really Bill.

HANSEN: What about a solo album- collaborating on something that is essentially- it's you?

Mr. SKOPELITIS: No. I mean, I'm going to disagree with that in a lot of ways, because it might say Nicky Skopelitis on the top of the record- I've said this like a lot times to people and they say, 'Well, how about your new solo record?' And it's really not a solo record. I mean it's equally- if you go through each piece, it's equally a statement from every musician involved. What is created there is an environment that is created by all the participants. And that for me is really the kind of record that Bill is overwhelming at.

{cut of jazz recording}

Mr. SONNY SHARROCK, Guitarist: I think the most important thing when you're working with a producer is trust.

HANSEN: Guitarist Sonny Sharrock.

Mr. SHARROCK: When I go into the studio, it's usually kind of formal. The tunes are written and Bill, when he does lay his hand on it, it's like very transparent. You don't feel it, you know? You just know that things are going along like Nicky was saying, that things are just moving perfectly. And he's able to get one thing out of me that other producers have a hard time- I don't like to do anything twice. If I do it, then it's done. But he's always able to get me to do it three or four times. To come back and try it again. And you feel that you can do- you know, at least I do- feel that I can do it, and it will be right, you know. But it's- I think the main thing that I have with him, besides a great friendship, is just to be able to trust the cat to bring out the absolute best in my music.

{cut of slow jazz music}

Mr. SHARROCK: And I'm just realizing something. As much as I like this cat, man, he made me do something I really didn't want to do. It was a solo guitar record. I despise solo guitar records, and I was determined to never do that. And he got me to do it, man, you know? You go in a bar with Laswell after a gig- anything can happen. {laughs} We were talking about doing a record with {inaudible} and {inaudible} and that was way back then and he didn't let it go. I had forgotten all about it but he didn't let it go. It was an idea that he had and that he wanted to execute, and so, you know-

HANSEN: I have heard that tenacity was one of the qualities that he has.

Mr. SHARROCK: Yeah, yeah, yeah- that's right. Bronze Bill, we call him, because he just doesn't let it go. We don't call him that- I just did that. He's going to love that. But he really doesn't want- if it's a good idea, he won't let it go.

{cut of jazz recording}

HANSEN: Simon, let me ask you. What is it that you like about working with Bill Laswell as a producer?

Mr. SIMON SHAHEEN, Violinist: Simon Shaheen. I would summarize everything by saying integrity. And a music awareness. Even something that he doesn't know- you expose him to any music genre and he will grasp- he will know it. And he will know how to judge. So that creates a very good harmony and understanding in whatever process we're going through.

HANSEN: Do you think integrity is an important issue now, particularly when we discuss world music, since under the category `world music' you have a lot of mainstream musicians who have started to absorb the music of other cultures-

Mr. SHAHEEN: The difference here is that much of the musicians or producers I witness these days, they- of course they are open- starting to be open to world music ideas, but they use it as an effect. It's not a sort of music that can integrate with whatsoever they have on their mind. And that's a big difference. Bill doesn't look at it this way. He understands the sincerity and the genres, the music genres for what they are.

{cut of Middle Eastern music}

HANSEN: The nineteen titles in the Axiom Records catalogue reflect the depth of Bill Laswell's understanding and the breadth of his interests. Although his ideas, works in progress, and completed projects are as numerous as the lenses in a fly's eye, he maintains a single focus.

Mr. LASWELL: The philosophy was to try to stay true to doing something creative and doing it with people that you feel deserve attention and- I don't know- everybody always says what is Axiom or what is- I don't know- what is anything? I mean it's- this is an area we're working on right now that covers a lot of ground, I feel, musically. And it's just the idea to try to continue to do, hopefully, innovative work that people can hear.

HANSEN: Producer, bass player and founder of Axiom Records, Bill Laswell. Axiom has released two sampler collections, Manifestation and Illuminations. And in October, Laswell's band of merry musicians, who gather under the name Material, will release a new recording called Hallucination Engine. This is NPR's Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen.

{cut of orchestrated recording}


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