|Photo by Hiroshi Ohnuma|
Doing a feature on Bill Laswell is both a blessing and a curse for a music writer. It’s a blessing because focusing on any one of his numerous projects is fascinating enough to produce rich content; it’s a curse because it is impossible to put together anything even remotely approximating a definitive overview of his vast impact on the world of music. Since the late 1970s, Laswell has built a discography boasting literally hundreds of titles. His production work includes big league releases like PiL’s Album, White Zombie’s Make Them Die Slowly, Swans’ The Burning World, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, The Ramones’ Brain Drain and Motorhead’s Orgasmatron. As a musicians, he has contributed bass and other instruments to the likes of Praxis, PainKiller, Massacre, The Golden Palominos, New York Gong, Last Exit and Material. While that list of credentials is clearly impressive, it is also woefully incomplete. With that in mind, let’s just focus on what the man is doing this weekend, shall we?
On May 3 at Reggies Rock Club in Chicago, Laswell will join forces with legendary experimental saxophonist John Zorn and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo for a stateside performance of their improvised music project Bladerunner. The following night, Bladerunner hits the stage at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. These two American shows follow a successful March 13 performance at the Adelaide Festival in Australia.
Bladerunner initially surfaced circa 2000 as a quartet with guitarist Fred Frith, playing improvised shows in Canada, New York, Paris and London. Fast-forward 14 years, and Bladerunner has returned to the stage in a considerably altered form. For one thing, the group is currently operating as a trio without Frith.
“I still have Massacre with Fred, and we play whenever we can,” Laswell explains. “Australia was originally [planned as] a trio with Zorn, myself and [drummer] Milford Graves. We had been working as a trio in Europe. Milford didn’t feel that he could make that flight [to Australia]; it’s really a long one from here. Zorn suggested Dave Lombardo.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to reform the band, and not a conscious decision to reform the band without one of the members,” he continues. “It just happened because of Milford not playing. Dave came in, and it worked incredibly well and we liked the idea of a trio. When we did the quartet, it was a long time ago. Since then, Zorn and I have been doing a lot of duets, so we developed a kind of repertoire and language that works. It’s always a little different, and it always goes somewhere else. It seems that from the experience in Australia that we can do the same with Dave Lombardo, who’s evolved tremendously as a musician since the [original performances]…I think he’s developed a great ear for communicating with musicians. It’s very different; it’s not even the same drummer. He’s conscious of it; he said he worked on it and tried a lot of different things. He spent a lot of time listening and developing things, and it paid off.”
Of course, the lineup isn’t the only thing that has changed in the time since Bladerunner’s original run. Although the group’s July 2000 performance in London (which can be found on YouTube) offered shades of PainKiller and the heavier side of Praxis in its 74 minutes of unstructured improv, listeners shouldn’t expect the same experience when they enter Reggies or Le Poisson Rouge.
“To me, that was the quartet and those gigs – and that’s gone,” Laswell says. “That’s the past; I wouldn’t need to hear that for any point of reference. [That’s] the same with Last Exit or other groups. They’re part of a past history – not a future. The few things that remain are the relationship with Zorn [and] the consistent group with Fred called Massacre, which has featured [drummer] Charles Hayward now for over 10 years. These things continue. Are they aggressive? Are they loud? Yeah, they’re continuing in that direction. But lately, and consistently, everything to my hearing [with Bladerunner] has been a great deal more musical and a much wider perspective on sound and musicianship…It’s not the same music; it’s not the same band. I think everybody plays differently and approaches playing differently. Everybody is listening to something else and everyone’s had 14, 15 years of experience doing other things. In the concept of improvisation or free music, you bring all that experience with you.”
The Adelaide performance featured a guest appearance by Faith No More singer Mike Patton, whose past exploits with Laswell have included guest spots with Praxis and PainKiller. Not surprisingly, his powerful presence at the Bladerunner show was a welcome addition to the proceedings
“When he sits in with the various smaller groups, it just adds a level of intensity and a dynamic to the energy level,” Laswell says. “I’m not sure how it interacts or if it even works or makes any sense to anyone, but he raises the energy level…It’s not really like a vocal; it’s like an electric charge of some kind.”
|Left to right: John Zorn, Mike Patton, Dave Lombardo and Bill Laswell (photo by Tony Lewis/ John Zorn Facebook)|
Laswell’s participation in Bladerunner is the latest in a long series of collaborations with Zorn. Metal fans would know the duo best for their work in PainKiller, whose early albums on Earache Records featured Mick Harris of Napalm Death/Scorn on drums. Last week, Laswell curated multiple events at Zorn’s New York music venue The Stone.
The soft-spoken bassist’s relationship with the musically extreme sax player dates back to the late ’70s New York underground music scene.
“[John] was coming from a really avant-garde place,” Laswell recalls. “He had been interested in Jazz and Bebop; if I had to guess, I would say Ornette Coleman or Lee Konitz or Wayne Marsh and this kind of Jazz playing, and probably Classical music at the same time. I think certain things happened that turned him to look at different directions, [like] Anthony Braxton’s solo alto saxophone record [For Alto] and maybe hearing Derek Bailey for the first time. Then, [this was] combined with his interests in performance art and different art projects, installations and events relating to people like Jack Smith. He started to combine all of this avant-garde information with his technique learned through studying and facilitating through Jazz, and that’s kind of the hybrid that started to form this character who over time became John Zorn.”
Considering that Laswell’s body of work has featured everything from the unlistenable (PainKiller’s Buried Secrets) to the serene (The Golden Palominos’ Pure), how does his focus or approach to tackling the atonal, brutal side of music differ from when he plays something a bit more conventional or conservative?
“That’s been a popular broad and unanswerable question for a long time,” he says. “The reality is, I don’t think or re-think things…I might work in India one day, and the next day it’s Pop music in Ethiopia and the next day it’s complete horrible noise and the next day it’s New Age. I just try to apply my interpretation and intuition of the moment, bringing in whatever I can from my experience spontaneously – not so much thought out, well-prepared or planned too well...You have to get around those ideas that you approach things differently because someone thinks they’re different. They’re all just combinations of different configurations of sound elements, and you have to see it that way if you deal with sound and not so much with music genres or styles... I’m dealing mostly with sound collage and adding three or four things to create a new sound. You’re not going to make one note, one nuance or one statement that can possibly be new, but it’s the combination of elements that work and sometimes collide that make something a little unusual happen that you might see as music [you’ve] never heard before. That’s the only way that can really happen.”
In recent times, Laswell’s desire to explore sound has led him to places like Morocco and Ethiopia, while his ever-eclectic list of current collaborators includes longtime cohort/P-Funk keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell, bassist extraordinaire Jah Wobble, Yemen Blues, Hideo Yamaki, Josh Werner, Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. There’s also more Massacre on the way. As impressive as these names are, they represent only a fraction of what Laswell has in store for the next several months. More insight into the moving target that is Laswell’s career can be found here. As far as Bladerunner’s future plans are concerned, Laswell is content to simply wait and see what happens.
“When something is new, you don’t like to plan so much,” he says. “You kind of just want to appreciate the spontaneity of the moment and you don’t want to say, ‘This is great’ or ‘It can be better.’ It’s not a band. ‘Band’ is an old idea; I don’t think I’d want to be in one no matter who was in it and no matter how great it was. It just gets redundant no matter how great it is. But to say we would continue at the moment, I think the attitude of everyone would be, ‘Great idea! We should continue and just keep it going.’ Even if it doesn’t get better, it was that good, so it doesn’t matter. It’ll always be a little different.”
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