Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Glorious Noise: Bill Laswell on Bladerunner in the US

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; its 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 Zombies 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 isnt 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…Its 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…Its 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)

Laswells 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 Zorns New York music venue The Stone.

The soft-spoken bassists 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 its 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.”

Click here for information on Bladerunners May 3 show at Reggies. Information on the group's May 4 performance at Le Poisson Rouge is available here


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Never Givin' Up: Mark Slaughter on Supporting the Troops, Life on the Road and Vinnie Vincent

Photo courtesy of Carol Anne Szel 

Its rare for an artist to produce one of his or her greatest songs after 30 years in the business, but that is exactly what Mark Slaughter did with the March release of his first-ever solo track, “Never Givin’ Up.”

A huge-sounding, instantly classic Hard Rock song, “Never Givin Up” features Mark on vocals, bass and guitars, with drum duties handled by Mark Goodin. Mixed and mastered by legendary producer Michael Wagener, the track salutes the military and all who have served. A portion of the songs proceeds are going to the Red Circle Foundation, a group that assists families of the US Special Operations Forces. In addition to the Red Circle Foundation, Mark actively participates in other charities including St. Judes Hospital.

The release of “Never Givin Up” is the latest chapter in a decades-long career already boasting considerable highs. Before hitting the big leagues in 1990 with his namesake band, Mark fronted the Las Vegas band Xcursion before joining former KISS guitarist Vinnie Vincent, bassist Dana Strum and drummer Bobby Rock in Vinnie Vincent Invasion in 1987, later providing vocals on the bands second album, All Systems Go (1988). Despite scoring a hit with the track Love Kills thanks to its appearance on the Nightmare On Elm Street 4 movie soundtrack, the group imploded in late 1988. Wasting little time, Mark and Dana recruited drummer Blas Elias and guitarist Tim Kelly for the first lineup of Slaughter. The band went on to sell more than five million records worldwide in the 90s, with songs like Fly To the Angels  and  “Up All Night” becoming MTV staples during the early part of the decade. The bands extensive work on the road during this period included tours with the likes of KISS, Poison and Ozzy Osbourne. Although it has been 15 years since the release of the bands most recent studio album (1999s Back To Reality), Slaughter -- currently comprised of Mark, Dana, guitarist Jeff “Blando” Bland and drummer Zoltan Chaney -- maintains a steady international touring schedule to this day. The current lineup (sans Mark) also serves as the current backing band for Motley Crue singer Vince Neils solo act.

In addition to fronting Slaughter, Mark has worked as a voice-over actor and composer for television, movies and sports outlets. His credits include music compositions for Fox Sports, along with voice-over ventures in productions like Batman Beyond, Bloodsport and Animaniacs. He is also a member of Scrap Metal, a Hard Rock tribute group that also features (among others) Matthew and Gunnar Nelson (Nelson), Janet Gardner (Vixen), Kelly Keagy (Night Ranger) and Eric Martin (Mr. Big).

Currently based in Tennessee, Mark recently took a few minutes out of his always-productive schedule to not only chat with me about “Never Givin’ Up” and life in Slaughter circa 2014, but also offer some thoughts on KISS most reclusive former member.

Congratulations on “Never Givin Up.” Great production, great sound – definitely a powerful Hard Rock song.

Thank you! I appreciate that. It’s crazy that the world of recording has changed so much. Basically, that was all done at my studio in my house. The drums tracks were cut by a friend of mine [Mark Goodin] out in Las Vegas; we were never in the same room. We just bounced tracks through the Internet; we actually recorded that track through the Web. It crazy when you think about how you can do things yourself. It’s empowering

You and Mark Goodin have a history that goes back several years, correct?

[Mark] and I went to high school [together]. He was a couple of years ahead of me, but we were in rival bands. At just about graduation time, he broke both his legs and kind of got out of drumming for a while. Then a mutual friend of ours said, ‘Hey, Mark’s playing drums again.’ I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!” I always thought he was an incredible drummer. Lo and behold, I got in touch with him and we started talking about it. I started sending some tracks to him, and he said, ‘I can throw some great stuff on this,’ so we started working together. He did all the drums; I did all the other instruments on [the song]. Like I said, it’s empowering when you can play every instrument and just do the whole thing yourself, because then whatever’s in your mind’s eye can actually come through.

Which came first, the song or the desire to help to Foundation?

It started with an idea; I started with the ‘wounded warrior’ in mind. I’ve seen so much adversity that these guys have been going through. I talked to a gentleman named Brendan Webb, and he’s got the Red Circle Foundation. One-hundred percent of all the proceeds go to military gap funding. There’s no administrative costs; a lot of charities take huge amount of administrative costs. Usually, by law, it's only 30 percent [of the proceeds] that a lot of charities will give to the actual cause. St. Jude is one that’s true, and the Red Circle Foundation is true also. I just wanted to write a song that was about anybody – not just military – who’s faced adversity and has a hard time with things, and that they can overcome that and know that there’s still people who are behind them in whatever they do.

For those who might be unaware of what the Foundation does, what might be some examples of the work they do to support the families?

There are multiple sides of it. It’s basically whatever it is that the government doesn’t help. Let’s say a mother’s out in Afghanistan and her daughter wanted to do ballet…this gap funding might pay for ballet lessons for her little girl. One of Brendan’s friends was killed over in Benghazi; the government basically didn’t even send the body home for over a month because it’s their funding and the way they do it. If the funding is there, it allows the families not to grieve and to go through all that hardship and be able to move on. It’s just pretty much everything that’s needed by the Special Ops soldier. That’s what it’s really about.

The song’s been out a little over a month at this point. How has the feedback been? Have you heard from people from the Foundation as far as how it’s been affecting people there?

It’s doing really well. This is a process in motion here. We’re working on a video right now; I’m sure that when that video goes out, there’ll be a lot more [attention] here. The single’s doing great. Nowadays, it’s different…I am the label; I am the guy who put it out. The monies can go exactly where I want them to go instead of into some fatcat’s hands who basically doesn’t do anything for the Foundation or for the artist.

This is a digital single, and we’re in a very different age now than when the last Slaughter album came out in 99. What are your thoughts on how music is distributed these days? Do you even see a need to put out CDs or vinyl at this point?

It depends on what artist you’re dealing with. I have a fanbase there, so there are people who would pick it up. For a new artist, it’s harder to find that fanbase. But lets say that an artist signs with a record company; the most they would get would be a dollar a record. If they get any advances to make the record, they have to sell a lot of CDs to just make up for what they’ve spent on recording it. [Releasing music digitally] is a process that you invest in yourself; when you put the music out, you can do whatever you want with it. For a new artist, I think it’s better, because at least it has a better chance. And it’s the same thing for a heritage artist; I think it’s empowering because you don’t have all the headaches that go along with it. Record label do promote, record labels do spend money – but their spending your money to do exactly what you would do if you would just allocate those funds for yourself.

Slaughter still maintains a very prolific performance schedule. I can still remember watching Headbangers Ball in 1990 when they focused on the KISS Hot In The Shade tour, which was your first time on the road with Slaughter. It’s been about 25 years since then. How has touring evolved for an artist like Slaughter, who clearly still has a market you can serve on the road?

We’ve never been an ego-based band; we never had three buses. We always did things very conservatively, and that’s how we’re doing it now...We fly in, do the show and fly back home, so it’s not like this giant expense of doing things, and it makes it so there’s less wear and tear on the band and it’s a lot easier for a better performance because you’re not spent...Flying in and flying out is not that difficult unless there are shows in a row. To me, I’ve always looked at [the performance] as we play for free and we get paid to travel. The travel is what’s the pain in the rear. We always love performing; we love to make music. If I wasn’t doing this for a career, I’d still be making music on the weekends. You have to have a love for it, first and foremost.

We’re here talking about your new single, Slaughter’s very busy and KISS just went into the Rock Hall. This extended family of musicians is obviously still very active, but we’re still waiting for Vinnie to do whatever he’s going to do next musically, if ever. Because you worked with him and gained some insight into his character, what do you think it might be about him – either in his personality or creative process – that has led to the fact that for basically 20 years now, we’re still waiting for him to come out with his next thing?

Vinnie is a very talented individual. I have not seen him since 1988. We walked off the stage in Anaheim, CA, and I never saw the guy ever again. What’s funny is that you’re saying ‘neither has anybody else.’ He’s done a couple of Kiss Conventions and things like that…I think that Vinnie’s absolutely brilliant to the point where hes a perfectionist who will not let art be abandoned. Art is never finished; it’s just abandoned. You get to a point to where you just have to walk away from your art and go, ‘That’s good enough.’ I think that he's just re-painting and re-painting and re-painting, and that’s what he gets in. I hope he does do some music; it’s long overdue. He’s an incredibly talented musician, writer, guitar player. I think a lot of the stuff I’ve seen him do hasn’t even been recorded properly. In fact, [guitar maker] Grover Jackson and I were talking about this the other day. People don’t know how talented he really is, but it is what it is. For some reason, he just hasn’t put something out. I don’t know anybody who knows him; I’m not at all in his circles. He’s just in his own world, so who knows?

One creative relationship that seems to have worked very well for just shy of 30 years now is the one you have with Dana Strum. The music industry isn’t really known for stability in personnel, but you guys have worked together for decades. What it is about your relationship that has enabled both of two to weather this industry for as long as you have and still continue to work together?

Obviously, you start with friendship, first and foremost. The other thing is respect. I respect who Dana is as a musician and as a person, and likewise. I know where I stand with him, and he knows where he stands with me. The fact and he has been working with Vince Neil, and that the rest of my band’s been doing all that stuff, is great. What’s a better example of how talented these guys are then to be able to go and do that? That’s when I got into my [solo] recording process; I thought, ‘Well, they’re doing that. I’ll just stay home and write some songs and record,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing. Slaughter still plays about 50 shows a year, which is quite a few. As far as us having this relationship for such a long time, I think it’s because you get to point where basically we remember the things that people want us to forget. Both Dana and I have very good recall with people, places and things. We were able to do the [first] Slaughter record [Stick It To Ya] without having anybody else tell us what to do. We had complete creative control. Everything that we did was from us. When you have music that wasn’t written by an outside writer and it’s something that comes from your heart, I think it’s a little bit different than something [where] you’re going through the motions and doing somebody elses songs.

It’s great to see you still doing it.

It is. I’m glad that we do; I’m glad that we have that relationship to where we’re able to continue to make music. Again, I think that starts with the friendship. It’s the same thing with me putting out the single. To [Dana], it was like, ‘That’s great!’ There’s no weirdness; there’s no freaked-out thing. Paul Stanley does records away from KISS all the time. It’s just being an artist; we’re artists and we make art.

Order "Never Givin' Up" on iTunes

Buy "Never Givin' Up" on Amazon

Official Mark Slaughter Facebook Page

Official Slaughter Website

Red Circle Foundation


Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Shagg Stuns in Cambridge

Photo by Joel Gausten

As previously discussed on this site, the very strange tale of The Shaggs will forever be one of Rock’s oddest narratives – and certainly one that few ever believed would have an addendum in recent times. After more than four decades, Shaggs singer/guitarist Dot Wiggin resurfaced last year with a new studio album, Ready! Get! Go! (Alternative Tentacles), and a stronger-than-ever appreciation for her history and place in the world of music. She might be a working class mom in New Hampshire most of the time, but at last night’s intimate show at the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA, she was the true star and legend she deserved to be.
Accompanied by pianist Brittany Anjou (Elysian Fields) and drummer Laura Cromwell (The Vivian Sisters, Queen Moonracer), Wiggin delighted the college-age hipster crowd with a selection of songs from Ready! Get! Go! and The Shaggs’ beloved back catalog. While recent tracks like “Banana Bike” and “Speed Limit” were well received, Shaggs classics like “Philosophy Of The World” and “Who Are Parents?” left the adoring crowd breathless. Unsurprisingly, the immortal “My Pal Foot Foot” earned the greatest applause of the night, as Dot encouraged the crowd to sing along. (“Maybe you can cover up my mistakes,” she quipped.) The undisputed highlight? Dot performing The Shaggs’ “It’s Halloween” for the first time since the band’s early days at the Fremont Town Hall. It was also intriguing to watch Anjou and Cromwell – clearly experienced musicians – struggle at times to unlearn what they knew about music long enough to give Wiggin’s compositions the alien structures they required. And let’s forget the rare appearance by Dot’s sister/other surviving original Shagg Betty Wiggin, who sat on a chair directly in front of the ensemble and soaked in the tunes. With third sister Helen no longer with us, this was the closest to a full Shaggs reunion we’ll ever see. Just the mere fact that they were in the same room together as “My Pal Foot Foot” emanated from the stage was magic enough.
Yes, Dot Wiggin has been on the receiving end of 40-plus years’ worth of snickers by critics, but anyone who attended this performance saw one of the purest and most honest musicians one can hope to encounter. Yes, her tunes are often a very difficult listen, but every weirdly executed note is clearly created from the heart – and that’s all that is ever needed to make any music extraordinary. It’s impossible not to cheer Dot Wiggin on as she gives it her all. There are infinitely more conventional and Earth-bound songwriters out there, but only a truly special person could conceive “My Pal Foot Foot.”
A Dot Wiggin show is a rare gift. Experience one if you ever get the chance.
More information on Dot is available HERE

Your humble reviewer with Dot (left) and Betty Wiggin of The Shaggs


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

From Aston to Annapolis: Bill Ward Returns to the Spotlight

It’s been a hard road for Bill Ward in recent times, but the man is ready to rise again.
After being sidelined for several months due to major surgery, Ward made a very welcome return to the public eye in January when he graced the stage at NAMM to receive a Legend Award at the Bonzo BashNow, he is gearing up to travel east for a special art event at the Annapolis Collection Gallery in Annapolis, MD. On May 9 and 10, Ward will appear at the gallery to discuss his fine art series, Absence of Corners.
As previously reported on this site, Ward unveiled Absence of Corners last August. Boasting 15 fine art pieces, Absence of Corners was created by Ward in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based visual art team SceneFour. Billed as “a collection of rhythm on canvas,” the series grew from Ward’s use of an array of drumsticks and rhythmic accessories that produced light. The movements featured within the captured rhythms were then studied and developed into abstract artwork.
When I spoke with Ward last summer, he told me how doing Absence of Corners helped him deal with some of the intense emotions he felt after stepping away from the reunion of the original Black Sabbath lineup in 2012.
“The biggest thing that I've definitely felt from this [art series project] is I've got a new peace of mind,” he said. “It's been extremely therapeutic. If I have to put anything on the very top of the tree, it would be 'therapeutic'… It's really helped me a lot in some of the upheaval that I've felt since January 2012 up until now. I've had some very, very tough emotions; I've been very, very sad about some of the things that have happened. I know I've had to be kind of close-mouthed about the things going on with Sabbath… For me, it's been a very difficult time, as I'm sure [it's been] for a number of other people. I'm not discounting the other people in this, but for myself, it's been very, very tough. I had no idea that by doing this project, it would turn out to be something that was actually quite personal and quite revealing.
On May 9, Ward will appear at the Annapolis Collection Gallery from 1pm to 2pm and 6pm to 7pm for two discussions on his art. These events are free and open to the public. From 8pm to 10pm that evening, a special invitation-only VIP art reception will be held for guests who’ve purchased art from the Absence of Corners collection. VIP attendees will spend time with Ward and be photographed as he signs their art.
On May 10, Ward will make two public appearances at the Gallery (1pm-2pm, 6pm-7pm) following a morning (10:15am-11am) interview at the location with NPR/WYPR. From 8pm to 10pm that evening, a second invitation-only VIP event will be held exclusively for buyers to spend time with him and be photographed. Prices for the art range from $200 to $1,500. Guests can purchase art in advance of the VIP events HERE. More information on the schedule of events is available HERE
The Annapolis Collection Gallery is located at 55 West St., Annapolis, MD. For more information, please contact Katherine Burke at (410) 280-1414 or email

Photo courtesy of Bill Ward