Bill Laswell‘s discography, as producer and bassist, label head and general eye-of-the-storm, is vast and can be intimidating. Not all of it’s brilliant. His central concept of collision—taking players from different, even oppositional, musical worlds and putting them together to see, and hear, what happens—can sometimes yield amazing results, but it can just as easily produce a tedious morass of dubby world fusion, as far too many boring releases on his Axiom label proved.
But he’s also been a part of some astonishing bands and records that retain their power even decades later. His fully improvising quartet Last Exit, featuring saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, had never played together before their first gig in February 1986. They continued to assault audiences with a high-volume blend of blues, funk, metal and screaming free jazz until 1993, releasing five live CDs and one studio album. He was the bassist for Pain Killer, John Zorn‘s trio featuring Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, whose four-CD anthology on Tzadik juxtaposes blasting grindcore-skree with dubby explorations and a full disc of ambient remixes. And in 2000/2001, he joined Zorn again in Bladerunner, a quartet that also included guitarist Fred Frith and Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. That group never made a full-length CD, though they did appear on Zorn’s 1999 CD Taboo & Exile.
Laswell’s group Praxis, featuring guitarist Buckethead, drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia and many other collaborators (frequently including Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and DJ Disk), has just released its final CD, Profanation (Preparation for a Coming Darkness). It’s the most conventionally metallic disc in the Praxis discography, and includes guest vocal performances from Iggy Pop, Mike Patton, Serj Tankian, Killah Priest and the late Rammellzee.
This is a long interview, so get ready.
How did this particular Praxis album come together? Did you have all the vocalists lined up before you started, or was it put together piece by piece?
It wasn’t totally lined up. I had a few ideas. Some people had been contacted and told that there was possibly a project in mind, but it wasn’t totally structured. I just started putting pieces together with the core band, which was bass, drums, guitar, sometimes keyboards, sometimes turntables, and we just started building tracks and step by step gradually adding vocals on. Sort of like the way hip-hop is made, I guess, where you create a beat and someone writes to it. Very similar.
Did the vocalists record in the studio with you, or send you their stuff on hard disc or by email?
Probably about half recorded in the studio, and then some did electronic back-and-forth.
As Praxis albums go, this is pretty straightforward stuff. Did you know when the album began that you wanted to go in this hard rock/metal direction?
Yeah, I think so. When it started I was in the middle of a lot of collaborations with drum ’n’ bass producers and new, up-and-coming people from different places, so some of the foundations actually came from the drum ’n’ bass reference, and then it was sort of decorated with—because it was a lot of guitar, bass and drums and not horns or too much electronics, it started to lean more toward what I guess you’d call a more rock direction. I was conscious of that. I was listening to all kinds of even conventional metal at that time, so there was that influence, and I was kind of bridging the drum ’n’ bass into this more minimal rock thing. So it was just kind of a hybrid that was happening without being totally conscious of all the elements.
What’s the music-writing process like with Praxis? Do you and Buckethead and Brain get in a room and jam out riffs like a regular rock band?
I think on that one I actually sort of wrote some riffs, and then Buckethead embellished that, and I might pull out something and use his part or vice versa. Then we did just sit down and play a little bit and come up with structures, and again, that probably constitutes about half, because some of it was these forms and structures that were sent to me by drum ’n’ bass producers from all over the place. There’s probably three or four—which ones I can’t even remember at this point, but there were three or four of those that were structures that we just improvised on and then edited and sort of rewrote. But sometimes the writing process is just putting something on a tape and then rearranging it. That’s kind of the new notation, I guess.
This album was released in Japan in 2008—what were the legal holdups that kept it from coming out in the US?
That was a rumor, because there were actually no legal holdups. I owed a record to Sanctuary. I did a deal with a guy who was at the label called Merck Mercuriadis. Merck seemed to have a lot of power there, and he helped me to get money to do projects. We made a deal for, I think, about five records, and then I did a mix of the Trojan catalog for him, a double CD of old reggae stuff. So this relationship was building, and before I really started this record, Sanctuary kinda went away and he disappeared, so I no longer owed them a record. But I had some other projects I had the funds to continue. I handed a live record in to them, which was good, which was just the Praxis quartet, the bass, drums, guitar and Bernie Worrell. We gave [Mercuriadis] that to fulfill our obligation, but by that time, he was gone, and so was, for the most part, what I saw the label being. I had the idea that we were gonna do [this record] so we just continued with the idea. I had two things. One was Tabla Beat Science with John McLaughlin. We were gonna invite [Carlos] Santana to play, and we had some money to do it. That was the one that got away, and Praxis was the one where I was actually able to salvage the idea. So it was never a legal thing at all, it was more—what I didn’t want to do was just give it to some small label that would fold and then I would never hear of it again. And it was in a time when majors were not so trustworthy. You’d give it to a major and it might not ever come out. I didn’t want to throw it away, so I purposely sat on it until I thought I could have more control over it being visible and available. And I did it in Japan strictly to realize the package, to create a hard copy to give to people, to have artwork and be able to say ‘This is the idea, eventually I want to put it out worldwide.’ That’s the story. I read that there was legal stuff, but there never really was. The Sanctuary thing was so loose you could hardly use the word ‘deal.’ It pretty much came and went, and I don’t really know what happened and at this point I don’t care. It was pretty sudden, you know—we had set up quite a few things, and then it just went away. And so did a lot of things. That’s when it all started to collapse. It’s for the best, though.
A few years ago you did Divine Light, the “mix translation” of Carlos Santana’s work. When you were digging around in the Sony vaults, did you come across any tapes of the McLaughlin/Santana band that toured in 1974?
Live recordings? I’m sure there are. The person that helped me a lot, and the real guy that knows that world and would know the answer to that question, is Bob Belden. Bob would know. If there is such a thing, he’s got copies of it. He’s the expert on that world. I’m pretty sure there is, because Santana’s company and his whole way of doing things—they would have documented it. And he was still signed to Columbia at the time, so I’m pretty sure there are tapes. And again, I don’t know. I have a lot of tapes myself, but it’s mostly from the Miles Davis area, his music. Not so much Carlos or Mahavishnu Orchestra. I think Bob found a Mahavishnu thing a few years ago, and that came out.
Do you have any plans to take Praxis on a full tour? I saw you guys live in New York once, but that was years ago.
It was always different. I did Praxis once in Japan with just me, Brain, a DJ and a trumpet player. We played at Fuji Rock Festival. It was really interesting, but it had nothing to do with what the records were. And then we did one with Tatsuya Yoshida, myself and Buckethead, a trio, which was really interesting. We had another trio with me, Buckethead and Cindy Blackman. So it’s always been these really different lineups which have nothing to do with—people get confused, I think. They think if you put a name on something then you have to do it again just like that, and you’re in a band, you know. I never thought like that, so I just put any name on anything, as long as we play and people like it, and you get something out of it. So every time we play it’s always been different. We did do a tour of the West Coast probably seven years ago, something like that, which was fairly consistent. It was the trio with DJ, four of us, that’s the closest thing to a tour we’ve ever done. When we started we were doing a lot of turntables, it was the trio with four, sometimes even more turntablists. The Invisibl Scratch Piklz or D.ST, or X-ecutioners, just tons of turntable stuff. And also a lot of breakbeat stuff, just dubbed-out breakbeats with Buckethead going crazy on top. But it’s always been really different. It’s always been interesting ’cause we keep changing it. Now there’s really no core band. I’m in touch with Brain, but Buckethead’s kind of invisible at the moment—he comes in and out of focus, so at the moment there’s no plans, but that could change tomorrow.
The show I saw was the trio, DJ Disk, Rammellzee and the guys from Antipop Consortium.
Yeah, I remember that one, at the Knitting Factory. Rammellzee, Antipop and one of the guys from New Kingdom.
How was the Blood of Heroes project put together? You’ve known Justin Broadrick since about 1989, right? Did you meet him through Mick Harris?
Yeah, it’s been a long time. I don’t know Justin that well. I like some of the Godflesh stuff and some of the stuff he’d done with Kevin Martin, and I got those guys to do tracks for records I was doing. I’ve never really worked with him that much. I always sort of liked what he did, and the minimalism of it, and the directness, but I didn’t work with him directly on that project. I just played on it, added some stuff, and he had already played on it when I played on it. It’s not my project, really. It’s from Ohm Resistance, which started out as a kind of drum ’n’ bass label, really, but a little harder than the normal drum ’n’ bass. A little more of a punk rock aspect to it.
Was that album recorded with people working together in the studio? The remix disc has a track that’s labeled as a rehearsal—were you ever in the room with the other players?
No, never, not on that. That was a strictly mail-it-in project as far as I know. It’s hard to tell, and it doesn’t matter to me if that’s the way it is, as long as it feels good. But that was one of those. When I played on it, it was drum programming and some sounds, and I put some stuff on it, and Justin was already on the tape, and then I did a few mixes. I think there’s one of them on that remix record. But the way it resolved, I thought it was mixed rather lo-fi. I thought they lost the bass and some of the programming, which I thought was the more powerful side of the music. I didn’t think they did justice to what was there. I think they lost a little bit of edge on his guitar. It seemed to favor the programming over the guitar, the bass and definitely the vocals, which suffered. So I didn’t think it was a very professional result.
It reminds me of Ice, his project with Kevin Martin.
Yeah, well a lot of his stuff—it’s gonna be. It’ll remind you of everything he does. I think it’s pretty limited, what he does, but it’s definitely him. That’s his statement.
Justin played on the second Pain Killer EP, Buried Secrets, too. What was the genesis of Pain Killer?
If I remember, around that time, Zorn was totally absorbed in this whole hardcore scene in Japan. There were tons of bands like S.O.B., and all these weird noise bands that were sort of emulating Repulsion and Napalm Death and all those kinds of bands. There were a bunch of them, and in those days it was vinyl, so we would just buy everything in Japan, and we started to work with some of those guys. And Zorn somehow, by being enthusiastic about this area, had made some kind of contact with Mick Harris, who at the time was either still in or just leaving Napalm Death. He made that connection and Mick brought this concept of short ideas, rapid-fire, really fast, 30-second pieces—we’d play gigs and play a piece for like 10 seconds or something. It was part comedy, part what can you get away with, and it was pretty loud and pretty intense. So we did those, on and off, for a while. It came from our fascination with that world.
But it got a lot more expansive on the third record, Execution Ground…
We went into a whole ambient thing on that one. I think there’s a whole disc that’s just ambient. And the one that Justin and those guys played on…Godflesh was playing in New York somewhere and it was Benny [Green] the bass player, Justin, and I think they were using a drum machine. And for some reason, I was working with the Jungle Brothers. And they were all in the studio, and then the Godflesh people showed up, and it was right in the middle of a Pain Killer session. And that was a pretty unique kind of scene, you know, where you had these kids writing rhymes to this fast music. It was kinda out there for a minute. So I think that’s the day we recorded whatever Justin played on. It was during that time. And then the Jungle Brothers and all the kids from those groups went to see Godflesh play the gig, and they were really into it. So I thought that was a kind of interesting opening which never really totally developed, but it was a nice possibility there for a second.
How do you feel about the versions of Pain Killer that didn’t have Mick on drums? I feel like it’s not the same group with, say, Hamid Drake back there.
We tried a lot of things probably without much planning, certainly with no preparation, and in retrospect it’s always different. Mick with Pain Killer is Pain Killer, and anything else is probably not Pain Killer, it’s just me and Zorn playing with somebody. I think the Pain Killer idea was always when Mick was there. We had some good concerts with Yoshida from the Ruins, probably musically a lot better, but it still wasn’t the same thing as the kind of really raw, primitive, visceral Mick Harris thing.
The night I saw Pain Killer, Mick got sick and Ted Epstein from Blind Idiot God played drums.
I remember that, and Ted was probably much more equipped as a drummer, but it wasn’t the same thing. We did a tour around that time—I think that was the last date of about six or seven gigs in America, and Mick started falling apart in the Midwest and by the time we got back to New York he was just wasted.
Going back even further, are there any plans to consolidate the Last Exit discography? I feel like if you could get the rights together, a limited-run boxed set would be great, especially if there were more live recordings in the vaults that could be included.
There are a lot of live recordings, but they have to be tracked down. As far as getting the rights, that would be easy. What would be hard is trying to figure out who would actually finance manufacturing and packaging and who would distribute it. Getting the rights wouldn’t be difficult, but the other part, as far as creating it, you would need someone who had a passion about it. I couldn’t do it myself. I would certainly sign off on it, but you’d need somebody to come in and say, ‘I wanna do this.’ Anybody that wanted to could do it. Obviously, it takes a little funding to do it. It wouldn’t be a hassle to get rights to it, because there’s nobody involved that knew what they were doing or had a real company, and there was certainly never any money involved.
If Sonny Sharrock was still alive, do you think Last Exit would have reunited for some jazz festival by now, or does that kind of thing hold little or no interest for you?
Well, if Sonny was alive, there would have been a lot of evolutions within that band. In fact, right before Sonny passed away, we were talking about playing with Tony Williams, and we had also talked about a band with Shannon Jackson, Pharoah Sanders and L. Shankar. So there would have been a lot of different evolving bands, and that actual quartet with Brötzmann I’m sure would have played more. If Sonny was around, a lot of things would have continued, and hopefully evolved. But without Sonny you can’t do that. Now, Shannon I haven’t talked to in a while, but I’m playing with Brötzmann at the end of the year somewhere in Europe. It’s his 70th birthday.
The quartet you were in with Zorn, Fred Frith and Dave Lombardo—why was that group never really documented with a full-length studio album or a live CD or anything like that?
I’m not sure why. It happened so quickly, and I think we only played in Canada, New York, Paris and London. We played four or five times.
And that was it? There were no other shows?
No, that’s all I remember. Lombardo had left Slayer, and he was kind of looking to do things, and I think right after that little run he rejoined Slayer and got very busy. And I think Zorn was moving kinda fast as well, and we never followed up on it. I’m not sure if any of that was ever documented on a recording which actually makes any sense.
Do you feel that was a successful collaboration, musically? That it achieved what it set out to achieve?
It’s hard to say. I’m not quite sure if it did, because I’m not sure if Dave ever totally connected with what we were doing. I was trying to connect with what he was doing, but he kept changing his approach. I liked one of the reviews in London that said it was the first time the writer had ever heard these elaborate drum fills used to introduce a section in the middle of improvisation. It was funny; a lot of it was really funny. There’s one thing he does with the double bass drum which goes back years, back to the record everybody loved, Reign in Blood, and he still does that, or did that, pretty effectively. And that’s undeniably kinda powerful. So when he does that, there was something there for sure. I’m not sure we all made the right contribution to it. I’m not really clear what happened there. It seemed to happen really fast. Sometimes in improv, it comes and goes and you don’t even remember what you did, and other times it stays with you like a composition.
I saw the New York show, and it seemed like Fred Frith was the odd element out there, but when Dave took a drum solo, it was really funny to see people throwing the horns up at an improv gig.
Yeah he did that—probably on every gig, something happened that brought out this power. And if you could have sustained that for the course of a concert, you’d have a pretty brutal statement there. But I’m not sure we ever got really close to that. I think it was more kinda hit-and-miss.
What are your memories of Purple Trap, your collaboration with Keiji Haino and Rashied Ali? It seemed to me like you were operating on a different path than the other two.
Yeah, I’d have to hear it again, but I remember that Rashied just played a texture, and Keiji Haino did the same, and I felt that if I just contributed the same kind of thing to that, that it would just be like Merzbow or something, there wouldn’t be a dynamic. So I kept trying to put in dynamics and breaks and stops and elements that might change the course of what otherwise could be a fairly redundant program.
That’s what it sounded like to me—you trying to impose structure on their improvisations.
I probably did that just out of trying to stay awake on it, because I kind of lose interest if there’s not a dynamic. I read a review that said they had set up a fabric and my thing was punching holes in it, which is pretty accurate, I guess.
As a producer, it seems to me that you tend to work either with musicians of some prominence, or people who come from a similar milieu as you and have the same circle of friends. When you’re working with someone for the first time, a total outsider, is it difficult to bring them into your musical headspace?
No, you just have to let go of everything sometimes. You let go of memory, you let go of whatever technique you’re supposed to have, and you just kind of let things happen and give people space. Once you give someone enough space, you get to see more of their full potential, that maybe you didn’t realize was there. People need a chance to open up and give you all the possibilities, and once you offer that freedom, and they show you all these things, you’re already ahead of the game, ’cause it’s more than what you expected. If they’re good. That can also be revealing in the negative sense.
Yeah, see, I was curious whether you listen to people’s ideas with total openness, or you assume they brought you in because they wanted you to do what you do, and kind of take the lead in shaping the record?
A lot of it’s based on a healthy amount of experience with improvisation. I’m pretty open; if someone’s got something to say, I’m gonna listen, of course, and if it connects and it brings something relevant or powerful or interesting, I’m totally open. I welcome that, because then I don’t have as much to think about. I have less to work on. It’s a pleasure. Does it happen a lot? Not really, but it’d be great if it did.
Do you seek out production work, or do people come to you?
No, I mostly get things coming to me. What I seek out is the structure of labels or production companies. Like, in Japan I’ll approach someone and say, I need to do a series of projects—I don’t wanna do just one record, and then it comes out and it’s gone in two weeks. I’d like to do a label or a series of projects that would hopefully last for a few years. To build something and keep building. I’ve done that in Japan, I’m trying to do it now in Ethiopia. You start something and you wanna continue for a while. So I seek those things out. These days, you don’t knock on the door of a major label and get funding for doing these things. You have to go out and really hustle and work, and the key now is networking and investors, really. People that appreciate stuff and have a way to get it realized. I reach out for that stuff. And as far as the records that come out and production stuff, mostly I get called and a lot of it’s sort of favor-oriented. It’s not always just work for hire and you do a great job and here’s a paycheck. A lot of it’s just to help people get along, you know?
It seems like music has really returned to the patronage system.
It has, totally. That’s exactly what it is. Which is okay. It’s just a different kind of navigation, you have to work a little differently.
You just produced an album for Lee Perry. Speaking as devil’s advocate, he’s got a vast discography of his own work as a producer. What does he need you for? And how do you approach that task?
Well, the reality is kinda harsh sometimes, but…Lee Perry was a brilliant producer 30 years ago, but he hasn’t really done great work in a very long time. And he’s also not that interested in studio recordings, mixing, it’s not his passion right now. He’s more interested in painting, and being Lee Perry. He’s turning 75 years old. So he still has an enormous presence and a wealth of imagery and knowledge and humor and history, and it all comes out in his just being there—it’s all in him. But can he sit down and make a state of the art record right now that will have an impact? It’s unlikely. So I thought it would be a good time to do a really great record with Lee Perry, and I think we’ve done that. With help from a lot of people, obviously.
You seem to be a guy who likes to have studio technology at his disposal, so I’m curious about the Pharoah Sanders album Trance of Seven Colors, which was recorded in North Africa. How much different was that from your typical recording situation?
Well, I remember we took a lot of equipment to North Africa and in those days it wasn’t small or easy to carry. It was pretty heavy, pretty overweight, pretty bulky, and it was a big operation. We took all this gear not to a village, it was a city, but on the water, Essaouaria, and we thought we had it all covered, and then there was a power surge or shortage, so while we were recording, we could see the meters but we couldn’t actually monitor the sound. So we didn’t even know what was on these digital tapes until we got home. It was pretty scary. But it was with a full 16-track digital setup, with expensive microphones and very heavy gear to carry. Very expensive to do, but the end result, you know, everything did translate and it was well recorded. As opposed to people that go with a cassette machine and then they wonder why nobody’s listening to the record 10 years later.
You haven’t done much work as a producer with metal or hard rock acts—do you think metal has a rhythmic rigidity that’s difficult for you to tune into?
I can tune into it. It’s like most things, if you’re not in direct proximity to it and you’re not somehow deeply connected, you don’t wanna be a tourist and just try to invade into these spaces. If you’re not directly connected, it’s not gonna be natural. So I haven’t come into contact with something that was natural—and starting out, I talked to bands like Megadeth and thought about those things, but at the end of the day I thought it wasn’t as important as other things I should be thinking about. I worked with—I don’t know what you’d call Motörhead, a rock band, I guess—but some of those kind of things. I go through phases where I’m totally interested. A few years ago it was, like, Earth and all those bands. I thought that was really interesting. But they don’t need me to do anything. I just listen to the stuff.
So you feel like metal is a world unto itself that doesn’t need your help?
You know, if I had something that was direct and I was conscious that it would be something relevant and might be an improvement somewhere or something that could enhance it, I would maybe push for it. I would need to know what kind of group or situation. I wouldn’t mind playing—I just did a recording with a drummer from Sweden, Morgen Ågren, and his approach is very advanced and incredibly complex. I guess you could say derivative of metal. And my approach was something else. And we did a recording with Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim. So that kind of borders on a mutant sort of metal.