Inside The Head Of Producer and Bassist Bill Laswell

If you visit the website of Method Of Defiance—a current concept of bassist/producer and master soundmanipulator Bill Laswell—what you’ll see is not a bio, or a discography, or even any mention of who plays what. First, you get a block of stark white text on solid black background: “A musical, sonic, aesthetic, mind and body experience, at once structured, spontaneous, precise, random, brash, beautiful, and above all, unforgivable.”
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If you visit the website of Method of Defiance—a current concept of bassist/producer and master sound manipulator Bill Laswell—what you’ll see is not a bio, or a discography, or even any mention of who plays what. First, you get a block of stark white text on solid black background: “A musical, sonic, aesthetic, mind and body experience, at once structured, spontaneous, precise, random, brash, beautiful, and above all, unforgivable.”

BIll Laswell

Then, at the bottom of the page, a CNN-style text crawl scrolls provocative phrases in all caps.

I AM A REVOLUTIONARY, NOT BECAUSE I WANT TO DESTROY THE SYSTEM, BUT BECAUSE I WANT TO BUILD THE FUTURE . . . RESIST COMPLIANCE . . . AVOID RECOGNIZABLE ART-CATEGORIES. . . .

Born in Illinois but clearly bred in the pre-punk counter-revolutionary musical/political culture of late ’60s Detroit (along with Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and the original MC5), Laswell made the natural leap to New York City in the late ’70s and has been successfully avoiding recognizable art categories ever since, breaking ground as an astoundingly prolific bassist, producer, and sonic experimenter with everyone from Herbie Hancock to punk icon John Lydon, to Wayne Shorter, to avant-garde guitarist Buckethead. Laswell’s specialty is taking disparate musical elements and literally smashing them together, capturing this moment, and presenting the document to the world.

What do you see as your role as a bassist in Method of Defiance?

My role is for pulse—to centralize the bottom-end thrust of the rhythm, and augment and interact with the keyboard and the trumpet and whatever other sound exists on top of the low end. I’m not limited to just playing low-end lines, though. There are a lot of sounds that people might not relate to bass. They might think it’s a guitar, or keyboard, or horn, some kind of malfunction, or a disturbance of some kind. There’s noise and spontaneity to it. There’s a lot of frequency range, from high to low, and when there’s a lot of low there’s an extreme amount of sub low. My bass covers a lot of sonic area without being limited to just playing a bass line.

How about sounds? Do you have “go-to” pedals for certain vibes, or could it be anything at any time?

Even though I use the words “spontaneity” and “improvisation” and stuff, it’s very clear that certain pedals are meant for certain things. Probably at this point, even with this band and the amount of freedom involved, there’s a pretty close routine for my use of pedals—when to use something, when not to, when to lay out, when to dominate, and when to leave space.

What do you listen to for inspiration?

I’ve learned that you can take a lot of inspiration and ideas from instruments other than bass—like guitars, horns, and keyboards, as well as from composers. Then, there are sounds that aren’t musical—tonal, non-musical sounds. I realized that noise is no different than what you hear in everyday life, so I listen to the sound of machines, industry, and nature—especially nature, which should be a big influence on all of what you do musically.

How do you think someone’s life philosophy affects their playing?

On the bass, I think their life, their philosophy, and all of that, is their playing. Without that, there’d probably be little playing going on. There would be motions and movement, and there would be notes, and things would be established, but I think without that personal background, there is no real foundation to your musical voice, or what you express through sound and music. It’s all connected whether people want to admit that or not. And no matter how simple it is—it might be something incredibly minimal and simplistic—it’s there at the root of every note that you play. There is no way around that.

In your view, what’s the ideal role of music in society?

Everyone has different perceptions, different expectations, and a different upbringing. You can’t generalize the purpose of music. But it has been used to enlighten. It has been a powerful force in the elevation of people, of humans. It can free people from things that normally would hold them back. It can enlighten people at a time when it seems to be dark. It can educate and point towards further education. Bass is the Om—the shadow, the bottom of the foundation—and it shouldn’t be completely kept in the basement. It’s the earth tone.