Migrating to New York in the late 1970s, Laswell had opportunities to fully explore improvisational, avant-garde, and progressive forms of rock and jazz, interfacing with a vast array of musicians. He pursued recording sessions and live gig work in as many challenging contexts as possible to gain experience, try out ideas, and make enough money to survive. Early gigs in New York included work with Daevid Allen and the progressive "avant- fusion" band Gong, with members of Magma and Henry Cow, and an interest in the burgeoning "downtown" New York scene. Collaborative relationships with such free-thinking and -playing musicians as Fred Frith, Henry Threadgill, Philip Wilson, Billy Bang, Olu Dara, John Zorn and others resulted in a body of work that many from the scene are still trying to augment, a decade later.
An experimental loft studio operated by Giorgio Gomelsky resulted in the creation of the amorphous group Material, which has operated for some fifteen years as a live band, production organization, recording ensemble, and, currently, a representation of Axiom's immediate community. Serving as the springboard for a tight group of adventurous musicians -- which early on consisted of Laswell, Fred Maher, Michael Beinhorn, Sonny Sharrock, Fred Frith, Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, Billy Bang, Nicky Skopelitis, Cliff Cultreri, Byard Lancaster, Henry Kaiser, D.ST., J.T. Lewis, and George Cartwright, yet soon expanded and metamorphasized to include many more - - Material's recorded body of work spans from Temporary Music (1979-1981) through Hallucination Engine, released on Axiom in the beginning of 1994.
Of Bill Laswell himself, little need be said here. By now his credentials as the most consistently-interesting improvising bass guitarist are well established. I can think of no other player who has broached such an enormous range of musics and found something to say in each of them - without either grandstanding or subverting a quite clearly-defined musical personality. Critic Jerome Reese once characterized the early Laswell like this: "There was something rambunctious and irresistible about his bass playing. It sounded ominous, brooding and yet elastic, right in the pocket, a cross between Larry Graham's funk anthems, Bootsy's nastiness, Michael Henderson's wah-wah voicings, and Robbie Shakespeare's pounding minimalism. It was a welcome change from the Jaco clones prevalent." Such a summary is viable however only in the context of the early, rigorously-controlled studio projects. For me, one of the most exciting aspects of the Soundscape tape is the glimpsing of the dangerously free improvising bassist who would really step to the fore with Last Exit between 1986 and '89. -- excerpts from liner notes by Steve Lake for Material Live at Soundscape 1981 recording
As a bassist Laswell collaborated with Brian Eno and David Byrne on the groundbreaking My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts recording, and did numerous sessions with a broad variety of artists, including Curlew, John Zorn, Golden Palominos, Kip Hanrahan, Tom Verlaine, Fred Frith, and Eno (the ambient On Land album), to name a few. He also created ensembles such as Massacre (with Frith and Maher) and Deadline (with Philip Wilson and others) which overlapped greatly or entirely with Material, and which in the early 1980s often shared bills in New York clubs, early testimony to an ability to generate work for his tribe of players.
Early interest -- and, for an outsider, unusually close contact -- in the burgeoning Bronx-based hip-hop movement as it was first finding its way onto wax led Laswell into a virgin territory of drum machines and rap, collaborating with such founders as Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmixer D.ST, Fab Five Freddy, Shango, Phase II, and more. Seminal fusions of R&B with new technology are found in projects with Nona Hendryx, and Material's One Down album, which featured Hendryx, Nile Rodgers, Yogi Horton, Tony Thompson, Bernard Fowler, and other cutting-edge New York R&B artists, as well as a new singer named Whitney Houston.
While developing blueprints for the future of Hip-Hop and R&B in the early 1980s, Laswell was coming up with new ideas based in his fascination with the implications of randomness as a creative tool, as employed in the "cut-up" techniques and The Third Mind book of Burroughs and Gysin (in which they explore the idea of a separate, third force being created or evoked by the interaction/collision/collaboration of two creative beings, i.e., in which the sum of collaborative energies is profoundly greater than its parts). Also intriguing and influential was the work of such 20th-century progressive classical/new music/avant-garde music artists as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakas, Luciano Berio, Arnold Schoenberg, Harry Partch, and John Cage,Germany's Free Music Productions (FMP) collective -- which included the improvisational and sonically jagged work of Peter Brotzmann and other European artists -- as well as Derek Bailey's Company in the UK and John Zorn's Gamepieces, which began to take shape in New York in the late 1970s. The work of other European "progressive rock" innovators -- including Magma in France, Can and Neu in Germany, and Hawkwind, King Crimson, Soft Machine and Henry Cow in the UK -- had been similarly absorbed into Laswell's active views of musical possibilities.
The radical fusion movement in the US, with its improvisational and sonic power, was similarly imprinted upon his psyche, most notably including Tony Williams' Lifetime, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Miles Davis' bands, and Ornette Coleman's work, which spread into the influential territories of intuitive creation and the trance music of Jajouka. Laswell experimented and explored with countless lineups of the Material ensemble and other projects -- such as the rare, original Praxis album -- synthesizing radical textures and sonic palettes. Ideas of now- fashionable "industrial" music and art -- both overt or implied -- are a long-term element in his productions, from such basic ideas as sonic "distortion" as found in the early Stooges, Blue Cheer, and Jimi Hendrix through the "noise is beautiful" aesthetic/theories and even noise generators of F.T. Marinetti and the Futurist movement, as found in Luigi Russolo's E Larete Dei Rumori (Art Of Noises). The musical phenomena of harmonic-rich sonic distortion and feedback, as well as higher harmonics flying like sparks off of clashing or harmonious tones below, are examples of real and metaphoric representation of "Third Mind" entities, consciousnesses, spaces and planes.
A pivotal, culminating, conglomerative project was 1983's very appropriately-titled Future Shock album by Herbie Hancock, which brought many of the elements explored and tried out elsewhere together in one epic, mind-boggling and absolutely unprecedented album. The single "Rockit" was a massive worldwide hit, taking MTV and the mainstream by storm with a radical new sound consisting of techno beats and synthesizer blips (which are still the staple for today's "techno" dance music), turntable scratching, bata drums, funky synth and clavinet playing by Hancock, and, of course, Laswell's seamless bass playing. The album's title track was a remake of a classic Curtis Mayfield song, demonstrating for the first time the possibilities of fusing soul and R&B with high-tech sounds in meaningful ways, and one of the great achievements of the album as a whole was that it took often sterile synthesized elements and sampling and made them swing with tremendously funky results.
So-called World Music, i.e., traditional or "folk" musics from different cultures, came naturally to a musician raised as a natural roots music player of indigenous American musical forms such as blues and country, and Laswell's natural inclinations musically led him to Africa and the Near and Far East. Jean Karakos' Celluloid label, which had served as an outlet for various innovative releases such as Material, Massacre, Deadline, The Golden Palominos, the original Praxis, and much of the above-mentioned early hip-hop projects, financed a series of albums by African artists such as Fela Kuti, Toure Kunda, Manu Dibango, and Foday Musa Suso's Mandingo. Bringing in a few key American musicians such as Bernie Worrell, Nicky Skopelitis, and Herbie Hancock, and experimenting with nascent technologies, Laswell created the inevitable prototype for African pop music to follow.
Seamless integrations of world music, ambient ideas of space and texture, and complex post-bop harmonic exploration also came naturally to Laswell, and as the technologies of synthesizers and electronic elements were developed in the early '80s, he consistently incorporated newly available sounds and techniques. The follow-up to Herbie Hancock's Future Shock was 1984's Grammy-winning Sound System, which redefined the parameters to which seemingly disparate styles could be organically fused. Expanding further into industrial/techno textures and beats, Laswell incorporated the pure, acoustic African sounds of Senegalese percussion virtuoso Aiyb Dieng (on pitch-shifting talking drums and chatan), Daniel Ponce on bata and congas, and Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso on Kora. He also brought some of the most melodic and lyrical elements yet to his projects in the form of master saxophone improviser Wayne Shorter.
The high-profile successes with Hancock cemented Laswell's status as the top-of-the list "hot" producer, and as a result he was asked to produce an incredible number of mainstream stars. He produced Mick Jagger's first -- and still most successful -- solo album, bringing in Hancock, Sly & Robbie, and Jeff Beck for that project. Intriguing productions for vocalists Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono were results of invitations accepted and new configurations of musicians explored. Laswell remixed Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," featuring Youssou N'Dour, from the So album. He has also produced key albums for various rock artists such as Iggy Pop, Motorhead, The Swans, White Zombie, Blind Idiot God and The Ramones, but the most important of his forays into more mainstream rock is Public Image Ltd.'s groundbreaking Album project, for which he created a "superband" of Tony Williams and Ginger Baker on drums, Steve Vai and Nicky Skopelitis on guitars, Malachai Favors (of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago), Jonas Hellborg, and himself on basses, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Bernie Worrell on keyboards, L. Shankar on electric violin, Aiyb Dieng on percussion, and Bernard Fowler on backup vocals. Laswell made a personal pilgrimage to Italy to track down the reclusive Baker and bring him back to New York to record.
I wasn't there, but apparently Ginger played for Bill in his barn. Just solo, with the horses there. Apparently the trees swayed and the flowers cried; the drum god would return. One small step for Ginger, one giant leap for John Lydon. The rest of the cast was quickly assembled -- Tony Williams, Steve Vai, Bernie, Nicky, Aiyb. First we recorded the drums, with Jason Corsaro, in the Power Station and its huge concrete resounding garage. Then we moved over to Quad, for bass, keyboards, and rhythm guitar. I would give John bulletins as we drank beer in bars. Today Steve Turre blew into conch shells, tomorrow a didgeridoo. Oh Sakamoto did great today. John grew wary, restive, even aggravated. Howard Thompson, in charge for Elektra, was even more importunate. I remember at one point physically barring him from getting into the elevator. We recorded a few days of Vai at Electric Lady, and then moved over to RPM for three days of vocals. John, I think, got a cassette the evening before. The idea was to get him on the initial take, and if it didn't work, keep the tapes, which was Bill's music anyway. Well, John's declamations were eloquent ones, and no less aggressive or irritated than the music. Everyone was pleased, and though I remember John's presence in the anteroom during the mix, what I mostly remember is an all-night Korean restaurant, where we would start drinking at three, four, or five in the morning... -- Roger Trilling
The ex-Cream drummer had been enlisted initially for the Public Image Ltd. project, but ultimately Baker was to record a series of albums that would develop a new direction of their own. Horses And Trees, which was recorded close on the heels of Album, was the first of a series of albums in which Laswell developed a bond as bass player to drummer with Baker. After the breakup of Cream in the late 1960s, Baker spent several years in Africa -- particularly Nigeria -- developing his own ideas of how traditional West African textures and rhythms could fuse with rock music. Horses And Trees reawakened these sensibilities in Baker, and served as a raw prototype for some of Laswell's most profound albums, in which rich, organic layers of music were blended with sophisticated polyrhythms. This sound was further developed with projects such as Nicky Skopelitis' Next To Nothing album, a Material Live In Japan project with Skopelitis, Worrell, Suso, and Dieng, and the Middle Passage project for Baker on Axiom, which also featured Skopelitis on stringed instruments.
Partially as a reaction to his growing disenchantment with the mainstream, Laswell moved into some of the most aggressive, adventurous, and overtly radical music of his career. With free jazz players Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brotzmann, and Ronald Shannon Jackson, he formed Last Exit, the infamous ensemble that would consitently create an indelible impression of apocalyptic noise in its purest form as musical energy. The volatile and perhaps inevitable collision of these four monsters of their respective instruments was to result in a series of highly controversial tours and recordings that would confront and challenge rock and jazz audiences, with listeners throughout the world in love with and/or enraged by the spectacle of Last Exit. In addition to the astounding Iron Path on Nation Records -- which after four live concert recordings brought the exclusively live-improvised music into a controlled recording context in an unprecedented, seemingly impossible fusion of spontaneous raw energy and studio production -- Laswell would also record a series of collaborations with each of his Last Exit co-members that represented pinnacles in each of their respective careers.
Low Life, a duet album with Brotzmann, delved deeply into the machinations of a world permanently ravaged by the industrial revolution, resonating deeply with industrial "noise" and "third mind" elements. Guitar (solo guitar), Seize The Rainbow, and the later classic Ask The Ages (with Elvin Jones and Pharoah Sanders) were produced by Laswell for Sonny Sharrock, whom Laswell had admired for fifteen years before they met. Shannon first worked with Laswell on Laswell's first -- of only two -- "solo" albums, Baselines, and Laswell produced Decode Yourself, Texas, Taboo, and Axiom's Red Warrior with Shannon. An American power trio called Third Rail was formed by Laswell, Shannon, and guitarist James Blood Ulmer, but this project has not yet seen the light of day. One result of collaborations with Ulmer, however, was the Blue Note release America, Do You Remember The Love? Laswell's later excursions into highly aggressive music include his current tenure with Painkiller, a collaboration with John Zorn and drummer Mick Harris (of Napalm Death and Scorn), whose recent Guts Of A Virgin, Buried Secrets, and Rituals -- Live In Japan are matched only by Praxis' Sacrifist (on Subharmonic, featuring Yamatsuke Eye of The Boredoms, Zorn, Harris, Worrell, Buckethead, and Bootsy Collins) in terms of sheer sonic shred and assault.
Working closely with Skopelitis, Laswell created two pivotal albums in the late 1980s -- that serve as arguable prototypical predecessors for some of Axiom's landmark releases by Baker, Skopelitis, and Material, among others -- within a short-lived but intense series of albums for the Nation and Venture subsidiaries of Virgin. The first was Material's Seven Souls, which featured the voice of William S. Burroughs.
About William Burroughs: The identification of control systems and devising means to destroy them has always dominated his work. Burroughs has always fought for complete freedom -- freedom from all control from invasion by alien forces from religion, sexual repression, and suppression from the American way of life and traditional family values. From programming by TV, media, and the subtext of language. The ugly spirit as the ugly American, the forces of greed and corruption, selfishness and stupidity.
Featuring Sly Dunbar on drums, Shankar and Simon Shaheen on violins, and with Burroughs' voice augmented by Arabic, West African, and New York hip-hop vocalists, Material's Seven Souls is a sublime fusion of high-tech production with acoustic elements. Jeff Bova's synthesizers blend organically with Skopelitis' various guitars and ethnic stringed instruments to create washes of sound that breathe behind Burroughs' stark readings from the texts of "The Western Lands." Thematically, sonically, and conceptually, Seven Souls -- like Future Shock -- is a landmark recording for Laswell in its reflection of such a variety of perfectly united elements.