Bassist and producer Bill Laswell can always be counted on to come up with something he’s never done before, which is pretty impressive when you consider what a wide range of things he’s done over the course of a wildly peripatetic career spanning several decades. His latest unprecedented project is an album of tracks for unaccompanied acoustic bass guitar. As one might expect, it’s strange and thoroughly lovely; sometimes he multitracks and sometimes he adds subtle effects, but for the most part his bass is left to stand alone with only his compositional and improvisational skill to hold your attention. One especially nice track features vocals from Laswell’s wife, the Ethiopian-born Gigi Shibabaw. Very highly recommended.
Bill Laswell’s “Means of Deliverance” — Making a Groundbreaking Solo Bass Record
WEST ORANGE, NJ: It makes perfect sense that Bill Laswell’s place is on the bass.
Bill Laswell has blazed yet another trail with “Means of Deliverance”.
A mostly underground producer who occasionally surfaces in the mainstream, Laswell has built up what easily stands as one of the most diversified client lists in modern music. Over his career as a producer, bassist, and record label owner, his eccentrically successful track record covers everyone from Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Public Image Ltd, and Laurie Anderson, to Brian Eno, Bootsy Collins, Motorhead, Sting, and Carlos Santana.
And it was Laswell who co-wrote Herbie Hancock’s 1983 smash “Rock-It”, the unforgettable single that injected turntablism into the mainstream.
A man from the Midwest who became an essential NYC resource when he moved here in the 1970’s, Laswell has somehow managed to remain as mysterious as he is ubiquitous. Which brings us back to that bass – an essential element in Western music that can also go largely unnoticed if you don’t know where to listen.
Laswell has finally put the spotlight front and center on his four-stringed muse with the newly released Means of Deliverance, which stands as the first ever acoustic solo bass recording from this quirky maestro. Simultaneously introspective, surprising, and electrifying, Deliverance is a rare record in that it changes a little with each listening – you may not be able to hum along to this album, but once experienced, you just might wonder how you ever lived without it.
For Laswell, who lives in NYC and creates at his private facility, Orange Music Studio in West Orange, NJ, Deliverance proved indispensable as soon as he began recording it. “Once you start something like this, it becomes a musical statement and an obsessive endeavor,” confirms Laswell, who speaks in the quiet, even tones you would expect of a musical Zen master. “You have to be fairly obsessed with what you do – otherwise you’re wasting other people’s time.”
While Laswell has made a big name for himself over the decades, it’s been primarily via collaborations – with artists including Afrika Bambaataa, John Lydon, and even William S. Boroughs – that his reputation has spread. But he acknowledges that there’s something about the concept of a solo recording that holds its own appeal.
“It’s your own statement – there’s no conversation with anyone else,” he says of the artistic exposure that accompanies a solo performance. “You’re expressing where you are at that moment, which makes it challenging to the artist, and probably challenging for the listener.
“The other thing is that you can’t hide: If you’re with musicians that are very adept and virtuostic you can blend in with that, but in a solo situation there’s no hiding in the shadows. Whatever happens with a solo, it’s got to be very honest when it comes to the surface.”
Recording Bass at Orange Music
A cornerstone of Deliverance was Laswell’s instrument, a Warwick Alien fretless four-string acoustic bass guitar, which helped inspire the project. Even Laswell, with his deep musical knowledge, was unable to identify another solo bass guitar record in existence, meaning that he’d be 100% blazing his own trail as he tracked at Orange Music.
The Warwick Alien acoustic bass provided all the instrument sounds on Laswell’s latest album.
As an instrument with an especially limited frequency, especially with Laswell’s tendency to play in its lower register, recording solo bass comes with its own inherent set of challenges. First, however, Laswell, had to generate and perform the ideas for songs like the tense and haunting “Ouroboros”, the mountainous ramblings of “Buhala,” the medieval lullaby of “Aeon,” and the twist of “In Falling Light”, with its bell-like highs that expand the listener’s expectations of bass.
Winding together influences ranging from the East African lands of Ethiopia and Mali, to the blues to country and back down to South Africa, the result is an entrancing experience of bass that reveals something new every time.
“Music should come out of your life experience,” Laswell observes. “You should be able to translate that, and the more experience you have, the more you can build up your vocabulary, your language, and your improvised repertoire. And then the longer and the more interesting the stories become.
“When you’re playing these performances in the studio, you lose the other side of it,” he continues. “You’re not thinking about the recording environment, or the microphone. In terms of the technical, my approach was to play ideas and make sure it sounds good when you play it back.”
Towards that end, Laswell had the assistance of his longtime engineers, Robert Musso and James Dellatacoma. Working together at Orange Music – a 1960’s-era facility now owned by Laswell that had recorded the likes of Frankie Valli, Jethro Tull, and Humble Pie back in the day – the three-piece team prepared for the particular needs of a solo bass recording.
First, additional soundproofing was added to Orange Music’s spacious live room to minimize drive-by noise from the suburban streets outside. From there, they were ready to plug into Laswell’s go-to connection: an Aguilar tube DI. “We use that on pretty much anything that Bill plays,” Dellatacoma says. “It’s full, it’s loud, it’s warm, and it sounds great on bass. We also used a Neumann U 47, and we had just gotten these Cascade Fat Head ribbon mics, so I threw them up there to try it.
“I put the ribbon close to the bridge area of the bass, which is not an acoustic upright – it’s an acoustic electric which is played just like you would an acoustic guitar. I placed it about a foot away. I don’t know that it’s ideal, but when I mic a player on an instrument like that, I’m looking to get as close to the sound source as possible without getting in the way of how he’ll play the instrument in his hands. Somewhere between the bridge and the sound hole was where most of the sound was going to come from, but I also knew I was going to use a second mic.
“The Neumann was placed about a foot-and-a-half away, in front of Bill and pointing at his lower chest to capture the air and the overall tone of the instrument. In conjunction with the ribbon mics and the DI, the sound came together to form the record.”
Essential equipment: The Aguilar Tube DI at Orange Music. (all studio photos by James Dellatacoma)
From the microphones, the signal path of the U 47 and the DI led to vintage Neve 1073 mic pres, while the ribbon went through a Focusrite ISA828. “We wanted this to be a really clean album,” Dellatacoma explains. “We have a Neve 1081 mic pre that we’ll use with the ribbon, but if we turn the gain up too much we get noise. As the Focusrite gets louder, it’s a much cleaner signal.”
After the mic pres, all audio went straight into Orange Music’s Pro Tools HD3 system (running version 8), with a choice of Apogee or Burl converters, recording at 48 kHz/24-bit. “The bottom end was rich in this Warwick bass, and it was important that we capture that,” says Dellatacoma. “Knowing that this would be a solo bass record, with no other instruments, we had to capture as much low end as possible. This is a Bill Laswell record, and he’s known for releasing records that are full in the frequency spectrum – not mud, but low-end content that will sound good and feel good.”
Mixing and Mastering for the Low End
For each song, Laswell generally took a three-tiered approach, first recording a rhythmic riff, followed by an additional lead track playing off of the rhythms, and capped off by an ambience track played with an ebow or slide to create a drone. While some songs are spare, like the focused virtuoso of “Bahala”, others are much more dense, with as many as six tracks of bass happening.
While a good deal of the audiophile-quality recording of Deliverance can be attributed to the carefully crafted recording path, the mix also helped Laswell and his engineering team to make the most of it. At Orange Music, mixing does not take place in the control room adjacent to the live room. Instead, the faders are moved in a separate, dedicated room on the top floor of the studio (picture a Southwestern cabin with mirrors on the ceiling), where a Yamaha DM1000 32-input digital mixer and a Neve 8816 16-channel summing mixer are available.
“For this particular mix,” Dellatacoma says, “we wanted the cleanest signal path possible, so we just used the DM1000, because the 8816 is known for adding that classic Neve transformer sound. We edited as we went along. If parts were good they were kept, and if not they were muted. Bill’s style of mixing is very manual: He has his hands on the faders, without a lot of automation. So in Bill’s mind, if things are colliding or interfering, he knows what volume moves will work.”
Not surprisingly, compression and other processing were minimized for this naturalistic recording. “Rob’s theory was, ‘Let’s use as little processing as possible’, because we wanted a real clean, defined sound for this record,” says Dellatacoma. “We didn’t use a lot of compression, and we certainly didn’t use a lot of outboard gear, in order to minimize electronic noise. Any compression that was used was in plugin form, like the MCDSP Compression Bank, and the Fairchild 660 Bomb Factory plugin, but that’s heavy – when Bill is playing a dub-style bass line, that kind of compressor sounds great.”
“Means of Deliverance” is available now from Innerhythmic.
After Orange Music, the tracks made a crucial stop at TurtleTone Studio for mastering by Michael Fossenkemper.
“He does all of Bill’s mastering and he knows what a Bill Laswell record is supposed to sound like,” Dellatacoma says. “Whether it’s a full band or solo bass, it will have a rich low end that’s not thumpy or foggy – its defined low end. The low end is the anchor of Bill’s records, and Michael knows not to roll off too much.”
Wisdom of the Basses
Typically, Bill Laswell is not sitting still. Although the record was just released on his Innerythmic label, he’s already got his sights set on something new: a series of live musical performances set to a one-hour edit of the classic mind-blow film Koyaanasqatsi, originally scored by Philip Glass but now being reimagined by Laswell with the permission of director Godfrey Reggio.
Looking back at the landmark achievement that is Means of Deliverance, Laswell is sure of at least one thing. “What’s definite is that I can’t repeat that again!” he states. “It’s documented. So I have to move on and take it as a step that I’m moving forward with.
“I haven’t got a particular philosophy about this period or this work, but I hope it translates, because this is some real life experience moving out of the speakers: It’s a simple story that can be interpreted, reinterpreted, and carried on and on.”
Quite literally, Means of Deliverance is unlike any previously released Bill Laswell date. Issued on his own Innerhythmic label, the set features Laswell playing the Alien, a fretless acoustic bass by Warwick; an instrument he’s never recorded with before. It also marks another first: the set is the debut production by his wife, vocalist Gigi Shibabaw (who sings on one cut). These ten pieces, while are all very different from one another, offer an intimate, immediate, and very creative hearing of Laswell, who sounds more engaged as a player than he has in some time. Some of these pieces contains songlike qualities. “A Dangerous Road” maintains a seemingly constant theme like a lyric line, though in truth, it drops out to be replaced by other interferences as a drone hovers in the backdrop. “Ourobouros” is a darker-tinged theme, where single strings evoke separate repetitive melodics, while played harmonics offer rhythmic counterpoint even as another, almost moaning sound shimmers in the distance. “Aeon” has almost meditative qualities in its minimal presentation, using restrained harmonies and drones, yet it remains quite musical and becomes more animated as it goes on. Laswell uses a buzzing technique on some strings to simulate the drone of a dousson goni. He multi-tracks his bass using different tonalities to affect a hinted-at lyric space between them, all the while asserting others. The dividing line in the set is “Bagana/Sub Figura X,” featuring Gigi. Her voice, with its otherworldly swooping and soaring, takes on a deep, blues-like character and that of a muezzin in an instant; Laswell paints the foreground and backdrop with deep tonal runs and middle-register syncopations, all the while using implied drones to complement the real ones real ones shimmering underneath. “Epiphaneia,” evokes the spirit of John Lee Hooker’s earthy droning blues in its opening statement, while the bassist plays around one of his low end pluck and improvises on the theme throughout to get both inside that sound and outside its sphere. Certainly it’s true that on the surface a solo acoustic bass recording may seem limited in scope and appeal. But the opposite is true. This is the sound of Laswell the musician fully engaged, creative, playful, and focused. His vast experience with world music traditions is displayed in his playing; he blurs boundaries between folk traditions both Eastern and Western, while getting to the common root of them all. On Means of Deliverance, Laswell is quite literally in direct communication with his Muse.
by Thom Jurek for All Music