Bill Laswell talks Lee “Scratch” Perry

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The production titan talks recording a new album with the reggae legend.

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Sjimon Gompers | June 6, 2011

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Bill Laswell has produced damn near 20 or 30 of your favorite musicians and has produced Lee “Scratch” Perry’s recent album Rise Again. Accompanying him in this task of taking on the Upsetter are, but not limited to, P-Funk’s keyboardist (and pioneer in his own right) Bernie Worrell, Gigi Shibabaw, TV on the Radio’s front dude Tunde Adebimpe, Hawkman, who is the co-lead throat for the Laswell-founded group Method Of Defiance, Peter Apfelbaum on the tenor sax & flute, Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Josh Werner on bass and Hamid Drake on drums.

Laswell has made the records that both you and your parents agree on, so while you and the folks debate Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss versus Public Image Limited’s Compact Disc, read our recent conversation.

How does it feel having recording Rise Again with Lee Perry?

Well you know, time goes on, I have been doing a few thing since then, but uh, yeah, it’s good to have the copies coming, it feels good.

What projects are you involved with post –Rise Again?

Well I’m always in the middle of different things, a lot mixing, we just got back from Ethiopia and I leave again soon for Japan. There’s a lot of live stuff. I’m focusing more on my own stuff and label related stuff. I guess you call it, “in house.”

Were you and “Scratch” just in Ethiopia then?

No, no, I think Scratch has been to Ethiopia. I‘ve been a couple of times. We’re trying to set up a festival in February of next year and trying to record a lot of artists, start out with a compilation, mix some new artists and make some records. That’s pretty much the focus.

So how was that collaboration, being that Lee has been known for his work in the producer’s chair from back in the day at Studio 1 and later the Black Ark. How did it feel to be the Upsetter in this case, producing the Upsetter?

Well, you can’t really upset the Upsetter, so I think you said it with “back in the days.” He did phenomenal work in the 70s and continued on. Now he’s moved on and he’s interested in other things. He’s into performances that are very humorous, there’s a lot of presence and character there and it’s a lot of fun. He’s into painting and he lives in Switzerland and he’s probably entertaining a whole other type of dimension. He’s probably moved on from the idea of making records, he’s made a lot of records,a lot of important ones and very influential ones but now it’s more in his head. So when we did this recording he wasn’t so much involved in the production but more involved in vocals, lyrics and sort of what he does live.

He’s taken a back seat, like when he was involved last year with the Congo’s Back in the Black Ark album.

I heard that.

They promoted it as if he was back at the production helm but it seemed more than anything like he was throwing in his own input.

Yeah, on that one I think it was very similar. For (the Congos) I think he was there for support. He brought his presence to it which probably meant a lot to that situation because the things they did previous were classic things and it probably really helped the vibe of that record to have his presence. I don’t think he was much involved with the production or mixing but again, same kind of situation, lending his character, his presence and his vocals, he sang a little on it as well.

That’s cool, I’ve heard that they had a major fall between Lee and the rest of the Congos, Cedric Myton, Roy “Ashanti” Johnson and Watty Burnett.

Yeah, major fall out but that was a really long time.

Yeah, but it’s cool to see them hanging out again.

It’s positive, yeah, I thought the record was okay too, they went back to their roots.

Definitely, did you anything special for Scratch’s 75th birthday?

No, I didn’t, in fact, I’ve been very busy and I’m going to be sending him a package of stuff tomorrow. When was his 75th birthday?

Not sure exactly, but I heard it was not too long ago. [Ed: It was March 20.]

Okay, I’ll find out, I should write a note then, I’m glad you said that, or I have to buy him a gift!

Loved your work on tracks like “Orthodox,” were you familiar with the Perry’s production work on Mystic I’s “Forward with Jah Orthodox” single?

Um, that name I know, I’ve been through all of his stuff, I knew his stuff from years ago, certain tracks stuck out a lot from the early days like “Roast Fish and Cornbread,” it has a real good atmosphere. I think what he brought to the whole sound is just amazing. They did amazing work with minimal technology and they did that out of necessity and they didn’t have millions of dollars to make some of that necessary kind of state of the art sound. He did it with very primitive techniques and that was how him and Istarted, we had very little equipment in the beginning, in the middle and even now. I appreciate how he works because it’s not the technology that creates the art, it’s the people. I mean the technology is just there, anyone can pick it up.

Yeah, the stuff he was able to do in ’74-’78 was just amazing.

Yeah, it’s amazing and they had, again, very minimal, really primitive stuff. They just maximized the use of things they had a lot of sound effects generated by natural sounds which created an atmosphere and environment that was quite unheard of that time later on in the course of time, people discovering dub music and advancing upon environmental sounds were creating ambient music. He was one of the forerunners of ambient music.

And what with creating dub and founding reggae way back in the day when he was talent scout and performer with Coxsone Dodd.

Yeah there was a lot of great dub ideas and Lee Perry was the one who brought the atmosphere and the environment and this kind of haunting feel. It’s unusual and very different coming out of a reggae track.

I’ve always referred to him as Bob Marley’s brain in the sense that he was the man with the vision who could take Bob’s, you know, proverbial Psalms and put them to a good beat and provided him with great musicians like for example… the Barrett brothers (“Family Man” and Carlton).

It was a good match because of the contrasts. For that brief moment and then even a little bit later on it was a good contrast for Marley. Basically he was a like a folk singer, you know, he would write a song, perform it, write the melody for it and Scratch really enhanced that to make it more majestic, or furious, or whatever you want to call it. But he brought a lot of those kind of fundamental songwriting concepts.

Definitely. Going back to the album, I love what you have done with tracks like “Dancehall Kung Fu,” and like you were talking about Scratch’s contributions to ambience works earlier, I found it recalling the ambient driven dub trilogy of Kung Fu Meets the Dragon, Return of Wax and Musical Bones.

Yeah and a lot of lyrics you find are cross referencing things that popped into his head from the past like E.T., (Jamaican ET) Kung Fu, all the different biblical references, Selassie, Ethiopia and Africa, it’s all part of these endless cycles of his repertoire. Sort of hidden information pouring out at random, you don’t know when it’s going to come and project a lyric. Just driving to the studio he will be tearing out pieces of newspaper, he would see something interesting, tear it out and stuff it into his bag and later on that will become a verse. So lyrics are everywhere, he will be walking down the street, see a sign, read another, write it all down, put it all together and you got a crazy song.

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Yeah, like his refrain “Keep on knocking but you can’t come in…”

Right, I mean you can almost trace everything back to something else and in the future you can trace from there back to here. I think it’s all part of this ocean of language and repertoire of images and metaphors and some sort of hidden information. Who knows what happens in his brain, it does kind of funnel out somehow and it does go both forward and backwards. It’s a natural flow.

And it keeps your interest piqued, like taking from those street signs, newspapers and his reflections on the past, fascinating stuff. I loved your production on “Butterfly.” The drum and bass and delays, it reminded me of a lot of great Tapper Zukie’s records from the 70s.

Well Tapper Zukie always had a lot of nice sense of space and lots of minimalism and minimalism is the hardest thing to do because everyone has a tendency toward layering on sounds and I’m certainly guilty of it in terms of layering on atmosphere and effects. I think with tracks like that I was trying to create a kind of psychedelic feeling and more of a hallucination than a song.

Yeah, it’s something else, I think I even caught some white noise effect in towards the end of butterfly.

Yeah, there’s layers and layers of noises, random sounds, nature sounds, sounds of traffic in the streets, that’s all really being conscious of how he used to put birds, and cows, nature, water, babies crying and all that kind of stuff. In a way he was the first to do that with beat oriented music. He was a huge influence in that way and to me that was his contribution; he had the shadows, the mystery and the haunted feeling and environment which was brilliant

Yeah, earlier you were talking about Scratch’s Roast Fish Collie Weed and Cornbread. That whole album and title track really set the tone of the style that he would take on for the next stages of his career that seems to come from that haunted place. So for you as a producer, having already produced so many of the greats, what challenges did you find in recording Rise Again?

Well it’s always a balance, I try not to think too much in these types of situations you want to be a bit more spontaneous and I guess a good thing to remember is his past, what kind of work he achieved and try not to drift to far from that atmosphere or that sound or rhythm. You can’t really get that exaggerated in time and rhythm with a person like that, you have to stay very close to that kind of feel and orientation of playing. I honestly have a lot of experience with perfection and rhythm sections that are accelerated, that are sometimes chaotic and you have to reel that in and not take it too far in any direction and try to be, hopefully stay respectful to the overall contribution that he has made. You have to make the album without breaking off anything.

Cool! Are you still recording with Method of Defiance?

Yeah, quite a lot of stuff, I’m doing that now; an instrumental record, another instrumental record, a dub record with Scientist, I’m recording with Mad Professor, a lot of different remix people, a lot of different live stuff coming. I break that kind of into different groups. I have a group called Gigi & Material which is Ethiopian vocals with a horn section, that’s on the label as well, so they have been combining bands. When there is enough budget we do everything when there are smaller budgets we break it up down into four piece bands. There’s all this different energy into different parts and part has been trying to build up a collective. Basically the hope is to have a situation where you have a festival with four or five different combinations that stay autonomous and independent from the other structures of record companies and people that are telling you what to do.

Have you seen any of Mad Professor’s shows that he’s done with Scratch?

I’ve never seen him with Scratch, I’ve seen him a long time ago, one of the guys that works with us is Dr. Israel. They’ve done a bunch of live stuff together and works with us I haven’t seen (Mad Professor) in a long time, I don’t really know him, he did some mixes for me in the 90s. I know he is still active.

Yeah, both Mad Professor and Scientist really did some interesting second generation dub work in the 80s when everyone was going to be going to the digital ragga route.

There was a moment in Jamaica where everything was completely digital and everything was lost. Maybe you would say,‘where could I buy a dub record?’ And they would say, Brooklyn, but not here anymore.

You’ve seen a lot of changes, I mean did you not produce the Herbie Hancock “Future Shock” record with uh…

Yeah, yeah! With “Rock It,” there was also a move toward digital but we were very conscious that way. We were listening to German music, Kraftwerk and Neu! and a lot of those minimal German things. Afrika Bambaataa was playing Kraftwerk in the Bronx that was how they made “Planet Rock “it was built a lot on Kraftwerk’s influence. When I worked with Herbie we brought in all this cold German music in, mixed in some Afro Cuban music mixed in some jazz and created a hybrid kind of sound which translated commercially. Around that same time I did a track with Yellowman called “Strong, Be Strong” which was very successful in the Caribbean. But it was totally a mixture of roots, drum machine, synthesizers mixed with live bass, mixed with horns and real guitars and when it came out it was really appreciated in the reggae communities in the Caribbean, Haiti and stuff like that. But everyone in Europe or wherever was like, “yeah, well there’s no drummer on it.” Looking back now it was at the beginning of things, but if you look in the past 20 years there was never a rhythm section it was always digital except for the vocals. We did it before it was fashionable, then it was considered killing music. Same with Herbie Hancock, what does he do, look to Kraftwerk for electronic and minimal music. You can put anything together if it agrees then works.

You have been standing at those cross sections of interesting points in pop culture from then to your work now. What can you lend to us about the future of music?

The future of music is something that is in front of us. My approach is to just try to focus on priorities but never forget about being completely lost. Because if you pay too much attention you’re bound to fall into a sort of complacent confinement that you think that things are a certain way and that things are going a certain way and you get caught up into thinking that what the media says is real and that what television and online and what magazines say is the real world. Yeah, I think the key is you need to lose yourself, go back and create your own world. Lee Perry has pretty much created his own world. A lot artists do it and I would advise that to everybody, just turn away from manipulation and look towards something you feel good about.

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