© Cédrick Eymenier 1999-2023
HOLD ON THINGS FOR A WHILE
An interview with William Basinski
By Cédrick Eymenier
C : What about yr roots? How did you start with music? Most of your records are based on piano loops & tapes you recorded in the 80's, what happened between the early 1980's and early 2000's?
WB : I am a trained musician, i started playing the clarinet in 73, and i liked it, it was good for me cause i was sort of a natty boy who tended to get beat up and stuff like that..It gave me something to do that i can focus on. I really enjoyed Mozart and learning to play very fast. I had excellent teacher especially when i moved to Dallas, they had a fantastic music program in high school. Then i went to a very famous jazz music school, in Denton, Texas. It was a big jazz music school. I also in high school i played saxophone, we went to festivals, but then in college i thought about a jazz band, but at the audition i froze up because all these players just blow my mind, older guys.. Smoke lot of pot, do acid, it was full of drugs, full of freaks.
C : in Texas? So it has change a lot?
WB Yeah probably. It's not as wild as it used to be, but in the late 70's it was just fantastic.Anyway i flopped at the audition but i met all these young musician of my age, so we played together. And there was always party and jam every week-end. It was really idyllic time. And then i switch to composition. And i had some good teachers and one particularly told me how to listen. It's something everyone should be taught. It is not that hard, you just have to close yr eyes: what do you hear? (and he does so). There is that music over there, the air conditionner...
C : Yes the John Cage's silence, like the room is playing music itself...
WB : Yes I was very interested, the same good teacher was the experimental teacher, he taught us about Cage, Stockhausen and all that. But it was really when I left school and met James Elaine, and i moved to San Francisco with him in 1978. I had started making one tape composition, with an electronic piano, a Fender Roadhes. Putting tape on the erase head, going back and forward with this thing.
C : Already ? So one the 1st thing you did was that?
WB : Yes, it was the 1st good thing i did, and James heard it and loved it. He has always collected records, he has an enormous fabulous collection from classical to experimental...acid rock, all the european experimental guys, everything! When i moved there it was like getting into Harry Potter land! So i started listening all this music and we had a great flat in SF and i found a real to real decks at a junk store for nothing, and used tapes, took them home, we had some old broken TV picked off the street, and we displayed them all over the house, and i recorded the TV, the refrigerator : lovely sound in the freezer! I was recording and then changing the speed and stuff like that. So i was very interested in this drone, time-based thing right from the beginning and i was just experimenting.
C : You also mention the Melotron
WB : Yes it was the ultimate 70's string instrument, the Beatles used it...And it's a big white gorgeous piano but inside it's all tape loops with strings sounds, so it is just fantastic and had this warm delicious sound. But that was very expensive, there was no way to get it.
C : So this mellotron was a very influential thing for yr music?
WB : Yes because it sounded very much as what i wanted to hear. So then in SF, we made some shows and exhibitions in galleries. We had a lot of fun, but nothing really ever came out of it. Then i went to the piano, so i started doing stuff with a prepared piano, making loops, seeing what i could do with that, had a lot of fun with that...and then we moved to NY in 1980. We got a big loft in Brooklyn, pulled up all the paintings...All the neighbors thought we were from Mars, because the music and everything you know (rire) We had a great time there for 10 years. We did not had any money to go out in clubs or whatever so we stayed home and work. That's when "The River" came from, from that period. It was mind-blowing when i got that going, i could not believe it. I remember tiptoeing around. Capturing that for me was like "oh my god!". So i don't know if can ever do something that elemental, i think. Then we moved in 1989 in another wonderful decade loft (the one on the website) in which I built a big dream studio. And we started having performances and things. I was always trying new things and moving on. Eventually I met Carsten Nicolai who he was a neighbor downstairs.
C : When was that?
WB : That was about 1996. He has just begun doing his micro-tonal stuff, i did not like it that much, but thought it was interesting, but i really liked him and he loved my short-wave music. So finally i found someone who wanted to release some of my music: great! That came out as a vinyl and disappeared, i manage to keep one. It was a clear vinyl with plastic sleeves, he is a such a great graphic designer. And now i really like his music too. The last with Sakamoto is so much better than the previous, Oh! it's beautiful. We were together in California 2 winters ago. And i remember he was finalizing that piece and i said to him "Hey you get in to my territory, i 'm gonna have to punch you in the nose" (rire). He did a really really beautiful job.
C : Looking at yr pictures on yr website you wear a gothic hair dress which reminds bands like Cocteau Twins?
WB : Yes that was probably around 1985 i had dreadlocks, but it had nothing to do with music, only hair and fashion, our hair changed color every week...We were into wrecking people!
C : What is this mysterious "Arcadia" on yr web site with those statues, well-designed canapés and this stage?
WB : It's been like a 10 years project, i love home, so i'm a bit of a turtle and this is my shell, so when i'm out of it i feel a little weak -But i've had to get out lately, you know to meet people- Yeah it really is a beautiful place, 400m2, quite large! We did many concerts: Diamanda Gallas did an amazing show on Halloween, Antony worked lots of his material there, and many others, but those 2 were the main ones.
C : Arcadia comes from ancient greek myth : the land of calm and sereine happiness.
WB : Yeah Peace, love & music
C : And Arcadia brings me to these words which are now commonly associated with yr name like Melancholy or Fate. Yesterday at the show you were adopting this very typical attitude also named the acedia/melancholia attitude, with the hand holding the head under the chin. Just like in Vermeer or Dürer paintings. (I showed him a postcard of Vermeer's "A Woman Asleep at a Table" (1657) and compare it with the arcadia photo on the website which shows similarities on the overall mood and light)
WB : I think it's very interesting that you brought that. It's both very purple, dark and colorful, gold. Arcadia is a very special place, that i wanted to share with people. And in the early 90's this part of Williamsburg was very cool, with lot of artists doing stuff in their lofts. Everyone loved it.
C : So then after the release of The river on Raster-Noton, you launched your own label?
WB : I was still a little confused when we first did the deal, it took such a long time. They were supposed to be my label and this kind of little label they just put out the record and...So they said "billy you really should do more for your music" And i never thought of that. He was right. At that time i had a vintage clothing store, but it just never really took off...So everything was telling me "don't do this anymore, you need to put all yr energy into yr music and be willing to loose everything or nothing is ever gonna happen" So In 2000 i closed the store, and in 2001 i started the label and released "Watermusic".
That piece was done with a Voyetra synthesizer and i created these very simple little melodies. There is one part and the 2nd part melody and then together they created the 3rd part and i made 3 different length cds of these parts and then i had 3 cd players going and cycling for 9 months in the house, and it was so wonderful, it always changed. Sometimes i woke up in the middle of the night and ran down in the studio, put a cd in the burner...So i had several of these cds. So maybe there will be 5 eventually.
C : Oh you will release some more "Watermusic"?
WB : Yeah there is already 1 & 2 and the 3, 4 and 5 are coming soon. The fifth is when i was in the studio recording and all of the sudden everything stopped, so i thought i had lost power or something, but then i realized it was the 1st time they all ended together.
I met Steve Roden and he gave me a list of fifty names to send my cd to, to get it started, so i did...Some people wanted to distribute it. I just began to email in 2001 so Steve's contacts were very helpful. Now i do everything, work and business with my little laptop.
C : Your home grew bigger with internet. Without internet these kind of label would be impossible.
WB Yes because in the old days you had to send your music to label, and they would send it back some month later...Now this is what i do full time, it is keeping me a float. I have to release on my own because it's the only way i can make any money. So i just do it myself and maybe one or two, here or there.
C : Yes you released on David Tibet 's Durtro label
WB : He has such a great following and he is such a sweet and talented man.
C : Yesterday you said before it started "The River is like a dream machine, fall in" the projection was such great quality, i would have loved more.
WB : It was 40 minutes long, but it doesn't seem like 40, that's the thing it totally collapses the time. The movie is made by James Elaine, it looks like Brion Gysin's dream machine. He put the camera down on the floor shooting the lights of an aluminium sparkling & twirling x-mas tree, and going out of focus, lowering the light speed and all this stuff. Everything we do is very simple and cheaply done usually.
C : It reminds experimental cinema like Len Lye or Jurgen Reble. But what about the Disintegration loops film, Melancholia film. Is there others?
WB : Most of the other ones are nice shorts, like Trailers for 1000 films.
C : I've read you are deeply fascinated by Wong Kar Wai's 2046?
WB : I'd love to do a soundtrack for him. I don't know how to but...Maybe one of these days we will meet somewhere...
C : The static shot of The Disintegration loops film recalls Andy Warhol's Empire State Building
WB : Yes i really like a static frame and then you let a movement be the picture. The movement is what happens inside, in the frame.
C : Mourning seems to be one of natural favorite human pleasure. I'd like to to quote Mark Kingwell (Toronto 1963) "It feels good in a way, and this is something you find hard to defend rationally but nevertheless appeciate. The pain is real yet exquisite...delicious. Admit it: somehow mourning is a pleasure. You know this is true. This is not masochism, it's wallowing....Pain is always also a pleasure, and the pleasure of pain is one of the most interesting we know." And i was thinking about the Disintegration loops serie. How did you decided to combine your music with this 9/11 tragedy. Was it consciously or not a way to communicate with a larger audience?
WB : Basically this disintegration loops really blew my mind. I was in a depressed state, then i read this little zen book that i had, and get in the studio and work. So i picked up where i left with the archiving, and came to these loops, put one in the machine and my god! These loops were fantastic, i started recording, went to get some coffee and came back and noticed it was changing. I looked and i saw what was happening. After an hour it was finished. Then i went on to the next one, in a period of 2 days i had this giant 5 hour work. Each one of these melodies was like a person, and their life and death was recorded which i thought was extremely profound. So i was listening to these things over some months and 9/11 came. There were so much paranoia, misinformation, fighter jet in the sky, siren, horrible! Like the end of the world! We had got this government we didn't elected, now this stuff happened, perfect for them. You know the world is a mess.
C Yes more than never
WB Absolute nonsense...So i went on the roof to shoot that night on 9/11. Just framed it, and let it go. So then I started relating the piece to what was happening. I used stills from the video for the covers. It was difficult to make that decision because i did not want to do a profit or something like that. Everyone was profoundly affected, the whole art world went to freeze mode, changing shows, deciding what was appropriate or not to the situation...It seems like there was going to be this really cool shift were suddenly things that were not important would be moved to the front, but that went away pretty quick.
C : How is it now?
WB : It's not the same, It is so wealthy, so expensive. You have to be super rich. The loft we had is something impossible nowadays. But you know L.A. has a great art scene, art schools...Great weather, place where you can work. There is a lot of life out there, somehow, even through it is also expensive.
C : You are touring for 1 month in Europe, this is pretty new for you isn't it? Never been to Japan?
WB : I'd love to go to Japan, to set it up right, when it's time to.
C : How do you prepare a live set?
WB : For some show i have tape loops with decks so i mix live. Yesterday it was a multimedia presentation and i was mixing some music here and there, i found those the hardest one to do, i mean i like to play instruments, i played in bands, but people don't mind watching someone in front of a laptop...Whatever they want! (rire)
C : What do you listen?
WB : I don't listen that much, i never was a record collector or buyer, i don't know what to do in a record store.
C : What about your last cd The Garden of brokenness? I like the fact that you can forget there is a cd running because of all these almost blank parts.
WB : It is very much about your quotation on mourning. Yesterday i kept hearing the river in the humming sound in the elevator
C : What means 2062?
WB : The name of our production company is "Music and Media laboratories & unknown industries incorporated", and we abbreviate it in MMLXII, and it's too hard to say MMLXII so in roman numerals : 2062 : much easier to say! And i like the numbers.
C : What's next for you?
WB : Well we are working on this new -- waterlilly piece for a gallery in LA. We have a wonderful young gallery now in LA
C : Oh yes i saw an article in ArtForum about that.
WB : Yes i played over there with sunset
C : What's yr favorite context for a venue?
WB : I like doing things Outdoor, like in LA. I'd love to do "the river" in a roman antic theater in Sicily or in Greece or something like that. Where you just see the stars and lay back and just sort of trip out
C : No video
WB : Yes no video (laughs) Just listening and looking
C : Are you still going to re-work/edit these piano loops experiments from your early 80's archives or something totally new?
WB : Yes there is a lot of archival stuff to come. I was hoping to be able do 2 a year, one new and one archival, but it takes so much work, a long time. And i have a tendency to listen and hold on the things for a while before i'm sure to release something.
C : You released quite a lot since 2001, it took a long to start, but now!
WB : My distributors (Forced Exposure) are great, they have good demand. It's going alone. I live in my shell, sometimes come out...