The avant-garde composer on new album Lamentations, his jazz project Sparkle Division, the effects of being unable to tour, and cultivating a rich domestic life
When asked how he’s stayed productive, stuck in lockdown in the stifling Los Angeles smog and heat, William Basinski is remarkably candid. “You know actually, I’ve done jack shit except doom scroll, poison myself with garbage, drink too much and smoke too much.” Although the sentiment is probably one shared by the majority of people going through the COVID-19 pandemic, Basinski is being a little disingenuous, seeing as he is due to release new record Lamentations, the fourth from the charmingly approachable avant-garde composer since the start of the year.
After putting out a collection of tone poems in collaboration with Jennifer Jaffe from the 1980s art collective TODT entitled Hymns Of Oblivion, a live improvisation with sound artist Richard Chartier entitled Something From The Pink House on his own imprint 2062, and the jazz album recorded with engineer Preston Wendel under the name Sparkle Division that came out in July, Lamentations is a return to both to Basinski’s trademark minimalist sound and Temporary Residence, the label he’s permanently linked to.
He explains the sudden apparent burst of activity thus: “These things were already in the works, the Hymns record was something that I never got to finish the way I wanted to back in the ’80s, because the computer died, and then at the beginning of the pandemic, I was looking at it and thought ‘this is good, I should make it digital, put it out on Bandcamp Friday, throw up an image and see what happens’. Jennifer and I were neighbours and friends, she gave me stacks of poems and I would start with the one on the top of the pile, make a loop and it just built from there.
“Eventually I moved to our loft, Arcadia. I was able to get a studio built, put in some synthesisers, a computer and a mixing desk and was practicing going maximal. I realised no one was getting what I was doing with my other work so I tried to do something more accessible. Well,” he laughs, “it wasn’t accessible at the time. They wanted pop music and it was a little too Goth, and too early, and so I finally decided, after 30 years, let’s just drop this. And people loved it.”
When asked about the release of the home improv recording, he answers ”The beautiful record I did with Richard was another thing where we had worked on it forever, and so we finally fixed all the little parts, he did the cover and we put it out. Richard has been doing some wonderful stuff; both solo and with his band Pinkcourtesyphone. We’re all trying to be as productive as possible under the circumstances. But I’m not going to do house concerts, that sort of thing. That’s not me.”
The unstable subject of live performances is a matter he clearly holds close to his heart. Known, as he is, for the near religious experiences that multiple audience members have confessed to having at his immersive concerts dowm the years, a large component of his work is now absent. Covid-19 has decimated the touring circuit across the globe and audiences are unsure when it will return. “Touring is dead,” he mournfully states. “I do miss it, so much, for of a number of reasons. Firstly I take better care of myself when I’m on tour with Danilo.” He’s referring to the calming influence of Danilo Pellegrinelli, his trusted tour manager. “Secondly, even though it’s exhausting when I travel from California to Europe, all the great shows and festivals are there.”
Basinski appears to feel particularly sanguine about the effects that the current downturn is having on the staff at the European venues he visits. “I often get there exhausted, perform, go to the next place and do it again and again until eventually after a week I feel better. By doing that, by going through soundcheck, figuring out the sound of the room, you build up connections with all these great people around you. And that’s the worst thing about this awful pandemic. OK, I just lost $200,000 for my world tour that was supposed to happen this year, but all these other people, they have no livelihood and it’s really fucked up. All the sound people, the promoters, everybody at the venue, the bar tenders, you name it, we’re all screwed and so I feel terrible. I have been feeling exhausted from touring for 15 years and kind of wanted a break but, not like this, not afraid to leave the house or you’re going to die.”
“I have been feeling exhausted from touring for 15 years and kind of wanted a break but, not like this, not afraid to leave the house or you’re going to die”
Despite the piling on of financial and logistical troubles, he is cultivating a rich domestic life, one he is fiercely protective of, and that was integral to the recording made with Chartier. “We painted our little rental house in Venice Beach pink and we called it The Pink House, it was charming little place with beautiful gardens, peach trees and all kinds of flowers, it was wonderful. I could ride my bicycle to the beach. James was living there when he started at Hammer Museum, so I would come from New York to visit and I loved California, so now I’m here.” The James that Basinski refers to is his partner, the artist James Elaine. “James runs a non-profit gallery in Beijing called Telescope, he shows emerging artists and also has an amazing show on here in LA now at Bridge Projects in Hollywood. It’s beautiful and big, almost like a museum show. There’s a second one coming in January”.
The Elaine family influence continues on the Lamentations album artwork. “That’s James’ brother David’s handiwork. They were his last paintings before he died of Aids in ’86, his best work. We were lucky enough to get a couple of them.” Made with blowtorches and oil, it resembles a murky riverbank or ravaged coastline being rapidly washed away. Asked if the album is a reflection on the present state of the world, rife with pollution, corruption and right wing disinformation, Basinski starts to explain. “It’s been going on for centuries. All these motherfuckers have monetised everything and now the money is virtual, living in a post office box in the Cayman Islands, swimming around with trillions of dollars of dirty money and these people can’t get enough. They’re more worried about money than people and I’m sick of it, I’m not having it. It’s all through Europe and it’s the same here because the messaging hasn’t been right. We know where it’s coming from. That’s something else we’ve lost our minds over the last four years, this maniacal mess. If you have any other questions about the details, you should ask Anohni. She’s been talking about this for years.”
“I love the beautiful eternal loops that go on forever, that’s what I like and normally put out and these were the sad little rejects that I wasn’t sure about”
Due to the technical and political difficulties the music industry is facing, Lamentations is coming out six months later than anticipated. “All the issues with production, mastering, distribution and so on has held things up. I wanted this to come out in the spring but thankfully it’s coming out now. These were loops that were sort of rejects. I love the beautiful eternal ones that go on forever, that’s what I like and normally put out, and these were the sad little rejects that I wasn’t sure about. I pulled these out last summer and felt, these are really dark, and they’re broken sections.”
Explaining their origin, he revealed, “I made them whilst I’d been researching Balkan music for an opera.” The opera in question, The Life And Death Of Marina Abramović by the esteemed composer Robert Wilson, starred Willem Dafoe and Anohni alongside the renowned conceptual artist. It premiered to acclaim back in 2011. “The famous Serbian musicologist and folk singer Svetlana Spajić, who is saving and teaching Balkan folk music with her ensemble, was part of the cast and she sang an original track called Lamentation. This was something that I thought I wanted on the record.”
This appreciation for cultural art forms continues on some of the song titles which reference major literary works (Paradise Lost, Silent Spring, For Whom The Bell Tolls). But, wanting to extract some form of participation and engagement from the passive listener, he warns: ”I’m not really going to explain this album but people can research the titles and figure out where we’re going here. There are clues but the music is the music. They can listen to it and if it resonates, it resonates. I’m not going to sit and write a paper, I’m not an academic who explains everything. I don’t expect this album to be one that people play over and over again, I really don’t. This is a moment in time, a statement. These are my lamentations about the shit that’s been going on forever, how they’re going to kill us all and the planet. The planet will survive, but humanity may just be done.”
“I’m not really going to explain this album but people can research the titles and figure out where we’re going here. There are clues but the music is the music”
It’s apparent that this need for closure and explanation pains Basinski somewhat, and so we circle back to discussing the production of the Sparkle Division record and watch as instantly his eyes light up with affection for his assistant. “Recording it was amazing. We worked on that for years and it was super fun. We had a ball doing it and sometimes we argued, too. Preston would bring me this crazy stuff I’d never heard before and I’d be like ‘I don’t know, it’s not my thing’, but he’s been such an amazing assistant to me and helped on every album I’ve done over the last seven years and so we just sort of went from one song to the next, and I got to sequence it.” Was he aware of this archive of music that Wendel has been quietly working on? “I knew he was a composer and he had the microphones right there. He is funky as shit with his beats and he inspired me to blow out the sax and bring back my old style. He brought all the jazzy undercurrents, and I decided I wanted the Mancini strings!”
The other revelation on the record was its surprise guests. Not only does it feature the vocals of late Williamsburg eccentric Leonora Russo, there was also a surprise appearance from a free jazz legend. “We managed to get the genius Henry Grimes to play on a track before he passed away. We sent it to him, he loved it, studied the songs, went into his favourite studio and recorded five takes which the engineer sent back to us, and we cut it all together. I’m really glad we got it out this summer, even if you couldn’t be on the beach or in clubs with cocktails and out dancing, you could be home with cocktails and dancing.”
Aware of the passing of time, we ask what the future might hold both for him, and his audience, to which Basinski wearily responds, “As Bobbie Gentry said in her Number 1 hit Ode To Billie Joe, I think it’s the second or third verse; ‘Momma don’t feel like doing much of anything no more’ so we’ll see.” We suddenly worry that he might be feeling permanently defeated by all this uncertainty, but a crafty smile forms across his face. “You know, I used to play in jazz and blues bands. The blues is a big part of my upbringing. I had the blues, and when I started playing the saxophone, that’s what I loved. I didn’t really love bebop and all that technical stuff. I loved free jazz later and learned from that, but the blues is simple music and it touched me. Because if you can sing or play the blues or you’ve got the blues, you’re going to feel better.” Lamentations is proof that against an avalanche of suffering and pain, the beauty of the world around can and will lift even the heaviest of hearts.
William Basinski’s album Lamentations is out through Temporary Residence on 13 November 2020. Further information can be found here.