Bill Laurance is a great piano player, producer and composer. He’s well known for his work in Snarky Puppy, but you have to hear his music to understand all the qualities and reasons why he is one of the best musicians alive. We had a conversation backstage before his concert with Snarky Puppy in Mexico, and this is what happened…
Teatro Metropolitan. December, 2017
-When I wrote this critic revew about your album Flint, I started by saying how those records transcend when there’s all this music, when you feel like there is nothing new. Your record is amazing because you can hear all this styles, there is samba mixed with a classic music violin; I also heard minimalism with hip hop and some 80’s and 90’s pop. It is insane. You took so many styles and put them together: you created something new. That is what makes a real artist. Talk to me about all this process of taking all this knowledge to create something new.
-I guess it’s been a long process because I actually made three records that never got released and roll in very different styles, each one of them. I did a jazz record, I did a pop singing album when I was singing and I realized I wasn’t a singer, then I found a singer and did the record with her.
I guess previously I tried to categorize myself and afterwards I felt I actually rather than try to be a specific genre I am just going to be all the genres because that’s all the music I’ve come to love and I think that’s really the most sincere passionate work I’m trying to do. I guess I’ve realized that really worked and as an artist you obviously got to find the most sincere place. Because that ultimately work speaks to people: Sincerity and honesty. I love all those styles as long as I can remember so I kind of feel like I got to include them.
-You know? A part of me actually hates definitions because it is very difficult to see the expressions of us as human beings as totalities. But I am also a language lover and I also need those concepts and definitions. So I was thinking that somehow you reinvented jazz fusion. I mean, you do not sound like jazz fusion, but you have the same elements: you have synthesizers, all these electric sounds, you took many music styles together.
-Thank you, it’s kind of you to say it because I think it is the roll of the artist too to find new sounds, to push boundaries. When I am writing I am thinking: “have I ever heard this before?” and if I have I keep working until creating something that I have not. I follow that.
– What would you say… are you a composer or an improviser?
-I am both. Improvising is a form of composition in a way to say in many aspects…
-Tell me everything about it.
-They are different in many things. Composition is recorded. Improvisation is as you go, you got to bump it up. Recording is melody. Improvisation is composition in a spontaneous form. Obviously you can’t go back and rework but I feel like the nucleus of the genesis of composition stands from improvisation. Anything on writing starts by improvisation: the melody or jumpy or bass line is improvising, all the time, in my creative process.
-Tell me your story as a musician.
-I grew up on ragtime first. Then there was swinging.
-That is very difficult!
-Yeah. Scott Joplin stuff. I did scales, grades and all that stuff in classical music so I that I could play ragtime, basically so… And then when I was about 14 I got a gig in a restaurant. I was playing every night for about three summers on a roll in this restaurant in Soho in London and that’s where I actually learn to play.
-How does a kid from London get to start as a musician in London playing ragtime?
-My first piano teacher was a ragtime player. He kind of distills this sense of joy from the beginning. It was always fun. Being at the piano was an opportunity to create an atmosphere. We actually created a technique together: I had to do the grades and that was tough. But it was always so that I could play ragtime though. It was kind of the main goal. But yeah, I was very fortunate that my first teacher had this amazing personality, he was very full of character and life so when he sat down at the piano it was just beautiful the way he turned out the room on and I just watched the power of that and just wanted to recreate it for myself.
Then you got gigs for playing in the background, dinner jazz at a restaurant when no one was really listening, they were just eating a stake or whatever. But I was forced to learn repertoire so I kind of developed music in all styles. A lot of jazz. That residency was very integral in developing most of the languages. And then I studied classical and did a mayor in composition in the Lee University and conducted an orchestra there, it was an amazing experience and it was after that that I met Michael League, from Snarky Puppy. Snarky Puppy didn’t exist at that point though, we hit it off and he invited me over to Dallas to record the first Snarky Puppy album, that was 14 years ago and we’ve been touring ever since really. And I’ve just played my 4th album myself and yeah, it’s been amazing. I guess the one thing I also realized was… more recently I have met most of my idols and that’s been an amazing thing… I had dinner with Herbie Hancock last year and it was just… you know?
-Awesome. What did he say?
-We talked about Buddhism, about meditation and about chanting. About the aspiration to be present, that’s the goal. He’s like an active Buddhist and he’s constantly doing chants and stuff. He’s got really deep into it. His music has kind of let him there. So this is kind of another thing I’m working on with my own music, trying to be one hundred percent in the moment and not holding into an idea I had before or reaching something I know it’s not going to happen. I am just trying to be complete in present, so I’m not going to play the same thing. That’s kind of the goal, to find something new, to create all the time.
– As far as I’ve read or as far as I know about all my idols, maybe all of them have this in common: they were reaching for spirituality through the music and that is incredible.
-Without a doubt. You are absolutely right. I found the same thing. I met Ahmed Jamal in Brazil last year, he’s exactly the same, he is Muslim but it’s like his music and his faith are one of the same. And I’m not religious myself but I do believe in faith and I believe that music is an integral part of spirituality. It’s one of the few art forms that is able to penetrate that part of human existence, I suppose.
I also met Stevie Wonder last year and I asked him: “you have a pearl of wisdom for youngest fine musicians” and he said: “we are the glue of society and it’s our role to bring love and unity to this planet”. And I was like: Oh, wow, Stevie nailed it.
-He always does! Haha!
-You know? Years ago I was into Dizzy Gillespie and I read some interviews that different journalist did to him and he was always getting into those points and talking about him learning about all this religious things but not being religious… about him creating his own spirituality. He’s so unique. And then I heard Stevie Wonder talking the same way in his concerts in this time that we are practically killing each other again… I mean, those words are amazing right now.
-Yeah. Arts and journalism are very important, but music it’s kind of unique and has this universal way that glues the world together and brings this celestial quality as well that you cannot really find in other art forms. So it has an inherit spiritually about it… I feel like part of becoming a good musician is getting in touch with your spirit, however that can manifest itself.
-Wow. I never want to end this conversation… What are your projects right now?
-I wrote a score for a feature film in the summer. It’s the first movie I created a score for. It has been nominated to the Sundance Festival. It’s called “El traductor”. It’s an amazing film about an Spanish translator of Russian who translates for this victims of the Chernobyl disaster. It’s quite of powerful and bleak film but really amazing.
Right now I’m working on my fifth album, which is going to be a solo album. It starts with a solo piano and it kind of evolved to become other keyboard instruments basically but it it’s primarily around the piano. I’m having all these different keyboards, no bands, no strings, no horns. I’m kind of setting myself that challenge so I can kind of see what comes out.
-Your training was merely a classical approach to piano… Classical music and ragtime. That is, in terms of fingers and what you can do with the instrument, it’s still very classical. Maybe rhythmically or harmonically, it’s different but the hands are still classical. Tonight you’re playing a Rhodes and other synthesizers. So, how was your journey to find the sounds in these other keyboards. Was it with Snarky Puppy or… how was the search for those sounds?
-That’s a very good question. I think when I left university. Because up to that point what I studied was classical music the whole way. So once I left university I self-consciously turned my back on classical music for works that I had no mastered. I wanted to explore as many other genres as I could get my hands on. I played in a reggae band, in a pop band and lots of jazz bands and I did a bit of classical, then I did some electronic, some stuff with synthesizers and drum machines and dance music. And just tried to master myself in all of that really, because I felt like every time I discover a new genre I felt like a richer musician. I also travel a lot, I went to India, I went to the Himalayas… partially studying the music that was there and just trying to learn as much as I could.
About these synthesizers, I’ve always been a Herbie Hancock fan. He’s kind of my guy from day one… but also Michael Jackson. I am interested in all the kind of ways I can marry classical world with any other world. I got this piano solo concept but now I’m trying to run the piano three different effects so it’s like an acoustic instrument but I’m kind of running delays and reverbs, distortion and try to make the piano not sound like a real piano. Then adding other synthesizers as well. I think the wide of the spectrum of influence and of the colored sounds, the more interesting it can be. Especially when you marry these things. I’m trying to break walls between all these genres, this different styles can coexist. The challenge I set myself is how I can marry them as well as possible.
-Is there anything you would like to add to the Mexican audience?
-I would love to come and play here with my project. I started touring all over the world now with my stuff. We just had our first tour in Japan and I’ve been touring Europe for a while now and we’ve been touring the States as well… South America and Center America. Hopefully it won’t be long before it happens.
-Let’s work on it!
-Yeah. Let’s do it!
Dear Bill, I loved this conversation, I love your music and I love your knowledge. Thanks for being so unique!