I could hear the sigh of relief when I told William Basinski that I would not be asking him many questions about The Disintegration Loops. Of course, the collection looms large over the musician’s career and it was impossible not mention it during our 40 minute phone call.
But the present is really about looking into the past, the dissolution (and resurrection) of which Basinski is so gamely versed. The Los Angeles-based performer has re-released his 1979 composition A Red Score in Tile on his own 2062 label. Like contemporaries Jacaszek and Richard Chartier, Basinski’s music is haunted and spectral. So much so that I wasn’t prepared for the warmth and openness with which he greeted me on the telephone.
We were enjoying an unseasonably sunny day when I called Basinski, his Los Angeles awash with rain. During our call we discussed reissues, being an artist and crying to Antony and the Johnsons. I’m proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with William Basinski.
In our current day and age, it seems the patience needed to listen to a long piece of music or album doesn’t exist. Do you feel people who record a track that is 45 minutes long are an anachronism or is there a place for them in our society today?
Well, I think there is believe it or not. As someone whose short pieces are 15 minutes long it seems that in the last 10 years there are people who kind of love this long work that changes time in a way.
What about people that are into music that doesn’t really make you work?
Everyone has their own taste.
We are talking here because you are reissuing A Red Score in Tile which is from the late ‘70s. So why now?
It was out of print for the last few years and I just wanted to release it on 2062 for the first time. So we pressed it and my buddy Richard Chartier made a new package design for it that’s designed the way we originally wanted it to be. In the original packaging we had a miscommunication and it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. Anyway, it’s out again and people can buy it if they like.
In postmodernist theory, the artist’s intent doesn’t really matter in the listener’s experience. However, if you could appear in my living room and set the perfect environment for me to listen to this piece what would you suggest?
Oh, I don’t know. Put it on, smoke a joint and trip out (laughs).
Smoking a joint would make anything interesting, wouldn’t it?
I don’t know. It depends on how you respond to that sort of thing.
When you are creating a loop, how do you know when the piece is completed? A Red Score in Tile is about 45 minutes in length, correct?
Yeah. Now, A Red Score in Tile was really just one tape loop. The length is from the length of one side of a cassette. That was how it was recorded originally. Maybe it was recorded on the other side of the cassette. In those days, there were some cassette players that would switch and go backwards and play the other side if you set it to do that. Auto reverse or something like that. So, then you can have this music that is just endless. It’s basically about an eternal loop and the 45 minutes is about what you can get on one side of a cassette. It’s 70 minutes on a CD or seven hours on a DVD. It could just be repeated.
So it’s something I can put on repeat and totally zone out to it or get into it.
Have you heard of the Buddha Machine?
Oh yeah! I met one of those guys in China a few years ago and did a concert there with him at the Contemporary Art Museum and he gave me a Buddha Machine made out of pressed tea.
Like tea bags?
Yeah, a really, really special kind of tea pressed into a little Buddha Machine.
So you could drink it?
You could shave off a little bit. It doesn’t play. It’s just tea (laughs).
I was going to say, it would be pretty remarkable if it did play. Back to A Red Score in Tile, did you compose it back in 1979? Have you revisited it in the past 35 years or has it been filed away?
Every time it gets pressed I have to make sure it sounds right and everything. I found the loop recently somewhere. So, the loop is still around. When I do my concerts I still perform some loops that are from that period.
Has your relationship with it changed over the past 35 years?
Oh, it’s a tender piece. It’s extremely melancholy. It’s one of those magical ones for me. It’s a special child, I think.
Is it one of your favorites?
Yeah, it was one of the first kind of astonishing experiments that blew my mind. I was a 21-year-old attempting to make music. It excited and shocked me and I found it to be incredibly beautiful.
In an interview, you said that The Disintegration Loops fell from the sky and into your lap. Do you feel the same way about this one?
They all surprise me and that’s what I like. You have to show up for work and everything but sometimes wonderful things can happen if you allow them to and that’s what I like. If I had to think of every note I would be bored to bits.
What state is your brain in when you’re creating something like A Red Score in Tile?
It’s selfish and definitely focused. Working with tape loops is interesting is because you’re working with your fingers and a piece of plastic and scissors and scotch tape. Then you’re recording on the machines. There are tricks that I do and try. How will this work and how will it affect it? I wonder if we get it to record over itself a few times, what will that do? You stop and see what you got and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
When it comes to titling a piece, how does that come about?
I’ve been lucky to have my partner, James Elaine. He’s a wonderful artist and great poet with titling. He’s a real inspiration. A Red Score in Tile is from a period in San Francisco when I was doing soundtracks for Jamie’s paintings. He had great titles for his paintings and A Red Score in Tile was the title of a painting of which there’s a detail on the front cover and a detail on the back cover. A Red Score in Tile is a big 10’x10’ square unstretched canvas painting painted in red acrylic paint in very thin layers with layers of gel medium on top and then built up with this grid of thin masking tape so as it builds up the layers more tape on top of the tape. He created this big, red tile surface almost, like a big, red tile wall. On top of that were these taxidermied animals, also painted thickly glossy red kind of sliding down this wall. That’s the coyote painting on the cover.
I see the title as a double entendre were the “score” could be a musical score or also like a mark.
Yeah, Jamie’s really good that way. You could also translate tile like time or something like that.
That’s the interesting thing about reissues. Things that existed pre-internet are now popular via technology that didn’t exist in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Time is vaulting forward with the same art but via a different medium or milieu.
It’s amazing what can happen when people get to hear stuff they could never hear before. You had to be signed by a label and there weren’t that many independent labels back then. It was pretty discouraging. It’s pretty amazing what’s happened the past 10 years for me with the music. I’m very happy.
You are an unlikely darling indie set. Press from sites like Pitchfork gave your music….
Oh listen, it’s so amazing. The support has been incredible.
So you’re in Los Angeles now, right?
Yeah and the sun just came out now and it’s all sparkly and wet.
But during the late ‘70s you lived in San Francisco.
Yeah, I was there with Jamie. After I left school in Texas, I went there and lived there until March, 1980 when Jamie and I packed up and moved to New York.
So how did you find your way to Los Angeles and what’s the draw?
New York became too expensive. Jamie had been out here working as a curator at the Hammer Museum. He and his boss came out here in 1999 and started a very wonderful, new kind of program that they had developed at the Drawing Center in New York and turned what was the biggest dud in town into one of the most vibrant and wonderful museums in Los Angeles. They really helped turn attention to LA as an art world destination. So, he was out here and I would come out here to see him. I would go back and forth. Pretty much our lease was up and that was it. It was going to be $10,000 a month for a big loft in New York. So I moved out here in 2008 for good.
What appeals to you about Los Angeles?
You know what? New York never lets up on you. There’s nothing like New York but it can really wear you down after a while. California, after 30 years in New York, is so pretty. The weather is beautiful. There’s the beach, flowers. It’s quiet where I live and I can hear my music. I have flowers and birds and butterflies. It’s pretty great. So there’s that.
Do you miss the pulse and intensity of New York?
Oh, sometimes. Not the intensity so much. I had a lot of friends there for years. It’s easy to get around on the subway or taxi. Here, you have to drive everywhere and the traffic is terrible. But, I don’t really have to commute so it’s okay.
I lived in New York for a few years and one of the reasons I moved away is because you have to fight for every inch of space.
I had friends that moved to Portland from New York. Where did you live in New York?
I lived in Yonkers and in Brooklyn.
Where in Brooklyn?
Park Slope. I was there from 2001-2003.
Ooooh. Intense times!
People were really shocked and it seemed to last for months, I think. The fires burned until Christmas, for God’s sake. People were really thinking about everything. But I guess everyone forgot and went shopping.
The hardest thing for me was seeing all the pictures of the missing up in the subway and then they just eventually eroded or were covered up.
So were you in Park Slope that day?
No, I was in Yonkers that day. It was my first day of graduate school.
Oh my god, that’s right!
We still had class and the teacher made us write about how we felt about this fucking thing.
Oh my god!
I was in a room of strangers and I’m thinking, “What the hell am I going to say about this thing?”
As it’s happening?! Oh my god.
I remember it was a beautiful day. That whole week was beautiful.
Yeah, it was extraordinarily beautiful.
Anyway, you left San Francisco right after you finished A Red Score in Tile….
Yeah, I was working on that and some other piano tape loops. I was really in a frenzy of trying everything. It was so exciting because I found a way to create things that I never could have dreamed of. I was 21, you know. I was on fire.
9/11 was such a demarcation point, but how did the emergence of AIDS affect your group of friends or your music? It came right after you moved to New York.
Yeah, that’s right. Oh, it was horrible. Jamie’s brother David died of AIDS in 1986 in a hospital in Dallas. The nurses didn’t even want to touch him. It was very, very devastating. We lost a lot of friends. Here we were in our twenties seeing people get old and die. It was very, very horrifying. Very frightening. The ‘80s was pretty intense. The Cold War. Jamie was a very intense painter and artist and his work was maybe a little too much for the collective at that time. He addressed all of it. We all tried to in our art.
What was it like being an artist then?
It was really exciting. We were youngsters in New York. We had saved up about $5,000, which was like a fortune at the time. That is how we finally found our loft and built it together. Our money was gone then and we had to get jobs. So we got crazy jobs. We started working and we eventually started meeting people in the art world. Going to museums and going to galleries in SoHo and wondering if we were going to see Andy Warhol. We had fun.
Is there a scene like that now or someone of equivalent stature to Andy Warhol?
Gosh, I don’t know. Young people coming out of school or going to college find ways of doing these things. They have the energy. They are invincible. Certainly SoHo is now a shopping mall, but kids are way out in Bushwick doing all kinds of stuff. It’s spreading all over the city where there are affordable places for people to live. Also, all across the country. Not everyone can afford to move to New York anymore so people are staying in smaller towns and creating their own scenes and it’s great.
It has also moved to the internet. If you can’t be in New York or another cultural hub, you can connect through the web.
When A Red Score came out in ’79, was it on cassette or vinyl?
It didn’t come out. Well, we listened to it and friends heard it, but no one heard it except a handful of people until Christoph Heemann released it on his label about 10 years ago. I made the music but I didn’t start a cassette label or anything. I just didn’t know where to send it. I would send it to certain labels but no one ever bought it.
Critically, The Disintegration Loops is considered the apex of your career. Do you agree with that?
It certainly launched my career. There’s no question about that. As far as what it is, I can’t tell you how astonished I was as it was happening and how stunned and mind-blown I was. It was a big deal. For it to be released and embraced in such a great way, that’s just gravy.
I heard it twice recently: in the film The Comedy and at a Nine Inch Nails show between their set and the opener’s.
Yeah, isn’t that great? (chuckles) It’s wild. And Sigur Rós played it on their recent tour too, did you know that? Last year, they asked me to open for them but I had other commitments and I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t get to play Madison Square Garden and Bill Graham (laughs). But I heard they were playing the music at their shows.
Out of curiosity, which recent bands interest you?
Oh god, David, I don’t know. I’ve never been a record collector. I quite often don’t have any music on or I’m working on something. Jamie is a major collector of records. He’s always listening to this, that or that other thing. I don’t know! What do I like? What have I heard? Let me think. Well, Richard Chartier has a side project called Pink Courtesy Phone that I think is terrific. We’re working on a new collaboration together. We’ve done two and now we’re going to do another one. We just finished it yesterday and I’m really happy with it. Let’s see…I really like that Pharrell Williams “Happy” song (laughs). It’s so funky. I think he’s terrific. Do you know that one?
Yeah, I know who he is.
He’s the vocalist on that Daft Punk song everyone is playing.
Is he? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I just saw him on the Grammies and I just thought he was adorable. Then somebody posted a link to that song on Facebook. Oh, he’s just so funky.
Is film something that is important to you?
I rarely get to see them except on airplanes and I didn’t get to see any of the new American films this year yet. I’m going to try to be better about it.
I’m jealous that you’re friends with Antony Hegarty. I’m not super emotional but when I saw him in concert it made me cry.
Oh, me too! I’m a big old crybaby, but Antony just breaks my heart. I’m so proud of him! How hard he’s worked and how far he’s taken his music. He cares so much about the world. He’s just wonderful. You know, he’s been so supportive, too. He got so much success with his record winning the Mercury Prize a few years ago. He’s the one who told everyone in England about The Disintegration Loops and David Tibet heard it and he told everyone at The Wire magazine. David Keenan wrote that wonderful feature on it and it just launched it. He’s had me go on tour with him a few times. He’s had me open for him on an Australia/Japan tour a few years ago. I got to play two nights at the Sydney Opera House. Amazing mother ship. I never thought I’d get to see it, much less get to resonate. So that was extraordinary.
How were the acoustics in that place?
Amazing. The crew was amazing. It was like, “Oh god, this is great!” We both worked together with Robert Wilson on the opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Have you heard about that?
Yeah, he also did The Black Rider with Tom Waits.
That’s right. Einstein on the Beach is also having a big tour now. But, this new piece is about Marina Abramovic and her life. She’s in it, playing herself and her demented mother. Willem Dafoe is the male lead. Antony wrote all of these beautiful songs and performs them. There’s a small pit orchestra that has some of his boys from the Johnsons and Matmos. There’s this amazing four woman group from Belgrade that sings traditional Balkan folk music, Svetlana Spajic’s group. They are incredible. We all put together this incredible show with beautiful music. I’m very proud of it. It just closed in New York at the Park Avenue Armory right before Christmas.
It would be nice if something like that made its way to Portland.
Eh, it’s an expensive and I don’t know if it’s going to happen again. But we’ll see, maybe. They are going to do a DVD of it.
Temporary Residence was nice enough to send me a copy of The Disintegration Loops boxset last year. I wasn’t expecting.
Wow, that’s nice!
I was actually riding my book to the post office and the package was there.
Woah (laughs)! I hope you had a big messenger bag.
I didn’t have anything. I was on my way to work so I balanced it on the handle bars and my knees the whole way. But tell me, what was your feeling when you held the box set for the first time?
Wow, I was like, “Oh. My. God. Look at this!” Amazing. I could have said no to Jeremy (deVine) when he asked me if I wanted to do this. At first I said, “But the pieces are so long, blah, blah, blah.” He’s like, “Classical records are long, too. They always break them up.” So I said yes, thank God and it just made a huge difference.