For dead friends and heroes — an interview with William Basinski

William Basinski’s newest work, “A Shadow in Time,” is for dead friends and heroes. The first track, “For David Robert Jones,” is an ambient eulogy for David Bowie that utilizes a rethought aesthetic for Basinski, and “A Shadow in Time” is a droning work that celebrates the life of friends that Basinski has lost.

I had the distinct pleasure of talking to William Basinski to discuss his newest album, his relationship with David Bowie, and the apocalyptic nature of his music.


Phillip: What was your personal and artistic relationship to David Bowie?

William: I’d been working on the title track, “A Shadow in Time,” for about a year. I started hearing things from friends, sending me their records, and it was like Salvador Dali used to say, “They’re plagiarizing my thoughts!” I was getting frustrated. And then it all came together, rather quickly, “For David” with the two tape loops, that I had to dig really deep to find, then I started back into “A Shadow In Time,” and finding ways to meld the two together. It came together really the way I wanted it to, finally. So the David Bowie tribute was a catalyst to help me finish the whole record.

P: Did you know David Bowie?

W: No, but I had met him once. When I was 25, in 1983, I was playing with this English rockabilly band, The Rockats. And I’d done some shows with them in New York City. They were on RCA for a short time, as was Patti Smith. Bowie had her opening for him in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but she got sick and had to drop out, so they called The Rockats. They called me to ask if I wanted to do it, so I said “Hell yeah!” At that time I had a cassette tape of short wave music with me that I wanted to give to Bowie. I was much too nervous to waltz into his dressing room and chat him up while he was getting ready. After our show, I was talking to his manager and asked him if he would give him the tape. I described it a little bit, and the manager asked if I would like to meet him. He said Bowie was coming on stage. So he walks on stage, and here he is with his yellow suit and yellow pompadour, and he comes up to me and says, “Hello Billy! Loved hearing your sax playing man, that was really beautiful, really great. Well the boss is waiting for me, I have to get off to the office now, would you like to watch from the wings?” I was like “Yeah that’d be great!” That was my run in with the starman.

P: What kind of artistic influence did he have on you?

W: Well, he was Bowie! I wanted to be him. I wanted to be him since I found out who he was. He was different, and strange, and ya know, androgynous, and alien… and everything. I will be 60 next year. I was around for all the 70’s glitter rock shit and Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs and all those amazing albums. Then we would have to deal with the fact that he would just drop everything and get a new band and do something else, every year or two, which was kind of frustrating but then you’d get into it and go with it. Yeah, he was fucking amazing. I love the man.

P: How long after he passed did you decide you wanted to dedicate a piece to him?

W: Well, it was within the two weeks after he died. I was shocked and going through all his music and crying. It was intense. That’s not right. It’s just not right! That ain’t right. But yeah, I had this invitation to do this little show, I had just gotten back from a tour. They just wanted a tape deck on a table with a loop on it or something. But I couldn’t find anything I liked. So I dug deep and found these two cat chewed remnants of loops. So I spliced them together and got something great. The first was this orchestral one that was probably next in line after The Disintegration Loops to be edited before the cat yanked them down off the mic stand and chewed them up. I just put them away until I found them in January, about this time last year. And when we heard that first one, we loved it, so I recorded it into the computer. I pulled out the next one and it was like “this is the right kind of wrong, it reminds me of like subterraneans off the B side of Low… I know what this is! This is going to be for David. This is going to be for David Robert Jones, who gave us David Bowie.” It just happened really quickly so we recorded it onto a 5 inch reel to reel, about 20 minutes per side, so they could have it running in a gallery for about three days. Loops break. You can’t have a loop on a deck for three days. No one knows how to deal with them, and I would’ve had to been there and I couldn’t so… that’s how it happened!

P: So you began “A Shadow in Time” before Bowie passed?

W: I began “A Shadow in Time” shortly after I finished with “Cascade.” So it was a couple of years ago.

P: You changed that piece to compliment “For David” better?

W: When “For David” came out, it was like an easy birth. It was one of these babies that came out happy and smiling. Like my Irish twin Peter, who was born 11 months after me. I was the crybaby and looked like the devil when I was born. He popped out all cute, blue eyes, Chinese eyes. Adorable. That was the end of it for me. Anyways! It was a catalyst for me to find my way through what I was doing on “Shadow” and to be able to bring it all together. Then I wove in bits of some of that into sections of “For David” to go with the two tape loops. Some subtle things at the beginning, some at the end.

P: How do you know that you’ve found what you’re looking for? Or when a piece is completed?

W: You know. It’s like “Oh yeah! This is it!” And sometimes you have to get away from things for a while and ya know, God, it took me so many years to release things… anyways. That was partly because there wasn’t any interest at the time. Yeah, you know when something’s done. Sometimes they pop right out and sometimes you have to dig. And pull things out. And put things in and pull things out, and you move some things around and you try to find your way, and you do, eventually. Or you abandon it and move on to something else.

P: Is determining the length of a piece the same way?

W: It depends. Some pieces, like the ever lasting loops and things, they can go as long as the medium will hold because they are meant to just go on forever anyways. So. If it works. But I don’t want it to become redundant or anything, so there has to be something special about it for it to be able to go for the whole side of the record, or the whole album or something. But, the length determines itself. It decides.

P: Do you know the book “Drone and Apocalypse” by Joanna Demers?

W: Yeah I do! I don’t think I have it, but I should get it. Joanna is great. She’s a big fan, a great supporter, a wonderful musicologist. I am so honored to have her behind me.

P: She says that you music “holds no secret message, no code, and nothing to interpret, nothing in the midst of everything beautiful.” What is your response?

W: She is the man, well mistress! Haha! I mean, yeah, I could say she’s right. The secret code, if there is one, is love, and it’s from me to you. I put all of whatever I have into these pieces, and if they get released you can do with them as you will.

P: She refers to your music is apocalyptic. Is “A Shadow in Time” in the same vein of apocalyptic music as The Disintegration Loops, or some of your other pieces?

W: No, it isn’t. To me the two pieces, in a way, they’re both for the lost. The album is for dead friends and heroes. David Bowie is the hero. “Shadow in Time” is for my unfortunate young friend, Tai Tai in China, who kind of pulled a Thomas Chatterton at age 24. He had what he called his shadows, and he killed himself. He jumped out of his apartment window and died. But he left hard drives with a whole bunch of photographs, one of which is on the cover. He would do these street performances at night in Beijing. Under his direction, a friend would photograph him, what he was doing. The first piece was for Tai Tai. Together, in a way, on the album, you have “For David” first. That is like a New Orleans funeral. The bands go down the street playing and everyone is marching along with the casket. It’s a very somber thing. But then there’s a party afterwards, with the joy. “Shadow” is like out to the stars, out to the universe, and beyond. Kind of how I think of those two in a way. It’s transformation. It’s not the end, it’s part of life.

Featured image courtesy of The New Yorker.

Read our review for “A Shadow in Time” here.

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