How ambient music legend William Basinski made his playful side step into dance music

Basinski’s latest project, Sparkle Division, has all the crackle and vitality of a 1970s disco

William Basinski defies expectations. 

The ambient composer, originally from Texas, will likely forever be associated with his monolithic four-album collection, The Disintegration Loops, an achingly beautiful set of decaying drones completed against the backdrop of 9/11. Like many of Basinski’s releases over the past two decades, it began with the source material of his tape pieces dating back to the late 1970s, using the natural deterioration of the analog medium as a compositional technique. Alongside Basinski’s haunting footage of the New York City skyline in the aftermath of the World Trade Center’s collapse, his music is now displayed permanently in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. This vast, mournful masterpiece is as sombre as the events that inspired it. 

Yet once you separate the art from the artist, Basinski is revealed to be a wisecracking, glamorous life of the party—quite the opposite of what you might assume from his music’s solemn gravity. The Wire magazine’s November 2020 cover story captured the 63-year-old in his finest chainmail, cat-eye sunglasses and red leather boots relaxing poolside at his home in Los Angeles. This was controversial enough that one letter-writer described the musician as a “poseur” who he expected to see on “Love Island or a porn mag.” Basinski responded by turning himself into a Bernie meme.

The avant-garde icon’s latest project, Sparkle Division, has also gone a long way towards challenging his image. This collaboration with producer Preston Wendel, a contemporary electronic artist who records as Shania Taint, has been described by Basinski as his music for “cocktails and dancing.” Stirring up a potent punch of lounge-y exotica, breezy house and dollar-bin disco, the duo’s debut album, To Feel Embraced, is one of the most enchanting releases of 2020. Clattering footwork beats and crackly vinyl samples collide with Basinski’s squealing saxophone, an instrument he has rarely played since his days in rockabilly bands in the 1980s.

 

When I reach Basinski, along with Wendel, on Zoom, it becomes clear within seconds that he goes by “Billy.” After living in New York for 30 years (“I did my time, honey!”), the former Brooklynite has settled into a new life in L.A. I ask how the sunny change of scenery has affected his process. He responds by turning the camera to show me the crystal blue pool outside of his mid-century modern home.

“It’s much more relaxing here,” Basinski says. “I’ve basically just been staying home for the past 16 months, but I’m very grateful to have this beautiful place.”

The unlikely musical bedfellows first met in 2013 when the younger half of Sparkle Division was working at Abbot’s Habit, a (dearly missed) coffee shop in Venice Beach. Basinski was attending a dance performance around the corner and initially thought he was being cruised by the beaming experimental music fan behind the counter. After learning that Wendel had graduated from recording engineer school, Basinski offered him a part-time job helping out with mail orders from his web store while he hit the road on tour.

“My mind was just fucking blown,” Wendel says. “I couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity of a lifetime. Now we’re 10 years deep, so we still do office stuff together and I run the store with Billy. But we also make a ton of music together. I’m a little disco bitch, so I bring a lot of that influence to what we do.”

Sparkle Division with William Basinski and Preston Wendel
William Basinski (left) with Sparkle Division collaborator Preston Wendel.

Credit: Lon Hamaekers

Sparkle Division’s recently released Classified EP sashays their sound into bombastic new territories. “Beehive Switchblade” is built from a sample of the 1962 space-themed single by Ray Cathode, a short-lived collaboration between BBC sound effects wizard Maddalena Fagandini and producer George Martin (before Martin met The Beatles). “Booty Buster” and “Studio 54” were the first two songs Sparkle Division ever recorded. Basinski describes the latter as “a skanky throwback to the 1970s.” So, did he ever party at the famed New York  club?

“I never went to Studio 54,” Basinski laughs. “I was too young and too broke. I didn’t know I was cute and fabulous and could get in just by smiling. Thank God I didn’t, because other friends realized they could and never got off the party train.” 

While he does admit to spending a few nights at New York’s Danceteria, Mudd Club and Pyramid, working on music has been Basinski’s focus since his childhood in Houston, Texas, as a classically trained horn player. Of course, he had other burgeoning interests as well. 

“I was a flamboyant little kid,” Basinski says. “Everyone probably knew I was gay before me, but it was a frightening thing for parents back then. When I was in high school, I developed my first crush on the drummer in the marching band. He was a big, hot, hairy guy. 

“It wasn’t really until college when I met the art school fags on the other side of campus that I realized I wasn’t the only one,” he says. “Then I flew out of the closet. They were wild, fabulous drag queens and I was brought into the fold. We used to do the floor routine at Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings on Saturday nights in Denton.”

When I tell Basinski that my first male crush was David Bowie in Labyrinth, his face lights up. Though he’s never seen the Jim Henson film, he counts the Thin White Duke as an enduring inspiration. Sparkle Division’s debut album includes a tribute with the song “To the Stars Major Tom” and follows Basinski’s 2017 ambient piece, “For David Robert Jones.” He also shares an oft-repeated story about the time his band The Rockats opened for Bowie at a 1983 concert in Hershey, Pennsylvania, for a crowd of 30,000 people.

“Bowie’s manager asked me if I’d like to meet him, and of course I said yes,” Basinski recalls. “A few minutes later, here comes David in a yellow suit with a yellow pompadour. [Impersonating Bowie] ‘Hello Billy! I loved the sax work. Sounded great! Well, the audience is waiting. Got to get out there. Would you like to watch from the wings?’ That was it, but I got to sit there up close and watch the Serious Moonlight tour.”

On the topic of what he likes to watch, I had to ask Basinski about a hilarious tweet professing his love of Fran Drescher and her ’90s sitcom, The Nanny

“Fran Drescher is a genius and everything about that show is fabulous. She’s like the new Lucille Ball.”

“It’s my joy every night with all of the bullshit going on in the world,” Basinski says. “I’ve seen them all a million times. The queen is a genius and everything about that show is fabulous. She’s like the new Lucille Ball. Mr. Sheffield is so handsome and all of the characters have such great chemistry. Niles, C.C. Babcock, Yetta—forget about it!”

In the moments when he’s not glued to the tube, Basinski continues to collaborate with various producers on the diverging paths of his musical output. Working with Gary Wright, best known for his 1976 hit “Dream Weaver, he recently completed an album with Swiss/Canadian electronic artist Camilla Sparksss.

“That record is really trippy,” Basinski says. “Gary was my first boyfriend in college, and now he’s out here in L.A. He’s worked with George Clinton, Chaka Khan and once turned down Prince because he heard he was an asshole!”

Wendel describes how Sparkle Division have been experimenting with bossa nova, and “just made something deep and dark that’s trippy as fuck.” Eventually, they would like to transition into working with instrumentalists and performing live as a full band. Until then, Basinski will continue to tour on his lonesome, crisscrossing North America in September and October 2021, before heading to Europe in November.

“This will be more touring than I’ve ever done in America,” he says, confessing that it’s hard to leave the comfort of his poolside home. “I’m not really looking forward to it, to be perfectly honest. Mama don’t want to do anything anymore!”

Jesse Locke

Jesse Locke (he/him) is a writer and musician based in the traditional, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, also known as Vancouver. He currently contributes to outlets including Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, The Wire, CBC Music and Xtra. Jesse is the author of the book Heavy Metalloid Music: The Story of Simply Saucer, and co-founder of the We Are Time record label with Chandra Oppenheim. He plays drums with Tough Age, Kerkland Jerks, and more.

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