Sparkle Division – A long talk with William Basinski and Preston Wendel about their collaboration

The spectacle we're living through

William Basinski is a refreshingly antithetical character in the world of ambient music. A genre more associated with a stilted and studious aesthetic, Basinski brings a little glamour and flamboyance to the world. With his long flowing blonde hair, sunglasses, leather jacket and dazzling rings, he often looks more like he’s stepping off set from a gloriously kitsch, trashy and sleazy 1980s b-movie rather than off stage after a set of trance-inducing drone music.

Speaking from his home in LA, he sips on a lunchtime bottle of beer and drains endless cigarettes, creating a swirling cloud of smoke over the artworks that hang in the background. Originally from Houston, Texas, before moving to Florida as a child – where he already knew he was gay from a young age, describing himself as “a very flamboyant little hot mess of a kid, getting beat up” – before landing in New York in the late 1970s. He did so slap bang in the middle of the minimalism boom that took place in the downtown music scene and the music of Reich, Glass, Eno and co. seeped into his musical consciousness. Whilst he played in a variety of bands, including a rockabilly outfit that once supported David Bowie, it was through his solo instrumental explorations where Basinki came alive.

Today he still retains a southern twang that, coupled with his extensive time spent in North America, leaves him somewhere in the middle ground of American accents and oddly sounding a lot like John Malkovich throughout our conversation. Sitting beside him is his assistant and collaborator Preston Wendel, also sucking down a cold one and blazing his way through a pack of smokes.

The pair have formed a new project called Sparkle Division and for anyone familiar with Basinski’s work, this will be a rather surprising direction. The album (which landed 10/10 here at L&Q) is a loose, fun, wonky and sleazy album that blends exotica, lounge, jazz and disco, almost giving off a by-the-beach afternoon cocktail vibe. It sounds a bit like the record someone would make whilst going through their heavy cocaine phase in the 1980s, except way less shit than that sounds.

Prior to this, Basinski has long been a pioneer in the world of ambient music, his approach often being archive-based, digging through his own deep vaults of music (both that he’s recorded himself and the muzak he liked to record onto tape) and forming something new from those old tapes. Many of his works have been profound and poignant explorations of time, decay and loss, exploring that hazy middle ground between what is gained and depleted over time – operating in a strange timeless universe.   

Most notably this was captured on his landmark four-album release The Disintegration Loops. While digitising some old tape loops of his from the ’80s, Basinski noticed the old tape was literally crumbling as the process unfurled. Having sat decaying for years, his compositions were disintegrating in front of him in real time. This process was captured on record and the development starkly changed the texture and feel of the music, resulting in an exploratory duality and deep dichotomy around the simultaneous death and birth of music. Factor in that some of this was made as Basinski watched the Twin Towers collapse and his city turn to dust, and you have an overpoweringly elegiac creation that stands alone and unique in its own timeframe and world.

Countless other releases followed over the years – from the vignette-like Melancholia to a tribute to his hero David Bowie on 2017’s A Shadow in Time – and now Basinski has both a Sparke Division record out and another solo album coming in the form of Lamentations. The dark, brooding and engulfing record is described as a record that transforms “operatic tragedy into abyssal beauty”. It’s an album that plugs into the unravelling chaos and uncertainty of our current times.

DDW: How’s LA right now?

WB: Not too hot, we’re not burning up like everyone else. Although it was 120 last weekend. So there’s that and just dealing with all the crazy.

DDW: Are you feeling hopeful about that and the upcoming election?

WB: That’s a hard call.

PW: As hopeful as we can be.

WB: There’s so much cheating and shit going on that you never know. Plus all the bullshit fearmongering, but let’s see. We’re hoping for the best.

DDW: I wish you all the best. I’m sure your sanity levels are being tested.

WB: We’re all losing our fucking minds, yeah.

DDW: William, you had a giant Williamsburg loft that was home to so much of your music and creations for years, how come you made the switch to LA?

WB: I had my Arcadia loft from 1989 to 2008 and it had just gotten more and more expensive every year. It was a commercial lease and we paid the taxes and we paid outrageous commercial gas and electricity bills and it just got to be too much. By August 2008 I had like five people living there and I was staying out in California with Jamie [Basinski’s partner] and would just come back to New York every now and then to do some work in my big studio and scare everybody and clean. Every year the rent went up and I had to tell the kids. There was this one little asshole that was sort of running things for me there and everyone left because by then they could get their own room somewhere for that kind of money. But he kept all their money and then put two other people in my loft and kept their money. So here I was without $10,000 rent and two people I didn’t know thinking that they had a place that was going to be okay for them to live in for a while. So it was a big fucking nightmare. I had to garner all my troops and friends to help me pack up all the art. We had a huge sale and sold everything we could sell, including a lot of my analogue equipment.

DDW: How did you guys meet?

WB: My old assistant Brian left for graduate school. That’s what happens sometimes with a really smart assistant. I was without someone and getting ready to go on tour and I like to keep on top of my mail order. I went to see a friend’s dance performance in Venice Beach and before we went in there’s a little coffee shop on the main drag there and my friend Ed wanted a coffee so I got a pack of cigarettes at the corner store and he went into the coffee shop. 

PW: This is the one time I’ve ever seen William in a coffee shop. Of course I knew who he was.

WB: Ed looked at me in this crazy way and he was like, “Girl, that boy has got a crush on you, honey – look at that shit eating grin.” I was like, “Oh shut up”.

PW: I had a big ambient crush on him I guess.

WB: So he was like, “Is your name William and do you do tape loops?” I was like, “Get outta here!” We left, we went to the show, and afterwards, I said, let’s go back by that coffee shop, I have a good feeling about that kid. I want to see if he’s still there. I need an assistant.

PW: It was the luckiest day of my life. My mind was blown.

WB: He’s now been with me for about seven or eight years.

PW: About a year or two into it, Billy asked me if I wanted to start working on his records with him. I was like, yeah! And then gradually we started doing stuff.

WB: On my album Cascade he helped me invaluably by recording a live tape loop into Ableton. So then it was like, “Oh god, this guy knows what he’s doing.” Now I can’t do anything without him. He’s made himself indispensable. I knew he made music and everything so I said why don’t you show me what you do. So he started playing me some of these killer beats and I’m like, “Oh wow, that’s cool.” I reached and pulled out my sax he’s like, “Oh yeah.”  I haven’t played in years; my chops are shot but I can be sort of a one hit wonder in the studio. I’ve got a good read and I’m feeling it so you get the first take. That’s pretty much what happened with the Sparkle Division tracks. He would turn drums into beats and this just really blew my mind, so we just got really excited and we just went from one track to the next and worked on it for about a year and then got a little stalled.

DDW: You had this finished back in 2016 and decided to hold it because a quite upbeat album seemed to go against the climate at the time. I guess you hoped things would get better?

WB: Yeah, exactly and things just got worse so we thought fuck it, let’s get it out for summer. It has to be summer because it’s a summer record. Which we did digitally but the physical was delayed because all the process is still fucked up because of Covid.

DDW: And so this was a collaboration from the off? Rather than the primary work of one of you?

WB: This work is neither his nor mine really, it’s just something that happened when we got together so it’s a different thing.

PW: We had some tough feelings about the record.

WB: Yeah, we fought about certain tracks. He didn’t like certain tracks and I loved them but I paid for it so I was like, ‘get over it, this is going on the record’.

PW: I can be a bitch.

WB: And I’m the boss.

DDW: Was this project given its own time and space or was it done alongside others?

PW: We recorded at random times. One of the songs Billy and I actually recorded at 3am and both of us were totally tanked. It was after he played a huge show and we got home.

WB: Yeah, I had done a show at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Masonic Lodge with The Bug and Grouper. Kevin had every subwoofer in town. So we had a real fun show and then we got back home and then just started going crazy, getting this really dirty saxophone sound.

PW: So basically whenever the inspiration was hitting we would get in the studio and mess around. It was very random. Some songs we spent six months on, day in day out, and others came together in like 20 minutes.

DDW: Was there a plan for this to be a live project?

WB: No. I would have to practice for months to get to be able to do a one-hour show, which I used to do no problem in the ’80s and ’90s when I was playing in bands all the time. But I’m not prepared to be able to do that. This is for DJs to play and that sort of thing. Maybe next year if I can get my horn out and try to practice like I should be doing instead of doom scrolling all day.

PW: It can be really hard to get him to play saxophone sometimes.

WB: I’m just lazy. I should be playing it instead of smoking cigarettes.

DDW: Is there the typical inclusion of your tape loop drones in here as well?

PW: Some of it was fucking around and making some beats or whatever, and then I took one of his random drones, just like an audio file with drones sitting there, and made two chords with it. You know just playing them and looping.

WB: That drone came from the planes that come from LAX. By the time they went over our house they were reaching altitude and you’d get drones every three minutes. Not super loud, it wasn’t like we were living right near the airport or anything, but I would listen for these things and that’s what he started playing with.

DDW: The background sound of New York often seeped into your work a lot. So is it the same now you’re in LA?

WB: Sure, yeah. I mean, I don’t use lots of field recordings but I do pay attention. I don’t always have music playing and I like to see what’s going on. We have new neighbours in the house behind us and they had a whole new lawn put in. They have a new-fangled push mower that doesn’t have a motor on it and it has the most beautiful sound when he’s doing it, so I want to try to get that too.

DDW: Preston, were you involved in William’s upcoming solo album too?

PW: Yes and I gotta say, while I very much love all Billy’s records, I’m very, very fucking honoured to be a part of this one. Most of the record is older source material but the last three songs are like a 17-minute suite and I had the privilege to actually record Billy doing two tape machines – like he was DJing two tape machines. And then he did two performances and we spliced those performances together.

DDW: Is it an opera?

WB: In a way. I mean opera means spectacle and we’re certainly living through a spectacle right now. And even though this was all done last year it’s talking about these things that have just been going on and on and building for centuries: the patriarchy, metastatic capitalism, the greed, the misogyny and the hatred.

DDW: Will there be more Sparkle Division stuff too?

PW: We’re very slowly but surely gonna start working on some new stuff. It’ll probably be headed a little more in the disco/funk kind of direction. 

WB: He’s really into funky disco, like really old school kind of stuff – which we’ll see about. But I just let him do what he does and we’ll see what happens.