INTERVIEW WITH THE MUSICIAN
Martin Bisi is a hero to ‘in-the-know’ music fans and musicians with eager enthusiasm to discover new horizons. An immensely interesting individual with unique talents abound, he continues to work his way through the industry’s ranks with a deft combination of persistence and prowess, carving himself a reputation as a top-notch producer and engineer.
Through his engineering, solo artistry and production work, Bisi has helped shape the sonic blueprints of punk, noise, rap, indie and various other musical styles. His discography features such fellow heavyweights as Sonic Youth, Herbie Hancock, Swans, Live Skull, Foetus, The Dresden Dolls, Whitney Houston and Material, perfectly illustrating Bisi’s diverse tastes and enormous talents.
“I would absolutely call Martin an unsung hero of the New York music scene. So many bands that he had a hand in influenced the sound, and yet he has very little recognition to his own name,” says Ryan Douglass, who co-directed Sound and Chaos with Sara Leavitt.
Born to Argentinian parents on the Upper East Side, Bisi’s father was a doctor whilst his mother Marisa Regules was a celebrated Argentinian pianist. Eugene Ormandy, a prominent conductor, once called Regules “not only one of the great women pianists, but one of the great pianists of our time”.
His childhood was filled with nights at the opera, philharmonic, and art lessons at the Museum of Modern Art, none of which Bisi particularly enjoyed, especially the opera. His parents provided him with piano and violin classes, but it didn’t stick. “I was a bit of a music rebel,”
Bisi displayed much more enthusiasm for graffiti art, evenings at CBGB’s and eventually the Avant Garde, experimental, and noise music scenes after being ‘blown away’ by a chance encounter with John Zorn, who, by happenstance was rehearsing in the building Bisi and Laswell were attending.
“I had no idea who Zorn was,” Bisi recalls. “I’d never seen or even known about noise, experimental or avant-garde music. I was watching them playing, and holy shit! I immediately fell in love with that.”
In 1979, Bisi, by then all of 18, moved into what was a nearly empty warehouse space in a desolate part of Brooklyn to start the studio as part of a collective alongside Bill Laswell, Material members and Brian Eno, which Eno funded and would use for the album, ‘Ambient 4: On Land’. At that early point the studio was called OAO Studio.
‘I don’t think anybody in their right mind would have rented the place!’
Many of the artists Bisi has recorded were pioneers who were playing new forms of music. There was often no clear road map on how to translate ‘their sound’ to tape back then. Sonic Youth, for example, had developed a distorted, blown out ‘live’ sound and yet were unsure how it should translate in the studio. Bisi was presented with the elusive challenge of figuring that task out yet, in the process, practically invented the ‘sound’ of ‘Indie’ rock, as a musical genre.
“In the early 80s, there weren’t a lot of indie bands or experimental bands going into a studio to record their album. People heard the bands but it would be recorded onto cassette with two microphones. The whole art of indie style recording hadn’t developed yet,”
Around 2007, Bisi felt that the culture around recordings was disappearing. It is remarkable and frightening to imagine alternative music without Bisi, or a talented ‘Bisi’ like producer/engineer, in the future, influencing artists and fans, in much the same way. Surely, this is something as music listeners and lovers we must combat and resolve in the upcoming future.
“Before that, I felt like engineers were inspired artists. Now, I feel like in that kind of con-text I would’ve never been excited to become an engineer,”
Fortunately, decades since he first touched a mixing desk, Bisi is still producing some of his best work at his BC Studio in Brooklyn. He also continues to release his own solo material, with 2014’s Ex Nihilo being his latest full-length project. Bisi recently released a music video for “The Mermaid Queen,” a track from Ex Nihilo, and announced a slew of US and European tour dates accompanied by screenings of ‘Sound and Chaos’.
I am in awe of the man and in a ‘moment of a lifetime’ received the opportunity to pose questions to Martin which, incidentally, educated me more about myself than about Martin.
Let’s start at the beginning. ‘I was just a kid with a lot of Chutzpah’.
How did you start out in music?
I was in theatre class in High school, doing lighting and set design, as a teenager. That helped me get involved in events, such as a 12hr festival in Lower Manhattan, the Zu Manifestival, with Fred Frith, Gong, Henry Cow, Glenn Branca, where the stage manager went missing, and it was easy for me to step into those shoes, since I knew the people who eventually formed Material who were playing as the Zū Band. From there I tried to learn more about doing live sound, I toured a bit as a roadie with Material, and eventually we got a space collectively, where after another year or so I threw myself into recording.
‘I was doing, not thinking’ is not your motto in any sense but it does seem part of your actions of how you operate. What would you say motivated you back then and do you carry the same motivation?
I was mostly motivated by wanting to be involved in whatever way I could, with the scene that was happening, which seemed cool, more so than from a passion for recording. I al-so had a near inexplicable attitude that I didn’t need to know of how to do anything, that all I needed was attitude, and that would be sufficient and actually the best. I actually don’t believe that completely now.
Could you tell us a little about your upbringing and family and what brought them to New York City from Argentina?
My parents were going back and forth from Argentina in the 50’s, not sure why in the case of my dad, who was a doctor. But my mom was touring a lot in the states as a guest pianist in various symphony orchestras. she’d actually been touring there in the 40’s. My mom was the one who prompted the permanent move to NYC, for professional music reasons.
My childhood was filled with nights at the opera, philharmonic, and art lessons at the Mu-seum of Modern Art, none of which I took to. When my mom died when I was 12, I quickly moved to graffiti and soon to nights at CBGB’s ..
Your early work with Bill Laswell contributed a great deal to your attitude toward the studio and music. Laswell was the founding member of the chameleon-like avant jazz/funk group Material in the late ’70s. Material eventually evolved from a band into a production company through Brian Eno eager to work.
‘We did not know what we were doing?’ -Laswell
How do you reflect now on those early days working with Material, alongside Laswell, Michael Beinhorn, Bill Maher, and in what ways did that shape your artistry and career?
There was something called Zū Band in ’78 with all the Material members. But Material didn’t appear till ’79.
During the Eno sessions, the idea of Material as a production team was still forming. With Eno we were really following his direction. It didn’t take long though, once we had a functioning studio. Much of the production was Beinhorn and Laswell working on program-ming, with drum machines and synths, because Bill wasn’t really up on that. And the involvement of Celluloid Records -they started paying our rent, made it feel more serious as production, and encouraged us in that direction. There was other more experimental mu-sic that Beinhorn wasn’t involved with. For instance we recorded a lot of Fred Frith stuff, and with Massacre it was Fred Maher who was involved, on drums. Fred Maher though was somehow out of the picture by the time we did ‘Rockit’, though he continued on in production, with Lou Reed, which marked the end of his participation in Material. We obviously all had different inclinations with genre and production, so it was inevitable that we would splinter. And I still find it surprising that we all ended up as producers. I don’t have an explanation for that. I guess we all got the bug for it then.
One of the pieces, I enjoyed most by, ‘Material’ was the collaboration with William Burroughs on the spoken word track, ‘Seven souls’. Spoken word is notoriously hard to pull off though and mostly dismissed by critics the majority of the time. So how do you think you were able to make that track as soothing as it is and a success?
Part of the key there, was to have Burroughs read his parts without hearing the music and let him do an extra version or 2 on a phrase by phrase basis if he didn’t get the infections how he thought they should be. So we had options usually for each line. It was useful that he liked going just a couple lines at a time, because ultimately we’d have to place each line individually. And his overall pace is slow, which helped for placing and editing his lines. This all took a while.
Bill Laswell and you shifted gears, in regards to the alternative and commercial aspects of recording for a period in the 80’s (Laswell went on to work with Mick Jagger, RUN DMC amongst others). Laswell, notably mocked the notion of Sonic Youth, as avant garde musicians and lampooned your association with them. Can you tell us a little about that supposed friction, and what were your feelings, motives and ideas during that time and why you decided to work with Sonic Youth?
I felt Laswell could easily veer into a distaste for the avant garde. Sometimes, it felt contradictory, like he idolized Harry Partch, but seemed very luke-warm on John Zorn game pieces, but then participated in these game pieces. So that could have been part of his finicky assessment of Sonic Youth as avant guardists. But I think there was a broader issue there with bands that would also include Live Skull. These bands getting attention broke all the rules that Laswell perceived about upward mobility in music -something he was concerned with. So for instance that they were noisy, or didn’t have pocket/groove drummers, or in-tune strong vocalists. Even that the bands had female instrumentalists. In some ways it looked similar to how commercial hard rock bands would later resent in-die bands for putting them out of business during the Grunge era.
Basically, the Laswell environment was pretty old school, and I could be tethered to it.
‘Brian Viglione’ of the ‘Dresden Dolls’ called you a ‘visceral part of the engineering and recording’ and Laswell, enthuses, how you are ‘more than just a producer, or engineer’. What is your philosophy regarding the role of a producer and engineer in the relationship with the musicians during the recording? Do you like to be hands on, and suggest ideas for the band or opposite?
There’s a gap between what a band brings into the studio, and where the record needs to end up. That’s especially true when a band is on their 1st or 2nd record, which is mostly when I like to catch bands. So there’s always a place for me to work on the sound, even if it’s collaborative.
I think the best balance is for a band to bring 70-80% of the songs, totally ready, with even with the overdubs planned. And to have a couple songs that have room to experiment on, and on those songs there’d be more for me to do. It also makes sense for me to be proactive on the mixing, though i think a lot of interaction with the band is essential in the mixes. I don’t think me mixing by myself is going to get the best results. So a few people bringing suggestions, that are discussed before being tried is good, though I always say it’s good if a band has a member or 2 who don’t really care how the mixing goes.
‘I don’t think anybody in their right mind would have rented the place’ ‘Kinda like pioneers that way!’ regarding the studios location in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn today is the ‘epicentre’ of New York City’s underground culture but back in the1980’s everything was happening over the river in Manhattan.
What attracted you to Brooklyn during that period and how did you lure bands to collaborate in your studio? Was Laswell being the De facto in house producer for Celluloid label at the time an assistance or Eno’s affiliation contribute to attracting bands?
We had decided that a “loft”, a post-industrial space was ideal for music activities. And those kinds of spaces were already getting priced out in Soho and Tribeca (Lower Manhattan). So Brooklyn was the only alternative, I had no other reason for choosing it. I actually regretted getting the space initially, when I realized what Brooklyn was like.
I don’t think the Eno connection had any impact on the desirability of the studio. Laswell did though, especially with the Avant guardists in the beginning. And even with later artists like Sonic Youth, I think it was a wide range of projects including Laswell that brought people in. I’ve always found that artists need a good bunch of projects to decide on an engineer or producer, not just 1 or 2.
‘It’s just a skanky basement’ -Michael Gira, of ‘Swans’, acknowledges ‘It has naturally decent acoustics’
How did you decide upon the building and did you have to make any alterations to the interior of the room. In addition, was any kind of physical restructuring done anywhere else?
I didn’t know we would even do recording. When I got the space. I thought it would just be rehearsing. So I lucked out on the tracking area (where drums, foundational instruments are recorded), which is still just left raw, without alteration. But the control/mixing area did need dampening, cork on the wall, etc.
‘These stairs have actually ended up on quite a few records’ ‘One of those historical places that can generate new inspiring material’ – In what ways is the studio different from others and with ignorance to the successes, why should bands desire to record with you at BC?
Many artists with an eye to production would see the varied applications, and utility of having a lot of space. But I know that things recorded there by people other than me sound different, and even things recorded there by me, but mixed by someone else sound very different than if I had mixed them. So really I do feel the main reason to work there is if you like the sound on some of the records.
What are your thoughts and ideas upon modern avant garde, and noise rock?
Any time people are really experimenting, I feel available to it. That would include Lo-fi electronica or Lo-fi pop.
‘It was not even called Hip Hop at that time, it was just some new ‘weird’ thing that was happening’ -Laswell
How did the studio through a bunch of white dudes, such as Laswell, and yourself become a staple for Hip Hop artists, such as Fab Five Freddy and turntablist pioneer, Grand Mixer DXT, which led to the recording of the ‘ground breaking’ Grammy award winning track ‘Rockit’ with Herbie Hancock from the album ‘Future shock’. In addition, could you foresee the future potential of genre?
If someone had suggested that hip hop would be a huge mainstream genre, I would have thought it was as nuts as suggesting that so-called indie bands could get signed in droves to major labels. The ¨”big” that I thought was possible was really a very niche and small market, for both those genres.
As for my studio becoming very active in hip hop, I think economics was a factor. Owning and operating a studio was relatively expensive. There weren’t any studios in The Bronx at the time that I’d heard of. And the rappers themselves wouldn’t have been able to afford to put together a studio at that time, or at least it wouldn’t have been the 1st priority. So for a variety of reasons, that was possible for me, Laswell and Jean Karakos from Celluloid Records. And there were of course social reasons, which built trust -we were going to The Roxy and seeing and meeting these artists. Also, I had a background writing graffiti, which might have facilitated a rapport.
It’s also worth noting that Zulu Nation was intended to be multi-ethnic and cultural, despite sounding afro-centric. There were many Hispanics involved, especially break dancers.
‘What Sonic Youth was doing at the time was pretty radically different to what everyone else was doing so we did not know how to record or capture what we were doing-Lee Ranaldo?
-What do you remember about that period during recording, as well as the bands’ development over ‘Bad moon rising’ and ‘Evol’, and why did you choose to work with them as Laswell and others mocked their avant garde credentials?
Sonic Youth were intent on portraying themselves as not avant garde, in fact getting annoyed with some press at the time that lumped them in with John Zorn. They wanted to be lumped in with punk, and even hardcore. And wanted to be seen as more so raw or garage, than arty. So I wasn’t expecting them to be as abstract some of the experimental stuff I was recording. Basically some people really recommended them, particularly Marc Miller from The Toy Killers, who had also worked with Laswell. Sonic Youth seemed like a good thing to do outside the Laswell orbit.
I actually didn’t realize how truly experimental they were until they started overdubbing. The basic foundation seemed conservative to me, on both records. It was really in the mixing of EVOL that I realized they had the potential for a big, expansive sound. It’s after they took the EVOL material on the road, after the record was released, that I felt they were mind blowing live.
Did you feel disappointed when your collaboration with the band dissolved prior to the ‘Sister’ album, as through collaborating with you, in my humble opinion, they came to define the genre, ‘Indie rock’ ?
Yeah, I was a little disappointed, it felt like they were embracing the ‘tube’ movement in audio, that the studio for Sister had, but my studio didn’t. But anyway Thurston Moore came back for projects like The Crumb with Lydia Lunch and JG Thirlwell, so it didn’t feel like the collaboration was com-pletely over. And Kim Gordon came back to work on German band Die Haut’s album.
Over time has your approach to recording production changed quite a bit what with advancements in technology?
-I read that you’ve come to the conclusion that rock is more challenging than the experimental im-prov stuff. “You can’t make a good rock record in a day and a half”; how did you come to that realization?
It was when I was doing a recording for Tzadik, Zorn’s label, which was more rock oriented than most of the projects on the label. The money allocated to this was the same as all other projects on the label. Though the intention was that it was supposed to be equal, it wasn’t in practice. With that ‘equal’ sum, you could barely begin to record a more ‘rock’ record, which is much more time-intensive, especially in overdubs and mixing. There’s a lot more you need to play with and know to make a compelling rock or indie recording. The art of recording there, is more sophisticated and has a richer canon and history. In improv, experimental, or jazz it’s not uncommon to find an animosity to mixing; the idea being that you’ve captured a performance, and that the players each have their longstanding individual sounds, and that there isn’t any more to be done, except quality control. And if anything, creativity in the mixing can only serve to undermine the performance.
Your legend is mainly attached to your production and engineering success rather than any solo work, although you released ‘Creole Mass’ in 1988. How would you describe your own material for those uneducated on that stuff and why now?
There’s been some radical changes in my solo work, which spans 25 years. I would say emotional impact has been important throughout. In the beginning, my solo work was supposed to be an es-cape from the aesthetics around me that I worked with almost daily. For instance, being humorous at times when I felt everyone around me was being very serious. More recently I’ve wanted to dive into those same aesthetics that have been at the core of much of what I’ve recorded. It’s like I’ve been more inclined to face myself. That’s especially the case with the last release, Ex Nihilo; there’s been a shift to increasing density, dissonance and you could say going over the top, and almost into insanity, which you could say is ‘weird’ though being weird isn’t my objective.
I particularly enjoyed reading ‘The hyper-promoting band next door’ blog entry as it beautifully contrasts modern day promotions with the previous methods for musicians.
How significantly has the music industry changed during your career with regards to distribution of albums, record deals, and the whole occupation involved in being an artist?
In the old days, basically the 80’s, it was much easier to get music out there, distributed and promoted, with someone or an entity helping you. Basically there were many more small labels, and budding managers eager to get the music heard. That’s because there was actually some money in it, and these entities weren’t under the gentrification crush themselves, that is squashing everyone now. It’s harder to find people now who can invest the time to mentor artists, when they themselves are struggling just to make rent.
So it’s easier to simply put your stuff on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, and easier with the web, to book a small tour. But much beyond that is a bigger hurdle than it was. And that’s why a lot more bands seem passive relative to what I was used to when I started. Where bands used to be hungry, now many more seem resigned to barely updating their websites because it’s not going to lead any-where.
Ev Gold, Cinema Cinema- ‘Anyone who has been in this area and has made music that mattered at one point has sort of connected with this guy over the last 35 years’.
-You have an explicit history of association with independent musicians; has this always been your preference, or have you simply acted on the opportunities of the moment?
I’ve always liked grass roots, which is actually where everything starts. And even when I worked with major label artists in the 90’s, they tended to still be fringe, and lesser known. Big artists com-ing to the studio like Ramones and Iggy, was never exciting to me, awesome as they were. And i still say that working with an unknown and having their record break, or do well, is a zillion times more rewarding than working with an established, already successful artist.
Working alongside Brian Eno is arguably a career highlight for the majority, which happened for you at 17. How did you end up working alongside Eno at such a young age, without such a legacy behind you and what did you learn from that collaboration?
The Eno connection happened because I was part of a collective, which included Bill Laswell. Eno was interested in the whole group, called Material. Eno was rightfully very interested in New York at the time. That interest started a few years prior when he produced the record No New York, in 1977. Basically Material caught his eye, and we told him we were interested in starting a studio, and he felt he wanted to be a part of that, in a limited way. He came to a live show where I was doing sound in a cavernous space, so he got an impression of me working.
With Eno I started understanding the psychological aspects of production, as when he put up switching slides from the Museum Of Natural History on the wall, for inspiration for *On Land*.
Are there any musicians, or genres of modern music which you find ‘fresh’ today, or bands you would like to produce?
Everything now that I get excited about has a retro component. But that may have always been the case, and I just didn’t recognize it.
Obviously, this could strike you as a weird question, as you have had such a successful ‘career’ but what are your hopes musically for the future?
My hopes for the future are simply to keep the recording studio -i want to do a month-long shindig for the 50th anniversary. And to tour and get personal music out there without it being an epic DIY saga.