Martin Bisi Probably Produced All Your Favorite Records
The Gowanus-based super-producer’s BC Studio is the subject of a new documentary.
Martin Bisi—recorder extraordinaire and master of the boards—is lounging outside in the courtyard of the Gowanus-based building that houses his underground-famous recording hub BC Studio, reminiscing about his pre-Whole Foods, crime-ridden ‘hood. Cars engulfed in flames in that very courtyard, gang member brawls, and breakins were the norm 30-odd years ago in what was a desolate wasteland across from the still monumentally polluted Gowanus canal. A fledgling musician, producer, and engineer, Bisi, along with bassist Bill Laswell plus a wad of money fronted by Brian Eno, opened what ultimately would manifest itself as a revolutionary destination for the recording of experimental music, hip-hop, noise-rock, indie rock, and everything in between.
Thumb through your ol’ vinyl, cassette, CD, or download collection and chances are it has Bisi’s stamp. In the Brooklyn deathtrap studio he’s called home, literally, since the late 70s, Bisi has presided over recordings that defined seminal scenes counting downtown NYC’s avant-garde jazz scene, 80s art-rock and 90s Bowery scum-rock. A glance at his stunning, across-the-genre-board discography results in minds blown. There’s John Zorn, Fab Five Freddy, Afrika Bambaata, Sonic Youth, Swans, Live Skull, Rat At Rat R, Unsane, Cop Shoot Cop, Dresden Dolls, and Helmet while more recent action includes White Hills, EULA, Cinema Cinema, Needle Driver, and Violent Femmes. The eye popping list goes on and on.
Now, Bisi’s story has hit the big screen. Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, is the ultimate tell-all, tracing Bisi’s NYC born and bred lineage from essentially being an orphan (he lost both his parents at a very young age), his teenage years rooming with fellow producer-to-be Michael Beinhorn (Hole, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, et. al) on the upper east side, his discovery of avant-garde music to finding the Gowanus studio where he, get this, welcomed in a pre-superstar Whitney Houston to lend her voice to a cover of Robert Wyatt’s “Memories” from Laswell’s pioneering avant-funk group, Material (he recalls Houston as “already diva-esque.”). Just a couple of years later, Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s mid-80’s monster hit “Rockit”.
This coming Sunday, July 12, Bisi and a host of his cohorts including, ex-Sonic Youth/Pussy Galore and current Lydia Lunch Retrovirus drummer Bob Bert, psych-rockers White Hills and Algis Kizys (Swans) will celebrate “Sound & Chaos” with a screening and free-improv jams in the producer’s Gowanus ‘hood at nearby Littlefield (info here). We caught up with Bisi to talk “Sound & Chaos” and some of the influential records he’s produced.
Noisey: How did the idea for “Sound and Chaos” crystallize?
Martin Bisi: Well, definitely not my idea. Not that I ever cared about it, but in the back of my mind, I thought the age that people—or where it’s viable to write a book in some way—is fifty. And now I’m 53 or 54 and I was aware of that but I never thought of a book. But with this—and what is really remarkable, fun and interesting for me—is that the documentary wouldn’t have happened if I was bouncing around different studios. It really has to do with that space. It’s also really transformed my perception about the value of the space and also from people’s responses.
It’s not that the discography doesn’t matter—the discography matters—but the discography in the context of that space means a lot more. People do respond to the different types of variety. But what really seemed to hit home for people who cared about the documentary is these things have happened in the same space. You have Afrika Bambaata juxtaposed with Sonic Youth’s guitars…Zulu Nation in the same space. Not like any old space but this was a space that was isolated and was hard to get to. One of the filmmakers, that’s what primarily grabbed her.
What was your connection to the doc’s filmmakers, Sarah Leavitt and Ryan Douglass?
Through a mutual friend. One thing that is interesting is that they were aware of a lot of the music but weren’t part of the scene, really. I felt like anyone who wanted to do a documentary that was in the scene would have had a focus on one kind of music or an angle and it wouldn’t have been such an overall thing. I think Sarah and Ryan came from two different points of view.
Were they huge fans of yours?
That’s the thing, they weren’t. They were aware of a lot of the stuff but a lot of the local stuff they weren’t aware of but they immediately developed affection for a lot of the music and a lot of the bands themselves, personally. With Ryan, he’s the driver behind a lot of the detailed questions and how we mike drums and stuff like that. So there’s a lot of these details that fall into, in a weird way, a message that you need a space to do this stuff in. It’s not just the music but the space.
How long have you actually lived here at B.C. studio?
Since I was 18. I was basically an orphan. My dad died when I was 17 and my mom died at 12.
You must have had tons of people crashing here over the years.
There was a whole period here—and Laswell thought it was fucking hilarious—he thought we should do a fucking sitcom. It was me, Michael Gira and Andy (Hawkins) from Blind Idiot God and we were the three roommates here at the studio. We each had our own living area.
What year was that?!
That was late 90s. I’ve known Andy for years but very specifically Gira lived here in two things: before 9/11, then he was not here for 9/11, then after 9/11. I remember when Dresden Dolls were recording with me, Gira lived here. It was a weird dynamic in of itself because they would run into each and they were obsessed with Michael.
How was it with the three of you all living together?
It was very, very strange. It really got ridiculous and I think we all got on each other’s nerves but it’s fine. Andy and Gira couldn’t be more friggin’ different. Gira is a complete neat freak, Andy is kind of a slob and I’m in the middle—I’m not a neat freak and I’m not quite a slob. And this is the thing: Andy really hated the Swans and he found it an unbelievable irony he was living with Michael Gira. But they got along fine.
Let’s talk some of the seminal records you’ve recorded here, a bulk of which are my all-time favorites like Sonic Youth, Unsane, Cop Shoot Cop, Swans, etc. Do you feel you are responsible for creating a “sound” that defined, say, the 80s/90s downtown NYC noise rock scene?
I don’t know if it’s humility or who knows what it is or fear of thinking along those lines but I tend not to think that. But I’m pretty shocked when people describe what I do and seem to nail it and I’m like “Wow, that actually comes through.” Someone I’m working with now said to me “You’re really good with layers.” That’s true! It actually comes through over all these years that maybe I have an exceptional skill making layers work together. I feel I’m, good with too much. When you have too much damn stuff on tape, I’m the good person to come to! For the life of me, I wouldn’t have thought that came through. But I guess people listen critically and I’m actually amazed that people listen critically to different records and connect the dots. So there are those. I guess that’s what they call fans, or something [laughs]. I always thought it was more the other way around. I don’t know if that’s being humble or something but, yes, I’m actually better suited for certain things rather than other things.
Going back 30 years when you recorded Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, definitive classics in the SY catalog. As a pretty young producer back then, did you care that they didn’t come back to work with you for Sister or whatever records came after?
The reality is I had a bit of an inferiority complex. The real question was “Why would anyone come to me?” since I was so clearly outside of the mold. I actually saw people like Wharton (Tiers) and Jim Waters, oddly enough, as a little more in the pulse of the scene. I thought they were representative of a legit aesthetic at the time, and also an aesthetic that people talked about. I felt with, especially with the indie rock stuff, and it’s clear in the documentary, I didn’t start with indie rock. I started with hip hop and experimental music. If you look at the stuff that happened in New York, people say I did a lot but I still did a minority of the things.
Did you go for a certain aesthetic in the studio?
I was always atmospheric. The walk and talk of all these bands was not atmospheric—that wasn’t the time. Even with Sonic Youth, I was trying to make it sound pretty when that was not an operative word in the lexicon that they would have of what they were doing. Actually it was funny because there was a bit of a contradiction between the image and the stated aesthetic, okay, raw, punk rock, garage, bam! bam! bam! and the reality which was lot of layers, almost shoegazer, like proto-shoegaze or something. Definitely what I was doing—with Sonic Youth and with Live Skull—was a bit of an anomaly back then.
Swans also got a lot of crap. Once they started recording (with me), people thought it was all very pretty and gothic. I was actually very aware of the criticism.
Which Sonic Youth record got a bad rap?
I think EVOL more specifically because we spent a lot of time on it. Even with them trying to make it sound a little more pretty or another thing they weren’t supposed to be, which was evocative. I’d try to sneak it but we all knew what was happening and I was surprised, specifically with Sonic Youth, there wasn’t a lot of objection. I also heard a lot of people try to explain what I was doing. I remember Live Skull and I found it so weird. People really overanalyzed stuff. They would say “People are saying it sounds kind of…elegant” and I’d see a pained look in their face like “elegant isn’t really part of the persona here [laughs].”
Are there any records that didn’t come out the way you wanted them to?
I think with Unsane I actually worried specifically with that record (Total Destruction) that I made it too noisy and not in-your-face enough.
It’s not a very in-your-face record. I remember getting a call from someone who worked at Matador (Records) and she said “Yeah. I got the tape and I think there’s something wrong with it. It sounds very weird’ and I was like “Oh, damn. This doesn’t sound good.” Then the next thing, I played it for Gerard (Cosloy) and he said “That’s the way it’s supposed to sound so it’s fine.”
And Total Destruction was around the same time you worked on Helmet’s Betty.
That’s pretty much the only thing worth talking about that wasn’t done here (at B.C Studio).
Where was Betty done?
Some place in Manhattan.
What did you do for that record?
Just the guitars and actually that’s the reason it was in Manhattan because they totally wanted to pretend they weren’t a rock band. That was that whole thing where they go “This is not a rock band, it’s about rhythm, so we’re going to a hip-hop studio” and that’s what they did. So they went to a hip-hop studio and botched the guitar recording. Still, these are rock instruments and you need someone who’s actually recorded intensely loud guitars at some point in their life. They didn’t have it so the guitar recording was obviously botched—like distorted and crapped out. It was really bad. So, they gave up and I got the job and the call to go in. I recorded it and that was it. That’s why it happened in that studio. It was an emergency, actually.
You recorded the 1984 Grammy award-winning, MTV video megahit “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock long before that. Is it true you’ve never received royalties for that? You could have made a killing.
I wasn’t going to hit up Laswell for any royalties. We had an “anarchist handshake.” I don’t really care. I got a whole friggin’ career and life out of that stuff.
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