Martin Bisi is a musician and record producer best known for his work with some of the most important underground artists of the past few decades. He’s worked with Sonic Youth, Swans, Bill Laswell and Boredoms, and he was also involved in the recording of “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock.
Bisi founded Brooklyn’s B.C. Studio in 1979, at the tender age of 18, with Laswell and Brian Eno. Those guys eventually moved on to other things, but Bisi hung on to the studio, and it remains in the borough’s Gowanus section to this day.
He’s also had a career in his own right as a musician, although he didn’t start touring until 2009, over 20 years after the release of his first album, “Creole Mass.” The Z Review caught up with him and subjected him to the probing journalistic exercise we like to call “Five Questions.”
TZR: What was it that initially got you interested in studio production?
MB: I just fell into it, slowly. It was mostly about having a way to be involved. It came from being around Bill Laswell and the rest of Material. Actually, some of those people, I knew during high school. I started helping during some of the ambitious live shows. Like there was a 12-hour festival in the East Village in 1978 with Laswell, Fred Frith, Glenn Branca, some British psychedelic bands like Gong, Henry Cow, also Magma from France. And I just became the de facto stage manager, because it was very chaotic. Then that led to some of those same people taking me on a U.S. tour, with five bands packed into a school bus. I was still in high school. It was purely about adventure, escape.
When we got back, we got an industrial space in Brooklyn in 19’79, which became and still is my studio. We were really the first ones to do that move from Manhattan, and from there it didn’t take long to start thinking of recording things, but without giving much thought to how or where it might go. What definitely did not happen, was my being inspired by recordings and sound in the 70s. I still don’t think many of those records sound very compelling. It’s really in the sonic waves of the 80s that I found my ears
TZR: Did any of the artists you’ve worked with come in with a set idea about how they should be recorded that you regarded as unconventional, and did it work?
MB: The one that jumps right to mind is Boredoms’ “Wow 2.” They didn’t want to record it in any way that I’’ve ever recorded a band before. But at least it was roughly in a direction that I could relate to. They wanted it totally over the top and ambient. And I think it worked, but I’m not even sure they think so.
Another one is Ex Models’ “Zoo Psychology.” They wanted to run the mixes through my board completely maxed out and distorted, which I wasn’t loving as a method. But again, I could relate to the goal, that it be painful and violent. And it definitely worked, though I haven’t repeated that way of doing it
TZR: Which records that you’ve worked on are you the most proud of?
MB: It’s really the records that have most impacted people. It’s for two reasons — that records and artists that are talked about, of whom I see people wearing T-shirts, are simply going to stay in my mind more, and I’m pushed to think about them, and rehash the memories. There’s a ton of great projects that I’ve sadly forgotten about, unless someone would care to remind me of them.
The other reason is I’ve always felt like a bit of a revolutionary, which is ultimately about helping or uniting people. And I get the impression some work just made a deep connection. Those would be the obvious ones, I’m afraid. The Bill Laswell stuff, anything involving John Zorn, Sonic Youth, Swans, increasingly Cop Shoot Cop, The Dresden Dolls, Alice Donut, and obviously Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” which helped establish Urban as a national market.
TZR: You recently began touring as a musician just a few years ago. Did that experience change the way you look at studio work?
MB: The touring helped calm me down, from feeling I’d put all my eggs in one basket — a sinking basket. I started touring more, because I felt studio work didn’t have the same power it did as when I first started. Sure, people might respond to an artist, and what the artist means. But for many reasons, the recording, the sounds involved didn’t seem to have the potential to be completely revolutionary.
I had been feeling like maybe the recording art had just run its course. It had a good run of 50 or 60 years, and that would be the golden era of recording. I have backed off on that feeling somewhat, like it’s not really as over as that, but yeah, I threw myself into the great experience of playing live.
TZR: You’ve been associated mostly with a lot of underground artists, but are there any mainstream artists who you wish you could work with someday?
MB: No, actually. I’m not very interested in things, generally, when they’ve gotten, or are big. It’s not really that I’m against these things, it’s that grassroots is what turns me on. I only go small, mostly DIY shows. I don’t go to big venues.
You’ll notice in my own recording work, I rarely mention Iggy Pop, or The Ramones. I’m much prouder of the stuff that came to me when it was embryonic, and then resonated with people. And even if the artist doesn’t come back to me after they’ve broken, that’s fine. The only exception is “Rockit,” because that song meant a lot to the grassroots, and scratching came from a DIY environment. It didn’t need expensive instruments.