Posted October 9, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Martin Bisi: Creating his own meaning

Martin Bisi, photo by Nicole Capobianco
Martin Bisi, photo by Nicole Capobianco

New York performer and record producer Martin Bisi has worked with cutting-edge acts from a variety of musical genres: indie, punk, avant garde, noire/cabaret rock and electronic. At a recording studio he started in 1981 in Brooklyn with the help of producer extraordinaire Brian Eno, he’s worked with acts such as Sonic Youth, Swans, Dresden Dolls, Cop Shoot Cop, John Zorn, Africa Bambaataa, Material/Bill Laswell, Boredoms, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” White Zombie, Foetus, Helmet, Unsane, Serena Maneesh, US Maple, Jon Spencer’s Boss Hog, and countless others. Currently at work on the next Violent Femmes and Larkin Grimm records, Bisi also plays guitar and sings in his own band. His current tour features songs from his heavy, post-rock-oriented 2014 album Ex Nihilo. The film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio documents his storied career. Bisi spoke to his via phone from his Brooklyn studio.

Tell me about the making of the documentary about your studio. When did the idea for the film first come up?
It was really the two filmmakers. It started with a simple human interaction. They work at a same day job editing. I don’t know where exactly. It’s something semi-corporate. They have different interests. Ryan [Douglass] came from a music background. He was in a metal band in Texas when he was younger. Sara [Leavitt] was more interested in social issues and urban issues and gentrification but wasn’t into doing a straight-up gentrification documentary. A mutual friend suggested I was a good topic. I had been in the crosshairs of gentrification. Our current mayor was a representative for this area and he’s had his sights set on developing the area.  When you put it all together, it seemed like it was something good for them to pursue.

When exactly did they start?
Two-and-a-half years ago. About a year ago, they thought it was done and we had a premiere in Manhattan and started touring with it. I didn’t realize that was a thing. It took them about a year to solidify the business of getting it online. They kept adding to it. The Violent Femmes got in there even though the film was done. We had a final premiere in Brooklyn when it was finally finished.

What was it like for you to revisit your past?
The whole thing has been very positive, but it gave me good perspective. It’s sustained work and the same people but my perspective changed. A lot of it had to do with that space. The fundamental focus of the documentary is really the space. I’m a major accessory to that story but the focus is on the space. Every time I release a record, I send out a discography and mention who I worked with. I never focus on the space. I just say that I’ve been there for 45 years. That’s never been the focus at all. Suddenly to make it the focus added value to it. A lot of engineers and producers are eclectic. If you look at their resumes, they’ve done different genres. It didn’t seem that unusual. But I realized there’s more to the story here than I’ve given it credit for. It helped me in terms of my happiness in having done these things. About five or six years ago, I was asking myself, “Why am I still in this space?” I felt like the recording economy and the culture were collapsing. It’s funny because now with the advent of vinyl, it becomes obvious people are looking at every aspect of music making. The culture of recording lasted for 50 years and seemed like it was over. It seemed like it was tanking but now is kind of back. People seem to be valuing things more. People are looking at small businesses and there’s the sentiment of Record Store Day. We should have Recording Studio Day. It made me focus on myself as an artist. I got into it because I thought it was exciting and it meant something and people responded to it. The process of making it made me think along those lines. Just talking to people who were at the studio and hearing why they wanted to work with me in the first place put all that out in the open.

Tell me about your latest album, Ex Nihilo. Does it translate into “out of nothing”?
It’s “from nothing and “out of nothing. It’s a mixed bag. I’m a nihilist and I think we create our own meaning. It also relates to the question of whether God created the world out of nothing or was there pre-existing matter.

The music is really wild. What’s it like to play it live?
It’s been hard to really find the sweet spot live. It has been a long process. I’ve been doing good shows, but I finally feel like I can now reproduce it. There have to be placeholders. There’s chanting repetitive stuff and visceral cathartic stuff, especially vocally. There’s ton of layers and all that has to be represented. The person who does keyboards and viola also sings but very randomly. We didn’t talk about where she sings. She just does it. But live it represents spontaneous things. It’s not a like a choir of opera people, but we do selected vocal effects. I work that live. There are ambient segues. Drums are pretty anarchistic and frenetic. There are bits of “Okay, this is the go apeshit section.” Lots of fills and pounding and it’s got to be 110 percent.  It’s hard to do verbatim, that’s for sure.

How far are you from completing your next album, The Solstice?
The Solstice is a continuation. I’m not convinced I will keep doing this forever. I didn’t want it to feel like a one-off. I wanted it to be, “If this is all that I’m about, what would I do next?” It’s a weird feeling when you want to shoot under. Five or six years ago, I did an album called Sirens of the Apocalypse. And then I did an EP called Son of a Gun. I deliberately wanted to make it less. It’s weird when you want to do something more humble. I wanted Solstice to feel like I was just kicking it out. It’s a simpler concept. It’s two sides, they’re co-equal. One is summer and one is winter solstice. They’re sort of coequal. One is summer and one is winter. It’s a narrower kind of thing. It’s all the experiences I might have around each of those solstices. The aspect of the summer solstice is the “night.” I spent time in Norway because my daughter lives there. It’s very mild weather. What blew my mind was this magical long twilight. I was kind of flipping out to be out at midnight and it’s like dusk. It seems very magical. That was the concept — thinking of the solstice as a special time.

This last winter solstice there were Black Lives Matter protests. I spent a lot of time outside at those protests. I consider them some of the greatest experiences of my life. That is when I started working on it.

You’ve been making cutting-edge music for decades now. It seems like it’s gotten more difficult rather than easier to find an audience and make a living.
I’m amazed at the amount of lame bands out there. I come from a weird era in which music had to be loud and aggressive and over-the-top or you were just bullshitting around. If you talk to any of the bands I worked with, it was all very intense. Oddly enough in terms of experimental music you might associate with No Wave or post-rock, the quality is up. In terms of sheer numbers, there’s a fuckload of Guitar Center bands. In terms of the people in those bands in the tradition – I hate to apply that word “tradition” — it continues to evolve. Young bands are part of this canon that has been going for 30 years. I think the quality is up. Child Abuse from New York plays proggy noise. I don’t want to make it about chops, but there are chops there. There weren’t chops there in the early ‘80s. Now that those sensibilities have been established, you have people bringing some playing ability to these things. Mark Shippy from Invisible Things who was in U.S. Maple plays much better guitar than Arto Lindsay in D.O.A. or even Thurston Moore. The quality is up. That’s inspiring to me. I see a lot of good quality. I don’t think we’re just rehashing the past. I just figured they were all flashes in the pan. If you would ask me 35 years ago, I thought the bands would go away and something else would come around. That was my lack of understanding. It’s all evolved. The sensibilities are explored. There’s almost an academic angle that some people cover. It’s pretty sophisticated in a way.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].