Here’s the trailer of a documentary about Martin Bisi / BC studios, a recording studio in Brooklyn where I did a bunch of work in the 80s and 90s, as did Sonic Youth Swans, Dresden Dolls, Live Skull, Bill Laswell, Eno, Iggy and dozens of others. I make a sneak appearance.
Not a Nightmare: An Exclusive Interview with Legendary Producer Martin Bisi
Martin Bisi has worked with some the most influential bands and musicians of the last 30-plus years. Everyone from Sonic Youth, Swans, and Foetus to John Zorn, Afrika Bambaata, and Fab Five Freddy have recorded at BC Studio, which Bisi launched in 1979 with Brian Eno and Bill Laswell. The new documentary Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio (watch a trailer here), which recently premiered at Anthology Film Archives in NYC and is screening soon in Philadelphia and Cambridge, examines the studio’s storied history and the rapidly-changing neighborhood it resides in, Gowanus, Brooklyn. I caught up with Bisi recently via email to discuss all of the above and to get his take on how New York—and the music scene here—has changed over the years.
How did this documentary come about and why did you decide to participate?
The filmmakers found out about me through a mutual friend. And that’s important to the chemistry, actually, because they weren’t immersed in the local music scene, or recording culture, or super fans of any particular artist who’d worked at the studio. So they were objective about what might be interesting to people. In the trailer, for instance, you see images of the neighborhood, even the massive (and now-gone) iconic Kentile sign, before you hear that it’s about a recording studio. And the contaminated waters of the Gowanus Canal get equal billing to the work that was done at the studio—not how my usual bio reads.
The context of the studio is well presented. Even some of the stuff that I’m proud of, like having worked in both hip hop and indie rock in their infancy, is put in the context of the space, and also that all these people from different music scenes braved the journey into “Crookland” from the Bronx and Manhattan, and created in the same space. It also fits the narrative of how real estate is an important and scarce resource that’s important to creativity. And that tie-in to the hot button topic of gentrification and affordability was an enticing angle, particularly to Sara Leavitt, one of the two directors. The other director, Ryan Douglass, was a bit more fascinated by the details of making the music.
I agreed to do the documentary for the very pragmatic reason of needing to promote, or “raise awareness,” as I’d more euphemistically rather say, of what I do musically. It’s all I do as an engineer or musician, and it’s no secret that it’s a precarious occupation. I’ve always thought it was more productive to the world of music to be straight up about that; I don’t like denying or dancing around the topic of promotion, because there still seems to be a lot of taboo, confusion, and disagreement about what it takes to take music on the road, be able to afford to record it, and then get it to people’s ears. And I think talking about it, putting faces to it, and it existing in a bigger picture is important to people caring about it.
Can you talk about how BC Studio was launched, and how Brian Eno and Bill Laswell were involved?
Laswell and I met before I even thought about recording in a studio. Actually, back then studio recording was much more expensive and inaccessible than it is now. So there’s no way I would have immediately, at 17, talked about recording. I pretty much said I could help with live shows. At that point, I was taking a Theater class in High School and was doing stage production, such as lighting, etc. So I thought maybe I could dabble in live sound. It wasn’t until after I realized that there was something creatively limiting about just doing sound at CBGB’s that I thought I could buy a few things, and maybe we could record something. At that point, me, Laswell and Material [Laswell’s band] had the loft space in Gowanus and I’d gone into a couple very fast recording sessions with Material, just helping a bit and observing. So I had a minor toehold on the idea of recording, but didn’t know what was involved in terms of gear. So I just got a few things and quickly ran out of money. And when I finally met Eno, I think he kind of found that amusing.
The first time I met him I was doing sound for Material in a fairly big room and he was watching from right behind me the whole set. And it was an amazing set, and the sound was amazing, just one of those sonic moments when you know it goes right between the brain synapses. Eno and Laswell talked in the after-show chaos, and I don’t really remember how I ended up having tea at [Eno’s] house a couple days later. That was definitely Laswell’s doing. I was definitely too teenage-cool blasé to pitch myself to Eno. A day or so later I took him on the subway to Gowanus. I knew enough that I shouldn’t let him ride alone on the subway, even in the middle of the day. What if he opened his mouth? He even commented that anyone else would have taken him in a cab, and it seemed like he appreciated that. That would have been so out of my character. I was still sometimes tagging on the subway.
How have New York and the music scene you’ve been a part of for over 30 years changed, for better and/or for worse?
Well, the music scene has gotten a lot bigger. There are a lot more bands, musicians, even venues. All this of course has spread out from the center of New York, from Manhattan. And in Manhattan, the exact opposite is true. And the fact that we’re now talking about Brooklyn possibly going into death throes signals that we may have hit that turning point. There are a lot people talking about leaving New York. Mayor Bloomberg’s vision of New York as a “luxury item” is still on a rampage. My general feeling is that there are more quality bands in Brooklyn now than in the old East Village. There were of course the dozen or so very exciting bands and artists back then, but it was mixed in with a lot of bad. And now there’s more history to draw from and also better musicians willing to get into post-punk. It’s an established form now. You actually have people in music school taking DNA seriously. Take a current Brooklyn band like Child Abuse—they can really play. That was rare back then.
Another difference, for me, is that there are proportionately less bands that take being in a band seriously. There seems to be less hustle, or careerism, even. It seems more common that people have other pursuits, even artistically. At least compared to the gold rush early ‘90s, there are less bands thinking they’re going to stick with it, to the bitter end. I don’t want to put people down for playing music while they also prioritize their painting, or writing, or whatever. But somehow, that’s where our culture is going. Being in a band, or doing recordings at home, is something an increasing amount of people want to do and it’s a bit more of an accessory to everything else they do. So, maybe that’s good from some people’s perspectives. Maybe it’s partly that the taboo of rock, or a rock lifestyle, has receded. Or it’s the Baby Boomers having children. It might be a bunch of reasons. But I have a hard time with it.
Are there any current bands in New York that share a similar spirit and energy with the bands you worked with early on?
Well, the lo-fi and experimental electronics scenes seem pretty energized, at least in terms of experimentation with sound. It’s hard for me to tell how dedicated many them are to keep producing and getting it out there. But I’m sure there must be some.
In the more experimental punk and industrial territory, there’s John Colpitts/Oneida-related projects, Yvette. I like Guardian Alien because they’re ritualistic and trance-y, and almost overlap with a lo-fi/vibes thing. People I work with like Pop 1280, EULA, Barbez, Laura Ortman—and I’m not just doing a shout-out because they work with me—we feed off each other’s inspiration.
What keeps you in New York? Do you imagine yourself ever living somewhere else?
I could imagine living somewhere else if it was a lot like New York, and was challenging or stressful, some may say. New York seems to always represent some drama of the time. And it maintains a certain status—it has the highest population in the U.S., whatever that drama is, New York gets a lot of that focus—whether it’s the murder capital of the first world, or the birth of the LGBT movement at the Stonewall, or gentrification, or Occupy Wall Street, or a signaling of the end of the Bush/Obama era with the election of Mayor DeBlasio. So I guess I’m typically a classic New Yorker; I think it’s a microcosm of everything else.
Another issue is that there really is a unifying arc in terms of which music gets attention here. And I fear that I’d be a fish in the wrong ocean anywhere else. Even if there are oases and satellites of the sensibilities I’m thinking of, I fear there wouldn’t be enough like-minded people—I think it’s better for me if there’s a lot of people doing stuff, like a chaos.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking about moving to New York to pursue music now?
If they want to pursue music here, as in having some degree of success, they should make sure there’s enough of a scene in that genre, venues that accommodate that genre, and some successful artists in that genre. There is a lot of country music and metal here. But are there a lot of venues that support that? There’s maybe just a couple in those genres, and only some very modestly successful artists. Experimentalism seems to be at a premium here—not a good place for purists.
If you’re bothered by things always being “post-this” or “post-that,” or too ironic, then it might not work well for you in NYC, because there’s such a glut of stuff, and people trying to make sense of it, that it always seems to end up there. Everyone is hyper-aware of their cultural identity here, and they don’t want to be lost in the melting pot. So it can’t be just “folk,” it’s got to be “anti-folk” or “freak folk.” This happens in a lot of big cities. But really, it’s simple math—wherever there are more ideas clashing, then genres and sub-genres turn over faster. I’ve heard people complain about the “folk” that’s celebrated here being ironic. Well, they might be happier in Appalachia (no offense to them).
New technology, the Internet, etc. have changed the way people record, distribute, buy, and interact with music. How (if at all) have you had to adapt to these changes?
It’s hard for me to parse out how much is the world changing, and how much is me evolving, or me being forced to change in ways that I’ve made to be positive.
With studio technology, I tend to mix slowly and a lot of what I need to do goes faster now. So I’m doing the best work of my life, for who knows what reasons exactly, and I’m achieving it faster. And in my case, issues like analog tape quality have not made a big difference, in part because all the rest of my gear, and the rooms [in the studio], are exactly the same.
As for disseminating music, I still think a good right-sized label, if you can get on one, is the best way to go. And of course there were many more of those labels in the heyday of the late ‘80s to late ‘90s. But lots of great artists didn’t get on a label, even then. So if you can’t get on a label, now is a lot better—at least you can do something. And without a label, which generally means no booking agent, you can also do more now.
I personally always enjoyed the promotional aspects, like photo shoots, and planning them, etc. And it’s sometimes a pain to feel you always need more of that stuff. But there’s more to be creative with. Like instead of one photo on a glossy, per album, you can now do 20. So that’s a benefit if you have a strong visual bent.
You’re also known as an activist and “cultural antagonist,” and were very active during the Occupy Wall Street protests. What role do these activities play in your life and why are they important to you?
One aspect of Occupy that was immediately attractive was the interconnectivity, some of that via the web. I’ve always defended scenes in music when people derided then. Is it not sometimes a cynical synonym for community? And with Occupy, the more interconnectivity the better. And individually, the activists used social media much more than the average band. And you could see the power of it; it caught the state off guard. So there was a parallel in Occupy with how I felt movements in music were also social movements. And many of the music communities, artists, and fans are beyond the state and cross borders. And it’s been gathering strength and growing in size. That’s really our hope. So yeah, I’ve always felt an activism within the music. And that was instilled in me observing the ‘60s as a child. It’s essentially what drew me to music. If it seems more political now on my part, it’s cause a lot has reached the boiling the last few years.
You’ve had an incredibly impressive and influential career as a recording engineer/producer. What have been some of the highlights so far?
With recording, I appreciate things in retrospect. I’m usually aware that things are good at the time, or that we’ve made them as good as they can be. But I usually disconnect when we’re done with them. Sometimes it takes a while to sink in, or other people force me to revisit.
An example is Swans’ Love Of Life—it holds the studio record for longest mix. It took five whole days. My assumption was that we probably botched it—not pointing fingers. But the owner of the Pilot Light in Knoxville, Tennessee forced me, basically, to listen to it late one night after a show, at top volume. To the chagrin of my band mates, he kept asking, “What’s that? Who did that? Was that idea pre-planned or done in the studio?” And damn, I realized it was really good.
A similar thing happened with “Half Jack” by the Dresden Dolls. The mix was such torture and took so long that I couldn’t listen to it without feeling stressed. Then, years later I heard it again, and it’s OK. So unfortunately, my memories are mostly of projects that people keep talking about. I have great memories of Stuffy Shmitt recordings, if anyone wants to look that up.
Last but not least: Do you have any Christian nightmares?
Yeah, I had a family member commit suicide after a stretch of going to church every day—praying, praying, praying. Somehow the world they created in their mind was completely disconnected. It makes you realize that even devout people have to be aware that there is a “too-far,” which can be dangerous in many ways. It can be a real vehicle for insanity—for the few, of course.
Great stuff this - new track by White Suns called “Priest in the Laboratory”. It’s going to be on their new album ‘Totem’, which comes out on March 18th.
On this new album, White Suns’ signature onslaught is tempered by deadened stares and slow-burn instrumentals. Renowned recording engineer Martin Bisi (Sonic Youth, Swans, Foetus) provided documentation of the performance in his labyrinthine BC Studio compound. Totem is rock music realizing its obsolescence; the work of a band compelled to mutate.