Name: Martin Bisi
Occupation: Musician, producer, engineer
Current release: Martin Bisi has put together BC35 Volume Two: The 35 year anniversary of Martin Bisi’s BC Studio, Brooklyn, a stunning compilation to mark the 35th anniversary of his legendary studio location in Gowanus, Brooklyn. At BC, Bisi has recorded records which have left their mark on experimental music culture – and, which sets them apart, both on what some call the underground and the “mainstream”. Some of the artists and bands he has worked with at BC Studio include Sonic Youth, Swans, John Zorn, Africa Bambaataa, Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell (who realised their groundbreaking Rockit here), Serena Maneesh, Violent Femmes, Foetus aka JG Thirlwell, The Dresden Dolls, Brian Eno, Fred Frith, Boredoms, Boss Hog (w/ Jon Spencer), and countless others. The compilation is available directly from Martin Bisi's bandcamp.
Also available: Martin's new solo record Solstice, which can be bought on CD and vinyl.
[Read our JG Thirlwell interview]
[Read our Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls interview]
[Read our Bill Lawell interview]
Recommendations: I can recommend the documentary Desolation Center, which is about the DIY shows in the desert in 1983 that Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Einsturzende Neubauten, Redd Kross, Survival Research Laboratories, Swans performed at. Some say that these inspired the later desert festivals like Burning Man.
And Unnatural Ways-band of great NYC guitarist Ava Mendoza.
If you enjoyed this interview with Martin Bisi and would like to stay up to date with his work, visit his official homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started going into the studio, with the group Material in 1980, but really just to be on the sidelines.
It wasn't till the following year that I started gathering gear for my own studio, which would become BC Studio, where I still am today. I did not really imagine that I would go into production long-term. I simply felt it was something I 'could' do, so why not.
There were no recordings at that time that inspired me sonically. It was still the 70s, an era that I still I don't like for sound. If anything I thought records, even those that I liked, sounded bad. It was more the live experience that I found exciting for sound.
As for music, I was messing around on drums through my teens. As the studio got more functional, I wanted to get experimental with drums and rhythmic sounds - sonically weird beats. That went well with my interest the Hip Hop of the time. I was also listening to a lot of what we'd call Prog now.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I did copy a lot of musical ideas initially. Sometimes I feel I still do, but then, as now, I try to give it my own twist. And I think I slowly drifted to demanding more from myself in giving it my own twist, and slowly developing signatures. Some of that goes in phases, because I'll develop a style, then abandon it when I fall, sometimes by accident into a new sensibility.
So I think it's a slow path along a spectrum to finding something that's uniquely you, with blocks of experience and expression that you linger in.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
BC Studio, originally called OAO Studio, started with a live sound board, rather than a proper studio console - that didn't happen till 4 years later. Then as now I was pretty bare boned. Occasionally I fall into having 1 or 2 very idiosyncratic effects and I'm excited to sneak them into whatever project is appropriate. But the love affair usually lasts about a year, then I may even sell those pieces of gear.
In the early years there were some Eventide effects hanging around, but then I tired of them. Later on there were some analog delays, that eventually met the same fate. More recently there were assorted distortion devices, or compressor/preamps that I would overdrive.
Ultimately, I'm not that interested in adding new sounds or elements to people's records, particularly idiosyncratic effects. If the artist feels they need something like that, we can discuss and I'll help find something. But ultimately it's about helping the power that's there, come through.
About a year ago I was very into reamping sounds, either through bass or guitar amps, or through a PA into my big room. Again, I'm slowly doing less of it.
As far as the rest of the gear, I know it all contributes to quality, cumulatively or in it's own way, but there is no silver bullet there, and I'm not necessarily married to any of it.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
When you create you are somewhat bound by the tools, especially in music where the instruments or the processing and recording tools are high technology and craft. It seems historically that new eras in music are launched by new technologies, or instruments being introduced. So we rely on the tool makers. Sometimes I've tried to find uses for gear other than the intended ones. And these days many of us are passionately trying to find different combinations of easily found effect pedals, in the hope of at least sounding different from one another, and it's not always so easy!
I find myself lately trying to avoid processing or sounds that sound too current, and it's a fine line between something that to me already sounds dated, to something that does the same job, but doesn't sound like the new toy off the home studio retail shelf.
I do very little rhythm programming, so there's not much of me interfacing with machines making the music. In the instances where the project has a lot of programming, it's the artist who does all that, so they can contend with their demon machines. Those things are instruments, so similarly I don't play the drums when a band comes in
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Most of what's in my studio is for capturing and storing sounds, and enhancing them, and helping the sounds blend or work together. When I find little appealing tricks from plugins etc, it's often by accident, and is rarely essential. So for instance, in many recordings I've made, a production touch may only appear in the bridge or break, or maybe in a segue between songs. These things can enrich an album, but aren't key elements.
As far as gadgets for live performance, I actually do rely on those, but that's in part because live I don't have the benefit of adding overdubs. So sometimes I'll have sound effects that are place holders for an extra instrument or voice. And of course if I really stumble onto something unique, then I'll incorporate it into the recording of that particular song
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I'm not very into file sharing, so I try to do it minimally and only when there is no other way. I also don't put a lot of faith in it - I usually find it's disappointing.
I find talking about process is super important, either for rehearsing, developing a song for live performance or recording. But for the music itself, it seems like words are pretty inefficient - it's either base concepts like big, fast, slow, stow, maybe fun, or heavy. But otherwise it's fairly inarticulate descriptions that leave people scratching their head as they try to interpret them.
Jamming with people has it's place for me, and I can develop those things further, but they have to be recorded in a potentially useable way. Otherwise improvs have their life at the moment, and there's not much I can do with them.
I think with collaborators, quantity matters. You have to develop a collective entity but it takes time and a lot of doing, and getting to know each other instinctively.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It's a struggle for me to have an effective creative schedule. The general rule is that for my own music, I'm not very good in the late afternoon and early evening. If I can start working on my own music about an hour after waking up, that's amazing. That's when I can be most objective and and make more assertive decisions.
I also find I can only work 4 hours on my own stuff at a time. So if I really have the day to myself, I'll do daytime and nighttime chunks of 4 hours each. But hen of of course everything else intervenes.
I see a lot of my non-engineering activity, as the back story and context of my personal music - this is everything from the social, to relationships, politics, to natural disasters. There's always something, especially in New York.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
For me all composition has an improvisational beginning, even if I'm working alone. There's stream-of-consciousness happening. I let my fingers go where they want as I mess around on an instrument, and even for lyrics, I let my mouth just go, and who knows what will come out. I guess this is "brain storming". Of course once I have a start point and idea of where to take it, the hard work begins of flushing out the parts, coming up with additional lyrics and making hard choices on structure.
Throughout the process, I keep in mind certain things I'm looking for, like a political theme that's melodic, or something that evokes early social ritualism, or contemporary mythology - like my song "The Mermaid Queen". So I don't go right for these themes, I simply wait, almost like a hunter, for the opportunity to raise it's head.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Oddly, when I'm engineering/producing I can do it in any state of mind, short of extreme anxiety about something unrelated. So unless the house is burning down, I can always work on someone's mix. This is not so for my own material though. So this shows how much attachment can make a difference. If it's my own stuff, I generally need to feel good, and capable of shutting out all my worldly concerns. This is one reason late night works for me.
My other favored time slot is late morning/early afternoon. During this time is when I feel strongest, sharpest. So somehow that gives me the confidence to dive into a creative state.
When I'm fully on a personal creative roll, I still need what I call benign distraction, something that doesn't have a big impact on me. So a couple minutes of looking at the weather outside, a quick look at my social media, help me come back to the work with a little more objectivity
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Well you discover things about a song when playing live, like figuring out tempo, or maybe some different approaches on vocal phrasing. Either deliberately or not, you try stuff live. I would say that ideally I wouldn't record a song until I've played a song live.
The live improvisations don't really help me for compositions, because I can barely remember them. And even if there's a recording to refresh my memory, there's never an idea that I would feel like copying. The only way these improvs help for future composition, is just further sharpening my skills, or forging better communication amongst the players
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Sounds can remarkably shift the context and meaning of a song. Of course many classic great songs work in almost any context, acapella or unplugged, or on piano, or guitar etc. I only have a few songs where that would apply.
Sometimes the sounds can make a piece more unique and downplay its more common attributes, considering so much has already been done with the same instruments, and notes and keys
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
That synesthesia happens with me during listening, mostly during the final mixing stage. It's not very common, and usually means that some of the sounds I've dialed in are exceptionally good - that's why it's more likely on a mix that's gotten a lot of work. Sometimes it will only be triggered by a specific sound within the mix, like the voice, or snare.
This is a visual synesthesia. I'll perceive a color or tint, or texture
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I have several modes.
In New York, I do several kinds of things live, like the straight band with songs, loud ensembles for short sets of noisy rock improv, meditative drone sets with no vocals. I've also gone back and forth from narrative song writing, where there's an actual story, possibly humorous, to more repetitive songs that have a more cathartic quality. I have songs that try to seem beautiful with a disturbing or violent undercurrent, and the mirror opposite of that as well.
One commonality is that I like to leave the listener a bit disoriented. I want a bit of a surreal journey, even when it seems straight forward, that there's a turn and you wonder if maybe you had it wrong in the first place.
My ideal is for listeners who are - or think they are mentally healthy, to wonder if they are. And for those who are disturbed or struggling, to find that clearly there's a cosmos where they fit right in.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I think it's hard to know where things are going, just like anything in history. I think genre is nearly impossible to predict, except for the fact that nothing lasts.
Who would have thought back in the Jazz Age, that jazz would eventually recede into the shadows. Rock similarly has done that now. It may be hard to imagine, but Hip Hop and Rap will also recede at some point. Of course all these genres continue to develop on the margins.
The only constants are that there will always be dance music in some form. And whatever is called "Pop" will be vocally driven, and will have some strong, young personalities that emerge.