If you’re the kind of person that collects records, or at least examines the liner notes, Martin Bisi is a name you’ve more than likely noticed in the classic credits of from bands like Sonic Youth, Swans, U.S. Maple, Material, Cop Shoot Cop, White Zombie, Herbie Hancock, and dozens more.
Since the mid-1980’s, he’s been one of New York’s most prolific producers, without even mentioning his solo output, which gets a marvelous addition with Feral Myths this December 2nd. Bisi’s sprawling sea of solo records (often recorded at BC Studios, a basement in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn) is where some of the most experimental work of his career takes place, and his latest offering continues to push the art house envelope while trying a slightly more focused approach.
He’s a legend in the underground, and somehow, somebody convinced him to do an interview with us. So we are extremely proud to present the following conversation, in which we discuss the hauntings of his studio, graffiti, the importance of land use activism, and which member of Sonic Youth was the biggest punk. Honestly, we had so many questions for Bisi we were about to have a meltdown, but we managed to distill the following QnA from all the wonderment. We do hope you enjoy it.
FB: Given that your name is attached to some of the most important no wave, psychedelic, avant garde, and experimental hip-hop of the 20th century, we couldn’t help but wonder: do you remember when you might have first heard the term ‘math rock?’ Did it make a strong impression on you if so?
Martin: I vaguely remember that I associated math rock with the Midwest of the US – Chicago, Kansas City etc. I think it’s when I went to Kansas City to work with Season To Risk around ’93 that it cemented it in my mind. They weren’t really math rock, but they had complicated arrangements and it was more mechanical than sonically similar stuff in New York at the time. But the phenomenon of semi-prog mixing with punk or hardcore tones had been building since the mid 80’s. The first one I remember recording was Phantom Tollbooth‘s One Way Conversation in ’87, and I found it pretty surprising to hear a punk-ish band with technically ambitious parts.
FB: Seeing as we haven’t been able to view it in its entirety yet, we’re super keen to finish the Sound and Chaos documentary that came out a few years ago. How often do you think about that scene where you’re analyzing the impact of Whole Foods coming to Gowanus?
Martin: Well I feel guilty for shopping there, but Whole Foods has created a bit of a food desert in the area, pushing out other stores. It set the stage for gentrification, boosting property values and branding the area as more desirable for the wealthy residents that are soon expected to come in the 1,000’s. I’ve become numb to Whole Foods as the area is transformed. I might soon not even be proud to be located in Gowanus Brooklyn.
FB: Can you tell us a little more about land-use activism, what it means to you, and what it will soon mean to all of us?
Martin: At the moment, a lot of our problems are tied to ‘land use’. It makes sense historically, going back to colonialism and feudalism. The land is a resource. An area like Gowanus is where there was autonomy, like an important organ in the body of New York City. Everyone acknowledges that access and affordability are a problem, but the “solutions” are making the problem worse. For artists to have space, they now need to go to buildings where developers have set up curators, and outdoor areas are being privatized – that’s why i’ve been doing more illegal performances outside, with the theme of urban autonomy.
FB: So much of your discography blends various styles of music, storytelling, and what sound even sometimes what sound like incantations. When you’re composing a song, is recording a part of that process, as opposed to perfecting an idea and recording it after?
Martin: I do a little bit of both. Like nature, I need to be opportunistic. For instance if a musician is available only at a certain time, or I happen to have a recording of an improvisation (even live on the street) that has some magic, and can be repurposed into a song. But the sometimes-elusive ideal is to have a song fully written, including lyrics, before recording it.
FB: Your upcoming album Feral Myths allegedly has a few references to paranormal encounters, a subject I’m well acquainted with. Where did these encounters take place?
Martin: BC Studio is over a battlefield – Battle of Brooklyn of the American Revolution – so even though that’s not clearly the source of some of my experiences, there’s a lot of opaque energy around, also from the populations that have come to the area from all over the world. The song “Silver Guardians” is about the Oricha or saints/santos of Caribbean Santeria, which was prominent in the area before gentrification.
FB: Who is doing that little narration at the end of your most recent single “A Storm Called Ida?”
Martin: That’s Tim Wyskida, drummer of Insect Ark, Azonic and Blind Idiot God. He was at the studio the night the storm hit.
FB: How would you say BC Studios has changed over the last 40 years? Or has it changed?
Martin: I’d like to think it hasn’t changed much. It’s more digital. But I still mostly record live music. The work moves a lot faster. And even though some projects are spread out over a few months (a good thing), the days of 3 month marathons with a single artist are over -that’s because of changes to budgets and that some of the work is indeed faster in digital, like editing (cutting between takes) and automation. Generally the mixing in the end is sounding different, even for what may seem like related artists – things evolve, and what the rest of the world is doing has an effect.
FB: Do you get the same thrill as you did when you were 14 when you rattle a can of paint? And what made you change from Alive in 75 to Tage?
Martin: I don’t tag anymore. But I did get that same thrill participating in the painting of some banners that were hung (illegally) in the neighborhood. They were hung by ‘climbers’. It’s still using the street and air for expression.
FB: Are you a fan of guitar pedals or do you prefer to forge your own sonic path by creating/dismantling instruments?
Martin: Effect pedals are essential. I admire people having the time and skill to build instruments, but I can at best only collect scrap metal for percussion. And even then, I still use contact mics through pedals on some items – in the recent performances with self-made instruments, i’ve helped find the elements for percussion, but i’m not the one who played them – in recent outdoor performances the percussionists were Ego Sensation (White Hills), Lani Combier-Kapel (Weeping Icon) and Dom Cipolla (Mono).
FB: Who is Sludgie the Whale?
Martin: Sludgie was the name given by Gowanus locals to a 15 foot whale who entered the Gowanus Canal in 2007, and died 24 hours later, probably from getting stuck in the toxic mud.
FB: “Goth Chick ‘98” captures a truly iconic snapshot, both in the song itself and its associated music video. Was the moment your mustache falls off intentional, or just a happy accident?
Martin: The mustache falling off was an accident. I, at the time thought it was unfortunate but the director, Jim Spring loved it – so, happy accident.
FB: Your visual output is just as consistent as the sound associated with your discography. Do you see music videos as a vehicle for the songs, or an opportunity to try else?
Martin: I think the only time I knew there should be a music video at the time of writing, was with the newest one, for “A Storm Called Ida”, because the video could be part of the land use activism, and because it was about the neighborhood. Then we wouldn’t need any special locations.
FB: Grindcore has been slowly goring its way into the mainstream, with Naked City being routinely cited as a major influence. Do you have a favorite moment from recording Torture Garden with John Zorn?
Martin: I barely remember the recording process. I only remember that it was very loud and some of the players needed to put ear plugs in, under their headphones. That was the first, and maybe only, time that’s happened.
FB: When you were working with Sonic Youth, who was the bigger punk? Between Thurston and Lee, who abused their guitar more?
Martin: I think really the biggest Punk was Kim Gordon. She was the one most concerned with staying close to Punk. Thurston Moore seemed to feel there was a relationship to hardcore, but maybe coming from an avant-garde place. A lot of avant-gardists were related to hardcore – John Zorn for instance. Thurston might have abused guitars slightly more than Lee, but they were more interested in preparing guitars so they weren’t played conventionally. They would also acquire guitars that were already in disrepair, or even broken.
FB: You seem to have a real talent for sniffing out trailblazers and true originals, or at least seem to have a magnetism that draws those kinds of people to you. Do you look for anything in particular in your collaborators, or does it just come down to chemistry?
Martin: I think mostly the trailblazers find me. It’s part of my process to go to a lot of local and adventurous shows – in part to support the scene and see what people are trying to do, but also so it’s clear that I speak the same language as these artists. I never solicit artists to work with me. It’s best i let people figure it out for themselves. With collaborators in my own material, they just need to make things better, as opposed to it being a perfect fit. And I value variety – so many different types of sound or playing is best.
FB: I feel like you’ve damn near seen it all when it comes to music. When was the last time an artist really surprised you?
Martin: I don’t really get surprised. Things always seem less original to me than to a lot of other people. And that’s ok – originality is a feeling. It’s like a trick of what elements you want to combine, or styles you want to draw on.
And there you have it. After checking out Feral Myths over the past few weeks, we’re pretty confident in saying it’s one of Bisi’s most consistently excellent works to date. That being said, he’s not the kind of guy to rest on his laurels, so we’ll most likely see his name attached to something else soon, and it will likely sound entirely different. It just feels like Feral Myths is really well balanced, for all of it’s strangeness, it never leaves the listener totally in the dark. Good stuff. Anyway, check out his website here, and if you liked the article, buy us one of those fancy frappucinos here. Come on, it’s the holidays. We’ve got all kinds of stuff coming up for you real soon, so stay tuned and thanks for reading!