Every in-the-know music snob and postmodern sonic geek knows Martin Bisi and his BC Studio for being a major player in Brooklyn’s post-punk, hip-hop, and avant-garde scene of the 1980s, producing, engineering, and recording records for the likes of Fab Five Freddy, Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaata, Sonic Youth, Swans, and, more recently, EULA (whom we recently profiled and whose sophomore LP, Wool Sucking, he produced). However, in addition to the production work he’s most famous for, he’s also been recording his own material for nearly twenty years, material that seems to be somewhat inspired by (or perhaps in spite of) the work he does at BC Studio. Most recently, he released Ex-Nihilo last year, a record that he considers to be a departure from previous work and reminiscent of the kinds of things that he normally does with other artists. Martin Bisi’s been playing the album out live for the past year and will be headlining our very own Kung Fu Necktie tonight, April 24th, alongside The Simple Pleasure and Husky Bundles. In addition to his latest album, this past year has also seen Bisi touring and promoting the release of Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, a documentary covering the history of the Brooklyn recording space (which Bisi founded in 1981 with some help from Brian Eno) and the profound changes Brooklyn has seen over the past three-and-a-half decades, from a gutter for tragic aliens to… a “hot spot” for the coolest sorts of aliens. I recently got a chance to chat with Martin Bisi about how he’s spent his last year or so, which has been largely driven by the film.
“I’ve been more promoting the doc, which wasn’t on purpose but, basically, there’s been more interest in the doc than the album. But that’s been nice and helpful and getting me into better venues, especially in Europe, because of the documentary. And we recently played West Coast dates where we did a screening, then did Q&A, then we played. We would either do it in the same room, or play in a live space that was around the corner from the theatre where we had just had the screening, which was cool, but could also be really terrifying. The hardest thing for me was to do it in the same space because I felt like I’m not even the best of what I do [laughs], so that’s stressful. We’d screen the film and be like, “Yeah, that won a Grammy, and now here’s this [laughs].”
Like most worthwhile documentaries (or perhaps worthwhile art in general), the story of BC Studio is something that very much needs to exist but, at the same time, whose existence is a bit surprising, considering that, in the scheme of things, Bisi and his cohorts have always remained more or less in the realm of the subculural. He tells me that the piece came about at a time when he was beginning to question the current state of music and whether the kinds of things he did even fit that mold, but in the process (and the cultural shifts in that particular time itself) realized that the kinds of records that he makes are not only worth making, but that people do actually dig and that will likely always come back into fashion.
“About five years ago, or maybe six year ago, I kind of flipped out because of my feeling about being in the state of the culture of recording. Like, ‘Do people care about albums anymore? The golden era of recording is gone.’ When I started I didn’t set out to make music; I wanted to blow people’s minds with sounds. At the time I really did avant-garde and hip-hop and the thinking was like, ‘What would No Wave even sound like?’ I mean, you have the live show, but what would it sound like in a studio? The same thing was true with hip-hop. And with the film, it’s really about the space. Six years ago I was asking, ‘Why am I even tethered to this space?’ And I’m not asking myself that anymore. The culture of recording albums is back up, it seems, at least a bit, and valuing the album as a package itself. It almost reminds me of C.B.G.B.s when it was closing and when it was on its way out, they had some of the best times ever. The last month it was open were like the best shows they’d had and people who were making fun of anyone playing there five years previous were lined up around the block to get into these shows. And when it came to the studio, it was like, now that it’s in danger it seems keeping it open seems most essential. It’s longevity was a part of it. It had been there for thirty years.”
Before I get to his own work, I ask Martin about his recent work with Brooklyn trio EULA (who I assessed as “explor[ing] the boundaries of post-punk to an abrasively sexy degree”) , whose frontwoman and songwriter, Alyse Lamb, recently had a great chat with us, in which she had a plethora of great things to say about his work (“I can’t say enough good things about Martin. When you’re eight hours into a session, he’ll make you laugh when you’re about to cry, he’ll wake you up when you’re about to pass out… and he’ll push you when all you wanna do is cave.”) Martin tells me that Alyse and EULA are more or less just the kind of artist he loves to work with… even if their initial ideas may clash at times.
“Alyse found me, which is cool. I like being found. I don’t really advertise myself. I mean, my website alludes to me having a studio but doesn’t offer much else about what I have as a producer. I like it feeling kind of private. It’s very pragmatic. I like people who have already done their side of the homework, looked through albums that they like and find out who’s responsible for them. I make it so you have to go out of your way to find me. And Alyse very much knew what she wanted and how she wanted stuff to settle, but a lot of the stuff that came up was stuff that would happen in a lo-fi production, or no production, and I was like, ‘I’ve seen you guys live, and bottom-line, it’s gotta come out as a hard-hitting band. It would be a shame if that didn’t come across. I wanted to make sure it sounded like a band.”
Although when I first get on the phone with Martin he tells me that he’s currently in the middle of working on new material, I feel inclined to ask him about Ex-Nihilo, which will make up most of what he’s playing tonight, and which, as I alluded earlier, seems to represent an evolution or a new side in his solo work, in addition to what can be expected of the live experience itself.
“On my last record it was really indie pop, or noise pop. It was weird pop, but for this one I was doing something darker and I wanted to soft-pedal the poppiness. I was deliberately trying to make it not as catchy as it could have been, like I made the decision to have no more than two choruses on any song. And there is a bit of darkness to it, but also more violent songs. The album seems to encapsulate more of the sensibility the studio is known for. In the past, I always thought of what I did on my own as different from what was going on in the studio; I was kind of trying to keep it separate, but for Ex-Nihilo I was doing what I knew I was good at. What I do live is, basically I’m presenting the album, so I try to distill what’s most essential about it. I think if I did exactly what I do live in the studio, it wouldn’t work as well, and vice versa. Some of the same elements are there, but in different proportions. So it’s almost a continuation of it, a development of the album in different ways and chaos is sort of important. What I do is really effects-driven and what I do between the songs, which will include the lyrics of songs from the album that I don’t play, are kind of improvised, sonic space jams.”
Finally, I ask Martin about his thoughts on how Brooklyn’s changed most significantly since he set up shop there in the early ‘80s, when it was the place where people lacking in funds went to make music, compared to today, when it’s not only the epicenter of America’s indie music community, but a place where many of the country’s biggest businesses and venture capitalists seek to establish a headquarters. And while he tells me that it all looks and feels very different, he also doesn’t seem to think that the attitudes of the artists that exist there have changed all that much in the past 35 years or so.
“One thing about Brooklyn, and New York in general, is there’s a lot of different stuff happening, but it’s what people are talking about that changes. New York is kind of tied to its history a lot. Its history is kind of alive. Some friends of mine I’ve told were living in the wrong city. I mean, if you’re doing a country thing, I mean there’s getting to be a little niche scene for that, but there aren’t a lot of those bands thriving here. Like, I was talking to a guy in my building recently and he was like, ‘I don’t really like the heavy stuff; I don’t like those heavy, loud sounds,’ and it’s like, that’s kind of Brooklyn — lots of aggression and nastiness is one thing and then weird. Weird is at a premium and innovation. Innovation is important. If you can project an idea of post-this or post-that, then that might work here. And then weird and weird for its own sake, which I’m okay with. My new album is kind of an exploration of insanity, almost like a bad dream. If people think I’ve gone insane when they listen to my next record, that’s a good thing… which is funny… because I think I’m quite sane…”