Interview – Martin Bisi (Swans, Helmet, Sonic Youth)

martin-bisi

An online interview with legendary producer Martin Bisi, whose credits include John Zorn, Cop Shoot Cop and White Zombie, among many others.

Sound and Chaos: the Story of BC Studio is a documentary chronicling the story of a studio that Martin started in 1979 – check out the trailer here.

Sonic Youth, Swans, Helmet – what were you favorite and least favorite moments of working with those artists ?

I don’t remember too many specific examples of the the overall enjoyable, or annoying aspects of projects from that many years ago.

With Sonic Youth there were some frustrating differences of vision, on both records (Bad Moon Rising and EVOL), but more evident on the 2nd, EVOL cause we had more time to spend, and actually SY could more easily articulate a common vision at that point. On Bad Moon, it just turned into my being prick-ish at points, without that really being dealt with. and actually i apologized to Kim Gordon about it -hence the 2nd record. Some of it was my concern about vocals being in tune, which was not part of the band’s work ethic.

On EVOL it was frustrating that there was no firm “no” on where i would take things. In my later years i’ve learnt to more clearly discuss things so we ‘get’ on the same page no matter what but the experimentation with SY fell into my comfort zone, rather than i ‘enjoyed’ it. One memorable example of that experimentation was the firecracker incident that i talk about in the documentary. You can actually hear it on the song, In The Kingdom #19, Lee’s loud scream, followed by a barrage of firecrackers. So, of course i can’t forget that.

With Swans, the intensity in the process and environment was un-enjoyable. I think Michael Gira does everything in an extreme way -even his smoking cigars during sessions was extreme. it’s not chewing gum. and his need for up-to-the-edge of endurance session lengths. This was, unfortunately sometimes, represented in production choices -though we made them work, so, i guess it was ok ultimately. In my first recordings with them, there was massive amounts of reverb and delays on every element. and then later, when it was realized that we’d gone too crazy with that, ZERO reverb. So, not really a measured attitude about a lot of the choices i cared about. and i’m very measured and careful about process.

Helmet was easy, so hence enjoyable,.mainly cause it was short. it was just a bit of recording on Betty. The unfortunate factor that made it enjoyable for me, was that they had screwed up the recording of a lot of the guitars initially, before they called me in – and it wasn’t subtle. they were clearly unusable. So they barely told me anything in terms of recording technique. And if they had a suggestion, they were very cautious about saying anything, for fear of screwing up again.

The funniest moment, though this could have ruffled feathers if the project had been longer, was when they were out of the room, and i was with the assistant, i jumped up on a table and did some serious ‘air guitar’ on a solo, jumping down in a dramatic finale. i look up to see Page Hamilton and one of the others, looking through the door and laughing.

The Story of BC Studio” documentary. Can you tell us a bit about the back story of how it came to be and what we’ll see in it ?

The directors came to know about the studio cause we have a mutual friend. It was good that they weren’t already acquainted with studio, or were super fans of any specific work. So that made them more objective. Also a big part of their interest was the longevity of the studio, over 30 years in that location, dramatically near a notoriously polluted canal, and now a flashpoint of gentrification.

The two directors, Sara Leavitt and Ryan Douglass, had a slightly different angle, Ryan was more interested in the details of making the music, and Sara leaned more to the social aspects of what the space has meant, and means now in Brooklyn, and how that’s changed, and will change, and how the scene for music has changed alongside over 30 years.

I think what comes off well in the film, is that it was hard and dangerous to get to, so the commonality of early hip-hop youth, and No Wave experimental cultures comes through. I talk about Africa Bambaata bringing 40 Zulu Nation kids to quietly hang out in the common area, in the same breath as Sonic Youth putting 40 of their half-broken guitars on those same couches.

And there’s scenes of ‘violent’ moshing at a Cop Shoot Cop shows, as well as gang members at Africa Bambaata parties being brought together peacefully.
an important take-away from the doc, is that in an urban area like New York, it’s become harder to take the time to create, and have the space for it. And the studio in it’s 30 years shows how that’s important, and has become harder to achieve.

You worked with Black Fortress of Opium, which included my ex-coworker Joe Turner (small world, small world!). What was it like to work with those guys?

Black Fortress of Opium has being pretty cooperative, which is enjoyable. We’re really on the same page with a few things, especially in that Tony has described as a “timeless” quality, and that’s definitely up my alley. They have songs with their definitive sound, which is the ‘timeless’ thing,and then they have songs that stretch. So that’s a challenge there to see how far is ok to stretch, cause not all you tastes can, or should be represented on 1 album. Their sound and vibe is so unique, that it’s kind of locked in. And that’s hard, cause even the sound of their 1st bass player Joel, which was a bright Rickenbacker sound, is what they developed with, so now it’s hard to change anything.

Any plans for the future? Any bands that you would like to work with?

i’d like to basically just do follow up albums with some of the bands that have been in here the last couple years,like EULA and Pop 1280 (Sacred Bones), cause it feels like a bit of a roll, creatively. and it just seems like when i work on a 2nd album, it’s better, at least in terms of what i do. cause it’s starting fresh. we don’t need to worry about the songs on the album relating to each other, or being complimentary. We can determine what worked well, what can be better, and set a new vision.
I’m also doing albums for people that have played in my band, in mutual aid. And that’s gratifying -that’s Lauds, and Giggle The Ozone

What are you listening to these days, if anything?

ah, i never can listen to stuff over and over, like i used to. i think cause it’s so easy to access music anywhere, i have a lot of unattended homework always on the back burner. and there’s a lot more expectation that i listen to odd things, like rehearsals, or live versions.

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