Martin Bisi has contributed mightily to the experimental music scene in New York City and beyond, having worked with an impressive array of artists since the early 1980’s, including NYC envelope-pushers Swans, Sonic Youth, and John Zorn. His BC studio in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York was originally started with financial help from Brian Eno, who worked on his ‘Ambient 4/On Land’ release at BC Studio with Martin as well. BC studio has since become a staple of the New York music scene, and it is also where Bisi lives, having moved to that (at the time) largely uninhabited area of Brooklyn to convert the multi-floored building into a living space and studio over two decades ago.
Bisi took some time to chat with us via email as he prepares to tour his new music project following up their latest release, ‘Ex Nihilo.’ On top of his own musical endeavors, there’s also a documentary hitting the big screen about Martin’s BC studio, called ‘Sound and Chaos,’ which will be screening at The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge THIS SATURDAY. Martin will be dropping into the Lilypad that same night to perform along with Boston gothy-folks Black Fortress of Opium, so make sure you’re in the Cambridge area when Saturday night rolls around!
Boston Hassle: BC Studio was started with help from Brian Eno when you were just 19. What was it like diving into the New York City music scene at such a young age?
MARTIN BISI: The music scene at that point might not have seemed very different to me than it would to any young person diving into any large local scene. I was in awe and maybe a bit intimidated by the older people who really had experience and were very active, and also taken by the fact that some had come from older scenes in other places -like the psychedelic scene in San Fransisco, or the 60’s blues scene in London. But it wasn’t until a couple years into it that I realized it was unique in the world -and decades before I could believe that it would be seen as something of a golden era.
BH: Some of your early work features artists utilizing previously recorded material, such as in “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock and “Into the Groovey” by Ciccone Youth. How do you feel about the growth of sampling and remixing as musical techniques alongside controversies concerning copyright and downloading issues?
MB: “Rockit” also uses a sample from Led Zepplin’s “Coda,” which isn’t widely known. It’s the guitar jab after every break. I think it’s important to remember that sampling, and even remixing, are only a portion of what happens in music today. It gets a lot of attention, in part cause it’s new technology. But tons of musicians never sample anything, and never do a mashup. I’ve personally stopped doing it. Sampling isn’t that interesting anymore. It’s not experimental like I once felt it was. There also seems to be less rock people doing remixes hoping the songs will crossover into another genre, like they did in the 90’s. And, the ‘rock band with a dj’ thing is less popular. So all this hasn’t taken off equally across all genres. Regarding copyright/downloading, I basically don’t think you should do anything against someone’s wishes. If I send a private link, or MP3, I wouldn’t want someone to post it or start selling it. It feels like there’s an increasing awareness of that, and I’m hearing less rhetoric that once you write a song it belongs to the planet. Musicians might be contributing to the culture that music is always free. I think actual albums can help on that though -you can just make a few songs streamable for free, but for the others, you’d have to buy the album.
BH: Are there any aspects of BC studio (the gear, the acoustics, etc.) that you’ve found particularly useful or inspiring from project to project?
MB: The large space of the live playing areas is particularly useful and unique. The ambient rooms also give me more options for getting something unique. And really that’s what me, and the artists I’m recording, want. I find, though, that when I mix stuff that was recorded elsewhere, I end up with something similar to what I would’ve gotten in my own space. So in my choices, my ear tends to lead me to a similar sound regardless of the space, or the gear.
BH: Do you have any upcoming recording sessions in the works at BC Studio?
MB: I’m currently finishing an album for Black Fortress Of Opium, the Boston band who will be playing with me at Lilypad. I’m also recording a group called Lauds for the keyboard/viola player who’ll be in my band at Lilypad. So there’s a lot of inter-connected cooperation going on, which is great.
BH: Your show at the Lilypad on the 26th comes on the heels of your most recent release, ‘Ex Nihilo.’ How have the past few months of performing been since that record came out? What are your plans for the future when it comes to making your own music?
MB: Performing the ‘Ex Nihilo’ material feels very right for me at the moment -very cathartic and surreal. And I’m still discovering nuances of how to perform it, even trying to recreate some of the spontaneous accidents that have happened. There’s a deliberate aspect to making my albums. There’s usually a song or 2 that guide the whole album. There’s a specific overall theme or vibe that I’m working towards.
BH: The BC Studio documentary spends a good amount of time exploring concerns about the gentrification of the Gowanus neighborhood. Is this gentrification just the result of an inevitable urban cycle, or does it represent a wider, national issue for you?
MB: It actually represents an international issue. You’re seeing it all over the first world, in cities above a certain size. The stuff I’m mostly concerned with is very top-down. It’s not the slow, organic change that a city and society should have. A lot of the problem and threat for me is from rezoning, and the granting of zoning variances. The main players are often huge, profit-driven financial interests. So it’s greed and policy driven. It’s not change driven by people power. And in a process we would want to be democratic, money really talks.
BH: Do you see yourself staying in Gowanus in the years to come?
MB: I’ll probably stay in Gowanus as long as the New York City area is a relatively vibrant place for music. Because my space works for me, and I’m even uneasy about changing details like the color of the walls, cause it’s hard to tell what contributes the results, or the vibe. So I’m not eager to put a lot of work into a new place, not really being sure that it’s going to be as good.
Make your way to Cambridge Saturday to dig all the Martin Bisi vibes, starting with a 2PM screening of ‘Sound and Chaos’ at Brattle Theatre followed by a Q&A with Bisi. Then complete your night with a 10PM performance by Bisi and his band at Lilypad!