Martin Bisi Interview

Martin Bisi in his studio, 1988. Photo by L.G. Carilles

What are your recollections of recording the EVOL album? Did the band come prepared or was there a lot of writing and experimentation in the studio?

Bands came into the studio well prepared back then, period. I don't even need to scour my memory regarding EVOL. Although rehearsal space was relatively cheap, studio time was much more expensive and recording time was rare, unlike now where people are continuously recording at home and the lines between demo, released record, and even rehearsal are blurred.

Where the experimentation took place was in guitar layering, vocal overdubs like in the bridge of “Shadow Of A Doubt”, and general effects and found sounds like in “In The Kingdom #19”. These were things that necessitated overdubbing, and therefore hard to fully prepare for in those days.

The mixing was a real exploration - what 'kind' of record, and ultimately what kind of band would this be? They were generally interested in breaking the common conception of what a New York band was at the time, but how exactly, on the nuance level, would that best be put across wasn't entirely known until we did it.

The vocals in the bridge of “Shadow Of A Doubt” took almost an entire session, and that was a real shock to me. I think they also felt a bit numb from that. But it was understandable in retrospect – overlapping vocals, done by the same person would be impossible to rehearse. It was also an ambitious concept of it: conveying a scene from a dream, veering on nightmare.

A funny dynamic regarding mixing was sitting with Mike Watt in the control room (he played on a song), and him giving mixing advice - roughly: "create the settings for the 1st song, then use the same settings for the rest of the album." And everyone took it seriously. The advice didn't last 1 hour into the mixing though. With each new mix we were still finding our way.

Did working with Sonic Youth/SST have anything to do with your connection with New Alliance and releasing your own material through them?

There seemed to be no connection with Sonic Youth regarding my releasing stuff on New Alliance. I think that, because on my first album, “Creole Mass”, I had sent Greg Ginn a tape and tried to get a response for months. So there wasn't a big connection.

What finally did it was Jean Karakos, who had the label Celluloid and was connected to Bill Laswell, and had in the meantime agreed to put the record out. At the time I was trying to be independent of Laswell so I called SST, and really in a bit of desperation told the receptionist to let Greg know that Laswell and Karakos would put out my record, but I would be much happier if he did. And surprisingly, he got on the phone! He told me he was impressed by my vocals, which I’ll take, and then it happened.

Creole Mass, 1988, New Alliance Records.

Was the recording process for EVOL similar to the sessions for Bad Moon Rising?

It felt roughly the same to me in terms of process, but I could sense on their end that there was more interest in having some good songs in there. Also, as Kim expressed her enthusiasm to me for new member Steve's bona fide punk background, it felt like going more commercial than downtown NYC art music, which felt more like the realm of Bad Moon.

Even how my hip hop background factored into their choice for me on Bad Moon, that was definitely not a factor for EVOL. Where that all came together was in the mixing, and we just kept exploring as we had in the mixing of Bad Moon, and that led somewhere very different.

You recorded/engineered/produced so many amazing albums before and after EVOL. Any standouts for you?

First thing that jumps to mind is US Maple's “Talker” – not sure why exactly, but maybe it's because that record is very much about sound.

After Creole Mass came out did you tour at all, or play around New York? Did you have a band put together?

I was pretty satisfied at that time being just a studio person because the studio arts, at least how I wanted to do them, were pretty powerful, and the terrain was wide open. This culture of recording and making albums slowly eroded, only to have slightly recovered recently. So it wasn't until this century that I made live performance and touring a crucial part of what I do, basically to compensate for what I felt I had lost as a sound creator in the studio.

So there was no touring and no record release show for Creole Mass. It’s a huge regret, especially since the European label for it, Frog Records/EFA (Germany), had offered to organize a tour there. Anyway, being stunted as a touring artist then might have contributed to my appreciating it more later on than some of my peers, so I guess it has balanced out.

I know Sandra Seymour played on most of your albums, did you know her from working on the Bite Like a Kitty record?

Yes, I met Sandy during Bite Like A Kitty. She impressed me as relating to a very different part of the scene than me. She liked Konk, for instance, which had that mutant-dance music aspect of No Wave which I had quickly moved away from. Konk had Richard Edson on drums – he was Sonic Youth's first drummer – and had left, I think, to pursue that other vibe. Sandy, as a bass player, related to that as well I think. Sandy had also been in a band called Body with Mark C from Live Skull. So we had a lot in common, but not at the same time. I felt that was a good mix.

Was it during the EVOL sessions that the Ciccone Youth tracks Tuff Titty Rap/Into the Groovy were recorded, or was that a different session?

Tuff Titty Rap was recorded at the same EVOL sessions that Bubblegum was, because of Mike Watt playing bass. But Into The Groove-y was a separate session, at least vibe-wise, and in my mind. So I can't remember how much actual time elapsed between the proper EVOL sessions and doing that song, but it was a whole other animal.

Any memories that stand out from the Blind Idiot God sessions?

I remember that, unfortunately, Andy Hawkins is annoyed that he hears a chorus effect on the guitar. What happened was this was the era when I started wanting to make things wider and bigger, and eventually I probably found more natural sounding ways of doing that. Also at that time, people generally weren't shying away from effects, so that's where my ears were. I was accustomed to Sonic Youth tripling guitar parts, so a chorused sound likely sounded good to me. I think I probably wanted it to sound, maybe ambiguously, like more than one guitar, since it was clearly a wall of sound kind of guitar vibe. A few years later, Blind Idiot God ended up purchasing huge amounts of speaker cabinets – four 4x12 guitar cabinets per side – the guitar would be stereo in their live sets. So it was a wall of guitar amps that couldn't even fit on the average club stage. Maybe in spirit I was in the right zone.

I'm curious about when you worked with Ultra Bide. How did you get approached to do that project, was it through Alternative Tentacles, or were you on the band's radar from previous albums you had done?

Ultra Bide came via Alice Donut who were on Alternative Tentacles. It was probably the manager that they had in common, who contacted me. And then of course the Donuts gave Bide a huge thumbs up. Both those bands had humor in common, though Bide did it in a more obvious, in your face, profane way, whereas Alice Donut wove it into social and political commentary.

Were you happy with the way the Sound and Chaos documentary ended up?

Oh yeah, the doc has a real vibe to it. The grit of the area comes across, contrasting with the Grammys for instance. It's interestingly mostly B-level characters, so, not Kim and Thurston, but Bob Bert – not Herbie Hancock but DXT the turntablist – not Amanda Palmer, but Brian Viglione.

So that's a bit of the reality of the studio. My name isn't even in the title. And if you compare my space to Steve Albini's current Electrical Audio – I guess we're both of the same era and culture – he made serious bank, somehow. There's no comparison in the two places as far as gear. I generally make do with a great space, decent stuff, and my ears, so it's really pretty humble here in Gowanus.

Luckily, the documentary managed to convey the essence of the various genres that inhabited the space, and at least mention or visually represent most of the main people who contributed. This is a herculean task, especially considering it still needs to be watchable, balanced over the whole time period, and not entirely academic.

The BC35 album fills out the story nicely, especially sonically – you should almost be able to purchase the two as a package. And there's more to come, there'll be a Volume 2 from the stuff recorded on that 35 year anniversary weekend.

I'm happy to hear there is going to be a Volume 2 of the BC35 album, the first one is really cool. Did you intentionally set stuff aside for a second volume?

BC35 was initially a Kickstarter to raise funds for medical expenses from my being assaulted outside the studio. When my band mate Oliver Drew suggested doing a recording for that purpose, I hadn’t even realized we were approaching the 35th anniversary month – we were going to do just one very large group jam. But then in a flash, the realization hit me, and I decided to do an anniversary weekend.

I wasn’t focused on it being a commercial record, I figured that delivering 2+ hours of downloads to the donors was ok. In the back of my mind I thought there could be a releasable record here, but that would come after the donors were taken care of. I was actually quite disappointed when I realized a double album was financially impossible. So I undertook the difficult task, along with my collaborator in organizing the event and recording, bandmate Genevieve Fernworthy, of editing this down to one volume. And even still some of the songs on vinyl are edited shorter than on CD, download or cassette. So there’s more to come. For instance, New Old Skull (Live Skull) played 3 songs live at the event, but only one was used on Volume 1.

Can you tell us a little about the event and some of the performers?

When we started planning the anniversary weekend, I had already organized these group jams with people who normally don't improvise. The first of these jams happened when we did the NYC premier of the BC Studio documentary and we gathered in a nearby bar to make noise with some of the musicians featured in the film. It was an insane hit! The audience was way over capacity and loved it, and the musicians loved playing in these ad hoc situations. I assumed that this would be one-time only, but I kept getting asked to repeat this mode.

So right off the bat, we thought of many of those same people for the BC35 recording weekend. In some ways, that's why the BC35 album feels a bit like a sonic companion to the documentary. We wanted it to have a somewhat more evolved angle though, so left it open for people to write a special piece for it – as did White Hills, and JG Thirlwell and Dana Schechter, or to reunite with ex-bandmates, as did Live Skull and Alice Donut. In the case of Live Skull, I didn't even immediately catch that it was essentially an original members reunion of an important NYC No Wave band. Same with what was ultimately called EXCOP, I didn't catch that it was a Swans and Cop Shoot Cop mashup till Genevieve jokingly called it Cop Shoot Algis!

The weekend was a daytime thing. We wanted stay in the realm of being a recording that you're attending, rather than a typical show. So it was noon start on both days, and we tried to be done by 7 or 8pm.

One of the highlights was that JG Thirlwell and Dana Schechter really treated it like a recording, doing overdubs. I thought that might be boring for the attendees, but it wasn't at all – they were even asked to overdub as well, contributing an impromptu choir.

What's next for Martin Bisi? Will you be touring the BC35 project some more?

I hope to have a new solo record released in December, called “The Solstice”, and I'm hoping the record release show in NYC can be around the 21st, and be kind of nuts. In November, the BC35 train goes to Europe. I hope to capture some of that vibe with the Martin Bisi band's Berlin chapter, who are doing it with me, playing a bit of the actual material. For instance, at the Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht, NL on November 9th. And there'll be a Berlin show November 3rd at Schokoladen.

Thanks to Martin Bisi for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out the amazing BC Studio Documentary "Sound & Chaos", as well as the BC35 album below.

For the documentary:

Martin's Website:

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