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Martin Bisi, co-founder of infamous Brooklyn recording hub BC Studio, reflects on avoiding gangs, recording White Zombie, and the new compilation celebrating his legacy.
If you have even a tangential interest in art-rock, noise, industrial, and metal music from the ’80s through today, then you’ve probably heard something Martin Bisi has worked on. The prolific producer is responsible for capturing the sounds of Sonic Youth, Swans, Helmet, White Zombie, Cop Shoot Cop, and many more – including Herbie Hancock’s GRAMMY-winning hit, Rockit – at his BC Studio recording facility in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Martin co-founded the studio in the early-’80s with renowned bassist/producer Bill Laswell and Brian Eno, back when the Gowanus neighborhood was a neglected post-industrial area that was home to more wild dogs than human artists. Today, 35 years later, Gowanus is just the latest in a long line of NYC neighborhoods to succumb to rapid gentrification. Unfortunately, the old warehouse BC Studio has resided in since its inception is now in the crossfire of a major rezoning proposal that could likely displace Martin and his workspace.
Therefore, the semi-live compilation album BC35: Volume Two is more than just a celebration of the studio’s 35-year legacy. The record features members of The Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Swans, and many more performing in randomly selected groups over a weekend at BC. It’s a testament to Martin’s continued value in NYC’s underground music scene – which is the message he needs to convey to the zoning committee in order to keep the studio intact.
When we get him on the phone, Martin is excited to talk in-depth about BC’s history, working with White Zombie, and how the Gowanus neighborhood has changed over time.
Above: Martin Bisi, 2019. Photo by Joan Hacker
I read one quote from a few years ago where you said that packs of wild dogs and gangs used to roam around the Gowanus neighborhood. What was the area like in the ’80s and ’90s? Set the scene for me.
There’d be maybe 15 dogs [per pack]. It was interesting because they would always be very purposeful. They wouldn’t just be sitting… they’d always have a destination, it seemed. It was funny ’cause I would get scared, I would have to re-route around them sometimes, for a while. I would just do that routinely. They’d be right behind me barking and yelping. And one time they were, like, biting onto my pants, trying to pull me down and hold me down. Which is really terrifying, I was scared they’d rip my leg off.
There was this gang called The Crazy Homicides that are sort of well-known. They would wear motorcycle jackets and they all had these cavalry caps, like the Union army. They would be around, always in groups. Sometimes I’d see them with chains, visible chains holding in their hands – especially at night.
In the building, interestingly enough, there were maybe two or three what I called art studio squats. Basically someone would take an unused room, really, and then someone would have art in there. Like sculpture and paintings and stuff like that. And there was a lot of stealing electricity. And I wasn’t a squatter, I paid rent. But there was no electrical bill, we just had electricity – which I never really knew where it came from. There were maybe three official tenants, compared to now where I think the same building complex has 80 official tenants. And 200 people coming in and out and working.
Above: Martin Bisi in BC Studio. Wild dogs not featured.
Do you think the chaos of the surrounding area (the filthy Gowanus canal, roaming packs of wild dogs, gang activity) contributed to the sounds and styles you were recording at BC studio?
I relished deeply what I felt was sort of the slow slide into the shitter of New York City. I liked that [graffitti] was vandalism. I deliberately embraced it as property destruction. So for me it was kind of art mixed in with what I call art terror. I wanted people to be scared. I wanted them to look out on the trains when they were on the Upper East Side, which is where I came from, with their comfortable bourgeois lives and be scared because there was this whole anarchy that was exploding and happening around them.
I was trying to be sort of an art criminal, in a way. So I embraced the sort of chaotic, noisy, messy, rude. Those were things I wanted. So it not just inspired, but it sort of motivated. In some cases, I maybe imitated some of what I saw visually in the music. But that’s because I loved this. I loved abandoned buildings and I loved decrepit industrial spaces, so I wanted to do all these things in the music. I actually thought that this sort of world was a better place. There was freedom, in a way.
Above: Swans' 1992 album Love Of Life, recorded at BC Studio.
What do you think made people want to record with you at BC? Like, what did you offer in particular that eccentric artists found appealing?
What seems to resonate with people when they think of what I’ve done, is the gnarly aspect of no wave. No wave was a lot of stuff. There’d be weird dance music with a weird guitar solo. I did stuff like that. And I also did dance music and the hip-hop was kind of upbeat. So it’s funny, that’s where I sort of discovered during this era – and I guess it’s the stuff that for me, personally, resonates a bit more – was the cathartic stuff. Like Swans ended up being, where you’re chasing out the demons from inside. And the art imitates the life that you see around you. There would be a lot of violence, visible violence. I didn’t run into any dead people but people did run into dead people, or someone who had been assaulted severely. So in some ways part of what worked for me was channeling some of that stuff. But there is also some stuff I did that you might say was very positive… the early hip-hop stuff was like, let’s party. Let’s have a good time. So people did both.
I know White Zombie recorded Make Them Die Slowly with you and Bill Laswell. Do you have any tales about what it was like working with Rob and the gang for that album?
Rob pretty much wanted a straight-up metal record. Later, that’s what became apparent. At that point I did not think of them as metal. I thought of them as what you would now call a noise band. They didn’t sound like Metallica to me or Megadeth. But I think that’s what he wanted.
One mistake I think people make with producers, generally, is that there’s an assumption that a producer is across the board a professional. And that if you relate to some of the records they did, then you feel it’s fine. Rob has a wide taste, so he liked some of the records that Laswell did, so then it’s all fine. But in reality you should really look at a producer and see what the records actually sound like, and you should realize that likely, that’s how you’re gonna sound.
After we recorded Rob’s voice, one thing that Bill liked to do is running Rob’s voice through a little speaker. Like, literally if you took the speaker out of a car, a speaker where it’s maybe four inches in diameter. I saw [Rob] on the street and he was like, “Oh, how’s it going in the studio?” And I was like, “We’re taking your voice and we put a little speaker then Bill’s ramming his thumb and screwdrivers into the speaker.” You could see the pain in Rob’s face. He didn’t say anything. It totally did not sound like the kind of record he wanted to make.
What was the BC35 recording session like? Give me a lowdown on the whole weekend.
I think that the record took on its own kind of life. It’s significant, like who was available, and that is, weirdly enough, part of the story. You don’t have Herbie Hancock. With Sonic Youth, you don’t have Kim or Thurston but you do have the drummer, Bob. That’s also part of how the studio is. There’s a few marquee things, kind of big records that stand out. And then there’s a lot of B-roll of records that aren’t the ones that really kicked out in any big way, but are very significant in a more humble way. And I think that’s always what I intended for the studio.. I never intended to hit the big time. That was more Laswell. I can’t lie and say that a little more big time wouldn’t have been nice. But it’s not really something I would expend a lot of energy and waste a lot of creative capital to achieve.
It matters, the people that are in New York still, and cared enough to show up and collaborate. So [BC35: Volume 2] has a bit of a life of its own of, like, the people that were a part of it and excited to be a part of this sort of collective creation. It wasn’t always live recordings. There were here, maybe at times, 70 people downstairs. Which is kind of a lot for that space. It was a sort of public recording session. It was a bit of a hybrid of a show but people really felt as though they came and they were guests in this sort of recording process.
Above: Martin posing with some of the studio's most important releases.
The studio’s location is in danger because of a rezoning proposal by the city. I heard you’re very active in the community’s reaction to this, so I’m hoping you can give me a good idea of what the proposal is, how it would affect the studio, and what you’re trying to do to stop it?
There’s a chance that the studio can survive this… It’s very important to the city that rezoning seems to protect and allow the arts to flourish. That’s a big part of the economy in New York City. To some extent there’s some art washing happening here, where they’re trying to build all this stuff and trying to make it seem OK because the arts aren’t being displaced.
The reality is that it’s trying to do something with a big tool where really you need a fine instrument. I think if you looked at it at the end, you might be able to say oh okay this was good for some artists. But it’s not necessarily good for other artists. Now, my building, from its beginnings as an abandoned and squatted old factory, is now a very legitimate arts curating – like, it curates the artists that are in the building. I probably wouldn’t even be able to get into the building now. I probably wouldn’t meet their so-called standards. Basically, the whole thing is selecting to a sort of – I call it a gentrified art world. Where you have access to these resources, or you’re more likely to get that access, if you have an art degree. It’s continuing this thing where it’s not only becoming a playground for the wealthy, it’s also becoming an art world for privileged artists.
BC35 Volume Two comes out tomorrow, and is available for pre-order. A record release show for the compilation is scheduled for Thursday, 4/25, at the Market Hotel in Brooklyn; tickets are available from Ticketfly.
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