Martin Bisi: Brooklyn Wolf
By Andy KaufmannMartin Bisi is an individual with unique talent. The Brooklyn-born forty-something has worked his way through the industry's ranks with a deft combination of persistence and luck, carving himself a reputation as a top-notch alt-rock producer. Along with fellow producer and bassist Bill Laswell, he founded B.C. Studios, a sprawling cavern of a warehouse that remains his home base. He has worked with more talent than most producers see in several lifetimes, including, to name just a few artists, John Zorn, Cibo Matto, The Boredoms, Cop Shoot Cop, Swans, Maceo Parker, Unsane, Blind Idiot God, Bootsy Collins and, perhaps most importantly, Herbie Hancock on the revolutionary "Rockit," a track that opened new possibilities to the burgeoning world of electronics fused with hip-hop. But to him, all of these accomplishments are likely dwarfed by the greatest challenge he has yet faced: escaping Laswell's dominant wing and expressing his own artistic profile.
Martin Bisi's introduction to music began when he was just a boy. His mother, a classical musician, forced him to take violin and piano lessons. Predictably, he hated the experience and was quickly turned off by a disciplined approach to music. These forced experiences clearly shaped his view of what music should be. "When I was a kid, my parents forced me to listen to a lot of classical music. And I'd sit there at the goddamn Philharmonic and think it's just meandering. It's just like, where the fuck is it going?" It's a way of thinking that got him into the habit of rigorous studio editing.
It's also a philosophy that set him down a musical path that praises instinct over calculation. Like many rebellious teens, he became infatuated with the drums, not to mention the social and political climate of the time. "I was born in the sixties and I feel like I had a real sense of the power of music, because music seemed to be a real driving force in basically what we all thought at the time, which was there's a revolution coming and the past was just going to be smashed and the world was going to change forever. So I had this huge respect for the power of music. I mean, it was definitely romanticized in my mind. And then somewhere in there I discovered the drums. And that was a revelation to me, because it wasn't like the way things were with my mother, like reading music. It's simple, because you can do a lot with a very simple lexicon. It's like, what are the notes? Here's a kick, snare, tom-toms. Their relationship is pretty simple."
Howl at the Moon
By the time Martin was in high school, music was a magnetic force, tossing him and his friends together into a powerful confluence of talent that would ultimately have a significant influence on the direction of modern music. It seems that fate had something to do with his choice of roommate, Michael Beinhorn, who would later go on to produce notable acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hole, Soundgarden and Korn. "It was weird because my dad had just died. So I found a place and, you know, I was in my senior year in high school. Basically it became a magnet for people running away from home. I think that's what Michael sort of did. I think he kind of ran away from home or something. And then his mom came by and was all worried because her son wasn't living at home."
Another of their friends was Fred Maher, the drummer who later played with and produced Lou Reed. Luckily for the introverted Bisi, Maher and Beinhorn responded to an ad that Bill Laswell placed in the Village Voice. Laswell, who has garnered a cult following for the hundreds of diverse and unique projects bearing his name, had recently moved from Detroit and was hoping to start an artists' collective in Manhattan. It was a seed planted in his head by a maverick promoter named Georgio Gomelsky, who managed the Yardbirds and Keith Richards, in addition to being responsible for bringing Jimi Hendrix to Europe. After Maher and Beinhorn met with Laswell, they brought the news to Bisi. "Hey, we're starting this band. Maybe you can do something," they informed him. "Yeah, maybe I can do sound sometime," Bisi replied, allowing his desire to be around music override the fact that he knew nothing about the crucial tasks that would be required. It was these connections that would eventually mold into Laswell's formative collective, Material.
But before they would adopt this name, they used their connection with Gomelsky to tour as the Zu Band, opening for guitarist Daevid Allen of Gong, which also included Maher and Beinhorn. The opportunity to provide assistance as a roadie proved to be irresistible. The desire to see America and a romanticized notion of touring led to his missing large chunks of his education. But the school system, feeling sorry for the recent death of his father, allowed him to tour under the guise of a "senior project." "I gave a friend of mine the keys to look at the apartment and we got back from the tour with Gong and it was all these girls that had run away from home. So it was all very juvenile stuff, with me and Michael living over there."
Into the Cave
At this point, Bisi and his partners were exceptionally young: Beinhorn and Bisi were both seventeen, while Maher was a tender fourteen. They were all in deference to Laswell's worldly twenty-four. So when Laswell suggested to Bisi that they find a place where they could create an artistic community, he jumped in feet first. "When I got this place it was actually Laswell's idea. He was like, you know, it would be great to have a place that we could all live in and share the rent and just rehearse. And it was like bang, that's a great idea. So I came out here to Brooklyn, which was pretty much the ghetto area. And I found a place for super cheap in a building that was half abandoned. So I got that in the fall of 1979 and at some point it was like, hey, maybe we should get some recording gear. And I was like, you know, that sounds like fun. It was so casual it's ridiculous. And I just got some stuff; I didn't know what the hell I was doing."
It was that casual attitude that gave birth to B.C. Studios. But what really got the operation off the ground was Laswell's connection with Brian Eno. Deciding that he could help them by loaning money and giving the new pad some street cred, Eno elected to record an album there. Eno quickly realized that his engineer lacked experience. "By the end of the project, Eno completely hated me because I was completely inept. He just thought I ripped him off and pretended I was a recording engineer. I didn't know I was being deceitful. I was just a kid. I was doing, not thinking."
One trial of fire led to another when Laswell met Herbie Hancock in an elevator at the Elektra offices, where he had recently signed a recording deal for Material, of which Bisi was a peripheral member. According to Bisi, Hancock mentioned that he'd heard a song called "Buffalo Gals" by Malcom McLaren of Sex Pistols fame that had a hip-hop flavor and he wanted in. Luckily, Laswell and his crew were familiar with the Bronx scene where this hotbed of rap activity was blossoming; they were frequent visitors at the Roxy, a club where DJ's like future Laswell collaborator Afrika Bambaataa would do battle by scratching records with furious abandon. "The one thing that's funny about "Rockit" is that it was really a demo. So there was a small, very demo-oriented budget. It was maybe like five hundred dollars or something. Because we had the studio then and it was kind of an opportunity, so Bill didn't want to start asking for a lot of money. So we recorded it with a drum machine, without Herbie by the way. Actually we kind of did all of it. We didn't have samplers then, so all I had was a delay. So I would sometimes just play records and then hit the repeat hold and see if anything cool happened. And then try to slot it in completely hit and miss. We were listening to Coda, the Zeppelin record, and then I just hit the repeat hold. And I didn't even catch it as being usable. I think Michael said, 'Hey, maybe you can use that somewhere.'" Once "Rockit" was completed, Hancock started ordering songs in pairs. "And before we knew it, the whole record was done. I'd never even met Herbie and I'd literally worked on all of the songs."
Laswell and Beinhorn flew to L.A. where they finished "Rockit." Bisi was amazed at how little had changed. "I couldn't believe it, honestly, because it was very similar. I mean, he kept all the beats. Actually, some of the beats I thought were insanely inane. Like just going up on the drum machine on the pitches of those really nasty sounding tom-toms on a DMX drum machine. I thought they were nuts with that, but it became part of the hook. You know, its obtuseness was kind of what people liked about it." Whatever the attraction, "Rockit" won a Grammy and the album, Future Shock, became a classic, offering up a shiny new musical vision that influenced countless artists.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
As renowned as "Rockit" remains, Bisi fails to collect royalties on the famous track. Why? "Well I actually had a little... Well I wouldn't say little. We had a major falling out, me and Bill. It didn't need to be nasty, but basically, once things started working for him, he wanted to move the studio into Manhattan. And I also kind of realized what would happen at that point, because Bill is a workaholic and Bill's got a zillion things going on. The studio would be working pretty much twenty-four hours in a sense. And I knew he'd have to get other engineers in and it would become less of a place that was mine. Because, even though I bought a lot of the gear, we happened to have an arrangement that it was sort of shared. Because remember, I was still goddamned nineteen years old, twenty years old, and he was the one, just out of personality and out of talent, that was making a lot of the connections. So that's the way it went, but I had to agree to not seek royalties on any of that stuff. And at the time that seemed like the right thing to do."
And it would be hard to disagree with his decision. Bisi's talents have graced scores of albums by talented artists, from Lydia Lunch to Helmet to Sonic Youth to Shirley Temple of Doom, even without Laswell's aid. And though his association with Laswell is greatly valued, it became imperative that he break free of his clutches. "He really knows how to weave a spell that what we're doing is really important. And it's really an urgent thing, like a crusade, it has to be done. And what's really funny is there are so many people that need that so badly that they get sucked into it. That's the thing that I found out with Laswell and with other people like him; once you fall into their orbit, it's really hard to break off. In fact, sometimes it takes an almost violent, explosive situation to get out of, because unless you do that you're always falling back in. I know people that have worked with Laswell and they're still in his orbit. No offense to any of these people, but you almost get the feeling that they're not standing on their own two feet."
He goes on to explain exactly what it is about Laswell's personality that causes people to fall under his spell. "When people get involved with someone like him, for years that person becomes the topic of a lot of conversation, because it's so implausible the way they are. It's just so rare. Bill definitely is a personality that could be a cult leader. He's so good at evaluating human nature. I mean, he is so pragmatic in that regard. I guess in a simplistic way he comes off as having a big ego. We would joke that he would hold court at this bar near his house in Manhattan. He creates a clique, an exclusive kind of clique. It's basically like a whole mechanism where the people in his orbit tend to be very insecure. That's the way these people work and so he really satisfies that need. But what's really funny is that, for all the needs being fulfilled, no one ever really knows Bill. I just realized, after years, that he'd never mentioned his family. I didn't know if he had any brothers or sisters, I didn't know what sign he was. There was never any show of vulnerability. There was never any, 'Well, I'm feeling kind of sad today.' For working so closely with someone, there was never any talk of ever being confused about anything. You always got the impression of strength and self-assuredness. And of course, insecure people, they're just drawn to that. And I guess maybe, when I was young, hey, maybe I was insecure, you know?"
Working by Laswell's side for many years, Bisi had the chance to witness some of the confrontations caused by his Svengali nature. Bisi recalls the time Laswell and punk darling Joey Ramone almost came to fisticuffs over artistic differences during the recording of the Ramones Brain Drain album (1989). "First of all, Bill's a big guy, so it's really strange for me to see (that) Joey's even huger, right? (He's) just staring down at Bill and Bill's getting red and angry and Joey's like, 'I'm going to beat your fucking head in.' Bill definitely controls the project. And I think it just reached the breaking point on that record. I think that some of these artists are a bit spaced out and they kind of don't see it happen until it's done."
The opposite sort of confrontation happened with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the respected Jamaican duo. "When we worked with Sly and Robbie, Bill really took over. And they were like, 'Oh yeah, okay, I guess that sounds like a good idea.' Getting this person to play, getting that person to play, doing the song like this. 'Well, you know what? Why don't you come in a little later? I'll lay down some sort of foundation with programming and then you guys can play over it.' And then, okay, well that's done. 'Well you know, I've got an idea we can do this and we'll maybe get it done before you come. And then you can add something.' And then, before you know it, the record's done and they're staring at something that they don't recognize. The record got done for Island and they suddenly woke up and were like, 'This is not our record and we don't want it to come out with our name on it,' and Bill just ended up calling it a Material record, The Third Power. It shows you how much control he had, that he could in fact legitimately just switch the name."
It wasn't the only time an artist's name was slapped onto an album after the recording process has been completed. "There was lots of stuff where sometimes we were just doing and deciding later what the record was even going to be. There's a Ginger Baker (of Cream) solo record, Middle Passage, that wasn't even a Ginger Baker record until we were done with it. That's even a little bit manipulative. First of all, Ginger kind of needed a record, just in terms of his dormant career. I mean, it was convenient for him. But I think that the whole idea of not really telling him was to avoid any potential of Ginger wanting to sing or provide lyrics. I think that was the main reason, actually. That was the terrifying notion. And I guess there being some obligations to providing Island with product that's going to be viable."
Even though Bisi and Laswell don't hang out anymore, they continue to occasionally work together. "It seems like it's maybe once every two years, something like that. We're probably due for another something or other at some point soon. One thing is that I've got a really great drum room that he likes, so every once in a while he seeks me out for that. Although for a while there he had his own recording studio and that had an amazing drum room, too. So he kind of called me a little less for that purpose. So yeah, it's quasi-workable."
Having escaped the dominant shadow of Laswell's command, Bisi continued to do what he knew how to do best: produce. But the real fruit of his freedom came in the form of his own music. Ever the Renaissance man, he shuns sticking only with what you're good at. "That's how ruts start. That's how you fall into a routine of doing the same thing. You start wondering because you're in once place. And then you wonder, am I just going to do this till I die? I'm really lucky to have this place goin' on, so I'm precious about it and I make sure that I can keep doing what I'm doing. But the other side of the coin is, as much as I value it and appreciate it, here it is six years later and I'm still working in the same place. And then the routines start being the same, because, oh, well starting at twelve o'clock works really well for me. Okay, so I'm fucking twelve o'clock every day for the rest of my life. I feel that sometimes you need to change."
Bisi possesses a similar outlook on the process of making music. His early forays into recording his own sound, Creole Mas (1988) and All Will Be Won (1993, featuring Christina Martinez of Boss Hog), both on New Alliance Records, were intensely personal, blending the music of his Argentinean heritage with his spiritual fascination with Native American culture and then layering it all with a modern style of dissonance. On Creole Mas, he assumed the lofty task of reconstructing classic tunes by Pink Floyd and Hank Williams into his own particular vision. "When you're nineteen or twenty, (your music is) like a whole build-up of your childhood into something, you know? And then you've got to kind of manufacture it a little later. It becomes more intellectualized. You know what's funny is I often think that the first stuff you do, it's almost like they say with novels, that it tends to be almost autobiographical. It's the thing that you've really been wanting to do that you have a strong, inner personal need to do."
Once he exorcized that need, he was free to evolve his sound into something more calculated. The result became See Ya In Tia Juana (1995), also released on New Alliance. Engaging a female back-up trio named Las Cochinas, Bisi shares vocals with guitarist Sandra Seymour, blending English with Spanish in a musical dance that aptly reflects Bisi's heritage. He continued his vision with Dear Papi I'm In Jail (1996), again appearing on New Alliance.
Despite his unique sound, album sales have paled in comparison to that of many artists he has produced. One of the major reasons has been a lack of a publicist, a need that he has finally realized. "I'm definitely going to be hiring a publicist, because the truth of the matter is I definitely need help in that way. And I see what a publicist can do, you know? Sometimes it's kind of a waste of money. But sometimes they can get things happening. I've kind of got a situation where I'm with two other bands that I'm working with as a bit of an umbrella, trying to lower costs and do things together. We did find a publicist that gave us a deal that we probably couldn't have gotten individually on our own. So it suddenly became more cost effective."
And with his artistic vision and the reality of a publicist being realized, the obvious next step is to own a record label. His latest release, Milkyway of Love, is currently being distributed through his website. It's a step toward independence that he could hardly have conceived of only a few years ago. "I've been kind of dumb by not really trying to get it more together, because I have difficulty releasing my own material. And there's no big honor in that. There's no big honor in having a record sitting on the shelf for two years. So everyone's got to find a way to be smart about it. The label is just an obvious thing. And that's still a mountain to climb."
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