Somehow or another I happened upon the chance to meet famed New York producer Martin Bisi at his home studio in Brooklyn back in April. I won’t bore you with the details, just understand my life is weird AF.
Let’s begin by a historical quickie. BC Studio is hidden in the basement of an old canning factory (as in used to can sodas) in the once desolate Gowanus area of Brooklyn, NY. First rented for insanely cheap back in 1979 by 17 year old Martin Bisi and Bill Laswell, they converted the dingy abandoned basement into a dingy recording studio in the booming avant garde music scene. Thanks to Brian Eno they were able to afford this place, who wanted to have a studio in Brooklyn.
Brian Eno recorded a few sessions at BC before leaving it up to Laswell and Bisi to take over. Laswell and Bisi worked together for years before Laswell moved elsewhere, making Martin the only one to have been at BC since its founding over 30 years ago.
Throughout Martin’s career he has worked with bands such as Sonic Youth, Cop Shoot Cop, Helmet, John Zorn, White Zombie, Unsane, AND one of my favorite bands ever… Swans.
If you are to dive deep into Martin’s professional influence since he began producing and mixing, the list is unimaginably long and impressive, helping make major waves in genres such as no wave, hip hop, and alternative rock. All things underground essentially. With so many years of honing his talent, many bands and artists have come to work with him, marvel in his unique crafting style, and be amazed by wild acoustics found in the depths of BC.
Thus, it was only a matter of time before a celebration of BC and Martin Bisi conceptualized.
Over one weekend in January of 2018, a myriad of artists who have recorded at BC over the years came together to play mostly improvised pieces in honor of the unconventional aesthetic Martin and BC has offered up the past 35 years.
Musicians who performed on the album are vast and from the likes of: Sonic Youth, Swans, White Hills, Foetus, Cop Shoot Cop, Live Skull, Pop 1280, Violent Femmes, The Dresden Dolls, Alice Donut, Lubricated Goat, LAUDS, Shilpa Ray, Insect Ark, Laura Ortman, Cinema Cinema, and Art Gray Noizz Quintet among others.
Entitled BC35, these 2-day recordings contain not only improvised pieces but sees the reunion of bands who have not played together in years (such as Live Skull) and also tracks made only for this anniversary album.
A live audience was also present during recording. All acts were assembled by Genevieve Fernworthy.
Flash forward to my tour of BC Studio and interview with the luminary underground producer and engineer himself, Martin Bisi. At first glance you would never know there is such an infamous studio hidden in the massive brown-bricked building across from a randomly placed Whole Foods. No advertising, no people on that side of the street… nothing but spook town.
Martin had to let me in the building and we began the tour. An initial walk down a winding staircase, followed by a long, narrow haul through cream colored corridors before creeping into the engineering room containing a faded green couch I imagine a lot of sin has happened on.
(Pictured above is the infamous soundboard inside BC Studio, still in use by Martin today. The same one David Bowie’s “Young Americans” was recorded on.)
Once we trekked down the red metal stairs leading into the basement, I immediately understood why this studio is so special. It is the complete opposite of glamorous, in fact it is a dismal affair. The echoes heard are tremendous and the basement is shaped so strangely that it makes a perfect place to make some damn good tunes…
M.B. “This is an L-shaped room so sonically it is two different places. It is rare these days to get something this natural sounding.”
After discussing the prevalent gang activity surrounding the Gowanus, Brooklyn area in 1979 when Martin became co-owner of BC Studio, it seems gang activity is still a problem today:
M.B. “It is not that cleared up. Yeah, I was assaulted right outside the studio in front of Whole Foods two years ago. That assault was the genesis of the BC35 record actually.”
M.B. “Ha, yeah. So I got assaulted and uh, got some teeth knocked out! One of my bandmates from Berlin really flipped out once he found out and decided to do some crowdfunding to help with my medical payments around the attack. I wanted no part of it, but on the other hand… I was like, well, if you want to do it…
So he does this kickstarter and we realize we have to produce a product in order to create the kickstarter. So then it kind of all came together once I realized this all happened almost exactly 35 years since the first Brian Eno sessions were recorded here.”
“Is there anybody you wanted to be on this record that couldn’t make it down to the studio?”
M.B. “Oh yeah! I was disappointed there couldn’t be any hip hop on here, especially DST (DXT now) who scratched on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”. Even Afrika Bambaataa, but that didn’t work out either. John Zorn and Bill Laswell were also unavailable.”
“They were both mentioned in the documentary (Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio) as well.”
M.B. “And hip hop now has become so big and commercial that I really have no interest doing that stuff anymore. Hip hop is going through right now what the ’90s were for independent rock. So I’m not too sure the work we did for these underground sounds that ended up becoming mainstream helped them… in a way it hastened its own demise.”
“Any history about the studio not mentioned in the documentary?”
M.B. “The studio originally was called OAO for about two years. It was changed to BC after Bill [Laswell] and I started having professional differences. Bill’s modus operandi was ‘faded legends’ – like the Ginger Baker record we did, but I always get more excited with grass roots stuff and seeing what is happening locally.. seeing artists blossom into their own.”
“Do you think there will ever be another major underground music movement?”
M.B. “Wow that is like asking if there is an after life chuckles. One observation I have is that the big movements I can think of all involved new technology. For instance even rock and roll was about the electric guitar. Even with New Orleans jazz you had marching bands and then somewhere in there someone made a drum kit where one person could play multiple percussion elements. And would there be krautrock without programmable beats?! Ha!
…I think there will be new innovations and hybrids but I think a major movement might be over for good.”
“How exactly did you get into producing?”
M.B. “Well, I actually rebelled against music lessons as a kid! Really what happened was drums came easy to me. I played very funky and polyrhythmic beats, stuff that I never heard on records hardly. So that became a basis to why, and the solo stuff I was putting out at the time would probably be considered proto-industrial now! But also the scene was hot back then and I was only 17. I really just wanted to join the show.”
“Do you have a favorite track on the BC35 record?”
M.B. “I think the tracks have a lot of variety which is important and as a collective voice it is very strong. Really the only song that was not a collective effort was the one by White Hills. But even that is out of the box – there is no drummer and no singing- they composed the piece specifically for this record. Everyone had to do something out-of-the-box for BC35. Then there is stuff very collective which was completely improvised. That I think is the heart of the record…
But yeah, favorite track is the opening track “No Where Near the Rainbow”. On the end of the recording I started singing “Somehwere Over the Rainbow”… which I thought was totally ironic – singing that from the bowels of a basement in Gowanas!”
Complete BC35 tracklisting:
- Nowhere Near The Rainbow
- Denton’s Drive
- Details Of The Madness
- What A Jerk
- Humas Wealth Management, Inc.
- The Animals That Speak Truth
- His Word Against Mine
- End Of The Line
- Take This Ride
- Disintegration In The Well
- Soft Glitter Cosmos Needs A Pig War
And if those tracks aren’t enough, Martin teased of a possible part 2 release later down the road, saying there is much more material that couldn’t fit on just one LP.
BC35 is available on CD, bandcamp and vinyl. There is a gold vinyl limited to 150 copies as well.
Featured photo cred: Joe Keoghan
Spends too much time spinning vinyl and wandering down a spiritual path.