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Noise-rock progenitor Martin Bisi makes something from nothing

New York staple talks insanity, strife, and all things holy

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Martin Bisi's greatest contribution to pop culture has been co-producing/engineering Herbie Hancock's 1983 proto-hip-hop single "Rockit." But throughout his many years in the studio, Bisi's become best known for the rusty-nail scrape of acts such as early Sonic Youth, Swans, Unsane, Cop Shoot Cop, Foetus, Helmet, Dresden Dolls, and many more. His base of operations is BC Studio, a Gowanus, Brooklyn staple of New York's noise rock and underground music scenes that he founded in 1979 with the aid of a few contemporaries, namely Bill Laswell, and later with Brian Eno. Before heading out on tour with a band — featuring Genevieve Kammel Morris (viola), David Miller (drums), and Ernest Anderson III (guitar) — to perform the queasy, operatic rock dirges of his latest album, Ex Nihilo, Bisi invited me to his Brooklyn studio. On a chilly Sunday afternoon in April, he talked about everything from his role as a producer/engineer to the existential connection between his life and the new album.

How do you distinguish your work as a producer from your work as a recording engineer?

There have occasionally been questions about whether I'm a producer or an engineer, and there has been some rub. There are people that know way more about sound, gear, and microphones than I do. I know what's in my room, and I know how to use it. My tendency is to say that I don't have a fingerprint, because it might seem egotistical to say otherwise. It's a little taboo for a recording engineer to say "I have a sound and a signature." Even if an artist says they want a sound, what I do has to be balanced.

But there is an undeniable aesthetic that ties your work together.

Someone once asked me if I always use the same drum kit. That's not what I wanted to hear. To me they all sound like different drum kits. I can totally hear it, but something about the recordings makes them sound the same. In an orthodox way, that's not how engineering is supposed to be. Someone like Steve Albini has an almost jazz attitude about it: It's about the performer. The engineer should be transparent. I fight that because I don't want to be totally transparent. I enjoy putting something into it, but I want to do what's right for the record.

I do have a bit of synesthesia. Sounds make me feel textures or images ... and when I feel it kicking in, I know we're doing good work.

The title for your new album, Ex Nihilo, means "from nothing" in Latin?

"From nothing" or "out of nothing." I don't like the way it rolls off the tongue, but I like the way it looks, and I like using an extinct language as the title. I recorded it like it's the last record I'm ever going to make, while trying to encompass something existential about my life. Previous records, like Sirens of the Apocalypse, were social commentary and making fun of people in different social situations. There wasn't anything profound, intense, or pseudo-spiritual about it. On Ex Nihilo, there are lyrics that refer to human sacrifice — "words are flesh that fill the void." So it was like nothing is real until you can define it intellectually through words.

There's the classic theological question: Did God create the universe from nothing or from pre-existing matter? Do I create my reality from nothing? It's a great feeling to create something from nothing. There was nothing there before, now there's a song that makes me feel something. I like sticking the word "nihilist" in there. I'm a bit of a nihilist, and all meaning is relative. Things are sacred in a relative sense. An ATM on the corner doesn't seem sacred, but if that's all that's left of our society in 10,000 years it will be revered. Also, the cover art is by an artist named Lauren Beck, and the look of it is someone conjuring something. All of these things are on my mind even though I don't necessarily believe in them. There's an overuse of the word "holy" on the record. I'm just examining my mixed feelings about why one thing is holy to one person, but not to someone else.

Each song seems to be steeped in layers of spiritual and psychological dissonance.

I was definitely using my ability to layer tons of sound. In the creative process, it's legitimate to check your[self]. Did this person go crazy with Pro Tools because he had 50 tracks? I'm good with too much, and I'm good with density. Not so much with stuff that's spare. If you have too much, I might be the person for the job.

I'm glad as an engineer that people can decipher the complexity. There is a lot of dissonance on the album, but it's not always perceived. I was continuously undermining the tone and melody with other things. On the record, it factors into who am I, and why would this be my record? I wouldn't want it to be conservative and think maybe I went too far, or that people might not tap their foot to it.

Is it safe to say that insanity is a strong theme playing out in songs such as "The Mermaid Queen" and "Sin-Love-Hate?"

Ex Nihilo is a little nuts, and if you listen to it too much it might be a little damaging. There are a lot of frequencies in there that go in weird places. I feel like I'm messing with people's synapses.

"Fine Line" is the first song that was created for this album and it's sort of an oddball. It has two halves: In the first half I talk about a man that's in my brain. The second half is about a woman that's in my brain. They're like in love with me — an inner person that's in love with me, but it's not me. So the whole idea is sort of a crazy, uncomfortable, and weird topic. Playing it live we realized it was a good model for a lot of songs. So it's the embryonic song and even though it doesn't really fit anymore it would be crazy to take it off. It's the first song that defined the record.

I think I'm pretty sane, but by some people's standards I could be seen as insane, and I kind of honor that. It's conflicted, and a mix of anger and self-importance, and over-the-top positivity. The whole environment of the financial crisis felt really fertile, and like I really came alive. I always come alive when really bad stuff happens, whenever there's blight, or something like Sept. 11 happens. That's when the energy comes together and I'm angry about things.

Between this and Sirens, there was an EP called Son of a Gun. I wanted to do something fast and dirty, and I made it all about the band. This is not that. This is full immersion. You get the whole Martin picture, and in retrospect it had to be that.

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