Martin Bisi
Guided by Instinct

interview by
Dennis Rea

At age twenty-four, the scope of Martin Bisi's experience as a recording engineer and musician belies his years. He has engineered recordings by such artists as Material, the Golden Palominos, Herbie Hancock, Elliott Sharp, Mikel Rouse, Massacre, Brian Eno, John Zorn, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and many other musicians of widely varying backgrounds. Working in his studio, B.C. Studio, in Brooklyn, Bisi is adept at capturing the nuances of free improvisation, the urgency of New York's "downtown" fringe rock scene, and the high-tech streetwise rhythms of the hip-hop culture.

Born in New York of Argentinian parents, both of whom had backgrounds in music, Bisi's love of music led him into service as a roadie for a group of school friends who later went on to become the influential art-funk outfit Material. Eventually the group's Brooklyn rehearsal studio was transformed into a modern recording studio where Bisi found himself behind the board for a number of groundbreaking recordings.

In his studio one evening, Bisi communicated his insights regarding music and the recording engineer's art.

Dennis Rea: You have a history of association with independent musicians. Has this been your preference, or have you simply acted on the opportunities of the moment?

Martin Bisi: Even though I wasn't sure what other people were doing, I did have a concept of ourselves as being independent. In the beginning, the whole idea was to be alternative and revolutionary in everything, so that people would see the way we were set up as a company as being as revolutionary an idea as the music. I saw OAO [Material's production company] as being something that even people who weren't into music would look at as a revolutionary way of doing business - the studio, the record label, everything about it.

If we were going to hire business people, we would hire someone whose ideas were revolutionary, someone you could hold up and say "what a visionary businessman!" We were very proud. We thought we were the only people doing that: thank God we saw other people doing it also.

DR: What are your thoughts about the proliferation of independent record labels in recent years? Do you think that more honest, quality music is being made available as a result, or do you feel there is a danger of the market becoming glutted with amateurish efforts?

MB: A lot of independent labels are acting like major labels, and the music that they're putting out sounds to me like any of that stuff. The business may have more integrity because it's not a huge machine and is more personalized, but really what they're going for in the music is the same. Some independents are giving a strange kind of legitimacy to music which tries to fit into the major label form, cerebralizing it and saying it's really art. Yes, there is a danger, but the people who are really brilliant will always shine.

DR: What led you to become a recording engineer?

MB: Before we ever made a record, I was a roadie with Material. As the need arose, I became sound man. As sound man I wasn't an engineer yet. I would do the live sound, then I would go into the studio with engineers that didn't care and help them produce.

DR: Did you undergo any formal technical training to become an engineer?

MB: Yeah, but it was useless in retrospect. It focused on technical stuff when what it comes down to is your ears. I think all training as an engineer should be on the board, listening. Anything else is totally useless.

As far as recording goes, you've just got to go for the natural sound. There's a limit to how much fancy miking you can do. There's nothing people can teach you about just recording basic sounds. Everytime you hear a mix you have to listen as though you're hearing it for the first time. You have to know how to listen to a mix and figure out if it's coming or why it isn't. It has to draw you in and come out at you at the same time.

You really have to use your imagination and try all of the ideas you have. Material had a reputation for being really heavy on sound, even though our sound wasn't necessarily that good, because we manipulated technology using our imagination. We had to get the most out of using digital delays, sampling and making loops and making it sound really together and clear.

Also, an engineer's attitude is important. They've got to take responsibility. A lot of engineers are really good, but their attitudes are bad; they don't realize the urgency that the musicians feel. You know how a musician feels about his own music, that it's got to come out, it's got to happen. The engineer's got to feel that way.

It's almost impossible to be a good engineer without getting involved in the production. You've got to be so involved in the music that you can't stand to let anything go by that you have an opinion on without expressing it. That's part of being a good engineer. The schools don't teach you that. I can't let one project go by without it reaching some level of perfection or I feel like it's the end of my career.

DR: Are you encouraged to see that high-tech musical equipment is finally "trickling down" to economically disadvantaged musicians?

MB: The technology coming down to the people is going to help break the hold that Western Europe and America have on the media. South America, Central America and Mexico will have a media renaissance. I know for a fact that in Argentina that sort of thing is going to be happening. There is going to be a cultural revolution.

People with four-tracks and eight-tracks are slowly but surely getting really good quality. The demos that people make will become more impressive as a musical experience. With the increased technology, a lot more people will be able to make records and get fantastic sounds. I'm taking full advantage of this new technology. I'm reaping the benefits as well as the people who are making demos. I like technology; I'm a fan of technology. It's amazing what you can do with digital delays, can get so much out of these little devices. By using loops and digital delays, we were doing sampling when the Fairlight was the only sampling instrument.

Right now, the music that I'm doing depends heavily on a sampling keyboard, the Mirage. But then I think, five years from now everyone's going to have a Mirage, so will it lose something. For instance, I've listened to the Art of Noise a lot, for the sheer sensual experience of the sounds involved, hearing natural sounds like voices manipulated in strange and exciting ways. But history will tell about the Art of Noise. Five years from now, when you can make those sounds in your own house, will it really stand out?

But look at the music that has been done using exactly the same instrumentation: pianos, violins, exactly the same number of them and all tuned the same. Some of the music is totally mediocre and some of it is classic. You put your own character on it. That's what I try to keep in mind.

DR: Don't you think that some of the downtown bands thumb their noses at the public and deliberately avoid mass acceptance?

MB: I don't like the majority of Americans and I find that most of these people don't like me. It will be a great moment when most Americans don't like most of America. We approached that point in the sixties, and if we can get to that point again it will be great. That's the kind of energy that most of the downtown bands are shoving in people's direction. If they can get it together enough, in the studio and with their songs, we can be doing something here that is as important for cultural change as for musical change. I've seen it happen with rap, and I see the same earmarks in the downtown bands.

What I like about Elliott Sharp's Carbon is that Elliott expresses the sensibilities of a certain type of people. On his records he presents the people he knows downtown as its own ethnic group. It has a certain cultural integrity, its own ethnicity.For me, listening to a group of American Indian dancers and listening to Massacre or Jimi Hendrix has the same authenticity.

DR: For several years you were a core member of the pioneering musical collective, Material. In recent years Material seems to have become almost wholly a production team. Will Material continue to function as a performing/recording entity?

MB: Material has broken up. There was definitely a falling out. It was personal, it was business, it was all of those things - a perfect example of how that incredibly youthful and spiritually valuable intent could decay.

It started clearly during the One Down record. We wanted to make a record that black kids going down the street with ghetto blasters would like, to take the music and fit it totally within the form. It was a flop.

There is no more Material. It's just Bill, and he shouldn't even use the name anymore, out of respect. Musicians keep coming back to the studio. They know that when they put money into the studio it's going back into their future projects and other people's projects. They're always welcome to suggest what I should do next. People feel like this is their studio.