Martin Bisi

the B.C. Millennium Interview

July 2000

Martin Bisi sounds off on the Internet, the Interstate, and the In-betweens

gIX: What do you think of Napster?

Martin Bisi: Ahem...okay, let me clear my throat...Napster is probably not ultimately going to be a threat. By this I mean that music making is not going to become relegated to people only making music at home and posting it free on the web, in the same way that the net hasn't put magazines out of business, or VCR's put an end to movie theaters.

Music is ultimately entertainment and people are going to want to go out and pay to see it, so somehow there'll be money to be made, which brings us to the reality part of this issue: even on the level of Drag City type bands, there exists an economy, an industry, and no one can sustain subsidising the making of recordings, the hiring of producers [laughs], or tour support (hopefully) without making some profit.

I've noticed more discussions in mainstream media, for instance in the NY Times, about indie musicians making money off and other sites. I know probably close to two dozen musicians in NYC doing that, and only one seems to be getting results on a career changing level...even still, she's in no position to plan a respectable tour, which for me is the bottom line litmus test of an artist's or musical community's health and viability.

The other musicians seem blown away that it works at all, you know, selling ten or more CD's, getting some feedback, being on a chart. I think some types of promotion might be getting more effortless with the net - and that's fine - but as a benevolent reminder: nothing's going to change the basic equation that in music the supply exceeds the demand. It just doesn't seem like the drop-out rate in music is slowing. The whole structure is far from invulnerable. Already it's the hardest it's been in NY to have a band and certainly to tour.

Remember, mid-level bands like Alice Donut barely got by and stayed together. Now, with label prospects being so few, more of those people will be at home making solo projects. There are so many of my peers not having the energy to keep it up, redefining in their 30's what they want out of life and music and forced to say goodbye to bands, tours, etc. I guess the mp3 thing can provide some solace for these people. They may even adapt their sound as a means of musical survival, making it more home studio based.

As far as the clear winners from the new economy in music, let's just remember the past, how Interscope was just an indie label that turned the industry on it's head and later even bought out other major labels. Now the industry is more closed than ever...the more things change. So far the big signing frenzy of the mid-90's had a more positive trickle down effect than todays status quo, as far as I can tell...certainly more people touring, and that means a lot.

gIX: How did coming up as a engineer/producer in the 1980s contribute to your sound?

Martin Bisi: I think at any time people rebel by going against the trend and simultaneously competing directly, so the 80's at BC Studio were about either no effects and no production with some people (Sonic Youth, etc.) or deliberate over-production (Foetus), and of course aggression and volume (drums and guitar) was in with everyone, with only the occasional "sweet" song. So on that front, the excess of the time was definitely gonna be one was was gonna be made to look wimpy by some arena rock or spandex metal bands. I guess all the above are seen as my specialities by some.

gIX: I was blown away by your new album ["Milkway of Love" on Stripmine Records,]! What's it like taking center stage after years of working for the interests of other performers?

Martin Bisi: I'm continuously working on my own stuff, but at those crucial moments, like looking at the finished artwork, or holding the CD, or mastering the record, I get a sense of self that I don't get from working on other people's projects. There are just certain points of view I can't put forth through the filter of someone else's work. I do get a sense of worth though from completing those other recordings to the band's or artist's satisfaction.

My new record ended up being the antithesis of so much of what the records I've produced or engineered stood for. There is little distorted or loud guitar, there are no "lo-fi" treatments on the vocals or drums, or Generation X identifying gimmicks like "funny" panning, sections in mono, radio vocals. There was a great need to break free of the tyranny of "taste."

gIX: How does your day-to-day living in NYC influence your work? What advantages does living in New York present for a musician? What disadvantages?

Martin Bisi: Living in my part of Brooklyn has the disadvantage psychologically of making me feel outside the loop. I'm far removed from the suburbs - which is where it's at at the moment - and I'm far from the ever-present arty scenes of NYC, which at their closest can be found five miles away in Williamsburg, or thirty minutes or more by car during rush hour, and even at that, that's kind of out.

So, of course I don't worry about "in" or "out," but it's hard because I remember when NY was "in" and the lifestyle here was relevant. Now starving artists aren't even seen as rebels. New York works well for a musician if you can find a clique (specific personality required)...a clique supplies collaborators and body numbers for when you need to fill a room, meaning economics: if you can't bring people in to at least buy drinks, you'll never get off the ground.

gIX: Where do you see music, commercial and otherwise, heading in the next two or three years? How do you see the traditional separatist disciplines of performer, songwriter/composer, and producer changing?

Martin Bisi: I don't see those roles changing that much. Electronica promised to change all that, but it has turned out to be a niche - like indie rock - that won't change the upper reaches of the industry. For instance, that skate rock producer Roz Robertson, or something, that produces Korn-type bands, is what's called a "vibe guy." He doesn't know anything about engineering so he puts together a team that includes an engineer, so there we see those roles as strong as ever.

There's also the industry staple of experienced and older producers (sometimes previously signed artists themselves) who completely create a project for a younger front person, including sometimes the writing of the songs. The continuing reality in the industry is of very young people being the bulk of the artists on major labels, and the stakes being so high most projects will remain collective enterprises with specialized roles.

As far as commercial music goes, I imagine that the loud, testosterone-fueled music of the day will fade, everyone will wonder again if rock is dead, and then it'll sure enough come back a little different as far as the pop stuff, the all important hook will remain king, and who knows what the buzz word'll be? Sex symbols will continue to rule, except for brief, confusing respites like the Chemical Brothers or Sinead O'Connor.

gIX: To step off the music track for a moment...I know you travel regularly around the United States: what do you think?

Martin Bisi: Generally, I really love this country. There are lots of cool spots off the interstate if you stop and check it out. Even without old ruins, towns and enduring traditions like in Europe, you realise people just create their own coolness. In fact, I think those things can be a hindrance. You just can't underestimate the power of human creativity even in the most banal reaches of Americana, so watch out all you New York art snobs!

gIX: Who would you cite as a mentor or influence on your sound/music?

Martin Bisi: I'd say that where I'm going now musically has at it's core diverse influences, mostly from people who aren't trying to do something challenging or very innovative. I've always felt that in my heart, even when I used to look far beyond the horizon to Native American, Argentinian and Andean folk music. Now I've realised there's a lot of magic possible even in very unexotic locales. I'm looking at everyone without prejudice.

Here and now, I can't really site a mentor for my production work. In the past, I had too much youthful hubris to do so, now I just see myself as doing my own thing, I just do so in a way that is very competitive. I often listen to other CD's while I'm working to make sure that "we" are standing at least as tall as everybody else. I won't mention any "challenging" music that I think is worthwhile 'cause, honestly, that sounds like a euphemism for "sucks." I guess much of the music bears my name that is intellectually stimulating, but that's not what was going on for me . I don't know how music would be that, or how that would even be desirable.

gIX: Are a performer's "presence" and their talent two distinct things, or are they intertwined?

Martin Bisi: Boy, I'm really thinking about this presence thing and I keep coming up with sex appeal or alpha-beta gender roles. If you think about "presence" in a man, it's things you associate as usually sexually appealing: confidence, natural in his showmanship, emotional and sensitive. He'll appeal largely to women and you won't see too many skinhead teenaged boys standing in attention by the front of the stage...I'm thinking of Nick Cave....

As proof of the "Nick Cave Theory", I once walked into a bar with Nick and his entourage...I don't think that people recognized him, yet it was the only time - ever - that women just came up to me, took the initiative, and told me in short order that they'd like to go home with me. This is the only time this ever happened, and more than once that evening, more like two-and-a-half times, I swear!! I was too busy to notice how the rest of the crew was doing, but that must of been a sexy bunch of guys that I walked in with...I'm sure the audience back at the show had thought so.

Then there's the alpha-beta seems to work similiarly with female performers. The women who capture my attention - and the music is an accessory - are usually attractive to me, or they're strong, possibly on the older side and I want them to "teach" me something...Mommy!

Back to the question: I think "presence" has been a fixture in many a phony-bologna band. True stage talent can always be translated into a recording, if you're handy with the producer's art and make suggestions in calm, measured tones.

gIX: What are your present projects?

Martin Bisi: I seem to currently be on a local Heavy Metal fluke...why all at once? Not sure, didn't plan it.

gIX: What are some of the things you might be doing in the future?

Martin Bisi: The only real fantasy, other than your generic rock 'n roll fantasy, was actually inspired by Chris Stow [guitarist with Jon Todd]. He said "Why not have a label called "Just Music"? I'd love to be able to give some unity in that way to artists that most people would say are disparate. I would help record most of them and put it all on the same level, the "challenging" with the not so hi- and low-brow, but somehow all worthwhile. The main obstacle is that most artists would not be thrilled with this scenario.

gIX: How old were you when you realized that music was your calling?

Martin Bisi: I was 17. I thought I might drum or something, but I'd wished I could do that only because my mother had been a concert pianist since she'd been a child. Subconsciously, that made me assume I could do the same.

gIX: I know you've worked on an incredibly wide variety of projects...what do you see as the relationship between entertainment and art? Is it a struggle to not compromise your creative principles in the marketplace?

Martin Bisi: The difference between art and entertainment is in the eye of the beholder. I believe that we should always be ready to re-evaluate creations that are commonly deemed entertainment as art. All it takes sometimes is a change of perspective, like the passing of time.

The entertainment label can also be used as a defensive measure by insecure people, people who'll deride others for trying to have "hooks" in their songs, in spite of the fact that some music with hooks required a great deal of sophistication to produce, or people deriding music just for being written, produced and performed by different people. As with major labels, aren't 99% of films - good and bad - created collectively, by finding the best qualified person for each task ?

gIX: What advice do you have for someone that digs your work and would be inspired to follow in your footsteps?

Martin Bisi: Someone who would want to follow in my footsteps should know that luck is a major component. I got lucky many times, just met the right people (and vice versa) several times at the right time, and that made the difference. Creativity and ideas just flow from certain personal chemistries. I'd say that's one thing Bill Laswell and I personally have in common, we let ourselves get musically influenced by people we come in touch with...he'll go off on a surprising tangent and it'll be just because he met someone.

On this same note, a producer should listen well to the artist. It's a win-win for the particular project and, also for general creative growth. Listen first, then take the initiative.

copyright 2000
Martin Bisi