Martin Bisi

Alternative Press
December 1993

Absorbing a multitude of interests, Martin Bisi blurs the line between producer and musician, alternative and traditional, chaos and culture.
interview by Ken Micallef

Dozens of familiar album jackets cover the walls of Martin Bisi's cavernous Brooklyn studio. No resumé could put this engineer/producer's work in perspective, the jackets say it all. Sonic Youth, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Live Skull, Lydia Lunch, Foetus, Material, Herbie Hancock, Swans, Golden Palominos, Cop Shoot Cop, Unsane, Bootsy Collins, Elliott Sharp, White Zombie, Rhys Chatham, Motherhead Bug, Iggy Pop, Boss Hog, Afrika Bambaata, Fred Frith, and Helmet have all called on Bisi's engineering skills and sensitive ears.

But Bisi can't be pinned down to mere music. His mind is like a giant sieve, distilling far-ranging interests into thoughtful commentary. Native Indian traditions (he's Brooklyn-born of Argentinian parents), astral projection, primal thought, world economics - it's all grist for his potent mind to digest.

On his debut as an artist, 1989's Creole Mass , Bisi blended the music of his South American roots with folk and rock, resulting in an unique and original sound. His new All Will Be Won album, also on New Alliance Records, expands on this mixing of cultures, with Boss Hog's Christina adding her aggressive voice and powerful demeanor to a number of tracks.

Resistant at first to the idea of Hispanics playing "Anglo rock", Bisi was won over as Christina's energy and input helped to transform is vision of the music. Playing guitar and drums, as well as singing, Bisi explores a variety of South American rhythms and melodies then contrasts them with the belligerence of guitar and drums. The result is the sound of catharsis - at times troubling, at times soothing. Decidedly un-"alternative."

AP: Why is All Will Be Won almost entirely in Spanish?

Martin Bisi: I felt it wasn't unreasonable to think that it would work, in fact, I'm going to continue it on the next record. It will be in Spanish with a rock band. Martin Bisi and the Dirty Girls. Rock is an area that hasn't been explored too much by Hispanics. I write in sensibilities that are innate to me. I'm not just taking an Anglo-rock style and adding Spanish vocals. I've transferred the melodies along with it, I think.

It was surprising to me how innately the whole Spanish style came into my music. Things like chacarera rhythms [in 'Hijos de Nadie'] came very naturally. 'Rabbit Dance' has a North American Indian sound, particularly Iroquois. I've been listening to American Indian tapes for about five years. There was a cross-semination of cultures between the eastern Indians and the missionaries, which made it more structured. Stuff from the Plains and the Southwest is more incoherent and drony, repetitive and in one range. More like Tibetan chants. It's more functional.

AP: So you didn't necessarily incorporate Indian folk music into your music?

Martin Bisi: No. It frustrates me that in Latin America they haven't come up with an unique, modern musical culture. In America you have rap, rock and roll - forms that have very little traditional base. They've developed spontaneously over the past thirty years and they're based on technology and electric guitars.

On Creole Mass I took the view of a guy in Latin America with access to modern technology but with a limited exposure to American music. I tried to create something unique and stay true to that culture. On All Will Be One I gave up the idea of exotic instrumentation or trying to be unique. I wanted to match my songwriting and melodic sensibility with common instrumentation.

AP: You seem very analytical in your own music. Is that a reflection of your role as engineer?

Martin Bisi: With a band there's a lot of attention to detail. But you're not just coming in to record a collection of songs, you're coming in to record an album. It has to be looked at as a whole. After you resolve the statement you can narrow it down. It's not a series of paragraphs, each 'graph being a song. It's one paragraph, or even one sentence. There's a statement under the music that I want the band to deal with.

Some of my colleagues, like Zorn or Laswell, they perceive me as being interested in something other than music, which they don't like. This cultural or social thing interests me. They view themselves more as purists into the music. But I think it's a challenging discipline to rise to, looking at the entire statement beng made on all fronts. With Laswell and Zorn, lyrics or how a band looks are not that important.

AP: But social issues do play a large part in your work, in everything about you.

Martin Bisi: A lot of this stuff is way in my face. Like the very disappointing thing that is happening in black culture. Rap has helped their culture to find dignity. It doesn't transform who they are, it just dignifies who they are. It'll dignify having guns, or whatever. It glamorizes ignorance. Black urban culture seems very proud of the way they speak but I don't see any big deal. It's not a native language, like a Native Indian language. I don't think the culture is that strong or different from white culture. If you want to be able to compete, or have opportunities, then learn how to fucking talk. Their whole attitude is not that admirable when you compare it to an American Indian nation trying to hang on to its identity. There's a spiritual sense, language and music that has developed over tens of thousands of years, maybe. Too many blacks are born into severe disadvantages. They need to be extended privilege and that means good schools.

AP: Do you function as both engineer and producer?

Martin Bisi: Often the line gets blurred. Those are the kinds of projects I look for. With Cop Shoot Cop, it's almost 50/50. I know how to interpret what people are looking for, and make it something recognizably strong. I also establish the foundation of the sound, the fundamentals. The band's fifty-percent is communicating some higher goal and having input on details.

AP: How do you view the continuing success of Nirvana?

Martin Bisi: There's a really strong spirit there. Their success is a success for that whole spirit, the idea of certain abandon and instinctual approach to music, a strong development in rock tradition as well as what they stand for individually. They're strongly pro-women and intelligent. Their pro being smart. I like the fact that they're educated. It's also interesting to see how they will influence other cultures. They, as well as Sonic Youth and Live Skull, have influenced my music.

AP: How did you come to work with Christina?

Martin Bisi: I had fallen out with Sandy [Seymour, who contributes production, voice, guitar, bass and keyboards to the album] briefly when I met Christina at CBGBs one night. I didn't know she was Cuban until she began speaking to me in Spanish. Her input was her presence. All of a sudden I realized I could make a Hispanic rock album. I could take acoustic songs and make them work with an electric guitar. It loosened me up. Christina was inspiring as a Hispanic woman doing rock. I have an affinity for working with women, probably because in Hispanic cultures, women are powerful figures.

AP: Did you try to change her vocal approach for your music?

Martin Bisi: I had her warm up before recording which she hadn't done before. I think she learned a little more about her vocal capabilities. We were very democratic about which versions of her vocal we kept. It was a good experience. After working with her on my stuff, I started finding as a producer that I would spend more time on the voice. Most bands spend much more time on the instrumental takes than they do the vocals.

AP: Is there an unifying thread among all the New York-based bands you've worked with? A defining element?

Martin Bisi: There's a desire to have a very live sound and have the edges blurred. The bands aren't obsessed with each instrument having a separate, isolated sound. Compared to the very jock world of engineering, most of the people I work with like a sound with more blending and unity.

AP: Is there a personal favorite of the records you've worked on?

Martin Bisi: We took a lot of chances on Live Skull's Dusted. It almost goes too far. There's a lot of mystery in what the different instruments are doing.

AP: Part of your sound seems to be chaos and confusion.

Martin Bisi: It's almost the opposite of the 50's idea of adding strings as sweetener. That blurs the edges in a nice way. Cop Shoot Cop want to ugly-ize their sound. They want that chaotic element. It's layered in a sonic sense. You're adding complexity to musical parts. At the same time, I don't want an identifiable sound. I feel I'm always changing. I think I attract people who want a particular thing. They tend to reinforce something I'm trying to escape. Like with Foetus or Cop or Swans, we were doing a lot of layering. I wanted to leave that sound behind and do some straight, raw rock with little overdubbing.

A lot of my instincts have come through anyway with bands like Unsane. Even without layering, we achieved what I wanted: a more visceral live sound. Instinct means a lot to me.

copyright © 1993
AP Magazine