Pitch contributor Saby Reyes-Kulkarni recently conducted a monster-length interview with producer Martin Bisi (Sonic Youth, Swans, John Zorn, Herbie Hancock and many, many more), who appears tonight at the Record Bar in support of his new album, Sirens of the Apocalypse. Having participated in so many cutting-edge recordings, not to mention graffiti culture, Bisi had a great deal to say about the musical movements he helped kick-start, but prefers to look at them from a broader social perspective. Some choice highlights from that interview:
The Pitch: Engineering is seen as a technical job, when really, it's more like alchemy.
Martin Bisi: It is, and I actually use the word "alchemy." I also use the term "social alchemy," because I feel that what's transpired in my life and my career is this weird social alchemy. It's not just the music, and definitely not just about the technicality, but it's truly about people. That's what excites me about my life. That's why I can look back and say, "You know what, I've had a good life." Not just because of the records I have on the wall, but because they represent this social story. It's about people. And that's what warms my heart. That's what makes me feel that I've lived. Because I've been part of a people-story.
You prefer for bands to not do more than three takes, because you've said it's hard to weigh five different takes.
If you have four, it's basically un-doable. If you're listening to the fourth, you almost can't even remember the first. Also, you know how people look for an "X-factor?" Often, people believe that the X-factor is in the fourth or fifth take. There's nothing wrong with the takes they have already, but they're seeking this intangible X-factor. My assumption is the opposite, where if there is an X-factor, it would be in the first take.
You've done a lot of music that's cutting edge and started in the early '80s. How have you overcome technical obstacles?
There is a lot of that. Collaborative creativity is its own animal. There's entire genres and types of creativity that are collective -- making a movie, a recording, being in a band. And there's obviously creativity that's very personal, like painting. They're really two different classes. Collective creativity is a lot like what we see in society. Like, when people try to understand the government, I'm like, "Well, just look at a band." I'm generally very fascinated by all this kind of stuff, because it's really a big part of life and how we live.
The reason societies work is because of differences in personalities that are kind of opposite. You don't need a lot of Martins. You need a Martin, and then someone else. Some chemistry just doesn't work. But, for instance, you need someone who's meticulous and someone who's erratic. A lot of innovation happens because of mistakes. [Laughing:] It's almost like, if you don't have an erratic personality in there, it might not work. It's almost like you need a fuck-up. So the person who's a fuck-up is an integral part. I could see that being useful in a company, in a family, in a band. And -- guess what? -- it's always gonna be rough. It's not as simple as "oh, we're not getting along; this doesn't work." I hate to tell ya, it might actually be, "We're not getting along -- this actually works." And I think a lot of bands and people in general fuck that up when they have control over their lives and they can surround themselves with personalities that all get along -- we're all on the same page.
I think Sonic Youth is a good example of that. I've been really immersed in their biography. It's really funny, because I'm a part of that biography up to, like, page 50. Some of them, on a personal level, you can tell they surrounded themselves with -- I'm not even saying yes-men -- people on the same page. They don't have to deal with the assholes anymore. But what's funny is, the place where they can't afford that is the band itself. They're all on different pages. They don't agree, their personalities rub, they annoy each other -- and that works. And I'm not saying they made worse work after me, but they could pick producers and people that are their peers and get along with them. Back in the day, they didn't have those choices.
You're saying opposition is integral and often beneficial.
For sure. One reason: no one's that smart. You need that kind of conflict. In the case of Sonic Youth, the politics. That was always a little bit of a rub. I'd be rolling my eyes a little bit with some of Kim's comments. After a certain point, they didn't have to deal with that. And I'm not saying that in a bitter kind of way.
How heated do sessions get because of you? How confrontational are you?
Geez, I really try to keep the whole thing happy-happy-happy.
You've moved towards a more straight rock sound, and you've also come to the conclusion that rock is more challenging than the experimental improv stuff. You recently said that "you can't make a good rock record in a day and a half." How did you come to that realization? Because you've worked with people like Bill Laswell and John Zorn.
I think it was in the '90s, when I was producing stuff that was a little more formed and structured. Indie rock was getting more into this rock zone, like indie rock got out of being loose and experimental and started getting a little more -- I don't want to say "formulaic" -- but stylized. And I was down with that. This was in an aggro zone, when I was working with bands like Unsane and Season To Risk. As an aside, it's easy as hell to make a string quartet incredibly loud. That's the irony -- to actually make something that is loud, with heavy-duty transients, sound loud. That's harder. But overall, when anything goes, it's a little easier. I was doing a project, and [Swans leader] Michael Gira, he was living with me and made some, not really derisive comments, but made some comment like, "Is it frustrating that you're not doing something more challenging?" I was like, "What are you talking about?" It's much easier to make a pedestrian rock record. And when you have carte-blanche, it's easier. I think it still takes talent, but you're cut a lot of slack.
You grew up around classical music, and you rebelled against the academic side of music. How intimidating was John Zorn's formal background for you?
Zorn was never a problem with that stuff, somehow. He's a really easygoing personality. There was no sense of awkwardness on my part. With Laswell, there definitely was. The whole issue of revering the past was a lot more pronounced. I lived with him, so maybe it would have been less in my face. I mean, he was so reverent of the past, and I felt a little inadequate about that, because I just couldn't summon the interest. I'm still much more grassroots, of the moment. He loves working with really incredible people -- in a sense, rock stars. I told him, "I don't want to work with incredible people." I feel irreverent towards the past and past culture. Especially if it's starting to get academic, it's in this ivory tower. Something that's sprouting at the moment usually means it's going to be kids. Often, they're not going to be that good. That's more interesting to me.
How much have you ever had a sense while working on something that it would have a historical impact or be considered iconic years after the fact?
I've never ever had that impression.
Even something like Herbie Hancock's "Rockit?"
No way. It might be hard to imagine that I wouldn't think that with "Rockit," because it became so influential.
But it was such a stark contrast to his earlier career. That must have seemed sacrilegious or vulgar to his fans.
Bill was the one who felt like Herbie was important. Both me and Bill stated back then that we hated fusion jazz, but on the other hand Bill liked a lot of the Miles Davis stuff that fell into that territory. So I didn't really have this great sense of respect for Herbie. I also never loved Miles Davis the way Bill did. I just wasn't all ga-ga about it like he was. Bill might have had a different feeling about it, but I think he felt that this was good for Herbie. I think we both felt like Herbie was a bit of a has-been and clueless. In fact, Herbie told Bill that he was clueless. He was like "I want to get into this hip-hop thing." He wanted to do another "Buffalo Gals." It wasn't Bill saying to him that he should do this urban thing. There's been so much said that's just not how I remember it. It's funny, because I have this re-issue of Future Shock, and it has this description about how Bill and Herbie initially started communicating. Reading it, I was like, "What happened to the elevator?" I remember when Bill said, "Oh, I met Herbie in an elevator and we started talking." Somehow, the story has transformed.
Can you set the record straight for us?
Well, this is hearsay too. But I remember Bill saying, "I met Herbie Hancock in an elevator." But initially, it was just going to be a demo; it wasn't meant as this big thing. We were just a bunch of upstarts. I was really young . I mean, the budget we had was tiny.
Martin Bisi and band perform tonight at the Record Bar at 11 p.m. Olympic Size follows at 12, and the Medicine Theory opens, at 10. Call ahead to confirm details: 816-753-5207