Prolific Producer Martin Bisi on Working with Sonic Youth, Cop Shoot Cop, Foetus, Live Skull

Photo: Joan Hacker

Martin Bisi and, by extension, his BC Studio, is a key player in the experimental and noise rock scene (and beyond) since the late 1970’s. He’s recorded a staggering number of artists, among them Sonic Youth, Blind Idiot God, Iggy Pop, White Zombie, Swans, Unsane, Helmet and dozens more household names.

To celebrate 35 years of BC Studio, Bisi is releasing an album of songs recorded live at the studio, and features members of Sonic Youth, White Hills, Swans, Cop Shoot Cop and more. Bisi spoke with Decibel about memories of recording with Sonic Youth, Foetus, Cop Shoot Cop and Live Skull–all of whom have members appearing on a new album from Bronson Recordings, BC35.

This only scratches the surface for artists Bisi has worked with. His personal website lists everything he’s worked on. Odds are, you’ve enjoyed at least one record on the list.

Sonic Youth – “In The Kingdom #19” from Evol 

On a hot summer day in 1984, I called Kim Gordon from a corner by her apartment in Chinatown, NYC – surprising to me now that that was a fairly normal way meet up about music or art. I wanted to get off my chest that I felt I had maybe intervened too much in the recording process of the band’s just-released Bad Moon Rising. She said she was impressed with my thoughtfulness on the topic, though she didn’t say specifically that she agreed that I had been too intrusive.   

Fast forward a year, and we’re recording Sonic Youth’s Evol at BC Studio. I’m struggling a bit with being in the middle of a process that can use a co-pilot, but wanting to do it right. This track has Mike Watt on bass. It also features great live manual tape work, pulling 1/4″ tape over the heads, simulating sounds of a car speeding out of control and crashing.

An unexpected element – permanently marring the floor of the vocal booth at BC Studio – is the intense sound of a pack of firecrackers thrown into the booth as Lee Ranaldo screams. You can hear this at right after “With one final back and forth rocking motion coming to rest.”

At the end of the song – in the fade, really, you hear Mike Watt recite these words: “In panic I forget it / In despair I need it / In my mind I save it / In death I have it.”

And with the song almost faded out, Thurston Moore follows, reciting more of Watt’s words:

“Never gave a damn about the meter man, until I was the man who had to read the meters, man.”

Foetus – “Anything (Viva!)” from MALE

If I thought having a recording studio in Brooklyn was going to be a cake walk of intuitive production techniques and capturing performances, then FUH GETTA BOD IT.

When JG Thirlwell first came to BC Studio to record as Foetus with Thaw in ’87, I was already impressed with how his previous productions seemed surreal, bigger than life, and done so in unfamiliar ways. To this day he stands as having been the most dedicated to over-the-top production at BC Studio, in every regard – to processing, dynamics, performance.

This clip is from the live album Male, mixed a couple years later at BC. It includes quite a lineup:

Algis Kizys – see below, he will play with EXCOP at the BC35 record release NYC

David Ouimet – also plays trombone on the Cop Shoot Cop track below

Norman Westberg – perennial Swans member

Vinnie Signorelli – drummer from Unsane

Hahn Rowe – violin

JG Thirwell is on the BC35 record too, collaborating with Dana Schechter of Gnaw and Insect Ark.

Cop Shoot Cop – “$10 Bill” from Ask Questions Later

Starting in ’89, Cop Shoot Cop upended assumptions about post-punk in NYC by eschewing guitar – there was none through the time of this song. They did it with use of high-end, high-string bass and a sampler (more interesting then than it might seem now). They were also prescient in another regard – decades before marching bands and Eastern European/World music tinged bands like Gogol Bordello became fashionable, Cop was incorporating those sounds. As in this song – marching band elements along with their scrappy and scrapy dual basses, panning circularly, of course.

We were quite excited that the trumpet player here, Jim Colarusso, had played with Elvis, and kinda didn’t look like any of us. At the BC35 record release in NYC, the sampler player, high end bass player and drummer, Phil Puleo, also of Swans, will be joined by Algis Kizys on low-end bass, for a new configuration called EXCOP.

Live Skull – “Chair” from Snuffer EP

Live Skull played their last show with bassist Marnie Greenholz at CBGB’s in January ’88. And they came in the next morning (open to interpretation) and recorded this. This band differed from their contemporaries Sonic Youth, in that even though they can be described as having noisy guitars, there wasn’t really the experimentation with sounds, processing, effects and instrument modification. The two poles seemed to be an urban gothic sensibility, and sheer fury in the guitar playing. And both those can be heard here. Even the occasional dissonance was more the product of random interplay between the two very independent guitar performances.

This is the lineup – except for Tom Paine – that will play at the BC35 record release in NYC, and will include the mighty Thalia Zedek, formerly also of Come, singing and playing guitar.

Bisi and company will celebrate the release of BC35 at Saint Vitus on April 20. Tickets and info here.