The Unknown Story of the Latino Engineer Behind Iconic Afrika Bambaataa and Sonic Youth Records

Photo by Alexandra Sarkozy

It’s noon on Sunday, January 17, and sound engineer Martin Bisi is hosting at least 13 people in the recording room of B.C. Studio. The group of assorted musicians and friends have gathered in the industrial-looking basement in Gowanus, Brooklyn for the second day of a marathon recording session celebrating the studio’s 35th anniversary. The unique event reunites many of the sonic provocateurs that founder Martin Bisi has worked with over more than three decades.

Bisi has been the hand at the controls for some of the first recordings of Afrika Bambaataa, Sonic Youth, and Lydia Lunch. He’s also engineered for several influential but little-known groups, such as noise rockers Live Skull, who reunited for the anniversary recording event, dozens of members of the no wave movement in the early 80s, and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” In more recent years, he’s recorded albums by Swans, Serena Maneesh, and the Dresden Dolls. He’s done it all in this studio, the same place where he lives and works. In 2015, the engineer and his studio became the subject of a documentary titled Sound and Chaos, directed by Sara Leavitt and Ryan Douglass.

At the back of the spacious room, the witnesses arrange themselves on and around an ancient couch and a wayward church pew, chatting and embracing warmly between takes. Over an intercom, Bisi’s voice booms from the upstairs room: “Rolling.” Standing in front of a bank of effects pedals, circus cabaret impresario Sxip Shirey plays the harmonica and bellows the blues into a megaphone. Brian Viglione, who has recorded with Bisi as the drummer for the Dresden Dolls, sits behind a drum kit, pounding the cymbal with a tambourine. Don Godwin, on bass, produces an unearthly rumble. The sound is as raw as the environment, but the performances are electric. Bisi will surely find a way to capture the feeling of the moment in the recording.

“I always went for things to sound live in a very surreal kind of way, because a great live experience is surreal.”

Visceral immediacy is a hallmark of his work. “I think the experience I always went for was for things to sound live in a very surreal kind of way, because a great live experience is kind of surreal,” he reflects. The live aspect happens downstairs; the surrealism tends to creep in later, as part of the mixing process. This live surrealism is why certain kinds of guitar experimentalists seek him out to this day.

Bisi was born and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by Argentine parents who both passed away before he graduated high school. His mother was a concert pianist and his father used to play tangos on the piano, but their son was fatally attracted to the countercultural noises that emerged downtown. Bassist and producer Bill Laswell, who is best known for recording Herbie Hancock, took the teenager under his wing, arranging a kind of live sound apprenticeship at CBGB, allowing him to stage manage his events and taking him on tour as a roadie.

In 1979, Bisi, by then all of 18, moved into what was a nearly empty warehouse space in a desolate part of Brooklyn to start the studio as part of a collective with Laswell and Brian Eno. It was originally called OAO Studio. Eventually, Laswell and Eno left, but Bisi stayed, quietly influencing the sound of early hip-hop, experimental music, and underground rock throughout the 80s and 90s.

Many of the artists Bisi recorded were pioneers who were playing new forms of music. There was often no clear road map for how to translate their sound to tape. Sonic Youth, for example, had developed a distorted, blown out live sound and weren’t sure how it should translate in the studio. Bisi’s challenge was figuring that out through trial and error. “In the early 80s, there weren’t a lot of indie bands or experimental bands going into a studio to record their album. People heard the bands but it would be recorded onto cassette with two microphones. The whole art of indie style recording hadn’t developed yet,” he explains.

Photo by Nicole Capobianco
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Today, the veteran engineer retains both the long hair and intense energy evident in photos from the early days of the studio and, just as he’s been a resident of Gowanus for 35 years, he has stayed an active part of underground music in New York City. He has had avant-garde music projects of his own over the years, releasing several albums under his own name, some of which are easier to find than others. He tours with a rotating group of back-up musicians and can be caught playing shows locally, most often at Brooklyn’s increasingly endangered DIY venues, such as Silent Barn and Palisades. He started out drumming, adding percussion where needed during recording sessions, but his musical activities eventually grew into a means of personal exploration. A few of his earlier projects, such as Martin Bisi y Las Cochinas and his 1992 album All Will Be Won with Cristina Martinez of Boss Hog, have featured lyrics that are mainly in Spanish.

“In the 80s, the whole art of indie style recording hadn’t developed yet.”

Though he enjoys the experimentation aspect of the process, as a technician, Bisi can be conservative in his approach, using a mixture of digital and analog equipment – whatever works best for his needs. He puts off equipment upgrades until he’s convinced they will produce better results. Still, while he may not have the most state-of-the-art digital technology on hand or the most fetishized brand of analog compressor, the studio itself would be a very difficult environment to reproduce and the records that have come out of it would sound very different had they been made anywhere else, or by anyone else.

Viglione has worked with Bisi many times since the Dresden Dolls’ debut album was recorded to two-inch tape in 2002. He calls him an “incredible guide and mentor.” “He not only was a master of the technical side, but he also helped us pull musical ideas out and a whole other creative dimension to the process that a lot of other engineers don’t necessarily have,” he says of his friend and frequent collaborator. The drummer went on to stress the unique value of what Bisi provides: “He’s given outsider musicians a place to make their music with total unbounded freedom. Martin’s studio is kind of a wide open playground.”

The studio and its proprietor have an almost symbiotic relationship, and especially since Sound and Chaos raised the space’s profile, Bisi is even more reluctant to change anything. “Music in general is pretty precarious, any aspect of music. Really, if something is working you have to be careful about what you change,” he says.

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Unfortunately, his own situation may be just as precarious. The building that houses B.C. Studio is changing around him. It’s home to the non-profit Rooftop Films, an architecture firm and a company that makes custom neon signage. There’s talk of expanding the building vertically with an 18-story tower – an eventuality that might require Bisi to relocate, at least to a different part of the complex. The neighborhood has changed a lot too. The polluted Gowanus Canal notwithstanding, the area boasts a Whole Foods and rising rents. The surrounding properties, once dilapidated and squatted by gangs, are now some of the most valuable real estate in the country.

“Martin’s studio is kind of a wide open playground.”

The area is becoming more affluent, but it isn’t necessarily safer; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Bisi was assaulted outside the building in August. Two of his teeth were knocked out. Two months later, his studio was broken into on the same night as Rooftop Films was robbed. The thieves fled when they saw him but got away with six guitars and a bass. He attributes a recent rise in violence and crime in the area he calls home to its growing economic inequality.

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Despite all of this, Bisi has no desire to leave. He admits, “There’s some things about this space that I’m used to and rely on and that I think are important.” He can move his business and continue his creative practice elsewhere, sure, and sometimes change is inevitable, but in this case, as it is with so many parts of New York City affected by gentrification, what would be lost would be irreplaceable.