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A Conversation with Martin Bisi

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The wild man in the room: Martin Bisi
  • The wild man in the room: Martin Bisi

Martin Bisi's life in music seems to mirror his description of the creative process: part spontaneous eruption, part sustained intellectual effort. Raised in Manhattan on classical music by his Argentinean parents, he turned teenage tagger in the mid-1970s before taking to recording in 1981. Producing and engineering records by a Who's Who of boundary-pushing musicians followed -- Afrika Bambaata to Brian Eno, Herbie Hancock to John Zorn, Sonic Youth to Helmet, Cibo Matto to The Dresden Dolls.

Bisi's sixth solo record, last year's Sirens of the Apocalypse, is a series of portraits of women, alternately sly and sincere -- odes entitled "Buddhist Girl," "Rock Mona Lisa," "Mary Maudlin" and "Goth Chick '98" -- daubed in saturated rock guitars and woozy psychedelia, and striated with a considered chaos. His current tour takes the form of improvisational renditions of these songs with help from friends and past collaborators; former Cop Shoot Cop member Michael Kaminski will sit in at Garfield Artworks on Wed., Feb. 25 (a show organized by CP contributor Manny Theiner).

 

You've mentioned that the final version of Sirens of the Apocalypse ended up using material from initial demos. Is that something you find yourself reaching for often in the studio -- the first utterance?
The whole thing of spontaneity in the studio is sort of trying to grab hold and manage this wild beast, which is sort of zen, which is sort of not intellectualizing certain types of things, where you do things naturally or instinctually. And almost to me, that's the wild man in the room that everyone's ignoring. Obviously, you can't manage zen, because that defeats its zen-ness. But in a sense, its sort of like being able to understand spontaneity, and try to capture it and commit to it at times, and at other times not.

Is it easier to have that kind of perspective with someone else's music, rather than your own?
There's a chance it might be a little easier with other people. I think it also kind of depends on the project.

And yeah, I actually had a bit of a rough time tying Sirens of the Apocalypse together. For instance, the first song on the record, "Sirens of the Apocalypse," was done completely after the fact. And the reason is because I stood back -- this is the cognitive brain thinking -- and I looked at this collection of songs and said, "Oh my god, there's no opener -- there's no song I feel comfortable with opening the record, there's no song that says something basic about the entire record that should go at the top."

It needed an overture?
It definitely did. That's why I used the myth of the sirens, because it's women chanting on an island and luring the sailors, and that seemed like a current through the record in terms of lyrics. So I tried to be more overt about it, and just stick it at the top.

Your record has been described as concerning "multiple female characters dwelling in our epic times." Are our times epic?
The whole thing's a little tongue-in-cheek. It's not really completely tongue-in-cheek, it's just, in a sense, slightly dishonest. Because I know that these feel like epic times, but the reality of it -- and this is my personal belief -- is that all times feel epic. And people throughout history and every single culture in every part of the planet, probably thought [so] -- and in fact [the times] probably were. Obviously, the present is always the cutting edge. So if you just look at how, given any excuse, people feel the apocalypse is coming, whether it's the calendar changing, or the alignment of the stars -- any excuse to think, "Oh my god, this is a special and unique time" -- people will grab on to that. The apocalypse is just a theme; it's not like thousands of years went by without people thinking the world might end.

Do we just want to feel important?
Yeah, self-importance, it's probably also politics, and group bonding.

Yet the woman in the spoken-word segment, "A Story (True) in Brooklyn," anything but epic, seems a reminder of the smallness people are capable of.
Yeah, you're right about that. The reason that I tied women to the times is I'm particularly aware of how the packaging has changed. And a lot of the social change, I see through the prism of everything around me, but including women: women that are my friends ... and women that I might have dated or wished I dated, women who catch my attention. And in the packaging and in their types, it does change -- it's a reflection of what's happening. It's not just "women," it's what like "well, what kind of women?" Trends come and go, and you see that in women, in how they dress and their attitudes.

 

Martin Bisi with Microwaves, Gangwish and Midge Crickett. 8 p.m. Wed., Feb. 25. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. All ages. 412-361-2262 or www.garfieldartworks.com

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