Our conversation with legendary producer and musician Martin Bisi ended up at much, much greater length than we were able to accommodate in our print version, so we're running the full conversation here, in two parts.
Bisi performs at Garfield Artworks at 8 p.m. Wed., Feb. 25, with Microwaves, Gangwish and Midge Crickett. (The show is organized by CP contributor Manny Theiner.)
What common threads run through your latest album, Sirens of the Apocalypse?
The genesis of it was a little odd -- I kind of didn't really have a clear agenda when I started, and I think that's good, that's what's unusual about it. Because in some ways, there are elements of the songs that are pretty straightforward -- there are melodies that are kinda hooky, and some of it is straight rock in a way -- but then there's these other factors and other things. And that probably came from the fact that I didn't really have a clear agenda when I started it -- I kinda did it just generally to be creative and just generally to suss out ideas. So I ended up having a lot of fun with it at the demo stage, and in fact I ended up lifting a lot of the stuff from the demos and sort of squishing it back into the music, because I realized that that was the stuff that I found inspiring.
So when I went to actually record this stuff with the band, actually, before recording this stuff with the band, I went to play this stuff out live. There's less instruments -- just one guy on keyboards, and whatever he can contribute on background vocals. So when I realized that part of what I liked about the songs is the context I could create and some of the craziness I could add, I had to squish some of that stuff back into the production.
It's funny, because I wanted the record -- and I think in this way it succeeds -- I wanted it to say a lot about me, personally. At this point, "me personally" is pretty much attached with studio work. I don't want to do that forever -- I'm actually already working on material that won't have that focus -- but I wanted it to be a lot about me having fun in the studio and getting a little crazy. But it's funny because at the same time, it's not like I wanted an over-produced record. It's not like it's about me producing, and it's definitely not like a producer record.
It's a lot more visceral and lively than I expected -- I expected a lot more production with a capital P.
There is a lot of production, it's just with a lower-case P. But it's almost like I'd rather it seem like it's really someone having fun in the studio, but more like a musician having fun in the studio, as opposed to someone with a big production background.
You've mentioned that the final version of Sirens ended up using material from initial demos. Is that something you find yourself reaching for in the studio -- the first utterance?
What's funny is that, and this is part of, in a way, my role as a producer when I'm involved with a band recording or an artist recording in the studio, is, for lack of a better word, is sort of an existential view of what is gonna work in terms of getting material into a record. And what I've ended up finding, as I've gotten older, I can look back and intellectualize a lot of things that I just kind of did either out of necessity or just sort of instinctually, as a younger person. And in a way, that's kind of the reason maybe a producer might be older than the band. For instance, the stuff like, why certain records turned out great when there wasn't a budget, and then there's records with a much bigger budget, and being able to spend more time, why those records turn out worse. At the time, you just do. And as I've gotten older, I can kind of intellectualize, "oh, there's reasons for that," and I can analyze all those years, what worked and why.
The whole thing of spontaneity in the studio is sort of trying to grab a 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, it's sort of like being able to understand spontaneity, and try to capture it and commit to it at times, and at other times not. For instance, it seems that usually, when bands are recording in the studio, the first take -- the first take where there really isn't a problem, where everything's sort of OK -- usually that's the X-factor that people are kind of looking for. And the reason is, because usually people's first impression of something just occupies a part of the brain that's pretty powerful. Once you sort of start thinking about it, and you say "Oh, is the tempo right, is the tempo not right?" then you risk losing some choices that were made instinctually.
With this record then, it was written and recorded over a couple of years. Do you run a risk in that way, by working on it around other duties -- how do you keep popping back into that mindset?
That's the thing I was kind of saying -- it's like managing the zen aspect, like it's this wild man in the room. It can't all be that, you know -- we have other limitations, things take time. Also the real sophisticated results -- I don't mean sophisticated in the traditional sense, I mean evolved, better, more powerful results -- are going to be managing both aspects. In other words, actually using your brain and making smart choices. It actually may be controlling things. In other words, it's almost managing spontaneity and things that came off the cuff, and being able to stand back, think about it. And actually one reason that you do that, is because you have a record, and it has to hold together, the songs have to relate to each other -- you're actually trying to make a singular statement. The record is funny -- it's still a singular creation, just like a song, just like a single piece of art -- but yet on the other hand, it's a collection of individual statements and spontaneities and ideas. So you almost have to use the brain.
That's why -- it's funny, I remind people that it's no coincidence that it's called a "record producer," not a "producer of a collection of songs." And that's one thing that, from an artistic point of view, the art of production or the producer as an artist, as opposed to a technician or even as opposed to an arranger, or strictly musical things -- the producer as an artist has to have the responsibility of seeing that you make a singular statement, a statement that kind of works, holds together, and it's like "I produced this record. The band produced a record."
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 also when we get down to brass tacks, I have different amounts of involvement with different projects. I think it might be easier with other people, because in some ways it's just smart to kind of work with other people, so it's not all on the producer. I wouldn't even want that, because I know it wouldn't be the best thing, actually. You're not going to get anything unless the artist believes what's happening, it has to be collaborative. So when it's all on me, of course it's going to be a little trickier.
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." Basically, I'd written a collection of songs without necessarily there being a specific order -- I didn't write the songs to be in an order -- and it turned out that I didn't have the first one. So that means the first one was sort of what we were talking about -- where I had to kind of be smart and kind of analyze the situation and find a way after the fact, to reel in all these spontaneous urges that were the individual songs and tie it all together into a package and stick the top line at the top of the record -- like, "this is what it's about."
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.