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20 Questions: Martin Bisi

Photo by Tasja Keetman

The prolific performer, songwriter and producer Martin Bisi chats with PopMatters 20 Questions about malls, ghettos, industrial wastelands and other inspiring places, people and things.

Martin Bisi

Sirens of the Apocalypse [enhanced]

Subtitle: Sirens of the Apocalypse [enhanced]
Label: Contraphonic
US Release Date: 2009-02-10

Martin Bisi

Milkyway of Love

Label: Stripmine
US Release Date: 2003-02-18

Martin Bisi

Dear Popi I'm in Jail

Label: New Alliance
US Release Date: 1996-07-02

The prolific performer, songwriter and producer Martin Bisi has produced/engineered 100 records – he’s got a long discography that stretches from Iggy Pop, The Ramones and White Zombie to John Zorn, Herbie Hancock and Sonic Youth -- and of course he’s put out many of his own CDs including the recently enhanced Sirens of the Apocalypse. Bisi chats with PopMatters 20 Questions about malls, ghettos, industrial wastelands and other inspiring places, people and things.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I must say I'm one of those men who don't cry. I may have the feelings at times that would make others cry, but somehow I don't get that release. Something in my nature inhibits the visible evidence of those kinds of feelings.

That said, the scene in a movie that came close to making me cry was the moment near the end of Schindler's List when Oskar Schindler grabs the swastika off his lapel and breaks down crying because he realizes he could have saved one more life, and then all the Jewish workers pile on top of him in a group hug.

Also, by total chance I was at a Sebastian Bach (Skid Row) concert at the legendary Pink Pony in Jersey in 2003, and he related one of his songs to 9/11. There was not a dry eye in the room, including mine. Normally I wouldn't bawl over something so pedestrian, but I guess that's what a surprisingly good showman Bach is.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Ha ha. Well, it'll definitely be a man, there would be either violence involved, or he would be "wrong" in some way. I like the rebels, but somehow I relate to criminals -- the "black hats". So I would say Edward G. Robinson's character in Little Caesar, or any of the Lee Van Cleef or Clint Eastwood characters in the spaghetti westerns -- like Eastwood as the "man with no name" -- in The Good, Bad and The Ugly. This doesn't mean that I'm actually violent or criminal. I'm intellectually violent.

3. The greatest album, ever?

As a producer, I often say that I'm of the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band school of recording. That means that the recording itself is an object of art, and it experiments in a way that can't be done live. So, Sgt Pepper's gets my vote, because it was the progenitor of the "art of recording".

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Well, if the theme song for the original Star Trek is by Ricky Ricardo and his babaloo band, as in: Ricky from I Love Lucy -- Lucyyyyyy !!! -- then it's got Ricky's stamp on it, and that's what I'm going with.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I'm a full-on reality immersion person. If I want to learn and grow, I look for extremes -- the ugliest, the most dangerous, the most desolate, the most corrupt, the most de-spiriting. I tend to like malls, ghettos, and industrial wastelands. Somehow in those place, I tend to get it -- I tend to see better.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I'm lucky to have a few proud accomplishments. They all have one thing in common: they're art/ music that came from a small, grass roots collective of people, and touched a wider group of people. That would include graffiti and various scenes and records of independent music and hip-hop. That's really the reason why I never cared to work as a producer with bands that had already made it. It could be great music, but it just wouldn't have that awe-inspiring revolutionary magic.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Honestly, I'd be pretty thrilled to just be remembered. But I'd especially love to be remembered for some vague x-factor: "Who was that guy? He did what? I've seen his name but I don't know why."

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

The historical figures who've fessed up to the bullshit, even if it's just in one statement. There is no person without sin, there is no system or structure without corruption, there is no ideal that could ever come to pass, or work, without the B.S.

The great idealist visionaries are fine and have their place, but they just don't really grab me. I consider those persons to be artists. Yes, there's the "promised land" and all that. But it's more like the promised for the many is arguably better, but still lots of people will be pissed off -- 'cause you're never quite there. It never ends. There will always be those who are pissed off. That's how the human herd is. Even if we reduced physical violence, then some will say economics is violence. Some have said pornography is violence against women. So there'll always be those who are violated

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

For some reason, all I can think of are buildings. I'd say the Eiffel Tower. It was reviled in France initially, but it is now revered. I like that

10. Your hidden talents...?

I think I could possibly, maybe act. But I think my only hidden talents are the ones that are hidden to me. I try to use every possible asset I'm aware of. I'm not very good at any personal stuff, or hobbies, unfortunately.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

One thing I've noticed, is that if everybody is telling you the same thing and also making a big point of telling it to you -- just do it. There's a blind spot you're missing. I'm thinking of a very personal instance in my case. Other than that extreme case, I've taken general advice from women about how to deal with other women in amorous situations, as the law of the land. There seem to be some absolutes there -- no woman you're seeing will be offended if you give her flowers, that sort of thing.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

When I was teenager, a friend of mine who knew all the great, early graffiti artists, had a sketch book in which many of them had drawn mock-ups of pieces they were going to paint on trains. My friend forgot he left the book with me, and I was a young spaced-out person, so I lost it. Agh!

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

I haven't worn Levis since I was 12. Not to be a snob about blue denim or anything -- but do me a favor, put me in Armani and let's see what happens. I see a little experiment there, actually. You could follow me around for a couple days (reluctantly) in Levis, and then do the same with Armani. I think I know which would yield the more interesting results

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I was going to say a currently prominent person who I'm essentially against -- but that might be better done at Dunkin Donuts. Maybe I should go for something romantic.

Veronica Lake, the '40s screen siren, before the lobotomy. For those who are drawing a blank -- she tragically had a lobe of her brain surgically removed as part of a mental health treatment.

Photo by Alexandra Sarkozy

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

If I'm going to do it, I might as well try and strip away the bullshit, the artifice. I could stand to see humans before art and religion kicked in. Those seem to have appeared together, and somewhat suddenly. So I'd like to see people just before that shift happened. Why trade one set of artifice or culture for another ? I think it could answer a few nagging questions I have about human nature.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I just realized I can handle almost anything by getting enough sleep. And also napping seems to really make up for not getting enough sleep. Sleep has a great effect on stress aside from the obvious physical stuff. Sleep is fertile ground for solutions. Sometimes you just wake up with a clear course of action, or new perspective. And that reins in the stress.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

I only drink coffee, as a vice. Other than that, when I'm around people I can connect with, I'm amazed at how my mind shifts from problems and issues of my daily life. I kinda just forget all that, and focus on people. The right people really make me let go. Yeah, people -- who'da thought?

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

It would pretty much be on the move to anywhere and everywhere, with three-day leisure stops in Patagonia, the Greek Island of Santorini, Mongolia, New Zealand, and the Galapagos Islands -- places without a lot of people basically. Or just right here in Brooklyn.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

I had a dream a couple of months ago that I was sick and Obama was my doctor, and he didn't know what to do. I'm a full-on Obama supporter. He's a smart guy -- smarter than me on certain relevant topics, and he's getting the advice of a lot of people -- and he's good at picking people. What can I knowledgeably tell him? I think he's following his instincts, and is ready to improvise as he goes. There's no real road map here. If you compare our times to the Great Depression, that's a big generalization. Whatever happens now will depend on managing the details.

In foreign policy, I'd like to see him be a people-oriented representative of our country, and use his skills to connect with Arabs, Europeans, South Americans. I remember when Mikhail Gorbachev came here, and hit the streets like he was running for office. Americans really lightened up about Russia. They called him Gorby. And pretty soon missiles were being dismantled.

Am I sounding absurdly naive?! Well I said right-off that I'll recuse myself for the moment of giving advice to the president on how to fix the world. I think a lot of people are thinking about that right now, which is fantastic. Let's see what the smart guy can do.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I'm finishing an EP of five songs which will be available in the Spring. There'll be a music video for one of the songs. So far there are some interesting guests, who are also playing with me live at certain shows -- notably Bill Laswell, Brian Viglione from The Dresden Dolls, and Bob D'Amico who plays with Fiery Furnaces.

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