Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sound and Chaos: Making Records in Brooklyn

Fans like to think there is something about the Muscles Shoals mud that makes those records sound so good. Maybe there is something about the Gowanus Canal that gives recordings at Martin Bisi’s BC Studio a similarly intangible quality. The unusual extent of his space is also a contributing factor. Bisi and the eclectic artists he waxed, taped, and now digitized tell studio stories in Ryan Douglass & Sara Leavitt’s Sound and Chaos: the Story of BC Studio (trailer here), which screens this Thursday at the Anthology Film Archives.

Bisi started in the music business as a roadie for Bill Laswell’s band, Material. It might sound like a humble beginning, but it involved enough face time with the band that Laswell appointed Bisi the task of opening an underground-friendly recording space. With the backing of Laswell and Roxie Music’s Brian Eno, BC was born. Despite their high profile patronage (and Bisi’s lack of experience), BC quickly developed its own identity.

The real fun of S&C comes from gawking at the roster of artists who have come through BC doors. While it is closely identified with No Wave, Post-Punk, and assorted Downtown artists, like avant-garde jazz and experimental composer John Zorn, the darnest sessions were laid down there. For instance, Herbie Hancock’s “Rock-It,” widely considered the first commercial single utilizing turntable and scratching techniques, was partially recorded at BC. Even more surprising, a then unknown singer named Whitney Houston recorded her lead vocal debut on a Material track there, also featuring free jazz legend Archie Shepp on tenor.

S&C works best as grungy nostalgia trip, but it loses some of its charm in the final quarter of an hour, when the talking heads get more political and Bisi starts fretting about the gentrifying effect of the new Whole Foods that opened right across the street from BC. Actually, it is sort of amusing when he reluctantly admits he is not so very different from the rest of the store’s clientele. Regardless, the simple truth is neighborhood either evolve or die.

Aside from the odd hipster BKLN excesses, S&C is mostly breezy fun. Douglass & Leavitt capture the atmosphere of the studio, as well as many sly interview segments with the likes of Laswell, Bob Bert formerly of Sonic Youth, and Michael Holman (Jean-Michel Basquiat’s bandmate in Gray). Recommended for Downtown music fans and Brooklyn loyalists, Sound and Chaos screens this Thursday (7/17) at the Anthology Archives in the East Village (which they say isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be).