The Martin Bisi Band at the EARL

By: Jon Ciliberto

Written and drawn by Jon Ciliberto  

When I was in high school and college in the 1980s, I’d see the name “Martin Bisi” on albums by an incredibly wide range of creative acts: Foetus, Herbie Hancock, Material, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Afrika Bambaata and myriad others. My experience of live music at that tender age was largely in somewhat established venues, and so it wasn’t until later, when I found the oddball places that the weird bands played, that I saw how important a Place in a Town was for the germination of unique musical cultures. Martin Bisi’s BC (formerly OAO) studio in Brooklyn was that kind of place, and the spot figures prominently in the history of noisy and experimental music.

Andrew Wiggins, Earl sound guy

Bisi has also worked as a musician, and although less known for that, his own work fits into the sound that is associated as a core aspect of BC Studio: heavy, noisy, at times chaotic, but also surprisingly well-organized and intelligent. That is, the music is not just a wild thrashing about.

On June 8th, the Martin Bisi Band played at the Earl, with three opening acts.

People like Bisi, who are better known for the supportive or productive things they have done in music, are not thus automatically worth hearing themselves. Thus, all of the above hype didn’t sugar my listening.

It is, alas, true that two of the three opening acts did sour my listening for the evening. It is curious to me that the openers for a show like this were not more aesthetically attuned to the headliner. I think this might have helped pad the audience a bit. As it was, it was a disappointingly small crowd.

Rather than punk or psych or heavy goth rock acts, the openers were: 1) U.S. Prisms (two guys playing looping noise guitars), 2) Duet for Theremin and Lapsteel (ambient/drone/electronic), 3) XAMBUCA (guy playing a tabletop of electronics).

U.S. Prisms

U.S. Prisms were two lads played guitars through looper pedals. This act somewhat made sense to the bill, stylistically. They played on and on and on and on and on.

Duet for Theremin and Lapsteel

Duet for Theremin and Lapsteel in stark contrast presented a thoughtful, lyrical set that went through at least four clearly defined compositional and sonically distinct, regions. Their set presented the listener with both virtuosity and attention to performance: they had total command of their instruments, and convincingly conveyed that they were performing for the audience. It occurred to me, listening to their work, that it represented a “Guide to Good Drone Music”:

  •  – It changes;
    – It isn’t pushy, but it pulls you along;
    – It isn’t showy, but it shows you things;
    – It surprises;
    – The edges meet but don’t crowd the middle;
    – It creates mental and temporal space for the listener.

Atlanta is really lucky to have this duo, and that they continue, year-after-year, to plumb their craft.

Xambuca’s set was essentially a series of minimal drum and synth programs. Aesthetically, I appreciated this approach: a fairly stripped down sound, harsh electronics, short statements. The sonic minimalism was appreciated. However, the ideas themselves were thin (the disaster movie “big bass sound,” e.g.), such that his performance felt much more like clicking through a series of presets than compositions. One strained to discern any decision-making as the set went on. And it went on and on and on, with the performer never glancing up to notice that the room — literally — cleared out. So, despite ample moments when he could have ended, he seemed more driven to work through his entire list of sound bits for his own sake, rather than act as a performer and “perform” for the crowd (who, by the end, was gone).

As Atlanta artist, Nisa Asokan aptly put it: “This is what it feels like to be mansplained to.”

With the headline act up next, this was also the antithesis of a warm-up act.

The Martin Bisi Band was Bisi (guitar and vocals and synth), Genevieve Fernworthy (viola, keys, vocals), Ernest Anderson (bass), and Dave Miller (drums). Their set was physical, heavy, aggressive but also rather sweet in places. A dronish region gave way to some thick drumming and a “song” by the four-piece band. Despite the highly psych freakout aspects of Bisi’s singing and electronic effect manipulations on stage, the rhythm section stayed locked in and tight — one of those chaotic freakout sets with songy interspersings and a stolid bass player who was locked in the whole time while madness unfurled all around.

Martin Misi Band at EARL. Drawn by Jon Ciliberto

The Martin Bisi Band

At the center of the storm was Bisi, stooped over, long grey hair stringing down, admirably a team player rather than a glory hog through the extended song pieces. The players all played: on the third piece, the keyboardist executed staccato chords with a precise rhythm. Bisi surely knows how to get the most from musicians, and despite the relative brevity of the band’s set, it conveyed compositional purpose, emotion, group play, and energy.

I don’t think the coherence of Bisi and Duet’s sets was due solely to the maturity of the players (a tactful way of saying “age”): I think some acts have ideas and discipline, and some do not. Those qualities also explain how Bisi has maintained his studio for all these years, working successfully with a very wide range of musicians. D.I.Y. need not mean amateur or rough-shod.

On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of BC Studio, a great group of musicians gather over two nights to perform there. This was released on a single CD: it is worth a listen and a purchase.

The 35th anniversary performance was also a fundraiser for Bisi. Doing-it-yourself is not easy on the body, and remaining an independent becomes a strain as the years pile up. Watching Bisi, an older man touring with much younger players, I felt compassion for the choices he’s made for the sake of music, and also for his humility in striving for nearly four decades on to uncover and present art, rarely drawing attention to the key role he has played.


The Martin Bisi Band opening a Wolf Eyes show in Brooklyn, at Saint Vitus – November 2017:

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