Gowanus’s BC Studio Connects Whitney Houston, Sonic Youth & More in New Doc
Photo by Nicole Capobianco
The story of BC Studio spans decades and genres, but without one particular musician it might never have happened. This “underground” recording studio, located on 3rd Street in the old American Can Company factory in Gowanus, is musician (and onetime graffiti artist) Martin Bisi’s life’s work, begun in the late Seventies when he was nineteen years old. His amusing and amazing story is told in the documentary Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, which will premiere in Brooklyn July 12, and Bisi will accompany a screening of the doc at Lincoln Center on June 25 with his own live soundscapes. The documentary, directed by Sara Leavitt and Ryan Douglass, will see a digital release in August, too.
Artists from Sonic Youth to Swans, Foetus to Afrika Bambaataa, Dresden Dolls to Violent Femmes, and also Bill Laswell, Bisi’s original co-partner — or co-conspirator, as BC was never meant to be a business, but an artists collective — all recorded and created in this cavelike space, which has an eerie well open to whatever murky water flows underneath the building. But there’s one artist who is a pivotal figure in BC’s tale, which extends this story of a studio and the man behind it to one about New York City and the slow but steady decline of its artistic community. Because without former Roxy Music member and avant-garde notable Brian Eno, who was living in Manhattan in the mid-Seventies and met Laswell and Bisi there, BC Studio might never have happened. Eno bankrolled BC.
“He deserves a big thanks. His contribution is really remarkable,” says Bisi. “I wonder if he appreciates what he jumpstarted, because I’m not sure I would have gone all the way without him. Especially being nineteen, I wasn’t thinking of anything other than doing what I was happy doing in that moment. Without Eno giving us the money, I might not have gone down this path.”
This path was a route from Bisi’s native Upper East Side, through the downtown Manhattan arts scene, and on to Brooklyn, which even in 1979 was fast becoming the only place to get affordable industrial space. “It couldn’t be in the East Village, because that was small apartments, even though it was affordable,” says Bisi. “So the only spaces were Tribeca and Soho. But that was already getting more expensive; there were already art galleries there then. Soho was like parts of Bushwick now: It was already getting a little bit priced-out.
“It had to be Brooklyn,” Bisi continues. “I looked at a place in Williamsburg, which I didn’t take — it’s an Urban Outfitters now or something. It was a ground-floor space for $500 a month. But I had just looked at the space in Gowanus, and what I loved was it was two floors and we could live upstairs. Originally, I just wanted a space for bands to rehearse and where I could live, too. I could set up my drums and Bill’s band Material could rehearse."
No one went to Brooklyn in 1979, especially Gowanus, which was plagued by unimaginable violence. But Bisi didn’t wonder who on earth would want to record in a place where a subway ride could mean taking your life in your hands. “I wasn’t anticipating a need to get people there; I wasn’t thinking about it being accessible,” he recalls. “But if the cost was right and people were going to get a good recording, then yes, people were willing to do it.”
Though Sonic Youth and Afrika Bambaataa were willing to trek down to record, there was one recording session, for Whitney Houston’s single “Memories,” that went on without its singer.
“She did her vocal uptown; she didn’t get to the studio,” says Bisi. “We recorded the instrumental tracks — we recorded everything other than her vocal. We all basically played on the song.”
With the creeping development of the city’s current land-grab now extended to Gowanus, a happy ending to BC’s story hangs in the balance. Bisi, like many in the artistic trades, hasn’t seen a pay increase that keeps up with the cost of living. Not even close. He says he’s scraping by, which is just fine by him: He doesn’t live to make money, he says. His concern is the survival of his way of life and his community of everyday musicians and artists who are unlikely to be this year’s thing or top the charts, but are the city’s cultural bedrock. So what will happen? Bisi’s reply is short and not so sweet: “I don’t have an answer.”
Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio screens June 25 at Lincoln Center’s Film Center Amphitheater, and on July 12 at Littlefield. Both screenings will be followed by a performance featuring Martin Bisi and special guests. For tickets and more information, click here.
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