Doc of Ages: Film chronicles Gowanus-side recording studio

Behind the boards: Record producer Martin Bisi has heard a lot from his perch in Gowanus’ BC Studio since he started it in the late 1970s.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Long before a federal clean-up was poised to dredge the toxic sludge from the bottom of the Gowanus Canal, one canal-side recording studio was kicking out a different kind of jam.

A new documentary chronicles the rags-to-semi-riches story of BC Studio, which has honed the sound of some of rock’s most influential acts since back in the day, when the neighborhood that welcomed a Whole Foods Market in December was better known for its baseball bat-wielding gangs.

“This is one of the last remaining studios with a long history,” said producer Martin Bisi, who landed the two-floor space between Third and Fourth avenues for $500 a month in 1976.

“Sound and Chaos” follows Bisi from the time he first signed the lease, thinking he was renting out a pad for his five-person art collective.

Bisi said he started looking for a post-industrial place to live upon moving to New York, before he had even heard of Williamsburg or Park Slope. Upon choosing the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue, he soon learned that his building was home to squatters and the surrounding area was the domain of gangs with names such as the Crazy Homicides. And he will never forget the afternoon when six kids outside the studio beat the daylights out of two cops.

“That was a sight that always kind-of hurts me inside,” Bisi said. “There was not a lot of policing around here.”

His open-ended art space gave way to a full-blown recording studio in the late 1970s as Bisi became buds with English musician Brian Eno, who had by then worked with David Bowie, Paul Simon and the Talking Heads, and Eno referred other innovative music makers his way.

Among them were Herbie Hancock, whose Grammy-winning single “Rockit” Bisi recorded, and Sonic Youth, whose 1985 album “Bad Moon Rising” Bisi produced.

“Sound and Chaos” co-director Sara Leavitt, a television editor by day, met Bisi through a mutual friend and became enthralled by the sound mixing process that he goes through to create a record, she said. Making the movie was a lesson of another kind.

“It was so cool going around talking to musicians and finding out stuff about Gowanus,” said Leavitt, who lives in Crown Heights. “I did not realize how rough it was in the ’80s.”

Since then, the studio has seen the likes of carnival metal band White Zombie and punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls pass through. And last month, Whole Foods opened across the street, to the chagrin of Bisi, who wishes it would take better care of the historic Coignet building the grocer abuts on two sides.

“The neighborhood is sort of a flash point right now,” he said.

Leavitt and her co-director Ryan Douglass plan to submit the documentary to film festivals such as one at South by Southwest, which kicks off in early March.

Reach reporter Megan Riesz at mriesz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her on Twitter @meganriesz.

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