‘I Have Magical Experiences Every Day’: Sir Richard Bishop Interviewed

Solo and as part of Sun City Girls, Sir Richard Bishop has spent three decades refining a singular style of guitar playing that draws inspiration from across the globe. With several of new releases arriving this year, he speaks to Richie Troughton about filmmaking, Freemasonry and secret manuscripts

For the last three decades Sir Richard Bishop has blazed a singular trail as one of the most consistently challenging and innovative guitar players around. Using a 3.5mm thick guitar pick, he batters his strings with unusual precision, leaving audiences unsure of what to expect next as he ploughs through everything from jazz and improv to Middle Eastern melodies and Western styles.

Bishop’s first group, Paris 1942, featured former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, but it was with the Sun City Girls that he became widely known, releasing around fifty full-length albums, and dozens more cassettes and singles from 1981 onwards. The trio included Richard’s brother Alan, and ended following the death of drummer Charles Gocher in 2007. The group’s final LP, Funeral Mariachi, was posthumously released two years ago. Richard and Alan continue to occasionally perform the music of the Sun City Girls as the Brothers Unconnected.

Bishop has been releasing solo records under his own name since 1998’s Salvador Kali through John Fahey’s Revenant label. While usually prolific, three years have passed since his last LP, the ‘Arabic surf’ record The Freak of Araby. Richard is now returning with two new solo efforts – Intermezzo, on Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint (through Editions Mego), and The Unrock Tapes, on German label Unrock.

On Intermezzo, Bishop leaves behind the Egyptian guitar lines of its Omar Khorshid-inspired predecessor for warm six-string explorations in open tunings, folk, sun scorched raga, a bit of backwards tape experimentalism and plenty more besides. O’Malley recently said: “We were entranced by his playing, so many beautiful elements of why I love guitar come through in his music and presence, without floating around in genre space at all… If the reason to start a record label is to release the music you are truly enamored by, this is a true example of that philosophy.”

‘Blood Stained Sands, taken from The Freak of Araby

Bishop also plays in Rangda with Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny and free percussionist Chris Corsano, who are set to release a follow up to 2010 debut False Flag later this year. Speaking via Skype from his home in Portland, Oregon, Richard reveals details of an intriguing collaboration with Maybe Mental frontman David Oliphant and plans to soundtrack a dance performance with Compagnie 7273 in Switzerland.

Up until recently Bishop traded in rare and occult books and his interest in the esoteric and religions is frequently referenced in his art and work. In addition to making music he produced the trance-inducing cut-up film God Damn Religion (2006) from his extensive print and film archives, and he also helps unearth nuggets from his many travels around the world for release on his brother Alan’s Sublime Frequencies record label. He’s also set to return to the UK with Rangda in October and solo supporting Swans in November.

I saw you play in the UK in April and I was surprised you didn’t have any new records to promote.

Sir Richard Bishop: I was a little behind schedule there.

Now you have two. Tell us about the new records.

SRB: The first one, which is called Intermezzo, was originally a CD-R I put out. Stephen O’Malley ordered a couple of copies of some new CD-Rs, and as soon as he got them he wanted to release something on his new label, or his current label. So we decided to do Intermezzo. It’s mostly home recordings that I’ve made over the last year, with some acoustic stuff, some electric stuff, a little bit of experimental stuff. I’m really happy with how it came out on the vinyl. It sounds way better than the CD. I think it is one that people will like, because it does cover a lot of different variety.

And then a similar thing happened with a German label, called Unrock. A guy named Michael [Stahl], who runs a record store there, who I know quite well, just wanted to put out a record of myself as well. As opposed to giving him brand new material, I gave him some older selections from other CD-Rs. I haven’t actually seen that record yet (The Unrock Tapes), they’re on their way to me, but I hear it’s pretty good!

You met Stephen O’Malley on a tour of Australia, was this your first solo tour?

SRB: That was. It was in 2005. I had done a few local shows, probably before that, but that was my first solo tour. It was quite a distance to go for the first tour, but it was really positive, and kind of set the stage, and I really enjoyed that so I have been doing it ever since. I just haven’t been back to Australia since then…

On your last LP (The Freak of Araby) you highlighted Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid as a big influence, and I wondered on Intermezzo, where there are quite different styles, nothing particularly similar to your last record, are there any other guitarists you would say were a current influence?

SRB: Not really. The Freak of Araby thing was kind of an odd thing, because it was totally based on Omar Khorshid, whereas my other stuff really just kind of blends in a whole bunch of different influences from my past, it’s not really anything specific to attribute it to. It’s just kind of how it came out.

On Intermezzo song titles include Indian goddess ‘Dhumavati’ (‘the smoky one’) and the erotic sculptures at ‘Khajuraho’. Do these titles come to you before you compose the piece, or do you have them in mind when you write them?

SRB: It depends, sometimes they are before, sometimes after. On this one, if I can remember correctly, I think I named them afterwards, just to have some Indian reference. Whereas in the past, it has worked the opposite way. There was a song on Polytheistic Fragments, ‘Saraswati’, which is a piano raga, and that one I had ahead of time, and then from the first record [Salvador Kali] there was ‘Kamakhya’, and that is another Indian goddess, and I had that ahead of time, so it depends.

The Freak of Araby was rooted in the East, but on the new record you to and from back and forth from East to Western influence, sometimes in the same song. When I saw you in Brighton in April the set list included a bit of everything. How many songs can you play at any given time?

SRB: Well, I can improvise forever, but when I play live I have access to about 25 actual songs that I can choose from. Some of it from my solo stuff, some of it goes back to Sun City Girls stuff. So, I can kind of choose anything I want to do, but I usually try and throw in a lot of improvisation, otherwise I’ll get kind of bored with it, and maybe if I get bored with it the audience will get bored with it as well. It just varies from show to show.

Are there any styles you would like to attempt that we maybe haven’t heard from you yet?

SRB: Um, I don’t know, I would like to play more jazz than I do, but not typical jazz. Just a little more focused than total improvisation. But it’s a little difficult to do that solo, sometimes you need a little back up. I have been listening, actually quite recently, to some African rhythms, not Middle Eastern, more desert-y, and I’ve been messing with those the last couple of days because I have show on Saturday right down the street from my house, where I’m going to improvise and I’m going to try and see what happens in that direction. I don’t know if it will work, but I’m going to try it, I don’t care if it works or not.

Other than that the only thing else I’m trying to do, every now and then, is to play something that doesn’t make sense, like abstract, experimental. I am back on the acoustic now, so it is providing a little bit of a challenge, I’m not using any effects, so I don’t know, I just need to keep it moving for my own good I think.

On your website you hint at a third record coming soon.

SRB: There is! It’s coming very soon. You’re not supposed to see that stuff, that’s good that somebody goes on my website! It’s totally different. It’s a duet record I did with an old friend from Phoenix who I’ve worked with years ago, as early as the early 80s, and his name is David Oliphant. He was an industrial noisy musician, and he did some work with Sun City Girls every now and then, so we’ve collaborated on a project that turned into what I consider an almost Tibetan record, it’s sort of Tibetan music that we have put together. I’m still playing guitar, but a lot of it is processed to where it is not always recognised as guitar. And he’s playing all kind of samples and electronics. We’re really excited about it. I don’t know how it’s going to go over with my guitar fans, but again, I don’t care. It’s just another direction to go in, and it should be out sometime in July.

You have also done film work, most recently God Damn Religion, do you have any more projects like that lined up?

SRB: I have a lot of material lying around, but nothing current. There’s plenty of stuff, if I wanted to put together another film of some sort I probably could, it’s just kind of on the backburner right now. But all the equipment I used back then has died and I haven’t replaced it, so I don’t have a good editing system or camera at the moment. It’s possible I might do something in the future, but not right away.

Similarly, is there any more unreleased Sun City Girls that might appear?

SRB: There is a lot that hasn’t been released. Whether it’s any good or not is another question. We will continue to release a few things eventually, maybe some live stuff. We are also going to be reissuing some earlier releases, including that one that everybody wants to have re-released, Torch of the Mystics. But again, my brother is kind of busy doing a bunch of stuff, he has been in Egypt a lot lately, so we haven’t really had a chance to get together and set up an attack plan, but there will be something soon, I hope.

Do you think there are any current bands that have the spirit of the Sun City Girls, in terms of taking all of those influences?

SRB: Well, I mean there probably are. But the sad thing is I don’t really listen to a lot of what’s happening out there right now, so any references I would make are a little older, like Secret Chiefs 3, the Master Musicians of Bukkake, but these are just friends of mine more than anything else. There has to be some out there, but I just haven’t heard.

In between your last solo release and now, Rangda came out with their first record. I understand you have recorded a second LP – how will this vary from the first? From what I have heard it sounds a little bit more structured.

SRB: The second one we finished a couple of months back, and even though we still didn’t have much time to rehearse before going into the studio, we worked really hard in the studio and we came up with a solid record that is way more focused than the first one. The first one had some that was focused, but it was kind of scattered and there was a lot of improv. This one is much more tight-knit, with still some room for improvisation, but it was kind of a different beast from the first one, and we’re real excited to get it out there. Some of the songs are a little more complicated, which wasn’t really the intention, it’s just how it turned out, and that will be released on September 18, and we will be touring shortly thereafter. We are going to do the Supersonic festival and a couple more shows in the UK as well, so hopefully you will get to see it live.

You have spoken in the past about how your upbringing influenced your music. You had musical family with a Lebanese background, can you tell us a bit about that?

SRB: My mother’s side of the family is Lebanese and my grandfather played the oud and he played violin and he played the double reed horns, so when we were very young we were exposed to a little bit of him playing, but not much. He had all these old cassettes, of Farid al-Atrash and some other Syrian/Lebanese/Egyptian stuff, like Oum Kalthoum and Fairuz. So we heard a lot of it growing up, but at the time I don’t think we were really that interested in it, because we hadn’t even considered the thought of becoming musicians back then. When we started listening to music we were listening to stuff that we thought was much more cool, so we weren’t really paying attention a lot. But we absorbed it somehow, both my brother and myself.

And as we got a little bit older, into our late teens, we revisited the idea of that music and dug out the old cassettes. We still have my grandfather’s old cassettes, and also some actual records that he made of him and the family singing; they had their own lathe maker too, where they made 78s, and we still have those as well. So it was something we were exposed to and absorbed and had inside us, but it didn’t really awaken until several years later, right before Sun City Girls started. But I think without that it might have made us go in different directions, so we are grateful we had the opportunity to at least be exposed to it.

The Brothers Unconnected made a pilgrimage to Lebanon a couple of years ago – how was it to make that trip and to play there?

SRB: That was great. My brother had been there prior to that, but it was my first time in Lebanon. It was a pretty special trip, because that’s kind of the home country. Even though Beirut is more of a modern city it was still great to be on the soil, so to speak. But I have to admit, while we were there we also went to Damascus, in Syria, and that was the real deal, as it’s such an ancient city. It was fun to do the Brothers Unconnected there. I’m not sure still to this day how that went over, as there’s a lot of spoken word, I don’t know if it all translated. But we also did separate sets as well and we have good friends there who are great musicians and artists, so it was just a great time. I wish we could go back soon, so we’ll see.

You used to document some of your travels on the Bull Lore blog, which seems to have disappeared recently. Have you been on any recent travels?

SRB: I think the Lebanon/Syria trip was the last kind of third world-ish trip. We also went to Egypt during that trip for a couple of weeks. And my brother stayed there for three months, and he has since been back for six months, he just got back. The only other travels have been tours. I’m planning on maybe getting back to south east Asia, maybe to India, end of this year or the first part of next year, because otherwise I am going to be in Switzerland for six months next year as part of a residency, so I won’t be able to travel during that. So, I’m hoping if I can get the money together I am hoping to get out again. Actually, anywhere would be good.

How did the residency in Switzerland come about?

SRB: I can’t really tell you much about it as I don’t really know yet what I am going to be doing, but in the past I have worked with this dance group in Switzerland, called Compagnie 7273. In the past they have hired me to perform live with them onstage and also to write music for a long dance piece for six dancers. Eventually this dance piece won some awards and it turned out really good. So I imagine we’ll be doing something similar to that, but probably come up with a new project. I’ll be there to watch how it develops and write some music to it. They don’t even know what the project is yet. But they have become good friends of mine; they bring me over and treat me great, so it’s a win-win situation. Looking forward to it. And I could tell you more about it this time next year.

How did your upbringing influence your interest in esoteric and religious studies?

SRB: I think a lot of that started, maybe in an indirect way, with my Lebanese grandfather. He was a high degree Freemason; his wife, my grandmother, was high in the Order of the Eastern Star; and my dad was a 32 degree Mason, so I was exposed to something early on, much like the music. Whether I asked to be exposed to it or not, I’m still not sure.

And the same kind of thing happened, I was aware at a very young age that there were other things going on in the atmosphere, so to speak, but didn’t really pay attention to it until many years later. The same kind of thing like with the music, I absorbed it early and it kind of re-awoke itself at some point. Then I just ran into certain people who had similar ideas and started actually really digging in and researching, and reading, and practicing this and that, we’ll just leave it at that! And, you know, found it interesting enough to continue doing so, and it became a pretty important part of my life and my existence, and it still is. I’m just not as active as far as digging up rare books as I used to be, and finding that secret manuscript that might have the secret to whatever, you know. It’s a long history of diligent work and research and being at the right place at the right time, and sometimes being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but that’s just how it is, and I really try not to question it as much anymore.

What was the last magical experience you had?

SRB: Well, let’s see, what time is it? You know, if I think about it, I have magical experiences every day. It’s just about how your mind works. I cannot really give you a proper example, and even if I could I’m not sure I would, because that’s the magic part of it. If you’re open to such things, that stuff can happen, or you can be aware of it at any time of any day. But I’ve kind of stepped away from the actual hardcore study of it – not because I didn’t want to do it, it’s just because at some point it is all inside you anyway. It’s up to you whether you recognise things happening or energies moving, or working or not working – whether you realise that or not. I’m sure as soon as I end this Skype call I’ll have a fantastic magical experience! [laughs]

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