Supersonic 2012: Sir Richard Bishop Q&A

Ahead of Supersonic, Noel Gardner has a chat with Sir Richard Bishop. Not a real knight!

Sir Richard Bishop did not have his title bestowed on him by an actual monarch, but as a nickname by friends who – you can be assured – he holds in vastly greater esteem. It’s under this name that he’s released ten or so albums since 1998, the ‘or so’ allowing for people’s own interpretations of quite how ‘released’ tour-only CD-Rs and suchlike are. As Rick Bishop – more prosaic in name, if not in deed – he formed one-third of the Sun City Girls from the early eighties until the death of SCG drummer Charles Gocher in 2007. Beginning in Phoenix, Arizona and later moving to Seattle, the band amassed a vast and challenging discography that visited dozens of countries for inspiration – figuratively, but with the band literally doing so as much as possible. (Rick’s brother Alan Bishop founded the notorious Sublime Frequencies label, so as to share the music and sounds he encountered on his travels.)

Sun City Girls only chalked up a handful of live performances in Europe, but in recent years, Rick has been a semi-regular visitor to these shores. You might have seen a solo set back in 2010, playing large chunks of his majestic The Freak Of Araby album. Maybe you clocked him as part of Rangda – another three-piece, with Bishop joined by the formidable forces of Ben Chasny (Six Organs Of Admittance, Comets On Fire etc) and Chris Corsano (free improv drummer of a hundred projects). At this year’s Supersonic, you’ll be able to witness sets by Sir Richard Bishop and Rangda, which you should consider an honour. Chances to get this close to displays of open-eared, alive-to-all-possibilities musicianship are irregular at best. For someone who eschews vocals much of the time, Bishop is also terrifically chatty, and has jokes for days.

The Quietus ran an interview with SRB not long ago but here’s another one, in which he discusses Rangda, touring and Supersonic.

So, the new Rangda album (Formerly Extinct, out now on Drag City)…

Sir Richard Bishop: We recorded it in upstate New York at Black Dirt Studio. Jason Meagher, who owns Black Dirt, was at the controls. We had heard great things from people who had worked with Jason before so we were excited to utilize his skills. He was very helpful throughout, offering many ideas and providing that extra set of ears. He contributed greatly to how the record turned out. The remoteness of the studio provided a superb working environment. There’s nothing to do there except make a record!

How much did you learn about each other between [Rangda’s 2010 debut album]False Flag and Formerly Extinct – how best to lay down your different parts, and how to interact with each other musically?

SRB: We’ve certainly become more confident working together since the first record came out. That only happens over time. You have to remember, the first time the three of us actually played music together was two days before the recording of False Flag, so we didn’t have much of a chance to get to know each other musically on a direct experiential level. That came later when we began touring, working things out on the battlefield, in the trenches, so to speak. But now, I know we’re capable of doing anything we want in a musical sense. It’s just up to us to determine what that will be.

How much of Formerly Extinct was practised and figured out, structurally, before it was committed to tape – is a lot of this essentially improv sessions? As a layperson, that’s an impression I got listening to False Flag, but the new album is less discordant overall, I think.

SRB: One of the songs, ‘Night Porter’, was written and performed during previous tours and the recorded version stayed pretty close to its original form. Two other songs, ‘Majnun’ and ‘Plugged Nickel’, we began working on about a week prior to going into the studio but we didn’t have all the parts so we had to develop them a little more once we got to ‘Black Dirt’. The remaining five pieces were written in the studio, in record time, almost as if by magic. We work extremely well when we’re under pressure. All of the songs on Formerly Extinct are composed but the majority of the guitar solos were improvised. All in all it’s a much more focused record than False Flag.

Is there a single member that has more influence than the other two in determining how songs end up sounding?

SRB: Rangda has no leader, no frontman, and no ego problems. We all contribute equally and all final decisions are unanimous. It wouldn’t work any other way. We all offer our opinions freely, without fear. If one person doesn’t like a particular thing, be it a finished song, a studio take, a group photo, or anything else, then we change it. All ideas and criticisms are welcome. It’s incredibly important to know what the others think about everything.

Again, speaking as a layperson, you listen to the albums and think, “This sounds like it could be off a SRB/Six Organs/Corsano solo joint,” but with the understanding that the members would probably disagree with you…

SRB: I don’t see it that way because I am totally aware of each member’s very unique contributions. Take away one person’s contributions and it ceases to be Rangda.

Was Rangda always intended to be Bishop, Chasny and Corsano, or was there ever the possibility of a different lineup?

SRB: In 2007, when Ben first brought up the idea of starting a project, he specifically mentioned having Chris behind the kit. That really sealed it for me. We waited two more years in order to make that happen. I can’t imagine anybody else being in the band.

I figure it helps that all three of you don’t seem to let up or slack off when it comes to recording and releasing… so you can assume that there’ll be a keenness to make Rangda jams at any given time.

SRB: All of us are quite busy with other projects practically all the time so it can be a little difficult to plan things for Rangda. We’re determined to keep it going for as long as possible. We just need to balance things as best as we can and find the right times to tour and record in the future.

Shortly after the Rangda tour you’ll be playing solo in Europe, opening for Swans – as you did in the USA last year. Did this pairing come about through friendship, fandom or both?

SRB: For the tour last year, Michael Gira just asked me if I would be interested in being the opening act. Of course I said yes. I always like to play in front of different kinds of audiences and I felt that tour would provide that. I had only met Michael one time before, a few years back when I was doing some shows with Akron/Family. We’ve since become good friends. The same goes for the rest of the members of Swans. The thing I appreciate the most about all of them is that they work their fucking asses off! I don’t know how they do it night after night. They’re just fucking pros and there’s no bullshit! That’s rare these days.

Do you have any particular expectations of the audiences on this tour – in a nutshell, a lot of people will probably be there expecting to be punished with volume, and this isn’t exactly your modus operandi?

SRB: For the upcoming tour I will be playing acoustic guitar – I played electric last year – so it might not be so loud, but it could be; I have skills. I know a lot of people will be expecting to get their heads blown off by Swans. That will definitely happen and I can’t wait to see all the blood on the floor. I’ll be there every night to administer last rites.

You didn’t play in Europe until over 20 years into the Sun City Girls’ lifespan, but have done so pretty frequently since popping that cherry. Was there any specific reason why it took so long to happen, and have any particular ideas or prejudices about European (or British!) audiences been refuted?

SRB: In the 80s and 90s SCG never got any good offers to play Europe that would have made it worth our while. Any offers we did get would have resulted in us losing a ton of money. If we could have at least broken even we probably would have arrived sooner; we always wanted to. In 2004 we finally got an offer we couldn’t refuse. I really enjoy playing in the UK and in Europe – I prefer it that way. I’ve never had any prejudices about British or European audiences and if you’ve heard otherwise, it’s all lies and disinformation.

Is there ever still a desire in you to confront audiences; do you sometimes find yourself playing angry, pissed-off shows? I’ve seen Rangda and Sir Richard Bishop once each in the last two years or so, and both seemed like very good-natured performances that interacted with an audience who ‘got it’.

SRB: I don’t go out of my way to confront audiences like in the early days of SCG. There hasn’t been any need for that. I’ve played a few solo shows over the years where the audience is constantly talking or being belligerent in one way or another but it’s a rare occurrence these days. If it happens it’s no big deal. I’ll just play louder and more aggressively. I do need to be able to hear myself. If others don’t listen, that’s their choice. Eventually they will realize how ridiculous they look staring at their phones.

You have a new collaborative CD, Beyond All Defects with W David Oliphant, an old compadre from Phoenix’s underground scene of the eighties. What led you to get back together with him, or indeed stay in contact?

SRB: I’ve wanted to work with David for a long time. Back in the eighties he recorded and performed with Sun City Girls on a few occasions and I also performed live with his groups Maybe Mental and Life Garden a couple of times but we never found the time to work on a specific project. We were even roommates for a year and a half but nothing ever materialized. Early last year we began to correspond a little more than usual. He sent me one of his songs and was curious if I wanted to do a cover version of it; I wanted to but there was no way to do it justice with just a guitar. I then asked him if he would be interested in doing a joint project of some sort instead and he agreed. I’m really glad it worked out and we’re already planning our next project together.

Are there others from that time and place you’re still in contact with? From my perspective, it seemed a very disparate scene with little musical emulation going on. A lot of people/bands did seem to move eventually though.

SRB: I don’t hear from many people on a regular basis. Eddy Detroit calls every once in a while. A lot of people did move away and some moved away and then moved back. When I do a show down there a few always come out of the woodwork: Tony Victor, Dan and Mary Clark as well as Doug Clark, Chris Kirkwoo usually makes an appearance, plus a lot of old friends who weren’t musicians but regulars at all the old shows. Phoenix had a pretty good music scene for a while, especially in the early eighties. There were a lot of interesting bands that were not punk bands but got stuck in that genre. It was pretty short-lived though.

You recently made all your solo albums available to stream for free. Was this a tough or reluctant choice at all?

SRB: No, not at all. I want as many people to hear my music as possible. If they have the option to hear some of the older records, maybe it will spark an interest in more recent work.

Have you personally found it to be significantly harder to get people to pay for music in the last, let’s say, seven years?

SRB: I would say yes for the most part. But that’s just how it is in this day and age. When I’m touring I often do pretty well with selling things, maybe because I try to have some tour-only releases on hand. There are a lot of people who take the middle path, and buy a few things here and there to help support artists and then download other releases. I do the same thing.

Thinking here about how Sun City Girls were somewhat of a cassette-culture band in their early years, do you feel that the attitudes people had at that time concerning the sharing of music bear much resemblance to those of today, which for a lot of people is “I don’t have to pay for music, so I won’t”?

SRB: Well, there was no internet back then. In order to share or trade anything you had to send things by mail. There were quite a few people who did that but of course nowhere near the amount of shared music that goes around or is downloaded today. That’s rather obvious. Most people won’t pay for music if they don’t have to. Besides, the way the economy is these days, a lot of people don’t have much money to spend on anything so they do whatever it takes to survive. I totally understand that concept.

Do you read reviews of your records, and people talking about you in more general terms? Has there been anything that anyone’s said about your music that stuck with you – either because it made a good point, or because it hurt your feelings?

SRB: I read reviews if I see them. I’m always curious about what’s being said out there. We did that all the time with Sun City Girls and kept every review and article we’ve ever come across. I can’t think of anything in particular that stuck with me but I can guarantee you that nothing has ever hurt my feelings. In fact, in many cases, the worst reviews are usually the most entertaining to read. We had plenty of those back in the early SCG days. Nowadays I don’t see a whole lot of negative reviews. I’ll have to do something about that.

I guess I’m asking because SCG pretty obviously wasn’t a band which moulded itself according to changing critical or public tastes… however, there have been accusations of ‘imperialism’ or Western privilege or whatever from time to time. Is it even worth responding to that kind of thing, or better to just let people think that and carry on?

SRB: I am aware of the few accusations you mentioned. Most of those are simple accusations by simple-minded people who want to make themselves known as people who have actually read a book. The book usually cited is Edward Said’s Orientalism. People can think what they want to think – and in reference to SCG, it will usually be wrong. It might only be worth responding to if any of these so-called accusations are part of a diatribe or an all-out attack on the band, or the way the band or its members do things. To my knowledge there have only been a couple of these, both of which originated from The Wire magazine a few years ago. My brother has responded to both of these in his own inimitable way, which can be read here. I personally don’t care one way or the other what anybody thinks about me or my music or SCG. It’s not going to change how I do anything. And when it comes to SCG, there were only three people on the planet who ever knew what was really going on within that universe anyway. And then there were two.

I assume that your brother was/is a more frequent traveller than yourself, for the purposes of his Sublime Frequencies label; do you get to go abroad much – touring or otherwise – to visit the countries whose music you’ve been inspired by?

SRB: I travel quite a bit, but it’s been a couple of years since I visited some of the more exotic locales. Alan and I went to Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt back in late 2010. We played a couple of shows in Beirut and I was thrilled to be able to get to Damascus before the recent onslaught began. Alan has travelled a bit more over the last couple of years, spending quite a bit of time in Cairo; in fact, he’s back there now. I’ve been touring in Europe a lot the last two years but am planning to venture further afield as soon as I can.

When The Freak Of Araby came out, I remember reading that it was partly inspired by your grandfather’s record collection. Is the family legacy still providing an influence in that way? How and where do you go about looking for new sounds to explore at this point?

SRB: My interest in Middle Eastern music was indeed inspired by my grandfather long before I even began playing guitar. There isn’t as much family influence in that direction nowadays but it doesn’t matter, my grandfather took care of that enough to last for many lifetimes. The inspiration for The Freak… was an extension of this, though it was mainly inspired by the guitar work of Omar Khorshid.

When it comes to new sounds to explore I find it more difficult these days to look elsewhere. I’m really trying to come up with new ideas and thoughts about approaching the guitar differently and doing it in a way that doesn’t rely on other music I hear, from whatever source. I have to dig into my own brain matter and continuously experiment with what I think and feel on an individual level in order to progress as a guitar player. This results in me listening less to other music and more to my own instructive demons. We’ll see what happens.

Sir Richard Bishop plays Supersonic on the afternoon of Sat 20 Oct, and as part of Rangda later in the day. Rangda also play the Moon Club in Cardiff as part of the Swn Festival on Fri 19 Oct

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