SUN CITY GIRLS
Third Eye Staring Contest
Rick Bishop interview by Tim Bugbee (May 1999)
They came from the midsection of the country, Michigan specifically, but publicly surfaced from the inter-region where the parched desert gives way to massive concrete footings and other modern conveniences (a.k.a. Phoenix). Two brothers and a friend who alternately baffled, outraged, humored, and entertained audiences and record buyers, often in the context of a single song. Unfamiliar frameworks can be a tricky landscape for the uninitiated; on the surface, the concept of the square root of a negative number seems both impossible and utterly useless, but as all first-year EE majors know, it is essential for even basic electronic circuit analysis. Similar hidden qualities and postulates run rampant throughout the Sun City Girls oeuvre, both as a group and through solo ventures. Between scatological guerilla street theater, honest portrayals of North African, Middle Eastern, and pan-Asian ethnic musics, or simple acoustic instrumentals of heart-stopping beauty, the trio of Rick and Alan Bishop and Charles Gocher never stop in one place for too long, constantly reinventing their scope of musical creation. Considering that over fifteen years have been consumed by these endeavors with barely a nod from the masses, it's apparent that these three are painfully deserving of the few plaudits thrown their way. Then again, the labels they've recorded on (Placebo, Majora, Abduction) aren't exactly renowned for their relentless publicity machines, and coupled with the extremely infrequent live shows, you've got a situation where concrete information remains scarce. Recently, courtesy of Dean Blackwood and John Fahey's stellar Revenant label, Rick put together a stunning solo debut comprised mostly of solo acoustic guitar explorations, neatly bisected by a stark, drama-laden piano piece. In many ways it's a logical extension of his work with The Sun City Girls; in other ways it's a new frontier waiting to be mapped. The Q & A session that follows is my attempt to shine a penlight at the inky darkness that surrounds Rick and the Sun City Girls' mystique.
ED NOTE: This article originally appeared in Popwatch Magazine #10 (available for $3.95 from P.O. Box 440215, Somerville, MA 02144 USA). You can also contact Popwatch at email@example.com. It's one of the finest music magazines around so do yourself a favor and check them out.
Q: Describe growing up in the Bishop household. Is Alan your only sibling?
Yeah, he's the only sibling I know about. At home it was a typical Michigan upbringing, in other words, there was never a shortage of firearms, homemade apple wine, or snowmobiles around the house. During the summers we spent a lot of time at our father's surplus store from a very early age. There was the opportunity to mingle with pimps (Potter Street Pete), whores (Pink Sugar Sally), flamboyant eccentrics (Sue Christ Moton), cross dressers (Marvin "I'm gonna kill my mother for havin' me" Gauldman), drug peddlers (Big Black Jake), not to mention the gun-carrying regulars that hung out in crime-ridden downtown Saginaw, which, at the time, had the most murders per capita in the United States. There was never a problem because all of the locals knew who we were since they all purchased their weapons of choice (not to mention their fancy leather coats) from my father's store, which was conveniently located next door to the Yellow Lion Headshop. It was quite an education, especially compared to my schoolmates who wouldn't have gone downtown for any reason whatsoever. They were scared racists.
But, the real prize was when we would visit and stay at the house of my grandfather, which was right down the street. He was a master oud player and, being Lebanese, he of course played multiple instruments, including shroud fiddle, doumbek, various double-reeded horns, etc. On regular occasions, friends and family members would visit for all-night jam sessions in the basement. They would sit around and improvise forever, or sometimes they would do versions of classical Arabic songs, both instrumental and with vocals. Hookah pipes would burn with the finest Arabic tobaccos and the tables would be piled with sweetmeats and other delicacies and thick coffee would flow to where sleep was impossible. It was the place to be if you were Lebanese. This went on for years. His house also doubled as a meeting place for his fellow lodge members who were well versed in the Knights Templar doctrine and the Egyptian Rites of Memphis and Mithrais. They didn't buy into the "Christianization of Freemasonry" which took place at the "official" temples around town, so they met on their own on a regular basis. They still believed in the ways of the old country. There was a weird "Arabian Nights" type of magic in that house, both light and dark. My most vivid childhood dreams and experiences took place there and they were dark indeed. By the age of 10, I had an entire pantheon of different spirits catalogued in my head. But nothing about it was disturbing, it was just the way it was. It's very hard to relate what the atmosphere was all about unless one has experienced similar surroundings, but suffice it to say, I couldn't have asked for a better environment. Everything you learn and forget at an early age reawakens itself at the right moment later on. It has served me well.
Q: How did the first LP on Placebo get off the ground? Were you ever second-guessing yourselves, being on the same label as Jodie Foster's Army, Zany Guys, and Mighty Sphincter?
Placebo was run by Tony Victor, who is still a good friend of ours. He helped us tremendously by getting us shows and financing the first LP. Though the shows were always with punk/hardcore bands, it was still the only outlet for our kind of performance and it was quite enjoyable to play in front of that type of crowd. It was easy to develop sort of an anti-audience attitude. Much of the time it was us against the crowd, and the more they hated us the more we relished the fact that we were controlling their evening by purposely putting them in an environment that they were uncomfortable with instead of it being the other way around. The music we were playing was foreign to them and on many occasions we would just do Cloaven Theater with no instruments at all. Some nights we got pretty damn demonic with them, other nights we didn't even acknowledge their presence. Either way we were pulling the strings and they were at our disposal. We enjoyed that and we still do whenever we feel it's necessary. We just did what we wanted to do without a care in the world.
At the time it was the same "punk" attitude that the audience had, except it was used with intelligence instead of stupidity. The audience can be your best instrument, especially when they're out of tune or out of touch with what you're throwing at them. So all in all, it was the best way to begin.
As far as being on a label that dealt mainly with punk-related bands, it really didn't matter to us. We're still around. Other labels at the time, such as SST, wouldn't have wanted anything to do with us. So if it wasn't for Tony and Placebo, it would have been much more difficult to get the whole ball rolling. I still think our first album is one of the finest pieces of work we've ever done.
I recommend seeking it out at all costs.
Q: Touring seems to be very low on your list of priorities. Judging from the show I saw with the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and listening to your two live releases, improvisation seems to be a predominant theme. Are you reluctant to play "structured" songs from the huge amount available, or is it more enjoyable to play freely?
I really have nothing against touring but, looking back over the years, it seems that we've accomplished more by not touring much or even playing live very often, period. The fact is we value our free time. When we're not playing music we're doing other things that are just as important. Whether it's traveling, writing, conducting research, film-making, or anything else, it all ties together in the long run. And regardless of what we're doing on our own, we can always keep in contact with each other if we choose to. The way I see it, if we spent all our time touring every year and doing endless shows and were constantly in each other's company, we would have killed each other by now.
When it comes to how we approach a performance, there's no set rule. We usually don't decide what we're going to do until the night of any given show. It could depend on the size and atmosphere of the room, the weather outside, who else is playing, how many cigarettes I have left, or any other variable. There have been very few shows in the past that were actually thought-out ahead of time, but even those always turned into something entirely different. We can play any of our so-called structured pieces (our standards) anytime, at the drop of a wig, but most of those pieces allow a lot of room for improvisation so they're different every time. Sometimes it's more enjoyable to just start playing and see where it heads. It can be much more of a challenge that way. There may be other times where we might have a certain theme in mind or perhaps a particular mood or entity we want to evoke or invoke, but it can change instantly. If Charlie decides he wants to do a 15-minute solo drum piece using all four of his arms, we're not going to stop him. The whole idea is to keep everybody involved by promoting the concept of uncertainty. It's good to not know what we're going to do next. We've played together long enough to feel comfortable in that, or any situation, musical or otherwise. When the show is over, nothing is different: we're just not on a stage anymore.
Q: From the first LP on you've been credited with playing such unusual instrumentation as gypsy bottle rockets, stone of the wise, calvary charge, jackal science, and bengali shroud violin, along with a more conventional array of instruments: bass guitar, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, flute, harmonica, and mandolin. Were formal lessons a part of your youth or are you self-taught? Do you have a preference in terms of instrument or type of instrument?
When I was about 10 my parents bought me one of those red, white, and blue Buck Owens acoustic guitars; you know, the ones where the strings are 2 inches from the neck. I don't know what they were thinking. I took lessons for about 2 weeks and just gave up. The same with the piano. I had piano lessons when I was 12 or 13. That lasted about 6 weeks. I just didn't have the patience. My mom bought little fake ivory busts of Chopin and Beethoven and put one on each end of the piano, for inspiration I guess. I eventually broke both of their heads off.
But guitar and piano are still the instruments I feel most comfortable with, so there's an obvious connection there. Years later I started messing around on guitar again and tried to learn what I could from records and the radio. This was a bad concept and I don't recommend it to anybody. I then started playing by trial and error, remembering the musical patterns and sounds that my grandfather and his friends used to play. I built on that until I felt I could go in any direction I wanted without any rules. After a while I began buying advanced guitar theory books, having no idea what they were all about, and started interpreting them in a way that made little or no sense to anybody else. I would seek out and try to invent chords and lines that were based on shapes and designs as opposed to those that are based on any standard musical theory. If certain invented chords or lines didn't sound good, I would change the tuning of the guitar instead of changing the chord design or the individual note patterns. I had my own highly personalized system of visual guitar geometrics and I convinced myself, with very little effort, that it was the correct way to approach the instrument. By doing things the hard way, eventually everything else became easy. Later on people started coming to me asking for guitar lessons, but I would never do that to anyone! Everybody is better off when they learn on their own.
Since then, a lot of things have happened. The amount of instruments we've amassed over the years could fill a warehouse, in fact, they do fill a warehouse, and we use what we need when we need it.
Q: You also appear to have a deep understanding and great respect for musicology of the eastern and southern Asia regions. As early as the second LP, "Kal El Lazi Kad Ham," credited as traditional, is represented. How did this affinity come about? You've also spent time in places like Indonesia and Morocco. How do these experiences with different cultures and playing with other musicians aid in translating these influences to your music?
The Middle Eastern/North African connection stems from my ancestors without a doubt. Other foreign musical ideas come from simply being exposed to it over the years. It's really a quite natural affinity. But the problem is with Western music. Most of it has no soul! It's stagnant. The movement, or lack of movement, is predictable. Certain elements of jazz and other improvisational explorations might serve as an exception here, but still, there is so much canned shit out there that the money-spending populace will continue to eat it up because it's safe. They don't know any better and they're afraid of change or anything slightly different. People should never be afraid to stop breathing! They might learn something!
But it doesn't stop there. Even soul music has no soul. I was talking to James Brown backstage at a club in Tempe, Arizona in the mid-80s. It was a short, very informal discussion, and the subject of "soul" music came up. One of the few things I remember him saying was: "it's all in the feet, the heat is in the feet." That seemed to sum it all up for him. Now don't get me wrong, I have a great respect for James Brown, but to me that just smells bad. Eastern music, whether it's from the sub-Continent, Indochina, Japan, Indonesia, Mesopotamia, etc., has that strange, mystical surround-sound that is very open to atmospheric interpretation. It can tell stories without words, evoke images without pictures, and, it's much more fragrant. The same can be said about gypsy music as well as a ton of other stuff from other, non-Western horizons.
Traveling into various third-world regions has an indirect effect on some of the music we play, but that's not the main purpose of going there. There is so much more going on than music. It's always the magic and ritual that speaks the loudest without words of course!
Q: Horse Cock Phepner, with songs like "Nancy Reagan," "Voice of America," and "Porno Shop," shows a fairly uncompromising political stance. It's also the last LP that came with a lyric sheet. Is that a coincidence? Does your involvement outside the U.S. color any political leanings?
No. The Horse Cock Phepner LP was a product of the times, and a fine one at that! It's funny to look back at that period. Other bands during that part of the '80's, both major and not-so-major acts, were really getting on the political bandwagon for one stupid reason or another. They were all so fucking serious, trying to be a voice for a generation or some shit like that, but worst of all they remained within the parameters of social acceptability. There was also a big censorship flap going on at the time. We looked at it as a chance to catch up with our obscenity quota. I don't think we had any intention of doing anything that resembled a political album.
I think it was more of a documentation of the American nightmare in all its incestuous beauty. It's an erotic thriller.
That had a lyric sheet? I wonder what it said? I bet you never folded it in half and held it against a mirror. I bet you will now.
I personally don't give a damn about American politics. It's a complete waste of my time. For the people that study and follow politics, if that makes them feel good, what the hell, go ahead, make something happen, abolish this law or that law, vote to have your testicles removed, save the country, heal and inherit the planet. There are plenty of people who have nothing better to do with themselves. When they die, maybe they'll get a statue. I'm just hoping for a fire-resistant pitchfork.
Q: Majora seems to have provided a real spark in spreading Sun City Girls' mark and influence with the five LPs and various singles that were released. Did this relationship with Nick occur before you relocated to Seattle? Why did you leave Majora and start Abduction? Are you happy living in the Pacific Northwest, trading predominant sun for clouds and rain?
We've known Nick for a long time. I think we met in the 11th century. In fact, I think he and I lived in the same house once. It's all a big blur at this point. It was a much bigger blur then. I don't really remember how Majora got started, I think Nick just asked us if he could put out one of our records. We said no and so he did it anyway. That first record he put out, Porch of Logistics, went straight to the top of the heap. It's a good working relationship.
When we started Abduction it wasn't because we left Majora. We still haven't. But with Abduction we can put out what we want, when we want, and in any format we want, without any regard to what people think. Nick does the same thing with Majora.
Regarding the Pacific Northwest, it's just where I live until I move to India.
Q: Did you have anything to do with the recent CD reissues of the Majora titles? Some of the Abduction titles are only available in a certain format. What are your thoughts on CD versus LP?
Of course we had something to do with it. Since the LPs were basically all out of print, we decided to reissue a limited number of CDs for two reasons. Number one: to generate some quick cash. Number two: well, I guess there was only one reason. It's good to issue product in various forms. I'll always be a fan of vinyl, though CDs are a necessary evil. I'll also always be a fan of evil.
Q: What is your mental image of a typical SGC/Rick Bishop music fan?
A large can of mixed nuts who don't have any money except the cashews.
Q: Aside from the many releases under the SCG heading, there are several other releases (Paris 1942 with Moe Tucker, Princess Nicotine, Square Nine) where some masquerading is going on. Do you like keeping a low profile?
I don't think we keep a low profile, we just don't find it necessary to put our names on everything we do. The music speaks for itself and we know it's our work. That's all that matters.
Paris 1942 is no mystery. It was a short-lived band that had great potential, but due to circumstances beyond anyone's control it had to end. I would have liked to have worked more with Moe. Maybe someday.
Square Nine is a collaboration with the Residents and David Oliphant from Maybe Mental. There, I said it! (Camera switches to a boarding house full of self-proclaimed Residents "completists" scrambling for the nearest butcher knife to end it all). Of course it couldn't be true, right? Hell, I never took any oath!
Who is this Princess Nicotine? Is she married?
Q: Please provide a few words on the following people you've worked or played with: Scott Colburn, Eddy Detroit, The Bananafish Collective, the Caroliner/TFUL282 axis, Eyvand Kang.
Scott Colburn's a pretty good engineer, we tell him what to do and he does it. However, I have recently made contact with George Martin so there's a chance we may be upgrading soon.
Eddy Detroit is one of the greatest percussionists this side of the Nether Regions. He is half man and half goat, and I've got the pictures to prove it.
Bananafish Collective: Didn't they open up for the Cowsills once?
Caroliner stem from our Technicolor womb. The best bunch of bastard children any sick mother could hope for.
TFUL 282 is simply the finest group of people and musicians I've ever met and worked with. They are true composers. And, most importantly, they're very fond of pelicans.
When it comes to violin, Eyvand Kang makes Paganini look like a third-chair Christian sixth grader with his bow up his ass. Eyvand has a strange and powerful magic, the kind that comes once every hundred years or so. He's gonna be huge- a giant of the future.
Q: Various song titles, lyrics, cover art, and liner notes imply a strong and sometimes sly sense of humor on your part. How important is that, and do people generally get it?
There are some people that go out of their way and try to decipher the nomenclature and pigeon-hole every little quip, line drawing, song title, picture, etc. to find out what we're implying. I'm not sure why. Much of the humor is probably beyond the reach of most people, mainly because it originates from a source that is only known to us, either individually or collectively, so in that respect it's very important. But it's part of a much bigger picture, one that only a few have been exposed to. It's like any symbolic puzzle or mythology: the pieces may or may not fit.
Q: Salvador Kali displays some stringed instrument virtuosity that's been hinted at in past recordings but never given the full spotlight. Did you consciously play it straight? Also prevalent (aside from the Mid-Eastern and sub-continent influences) is a distinctly eastern Europe/gypsy flavor, redolent of Django Reinhardt's work. Fahey overtones also pop up. Can you describe the mood you were aiming for and why this direction was taken?
I can't really say that I intended to play it straight: it's just the way it ended up. What you hear on Salvador Kali is just a sampling of the stuff I play whenever we, as a group, aren't doing anything (which is most of the time). I have hundreds of hours of improvised solo recordings, some are very clean and straightforward, others are very bizarre experiments in sound, and some of it is god-awful excrementalia.
I had a lot to choose from for this recording. Originally I was going to mix it up quite a bit and put a little bit of everything on this release, including several multitracked compositions. I decided, though, to just record new stuff, both improvisations and some shorter composed pieces. There's something I like about the simplicity of the finished product (5 cuts are 1-track only, the rest are 2-tracks). I wasn't really aiming for a particular mood but I had just returned from India so the Eastern sounds came out automatically. As for the gypsy overtones, that's definitely from listening to gypsy music from around the world for quite a few years, but you can't compare it with Django, it just doesn't measure up. There's only one Race Bannon!
I have a cat named Django. When he was young his catbox caught on fire and he paralyzed two claws on his front left paw. He has since regained the ability to tear up furniture, carpet, and flesh with ease and perfect precision.
Q: The thematic centerpiece and simultaneous odd-man-out of your solo CD is Al-Darazi; a stark, forceful piano piece that spans 14+ minutes. Certainly nothing of this nature has precedent on earlier work; it wouldn't be out of place on a Deustche Grammaphon recording. Did the childhood piano lessons pay off? Is "Rose Room" a completely transformed version from the 2 x 7" Abydos EP?
"Al-Darazi" was an improvisation that just came out of nowhere. I didn't plan on including it on Salvador Kali at first, but after I listened to it a couple of times and got to know it a little better it took on a life of its own and insisted that I include it. A few people that have listened to the CD all the way through have told me that it's a very dark and disturbing piece and that it ruins the record because it isn't consistent with the other, more accessible, compositions. Obviously they're all out of their fucking minds.
The version of "Rose Room" is the only "cover" song and the only piece that was from the archives. I recorded it on 2 tracks back in 1986 and I have always liked this particular recording of it, due mainly to the guitar lines and the fast tempo. It's much better than the slower version on all levels.
Q: Did Alan's and Charles' solo releases spur you onto a similar path? Will there be future solo recordings?
I would have put out a solo release regardless. I think it's appropriate for all of us to do our own projects whenever we feel it's necessary. I have finished another album that is different, in all respects, from Salvador Kali. Elektronika Demonika consists of ear-shattering, dark electronics and radio communications gathered from various uncommon global frequencies, some of which were recorded from unauthorized satellite systems. Pretty odd stuff. It probably won't be released for awhile. Also, I am currently seeking negotiations with a Mr. Harrison for an upcoming project, but since that's still in the planning stages I'm not at liberty to discuss it. I'm sure that Alan and Charlie will continue with their own releases as well.
Q: Any truth to the rumor that a Seattle restaurant gig advertised as "The Sun City Girls play Live in Seattle" consisted of your playing the Coltrane LP of the same name over the house PA system?
I really can't answer that question because I wasn't there.
Q: Will the many SCG cassettes ever see reissue? And judging from the 3-CD Box of Chameleons, which didn't have many (any?) of those tracks, are we to believe there's a ton more stuff you're sitting on?
It's safe to say that the cassettes as individual releases will remain as they are: out of print and unavailable. On the other hand, it wouldn't be out of the question to include some selections from the cassettes and release an album or two, but we haven't really discussed that idea too much yet. Box of Chameleons is a vast collection of pieces from the archives. We started cleaning out the basement for that one, but we only penetrated a small corner of that basement. We have thousands of hours of material at our disposal, much of which I haven't heard since it was recorded. The amount of recordings we've made is mind boggling! We have actually buried some of these recordings in three different locations in Arizona to insure our underground status. Each one of us knows where only one location is. But that's all old news: we are also recording new stuff at an accelerated rate. Earlier this year we recorded 28 reels in a "studio environment." We'll listen back to all that one of these days. In the here and now, wherever and whenever that is, we are working on a new series of recordings using our old, primitive equipment, without any high-tech gadgetry, engineers, or other such distractions.
Q: What has nearly a quarter century of playing music taught you?
I'll keep that to myself for now, but thanks for asking.
Also see our Sun City Girls retrospective
Alan Bishop's tribute to SCG drummer Charles Gocher
and the official Sun City Girls website
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