Sir Richard Bishop Speaks About His "Constant State of Creation"
Sir Richard Bishop
In this week's issue, we speak with guitarist Sir Richard Bishop, whose path from Phoenix and his days in the Sun City Girls has found him at the forefront of guitar experimentation from his home base in Seattle and around the world. Deftly blending and/or shifting between Middle Eastern ragas, sauntering western swing, jazz, folk, surf, and psychedelic rock, Bishop's playing once inspired independent label pioneer and folk legend John Fahey to proclaim: "You play like the Devil."
We crammed as much as we could into our print feature, but there's more worth reading. Enjoy.
Up on the Sun: Intermezzo is a beautiful record. It really touches on all of the styles you've explored with your different projects. How much of the work is improvised? Certain tracks, like "Dance of the Cedars" have a very free feel, whereas others ("Molasses," for example) feels more mediated. To what extent is your work improvised?
Sir Richard Bishop: Intermezzo was mostly improvised. "Dance of the Cedars" was actually one of the only pieces that had some structure ahead of time.
Does the same go for Rangda?
On the other end of the spectrum is Rangda's latest album [Formerly Extinct] in which every song was pretty much composed; the only totally improvised parts were the guitar solos from Ben [Chasny] and myself. When playing solo I prefer to lean heavier on improvisation mainly because it helps to keep me in a constant state of creation. The audience may not care one way or the other but if I get too comfortable on stage it can prevent me from attempting new things.
That being said, I may play many of the same "pieces" night after night but there are always different ways to approach them and I always like for them to be different each time. With Rangda, I know that Chris [Corsano, drummer], Ben, and myself are totally capable of improvising endlessly if we choose to, but I think our main strength as a collective unit is to be able to focus on structure first and then rely on improvisation if things start feeling too hemmed in. It will be interesting to see how Rangda develops over the next couple of years. I think we can go in any direction we want to -- we just haven't decided what that will be yet.
You're one of the most prominent examples of musicians exploring the sort "Takoma/American Primitive guitar style. Barring someone like Ben Chasny -- as you obviously dig his work -- do you find yourself checking out work by other artists exploring the field, folks like Daniel Bachman, Steve Gunn, James Blackshaw, or others? Do you listen to much stuff like that, or are Sublime Frequencies releases generally more indicative of your listening habits?
Over the years I have listened to a lot of acoustic players who have or are continuing in that style: Jack Rose, Glenn Jones, James Blackshaw, and a number of others. In fact, there are almost too many people out there currently who are doing that. In the past couple of years I have stopped listening to, and playing in that style only because I've heard too much of it.
It's not that I don't like it -- it's just that after a while it all starts to sound the same to me. I don't want to get caught up in all of that and don't want to be solely lumped into that category. For that reason I have been concentrating on playing more solo electric guitar because it can offer a larger palette to work with, at least for me.
I could actually apply the same ideas to the Sublime Frequencies catalog, though those recordings are a little closer to my heart. But recently I have found myself not really listening to much other music except what I am doing myself, trying to avoid any and all influences in order to try to come up with something new. I try to concentrate on the sounds that I hear inside my head, you know, demons screaming and things like that.
You released your solo debut on Revenant Records. What kind of personal interactions did you have with John Fahey? I've been reading through his book, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, and along with many of his later records, it really shows off his demented, funny, and experimental side. Did you get to see that side of him?
When I was approached by Revenant to release Salvador Kali, I was dealing with Dean Blackwood, who basically ran the label with Fahey's blessing. Dean assured me that Fahey was the one who wanted to release my record and I was quite honored. I only met Fahey one brief time, shortly after the record came out. He was performing in Seattle and I remember him walking onto the stage and asking the audience if anyone had a guitar he could borrow. I thought this was hilarious. I almost ran home to get one for him but somebody nearby had one he could use. He only played for about 20 minutes.
Afterwards, he was standing alone at the bar having a drink. He had on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts and was wearing sunglasses. He was kind of intimidating. But I approached him and introduced myself as Richard Bishop. Several seconds went by and there was no reply from him -- nothing, just an awkward silence. I then said "Sir Richard Bishop." After another brief pause he looked at me and said, "You play like the Devil." As you can imagine, this made my evening. That was the best possible thing he could have said to me so I shook his hand, said "thank you" and that was the end of our conversation. I didn't need to hear anything else. Why spoil it?
Here in Phoenix your work with the Sun City Girls is the stuff of legend. What was Phoenix like in those days? How uncomfortable -- if at all -- was it for Sun City Girls to play along side punk bands you had little in common with stylistically?
Phoenix had quite an underground scene back in the early '80s. There were of course, a lot of straight up punk and new wave bands but I wasn't really into any of that back then. I'm still not. It was all too predictable and one-dimensional. That's just me though. There were, however, enough experimental bands to keep me interested in the so-called "scene."
I was quite fond of everything that David Oliphant was doing (Dali's Daughter, Destruction, Maybe Mental), and to this day I think David has created the best sound art ever to come out of Phoenix. I also liked The Meat Puppets, Killer Pussy, Victory Acres, The Gary Russell Apocalypse, Eddy Detroit, and Mighty Sphincter, all of which I never considered as being punk bands -- even though others did. To me they were way more interesting musically than any punk band ever could be. There was also a free-form band called Knebnegauge that I liked a lot. I'm not sure what happened to them. They just disappeared one day.
So those days certainly had their moments but a lot of it fizzled out as the decade progressed. As for Sun City Girls, we were never uncomfortable with what we were doing and that was probably because we didn't care about what others thought of us. It was always our intention to please ourselves first and foremost. It was because of that approach that we were able to last as long as we did (until 2007). A lot of people hated us with a passion in the early days and that's when we knew we were directly over the target. Bombs away!
Sir Richard Bishop is scheduled to perform Friday, February 15, at Crescent Ballroom.
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