Believe it or not, Phoenix has a storied history of experimentalism. For Sir Richard Bishop (co-founder of the legendary Sun City Girls) and W David Oliphant, that history began in 1981, when Bishop saw Oliphant and immediately considered him to be "the leading exponent" of that scene.
Fast-forward nearly 35 years, and Oliphant has brought Bishop back from his travels, if only for a week, in order to rehearse and record their second collaborative album. For just four days, August 5-8, the duo will work in Oliphant's home studio, culminating in a collaborative performance this Saturday, August 9 at one of Phoenix's most formative art spaces, the Icehouse.
Though the two have known each other and collaborated live for multiple decades, it wasn't until late 2011 that the two finally recorded together, resulting in the Chopda Media full-length Beyond All Defects, all recorded and written in one take with no overdubs. Thanks to the two's lifelong musical bonafides, the record received acclaim from Michael Gira of Swans, and Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))), two experimental heavyweights in their own right.
The two saw in one another a sort of spiritual partner, fellow musical trailblazers capable of pushing one another to new sonic limits.
Of his own roots, Oliphant says, "We started doing a couple of performances here and there. You know, at the time there were obviously a lot of other people around the country and the world doing crazy things, but there wasn't anybody else in Phoenix."
"I did have a much [greater] appreciation for melody maybe than my bandmates. But I kind of threw all that out the window once we became familiar with the concept of improvisation and 'sound for sound's sake.' Things didn't have to make sense. People didn't have to like what you were doing," Bishop explains.
Moving into their musical relationship, Bishop shares that, "On occasion [David and I] would cross over, I would sit in [on] one of David's things, Maybe Mental or Life Garden [Oliphant's earlier projects] along the way, and I would have a guitar or something. I think even back then he had the capability of tweaking it, processing it, where all the trust went into him. ... I could have played anything, and it could have come out as anything ... that was kind of a beautiful thing, because even I didn't know what it was going to sound like."
But even with such a clear understanding and trust of each other's musical abilities, even a period living together did not produce any living documents of the two's collaboration. So with Beyond All Defects, the two were able to produce a dynamic hybrid of their respective sounds and influences.
For Oliphant specifically, "That [first record] for me summarizes all of the work that I've done over all these years. It has elements of almost every, really every, single project [that I've worked on]."
Though the record is comprehensive in scope, its setup was quite simple, with Bishop bringing only his acoustic guitar, which was in turn bowed, strummed, beaten, plucked, and everything in between before being processed live by the expansive electronics setup of Oliphant, adding an array of Asian percussion sounds, largely of Tibetan origin.
Of his seemingly straightforward contribution, Bishop explains the ultimate appeal of the acoustic guitar as being most about surprise and potential.
"I could have easily brought an electric guitar and had a little more control over certain sounds. But at the same time, the idea of something that can make the loudest, most chaotic sound imaginable, as well as everything else, with the simplest of folk instruments, an acoustic guitar. I just thought if we could pull something off using this layout, then we can do anything else in the future. And here I am again, with the same little acoustic guitar, because it worked so well last time."
That aura of limitless possibility still holds true for both musicians, even so far into their careers. Even in recording these most recent full-lengths, the two go in without any major plan, simply following the directions the music pushes them toward, on a sort of "planned improvisation."
"Who knows? Eventually that might be the next experiment, to actually pre-plan it. To me, experimental music includes everything. Experiment with a pop song. For me that would still be experimental music. So that's one of the great things [in our collaboration], neither one of us are afraid to try anything," Oliphant affirms.
Bishop and Oliphant, it seems, choose to exist within the only genre that could contain them: the one that can potentially include all others.
Oliphant expounds, "One of the things that has always attracted me to working with sounds in the way that I do is specifically trying to find and yank out that inner mystery-spiritual-whatever-you-want-to-call-it. It can all be wrapped up in one generic feeling, and mystery is the easiest way to talk about it."
"But the stuff that I really spend serious time on, trying to tweak to an exactness as much as I'm able to...it's very much to try and bring out the best version of that hidden thing that I can possibly find."
Echoing their studio process, the two are approaching the weekend's performance as an experiment. As of this writing, Bishop has not met Joe Willie Smith, the local visual artist and instrument-maker with whom Oliphant has long collaborated under the moniker Amnesia Quartet.
Over two sets, the pair will aim to recreate certain songs from Beyond All Defects, before joining forces with Smith and his unnameable instruments for a set of all-new, improvised material, never heard before or after this performance, all while live visuals are crafted by A Liquid Reality.
Bishop muses, "[The event] is going to bring me back to the '80s, almost. Because it's going to be beautiful, it's going to be noisy, it's going to be strange, it's going to be very mysterious, and I don't know in what way. And that's what's great about it."
Besides being a sort of reminiscence for the performers, Bishop and Oliphant see the event as a potential history lesson for the current generation of experimentalists in today's Phoenix underground. For over 30 years, a handful of musicians have been making challenging sounds "right in your backyard."
The unexpected nature of experimental music and performance is what attracted Bishop and Oliphant to art in the first place, and they hope the same holds true for their audience.
As Bishop contemplates the show's possibilities, he comes to a hopeful conclusion: "Maybe by the weekend we'll have more of a clue [what the show will be like]...It's an open book, but it could literally be the best show ever in Phoenix. It's totally possible!"
And how will you know without showing up?
Sir Richard Bishop and W. David Oliphant perform with Joe Willie Smith this Saturday, August 9 at the Icehouse in downtown Phoenix. Tickets are $10 at the door, and complete information is available at the official Facebook event page.
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