Sir Richard Bishop: From Sun City Girls to Rangda, Guitarist Defies Labels

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By Mark Keresman

Jazz icon Duke Ellington had an expression for certain performers whose uniqueness and quality couldn't be easily summarized: Beyond category. One such musician in the post-Ellington, post-punk, and post-rock continuum is guitarist Sir Richard Bishop. First in the now-legendary Sun City Girls -- who emerged in the flowering of late '70s Phoenix punk that birthed the Meat Puppets and JFA -- and as a solo performer, Bishop creates mysterious, compelling, and fun music that defies pigeonholing.

See also: Revolver Records Launches Vinyl Imprint with Eddy Detroit and Sun City Girls Single See also: Nothing Not New Reviews Sun City Girls, Funeral Mariachi

Aside from his solo career, he is a member of Rangda, a threesome with drummer Chris Corsano and guitarist Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance). The band's latest (and second) album, Formerly Extinct, was issued on Tuesday, September 18, by Chicago's Drag City label.

Sun City Girls, a trio with Bishop, his brother Alan, and late drummer Charles Goocher, had little in common with the punk scene of the time, except for a general disdain for orthodoxy.

Their set-up was rock & roll--guitar, bass, and drums, but along with rock styles they drew upon jazz, free improvisation, and the traditional music of Africa, South America, and South Asia. Says Bishop, "The only places we could get a show was at one of the punk venues so we had to immerse ourselves into that scene. We concentrated on taking things further out than any of the other bands that would play."

"We didn't play punk music but we utilized some of those same attitudes and energies and established our own approach to making music that was a little more challenging than your average three-chord workout. The majority of the people at these shows didn't take a liking to us at all. They absolutely hated us. They couldn't wait until we got off of the stage. We got a lot of shit thrown at us back then --bottles, cans, and the occasional brass doorknob-- but that seemed to give us even more incentive to do things our way."

When asked how he came to embrace aspects of music of other cultures (oft referred to back-when as "ethnic music"), Bishop relates that it he came by it somewhat naturally.

"The Middle Eastern influence came from my Grandfather who played the oud and violin and was always playing old cassettes of Farid al-Atrache [Syrian-Egyptian virtuoso of the oud, a lute/guitar-like instrument], Oum Khoultoum [a.k.a. Umm Kulthum, Egyptian singer known for Arabic classical music], and others. So the sounds of that music got ingrained inside my skull before I even started to play guitar. Once I started I listened to everything I could but my main focus at that time was on heavy rock from the '60s and '70s and some jazz guitar from the mid- to late '70s. If I wanted to figure out how to play anything I heard I would just sit down and do it. Sometimes it took a long time but that was how I learned."

His latest mixture of six-string-ery is a heady, exhilarating brew indeed. Without any purist-type solemnity, Rangda's Formerly Extinct is as joyously bracing as The Ventures or Dick Dale playing at a hipsters' wedding bash in Marrakech. With surging, clanging guitars dancing and modal and minor-key motifs amid drumming, it crashes like the surf. (Worth noting: Some of Dale's waxings from the '60s featured Arabic/North African-esque riffs.)

Without being literal about it, Bishop is carrying on in the sphere of the late Sandy Bull, an American guitarist who in the '60s released some brilliant platters (mostly on the Vanguard label) that combined folk music from 'round the globe with an all-embracing, somewhat psychedelic sensibility.

Interestingly, Bishop came by his approach independently of Bull.

"I first started listening to Sandy Bull long after I developed my particular way of playing so [in that sense] he wasn't an influence. However, I do enjoy listening to him and have heard most of his material but only within the last ten years or so. I was aware of him back in the '80's but never had access to his records. He was indeed a great player."

If you find string-driven things of value, do unto yourself a favor and listen to them both.

Rangda, Formerly Extinct, is available now from Drag City Records.

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