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Sun City Girls' Sir Richard Bishop Plays to the Demons in His Head

Sir Richard Bishop met John Fahey only once, despite the fact that Fahey's Revenant Records — the blues, jazz, and folk label founded by the guitarist/independent label pioneer — released Bishop's proper solo debut, Salvador Kali, in 1998.

"[It was] shortly after the record came out," Bishop says. "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."

After the show, Fahey went to the bar for a drink, where Bishop went to speak with him.

"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?"

Indeed, Bishop plays like a devil, and — like Fahey himself — a tricky one at that, deftly slithering his way out of any genre tag you might use to confine him . Lest you think Fahey was capable only of amiable, strolling folk, take "You Can't Cool Off in the Mill Pond, You Can Only Die" for a spin. Like Fahey, who passed away in 2001, the good Sir has an expansive set of skills.

Listen to Intermezzo, his 2012 solo LP released by Ideologic Organ, an imprint distributed by Editions Mego and curated by Stephen O'Malley (Sunn O))); Southern Lord Records). Here, he displays some of his reach: the droning raga of "Dust & Spurs," the looping backward-masked "Reversionary Tactics," the Western swing of "Hump Tulip," the whirling Middle-Eastern touches of "Dance of Cedars," the subdued electric guitar reverie of "Molasses" (which sounds like it could have a home on John Lurie's soulful, Memphis-inspired Mystery Train soundtrack) and the free-jazz freakout of "Cranial Tap."

It's sprawling and diverse, but it doesn't begin to encompass where Bishop can go. To do that, you must take into account his massive discography with experimental former Phoenicians the Sun City Girls. You also have to consider his role in helping launch world music label Sublime Frequencies with his brother Alan, the label that impelled Syrian singer Omar Souleyman to relative stardom — or at least some heady coverage on NPR. There's also his psychedelic surf/folk trio Rangda (with guitarist Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance/Comets on Fire and drummer Chris Corsano, who's worked with Björk, Jandek, Nels Cline, and many more) and his collaborations with another former Phoenician, David Oliphant (Maybe Mental). The latter two matchups also released records in 2012, Formerly Extinct and Beyond All Defects, respectively.

It's gotten to the point that Bishop barely listens to music other than what he creates.

"[I am] trying to avoid any and all influences in order to try to come up with something new," Bishop says. "I try to concentrate on the sounds that I hear inside my head — you know, demons screaming and things like that."

It would seem that the demons are loaded with a lot of ideas: Bishop plans on following an extraordinarily busy 2012 with a busy 2013.

"I'll certainly be doing less interviews," he says of his upcoming year. "I'll be spending most of the year in Europe as part of a residency that will find me working on numerous projects . . . I will be working with a Swiss dance group [Compagnie 7273] in order to create a musical score for a one-hour dance piece that will première in Geneva in October. A fair amount of time will be spent developing new ideas for potential solo releases, including another collaboration with David Oliphant to follow up our Beyond All Defects . . . I am hoping to do some touring in Europe later in the year, both solo and with Rangda. But all in all, it will be a very busy year."

For the many musicians inspired by his freeform style, much as he was inspired by Fahey's, he also will be prepping a book outlining his "non-theoretical" approaches to playing guitar, as well as his thoughts concerning the future of the instrument. Though his guitar work clearly displays the work of careful, measured study and practice, there's an element of the mystical at play, too, a spiritual flame driven by a desire for unencumbered expression.

"When playing solo, I prefer to lean heavier on improvisation, mainly because it helps to keep me in a constant state of creation," Bishop says. "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."

His furious work ethic — and disregard for musical orthodoxy or scene politics —has been the defining aspect of Bishop's oeuvre. Impossible as it might be to define sonically, Bishop's work has always come fast and prolific, traits his earliest musical outfit, Sun City Girls (formed by Bishop, his brother Alan, and Charles Gocher) exhibited early on in the nascent Phoenix punk/experimental scene.

"Phoenix had quite an underground scene back in the early '80s," Bishop says. "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,'" he says, citing Oliphant as a prime example of Phoenix's musical greats. "Dali's Daughter, Destruction, Maybe Mental — to this day, I think David has created the best sound art ever to come out of Phoenix."

There were others, too, he says: 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."

Sun City Girls delighted in defying rock 'n' roll conventions. "It was always our intention to please ourselves first and foremost," he says.

"It was because of that approach that we were able to last as long as we did [until 2007]," he says. "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!"

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.