Illustration by Paul Pope
Originally published in Arthur No. 18 (Sept. 2005)…
No Sleep Till Beirut
ALAN BISHOP of Sun City Girls speaks with Brandon Stosuy about terrorism, travel, clueless Americans and curating the cut-up world music collages of his Sublime Frequencies label.
Caffeine and nicotine are Alan Bishop’s self-professed main vices. “Resting is an obstacle,” he says. “My cat Napoleon taught me how to take 15-minute naps, and when I drive down the highway late at night and feel drowsy, I narrow it down to a three-second nap. When I awake, and realize I survived again, I’m energized for hours.”
Given the range and breadth of his creative output over the last two decades, Bishop’s admission that he’s a self-taught low-to-no-dozer makes a lot of sense. For years, his main occupation has been as a prolific musician and composer. Sun City Girls, a trio he formed in Sun City, Arizona in 1983 with his brother (Sir) Richard Bishop and Charles Gocher, have released 40-plus albums of startling originality: a vast catalog of world music fusion and cheeky agitprop, Eastern music and blissed-out raga. (Two classics are 1990’s Torch of the Mystics, an impressive Spaghetti-Eastern wrangling of sound, like some kind of cowpoke-infused Bombay pop; and 1996’s 330,000 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda which is, among other things, a Gamelan drone marathon.) Bishop’s also had his hand in non-SCG projects like Uncle Jim and Alvarius B: in fact, a new Uncle Jim LP Superstars of Greenwich Meantime is due out any moment on the Kentucky-based Black Velvet Fuckere label, and a new Alvarius B LP Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset, will be out on in October on the Sun Cirty Girls’ own Abduction label, which Bishop runs.
As if that weren’t enough, in October 2003, the 45-year-old started a new label with his brother (Sir) Richard and filmmaker Hisham Mayet in a collective quest to document and distribute the music of distant cultures that so fascinates them; Sublime Frequencies, they explain, is “dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies.” So far, Sublime Frequencies has released nearly two dozen CDs, from Radio Phnom Pehn‘s schizophrenic Cambodian metal/jingle remixed cut-ups to the juicy pop histrionics of Molam: Thai Country Groove to the on-the-road brilliance of Streets of Lhasa, which was recorded by Zhang Jian of the Beijing-based sound collective fm3. Meanwhile, Mayet, has filmed three DVDs of live performances by unknown musical geniuses based in countries like Syria, Thailand and Niger for SF, and has finished a fourth, Niger: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel. The fall finds three new SF CDs, two of which focus on members of the so-called Axis of Evil, Iraq and North Korea. Per usual, the names are as colorful as the sounds collected: Choubi Choubi!-Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq; Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom; and Guitars of the Golden triangle: Folk and pop music of Myanmar (Burma) Vol. 2. Sublime Frequencies’ ragtag contributing cast also includes micro-noisemaker Robert Millis of Climax Golden Twins and Bay Area Porest/Mono Pause/Neung Phak maestro, Mark Gergis; Gergis is the second most prolific SF contributor after Bishop, and is the mind behind the aforementioned Iraqi compilation as well as I Remember Syria’s double-album cut-up of field recordings, radio excerpts, and “lost” cassette pieces.
Sublime Frequencies isn’t your average world music label—in place of the in-depth documentation of records on labels like Lonely Planet, Smithsonian or Hamonia Mundi are reader-baiting sentences like “the equator runs through only ten countries on earth and I bet that you cannot name them all without consulting a map” and elliptical, beatnik-style prose-rants in which the compilers relay brief anecdotes and impressions of their travels. Bishop, the Kerouac of the crew, keeps a running journal related to the project.
“I write as much as I record,” he says. “I make custom books for each trip. Most are 50-100 pages in length with collage art and photos pasted into the pages. Each book is a different size/style and I always force myself to finish one for each venture.” So far he’s assembled 40 of them, none of them have been published. The mind reels at the unseen treasures lurking within their pages.
Recently Bishop and I conversed at length via email about his current activities. I began by asking him about Crime & Dissonance, a two-disc compilation of work by famed Italian film composer Ennio Morricone slated for release on Mike Patton’s Ipecac label this fall.
Arthur: How did the Morricone project come about? What drew you to Morricone’s work in the first place?
Alan Bishop: I saw The Good, The Bad and The Ugly when I was a kid on TV. The music destroyed me, just the power of it. Since then I’ve been listening, collecting and digesting all of his music. There was a feeling that if I could wear the music as a talisman, I would be indestructible. He worked in so many mediums of sound. He composes everything from romantic orchestral music to full-on speaker-thrashing noise. And along the way, he does almost every style of music that can be named. He is known for the Italian Western themes more than any other style but for those who investigate the massive output of thousands of tracks he’s either composed, co-composed, arranged, or directed, speaking about his work in generalities to educate the unfamiliar is a pointless task. For the compilation, Filippo Salvadori, who runs Runt distributing amongst other things, kept me up to date on what Morricone titles which were available to license for the CDs. It’s a true mess as Morricone has recorded for dozens of labels and licensing tracks from some of them is near impossible, so I was unable to get all the tracks I wanted and had to compromise. Still, it’s a great set. I listen to soundtrack music as music, not as a complementary appendage to the film. So as long as the music moves me, it’s a good soundtrack. Mono-thematic scores usually fail me but Morricone is one who can occasionally make a single theme interesting for the length of an entire soundtrack. La Cosa Buffo and The Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion both come to mind.
Can you trace your interest in documenting so-called “world music”?
I traveled around the States a lot when I was a kid, and when I bought a car, I moved from Saginaw, Michigan to Arizona. A cousin had just bought an apartment building in Marbella, Spain and he said we were always welcome to stay for free, so I started saving my money, hustling goods at flea markets. In 1983 I sold all my Jimi Hendrix LPs to get the rest of the cash I needed to fly to Spain. I was 23. Morocco was only a boat ride from Spain and it was cheap to travel around for a few months, so I stayed as long as my money held out. The second day I was there I heard that Joujouka sound of the Raitni chanters echoing from an elusive location in the medina of Tetuan. When some kids saw me trying to find the origin of the music they brought me up some stairway to a room filled with pretty women and four musicians performing for them. It was the remnants of a wedding party and I was the only male guest. The musicians gave me some hash and started playing and I danced with the women awhile and we all sat down and had mint tea and snacks, started discussing world events with the older drummer for an hour or so. That’s the hospitality of the Arab world. No questions asked. Want some food? Drink? Dance? Music? Hashish?
What was the political climate like?
The Polisario Guerilla movement was much more active back then in the Western Sahara and also in Morocco’s cities and countryside. There were checkpoints on all the highways and almost every bus I took from town to town was stopped by military personnel. One time I was on my way back to Essouira from Fes – I was in Fes for a couple of days and was carrying a passport for a guy who left it there, doing him a favor by taking it back for him. Some guy got on the bus and sat next to me in the back. About an hour later we were stopped by the military. The soldiers were checking people on the bus and when they came to the back I kept wondering if they searched me and found that I had two passports including a British one which wasn’t mine, what I’d have to explain, but they didn’t even look at me. They just grabbed the guy who sat next to me and took him off the bus and that was it. Seemed as if they knew who he was. He was escorted to their vehicle at gunpoint, and shoved in the back seat. Our bus was then allowed to leave. Polisario perhaps? A sympathizer with the Polasario? Or just a common petty thief? I’ll never know.
Did you go to Spain and Morocco alone?
I went with Rick [Bishop] and some cat named Dr. Michael Pemulis. We busked around the streets in Marbella making enough cash to extend our money, for a while staying in an empty apartment building my cousin owned. It was right on the beach and he didn’t have one tenant yet. Just us. In Spain, I was able to pick up on the radio the main radio station of Tangier Morocco, Radio Tangier International, which was this improbable assortment of music from be-bop to Arab orchestral to Berber folk music to psych rock … it was all over the place. I started recording it using a hand-held short-wave radio with built-in cassette recorder. I haven’t stopped since.
You obviously have an affinity for radio. What do you dig about it?
Radio is superior to television for me. I can access it anywhere at anytime. Doesn’t mean that I don’t record TV — which I do — just not nearly as much and it cannot be manipulated as easily and its source is more controlled than radio. A radio is a receiver/transmitter of sound. It’s a source for sound that is overlooked by those who compose or record or are looking for source material in sound or music. The fact that it provides an unlimited amount of possibilities for sound source material – dependent on where you are on the globe and how you manipulate the radio – is enough to keep me interested in it as THE most practical electronic instrument ever made. I like the options of as many stations/cross-signals and frequencies as I can get to maximize the anomalies of sound I can capture. India/Southeast Asia are excellent for this.
Are these various overseas stations really as diverse as they sound, or do they achieve that through your editing?
A lot of it is due to the editing but the recordings ARE straight from the radio overseas … I edit them for how I want to hear them sequenced so everyone ends up listening to my favorite collection. Listening when I’m there is far superior entertainment and discovery than any stations here.
You also record on the streets, in people’s homes and so forth. How do the musicians generally react to being recorded or videotaped?
Most musicians are cool about it, or they are used to it, or indifferent. Cameras and microphones have been around long enough now as to make this type of thing somewhat routine. Some are hustlers and demand more money than originally agreed on. Some won’t take a penny even if you could sell a billion copies. Some have seen the final product and others will in the future when we can make contact. Some probably never will.
That three-year-old on Streets of Lhasa is totally brilliant. How are these kids so musically assured?
It’s part of their daily life in practice. Instruments and the techniques of playing them are handed down from father to son. Their music seems more informal. The hype doesn’t exist as much. It is what it is everyday without need to over-analyze or define to the state of filing it categorically in the cemetery of solved mysteries. I love it AS mystery because I’ve yet to meet anyone who can truly define it, yet many claim that they have or that they can. That’s what turns me off about the academic approach. Americans are taught that they need experts to define for them, tell them what’s important to know or remember and where and when they should travel, how and what they should experience when they travel, what to watch or listen to, and what they should believe as history and what they should believe as an explanation for a current event. We are not “educators” or “experts”… Fuck that shit! Some people think that what we do and where we go is some big fuckin’ deal or it’s hard or difficult. Sure, there can be difficulties but it ain’t a pit of terrorists waiting to ambush you and kidnap you or behead you … that’s all bullshit. On the other hand, fearful masters of the remote control are already half-dead anyway and maybe they should just lay on their couch till the casket truck shows up to car ‘em off to heaven.
Certain moments on the DVDs seem like they were tailored especially for a camera. In Isan: Folk & Pop Music of Northeast Thailand, there’s that ritual where they start tossing rabbits…
If you look closely, the rabbits and birds being “tossed” are actually stuffed animals so the illusion is secured at first glance because they employ live chickens and rabbits as a foil, running around to make it seem that they are throwing live animals in the air. Brilliant! Hisham Mayet filmed the Isan DVD. He worked his way to the front of that festival and sat next to some high profile general to get the best shots possible.
Do you fear people romanticizing the music that you’re documenting?
Not really. There’s nothing I can do about it. Once something gets released, we gotta deal with the good and the bad. People have been misinterpreting things I’ve been involved with for 25 years now. There’s not much of a previous framework to relate the releases to, so it creates a challenge for most critics to review it coherently. There are no experts. It’s an illusion. That’s really the point. It’s a war of aesthetics and what we’re bringing to the table is a DIY approach to everything, not dependent on institutionalized engineering of thought about foreign cultures and how they need to be accessed through brokers of politics, communication and finance. But there are some savvy writers out there who have done it justice and a few who are quite impressive in their knowledge of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern music: Marcus Boon, and Jack Cole of Pataphysics, have a nice feel for what’s happening. But then there was David Toop’s brilliant review of the Dragonflies CD in The Wire where he refused to believe Martine’s recordings were real and basically said “if they were real, I’ve never heard anything like it and I want to know more” and criticized Tucker’s studio methods at achieving such a product. Doesn’t get any better than that. I e-mailed him Tucker’s address and said: “Go find out more! They’re REAL recordings, not bullshit processed electronics!”
In the liner notes to Molam: Thai Country Groove From Isan, Mark Gergis says some Thais consider the style “backward and embarrassing.” Is there something analogous in American pop music?
Maybe a “trend-conscious” American wouldn’t want to admit they like the Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen or Fleetwood Mac … but secretly they’ve got their records in their collection but its not “cool” to like them in front of their friends who all dig hip-hop or post-punk or Japanese noise bands or electronica? I’m just trying to make an example… it may not be quite the same in Thailand I suppose but when you ask some Bangkok hipster or contemporary under the age of 40 about Molam, they may say they don’t like it because they are sick of hearing it or they come from Isan province and they’re now in the big city where people don’t think roots Molam is cool … they’d rather listen to the new hits or the slick Molam prepared for modern audiences. But when you get them away from the crowd, they admit their nostalgia for the past. Some hate it genuinely. I wonder what some of these people think of us when we ask them to point us in the direction of live music. Sometimes we’ll ask for a certain type of music or play them a cassette and say: “I want to see THIS in a live concert or club or some band you know that will play this music for us?” Imagine some dude from Thailand walking up to me with a tape deck on the street in Seattle and he plays me a cassette excerpt from “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground and then says to me “Where can I see this LIVE?” I may actually be able to find something around that he could hear, but would it satisfy his quest? And what if he went up to anyone else on the street? Would they just look at him and say, “You’ve lost your mind, foreigner”?
The next releases include collections from North Korea and Iraq. People are obviously going to add political anecdote to their discussions of these discs.
We don’t worry about that. It is what it is. Everybody plays the role of an unqualified judge, so all that is routine now. When people start worrying about what other people will say about their work, they are dead and successfully under hypnotic control. Most people are not qualified to even discuss politics because they mimic what any dolt could hear from pundits on television. They are mimics, not free thinkers.
So many of the places documented with Sublime Frequencies rarely appear on America’s radar unless there’s a crisis. What can you see outside the frame that me, a never-go-anywhere New Yorker, is missing?
It’s personal. Whatever I see or feel from my experiences may never translate well for others. But, whatever you do, don’t be fooled by the fear patrol out there who say that terror is only a minute away. It’s all an illusion. Terror is a controlled commodity like oil, gold, and wheat. Terror will be used when it benefits the plans of the world elite ONLY. Most Americans are still clueless about this, thinking “terror” is a random political tool of extremists as a war against “democracy” that is beyond the reach of our world’s great armies and technological expertise. It’s completely absurd. The fear of terror being spread is a tactic employed as a mirage to keep the herd from experiencing phenomena beyond the pasture. There’s way more bullshit IN the pasture than beyond it.
I’ve got to ask: what’s up with the Sun City Girls these days?
Nothing at the moment other than a few odd studio dates we’ve been able to work in this year and I’ve been working on future archival releases slowly. We are playing one show only this year, at the INSTAL festival in Glasgow in October. Maybe some shows and a new studio record next year.
After almost 25 years, how do you uncover fresh avenues and approaches?
I don’t know. We all change so there’s always new inspiration and we don’t take it too seriously. Freedom and no pressure. That must be it.
Sublime Frequencies compact discs and DVDs are available from