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.