Illustration by Paul Pope
Originally published in Arthur No. 18 (Sept. 2005), available from The Arthur Store for $5US…
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?
“This WORLD is UNREAL like a SNAKE in a ROPE” by Robert Millis
“A collage of sights and sounds from the eternal never-ending collage that is INDIA. A trip through the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu featuring Hindu trance ceremonies, free jazz nagaswaram improvisations, impossibly loud cities, processions, devotion, blessings, color, abstractions, detail, music and more. India is impossible to know: it is too vast, too rich and too much of a dream, it is impossibly old and impossibly new. Offered here is one perspective, one dream, subjective and flawed, hanging by a thread, captured live and in the moment and in the midst. One journey revealed in the order it happened. Not quite ethnography. Not quite documentary.”
Says director Robert Millis: “I will introduce the film and have informal Q and A at the Merch table after the screenings. These are the premier screenings of this film (which is still a work in progress) which should be released on DVD by Sublime Frequencies some time next year. I purposefully prefer to do screenings like this in music/sound/DIY oriented venues rather than more formal movie houses. It fits the vibe of the film.”
Each night, Mills will also do a solo performance involving found sound collage, drone, and field recordings mixed with songs performed on acoustic guitar: old murder ballads, originals and instrumentals. Here is a link to a solo release from last year: http://www.etuderecords.com/120.htm
Robert Millis is a musician and artist, a founding member of Climax Golden Twins and AFCGT and a frequent contributor to the Sublime Frequencies and Dust-to-Digital record labels. His previous films include Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan and My Friend Rain and he was the co-author of Victrola Favorites, released on Dust-to-Digital in 2008.
Prices vary per venue, many are donation or sliding scale $5-$10; in most cases screenings will be first, followed by music. Check with venues for full details.
43 Main Street
17 Edinboro Street 3rd Floor
Upstate Arts Guild/Albany Sonic Arts
247 Lark Street
Casa del Popolo
4873 Boulevard St. Laurent
Teranga African Restaurant
159 Augusta Ave
Now That’s Class
11213 Detroit Ave
477 Melwood Ave
1026 Arch Street
Issue Project Room
232 3rd Street
Lead cut off Syrian partier Omar Souleyman’s new album, Jazeera Nights, available from the good people of Sublime Frequencies.
by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore
from Arthur No. 30 (Oct 2008) [available from Arthur Store]
This new Little Claw 7” on the Physical Sewer label which they had on their last roadtrip doesn’t even sound like them. But what do they sound like anyway? They sounded like the greatest goddamned fucking band on the planet the time we saw ‘em. Two minimalist drummers, a guitar dude with a nice underhook rhythm rip and a girl with a badass no wave slather tongue tearing hell out of her slide guitar given half the chance. And not all hellbent rage either—some nice licorice melt drizzle crud groove too. Fuckin’ awesome. This 7” sounds amazing but like some other weirdness was at play in the living room or wherever this beautiful session went down. You’re fucking nuts not to locate this—try their myspace roost.
Although the material is clearly posed, the new Richard Kern book, Looker (Abrams), is as voyeuristic as Gerard Malanga’s classic Scopophilia and Autobiography of a Sex Thief. Kern’s volume combines a feel of chasing a subject and photographing her without her knowledge, with some purely 21st Century tropes (dig the upskirt end papers), but the feel seems to also be a tribute to the ’70s Penthouse mag vibe. The nudes and font and the introductory essay by Geoff Nicholson all combine to create a volume with a much more gentle charge than Kern’s last book, Action. On the virtual opposite end of the photographic spectrum is David B. McKay’s Yuba Seasons (Mountain Images Press), which has some of the best nature photography we’ve seen in a long time. McKay has spent 40 years photographing this Northern California river and the area around it, and he has captured something really mind-blowing about the interaction of water and light and stone. The landscapes are great, but the river shots are beautiful, mysterious, fast and deep. You can feel them as much as you see them. Really fine.
There’s been a whole ark-full of gospel comps the last few decades and Lord yes they are always welcome but just when you think the well is dryin’ up along comes this motherfucker of a manic backwoods backstreet romper Life Is A Problem (Mississippi Records, 4007 N. Mississippi Ave., Portland, OR 97227 tel.: 503-282-2990). It’s been out a while and is even in a second pressing (without the first pressing’s bonus 7”) and is compiled by Eric and Warren from the Mississippi record store and label in Portland, OR and Mike McGonigal, who also annotated. It’s a 14-song set with some really raw guitar blowouts, handclap n’ chant fever stomps and sweet as ‘Bama honey singing. Some names on here we know like the lap-steel slasher Reverend Lonnie Farris but there are some straight up surprises. Particularly “Rock & Roll Sermon” by Elder Charles Beck, where he rails against the devil’s music, all the while kicking rock n roll ass. More sanctified sounds promised from this label in the future. Before this LP they issued a comp called I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore 1927-1948 which is also sheer beauty digging into tracks released by immigrants to America delivering early Zydeco, Salsa, Hawaiian slack key, etc.
From Sublime Frequencies:
Baltimore: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 8pm
at Floristree- 405 W Franklin St 6th fl
Philly: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 8 pm
at Space 1026- 1026 Arch St.
Hisham Mayet will dj after the screening
at Kung Fu Necktie 1248 North Front St.
NYC: Thursday, June 24, 2010 8:00pm – 10:00pm
at Anthology Film Archives
32 2nd Avenue New York, NY
Plus Frank Sumatra djs the after party
at Zebulon, 258 Wythe Avenue, 11 pm- ?
There will be two films, with filmmakers in attendance and Q&A after films, plus Sublime Frequencies CD/DVDs/LPs for sale after screening. The films are:
Staring into the Sun
A film by Olivia Wyatt
Staring into the Sun is the latest ethno-folk cinema classic from Sublime Frequencies. Ethiopia is known to be one of the oldest areas inhabited by humans and presently has over 80 diverse ethnic groups. Photographer/filmmaker Olivia Wyatt explores 13 different tribes throughout Ethiopia in this visually stunning film. Traveling from the northern highlands to the lower Omo Valley, Wyatt brings together the worlds of Zar spirit possession; Hamer tribal wedding ceremonies; Borena water well polyphonic singing; wild hyena feedings; and bizarre Ethiopian TV segments; presenting an enchanting look at these ethereal images, landscapes and sounds from the horn of Africa. The tribes featured in this film are captured with an unflinching sense of realism and poetic admiration resulting in a visual and aural feast of the senses.
Land of the Songhai
A film By Hisham Mayet
Hisham Mayet’s latest film explores the music and landscape of the Songhai, around the Niger River in Western Niger. Zarma mock possession hoedowns, Wodaabe trance vocal performances, Spirit possession ceremonies, Godje one sting laments, contigi string masters, comsaa griots and Sahel night markets create a bizarre and fascinating glimpse into the arid and culturally vibrant bend in the Niger river.
Omar Souleyman albums available from Sublime Frequencies via Forced Exposure
Previously on Arthur: