In Conversation with Sir Richard Bishop

In Conversation with Sir Richard Bishop

June 2, 2015

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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An Asian in Bucharest

Introductory story by Doug Kim, a New York based photographer, visiting Bucharest.

"It was 1984 in Washington, DC, at the height of that city’s legendary hardcore punk scene. We were young, aggressive and frustrated, and though not dumb, the amount of things we didn’t know were huge. We had no idea how important that punk scene was in DC. We had no idea that we were in the last year of hardcore punk, that the next year, the scene would just collapse into fragments. We had no idea we would survive and grow old and sit in chairs at desks for decades to come. And we had no idea that the visceral, instinctive and emotional wave of hardcore punk that surprised us and filled us with ideas and growling intensity was a feeling we would never feel again.

One of the great surprises was at a JFA show in DC in 1984 at the 930 Club. The small club was packed as usual for a well known out of town band, a band whose logo was easily drawn on jackets, skateboards and walls. None of us knew the opening band, but back then, we had no information except for paper magazines and we were hungry for most any music. The opening band came out and the guitarist with his head wrapped in an Arab keffiyeh head scarf, started to sing in a high falsetto, like a feminine muezzin, chirping out a call to prayer. This went on for minutes. No accompaniment. This was at a time where hardcore punk fans would abandon their favorite bands for daring to play a song less than faster than the speed of light.

People started to leave. A few here, more there. Than a constant stream of people headed for the door. Hardcore punkrock took in and embraced many different musical flavors (The Pogues and The Butthole Surfers for God’s sake) almost because there was no place else to go. But a challenging avant-garde, experimental trio? Sometimes, people just wanted to thrash. For the few of us that stayed, and it was a fair amount, we were enthralled for next hour. All I remember thinking was, ‘who are these guys? And where the hell are they taking me?’.

During one sequence, the drummer was standing, sticks just barely brushing the cymbals, in a trance, the band letting the tension build. When the break finally came, the drummer descended on his kit and I saw a drumstick shatter but did not see where the top half went until the guy in front of me turned around, blood streaming from his face. We filled in the gap he left and closed ranks to get closer to this crazy band. Who were they, I asked someone after the show. Sun City Girls. I bought their album that week and drove my friends nuts with it for months. I don’t even remember JFA playing.

Thirty-one years later, I was in Bucharest for a week, there to photograph the people and the streets. This musician I had met that night before took me to Club Control to watch a free, improvisational duet of violin and percussion as she was a friend with the violinist. This show was an unexpected choice and I was enjoying the performance and oddly proud of the size of the crowd in attendance for such an experimental performance. Then some guy named Sir Richard Bishop came on. I had assumed it was going to be a DJ since it was a club. I had no idea. Bishop brought out a gorgeous small body 19th century guitar and started off with a song, heavy in the Phrygian mode, playing fully off of the North African mode. Unexpected again. I heard his voice in between songs. Definitely American. At times, percussive and at times, trancelike, I sat on the floor beneath the bar and let myself get taken along for the ride.

It was, afterwards, outside in the terrace that I found out that it was Richard Bishop from the Sun City Girls. Well, look at that. We had both survived.’’
I’ve had some crazy experience in my life - spiritual, magical, evil; I’ve had a lot of stuff. I don’t question any of it, I just recognize it ‘ok, this happened, this happened, what’s it all mean? I don’t know. But it means something. It’s real; to me it’s real.
Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop


Richard Bishop: You’ve got to ask all your questions in your language, so I don’t know what you’re asking and I won’t answer it.

Dragoș Rusu: Or maybe answer it in Lithuanian or something.

Richard Bishop: Oh yeah.

Bogdan Scoromide: I wrote something on my phone.

RB: Let’s see what you’ve got, man.

BS: But the battery is gone.


BS: But this won’t be a typical interview, anyway. Do you think I am going to ask you - ‘so how did you start'?

RB: Well, I hope not.

BS: No way man… I wanted to ask you about improvised music.

RB: Well, what about it? If you ask anybody that question, you will probably get many different answers, like ‘what is improvised music?’. I improvised a lot tonight, but there were a lot of songs that had open spaces. So, it’s different every night, but they can be the same songs; you have an outline. You have certain things you know you’re going to do, you have certain places where you know you can try something different in a night, or you can play the same kind of thing every night. And sometimes I do both. It depends on… I know what works, but sometimes… I like to take some chances and just make mistakes, and see what happens. Just let it go somewhere.

But that’s solo improvisations. It’s not the most difficult, but you don’t have anything to work out of. So, you have to provide all yourself, whereas playing with other people, is not really important what you play as much as what you hear. You have to listen. You have to learn to not play sometimes and just listen, and then work out of that, or work into it, or work around it. That’s why sometimes I have trouble improvising with other people that I’ve never improvised with, because they don’t know how to listen. They just want to get as much in as they can. But I think that’s common, because most people think when you’re improvising with somebody else, you have to prove yourself. If you can do that - that’s great. But in order to do that right, you have to know what’s going on and you have to be able to - sometimes - just shut up and not play. Or play something minimal and just work with that and listen. Listen to what the other people are doing. A lot of people just don’t do that. When I was with Sun City Girls, I had to play for so long, but we had no problem with that. We loved to improvise together, because we kind of knew each other. We kind of learnt how that works.

BS: What it is when it’s working? What’s working?

RB: It’s telepathy. At least with Sun City Girls, we knew when it was working. But we didn’t question it, any further than that. We didn’t analyse it. It was just like ‘it’s working’.

BS: When you think it’s working the best – sometimes - they might think it’s something totally weird.

RB: That’s totally true. Because it’s usually just to the people who are used to that, it’s just random, it’s scattered; sometimes, to other people it’s noise. And that’s ok; it always has been like that. And I think - early on - we realized we don’t care what others think about it. If we know we’re doing something that we’re supposed to be doing and it’s working, that’s all that matters. And some of that ends up on records, but there are mostly the live shows to where that just happened all the time. It’s hard to capture it on record, because you get the energy of the room and the energies between the three of us. And it’s the same way when I play solo. It’s based on the room.

BS: You just interacted with the tap drummer guy in the audience.

RB: Well yeah, I mean, I could hear him. And I didn’t know …at first I thought maybe it was that guy from the first set, I don’t know (e.n. - Mitoș Micleușanu).

BS: No, it wasn’t him.

RB: I couldn’t see who it was and I didn’t want him to know that I knew he was doing that. Sometimes that could be distracting. But sometimes, he’s listening to what I’m doing, and trying to follow, and then at some point, I am listening to what he’s doing. Here it was nothing fancy, or anything. I was at least aware of it, and I didn’t know he knew I was aware of it. So yeah, this is just one of those things.

BS: Sometimes, when you have a group improvisation you can reach some places that are impossible to be reached if you would try to compose.

RB: I agree. That’s a good point; using Sun City Girls as an example, there are things we would play… Frank Zappa is a perfect example - what he used to do, during improvisations at a live show, he would record everything and then it would be this great long improvisation with whatever instruments. Then, he would take that recording and have somebody transcribed it to where then you could get the music to somebody of that improvisation. It’s kind of amazing, if you don’t know that.

BS: So he turned improvisation into a composition?

RB: Yeah, kind of; to where it could be played by other musicians. And I think there’s a good side to that, but I also think that’s kind of cheating, you know? Because is no longer an improvisation. It’s turned into a written piece of music; so then, it becomes the same thing every time. But that’s how composers work. Everything is written down and you play the same way every time. I’ve never been able to write anything down. I don’t know anything about writing music or anything - on paper. So, I’ve had to do it the other way. But on that same note, there are songs that I do, that they start as improvisations. There are a few songs like that; I play them the same way every time now. But it started as an improvisation, and now I filled in with notes that work. But it’s not written, it’s just memorised I guess.

BS: I remember - again - something with Charles Gocher. He said he used to improvise looking at the audience; for example, every time a guy used to blink, he’d hit a rim shot. And that would make the guy blink again and so on.

RB: Yeah, he didn’t do that all the time. He did it more than once; he would focus on one person, for a song. Usually it was a woman and he would just watch her and try to use the blinks or move of the arm or something, to where there was an accent. But the person didn’t catch on, until maybe, then she moved the other arm, a minute later, and it was the same accent. The trick is to get them to figure it out. And they don’t always do that. But sometimes, the fourth time, if you watch that, you’re like, ‘what’s going on?’ But it’s too late. It doesn’t happen after that. So they leave confuse and that is pretty good. It’s a lot of work though.
Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop

Sublime Frequencies

DR: What about Sublime Frequencies? You’re not involved anymore, but you were, at the beginning.

RB: Yeah, I was at the beginning. It was myself, my brother Alan and Hisham Mayet.

DR: Did you have a plan when you first started the record label?

RB: Well, it really grew out of this idea that myself, Alan, Hisham and some other friends (who are now more involved in the label, even if they’re not part of the business) are all travelers. We always traveled and always collected video and audio. And so we would always get together - you know - once a month; just hanging out and listening to what anybody had. And then we realized, over time, that a lot of these other labels didn’t really cover certain things that we had. It wasn’t out there. So - I think - Alan decided to start a label and just do it our way, put this stuff out and see what happens. It was very slow and hard at first, because things didn’t really sell fast. So, for the first years, there was no money to be made, it was just like a labor of love. Everybody was just doing it because they wanted to do it. I got out of it because I couldn’t put the time on it, since there was no money, I had to pay my rent, and those guys had other income, which I didn’t have. So, it was in 2003-2004 that I decided to just go for solo guitar on tour and make records. Because I knew I could do that, I could make money doing that.

But I’m still part of the collective. When I go overseas, I still collect music and video, and if they want to use it, they can. Now it’s several people – most of them are friends - who have put out a number of releases through the label. I know they work very hard at it; it’s like a full time job now, because they just keep turning it up. I don’t know if the label makes a tone of money now, but it makes enough money for them to keep going and cover some travel expenses, which I think it’s great.

DR: I think Sublime Frequencies is the first western label that released Omar Souleyman.

RB: First western, yes. He released his only cassettes for years. It was Mark Gergis that - kind of - found him. Mark has Iraqi heritage, he was traveling into the Middle East and he first heard of Souleyman in his first trip to Syria, where you could see his wedding cassettes everywhere. I don’t know if there was an accident that he found him, but it took a couple of years to get him accustomed to the idea ‘ok, you’re going to put a record out and you’re going to tour’. It’s still kind of weird that he does that. But that was long time ago. And now he’s a big star. He’s making good money now. So, he’ll keep doing that, as long as he can make money, but it seems like he’s kind of a one trick pony, he does the same thing all the time. But that’s who he is, that’s his thing.

DR: But Souleyman is just one little wagon out of a train of Outernational bands. I’m curious how did he manage to become so famous.

RB: I don’t know how he got to where he got. The first couple of tours in Europe and US, through Sublime Frequencies - at that time, he was just new. People liked the look of him, maybe more than his music; the sunglasses, the attitude, the moustache. And then, when another label -kind of - kidnapped him, this other label and the people behind it just had a lot more money. They had a machine, big industry. And Omar falls into money. He likes money, just like we all do. In Syria, you could see these wedding videos on YouTube with him, when he does the weddings and people throw tones of money. I guess the money goes to him, I don’t know. But I think he does quite well now. And he’ll just keep doing that, until nobody gives him any money anymore, I think. People might get tired of that after a while. First it was kind of a little strange phenomena, for people who don’t listen to that kind of music.

BS: Did you ever play in that area, in any of those Arabic countries?

RB: Never an official show. I’ve traveled there. Last year I played a show in Morocco and then I had a week there, after the show, and I’ve spent the next few days recording that album, The Tangier Sessions. But Alan and I played ‘Brothers Unconnected’ in Egypt and Beirut. The thing is, you can’t really do shows in those countries and expect to make money or anything, ‘cause they don’t have any money. Money needs to go to better things. We like doing it, if we can, so we will do it.
Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop

Love - Happiness - Freedom

BS: What about some of your worst gigs?

RB: Oh boy. Solo, I’ve had gigs where nobody shows up…Solo, I haven’t really had many problems. In the early days of Sun City Girls, every gig was a question mark; you didn’t know what is going to happen. And I think that was great. That was kind of cool, because there were always punk crowds, people usually younger than us, just smart-ass kids who don’t know anything, but they’re playing the punk game. In the early days, they just hated us, because we didn’t play music they liked. We didn’t play music they can trash to. We played shit that fucked with their heads. Once we realized that, we just loved it, so we just kept doing that. Years later, some of these kids have grown up and I’ve heard from a few of them, over the years, ‘man, we didn’t get you back then, guys, but now I get it’.

DR: One day you’ll understand.

RB: Yeah, kind of. I think that’s funny, but I also think it’s pretty great. At that time, it just wasn’t cool for the punk kids to like what we were doing, because they had all these other punk bands that they could identify with, that were kind of…predictable…You knew it’s going to be 3 chords over and over; we just never did that. We could have done it, we just never wanted to. We were weirder, for sure.

DR: What makes you happy?

RB: Stay with good people around me, you know? I’ve got a great girlfriend for ten years. Love is important. And being able to do - I guess - what I want to do. That’s key. I’ve spent years working for other people having jobs, just like everybody does. Now I work for myself, I take responsibility if I fail or if I succeed and I try to just do things on my own terms. And it’s been easy to do that, the last several years. But I think that things are changing, it might get more difficult, because it’s just how the world is. But I think that’s really important – to be surrounded with the right people, don’t listen to anybody’s bullshit and just do your thing. But be ready to take the blame if anything goes wrong. I don’t like to depend on other people. I don’t want to depend on hand outs from my government; I don’t need any favours from anybody, I don’t want to owe anybody any money.

And I don’t, right now. And that’s huge; I don’t have any debts or anything. So, yeah, I think just doing things on my own terms, as best as I can, I think that’s a huge thing and I hope I can continue doing that. I don’t harm anybody; you leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone, just let me be, don’t get in my shit, don’t tell me what to think or what to do, so everything is fine. But that’s changing, especially in the States. The States isn’t the greatest place in the world; everybody thinks it is, but it’s not.

DR: What about love? Since you mentioned earlier that love is important…

RB: It depends on your definition of the word ‘love’. I don’t think there is a definition; you just know it. To me, it’s really important to have, in my case, not just a great girlfriend (with whom I’ve been together long enough to pass our bullshit, we’ve grown up), but it’s also people, friends. You know that they are there for you, if you need them. Family it’s kind of important too. The way I look at it is, the people I love in my life, if they would to go away, that would be really bad. That’s kind of how I look at it. And I think it’s because we’ve all lost people in the past, so we know what that could be like. So, if you find the right group of people - whether it’s one person, a girlfriend or boyfriend - it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, whatever - you find those people, you get them into your world and everybody is happy there, that’s huge, it’s just fucking huge. I’ve lost my parents, I’ve lost friends over years; Charles is a great example. Once they’re gone, you really can see the devastation that can do to you and to other people, so it’s like a wake up call. Don’t fuck it up. So that’s using love in that sense. It’s not just hippie love; it’s unconditional love, universal love. It’s not just love for people; it’s love for everything. You can always do so much. I’m not going to go around preaching love or anything, it’s not my job, people have been doing that for years and hasn’t gotten them anywhere. So it’s just an individual thing, you know? There are some people who probably don’t believe that, they believe in the opposite. And that’s fine, I don’t tell anyone what to believe. It’s important in my situation, but I don’t see how this couldn’t be important to anybody in that situation, so… that’s just one of those things.

RB: I’m not really a religious person, but I think certainly spiritual. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying religions; other religions mostly - Hinduism, Buddhism. But only because I’m interested in certain aspects of it, not that I’m going to worship it or anything, it’s just that I find it interesting, it’s an interesting subject.

You take the sun away; we’re all fucked; so that’s pretty important, that’s like a god, almost. You got a massive universe that we know nothing or very little about, so, yeah, I don’t know if it’s multiple, or one, or whatever, but there’s a lot more out there that’s bigger than me. I know that. And I think people over time have just put different names to different things, representing different things, and at some point, certain people into certain positions realized the power they can have by just focusing on one thing and just try to rule, based on that. And that’s where I just disagree with it, because it doesn’t work that way, no. But most people believe it does work that way; and that’s cool.

I’ve had some crazy experience in my life - spiritual, magical, evil; I’ve had a lot of stuff. I don’t question any of it, I just recognise it ‘ok, this happened, this happened, what’s it all mean? I don’t know. But it means something. It’s real; to me it’s real. But I’m not going to go and tell people about it, because that was for me. It hasn’t anything to do to you, or to you…you have your own experiences; your own…exchanges with whatever energies are out there. It almost has to be individually experienced; because what works for me is not going to work for you guys, and vice versa. What you tell me is not going to convert me in any way. But a lot of people do that.
Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop

A Secret Agenda

DR: So, back to music, for an ending. What do you think of the music of today? Did you listen to anything lately?

RB: Man, to be really honest, the last several years I’ve hardly listened to any contemporary music. It’s just…I don’t have time, that’s just it. I do listen to music all the music; I’ve got my iPod with mostly older music. It’s mostly ethnic music, and other than that, any western music it’s going to be, it’s ‘60s weirdness psychedelia, old free jazz, be-bop, Albert Ayler, Coltrane. I listen to Sun Ra all the time – still. I can turn on any song of Sun Ra (there are so many), and every time I listen to it, I always hear something that I didn’t hear before.

DR: If you have any advice for the youngsters, since there’s so much crap in the music of today. 90% of them, to be optimistic, it’s not that good.

RB: It’s tough, but it’s not just here, it’s everywhere. It’s just globalised music shit that’s out there now. I don’t know anything about hip-hop, techno, the dance beats stuff; I hear it when I hear it, usually in clubs…but I don’t go to clubs… But it’s everywhere, the same vocoder voice auto tune shit. I travel a lot to Asia. I was in Thailand last year for a few months, and even there, modern music is the same shit. It’s just their version of it. And they think that it’s just like people really don’t care about the culture of their history. They want to be modern and they think that’s what everybody wants to hear. Sadly, a lot of people do want to hear that, because they’ve been brainwashed to think that that’s the stuff to listen to. But it’s crap, and you know it. That’s the pop, and techno, hip-hop, trip-hop, I don’t know what other ‘hops’ are, and then there are the indie bands, which try to make their mark. I don’t listen to a lot of current stuff, but I just hear it when I tour, I see it. Some of these bands sound the same, there’s nothing there that’s new or exciting. There might be one or two that - maybe – they’re saying something in their words, or maybe they’re getting a little angular with the guitar, making it a little weird…maybe. But most of them …are just part of a factory.

BS: And they’re not aware of that.

RB: Yeah. But they have to. I mean, that’s their band. They have to believe in that, otherwise there’s no reason for them to do it. But a lot of other people won’t see that. And there are still plenty of people for them. Probably Red Bull sponsors a thousand bands like that; they have the big concerts, and a bunch of people show up and scream and know the words in the songs. When I see something on TV or something of that thing, I’m just looking and I’m like ‘these people are just idiots’. But it’s not fair for me to say that, because those people might look of what I do or what Sun City Girls did and think the exact same thing. And that’s cool.

The way I see it now, music is corporate. You have corporate sponsorships for bands, for festivals that promote certain bands because there are on certain labels backed by certain amounts of money from a certain company or a group of companies. And that’s what gets exported out of the States, to other places and towards its becoming like a globalized form of music. This is what you will listen to. This is what the people listen to. The kids of today… that’s what they see, that’s the music somebody has paid a lot of money to get the most people for them to hear, and usually some of the biggest names in pop, like Kanye West, Beyonce, all these people who are huge. There’s also an agenda that seems to come with that, based on what they’re talking about, whether it’s specific kinds of sexuality, or transgender stuff. There seems to always be some kind of other thing that’s going with the music, which is being used to influence.

BS: The gimmick.

SRB: It’s not just the gimmick; it’s a philosophy. And it’s a state of being. There are people like…there’s this guy…what’s his name…is it Kanye? Who’s married to Beyonce?

BS: It’s Jay-Z.

RB: Who’s married to Rihanna?

BS: Chris Brown.

RB: Ok, there’s still another one I’m thinking of. It’s not Puff Daddy, it’s not Kanye, it’s somebody else…He has his own clothing line.

BS: Jay-Z, yeah. Rockafella.

RB: Yeah. Think of all this Illuminati symbolism, which is being used now to promote them, and there’s big money behind it. Where’s the money coming from? Are they suppose to get this symbolism out there, to indicate something, to get people more familiar with the idea of control? It just depends on how you look at it. But with Madonna, it’s always the sex, sex, sex. And with Britney Spears it was the sex and white trash.

Besides the music, it’s the image produced, that they know people are going to copy and imitate and create this huge group of consumers who are going to buy this. With corporate music now, you have big money behind it, but there’s always some other agenda. I actually know that, to a certain degree. It’s social engineering. And that’s a way to get people think in certain directions and to not think in other directions that would be more beneficent for them. That’s an American thing. That’s how I see certain things, because I know how influential that huge money is.

The same could have been said in the ‘60s about the Beatles. They did the same kind of thing. They changed fashion, which is what people are doing now, they’ve changed philosophy, and they’ve changed culture in a major way. And I think that’s probably what these people are trying to do. But I don’t think the Beatles had an agenda, except for love. They were pretty positive. There was a freedom of expression. They could argue that these bands like the Jay-Z’s and Madonna’s and Beyonce’s and whatever, that they are trying to do the same thing, but no. I see through it. First of all, times are different now. And now it’s not really the bands and the music that’s influencing, it’s the machine behind all that, which is creating little consumers and just certain ways of thought. And I think it’s a way to control people. But that’s just the big corporate stuff. None of these corporations would get behind somebody like me or even somebody like…I almost wanted to say somebody like Omar Souleyman…but it’s a fine line there. Maybe…

So, in order to get that power behind you, I think you have to kiss a lot of ass and you have to just play a game. It’s like a game and you’re the meat, but they don’t care, because they make a shit tone of money. I don’t know…I love a good conspiracy.

You have to use the C word - control - there’s a sense of control. The bigger these bands get and the more money they get, these people get richer and richer and richer, and these other people get poorer and poorer and poorer. Towards it’s just servant and master. And that’s where the control thing comes in. I don’t worship false gods. You have to be aware of the possibilities, I think.

DR: Absolutely. Well, I think… we can stop around here. Thank you so much for the time.

RB: You got a lot out of me. You got a few things out of me that nobody else has ever gotten out of me. I think.

main photo credits: Doug Kim
LISTEN - Sun City Girls in The Attic
About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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