Sir Richard Bishop - Biography
Sir Richard Bishop has been a distinctive voice in experimental music for thirty years, and while the origins of his knighthood are murky and obscure, he certainly deserves the honor. As the guitarist and guiding voice of the Sun City Girls, he consistently startled, alarmed, perplexed, and confounded; over the course of nearly one-hundred, (mostly) micro-batch releases, he navigated through a weird, thick fog of free-improvisation, world-music esoterica, alien abductions, Romani balladeering, onstage bewilderment, and shamanistic cardboard theatrics. As a solo artist, he’s eschewed the overt insanity of the Sun City Girls for an acoustic guitar and a chair, but within the florid sounds that he generates, things are as contextually and conceptually tumultuous as ever. Imagine a grotesque Brundlefly fusion of John Fahey’s splattered-all-over-the-map influences and neurosurgical technical facility with Django Reinhardt’s lantern-lit, gypsy-camp billowings, and maybe you’re halfway to a half-arsed description of Sir Richard Bishop’s gig. Throw in several post-punk hookah hits while you’re at it.
Formed in 1979, the Sun City Girls weren’t girls from Sun City; they were Richard Bishop on guitar, piano and vocals, his brother Alan on bass and vocals, and Charles Gocher on drums and vocals. Cassettes, singles, albums, and eventually CDs poured forth from these guys in an incessant gush of creativity, and they quickly zoomed ahead of the Arizona punk scene; it took the unfortunate death of Gocher in 2007 to silence the group. But in the interim, they trafficked in a genuinely bizarre mélange of transglobal sounds and cryptic imagery, torn from the pages of Charles Fort, with plenty of ufology and a touch of mass hypnosis thrown in for good measure. It rained frogs wherever the Sun City Girls trod. On stage they donned impossibly strange, quasi-tribal masks and robes, and paraded in mock kabuki-style theatrics.
Bishop’s influences are curiously difficult to nail down, in part because there are so many of them. Within his vast corpus there are those shades of Django, for sure, but he also careens from country to country like an aural vagabond. Is that Indian raga? Algerian nuubaat? Kentucky bluegrass? Arabic khaliji? Detroit garage rock? Vietnamese Ðàn tam th?p l?c? Balinese gamelan? When in doubt, select “D”: All of the above. This wild eclecticism reached a zenith on the SCG’s best and most lauded album, the epic, perverse classic, Torch of the Mystics (Majora 1987). Bishop’s fretwork is spectacular, creepy, and exhilarating, all at once. Anyone with the slightest interest in the Sun City Girls’ vast discography needs to start here.
Speaking of the late John Fahey, Sir Richard Bishop’s solo debut (or, his first to be mass-produced) was released by the label founded by the Great Koonaklaster. Salvador Kali (1998 Revenant Records) is a wondrous array of improvisations for various acoustic and electric guitars, stringed instruments, and piano, built around repeating, expanding themes that are as dazzling as anything he ever committed to vinyl with the Sun City Girls, yet even more intense and focused. There are haunting moments of flamenco-styled tension in tracks like “Cadaqués”; dizzying whorls of gypsy-jazz spin through “Pedro’s Last Ride”; the solo piano of “Al-Darazi” is thoroughly mesmeric. However, the truly amazing aspect of Salvador Kali is this: After all of the high weirdness of the vast SCG oeuvre, Bishop has retained all of the creative brio of Torch of the Mystics, but channeled it into a record that is – hipster horror of horrors – quite accessible. In fact, at points it’s downright lovely.
This aesthetic concord is repeated in Bishop’s next two albums, the outstanding Improvika (2004 Locust) and Fingering the Devil (2006 Southern Records); he then does an about-face with Elektronika Demonika (2006 Locust), a sinister batch of ritualistic incantations performed with synthesizers and short-wave radio. He returns to electric guitar with a vengeance on The Freak of Araby (2009 Drag City), adding bass and spare yet effective percussion as he interprets a number of standards from the Arabic world while adding some compositions of his own. It’s a delirious batch of recordings, inspired in part by the Egyptian guitarist and movie soundtrack composer, Omar Khorshid. Bishop attacks the songs with kaleidoscopic verve, infusing them with touches that transport them beyond the Middle East; he can’t help but nod occasionally in the direction of flamenco, and at times he’s capable of cinematic flourishes that are reminiscent of Ennio Morricone. As Bishop enters his fourth decade of songsmithing, he remains a master of aural synthesis, a pan-cultural alchemist, transmogrifying sound.