Sir Richard Bishop: Interview
“I doubt, at this point, that I’m going to have an epiphany that’s going to make me join a cult or a commune, or a magical fraternity. I’m more of a chaos guy, I think.”

Sir Richard Bishop has been warping fretboards and minds for more than three decades, with no signs of slowing. In 1981, he founded the cross-cultural sound/splooge collective Sun City Girls with his brother Alan (a.k.a. Alvarius B); from then until the tragic loss of late, great drummer Charles Gocher in 2007, the Girls cut a wide swath through genre boundaries, conventions, society, and most notions of good taste, creating an impossible-to-follow (but nonetheless inspiring) blueprint for future freaks to pore over.

In 1998, Richard Bishop knighted himself for solo album Salvador Kali, a knighthood that has not been revoked (incidentally, until September 1, he’s handing out free downloads of the wildly varied, yet routinely satisfying, catalog recorded under this name here). Somewhere in there, he also helped brother Alan and Hisham Mayet found the indispensible Sublime Frequencies label, and formed the heavy-action supergroup Rangda with Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) and drum behemoth Chris Corsano.

After four years off the U.S. touring trail, Bishop will be crossing the country starting August 29; check here to see if he’ll be gracing your town with his presence). He sat down with TMT before a pre-tour gig at Portland venue Turn! Turn! Turn! to explain why he would rather not be in America. What, does he hate freedom or something?


How were Switzerland and Thailand?

They were both good. A little bit different: I was in Switzerland for a residency, writing some music for a dance troupe who I’ve worked with a couple times before. This time was a little different, though… It ended up that I couldn’t really come up with exactly what they were looking for. So, it didn’t quite work out as everybody had planned, but no love lost, that’s for sure. I still had a great place to stay for six months on this great old estate, in a converted sheep house. It was a great time, good experience.

Thailand, as always, was great. You can’t really go wrong! It’s so inexpensive, so beautiful, and it’s so easy to live there. Four months there was great. After that, it was kind of hard to come back here and adjust to the different kind of financial situation, but here I am.

How long have you been back?

Just a little over two months, I think.

How long do you think you’ll stay back?

I’ll probably be here longer than I’d like, at least a year… I’ll do tours and be able to get out every now and then, but no major travel plans are set up yet…

What keeps bringing you back to the U.S.?

Well, it’s the obvious: Whenever I go out and travel, the reason I have to come back is because I run out of money (laughs). Before I came back from Thailand, I did a pretty big European tour where I did quite well, and the original plan was to go back to Asia after that. I had a fair amount of cash that would’ve lasted quite awhile, but because of personal things… we [Bishop and his girlfriend] decided to come back.

As soon as you get back to the U.S., the money that would’ve lasted another five or six months in Thailand is gone within a month-and-a-half. So, that was kind of a drag, but now it’s OK.

I was playing a small village, in a 15th century castle, and everybody who came out were just the people that lived on this little hill. Nobody knew who I was, so I didn’t play some of the Sun City Girls songs that I might play otherwise, which have some lyrics that are disturbing.

Do you have any big plans after this upcoming U.S. tour?

Nothing major. There’s a chance that my brother and I will do some shows in Brazil in late September, and I might be doing a short European tour in November. I’m still waiting to find out. I have a new record that will come out probably early next year, and maybe I’ll do another tour around that.

I’ve been re-immersing myself in your catalog for the last few days, and observing so much of it at a time really brings the scope of your work to the fore. The recurring feeling I got from it, though, is a kind of spiritual fervor, but you’re not a religious guy in any “normal” sense of the term…

Right.

Is there anything to that notion, and if so, to what would you attribute that? Or am I just full of shit?

(Laughs) Well, because I’ve just met you, I can’t say that you’re full of shit just yet. You’re right, I don’t really consider myself religious. There are some spiritual aspects that have popped up over the years, nothing that really sticks… It just comes when it comes. A lot of the music has some Indian sounds in there — I’ve done a lot of traveling to India, and I have a great respect for Hinduism and Buddhism, but more as a subject of study than as a devotion, I think — and some of that creeps in, but I have no discipline, so I don’t keep it up that much. There are also a lot of North African and Middle Eastern kinds of things in my music, and I have an interest in Egyptology and things like that, but nothing to really keep me “attached”.

The magical thing, the metaphysical side of things, has always been a part of my learning. Sometimes that crosses over into the music, but it’s not really conscious… It just happens. Other than that, you’re completely full of shit.

…But you do feel that your interest in magic has occasionally crossed over into your music?

I think so, but I can’t really give you an example. The last 30 years of my life, I’ve been interested in esoteric studies. If that becomes a big part of your life, whether you’re devoted to it in any disciplinary way or you just study the history of it, it’s going to cross over. I like to play music sometimes that might have some (magical) effect on somebody… I don’t know how to do that, but you can hope. Maybe someone will be able to see some connection, whether I see it or not, or it might make them feel a specific way that they consider metaphysical or spiritual…

That was a lot more prevalent in the Sun City Girls days. We were very much into the idea of ceremony and ritual for a lot of our shows, though certainly not all of them. That could always get a certain reaction… Sometimes it would be one we were looking for, other times we’d have no idea what it would be.

With the solo music, some of that might carry over, but when I’m playing onstage I’m not really doing any visual ceremony or ritual. There might be some inner preparation I do on occasion, but nothing religious or anything like that. It just depends on the night, the room, the atmosphere, whether I know there’s going to be some hostility in the crowd…

That also carries over from Sun City Girls, though… (Hostility) doesn’t really happen much with the solo stuff.

There might be some inner preparation I do on occasion, but nothing religious or anything like that. It just depends on the night, the room, the atmosphere, whether I know there’s going to be some hostility in the crowd…

Speaking of hostility: I was reading an interview with you recently wherein you mentioned going to a Gypsy guitar event, and the guitar geeks that were there [it’s not a recent interview: read it here]. Given that you’ve done some stuff that could potentially appeal to those geeks on some level, have you ever had to face some hostility from them for your other stuff?

Not really, because I don’t think I’ve ever really had the opportunity. If I was invited to play one of those festivals, I would probably “turn it down.” In that particular area of guitar geeks — God bless their souls — they are so into that style and doing everything “by the book,” exactly like Django and other Gypsy guitarists do it, and I don’t do that. I’ve played some Django Reinhardt tunes before, but they’re not perfect, they’re just close enough. As soon as you stop playing them you forget them. I can’t play them anymore, I’d have to start from scratch.

Those Gypsy/Django nuts there — and don’t get me wrong, I love Gypsy guitarists, I love Django’s playing and I always will — they’re going to hold you up to a certain level. If they happened to walk by this show tonight and just popped in because they heard a guitar player, and just watched me without being in that arena, I’m sure they’d enjoy some of it. They wouldn’t be holding me to that mentality of, “You can’t be here unless you play this exact stuff like Django played it, in that style, using the same chord forms.”

I do love to play in front of people who’ve never heard of me or seen me. There were some recent shows on this last European tour where I was playing a small village, in a 15th century castle, and everybody who came out were just the people that lived on this little hill. Nobody knew who I was, so I didn’t play some of the Sun City Girls songs that I might play otherwise, which have some lyrics that are disturbing. I just played my regular music, and it was great, everybody loved it.

That makes me feel pretty cool, because they have no expectations. They just wanted to come see this guy who happened to show up, I had no expectations because I didn’t know who was gonna show up, and at the end of the night everyone was just pleased with how it went.

Those are really great moments. If I’m playing in town [in Portland], a lot of the people that come are people I know, because it’s where I live. They know I’m gonna play some Gypsy things, a Middle Eastern thing or two, maybe an Indian thing, but they also know that I’ll mix it up every now and then because otherwise you just repeat yourself over and over. There will be no editing tonight. I’m in my crowd. If a few people catch a couple songs that maybe are different from “pretty guitar,” they might not go for it, and that’s OK. That’s the chance they take, not me.

That said, I don’t purposely go out of my way to piss anybody off, the way we used to in the early days of Sun City Girls. That’s just what we had to do, that was part of the game for us. I’m preaching to the choir now with some places, but that’s OK. They keep showing up, so I’m grateful.

I find the confrontational element, in some ways, to be more of a young man’s game.

You know, I think you’re right. I just turned 54, and I don’t feel that old, and I still love the idea of (confrontation), but I just don’t really have the opportunity to do it. I’m never really in that situation anymore. The worst thing that’s gonna happen to me is when I get heckled by some [drunken] guy, and that’s always fun for me because it gives me license to do anything. I get that on rare occasions, and when I do I just try to have fun with it and make everybody laugh about it.

I don’t take myself that seriously at shows. I like to have fun, and I like to keep it open to where, depending on the room, the energy, the people, their drunk level; I can take it in a different direction.

Do you still feel like you are constantly exposed to the energy of the goddess Kali?

I will be honest and say not constantly. It comes and it goes. I think I would like to be, but that’s not up to me. I’m not going to be a devotee that spends all day chanting and sitting down, inviting it all in.

But it’s funny… When I’m away from that energy, whether by choice or just because I can’t pick up on it for awhile, there’s always a time when something will happen where I’ll know: “I need to revisit this again, NOW.” It’s hard to explain. Something will trigger in my head, my heart, whatever. You’ll hear a voice saying, “You’ve been neglecting me!.” That’s kind of an exaggeration, but it’s just one of those feelings that you know… It happens quite a bit, every year or two.

As soon as you get back to the U.S., the money that would’ve lasted another five or six months in Thailand is gone within a month-and-a-half. So, that was kind of a drag, but now it’s OK.

I’ve been threatening to write a book on Kali for years and years. I doubt if it will ever come out, but I always have my journals and notes that I revisit at certain times. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to India, but whenever I go to India, it automatically just comes. The energy is there, for sure.

I’m not a devoted spiritual/religious guy in any one area. It’s just as easy for me to get a hankering to study Voodoo or Tibetan Buddhism. If it’s something strong enough to make me feel (like I need to pursue it), I’ll do that. It’s not really important to me whether it goes anywhere or not, the idea is just to absorb what I can, when I can. If I have to keep revisiting it, that’s fine. A lot of people are totally into one path, they’re devoted and that’s great, but I’m not that guy, or at least I never have been. I doubt, at this point, that I’m going to have an epiphany that’s going to make me join a cult or a commune, or a magical fraternity. I’m more of a chaos guy, I think.

Have you ever been tied up with old dreadlock remains and forced to listen to reggae albums, with a white dude in cargo shorts standing a few feet away from you saying, “Wait wait wait, but what about…?” and then putting on another record?

Thankfully, no. As I’m sure you’ve probably read along the way, I’m not a big fan of reggae, and I’m not a big fan of white people with dreadlocks, even though I probably know some.

Don’t we all?

Yeah, it’s funny, when I was just in Thailand, every time I turned a corner in any tourist area, there it was. There’s the Marley, there’s the tourists with the dreadlocks and the hacky sacks… It just frightens me.