Pairing guitarist Sir Richard Bishop with the punishing, grandiose power of Michael Gira's Swans may seem like a curious partnership. But don't forget: The maestro of Swans is all about a swinging pendulum of extremities, from loud to quiet and back again.
These subtle sonic nuances may often go overlooked in lieu of the band's more visceral moments, but it's in the abstract world of aural engineering -- with discussion of sound's hues, auras, and textures -- that Gira most intersects with his tour mate, Sir Richard Bishop.
Bishop made a name for himself with deeply cult, voraciously eclectic trio the Sun City Girls, who were pillars of experimental music in the U.S. from 1981 until 2007's passing of member Charles Goucher. Along the way, he and his brother (and fellow Sun City Girl) Alan Bishop practically launched the '00s obsession with off-beat world music with their Sublime Frequencies label. Not to mention his accomplishments on his own as a solo performer.
New Times caught up with Bishop prior to tonight's show opening up for Swans at Respectable Street and got a tour of Egyptian music and some steak-preparation metaphors out of him.
County Grind: What's your relationship with Michael Gira? Did Sun City Girls and Swans cross paths at some point? How did the tour come about?
I met Michael briefly during a tour I did with Akron/Family a few years back and its been great to reconnect for this tour. I don't think Sun City Girls and Swans ever crossed paths in person back in the 80s. I did listen to some of their music back then and it was just as brutal and powerful as it is today. As for how the tour came about. Michael asked me through his booking agent and I said yes. Plain and simple.
Your music matched with Swans's is an interesting pairing. Aesthetically, what connection or shared motivations, inspirations and mindsets do the respective acts share?
It's hard to say. I don't know the guys in Swans all that well yet, so I don't know what their motivations or mindsets are. I don't really need to know. After the first three shows I really dig what they are doing and I think the match is great for this tour. There is a massive intensity in their music, but I couldn't guess what the source for that is. My music is also intense in many ways just on a slightly different level. Their sound is well-cooked and huge. Mine is medium rare.
Out of the incredibly deep pool of international folk styles you've drawn influence from (in SCG and solo endeavors, and in co-curating Sublime Frequencies) how did you narrow in on the Egyptian guitar focus for the Freak of Araby?
It was sort of by accident. I had been listening to a lot of Omar Khorshid's records and wanted to cover just one of his songs for the album, but I also had a few other Middle Eastern sounding songs plus other songs that were anything but that. After the playback from the first studio day the Eastern songs stood apart from the others I recorded so I decided to make the entire record reflect that sound. I went home that night and learned four more Khorshid songs and then wrote a few more originals in the studio. The whole process was finished in three days.
In the wake of the Sublime Frequencies, and in tandem with niche music blog culture, it seems like previously hard-to-hear folk idioms and recordings are relatively in vogue, particularly in U.S. experimental music scenes. What do you believe accounts for the surge in interest?
I don't know. Maybe its because most of modern western music (pop, indie, rap, etc.) is shit. Hell, I certainly can't listen to it. I think once people get exposed to sounds from elsewhere it just has the potential to catch on because its not from a can. It's a different thing altogether. And if people hear something they like, its easy to track down more of it. But nobody really knows the reason. I guess there doesn't have to be a reason.
A regular observation I've read in reviews and responses to Funeral Mariachi was that it was a notably cohesive, high production value, song-based suite. Was Sun City Girls heading for an arc with the style of songwriting and production evident in that album?
Not really. To us it was just the next record. If we kept on going the follow-up would have probably been something totally different. I agree that it was quite cohesive and it may stand apart from most of our previous recordings but we just weren't looking at it like that. I really like the record myself and I think its a good entry point for any newcomers to SCG but I would also advise them to listen to other SCG material just so they can see the variety and range and at the same time learn to hate us like normal people do.
The Mister Lonely soundtrack is an unusual release because it's a blend of score, soundtrack and abstract "music inspired by." What was the process like for the music you came up with? How much did you draw directly from the film? Was there any communication with J. Spaceman on his side of the split?
We didn't work with J. Spaceman at all. It would have been nice to but that really was never an option. Harmony just contacted us before the film started shooting and sent us a script so we could think about ideas. We sent him some recordings that we thought supported certain parts in the film. While he was still shooting the film he started sending us footage from specific scenes so we could fine tune a few things. And then we continued the process of sending files back and forth until things worked out. We sent him much more music than what he ended up using.
You performed some shows with [ex-Harry Pussy guitarist] Bill Orcutt last year. There were some collaborative sets in there, correct? What were those like, how did they unfold, what was the musical dialogue like?
I really like Bill's playing. He is reinventing the blues and what he does is amazing. We have done a few shows together as separate acts, but each time we played together at the end. At first we were both feeling each other out but the next two shows we did (Portland and Seattle) we let loose way more and it was great. We both know how to listen and that's the most important part of improvising. I would play with him any time!
Did Sun City Girls ever make it down to Miami or the greater South Florida area? Any notable experiences, or performances you saw from anyone down here?
SCG did a few shows in Florida on the 1984 tour with JFA. There was a memorable show in Miami that I think was at a place called Flynns but I can't be sure. It was one of those classic shows where the punks didn't want to have anything to do with us, just hated us with a passion. They literally tried to get us off the stage. They should have known better. We destroyed them and we have the video to prove it.
What material will Wednesday's set be comprised of? Will you be performing with a band or solo?
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I'll be performing solo on electric guitar and so far each night has been a little different. I'll most likely play a few SCG songs and a couple of songs from my records and the rest will be improvised.
Sir Richard Bishop with Swans, Axe and The Oak. Tonight. 8PM. Respectable Street, 518 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, 33140. Tickets are 18.50 in advance through Respectable Street, and 22.50 at the door.