Tonight @ Koo's: Sir Richard Bishop (Q&A/MP3s inside)


Sir Richard Bishop might be a gypsy jazz guitarist because he could probably and sometimes does play like Django, but he's got gypsy restlessness in more than his fingertips; he's the Indiana Jones of the fingerstyle guitar, taking research excursions—sure they are!—to least-visited places to scout music for his brother Alan's superlative Sublime Frequencies label (home of the hits from Iraq, North Korea, the Far East, Africa and more) and to scout pure technique from the odd oudist on the street. Now in his cheerful prime, Bishop is pushing past hummingbird fingerpicker—evidently champion John Fahey even told him that he plays like the devil—to some sort of cosmic guitar archetype. Eight-armed Bishop and his undulating improvisations: Sandy Bull ducks his banjo in respect, Jimmy Page touches his temple, Ennio Morricone makes a private note and even Ravi Shankar dips an ear. He's an undisputed world-class performer making an intensely rare stop at our own modest Koo's. Up north this show will cost $100 and have a line pushing all the way to the horizon, but tonight we get the intimate sort of experience Bishop probably reserves mostly for visitors to his own living room. Couldn't urge you to get this more strongly. Bishop delivers this interview between visits to occult booksellers—he trades in forbidden texts as a day job—and overseas tour stops. Full text below.




What specific books do you trade in? Particular selections from the Miskatonic University reading list? And though it may be a trade secret, where exactly does one tend to locate these sorts of books? Are you visiting lost temples between tours?

Well, the bookselling seems to have taken a back seat as of late. I have been spending so much time on tour (and gladly so) that I have been neglecting the books. However, when selling, the majority of my offerings are in the field of rare occult books: specifically (but not limited to) Ceremonial Magic, Demonology N Witchcraft, Alchemy N Hermeticism, serious Tantrik studies, mysticism, etc. In the past, I also specialized in weird horror fiction and was (and still am) a huge H.P. Lovecraft fanatic. I find the books wherever I can. It's not as easy as it used to be. Sometimes I will try to acquire private collections, but most of my inventory over the years has come from other booksellers and collectors. And of course, any lost temples I come across will be duly explored.

Roughly speaking, it seems like your solo records (and live performances, I'm told) include more and more improvisation as time goes on–what makes this so comfortable for you? Are there any situations that might draw you back toward more formal composition?

I just find that it can be more challenging to myself (and perhaps the audience) if I improvise. I'm constantly trying to come up with new ideas and appproaches to the instrument and this is the best way to stumble across something that might not materialize any other way. At live shows, I find that the improvisation and constructed pieces are about 50/50. I do seem to get tired of playing certain songs after awhile so the unknown explorations seem to keep me focussed in other directions. But what I choose to play can also depend on the “feel” of the room or what the audience is like. If an audience is not familiar with me or my playing, I'll probably do more composed pieces than usual. If I play the same town over and over, I'll lean more towards free style playing and see what happens.

I've read interviews where you've discussed your music in terms of film influences–Peckinpah and Jodorowsky, specifically–and I'm wondering how cinematic soundtracks have influenced your playing. How much do certain soundtrack composers–or even directors, as you mentioned?–relate to your own work?

The film influences syndrome is something that has been thrown onto me as opposed to myself readily admitting as a heavy influence. Certainly, I have always been drawn to the sounds of particular film composers such as Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone and other Italian masters, and many others. Whether or not they have had a direct influence on my playing is something I haven't thought about a lot. Same with directors, I've always been a huge Jodorowsky and Hitchcock freak. I think it may be their “approach” to their work that sticks with me the most: the discipline, the multiple levels of absurdity, the underlying humor, or just doing whatever it takes in order to make a masterpiece. Masters of their craft, all of 'em.

You seem to take a very active–even calisthenic!–approach to finding new music, at least by the stories I've heard of you visiting far away places and tracking down musicians in this or that back alley. That strikes me as a somewhat rare attitude–music is so readily available these days it's too much trouble sometimes to even visit the record store, much less Africa or Indonesia.

It's simply a result of being exposed to it while traveling. I don't always go to a location just to look for music–it more often finds me instead. In fact, I'll usually travel to a specific location for other reasons. Perhaps I'll be researching something entirely different where music may or may not be involved–some strange cult or ceremony somewhere. If there is a music tradition associated with it, then I'll do my best to document it as part of the whole.

Do you ever economize and combine music and book expeditions into one extremely exciting trip abroad?

I've never consciously tried to plan a trip in this way. Usually they have been separate pursuits. However, whenever I go to India, it turns into just as much of a book-hunting trip than anything else. That's because India is one of the world's largest book publishers. There are books there that can't be found easily elsewhere, so I always end up sending several parcels back home when there…and after about 4 months, they actually arrive safely.

Which Sublime Frequencies records did you help scout material for? And what is that experience like–visiting exotic places to make a representative audio portrait?

For me, it's just great being over there (primarily South Asia). I don't really need to qualify the experience any more than that. As soon as you arrive, you really don't know what's going to happen or which sights will cross your camera path. It's improvisation — with either a camera or a recording device. Rarely is anything planned out ahead of time. As for my direct involvement with Sublime Releases, I recorded a fair amount of Radio India, filmed much of the Nat Pwe DVD, and contributed to the filming of Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan. I've done a bit of film editing for the DVDs as well. I have recorded many hours of music and film from India, Laos, and Thailand, which hasn't been used yet. It's there when needed.

You've mentioned sitting in with local musicians in various places–I was curious about the specifics. What sort of musicians have you played with and where? Ever come home with drastic new ideas for your own playing?

I'll play with anybody I run across if they'll let me. Usually you'll find musicians just by walking around and keeping your ears open. I always will watch and listen to these people as long as possible and then, if it feels right, I'll try to make my way in. I've played along with old men as well as young children, but in my Asian travels I usually find young people in the 16–23 year old range are the ones who play the most, right on the street, just for the fun of it. These gatherings are usually more for socializing than for playing great music. Rarely do I find young people playing any of their traditional folk music. There have been a few exceptions but most of the younger people are more interested in learning western songs that they've heard: “Country Roads,” “Hotel California” and almost anything by CCR seem to prevail. Sad but true. I come home with new “approaches” for my playing all the time, but it's usually not because of playing with others on the street. It's more likely to be because of viewing or participating in a particular ceremony or ritual.

Are there any obscure pockets of American music–current or past–you would consider similar in spirit to your historic influences and the music on the Sublime Frequencies records?

It seems like there's always something waiting to be discovered still–even in the continental US. I imagine there's still a few undiscovered historical sounds in the US somewhere, most likely in the south or the Eastern mountains. But who can say for sure? I don't know of any specifics, but if I did, I'd probably keep it a secret until it could be properly (or improperly) documented.

Can you tell me about Elektronika Demonika? How were you technically able to obtain the sounds you used? Is this post–Patriot Act folk?

I have no idea what it is. I just wanted to release a record that didn't have any guitar on it. I don't know how it compares to other “electronic” records because I've never listened to a lot of electronic music. I had many shortwave radio recordings which I made back in the 1990s, most of which were recorded in India. I also had many cassette tapes of experimental sounds that I made in the '80s and '90s, which consisted of manipulated keyboards, recordings of various low quality appliances (old space heaters make some great noise) and synthesizers, etc. I just took all of this stuff, edited it down, cleaned it up and put it together with some percussion bits added. Much of the music, and other music like it that I haven't used yet, will probably be of more use down the road, in conjunction with films that I will make at some point.

Do you apply any esoteric principles to your music? I'm not even sure specifically where to start–maybe there are structural analogs between Enochian grammar and certain musical progressions–but there are all sorts of interesting ideas fundamental to the esoteric arts.

I have my own form of personal musical sorcery that I can use with great effect from time to time. I really can't be any more specific about it because I'm not sure I understand how it all works. I just know that when it does work, things happen. When I play with Sun City Girls, it's a whole different beast with some mighty forces at hand. Those secrets will never be revealed.

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