The Repository #22: Sir Richard Bishop

An interview from 2007 by the late, great Cory Card. Go grab some tunes from Sir Richard Bishop’s bandcamp while you’re at it. – BR

Over the past few years, Sir Richard Bishop has been mesmerizing audiences across North America, Europe, and Australia, with his raga/jazz/rock-infused work for solo acoustic guitar. He has also released a string of magnificent solo recordings for both acoustic guitar and electronic experimentations. In the very near future, the Locust label will be unleashing his latest effort entitled While My Guitar Gently Bleeds along with the DVD premiere of his film God Damn Religion. He is currently on tour in North America with Animal Collective; catch him if you can.

How long have you been writing specifically for solo acoustic guitar?

I don’t really consider myself one who “writes” for guitar. I have been playing acoustic since I was in high school and for most of that time; I’ve just played and didn’t necessarily compose anything. There are a few exceptions, however, most of my material evolves over time from improvisational pieces. Even when I go into the recording studio I usually don’t have any finished songs at the ready. I go in with a group of ideas and a lot of wishful thinking. With the exception of a couple of songs on my first solo record (Salvador Kali), all other studio recordings have been improvisations based on skeletal ideas that I’ve accumulated during live performances, or I’ll have a general notion of what type of mood or atmosphere I want in a song and work from there. That way the songs just kind of write themselves.

You’ve been pretty much consistently touring, solo for the past two years; do you plan to continue with this?

I hope to tour as much as possible until the end of time. I really enjoy doing it, especially playing solo. I know a lot of people get tired of the road after a while and I think if I was touring with a band I would have a different outlook on the whole thing, in fact, I don’t think I would enjoy it as much. If I’m by myself I don’t have to contend with other people’s agendas or schedules and I’m a lot more free to just go at my own pace and do exactly what I want when I want. That’s pretty important to me.

It seems that travel and the exploration of places and people plays an important role in your work: could you talk about this a bit?

I don’t know how much traveling actually affects my musical work. Perhaps a bit here and there, depending on where I am or what I hear along the way. It probably influences my film work more than anything else just because that’s where I collect the most footage. I just like to travel, plain and simple. It’s the best education money can buy and the most rewarding. For me, there is nothing better than escaping the U.S. as often as possible in order to be among more interesting people and places. Things are kind of sterile over here. In India and countries in Southeast Asia, I’ve always felt very comfortable and much more alive than I ever have in the states. If I could balance my time between traveling in other countries and touring, I would be in hog heaven. Hell, I wouldn’t even need a home… Now there’s an idea!

You’ve toured mainly in the US and Europe (correct?). Do you plan on stretching out and playing in Asia or Africa at all? What are some of your favorite places to play and some of your favorite places to visit?

My first solo tour was in Australia in 2005, and the rest of my live shows have been split evenly between the US and Europe. I’ve had more fun in Europe and Australia as opposed to the U.S. probably because it’s just a different environment and traveling from place to place is a lot more enjoyable. The train system in Europe is so easy to use and is relatively affordable. In the U.S. you’re usually on the interstates and living in that “exit-ramp” world where mindless zombies seem to roam aimlessly in their naturally dumbed-down state. That gets pretty sickening after one or two stops. If the U.S. had a decent train system that wasn’t so god damned overpriced, I think touring here would be a lot more fun.

As for playing in Asia or Africa, I would love to, but I don’t think there is much of a market in a lot of those places, except for Japan. Besides, I’m more used to just being in those areas without having to play and I enjoy that enough already. There’s just so much more you can experience that way. I would like to play in Eastern Europe, from Romania and Hungary to Greece and Turkey. I’ve never been to any of those places so I am hoping to accomplish that soon.

How did the tour with Animal Collective come about?

In the simplest terms, the guys from Animal Collective asked me if I would like to do support for their tour. I said yes.

You have a new album entitled While My Guitar Violently Bleeds, coming out very soon on Locust could you tell us about it? I noticed that it only contains three tracks… Are they all for solo acoustic guitar? Does it take on different directions than your previous records?

There are some similar elements here in relation to previous releases but they’re different enough as well. There are 3 lengthy tracks, each song longer than the previous one. The pieces were all improvised, though, as I mentioned before, I had some general ideas of what I was hoping to accomplish and it worked out as planned. The first song is a solo acoustic number that starts out innocently enough and gradually picks up speed and creates its own theme along the way. The second track is a noisy feedback drone thing with electric guitars. It’s music for a cremation ceremony, or at least that’s what I’m saying it is. Can you smell the burning flesh? I can. This one is a bit different in relation to my previous solo work. It wouldn’t seem out of place on any Sun City Girls record. The final piece is a long raga-type piece with acoustic guitar and tamboura.

The cover art for While My Guitar Violently Bleeds is a reproduction of a painting of Lucretia by the Master of the Holy Blood; what drew you to choose this image, and do you see it connecting in any specific way to the record itself? Do you know much about the artist? (Looking through a few art history books and on the Internet quickly all I could find were images)

I know nothing about the artist; there just isn’t any information anywhere. I chose to use this particular image within about three seconds of seeing it for the first time. There was just something about it that spoke to me. My original plan was to create a photographic image of my own guitar spurting blood out from the sound-hole to better suit the title of the record but the more I thought about it, the harder it became to accomplish it (over-thinking can kill a good idea). Plus, it would have made a huge mess, I would have lost a lot of blood and I probably would have destroyed one of my guitars in the process. I’m not sure if the Lucretia image connects with the record per se, but I’m sure some people can make a connection with the title if they try hard enough, you know, a guitar is like a woman and all that, right? So I hear.

As it seems to be an overarching theme in your work: what role does religion play? This can be specifically noted by your upcoming DVD release God Damn Religion, but also has been an important aspect of your work with the Sun City Girls. When did this fascination begin? Is it mainly political, cultural, spiritual, or all of the above in nature?

In my opinion, most organized religion is a load of crap. When it comes to Judaism and the many denominations of Christianity, even Islam, everybody is fighting over whose god has the biggest dick, when in fact, they were all castrated centuries ago. I’m more attracted to certain elements within the Hindu Pantheon, the terrible deities of Tibet, animism, magic, voodoo, and other less-respected forms of so called ‘religion’. They all offer much more in the ways of god or goddess-like experience. Nothing organized about any of it. All encourage pursuits by the individual and are not geared toward the masses. Hinduism is perhaps the most un-organized of all. There just isn’t a filing system big enough in the galaxy to ever contain it, therefore ensuring its validity and power until the end of time. Ever since I can remember I’ve had a keen interest in the darker side of the mystical experience. I was exposed to it at an early age and I attribute that to my family’s relation to Freemasonry more than anything else. I did attend the local Methodist Church for a few weeks when I was 9 years old, at my parents’ request. No sir didn’t like it! It had absolutely no meaning and was the dullest thing and the biggest waste of time I had experienced in my life up to that point. When I told my folks I hated it they just shrugged their shoulders and said I didn’t have to go anymore. They were the coolest! I then started attending the local Order of DeMolay, an organization for children of Freemasons. That was a little more interesting at first; meetings were inside the Masonic lodge with the skulls and the all-seeing eye, the checkered floor, the black and white pillars, and other odd symbols. I didn’t understand it at all but there was a mystery about the whole ordeal. I eventually lost interest in it because, as a young teenager, there were plenty of vices awaiting me. Regardless, I think those Masonic connections, however short-lived they were, stayed within me and later encouraged me to begin my own studies into the mystery cults, the history of magic ritual, eastern mysticism, etc., a few years later.

Is God Damn Religion your first foray into filmmaking? Do you have other film-related projects planned for the future?

I have a lot of film material at my disposal from years of shooting various things either while traveling or just messing around with my cameras no matter where I am. I do have a few short abstract film pieces lying around which haven’t been released. Some of them are good, others not so good. It’s hard to say if any more film projects will really materialize. I don’t want to make a career out of it. I do intend, however, to keep collecting footage and doing some editing from time to time. If I complete anything that I feel is good enough to release, then I’ll at least think about it. We’ll see what happens.

On your website, you state that the film is “a diabolical experiment in hypnotic mind control”… was your creative approach very collage-like? Are there any specific films or filmmakers you had in mind for the overall visual “look” of the film?

No, I relied solely on my own inexperience as a filmmaker. I used the cheapest cameras I could find and the simplest editing techniques and had no budget. Things were accidental and improvised. That’s the only way I can do it. There is a short, fast-paced collage segment, included in GDR, that I put together a few years back and it was originally released in its embryonic form on a Sun City Girls video (Halcyon Days of Symmetry). The effect of the piece was indeed hypnotic. I found it very difficult to look away from the screen while it was showing, there was just too much to see, and every time you blinked you missed something. So I sort of used that idea as a foundation for what I wanted to accomplish. It took forever to record all the images for the film but it was worth the effort I think.

The film is accompanied by a soundtrack, most of which is the Elektronika Demonika album. What are the key relational aspects between sound and vision in the film? Do the two reinforce one another beyond one simply accompanying the other?

When I started to assemble the film, I was primarily working with the images and wasn’t thinking a lot about the soundtrack. I knew that once I put the visuals together in a coherent way it would then be easier to tackle the music part all at once. Most of what is Elektronika Demonika” was recorded years ago and I never thought of it as film music. When I revisited the recordings for the vinyl release I instantly knew that some of the sounds would work great for the film. I think the record can easily stand alone as the audio oddity that it is. I think the film, however, would have been less effective if other music was used, regardless of the barrage of demonic imagery. These two projects were destined to hook up in one way or another.

Django Reinhardt’s music seems to play an important influential role in your solo music, could you talk about his impact? Who else do you see as a major influence specifically on your playing?

Ever since I first heard Django’s playing I was completely transfixed by it. I stopped dead in my tracks and just couldn’t stop listening. I had never heard anything quite like it before. I was, and still am, mostly impressed by his improvisations for solo guitar. That’s his best material as far as I’m concerned. Others who have had an impact include Les Paul (his early experiments), Jimmy Page, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Paredes, and the list goes on. I don’t ‘play’ like any of them; that has never been my intention. I have, however, been able to shamelessly steal a number of ideas from each of them and have tried to forge those into my own unorthodox system of approach: so far so good.

Have you studied the guitar with anyone or are you self-trained?

I’ve never had any training from anyone and never learned how to read music or anything. I don’t know what the rules are. I like it that way.

Are you still in the rare and occult book trade? Besides a means of making a living what drew you to that line of work? Was it simply through collecting and your interest in the occult and religion? What has its impact been on both your music and visual artwork?

I am no longer in the antiquarian book business. I had to make a choice between being a bookseller or a working musician. I was able to do both for a while but with the sudden burst in my musical activity over the last couple of years (touring, endless recording), I just had to give up my position in the book trade. I sold my entire inventory as well as my personal collection. I really don’t miss it yet. I was a collector for many years starting with weird horror fiction (Lovecraft, Arkham House, etc.) and then I moved on to collecting serious occult works. Bookselling followed naturally. It made me a meager living for a few years, just enough to get by. I don’t really think it had any great impact on my artistic work.

Video by Marc Masters

With the unfortunate passing of Charles Gocher, the Sun City Girls name has officially been understandably retired. Are there plans to continue working with Alan? Also what is being planned in regards to future releases etc.? or is it all too soon to tell?

I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that Charlie isn’t around here anymore. It will take a while for it to really sink in. We have tons of material recorded with Charlie that hasn’t been released yet. I’m sure a good portion of that will trickle out from time to time. The most recent recorded material was music used in Harmony Korine’s new film called Mister Lonely. I’m hoping we can get that released at some point in the near future, mainly because the material is different from a lot of other stuff we’ve put out. I’m sure Alan and I will work on some new things soon, it just won’t be as Sun City Girls. We just haven’t had the time to discuss it yet. I’ll be traveling to India as soon as the Animal Collective tour is over, and I think Alan has some travel plans for later in the year. 2008 might see some new things happening.

What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been on a Chet Atkins kick lately…primarily his recordings from the late 50s and early 60s and as always, music from India and Southeast Asia.

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