Not exactly a Great Lost Column or anything, but here, as promised, is the piece on Sir Richard Bishop that fell out of the current issue of Uncut to make room for David Cavanagh’s superb piece on Alex Chilton. Talking of the issue, by the way, thanks for your Great Lost Albums suggestions here; please keep them coming, and we’ll feature as many as we can in a forthcoming issue of the mag.
Most interesting musicians, perhaps understandably, tend to avoid defining themselves and what they do. Julian Cope, though, is one who has made a lucrative side career out of parsing genres for himself and others, coining a bunch of variously absurd-to-useful terms in the process. One came to mind the other week at Club Uncut, during an engrossing set by the guitarist Sir Richard Bishop.
Cope has talked up an idea of gnostic rock’n’roll – an exploration of zones where esoteric beliefs and musics intersect, very roughly – which seems a lot more apposite to Bishop’s work rather than Cope’s own current protozoic jams, his spiritual quests notwithstanding.
For a good 20 or 30 years now, for a long time as one-third of the Sun City Girls and latterly solo, Bishop – from Phoenix, but now based in Seattle – has pursued an idea of music which is fearless and adventurous, which collapses the boundaries between musics, cultures and faiths. His guitar playing betrays an astonishing virtuosity, whether he’s channelling Sandy Bull, Django Rheinhardt, the Egyptian maestro Omar Khorshid, or Dick Dale. With every unostentatious flourish, Bishop betrays a vast knowledge, but he carries it lightly. Maybe think of him as a repository of occultist thought, with a pranksterish approach to serious study.
Between songs, Bishop will occasionally trigger a muffled loop of Tibetan monks he recorded himself in Dharamsala, India. “In case you didn’t get the message the first time,” he says, “I think they’ve just purified all your ritual objects.” This follows a song he describes as a Black-Eyed Peas cover, which is actually his own “Black Eyed Blue” (from 2006’s “Fingering The Devil”. If you’re looking for a way in, 2007’s “Polytheistic Fragments” is a pretty great primer). He does, though, conjure up a ravishing improvisation out of The Beatles’ “She Loves You”, and twice advises Uncut, “If you run out of rock’n’roll icons, put me on the cover.”
Bishop’s claims on rock posterity, albeit of an underground kind, are generally rather strong. Sun City Girls emerged out of a distinctly eccentric punk milieu in the early ‘80s, embarking on a haphazard career – 60 or 70 albums, many self-released on cassette – that’s offered potent inspiration to a scad of DIY, avant-rock and free folk artists. Their investigations of world music, meanwhile, had a lively irreverence, manifested not just in their own ethnological forgeries (of which a current favourite new band, Sheffield’s Harappian Night Recordings, are clearly keen scholars), but in the Sublime Frequencies label run by Bishop’s brother and Sun City bandmate, Alan (Check out Group Doueh, from the western Sahara, or something like the “Streets Of Lhasa” field recordings).
Richard Bishop, meanwhile, also has a new band, Rangda, with Ben Chasny (Six Organs Of Admittance) and the many-tentacled free jazz drummer, Chris Corsano. Rangda release their first album, “False Flag”, in May, and it’s a belter: a mix of, oh, boggle-eyed jazznik surf-hardcore, terrifying fire music jams, and some immensely lyrical passages (the epic raga of “Plain Of Jars”, say) that present the band as one not quite a million miles from orthodox rock tradition. And one, we should also note, named after a Balinese demon queen purported to eat children.