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Royal Highness

International Guitar Explorer Sir Richard Bishop Pauses His Journeys With Sun City Girls to Spin An Otherworldly Web of Acoustic Improvisations

PLUCKY: Sir Richard Bishop improvises a musical trip around the globe on his new solo album.

By Marc Masters | Posted 5/4/2005

Sir Richard Bishop is not an actual knight, but his inventive, majestic music places him in the ranks of such acoustic guitar royalty as Django Reinhardt, John Fahey, and Robbie Basho. Otherwise known simply as Rick of the legendary avant-rock trio Sun City Girls, Bishop chose his solo moniker with tongue partly in cheek. “Lord Richard Burton seemed too lofty, and Dame Richard Burton wasn’t quite enough,” Bishop says, laughing. “It’s somewhat a tribute to Sir Richard Burton, the explorer.”

The reference to global travel is apt; Bishop himself has journeyed around the globe several times. The music he’s encountered in India, Southeast Asia, and North Africa has shaped his own, particularly Improvika (Locust), his 2004 second solo album. “This album wasn’t influenced by specific players so much as geographic locations I’ve been to and the sounds associated with them,” Bishop explains. “Seeing someone play the oud in North Africa, watching them get a sound that was orchestral or sounded like more than one player, that really influenced how I approach the guitar.”

The music on Improvika certainly sounds beyond the capability of a single human. Swinging from gypsylike hymns to blurry-fast strumming to shining finger-picked clarity, Bishop’s playing is dazzlingly rapid and precise. The jaw-dropping “Jaisalmer” opens with patient, hypnotic snake-charming before fast-forwarding into flaming strings and teetering plucks, while the stormy chords of “Skull of Sidon” are struck so hard it sounds like Bishop’s hand is punching through the speakers.

Throughout the album, ideas spill out of Bishop’s brain like an avalanche, and he catches them all on the fly, with nothing on Improvika preplanned. “I wanted to make an all-improvised album, just play raw music as it came out,” Bishop says. “Not a lot of thought went into the record beforehand, because I felt like if I thought about it too much, it wouldn’t come out the right way.”

Ironically, this decision was inspired in part by Bishop’s obsession with gypsy music, a style often associated with meticulous reproduction. “I’ve hung out with some modern gypsy players, and all they’re concerned about is replicating Django Reinhardt solos note for note,” Bishop says. “I will admit I have tried that, but you get so frustrated because you can’t do it. And when you can, you’re proud of yourself for about two minutes, but then you realize, what’s the point? You might as well try to take the same energy and feeling these players are using and come up with something on your own.”

Bishop’s commitment to improvisation makes Improvika a contrast to his first solo album, 1998’s Salvador Kali, whose mostly composed pieces echo the guitarist’s fiery Eastern-tinged riffs in Sun City Girls. That record also includes piano, harmonium, and some overdubs, whereas Improvika is strictly one-tracked acoustic guitar. “I find that acoustic guitar is the best gauge of guitar playing, where you’re not relying on effects pedals or volume settings, or any other escape hatches,” Bishop says. “You just have a man and an instrument, as they were both originally made.”

Bishop’s own self-reliance extends back to his first guitar encounters. “When I was 12, I took guitar lessons for about three weeks, but I just wasn’t into it,” he says. “So that was my formal training. In high school, I was lucky enough to have friends who knew chords and solos and things like that, and they were patient enough to teach me a few things. And I tried to replicate solos by Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Ted Nugent. But most of my developing ideas came from playing on my own, just improvising and seeing what comes out.”

Bishop’s continual work on his guitar playing has created a style in which technique and creativity inextricably entwine. Every note on Improvika drips with proficiency and imagination, with one never obscuring the other. “When I’m sitting around playing the guitar, sometimes I improvise, and sometimes I work on technique, trying to play things faster, or slower, or cleaner,” Bishop says. “Sometimes by trying to play things faster, I might not succeed, but I might make a mistake that leads to an idea I can further develop.”

Such open-eyed inventiveness has also marked Bishop’s time with Sun City Girls. Over the course of 24 years and more than 50 releases, the trio of Rick, bassist (and brother) Alan Bishop, and drummer Charlie Gocher has been a singular icon of the American underground, rivaled only by legends such as the Residents and Jandek. The band’s sprawling oeuvre straddles fringe world music, far-out improv, heavy rock, abstract theater, and so much more. While Sun City Girls have rarely toured, Rick and Alan often travel together in search of inspirational sounds. “Only once, in 1983, we did take instruments with us, trying to get our hotels and food paid for by busking wherever we could,” Bishop says. “But whenever we travel, especially in the Asian countries, there are always local people sitting around playing. We usually approach them to listen, and invariably a couple of other guitars show up and we end up playing.” Many of the sights and sounds the brothers have absorbed are collected on the CDs and DVDs Rick helps assemble for Sublime Frequencies, a label run by Alan and Hisham Mayet. Sun City Girls have recently ventured out more and hope later this year to tour Europe, a place they’ve only played once, at 2002’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England.

Bishop’s current three-week solo tour, which ends this Saturday in Washington, is his first in the U.S., following a string of dates last winter in Australia. “When I play live, I usually do a lot of improvisation, some gypsy stuff, some raga-styled pieces, some North African stuff, and some Sun City Girls pieces that we don’t do with the band too often,” Bishop says. Future plans include a European stint opening for Devendra Banhart and hopefully, opportunities to improvise with others.

“There are certain players I’d like to play with, like Ben Chasny from Six Organs of Admittance and Jack Rose,” he says. “If I’m improvising with someone, I like to have an idea of how they play. You can make something a lot better if you understand the other player, and are willing to not play at certain points and listen to what’s going on, as opposed to just thrashing off some notes. [In Chicago during this tour] I played with Eugene Chadbourne. We hadn’t played together in about 15 years, and it was a little all over the place, but the audience seemed to like it.”

Perhaps the greatest response to Bishop’s music came from the late John Fahey, whose Revenant label released Bishop’s first solo album. “I introduced myself to him as Richard Bishop, and he didn’t really react,” Bishop recalls. “So I told him I had a record on his label, and he paused, and then said, ‘Oh, Sir Richard Bishop.’ Then he paused again and said, ‘You play like the devil.’ That was the best compliment he could’ve given me.”

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