That Was Then/This Is Yesterday

Interview: Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls/Rangda), 2010

Posted in Interviews by wwyork on February 22, 2015

August 2010 interview with longtime Sun City Girls guitarist (Sir) Richard Bishop, focusing on Rangda, his group with Ben Chasny and Chris Corsano. 

How did you meet these guys? How did this group come together?

I first met Ben a while back. It might have been officially when he was opening up for Sun City Girls several years ago—I don’t remember the exact year—but he did a few shows with us. And I was aware of him before that; I just don’t think I had ever met him. And I remember the first concert we played with him opening up—I believe it was in Olympia, Washington—and my introduction to him onstage is…. [Pauses.] Ben likes a little bourbon every now and then, and he was kinda hammered, and he was getting ready to do his opening set. And the DJ was playing a harmonica piece—a solo piece over the [PA]—and Ben started yelling on the mic that he was refusing to follow a harmonica player. So he grabbed his glass that he was drinking from and he started squeezing it, and he actually broke the glass, and his hand started bleeding. And then he played his set. It was wonderful! [Laughs.]

Over the years, we’ve known each other a little better. And it was his idea a while back to get this group going. He wanted Chris Corsano to play drums. And of course, we had to wait because he was under contract with what’s-her-name, B. J. Ork, Bork—whatever. Whatever they call that chick. And then finally he was free to have some time, and we eventually got it started—at least in the idea phase. And I think the first time I met Chris—um, it might have also been at a Sun City Girls show, in Montreal. I think this was the first time I met him, officially. Of course, I knew who he was—I knew his reputation. And the Sun City Girls were playing this festival in Montreal, and literally a couple of hours before the festival, Charlie, our drummer, was just not feeling good at all. He was actually quite sick, for whatever reason—this was pre-cancer and all that, I think. Or maybe it was during the start of that phase. And we were considering Chris filling in for Charlie if necessary. And Chris was ready to go—he was ready to jump in the stool. But Charlie just kind of pulled through at the last minute and decided to do the show.

Is this the show that the Montreal Pop record came from?

Yeah, actually I think it was. Because I think we only played there one time with the band, so that must have been it, yeah.

Yeah, I’ve got that record. It’s pretty good.

Yeah, it’s a good one.

I would never have known he was sick. He’s a trouper.

Yeah, totally.

Was the first time the Rangda trio played together right before the recording, or did you play live shows before that?

It all happened within just a few days. We set up a show in Seattle last September, and we had never played together before. And the day before the show, we rehearsed, kind of—we just jammed for like an hour and a half. We kind of developed some of the core ideas of what eventually became the songs on the record. We played the show, and then a day later, we went into the studio and made the record. So it was pretty quick. And since that record was recorded, which was also in September of last year, the three of us didn’t even see each other until we showed up in Europe for the European tour earlier this year. So we haven’t practiced since that one first time, and that was more of just a jam session than anything else.

I know everything on the CD has some concept to it, even if it doesn’t have a “tune,” necessarily. I mean, it’s not like some improv stuff where it’s more like, “Let’s just start playing and see what happens.” But when you do shows, do you tend to start from the foundations of those pieces, or do you start from somewhere else—or from nowhere?

Actually, it goes back to being in the recording studio and that first show, where we developed some outlines of some pieces that we knew were gonna be on the record, or we would at least try. And so we developed them pretty quick in the studio, but once we started playing them live—even though they do have themes and stuff, and we’re playing all the songs on the record—all those pieces have a lot of space for improv. So they’re a little bit different every time. But also during that last tour, we did do a few of those things where we’d just count something out or just start playing and see where it goes. So by doing that, we’ve kind of developed and a few other . . . I guess I would call ’em “improvisational ideas” that we can build on. And we’ll probably continue to do that during this tour as well. And hopefully, if we get a chance, we’re gonna try to get together for a couple hours before the first show. I think I have some more ideas, and Ben has some ideas. We’re gonna see if we can put some newer stuff together as well.

But it’s kinda like a hit-and-miss thing. We haven’t played together long enough to be totally comfortable, I don’t think, with just going and doing a completely improvised set. I mean, we could do it, and some of it might be great, and some of it might not be so great. We have to work with each other a little more and just kind of spend a little more time to where we’re all comfortable doing that. It might take a little while.

I guess it’s a little different being in a band with people you’ve only played with a few times as opposed to people you played with for more than 25 years, like this other band you were in…

That’s exactly true. I mean, playing with Al and Charlie for that long, after the first few years, we became so comfortable with each other to where we kind of knew how certain of us would react to certain ideas as they were thrown out. And I think eventually that will be the same thing with Chris and Ben. It’s just gonna take a tiny bit of time. Actually, it probably will take less time than it would with other musicians, because these guys are good improvisers. But we’re still kind of feeling each other out in that department. And that’s kind of exciting, because we don’t really quite know where it’s going yet, and that keeps it interesting.

This group seems a little bit more focused, at least in terms of the scope of what you’re doing, when compared to the Sun City Girls.

Yeah.

Or maybe “focused” isn’t the right word—”constrained,” maybe. Whereas Sun City Girls could be anything, almost.

Exactly.

To try to develop that again would probably take another lifetime.

Yeah, probably. I don’t ever really expect to get that whole force going with three people like we had with me, Al, and Charlie. I mean, we can do something similar with Ben and Chris and myself, but I don’t think any of us expect us to take that approach. I think Ben and Chris and I can do a lot more composing at first, more than straight-up improv. And that’s kind of a new thing to me as well.

Do you plan to keep the trio from the Freak of Araby album going, too?

Well, I’ve thought about that. I mean, maybe on occasion I’ll go back to that if I can hook up with the same musicians who know the material pretty well. But it’s not something I’m gonna actively pursue. That might be something I might do every couple of years if I feel like doin’ it. I don’t think I’ll incorporate any of that material into Rangda yet. I mean, I don’t know if anybody really wants to. Like, I mean, I don’t think Ben wants to do any Six Organs stuff. So I’m gonna try to keep ’em separate.

But right now, the trio with Ben and Chris is the priority, and that kind of balances with the solo stuff I’ve been doing. So I’m gonna probably try to keep it at that. And I’m also gonna be doing a little stuff with my brother later this year and next year probably as well.

Like new recordings?

Well, I don’t know if there’ll be new recordings, but at least we might get together and do some shows. He and I just got offered a couple of shows in Lebanon in November.

Yeah, I saw that just today!

So we’re gonna do that, of course, ’cause . . .

. . . it’s the Fatherland.

Yeah. Yeah. And then, you know, we’ll see. He’s been pretty busy with Sublime Frequencies lately, and he’s gonna be traveling to Indonesia soon. So we haven’t really had a chance to sit down and do anything, but we’re starting to talk about it at least.

I saw the Brothers Unconnected show in Chicago. I drove up there and it was . . . great.

Oh yeah, cool. Thanks.

I have just a few more questions here.

Oh, no problem.

Okay. Well, obviously you played guitar in the Sun CIty Girls, but you also played other instruments. And there were also times when there would be no guitar on an album. And now with both the Freak of Araby group and with Rangda, it’s more just playing guitar. I don’t know if you have any comments on this shift from where it could sort of be anything—any instrument, any type of performance—in the Sun City Girls to just, “I’m playing the guitar.” Do you like being able to have that focus?

Well, the guitar is my main instrument, and I’m most comfortable with the guitar. So I’m always gonna lean toward that. I kind of miss having all the instruments lying around to just kind of make sound with. In fact, right now most of them are in storage somewhere. That’s kind of a drag. But for Rangda and this tour, you know, I think we’ve all decided, you know, we don’t need a bass player yet. So we’re just gonna keep it with the guitars and the drums and just kind of work that aspect to see what we can do with two guitars and drums. And eventually, I’m sure other instruments might make their way into the performances. But again, it’s too early for that. We’re still seeing what we can do with what each of us knows the best.

This is gonna sound corny, but at this stage, you could be considered a sort of quote-unquote “elder statesman,” in the sense that you’ve been doing this stuff for a while, and you have such a resume of things you’ve done. And when this whole “freak folk” or “new weird America” thing came along, it was sort of like people were catching up to stuff that you all or Caroliner or whoever were doing 20 years ago.

Yeah, that is true. People are kind of wakin’ up a little bit, you know, realizing that they’re maybe 20 years behind in recognizing certain things that we may have done . . .

See, I’m only 15 years behind . . .

[Laughs.] But yeah, you used the “elder statesman” thing, and just so you know, today is my 50th birthday.

Oh wow, happy birthday!

And here I am doin’ a damn interview on the phone.

I didn’t say “old”!

[Laughs.] I know, I know. I’m just fuckin’ with you. But “elder statesman”—you know, I think I’ve got about 10 or 15 years on these guys. I know they’re considerably younger. I don’t even know how old Chris is. It’s hard to tell—he looks like a little kid sometimes. [Laughs.] But yeah, Ben approached me [about the band]. He always wanted to work with me, and I’m pretty picky about who I work with as well. You know, I won’t just—well, I might for fun—but I don’t really go out of my way to just sit around and play with anybody. Because, first of all, I don’t have the time, and I have to be a little picky about who I do want to get together with. And I knew that Ben and Chris—even before I knew them very well—I knew that they were probably going to be capable of at least having similar ideas and a similar approach to creating sound of some sort. And so from day one with them, I felt very comfortable with the arrangement.

And I don’t really know how they look at it—you know, that they’re playing with a Sun City Girl or something like that; I don’t really think they think of it that way. I think they just realize—you know, they know my history, I know their histories a little bit. And they probably felt the same way: they figured that this grouping could create something unique. And eventually we will!

Do you listen to much improv?

I do. But I listen mostly to the older stuff. I don’t listen to a lot of modern stuff. It’s just because I’m not exposed to most of it. I mean, I’ll still listen to Albert Ayler and free jazz; I’ll still listen to Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and all that stuff. Because it’s pretty bottomless. I hear new stuff [from that era] all the time, and it’s such a vast discography through all those artists, that now when I hear a modern free jazz unit, it doesn’t sound any different. I mean, I can appreciate it, but it’s not really anything different from what I had been listening to from stuff that’s 30, 40, 50 years old. So I just don’t listen to much of it. Sometimes I might just happen to see something live—like maybe an opening band, or just if I’m out with friends—and I’ll see something that’s free and, uh, you know, I can appreciate it. But it has to really do something different for me to really latch onto it, because I’ve kind of been saturated with listening to the older stuff.

I know, I feel the same way. What about on the European side of it, like Derek Bailey-type stuff?

Well, I mean, he also has a vast catalog, and I’ve probably heard just fractions of it. And a lot of what he does I really like, and some of it I don’t like as much. But I totally understand what he’s doing. And I don’t let it influence me that much. But there are people who will hear something that I’ve played and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, that’s a Derek Bailey thing.”

I would have never said that, actually!

There’s a couple of pieces on some of the records that are pretty minimal. And it’s not really a direct influence at all, [but] I can listen to it and see what they’re talking about—it might sound like something he did. And that’s just gonna happen by default. But it’s never really been an influence.

Just out of curiosity, the next Sun City Girls album [Funeral Mariachi]. . .

It’s a good one!

It’s more of a studio-oriented song-based kind of thing?

All the songs on this particular record are composed pieces. There were probably some improvised elements along the way (that are probably still improvised elements), but they just sound like they’re part of the pieces now. Some of the original tracks go back to the “turn of the century,” as they say, where we were actually intending to release an album—a completed album, you know, not just an album of selected songs [surrounded by other material], but a full album. And it just never happened, for whatever reason. We never got back around to it because all of us were doing different things and we never had the time. And then as Charlie got sicker and sicker, it became more difficult to finish it. So it’s just been sittin’ around, at least most of the tracks that are on it. And Al and I had to finish up most of the tracks, ’cause nothing was really finished from the original sessions.

So it was a lot of work just kind of deciding how to finish it without Charlie. We called in Eyvind Kang on a couple of pieces and Jessika Kinney to do some vocalizing, just to kinda flesh it out. And it turned out really well. And I think people are really gonna be surprised when they hear it, because in my opinion, it’s way more accessible than Torch of the Mystics. It’s already one of my favorites, and nobody’s even heard it yet. But it’s really quite melodic; it’s kinda psychedelic, but it doesn’t really go way out there, like into the crazy worlds of where we’ve gone before. It’s pretty focused, and it’s kind of a gorgeous little last record. I’m pretty sure a lot of people are gonna like it. And a lot of people who have never liked our band might like this quite a bit.

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