Sure they’re gonna do things that you don’t like as a fan—that you might not personally like—but you kinda stay with it because you’re watching artistic talent develop over a period of decades. You just stay with it, and kind of observe it, and enjoy it.
This interview (along with the Alan Bishop interview elsewhere on this blog) served as background for my 2002 SFBG article on the Sun City Girls. In fairness to Mr. Colburn, his resumé as a producer/engineer includes many other credits in addition to his work with SCG. He was also a longtime member of the Seattle-based Climax Golden Twins. His Web site, gravelvoice.com, is home to a variety articles on topics ranging from recording techniques to a list of albums that changed his life, including ones by Caroliner, Black Flag, Chrome, the Residents, and the Insane Clown Posse!
How long have you known the Sun City Girls?
I met them in ’84 on their first tour when they were on tour with JFA [Jodie Foster’s Army]. The band I was in was opening up the show, and the band that was after us was the Sun City Girls. And I watched the Sun City Girls’ set and I thought it was rather odd, and not really appropriate for opening for JFA. But I liked it anyway, just because it was ultra-strange. Then, after JFA played, I walked up to the bass player thinking it that it was [JFA bassist] Michael Cornelius, because I had had letter exchanges with Michael and I didn’t really quite know what Michael looked like—I saw a hazy picture at one point. So I just walked up to bass player and said, “Are you Michael Cornelius?” And it was actually Alan. And he turned around and he was like, “No, I’m Alan Bishop. I was also in Sun City Girls before.” And we just kind of hit it off. The next thing I know, we’re sitting in the bus; they’re playing the Last Poets for me, and I’m playing the Gynecologists for them. It would go back and forth like that. And I just kept in touch with them after that, just being into the band. The first record hadn’t come out, and I just wanted to keep in contact because I felt that I discovered a new band worthy of time.
And it was basically just keeping in touch with them via mail, because e-mail didn’t exist then. [Laughs.] And making sure that I bought the cassettes when they released them, and the other records when they released them, and the compilations they were on. But it wasn’t until ’90, which was their next tour…. ‘Cause there was a big, long stretch between tours, and that was for Torch of the Mystics, and I lived in Chicago at the time, so they contacted me to see if I could set up a show for them in Chicago, and so I did. And I recorded that show, and a portion of it came out on Kaliflower. Kaliflower was actually the first record that I worked with them on. But there was one that came out simultaneously, that C.O.N. Artist Live in Poon Village record, and I also recorded that, but that was recorded on the ’92 tour.
But the earliest recording I made of them was in ’90. Now, what was fascinating about the Chicago show is that it was a very magical show—it was one of the top [SCG] shows, still to this day, that I’ve seen them do, and I’ve probably seen 50 or more shows. But it was just a very magical night, and they liked it as well. Then, they had a few days off before the went to their next gig, and I just happened to be getting married a couple of days later, so they attended my wedding, which was kind of wild. [Laughs.]
And then I moved to Los Angeles days after I got married, and kept in contact with them and flew to Phoenix whenever they’d play. And [I’d] record those shows—you know, hang out with them. And then when the ’92 tour came around, I asked if I could go on that tour, like to sell product or to record the shows. And Alan thought it would be a really good idea, so I went on that tour, the ’92 tour. And that was the last tour that they’ve been on until this one coming up now.
Oh really? So when they played here in 2000—that was probably a one-off thing?
Yeah, it was just San Francisco and that was it. It was kind of regular after the ’92 tour to go to San Francisco around Halloween every year. And that happened two or three times.
So this [2002 tour] is their third tour ever?
Yeah, and it’s not really much of a tour, it’s just San Francisco, L.A., Phoenix, Tucson, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, New York. Whereas the ’92 tour was full-blown, 35 shows, all in the U.S. And we went to Japan for a week in, like, ’98 or ’99? I can’t remember exactly.
They just don’t have any interest in touring?
Well, they don’t need to. There’s no reason to do it. They do what they do because they’re artists. And it’s not about selling a lot of records; it’s not about making a lot of money. It’s just about making their music and releasing exactly what they wanna release, when they wanna release it, and being in complete control of that. So the idea of going out and playing a show—it’s fun, and they do it, but there’s no reason to hit the road and live in a van. They’re totally comfortable with the way they exist right now, and have existed … since ’79. [Laughs.]
So they don’t really care that their recordings are out of print, a lot of them?
No. Alan’s response to any question like, “Is such-and-such gonna be put back in print or reissued?” His response is, “Why? Why should I try to keep our old recordings in print if I’ve got 300 new recordings that I’d rather release?” The archive is immense. There are so many album projects and tapes. I mean, at any given time, Alan and I might be working on two or three albums simultaneously. So there’s no reason to go back in time and keep things in print. It’s like, if you were there, you bought the record, fine. If you weren’t there, too bad. At least jump on the ship now and keep up with it. It’s not really our responsibility to keep things available for people because they weren’t there from the very beginning. You can still find the stuff—you can pay top dollar for it on eBay. If you really want it, you can get it, or find somebody who will make a tape of it for you. But that’s what keeps the mystery of that band going, is that this stuff is really not available. You won’t find a ton of releases in a Sun City Girls bin in a record store, because they’re just not available. [Note: As of July 2015, many of their albums can be legally downloaded through various sites.–WY]
Is the Carnival Folklore Resurrection thing going to keep going?
I’m not really sure. You know, we’ve talked both ways about that. One is that it’s at volume ten, and that’s a nice little stopping place. But there’s no definite answer on whether it will continue or not continue. The records that are gonna be available only on the tour—and there’s two of ’em—those are not part of the series, but they could easily be part of that series.
Do you have favorites that stick out among the things they’ve released?
Um, yeah. I really, really like the first record, because that was the first one that I heard. I really like Torch of the Mystics. I really like 330 [330,003 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda] and Dante [Dante’s Disneyland Inferno] because those came out simultaneously.
Right, I’ve got all those.
And—it’s a bias on my part, because Charlie and I did the record together—I really like [Charles Gocher’s solo album] Pint-Sized Sparticus. I know that it wasn’t very well received, and it’s, like, beyond most people’s comprehension, but I think it’s a really great piece of work. But it’s not a “record” in the classical sense. It’s more like a radio play. It’s a different approach. I really like it, but most people I talk to—even hardcore fans—are like, “I don’t really understand what that’s all about.” I say, “I’m sorry, I can’t really explain it to you because I really don’t know myself, but I just like it for what it is.” [Laughs.]
Do they still get together and play a lot?
Sure, sure. We’re not in the studio as much as we used to be—we used to be in the studio three days a week, but that’s when we all lived together and it made sense to do that. Now, everybody’s busy doing other things: having side projects, traveling, and doing whatnot. So we’re maybe not in the studio as much, but the studio time that we do have is hyper-productive. There’s so much being accomplished in a given day or two. And Alan does a lot of work on recordings, and organizing what’s gonna happen in the studio outside of studio time. And they have rehearsals and get-togethers, and they’ll play an impromptu show here and there at an open mic or something like that.
But the answer to the question is, they’re completely unpredictable. You never know which direction they’re gonna go. And as much as I would like to say that I understand them, and can figure out what they’re gonna do it—what the next move is—the truth is I never really know what the next move is. I just sit back and I’m ready to react at any given time.
So did they just used to roll the tape all the time, like in the studio?
So that’s where the archive comes from?
Yeah. Rolling tape all the time, recording every show, every practice, every…everything, every note. Everything’s been recorded. So understandably, there’s gonna be a massive archive of stuff from which to cull material. And it doesn’t matter that a particular piece—maybe it was recorded 20 years ago—it doesn’t mean that it’s only gonna stay in that form. We could add to it to make it current and make it really essentially a new recording. In a sense, it’s like rap music: they’re sampling from their own archives to create new pieces of music.
It seems like there hasn’t had been officially “new” album since the two [330,003 Crossdressers… and Dante’s…] came out at the same time . [Note: This question was asked in 2002 … but still, it was simply a case of misinformed interviewing.]
No, that’s not true. That High Asia/Lo Pacific—the last in that [Carnival Folklore Resurrection] series [as of mid-2002]—all of that was created . . .
But it seems like it’s part of that archival series.
Well, that whole series—I’m fuzzy on which volume is which, because they all came out so quickly and I was working on all of them at the same time. But there was one that came out early on, Volume 2 [The Dreamy Draw] or 3 [Superculto] or something like that, which was just a straight recording of a live show or something like that they had just done, like a month prior to its release. [Note: In hindsight, I think he is actually referring to Volume 5, Severed Finger With a Wedding Ring, which was recorded and released in 2000, whereas Volumes 2 and 3 were recorded a few years prior.] So in a sense, that’s “new.” It wasn’t a studio recording, but it’s just as much of a studio recording as anything else.
So their shows now—what kind of places did they play up there [in Seattle]?
It depends. I’ve seen them in the last year just play impromptu improvised sets at this place called the Pearl—which doesn’t exist anymore—which was like a coffee house/bar place. They just kind of show up and play. I’d literally get a call in the morning and they’d say, “Hey, we’re gonna play at the Pearl tonight.” And there’s maybe 15 or 20 people there.
People who don’t know who they are?
No, the people who were there are people that we called. Like friends.
Oh, ’cause it seemed like in the past they played for people who had no idea who they were or what they were doing, like if they were opening for JFA or something.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]
Do you think that had a big impact on their whole outlook on things—playing for audiences that were maybe hostile?
Definitely. You can’t do music that’s as creative as what they do and not find hostility in the audience. Especially when what you’re playing is so off base that it seems out of place even in the punk rock genre. But since that was the subculture that was going on, that was the only appeal that they could ever have to an audience, because that’s what was subversive and counterculture at the time. And it’s the same as Dylan playing folk music and then whipping out an electric guitar. How many people were pissed at him because he played electric? But, at the same time, it’s like, that’s just what he wanted to do, and the only outlet for him to do what he wanted was through an already established counterculture of protest-folk music. So he goes and plays it, and people react hostilely, but it’s legendary now.
Yeah. So it seems like since punk kind of died out, they’re just kind of floating—they don’t fit anywhere now.
Well, they’ve never fit anywhere. I’ve always felt that the bands that existed during the punk rock heyday that continue [to sound relevant] today are the bands that either had already developed a unique sound for themselves during that genre, or used that punk rock genre to develop their own personal musical style. And what I mean by that is, using Black Flag as an example…I mean, Damaged comes out and it’s totally within the hardcore punk rock genre. People go ballistic; it’s a great record it—it’s fantastic. And then, there’s this long gap of four years and then they come out with My War, and it’s totally different. And people are like, “What the fuck is this? This is like Black Flag doing Black Sabbath!” But what happened was, they developed their own personal musical style out of that punk style. And they said, “This is what we are. This is a fully developed band now. Black Flag: love it or leave it.” And I loved it. I thought it was fantastic. And so I just went with it. If Black Flag still existed today, I would still be going to see them because I just really dig what they were doing. And even by today’s standards, Black Flag wouldn’t fit in anywhere.
Yeah. So other bands who’re still around from back then—there’s not many. Like, Caroliner….
Yeah, there’s really not. Most of them break up, and I think that’s what kind of fascinating about the Sun City Girls, or maybe trying to draw parallels between them and the Residents. The Residents do what they’re gonna do, and it’s strictly for the art of it. And you have to allow them to do that. It’s less music and more art at that point. And you can’t make them fit into any kind of category, because that’s not where they exist.
It’s just like a painter who decides he’s not gonna paint anymore and he’s gonna start doing sculpture. You can’t say, “You can’t do sculpture; you can only paint, ’cause you’re a painter.” That’s not where his expression is. And when people operate that way, you have to let ’em go and just, like, go with the flow. Sure they’re gonna do things that you don’t like as a fan—that you might not personally like—but you kinda stay with it because you’re watching artistic talent develop over a period of decades. You just stay with it, and kind of observe it, and enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be the same formula all the time ’cause you get tired of that, you know? [Laughs.]
Are they as intimidating to work with as they seem? Their stage presence makes them seem that way.
Well, I know them, and I’m bold enough even when I don’t know people to go up and talk to ’em regardless of what I feel like they’re like onstage. And there’s people that I maybe don’t wanna talk to. Like, I had an opportunity to meet Genesis P. Orridge, but I really didn’t want to talk to him because I don’t care for what he stands for. But at the same time, I’ve read in the past that even though he’s hyper-aggressive and seems like a really violent person onstage, he’s really a lovey-dovey ex-flower-child. So it’s like a dichotomy as far as who people are offstage and who they are onstage, or what they represent artistically. You know, the Residents seem totally dark, but if you know them, they’re not dark people; they’re actually quite happy-go-lucky people. So I would say it depends how somebody’s approached, how they’re gonna react to you. Because when you’re dealing with artists and musicians, you’re also dealing with people who are essentially actors.
Using the parallel with the Residents, the Residents are in complete control of their identity and who they are and how they’re perceived by the public. And the Sun City Girls are the same way. It’s like, maintaining control of the mysticism behind the band he extends to even people who are in the inner sanctum—you know, like me. The mystery of the band extends even to me, to where sometimes I’m not sure what they’re thinking or I’m not sure what the next move is gonna be.
There’s been several times when something’s happening in the studio and I hear this weird sound—and I don’t have windows in my studio, I have a surveillance camera, but I don’t have it on unless I need it. And there was one time, a track was going down and I was like, “Holy shit. How—what does that look like, that sound that he’s making?” Turn the surveillance camera on and look at him and, “God, it looks like he’s possessed. It’s really, really weird. But hey, it’s a great take.” Whatever it takes to get it, I guess that’s what you gotta do. But the mystery is still there.
It’s like tonight, he’s walking in the studio—what are we gonna do? I have no idea. I know what the goal is: the goal is to produce a radio show. But what’s gonna be in that show and how it’s gonna go about, I have no idea. So it’s kind of fun to be in a sense “in the band” without actually knowing what’s going on. It’s like war: you have to be ready to react at any given moment, and to go with it and play with the team and not operate against it.