Sir Richard Bishop

Sir Richard Bishop is a mystic. Or maybe even a heretic. His songs feature titles such as “Cemetery Games” and “Hecate’s Dream” (Hecate being the Greek goddess of witchcraft), and his Web site and albums include antique depictions of suicide and human sacrifice, as well as a photo of a hand run through with a rusty spike. With his scraggly, graying beard, dark fedora, and intense demeanor, Bishop could play the perfect occult cult leader in a Hollywood thriller.

But Bishop is also charming, witty, and an intriguing guitarist who has spent the last 25 years blending Indian, folk, rock, noise, performance art, and other styles in Sun City Girls—an influential underground trio that included Bishop on guitar and piano, his brother Alan on bass and vocals, and the late Charles Gocher on drums. Gocher’s death early this year ended SCG’s prolific run—the band reportedly recorded so often that its members couldn’t keep track of all the releases—but it didn’t stop Bishop. His sixth solo album, the acoustic-fueled
Polytheistic Fragments [Drag City], is chockfull of his characteristic haunting ambience, frenetic ostinato rhythms, and playful 6-string paeans to both Chet Atkins and Middle Eastern oud masters.

He recently took a break from “exploring cremation grounds” in India to discuss his new record.

Who are your main influences?
There are two streams—Eastern and Western—and I drink from both. On the Western front, I stick with the torchbearers. Django Reinhardt’s speed and precision were unmatched, and he understood the fretboard in a way that boggles the mind. Les Paul was the original guitar trickster—you never knew what was up his sleeve. And when I was a teenager in the ’70s, it was Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. I don’t play like any of those guys, but they all played fearlessly, and that’s what inspires me.

Looking to the East, musicians who play instruments such as oud, sarod, and sitar were an even bigger influence. When I was nine or ten, my grandfather played me a tape of an oud solo by the legendary Farid El-Atrache that sounded like there were at least two players. That still rings in my head. Then there’s Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, and other Indian masters of improvisation.

With all your Eastern influences, why do you only use Western instruments?
Since the early days with Sun City Girls, the idea was to interpret the sounds of North Africa, India, and Indonesia with standard instruments—more in homage, than as a replication. Besides, I just want to use the instrument that I know best to capture the essence of the Eastern sound, and that’s the guitar.

On “Rub’ Al Khali” your guitar sounds very oud-like. How did you get that vibe?
I was definitely going for the oud sound. I can’t remember the exact tuning, but I remember it being an open-C tuning, because the low E string would have to be tuned down to at least C to get that deep, oud-like tone. As far as the scales and modes I used, I have no idea. I don’t think or play in those terms—at least not consciously—and certainly not with some made-up tuning. I’ve listened to enough Middle Eastern music to be able to pick out a few notes that I know will work, and then I just improvise around them.

What’s the story behind the haunting, otherworldly “Hecate’s Dream?”
It was played on an old Magnatone lap-steel from the 1940s—two tracks, two takes. Real quick. It’s definitely atmospheric, and it has elements of Indian classical music.

The reverb-soaked “Canned Goods and Firearms” is almost like Joe Maphis meets Dick Dale.
It’s completely alien to my style, and that’s what I wanted. I was listening to a lot of Chet Atkins, as well as an Internet radio station playing country music from the ’50s and ’60s. I realized I’d never played anything remotely country, so I wanted to see what could happen. I used my Gibson ES-330 and the studio’s Fender amp, and I recorded a rhythm track with just two chords—E7 and D7—repeated with stops throughout. Before we rolled tape for the lead overdub, I messed around while listening to the basic track. After five minutes, I just went for it.

Tell me about your gear.
The last three years, all my tours have been solo acoustic. I use a ’94 Dell’ Arte Minor Swing model—which is a copy of the Selmer-Maccaferri oval-soundhole guitars used by Django. Its tones are perfect for raga-type pieces or Middle Eastern improvisations. It has a Dell’ Arte Big Tone pickup, and I plug straight into the house system. Live, I use a Boss RC-20 Loop Station to create a tambura drone [a tambura is a lute-like instrument with two to four strings that are sometimes tuned in unison pairs] for raga pieces, or to build a song from scratch. I use Wegen picks—usually the 3.5mm Gypsyjazzpick for songs with single-note playing, and the 5mm Fatone for rhythmic pieces because it provides a heavier, fuller sound. It’s also good for percussive experiments on the strings. My strings are Dell’ Arte Gypsy Jazz sets, gauged .010-.046.

How do you plan to improve as a player over the coming months?
I want to continue challenging myself to come up with new approaches and ideas. For my upcoming tour, I plan to leave the acoustic guitar at home. I’ll find a new electric guitar that’s unfamiliar to me, and I may get a few effects pedals that I’ve never used. This will push me into new situations. I’ll be forced to come up with new material, and try different experiments. As long as I have confidence and remain fearless, nothing can possibly go wrong—right?

What’s the trick to coalescing such diverse influences into a cohesive style?
There’s always a cage somebody wants to put you in. And when they try to do that, it usually means you’ve arrived. I just hurl myself off the cliff into oblivion without worrying where I’ll land. I may never come up with a style all my own. I’m not sure I want to. If I did, I might be less inclined to keep experimenting. I’m still not sure of my destination but, as Donovan once said, to me, “It’s all about the journey, man.”