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Ben Chasny and Sir Richard Bishop: The Subterranean Travelers
Chasny, Corsano, and Bishop raging onstage with Rangda. Photo by Joe Mabel
One of the most exciting developments in music—guitar or otherwise—over the last decade has been the rise of the American free-rock underground. Loosely linked through the web and a network of small independent labels, clubs, and show promoters that take their inspiration from the punk and post-punk movements of the ’70s and ’80s, this experimental movement is a fluid and inclusive environment that defies classification. And Ben Chasny and Sir Richard Bishop are two of the most daring and respected instrumentalists working within its gloriously loose parameters.
Though they currently perform together with powerhouse improvisational drummer Chris Corsano in the underground supergroup Rangda, Chasny and Bishop have played relentlessly as solo artists and band members.
Along with his brother Alan, Bishop led the bewilderingly creative and prolific Sun City Girls—a fast moving target of a band that stirred up a ramshackle brew of free jazz, noise rock, psychedelia, and twisted Gypsy virtuosity that mowed down live audiences in performance. More recently, he crafted several albums on his own that interpret, among other things, Middle Eastern traditional and pop music through a mutated Django-meets-Quicksilver Messenger Service guitar delivery.
Chasny, meanwhile, leapt into the fast-moving underground stream via membership in the San Francisco-based high-energy combo Comets on Fire and his Six Organs of Admittance project—a constantly evolving vehicle for his delicate and fiery fingerstyle acoustic work and visceral electric playing that unites everything from folk-rock to lo-fi organic ambiance and ecstatic freestyle noise assaults. Both Bishop and Chasny see the electric guitar as limitless in the hands of those willing to get out of their comfort zone. And as their improvisations and more structured material with Rangda attest, they are fearless in stretching the constraints of a song and the relatively simple guitar, effect, and amplifier rigs they use. Indeed, players seeking enlightenment about how to make the guitar a more emotive tool with their own two hands need look no further than Rangda.
“I think it helps to listen to players that use the entire guitar,” says Chasny about unlocking untapped potential in a 6-string. “People like Keith Rowe and Donald Miller open up the entire sonic palette of the guitar with tools and make you realize how many possibilities there are. You can do anything from the cleanest folk strum to extreme prepared stuff. And there is also a dynamic in there that allows you to explore subtleties within a single bent note— like Richard Thompson’s playing, for instance.” Bishop is even more adamant about stretching technique and working outside the bounds of what’s comfortable. And though a listen to any one of his recent solo works will reveal that Bishop is capable of incredibly technical playing— from precision staccato picking to frenzied multiple-octave scale runs—he regards technique for the sake of technique and the quest for perfect tone as dead ends.
“You always hear about specific players and their search for the perfect tone,” says Bishop, reflecting on the obsessive tendencies of some guitarists. “So what happens when they find that ultimate tone? Is that it? When it comes to technique, a similar problem rears its head. It doesn’t matter how much technique anybody has. There are thousands of players out there who have mastered the fretboard inside and out. They can play every chord a 100 different ways and with every possible fingering. They’ve mastered every scale and mode known to man, and their fingers can stretch from here to the moon. That doesn’t mean they are going to play anything new or challenging or different.”
Chasny and Bishop are avid listeners and students of music—esoteric and otherwise. Bishop and his brother Alan participate in running Sublime Frequencies, a record label that specializes in unearthing obscure ethnic music that includes everything from Egyptian guitar heroes to East Asian pop radio broadcasts. But while they’ll readily rattle off lists of influences from Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock, Donovan, and Jimmy Page to the keyboard playing and sax work of Marshall Allen and John Coltrane, Chasny and Bishop both find value in a clean slate.
“The most important element in my playing now is keeping my mind clear and ready for anything,” says Chasny. “The clearer my mind, the better I am able to improvise. If my mind is focused on something else, I tend to fall back on patterns or sleepwalk my way through a set.”
Bishop echoes those sentiments, applying them not only to performance, but also to his most ordinary interactions with the instrument. “There was a point early on when I made a conscious decision to avoid teachers and lessons, and stop trying to play like my favorite guitar players. That led to a personalized approach and resulted in a lot of experimentation and freeform playing. It wasn’t pretty at first, but it was a major turning point for me. Now I have a revelatory experience with the guitar every time I pick it up. Each day, I’ll just start playing something and create a three- to five-minute piece without any preconceived plan or desired outcome. Doing this instantly forces me into a creative situation, and the end result is always a surprise.”
Ben Chasny’s Gearbox
Guitars: Fender Telecaster Custom, K. Yairi orchestra-style acoustic with a cutaway
Amps: Fender Twin Reverb
Effects: Boss DS-1 Distortion
Sir Richard Bishop’s Gearbox
Guitars: 1960 Gibson ES-330, Dell’Arte Dark Eyes Selmer-style acoustic
Amps: Various Fender and Vox tube amps
Effects: Boss RC-20XL Loop Station, Line 6 Verbzilla