Photo by Uwe Faltermeier.
Sir Richard Bishop’s Tangier Sessions isn’t just an album. It’s a love story. But as Bishop points out, it started like a script from The Twilight Zone: A world-traveling musician with a taste for the outré finds a little guitar shop in the back alleys of Geneva and wanders in. He eyes the elderly shopkeeper’s wares and is about to leave when the man pulls out an aged instrument from behind a cabinet. As the musician touches the guitar he feels a spark of energy and can’t stop playing. He leaves without it—because it ain’t cheap—but can’t get the 6-string out of his mind. He returns, twice, ultimately buying the guitar and taking it on the road.
If Rod Serling had had his way with this story, the next plot twist might reveal that a djinni living inside the instrument was responsible for the ensuing havoc in the poor musician’s life. But in reality the result is the seven beautiful acoustic-guitar improvisations on Tangier Sessions, recorded alone by Bishop at the top of a small house in that Moroccan city late at night, when the hubbub of the bustling alleys below grew silent. On the magical-sounding recordings, which Bishop captured with the built-in microphones on a Sony PCM D-50 portable recorder, the guitar and its player seemingly channel spirits. The tone is uncommonly rich and pure, with notes that remain ripe and full bodied even as they decay. Together Bishop and his find—a 19th-century build of unknown origin, with only a sticker from long-gone Georgia-based distributor C. Bruno & Sons—draw on the sounds of Middle Eastern, Gypsy, Indian, and American folk and classical music, mixed with a peppering of jazz and whatever else drifted into the room.
“I’ve never had an experience with a guitar like this before,” Bishop offers. “I wondered, ‘Is there positive or negative energy in this, or a little of both?’ It didn’t matter. The first time I went back and asked the shopkeeper if he could do any better on the price, he knew that I was going to end up with the guitar. He also knew there was something special about it. He had great guitars in his shop—harp guitars, old baroque guitars—but he knew this one was supposed to go home with me.”
For Bishop, mixing styles and pursuing uncommon experiences—musical or otherwise—is a way of life. He was a charter member of the challenging Sun City Girls, a trio that carved a path through the international weirdo-rock improv scene by sledgehammering the boundaries of rock, jazz, world, punk, and experimental music into an all-encompassing form captured on 50 albums and half-as-many cassettes and concert videos over 26 years, starting in 1979. Their performances reflected the group’s interests in mysticism, religion, UFOs, ritualism, and Kabuki theater … as well as their uninhibited musical range.
No matter how diffuse or expressionist the Arizona-based Sun City Girls’ free-ranging aesthetic became, Phoenix-born Bishop (who took the liberty of knighting himself) was often a calming element in the storm, thanks to the articulate and mostly clean-toned nature of his playing. Those qualities carried into his solo work, which has included numerous domestic and foreign tours and at least a dozen albums and EPs—plus a trail of short-run CD-R releases—since his Salvador Kali debuted on the late John Fahey’s Revenant Records label in 1998.
But Bishop can’t be lumped into the post-Fahey/Takoma Records school of fingerpicking folk- and blues-based acoustic guitar wizards. For one thing, he primarily uses a pick—although Tangier Sessions includes his first two fingerstyle recordings—and the breathtaking spell he casts has more global origins. So when I spoke with Bishop, who was on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon, that’s where we began.
Photo by Christopher Altenburg.
How did you develop your genre-blending playing style?
Before Sun City Girls began, I was your typical guy out of high school playing classic rock and copying everybody. That’s how I learned. When we met our first drummer [Charles Gocher], he was coming from a background of free jazz and weirdness, like the Fugs. To play with him I had to start improvising and doing crazy things. My style is a mish-mash that comes out of improvisation, with mistakes and everything along the way. I never worry about what the style is, and whatever comes out, comes out. That’s how it works … and how it doesn’t work sometimes.
What was your gateway listening for improvisation?
I got into the Steve Howe realm, where you’re hearing elements of classical music, and Robert Fripp and James “Blood” Ulmer. Just hearing something that was different than Ted Nugent, Ritchie Blackmore, and Jimmy Page, who I adored, opened different avenues to explore. I started playing things that didn’t make sense, trying to come up with my own sound. As long as it was a little odd, I was comfortable with it. Eventually I started hearing [free music guitarists] Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey. The idea was to make sounds on the guitar that didn’t have to fit any realm or theory, and that’s what I’m still doing.
Are you self-taught?
When I was 10, my parents bought me a shitty red, white, and blue acoustic guitar and had me take lessons for about three weeks. When I started playing in high school, I had friends who taught me a few chords so I could play rhythm and we could jam. From there, I just figured things out. I’ve never had any real lessons or studied theory, and I’m okay with that.
Tangier Sessions constantly blends cultural signatures. Is there a strain of world music that speaks to you loudest?
Middle Eastern music. I’m half Lebanese, and my grandfather used to play old cassettes of Lebanese music—Farid al-Atrash, especially, playing oud. This is before I was even interested in music. But he planted a seed. He also played us some [legendary Egyptian vocalist] Uum Kulthum and other pretty high art from that region. Once I started playing, I remembered those sounds and started to experiment with Eastern scales, or at least notes. The other side would be Indian music. Always been a fan of Beatle George and always liked the atmospheres that Indian music created. So I’ve incorporated some of that into my playing, but not necessarily the theory behind any of it.