Photo by Uwe Faltermeier.
What was the space you recorded in like, in terms of its sonic qualities and its ability to inspire you?
It was in a building owned by an American ex-pat in the middle of the old city, among these little winding alleys. He rents the bottom floor out to a Moroccan family. I recorded upstairs in this little square room that had Moroccan tiles on the wall—which is no big deal because every place there has Moroccan tiles. You could put a ladder out and get on the roof. It had a bed and almost no furniture, and was no more than 10 feet square. From the roof you could see 360 degrees around all of Tangier and—if it was clear outside—the Mediterranean Sea and Spain. There was something about the sound in the room. I had to experiment with placement, because I just had a little digital recorder, but there are no effects. I added a tiny bit of reverb during the mastering process, and all of the songs were recorded in the order they appear on the record.
How important is traveling for your inspiration?
It’s always been a big deal to me. A lot of time I don’t travel with an instrument when I’m going to Morocco or India. I take little trips to study mysticism or whatever is interesting me at the time. I’m always seeking out weirdness, whether it’s musical or not. Last year I put out a 10-inch that had some sounds that were inspired by being in Thailand. A lot of my albums have at least one raga-type tune, because if you expose yourself to that it’s going to seep in.
You are a die-hard plectrum user, so why did you opt to fingerpick on “Frontier,” which is a unique-sounding, baroque-flamenco hybrid, and “Bound in Morocco,” which has a classic Middle Eastern sensibility at its foundation?
I always use a pick. I’ve never been able to play anything interesting without one. But after I got this guitar home I found out it sounds better without a pick, and that created a problem for me. I play it with a pick when I mess around, but with my fingers it’s much more natural and warm. It seems like this guitar was supposed to be played with fingers. So for those two songs I wanted to see what I could do. I would have recorded more that way if I could. Since the recordings, over the last year or so, I’ve experimented with different picks on the guitar and I’ve developed different sounds that I can work with. It’s such a small guitar, but it has a big voice. The highs are good, and even the lows are good most of the time. I might need to experiment with strings next.
Both of those songs are in standard tuning. “Bound in Morocco” is strange, because while it does seem like it has some focus, it never gets anywhere in particular. It’s one of my favorite ones on there—Em, A and Am, and nothing more to it than moving around those chords.
Have you learned anything more about this instrument?
The mystery has deepened. After I bought the guitar I went to Thailand and then did a European tour. When I arrived in Belgium, some glue had come undone from the guitar’s heel. I had to have an emergency repair. The luthier loved the guitar so much that he put me at the front of the line and fixed it overnight. But he was frustrated that he couldn’t tell me anything about the guitar. He knew 19th-century guitars, parlor guitars … he asked me where I lived, and I said, “Portland, Oregon.” And he said, “You’ve got to take it to Kerry Char,” who is a luthier here in Portland.
Last week I took the guitar to Kerry—he has it as we speak. He loved it. We looked it over for two hours. He put a camera inside with a light and found writing under the top. But we couldn’t figure out what it says or what language it’s in. There’s also a date on the guitar—we can see a one, an eight, another one, and something that looks like a three. But we don’t think it’s from 1813.
He did say that whoever made it used very old guitar-building techniques and did a very good job. He was looking at the heel, which he calls a snow-cone shape, and says it’s possibly from the 1850s or earlier—which is just thrilling for me. He is going to try to get photographs of the writing with another camera, and maybe then we can figure out who made it and when. I thought because it had the Charles Bruno sticker that it’s probably an American guitar, but if there’s writing inside that’s not English … well, I like the mystery. I just don’t want somebody to tell me Sears & Roebuck made it in the 1940s.
Sir Richard Bishop talks about acquiring his mysterious “C. Bruno” acoustic. The guitar first appears at 2:55, than at 4:00 Bishop begins playing at the same calm pace that makes Tangier Sessions so entrancing.
What other tunings did you use on Tangier Sessions?
Most of the songs are in standard tuning, but I believe that “Mirage” is D–A–D–G–A–G. “Hadija” is some form of open Gm. And that’s it.
What first led you to open tunings?
It goes back to the Sun City Girls days, where we were trying different things. The main open tuning I used in the band was open E. We used that a lot on [1990’s] Torch of the Mystics, which some people consider our best record. I also took that tuning into a lot of my solo playing, like “Fingering the Devil,” and a lot of my raga pieces. That and standard have been my main tunings. I have experimented over the years with other tunings, but none of them ever stick because I don’t have the patience to sit and work with them. For this record I was going to try open E, but the guitar already had tension. I didn’t want the thing to crack in half.
Most of the time I don’t listen to other music. I like to play my guitar. But when I do listen, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern music. Lately I’ve been listening to music from Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Thailand. Not to inform my guitar playing. It’s just something I like. And I can always listen to free jazz. I love Sun Ra—I could listen to Sun Ra for 24 hours a day. I like music where I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I like being surprised.