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Blossoming in the midst of the early ’80s Arizona punk rock scene, experimental and improvisational band Sun City Girls could not have existed farther outside the realm of their context. Although the band recently saw its end with the passing of drummer Charles Gocher, the musical spirit of the group lives on through brothers Alan and Rick Bishop, as they sift through SCG’s enormous unreleased recording backlog, as well as catalogue the music of the world through their Sublime Frequencies record label project. With both wit and honesty, Sun City Girls “bassist” Alan Bishop took some time answer our questions.
Do you think that Sun City Girls would have made the same music that all of you did if the band had formed and stayed in Michigan, rather than Arizona?
No. If we stayed in Michigan, we would have been channeling the Middle East via Pabst Blue Ribbon Smokin’ OPs heavy MC666 crossbow Nugent metal whiplash road kill. It would have been even messier than it turned out in the desert and we’d be in prison for sure.
Although your music does not generally qualify as what people may think of as “punk,” do you feel that your band was influenced by and encompassed many of the ideals and ethics of punk rock?
Yes, out of default because we spent much of our time around that scene, but we also fucked with it enough to have our own effect on it.
Was it obvious from the start that Sun City Girls would draw from such a wide variety of musical influences, or did that develop unconsciously?
Nothing was obvious back then. We had no idea what we were doing other than following our own ideas and not paying much attention to contemporaries because most of what everyone else was doing at the time was one-dimensional. So it was appealing to spread out the ideas we had and to attempt to execute them live and on recordings. We just incorporated what we loved into the processing machine without thinking about historical or comparative contexts.
How important is context when making improvised music?
It’s extremely important. I’ve been trying to escape context my whole life through improvisation, regardless of how much I spontaneously place myself back into it. It’s a vicious cycle.
How much does place and time influence what you play at that particular moment?
Hard to say. Too many variables work into the equation especially listening and who else is involved in the performance—more important than time and place, I think—and of course the use of everything beyond the instrument.
Is music the best way to convey a difficult or abstract emotion?
That’s an interesting question but I wouldn’t say that music is the “best” medium for conveying abstract emotion. Guns and bombs do a pretty good job, but those gigs are hard to get for us nobodies.
Are self-taught musicians more creative musicians, or are creative musicians creative no matter how structured or traditional their musical development?
There are no rules to the equation. I’ve seen music theory masters shrivel-up like a steaming hot turd during improvisation, but on the other hand many self-taught musicians don’t have a fucking clue. Then you’ve got someone like Eyvind Kang who is utterly brilliant at everything.
Is it more advantageous for a musician to have base-level skill with of a wide variety of instruments rather to have virtuosity with relatively few?
I don’t think it matters. There are plenty of virtuosos who can play other instruments to some degree of success. Intuitive musicians can play just about anything.
In the early days of the phonograph, a man approached congress claiming that these “infernal machines” would be the cause of a culture that simply consumes music rather than producing it themselves. As someone who has relied mainly on recorded material rather than live performances to spread their music, what is the value of recordings?
I would disagree with the statement that I’ve relied more on recordings than live performances. I perform 24/7/365 every second of every day. Ask anyone who knows me well. For me, the recordings affiliated with the Sublime Frequencies projects are a storehouse of ideas which are difficult to access or obtain and are ignored and/or hidden from view by the music industry and other entities (either by design or not)—somewhat similar to rare plants that have healing powers that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want people to be aware of.
Your record label project, Sublime Frequencies, is stated as being “dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers.” What exactly does this entail, and what is the importance of documenting such obscurities?
This is a process that begins with an obsession that motivates the work to actually get done. It’s important for us personally to collect these “obscurities” for our own inspiration. If the source material wasn’t documented beyond the context of its specific locales, the material would be deprived of its full power and magnificence—and many others who could actually benefit from these powers would never get the opportunity to experience it otherwise.
It’s obvious that you are very interested in the music of other cultures, but what about other forms of art? Do you have any interest in foreign film, literature, or visual art?
Yes, of course. But I don’t feel obligated to start dropping names and references or a need to discuss my influences in a general framework in order to prove it.
February 19th is a day that marks the death of the amazing man Charles Gocher, as well as the amazing band Sun City Girls. Has three years of hindsight changed the way you perceive your band’s legacy?
I don’t know… I mean it’s as if everybody else is depending on Rick or I to tell them what the legacy of the band is these days because they feel they’ve been left out and they want to know what they missed—or they’re too fucking lazy to do the work and form their own opinion. Sure I may know what it is but maybe I have no idea what it is. I’m waiting for others to figure it out and spend the time with the material to actually have the qualifications to discuss it with merit, not approximating as so many of today’s slothesque creatures seem to be dipping their cocks in that bog pool of last-minute random half-ass assessment and then claiming absolutism—it’s absurd to even recognize them as relevant. Now isn’t the time to discuss the legacy anyway, as there is much more to come in terms of unreleased back catalogue (audio/visual) that it would be premature to do so.
The thing that has changed the most for me is the aspect of playing/improvising, not being able to feel it again—when we played… the absolute power of it all, the feeling of being inside and contributing to the direction of an energy field that moved like no other I’ve experienced inside or out—it can no longer be recreated the same way. It can be approximated temporarily but the built up vocabulary of ideas, common experience and directions would take many years to reconstruct with someone else, and I have no desire to attempt to recreate something that would pale by comparison.
You are somewhat known for your cigarette smoking. Do you consider smoking to be a vice?
Maybe to some it’s a vice, but for me it’s a philosophy.
Sun City Girls wrote part of the soundtrack, along with J Spaceman of the band Spiritualized, for Harmony Korine’s movie Mister Lonely. What was it like working with Harmony and J?
Harmony gave us the freedom to interpret the script/scenes as we pleased and gave us minimal direction for the music. Actually, he only gave us one full sentence of direction—wish I could remember the quote. He was more familiar than most with the possibilities of SCG before the project began and trusted us to come up with the cues. We did not work at all with Jason. We did our tracks separately.
Why should people care about bassists?
I haven’t given much thought about if someone’s a bassist, a Colonel, or a candlestick maker. But it’s like asking me why people should care about those who use a screwdriver isn’t it? It’s not the tool in general but what is created with the tool specifically.
What does the band Sun City Girls represent in the grand scheme of musical culture?
That’s a great question. Why don’t you answer it for me in about 15 years?
For everything SCG-related, check out their official website.