An Interview with Alan Bishop
In 1981, in the golf course purgatory that is Phoenix, Arizona, a pair of half-Lebanese brothers from Detroit and a So-Cal transplant formed Sun City Girls (named after a nearby retirement community). Unclassifiable from the start, guitarist Richard and bassist Alan Bishop, along with drummer Charles Gocher Jr., were cacti in the hardcore punk scene: prickly, unapproachable, yet strangely beautiful. These “girls” understood that punk at its purest meant total negation of the genre, and for decades they confronted their audiences with the detritus of the music world: Dada, Kabuki, prog, hobo monologues, puppetry, unfettered noise, surf instrumentals, guerilla street theatre, and so on and so forth. Their official discography wavers between fifty and a hundred releases, no two quite alike, but the sounds within provided mutant genetic code for much of the current American underground: bands like Animal Collective, Deerhoof, No-Neck Blues Band, Six Organs of Admittance, Devendra Banhart, and Dengue Fever took the Sun City Girls’ cue to elucidate international noise through their own local muse.
At the height of Thriller mania in 1983, the Bishop brothers voyaged to Morocco. Rick stayed for three weeks, whereas Alan immersed himself for two months. By day he jammed on sax and guitar with local musicians; by night he captured snippets of shortwave broadcasts. Twenty years on, he would weave these audio artifacts into Radio Morocco, the seventh release on Sublime Frequencies, the “world music” label/collective he co-founded with Hisham Mayet and his brother (with frequent contributions from Mark Gergis, Robert Millis, and others).
Eschewing the rubber gloves of elevator world-music labels and the ivory towers of academic ethnomusicology, Sublime Frequencies’s recordings and videos dunk listeners and viewers headfirst into the cultures they document. Following the example of Smithsonian Folkways and Ocora, each SF release reveals music and sights that are at once workaday and bewildering to Western ears. From Iraq’s Choubi music to Syrian Dabke to North Korean pop and opera, the label determinedly showcases the uncanny beauty from purported “axes of evil” and other non-tourist destinations.
Cantankerous, chain-smoking, and obsessive, Alan Bishop is hell-bent on undermining Western hegemony and exalting the cultural contributions of the downtrodden. This interview took place on the phone, with Bishop in his garage office where he was hard at work on the next batch of SF releases and preparing for the final Sun City Girls tour, a tribute to Gocher, who passed away from cancer in early 2007.
I. OBSESSED LIKE ME
THE BELIEVER: In the liner notes for your Radio Morocco sound collage, which you recorded there on your first trip in the early eighties, you mention how you came across Thriller being shoved down the peoples’ throats half a world away and how you hope that the mix can help unbrainwash people. In collaging this stuff, does the radio mix become a cultural jammer?
ALAN BISHOP: Yes, I suppose it does. I have always been inspired by the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up technique, yet I never needed to put it on paper and actually cut and rearrange words. I’ve always just done it in my head—sometimes I write as I listen to a language I don’t understand and re-interpret the language into English—and also with radio and sound. Sound collage has always been one of my favorite mediums to work in, and with a shortwave radio, it’s the perfect tool to create audio collage endlessly, spontaneously, on the spot, anytime and anywhere. The source material just happens to be better and more inspiring to me in the areas I’ve roamed—North Africa, the Mideast, South Asia, etc.
You hear Police songs or modern R&B or Outkast on the radio. It’s so common now, there’s not much you can do. You expect to hear it—it’s going to be everywhere. There are colonial stations run by American companies, European, UK, or Japanese, or whatever powerful entities are in all these countries, pushing this culture and its export. In some instances, they don’t even have to push it—it comes in through osmosis, this middle management that works on its own to keep the world going in the social engineering direction that it’s being pushed to go, without anyone having to manage it. It’s already alive, it’s got this life of its own, it takes off to where these people get into it and then propagate it themselves, and the local cultures and people in those cities and towns that are playing songs on the radio are going to like that stuff.
BLVR: Like, do you really have to sell Coca-Cola anymore?
AB: Right. Same thing.
BLVR: Traveling as frequently as you do, I’m curious as to how many languages you speak.
AB: I don’t speak anything very well. The longer that you travel, you find out that you really don’t even need to speak the language to get around and get things done, to live in those places. If you’re somewhat resourceful and perceptive, you’re pretty much going to know what’s going on because human nature is human nature: they understand it, you understand it, and it works.
BLVR: So how often do you understand what you’re dealing with then? When I think about my favorite moments on these discs, I conjure the sound first, be it the guitar tone on those Cambodian Cassette Archives or the sounds of chickens and crying babies in the background of this stunning vocal/guitar duet from northeast Cambodia. I almost never remember names and never know what they’re singing about.
AB: The lyrics are not an important thing to me. In fact, it can be a distraction. If I knew the language enough to know it was a horrible love song with stupid lyrics—like most of the popular songs are today in the English language that I hear—then it would be much more of a turnoff then if it would allow me to interpret it from the expressive capabilities of the vocalizing or of the sound itself, which allows me to create my own meaning for it, which elevates it into a higher piece of work for me. So it’s the same way about a Thai song, the Thai language does that to me because I don’t understand exactly what’s going on in the song. I can read it into my own way of formulating what it means to me. For the same reason that the guy singing that Thai song may even listen to Western music, but he’s not going to know what’s going on with the Western music either. He doesn’t know the fine points. He doesn’t speak English. Let’s say that all the Thais are listening to all this Western pop music and they don’t understand what they’re saying either. But they love it because it’s doing the exact same thing to them as their songs do to me. That’s the similarity here. That’s what is much more interesting than knowing what the songs are about.
BLVR: And each side thinks the other is crazy for liking the other culture’s pop music.
AB: Correct. They think that I’m crazy for liking their music. I think they’re crazy for liking ours.
BLVR: When you’re seeking out music, do you find most countries have scant regard for preserving their culture?
AB: It’s a matter of economy and standard of living—it dictates how much of a cultural legacy that can be not just preserved but promoted, and it’s sort of perpetuated through history. And [most countries] just don’t have the resources. You have storerooms of old tapes and old films in hundred-degree heat rooms, just baking. Records are warping or developing mold and insects. I’ve had records come over via cargo and there’s still millipedes running around inside them. The culture is left to rot, just like the buildings and the infrastructure. Roads are getting worse. No money is going back into preserving things. The corruption is so obvious there, where it’s not as obvious here.
BLVR: Mentioning the cargo of records, how much time do you spend just in terms of processing stuff?
AB: Most of my spare time is spent doing that. There are seventy-five Sublime projects in production right now. Some may not get done for two to three years. Some of them may never get released, many probably will. But when I go overseas, I’m firing on all cylinders: doing radio recordings, looking to record musicians live that I encounter, and sometimes I will find them as I go or performing at a club. I record wherever I can. I’ll ask people to perform.
BLVR: Having spent so much time with the Sublime Frequencies catalog, to where I am able to vicariously live through the music and pretend that I am in these far-flung regions, I developed this illusion that this stuff is easy to come by, that there’s some sort of Tower Records in other countries where all this music is just waiting for you. Once I was over to Southeast Asia though, it wasn’t like that at all.
AB: That’s a big mistake for people to assume. There’s a lot of people that say that: “Oh, you just turn on the radio and bring it back.” To which I respond: “Let’s see what you come up with! How much patience do you have? How long are you going to spend on that radio?” You have to put in a hundred hours on the radio for one CD. You’ve got to work for it.
Sure, you can do searches and hear who’s cool online, but [over there] everything’s written in Thai. Even if you can say it in English, to sit there and pronounce the name of an artist you think you know how to pronounce, the Thai, even if they know the context, even if they know what you’re trying to say, they may just pretend not to know. Just to fuck with you. You don’t know how many people go overseas looking for music and they come back and they’re just amazed how we do it. They can’t find shit. You got to work. We’re over there working every day. I’ve been to Thailand thirty times.
BLVR: Returning each time, do you find things disappearing out from under you due to encroaching globalization and the homogenizing effects of monoculture?
AB: Going back year after year, you can see it’s getting harder and harder to find stuff going on live or find stuff on tape. I’ve watched it dissipate through time. And it’s going to continue to do that. There’s no apparatus set up to preserve it yet. There will be at some point. People will get to developing a sense of pride in their own musical legacy—to back it up, document it, store it. That will happen.
In terms of perceptions of the culture, most people don’t think about music. They’re not concerned with it. They don’t take their musical legacy seriously. They look at it as signposts of their life: “I remember that old song. You like that? That’s funny.” Are they thinking about how great that was? Do they know who played guitar, the singer’s name? Do they know what year it’s from? Probably not. They’re not paying attention to it like someone who is obsessed, like me.
BLVR: When I read the criticism about Sublime Frequencies, it almost invariably comes down to the same thing, that you’re just taking this music from other cultures and not paying royalties on it.
AB: It’s not true. We do pay some royalties. We have contracts with some artists, the ones that we can find or the ones that we can film or that we’re in direct contact with. But in terms of archival recordings, it’s a lot trickier. It’s just not easy to find the original owner of the material, and so we sometimes just go and pay the artist if we can find them, knowing that they don’t have the rights, but we feel better about it. Or we don’t pay anyone because we can’t find anyone to pay. We throw it out there.
II. THANKS TO KARAOKE
BLVR: Coming from that Western viewpoint, where you know about Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, you can hear that even overseas they heard these people as well, from the visiting American G.I.s and stuff during the Vietnam War. It’s an odd reflection back on us about our own culture. I think of this one Molam song [Thai folk music] that uses the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” riff that just sounds off. Not to deem it as being “lost in translation,” but how they re-appropriate our pop music is striking. On the Bollywood Steel Guitar and Shadow Music of Thailand, you hear how in India they came under the sway of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins’s guitar-picking records, or in the case of the latter, an inconsequential surf band like the Shadows.
AB: When I first heard that Stones riff [on “Lam Plern Chawiwan” from Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan Vol. 2], it was killing me. And then it goes into the traditional Molam vibe and it always comes back to that break and there’s a screeching violin in there. Not only the influence of Vietnam and the G.I.s and the American military bases being there, but also through their own culture. There would be children in school in the States coming back with this music. All those American kids interested in foreign rock are not any different than today’s young Thai kids interested in modern R&B and hip-hop and pop music like Green Day and blink-182.
BLVR: It seemed that everywhere I went, be it Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia, karaoke lorded over all. It was on the bus, in the clubs. There are no audio CDs, every single one is a VCD that you use to sing karaoke. The audio portion is just an afterthought. It’s cheesy and a bit frightening, but at the same time, pop music was something that people could actually interact with now.
AB: I’ve had to adjust to karaoke as a modern reality that obscures our hunt for what we’re truly after. Karaoke and the workstation keyboard setup eliminates the need for a live band and any further evolution of the ensemble in the club circuit. Almost all the bars in Southeast Asia are lady bars. The listener and participants who interact and frequent the clubs are exclusively male who become actively involved with the ladies, not the music. Coming to them to listen only to the music is not what people do—so we [Sublime Frequencies] are either laughed at for doing so or confusing to the locals by being interested in the music.
But in people’s homes, at parties, and at certain other public functions, restaurants, outdoor shows, etc.—that’s where the society actively becomes engaged with the music by singing or being encouraged to sing. Everyone’s a singer now, thanks to karaoke, for better and for much worse. But the live band is now becoming ancient history in Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma.
BLVR: In compiling stuff like the Thai Pop Spectacular, Molam: Thai Country Groove, and Cambodian Cassette Archives, I’ve always wondered if their equivalent here is more like a K-Tel comp, meaning ubiquitous pop radio hits or something more obscure, like Nuggets.
AB: We probably listened to over a thousand Molam songs that we deemed “good tracks,” meaning another thousand that were shitty. Of the thousand deemed good, the ones that are on that disc are from a hundred songs as our final cut. They are all highly unique and interesting rhythmically, vocally, or arrangement-wise, and they don’t take the usual approach to what the majority of period tracks do. A lot sound regular and normal. We’re choosing the most unusual and interesting ones that have the most appealing and unique way of going about the genre of all the pool we had to choose from.
The Thai pop stuff is a different animal. We’re covering Luk Thung and Luk Krung stuff. It’s a loose term that can mean almost anything: rock and roll, traditional beat pop, slow ballad, or something kind of folky. You familiar with the Butthole Surfers’ tune “Kuntz”? That’s a Luk Thung. A Thai would make the argument that every song on our comp is a Luk Thung. There hasn’t been a true breakdown or effort to break Thai music into genres. They’re not into dicing and slicing everything up.
BLVR: Not that you can catch the lyrics yourself, but Molam are generally raunchy songs, are they not? The one concert performance I caught on TV in Roi Et featured lots of hip-thrusting and bared belly buttons, which was weird for such a modest people as the Thai.
AB: They can be. Especially today, the new style is completely raunchy. It was more suggestive back then. Modern Lam Sing, the fast Molam style, covers a wide variety of topics. It’s storytelling and social commentary, running the gamut from lost love and falling in love to very bitter attacks against a neighbor for sleeping with their wife, or crying in your beer and shooting up the place. A lot of the Molam and Luk Thung stars of the past had really crazy high-profile lives and would get shot and killed on stage. There’s some really interesting stuff in the history of Luk Thung and Molam artists, even the Khmer Surin stuff. Darkie, the king of Khmer Surin music in the ’90s, was supposedly gunned down in Bangkok, or else died of a drug overdose—no one seems to have the same story.
BLVR: You mentioned in the liner notes to Radio Phnom Penh about how the Cambodians go back to their old music and re-record instruments and “remix” it, obliterating the old versions from the public record, and ultimately from the public consciousness.
AB: It’s not unusual for them to want to spruce up the old recordings to attract the younger culture to maintain and preserve their musical legacy. There is a conscious effort by a select few, operating out of the States in Long Beach and Oakland, that are into preserving their old music. What’s curious to me is why they want to take the originals off the shelf and think no one will know the difference. They’re spruced up with new drum tracks, with modern MIDI keyboard that sounds horrible, like a fine shit mist hovering atop the music—and you can still hear the original vocals happening in the background. That’s taken over the market. If you want to buy oldies, that’s what you’re going to find. In our culture, that would not be acceptable: you can get the new remixed Rubber Soul, but you can’t find the original?
BLVR: Do you think their view of the past and their not holding on to it is a facet of Buddhism?
AB: It probably has something to do with it. It’s a different mental approach to their lifestyle. There’s a thing about “new is everything.” Old is unwanted. You don’t find Thais going to the thrift store. They want new clothes. They want the newest cell phone. There’s a status system even crazier than here. America went through that years ago. It’s all about out with the old, especially with music: “Let’s hear something new.”