Alan Bishop has a normal name and looks like a normal guy. Just like a guy you’d see buying a pack of smokes at the neighborhood convenience store, or a fellow patron attending a theatrical production sitting next to you and flipping through the program, or maybe the guy who comes to check and fix your faulty cable TV connection. He’s not. He’s a subversive type that would have had a dossier compiled by Hoover’s scum an inch thick, the guy with a passport that’s got more ink stamped by relatively Uncle Sam-unfriendly countries than the average USA Today copy. A guy with a scalpel wit and more targets than a rifle range, and the laser-accurate focus to skewer all of his targets.
For the musically adventurous, he’s known as one third of the fearsome organism that was Sun City Girls, which along with brother Rick and co-patriot in Loki-esque mischief Charlie Gocher brought head-scratching to a new level, conjured pan-Asian mysticism for a whole new generation of people who didn’t have copies of Nonesuch Explorer Series LPs stashed in their parent’s record collection, and generally had much fun poking sticks into whatever rotating wheels they could find. Gocher’s untimely death brought a harsh close to the Sun City Girls, but Alan’s been busy on various solo projects before and since, and has also spent considerable time, money and energy as one of the principals behind the amazingly wide lens of the Sublime Frequencies label. I had the pleasure of catching my second Brothers Unconnected show at the All Tomorrow’s Parties held in Minehead, England this year, and Alan was gracious to grant me some of his downtime to sit outside the environs and chat.
I wanted to talk to you a bit about The Brothers Unconnected. You did the American tour in 2009-
Alan Bishop: that was 2008.
Wow, it was 08? Time goes! Is this UK tour and the ATP appearance the second leg? Where do you see The Brothers Unconnected going in the future?
Really the Europe and the UK leg were supposed to happen in 08 after the North American tour but there were complications and scheduling difficulties and I guess we just figured we would never do Europe, or it would be done later. But then Animal Collective invited us to (the All Tomorrow’s Parties they were curating) so we decided to try to build it around that as we were going to be here anyway, and it turned into finally doing the European leg of that tour that should have happened three years ago.
And where it’s going from here? Perhaps we will use The Brothers Unconnected for the next project Rick and I do, whatever we do, and we just have no idea where its going to go from here but we will try to figure that one out at the time. We are both really busy.
It sounds like you guys both have multiple irons in the fire; you could be out of the country at any given time for months at a time, and Rick’s off touring…
We are not going to play the same show, the Sun City Girls tribute thing again, that’s really not what we want to do, so this is really it.
So you would be creating new music?
Yes or doing covers or doing whatever we want to do, it would be a new sort of thing, it wouldn’t be this.
Without having Charlie as a percussive element, what kind of thoughts did you put into constructing the set list for the show?
Rick and I have always played together acoustically, we were doing it before we met Charlie, before Sun City Girls, so we were always comfortable in the setting of two acoustic guitars and vocals, so it really wasn’t difficult. During the years with the girls having Charlie on stage as a 3rd person acoustically either playing a hand drum or another acoustic guitar or vocals we had done it on occasion so it was fairly natural for us to perform this way and I think we are really comfortable playing in any setting with acoustic guitars, just the two of us. It’s how we started in the late 70’s that way.
How about when you do the spoken word story telling bit where you guys do a great job playing off each other, talking over each other’s lines. It all really held together really well. Is that off the top of your head, or is that somewhat mapped out?
Most of it’s off the top of our head. Some of the lyrical content of the song dictates what we might talk about sometimes but it always ends up being spontaneous if we start with a theme of some sort. We have been sort of building on that since the original tour in ‘08 and working off of these songs. We are adding some songs in this set that we didn’t do in then and deleting some of the other ones. And last night we didn’t do some because my voice is trashed and I couldn’t sing the higher notes, falsettos on some of the tracks, so we are constantly meddling with the set because there are a million songs to choose from and we want to make it effective and make the set flow so we try and make it a solid show every night, as best we can.
I was talking to the Thinking Fellers a few days ago and they mentioned a show on the ‘93 tour you guys did-
I am off a year, gotta recalibrate my internal clock! I think they said it was maybe Grand Rapids Michigan and things got out of hand and Charlie bit you and actually drew blood?
We had this routine called “The House of the Charging Dog” which is for lack of a better description I suppose it’s a song, but really it’s a skit. Rick has whatever he can use as a leash at any given moment, whether it’s a guitar strap, or a belt or a chain, and Rick would have Charlie with a leash around his neck as a dog and I would put up a map or a board in front of him so the crowd wouldn’t know that he was behind it. I would do an introduction describing how I am walking down an alley and would come up to a fence and it’s the house of the charging dog and we would lift the map up and usually I would give a geographical location of where this is taking place on the map and we would bring to these really old school maps where you would roll down like South America or Africa or whatever, and I lift the map up on the roller and it flips up and then Charlie would come charging out into the audience attacking and he’s foaming at the mouth and he used to have a trick where he would have an Alka Seltzer tablet in his mouth and he would put it in at the right moment at the right spot so it would be at its peak when he attacked the crowd and he just starts biting whatever and I think he bit my leg or my arm, I can’t remember, but there was blood that night. He went overboard and we were playing it up, all that’s part of the game.
He’s hit me with the drum stick on my hands when he tries to play my bass neck, and we’ve crashed into each other and had fake fights. One time Rick pulled the noose in San Francisco on that same skit and he was really truly choking on stage, we have that on film. We will release it some day. He has bruises on his neck because the belt was too tight and we didn’t know it, we jut thought he was exaggerating and with Charlie his whole face and neck turned red and it was just creepy.
You guys didn’t do much touring or playing, I guess you did local shows either in Arizona or when you moved up to Seattle-
West Coast tours.
But you just did the two major national tours in ‘92 and was it ‘04?
Actually we did the ‘84 one which was the first one with JFA, we did 70 shows opening up for JFA, it was part of the deal that Tony Victor from Placebo Records came to me with the band and said that they were looking for a bass player and if I would play bass for JFA then the Girls could open the shows and I agreed to it because of that and so that was the ‘84 tour. Then we did a ‘90 tour, self-booked, I booked it myself, we didn’t have a booking agent then. We did about maybe thirty shows some with Eugene Chadbourne, others with some other groups, scattered around the East Coast. We did the West Coast as well, Midwest and South. Then we toured in ‘92 with the Thinking Fellers, and then we toured in ‘04, I can’t remember how many shows, maybe 20 or something like that, then we did just the one show in ‘05, ‘06, and ‘07.
Regarding the Eugene Chadbourne tour, was that before or after you did the collaboration (Country Music in the World of Islam)?
It was right after I think, maybe it was the following summer.
The last record you released (Funeral Mariachi), is that going to be the last chapter of Sun City Girls?
It’s the final realized and produced studio record, but we didn’t really do very many studio records that were done in a way that we were trying to put together a full studio production and focusing on a certain group of songs. A lot of records have studio recordings on them but they’re culled from different sessions, not necessarily from the same time period.
So usually they weren’t a distinct project?
Yeah but there’s countless unreleased fragments of songs here and there and live recordings and various studio recordings that I’m sure in reissuing projects as well, over time to where I don’t think it’s ever gonna end. Our archive is massive so it could go on forever, let alone DVDs of countless fifty or a hundred videos that we produced.
Will the Cloaven series continue? The stuff you released on Eclipse Records, the albums?
Yes. That’s stalled at the moment because my archives are in storage and I can’t find the masters at the moment, so until I can get my archives out of storage and I have time, that series is suspended. It’s really my fault, not Ed Hardy’s fault. So we want to complete it. There’s ten in the set and five have been done so we want to get the other five done as soon as we can, so yes, it will continue.
A band like Animal Collective, they are obviously big fans, but are also a generation apart from you guys. Do you think it’s surprising that a younger generation is finding out some of your stuff? A lot of it has been out of print for a while so you have to kind of dig around to find some of that stuff.
Yeah, but it’s all online. People can access it by free download on Soulseek and a lot of sites. You can get the entire catalog. I was surprised when I discovered that I could get a lot of things that I thought no one would even have, live shows and everything. So no it doesn’t surprise me. A lot of our shows, I’m noticing, really most of our shows, even on this tour that the crowd is 20 to 35 years old basically, with a few people older, but most of the crowd is young and very, very interested. I think we relate to them quite well, so it doesn’t surprise me at all. We’ve known Animal Collective for a few years so we’re really grateful that they got us to do this tour because if it weren’t for the invite we would have neglected it again, so who knows if it would have happened.
So, what’s next for the Sublime Frequencies label? Do you have some projects you are working on?
Always, there’s always a large amount of different projects that are self-produced by the core members of Sublime, and then there’s a lot of submissions from others that are in various stages of pre- or post- production. What we can announce now is we just released the Staring Into The Sun DVD/CD and book, we just got our copies here at ATP, and that’s the next item to be released. We have a new Omar Souleyman record coming out in the later part of the summer I believe. We are working on an Erkin Koray archival project. We are working on more Indonesian productions from older Indonesian music, their musical history, their legacy from the 50’s 60’s and 70’s. And a lot of other things. We are also re-issuing a lot of the CD-only releases on vinyl. We just started with two of those and there is going to be more coming as time permits. There are a lot of things in the works actually.
How do you go about targeting a specific release for Sublime? Some of it’s archival and some of it’s current musical bands like Group Inerane or Group Doueh. Is there a specific genre or music form that you want to explore and then you go and dig deeper in that region?
Well, there are, but there isn’t really a set template for it. We all have our specific interests and other people are submitting, people we don’t know are submitting projects that we are always considering as well, and if fits what we think what a Sublime Frequencies release should be then we’ll look into releasing it. But every core member of the group has their specialties. I am centered more in South East Asia and the Middle East, North Africa, Hisham travels mostly in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. And Mark is focused on the Middle Eastern and Asia, so there are just so many possibilities and we have a lot archives that we can put into production at any given time. Things are moving really quickly and sometimes we are surprised by submissions that will take precedence because we love them so much and we want to get it on the release schedule. We have a backed-up release schedule that really goes on for a long time so it’s hard to take new submissions right now. We will consider anything really, we will know it when we hear it, or we know it when we see it.
I want to talk to you about your experience in Beirut recently, playing with Richard. Can you share some thoughts on that?
It was the first time we performed in the Middle East, which was a pleasure. I don’t know, it was great. It was simultaneously arranged with the CD release by Annihaya, the label of Gum Arabic, which was produced, released and pressed in Beirut. They brought us over for a series of two nights at the Theatre de Beirut. The first night it was The Brothers Unconnected show and the second night we did solo sets. It was fantastic to be there and we used it as a springboard to visit Syria and then go to Egypt as well, so it was great.
Your newest LP, Baroque Primitiva, is noticeable for a couple of reasons…it broke an eleven year hibernation period for Poon Village, and also created a stir among collectors given its scarcity (300 copies). How did the record come to be, and was a larger pressing feasible?
It began with the cover photo by Kristin Anderson. After she sent me the photo, I committed to preparing a record for it. The tracks have been lying around for a while, three of them outtakes for my last record, Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset. A larger pressing is always possible but not always feasible. The CD is still available for those who want to hear it and it includes a 32-page booklet of the front cover jacket women in much closer detail. One could argue that the CD is more beautiful than the LP package.
You choose a couple of interesting covers on the LP (John Barry, Brian Wilson); how did those selections come about?
I love singing and performing those songs, that’s all there is to it….
Your first solo LP had no song titles on the original vinyl pressing, but the CD reissue magically resurrected them. Were the songs always named, or did you select names for the CD?
They were listed on the original LP. You must have found a copy without the paper insert? That’s where the song titles were listed.
When you are traveling abroad, do you find your surroundings to influence your songwriting, or would it be much the same as if you were still at home in Seattle?
The surroundings always influence the writing. This is precisely the reason I move around.
Is your Uncle Jim character based on anyone in particular? And will the good uncle make another appearance in the future? Or are there other Alvarius B recordings in the works?
Yes a real Uncle Jim, the husband of my mother’s sister. He passed away about ten years ago. Uncle Jim will appear when you least expect him to. I am currently working on a new Alvarius B record in Cairo.
If you had to give up one or the other, which would you forego: reading books, or listening to music?
If this was an actual choice given to me, I’d immediately kill the person forcing me to choose….or die trying.