Sir Richard Bishop: Experimental Guitarist Expresses Lebanese Roots

Sir Richard Bishop: Freak of ArabySir Richard Bishop: The Freak of Araby (Drag City, 5/26/09)

Sir Richard Bishop: “Kaddak El Mayass

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Sir Richard Bishop isn’t the type of artist who makes the same type of record twice in a row. He spent 25 years as a member of genre-bending, melting-pot post-punk act the Sun City Girls, whose music ranged from simple punk-rock songs to tape-loop experiments, free jazz, and, quite often, performance art.

And as a solo artist, his material runs a wide gamut, ranging from the lengthy improvisational acoustic pieces of While My Guitar Violently Bleeds (Locust) to the vibrant and eclectic Polytheistic Fragments (Drag City) — which saw Bishop’s instrumental tracks incorporating elements of Appalachian folk, samba, and Django Reinhardt-style jazz into a unique blend of sounds unlike anything else.

True to Bishop’s pattern of experimenting with new styles, the guitarist’s latest album, The Freak of Araby, finds him delving into Middle Eastern sounds. Much of Bishop’s interest and inspiration from Middle Eastern music comes from his own Lebanese heritage. After a childhood spent hearing Lebanese music in his home environment, Bishop has come to embrace the sounds as an adult. He had previously incorporated some elements of Lebanese music in his music with Sun City Girls, but The Freak of Araby stands as his first album of exclusively Middle Eastern sounds.

“I’m half Lebanese, and I grew up in Michigan, in Saginaw, which actually has a large Lebanese population,” Bishop says. “My grandfather used to play the oud, so when I was pretty young, he would play. We just didn’t really appreciate it at the time. Eventually, it did influence my way of playing guitar. It’s always been ingrained in my playing.”

“I catch myself going back to the same safety net. I had to step away from playing acoustic guitar, or I’d be playing the same kind of stuff all the time. I knew I had a lot more options.”

What’s most striking about The Freak of Araby is how accessible the music is in comparison to his past catalog as a solo artist; over the past decade, Bishop has frequently opted for a looser, more free-form style. Tightly structured, brief, and even catchy, the 10 tracks on this album reveal a new aspect to Bishop’s musical persona. What’s most ironic, however, is that the idea for his least improvisation-based album came about unintentionally.

“It wasn’t the plan to do a record of Middle Eastern songs,“ Bishop says. “There was a plan to do a cover of a Lebanese song, so I recorded that, and the basic tracks for three or four other songs — just pop songs — and a couple of other songs that had a Mediterranean feel. Listening back to what I had recorded, the Middle Eastern songs stood out, but the others weren’t really doing it for me. So the plan changed in mid-stream.”

Once a stylistic theme began to take shape, Bishop called on his friend Ahmed Sharif to contribute bass to the sessions. Sharif, in turn, invited two of his friends — percussionists Mohammed Bandari and Abdullah Basheem — and from there, the four musicians put together the basic structures of the songs on The Freak of Araby. Unfortunately, Bandari and Basheem were unable to finish recording with Bishop, due to visa problems (they live in Canada), and Sharif’s other obligations kept him from being able to make it back to the studio again as well. In spite of the limitations, Bishop and engineer Scott Colburn finished up the record.

“I had these guys for one day, and it was up to me and Scott to finish the percussion, and that’s just kind of how it ended up,” Bishop says. “I’m kind of pleased with how it came out.” Another notable difference between The Freak of Araby and Bishop’s recent solo albums is that it’s all electric, whereas the bulk of his other material is acoustic-guitar based and highly improvisational.

“My main focus was that it would be electric guitar-based, no acoustic,” Bishop says. “It was a conscious choice. I was touring endlessly with just acoustic guitar, and I can flesh out acoustic improvisation anytime. I just wanted to step away from that. I had all these songs written that would be electric pieces. I had all these melodic pop songs I wanted people to hear. I knew I wanted it to be something different. I catch myself going back to the same safety net. I had to step away from playing acoustic guitar, or I’d be playing the same kind of stuff all the time. I knew I had a lot more options.”

As an artist, Bishop is continually evolving and changing course, both in his recorded material and in live settings. For the past several years, his performances have primarily consisted of solo, acoustic compositions, but as with the restlessness Bishop displays in his own ongoing, recorded stylistic shifts, he plans on shaking things up when touring behind The Freak of Araby as well.

For starters, he’ll be working with a four-piece band rather than playing purely solo shows. And while he plans to play the more accessible, song-based material from the new album, it won’t be immune from his natural tendencies toward experimentation and improvisation. Bishop says he isn’t particularly interested in keeping every note of every song intact when performing.

“If you’re filling open space every night, you know exactly how to fill it,” Bishop says. “There’s no improv after a while. In the studio when we were putting it together, we were going against the idea of having improvisation. That’s kind of how I approached it. Some of the guitar solos were just improvised in one or two takes. But it’s designed to play live. I’m hoping we’re going to open it up quite a bit, have some open spaces for whatever to happen. It’s the only way it can be challenging to me. If I was playing it note for note every night, I’d get tired of it pretty quickly.”

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