Madcap laughs

A regal visit with musician and sound-searcher Sir Richard Bishop
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SONIC REDUCER "I told you so" are the sweetest, shortest words in the lexicon of raving visionaries and maligned prophets, but Sir Richard Bishop is far too gentlemanly to resort to such snack-sized snarkery. Still, I'm thinking the world's attentions and the brothers Bishop and their many projects might finally be harmonically, magically converging as I park myself on a thrift-store coach beside the charming Bishop in the airy, uncannily tidy West Oakland flat he shares with Mark Gergis (Porest, Neung Phak, Mono Pause).

After the 2007 death of Sun City Girl Charles Gocher, attentive underground music fans — who've revered the band for its determinedly DIY, cassette-culture cussedness — collectively blinked, rubbed their eyes, and wondered why they hadn't paid closer attention to the endlessly productive Girls (even now issuing rarities via the new Napoleon and Josephine: Singles Volume 2 [Abduction]). Attention from figures like Bonnie "Prince" Billy (who told me that the Bishop Brothers' Brothers Unconnected show at Slim's was the best he saw last year) and labels such as Sub Pop, which talked to the Bishops about doing a best-of, soon followed.

Likewise Sublime Frequencies — the label Richard and Alan Bishop toiled on for years amid accusations that they were ripping off artists, failing to follow academic protocol, and simply not applying enough polish to their rough aesthetic — began to get its due as a groundbreaking disseminator of obscure sonic gems from such far-flung, seldom documented sites as Burma, Laos, and Western Sahara. Richard, who is less involved with the imprint these days, says they've become adept at tracking down and paying the performers. Today, the label gets the kind of praise it richly deserves, including a hefty feature by onetime naysayer Clive Bell in Wire. Sublime Frequencies is also producing the first European, non-Mideast tour by breathtaking Syrian folk-pop legend Omar Souleyman, whose Highway to Hassake (Sublime Frequencies, 2006) positively shreds with phase-shifted Arabic keyboard lines and frenetic beats.

Meanwhile Sir Richard is concentrating on his new Oakland life, bathed in the soft light and BART train roar streaming in from the 'hood. "It seems like it's alive here — whereas in Seattle it's kind of dying and not just musically," he says happily. "This is not the best neighborhood, but when I go out the door, I'm alive, and I'm totally aware of what's going on, and there's just some cool creative energy to grasp onto."

Guitars and instruments are neatly clustered in an alcove across from a massive TV rigged to catch Mideast channels — perfectly tuned into Bishop's current obsession with and studies into the music the half-Lebanese musician first heard his grandfather play on old cassettes. Here in Oakland — aided and abetted by the half-Iraqi Gergis and his collection of Middle Eastern MP3s, cassettes, VCDs, and vinyl — he's been digging deeply into the music of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, a homecoming of sorts since Bishop started out studying Egyptology around the time of Sun City Girls' early '80s inception.

When Bishop started tracking his fine, even sublime new The Freak of Araby (Drag City) in Seattle, the switch from making a poppy electric-guitar album to one centered on Middle Eastern-related originals and covers was a natural one — a tribute to his latest fave, Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid. Bishop scrambled to learn new songs in six days, but he's pleased with the result, which he'll fill out live with tour mate Oaxacan as his backing combo. The disc "was very rushed, and I didn't have time to hash out a lot of the ideas," he says. "There are people who are not going to like it, but that's okay, it never bothered me before!" And with that, the jolly Sir Richard laughs.

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