October 30, 2002

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Sun worshipers
Contemplating fandom, following the Sun City Girls.

By Will York

'NEVER TRUST A Sun City Girls fan."

As an advice-wary music consumer, I held that personal rule of thumb until very recently. Which is strange, considering that the band is responsible for some of my favorite music. At their best, they sound like they're channeling messages from another plane, and they do so with such a relaxed spirit that you feel like you're eavesdropping on a group of teenagers cutting up in their garage. At their worst, they have a frustrating stubborn streak that can keep even the most sympathetic listener at arm's distance.

Together since 1979, the Sun City Girls – bassist Alan Bishop, guitarist Rick Bishop, and drummer Charles Gocher (all three sing and play numerous other instruments as well) – are one of the most unpredictable bands on the planet. They can be brilliant in about 10 different ways, ranging from the Middle Eastern garage-psyche of Torch of the Mystics to the country-and-eastern campfire folk of parts of 333,003 Crossdressers from beyond the Rig Veda, to the extended psychedelic drone-rock explorations of Bright Surroundings, Dark Beginnings. Then there are Bishop's misanthropic, alien folk-blues songs (usually reserved for his Alvarius B solo project) and Gocher's head-injured spoken word rants and drunken-sailor sing-alongs (most heavily showcased on the baffling two-CD concept album Dante's Disneyland Inferno).

Yet for all their far-flung greatness, the Girls' misses are certainly as diverse, encompassing go-nowhere drone-improv workouts, off-target excursions into various types of jazz ("free" and otherwise), and aimless Indonesian folk-music approximations. Their last show in San Francisco, which took place in 2000 at Bottom of the Hill, felt like a combination of all of the above and left all but the most unrepentant diehards scratching their heads and trying to remember just why this band – whose devout Bay Area followers include members of Caroliner, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, and Secret Chiefs 3 – is supposed to be so special.

That's why I never trusted Sun City Girls' fans: they'd never admit that, as great as much of the band's music was, they could also really stink sometimes. Instead, they'd make excuses for the band, or else – I assume – pretend to like stuff, perhaps to justify all of the money they spent maintaining their SCG collections (not an easy task considering how prolific the trio is – their ongoing Carnival Folklore Resurrection series, inaugurated in May 2000, is already on volume 10).

Considering the high points scattered throughout their catalog – coupled with their well-known audience-antagonizing antics – you almost have to wonder if the Sun City Girls actually suck on purpose sometimes, just to keep people guessing. Consider this tour-diary anecdote from the Thinking Fellers' Web site, written by bassist Anne Eickelberg: "SCG almost immediately split the crowd into factions. Confusion, joy, bullish hatred, drunken bellows, flipping the bird; others cheering support.... Alan became more and more certain of his control over the crowd ... threatening to kick anyone's ass who had the guts to come on stage.... Telling everyone how great it is that they paid for it and he's going to get some of their money!"

"I suppose we suck without purpose at times," counters the mysterious Alan Bishop via e-mail (he won't answer questions over the phone). "We're high rollers at what we do. Our approach is fearless. Because we do not use a 'patented' formula to express ourselves, we have the freedom to not only succeed or fail, but to continually reinvent ourselves."

Besides, he adds, for those not happy with one of their shows, "anyone looking for a different SCG performance can go to the next one. At least with us, one has that option!"

True enough. Then again, one doesn't have that option very often, since the trio rarely plays live outside their home base of Seattle: their upcoming shows at Bottom of the Hill are part of their first tour since 1992 and only their fourth tour ever. Which brings up an obvious question: why don't they tour more often? "Well, they don't need to," answers producer-recording engineer Scott Colburn, who has worked closely with the band for a decade. "What they do is not about selling a lot of records. It's not about making a lot of money. It's just about making their music and releasing exactly what they wanna release, when they wanna release it.

"So the idea of going out and playing a show ... it's fun, and they do it, but there's no reason to hit the road and live in a van. They're totally comfortable with the way they exist right now, and have existed ... since '79."

Inner City Girls

Colburn is in a rare position to comment on the Sun City Girls, since he is one of the few people with access to what he calls the band's "inner sanctum." (Violinist Eyvind Kang, who will be performing with and opening for the band for the first of their two nights at Bottom of the Hill, may be the only other.) And since the band members are reluctant to talk about themselves – in fact, they rarely give interviews – Colburn is practically the only person who can offer an explanation for some moves in their puzzling career – or more accurately, anticareer – such as why they've allowed so much of their now-legendary back catalog to remain out of print.

"Alan's response to any question like, 'Is such and such gonna be put back in print or reissued?' is 'Why?' " Colburn says. " 'Why should I try to keep our old recordings in print if I've got 300 new recordings that I'd rather release?' It's like, if you were there and you bought the record, fine. If you weren't there, too bad. At least jump on the ship now and keep up with it. But that's what keeps the mystery of that band going, is that this stuff is really not available. You won't find a ton of releases in a Sun City Girls bin in a record store, because they're just not available."

It may be good for the mystery of the band, but the downside to this approach – and their absence of self-promotion in general – is how it plays into the "preaching to the converted" syndrome that inevitably creeps in on cult-level bands, no matter how unpredictable they are. At this stage in the game, getting your hands on enough Sun City Girls recordings to even scratch the surface of what they're about requires that you be somewhat obsessed.

It hasn't always been this way. Back in the early and mid 1980s, when they were still based in Arizona, the SCG often ran into people who had no idea what they were trying to do. As Colburn puts it, "You can't do music that's as creative as what they do and not find hostility in the audience."

They shared bills with such bands as hardcore skate-punks JFA (who they opened for on their 1984 tour) and Black Flag, and they recorded several albums for the Phoenix-based punk label Placebo. This seems bizarre in retrospect, but as Bishop explains, "We had an affinity with the punk aesthetic, and perhaps we were an extreme example of it. We were in a performing weekly lottery, which included punk and hardcore bands but also other, more imaginative 'extreme characters' such as Boyd Rice, Africa Corps [later known as Savage Republic], Maybe Mental, Helios Creed, Victory Acres, Eddy Detroit, the Mighty Sphincter. The list is endless of nonpunk contingents that were roaming the west at the time."

Still, the experience of playing for unprepared, sometimes hostile audiences – punk or otherwise – must have had a role in shaping the Sun City Girls' live show dynamic and thick-skinned attitude in general. They thrive on uncertainty, not fan approval.

However, Bishop discounts the concern that the friendlier, more prepared audiences they'll be playing for on their upcoming tour will have the effect of dulling the band's edge. "We've discovered other ways in which to be antagonistic or confronting if the need arises," he writes. "We don't have anyone telling us what to do other than our own various interests, which are scattered wider than acceptable by many. We are governed by forces greater than those found identifiable to an industry or its consumer base so therefore, we will challenge anyone we work with in any medium. It's our nature."

'We'll Still Be Hovering after You're Gonesville'

In case it's not clear where this article is heading: I have basically crossed the line into official Sun City Girls fandom, and it's kind of scary. Does this mean I'm going to sit around and gloat about my rare LP copy of the prized Horse Cock Phephner? No, because I'm not that hard-core of a fan – and I've actually never even seen that record.

And I freely admit that the SCG still stink a solid 20 percent of the time – at least. But I was still pretty darn excited when the UPS man finally showed up today with my package of four Sun City Girls CDs, ordered from Forced Exposure – the archetypal record-snob mail-order outlet – no less.

Placing aside my fears of morphing into my vision of the stereotypical Sun City Girls fan – the ornery, bald, glasses-wearing record collector who doesn't like anything besides Amon Duul II and overpriced, late '60s South-American-Beatles-rip-off psyche reissues (limited-edition gatefold vinyl only) – what I've come to learn about dealing with the Sun City Girls is, mainly, you have to realign your expectations. You can't go to a Sun City Girls show expecting them to "play the hits," not because they don't have them – Torch of the Mystics and 330,003 Crossdressers qualify in relative terms, at least – but because that's just not what they do. They honestly don't seem to care what people think.

This can be extremely frustrating; and yet, perversely, they have probably served their fans better by not paying them attention. By not getting chained down by their audiences' expectations, they've managed to stick around and continue making new music while most of their contemporaries have broken up or, at best, carried on as shadows or parodies of their former selves. At least, that's my crackpot theory. Bishop's explanation for SCG's longevity is much simpler: "We're a family with its shit together."

Colburn, as usual, brings the explanation down to ground level. "It's just like a painter who decides he's not gonna paint anymore and he's gonna start doing sculpture. You can't say, 'You can't do sculpture – you can only paint 'cause you're a painter.' You have to let 'em go and just, like, go with the flow," he says, likening the constantly shape-shifting SCG to another one of his favorite bands, the Residents (who happen to be playing in San Francisco Oct. 31, the same night as the SCG). "Sure they're gonna do things that you might not personally like as a fan," Colburn continues, "but you kinda stay with it because you're watching artistic talent develop over a period of decades. You just stay with it, and kind of observe it, and enjoy it."

As for the future, does Bishop foresee a time when the band will cease to exist? "No," he replies. "Existence comes in many forms. It's which forms we will exist in that are unknown."

Sun City Girls perform Fri/1 and Sat/2, 10 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., S.F. $10, $8 advance. (415) 474-0365.