In Phoenix, Arizona, in 1981, a trio of diverse musicians, Richard and Alan Bishop (half Lebanese brothers from Detroit) and Charles Gocher Jr. (a So-Cal transplant) formed Sun City Girls, a band named after a nearby retirement community.
These “Girls” were seen as unusual in the hardcore punk scene: bizarre yet attractive.
They believed that the purest form of punk was to reject the genre, and for decades the group explored a variety of styles like Dada, Kabuki, prog, hobo monologues, puppetry, noise, surf instrumentals, and street theatre.
Their discography is estimated to be between 50 and 100 releases, each one different from the next.
The sound of Sun City Girls has been the basis for many of today’s underground American bands such as Animal Collective, Deerhoof, No-Neck Blues Band, Six Organs of Admittance, Devendra Banhart, and Dengue Fever, who use their own local influences to interpret noise from around the world.
In 1983, at the peak of Thriller-fever, the Bishop brothers journeyed to Morocco. Rick spent three weeks there, while Alan dedicated two months to the country.
During his days, he played the saxophone and guitar alongside local artists, and at night he recorded snippets of shortwave broadcasts.
Two decades later, he incorporated these audio elements into Radio Morocco, the seventh release from Sublime Frequencies – the “world music” label/collective created by Hisham Mayet and Alan’s brother, with additional contributions from Mark Gergis, Robert Millis, and others.
Rather than following the conventions of elevator world-music labels and the theories of academic ethnomusicology, Sublime Frequencies plunges listeners and viewers directly into the cultures they document.
Just as Smithsonian Folkways and Ocora have done before them, each SF release presents music and visuals that are both familiar and baffling to those from the West.
From Iraq’s Choubi music to Syrian Dabke to North Korean pop and opera, the label ardently displays the extraordinary beauty from countries labeled as “axes of evil” and other places that are not typically visited by tourists.
The cantankerous, chain-smoking, and obsessive Alan Bishop is determined to subvert Western supremacy and celebrate the cultural contributions of the oppressed.
We spoke on the phone, with Bishop in his garage office, where he was busily working on the next series of SF releases and planning for the Sun City Girls’ farewell tour in honour of Gocher, who succumbed to cancer in early 2007.
–Andy Beta stated
I. POSSESSED WITH THE SAME PASSION
THE BELIEVER: You have noted in the accompaniment to your Radio Morocco sound montage, which you made during your initial voyage to that nation in the 80s, that you found Thriller being aggressively promoted all around the world and you hope the mix can assist with unbrainwashing people.
In creating this concoction, does the audio combination serve as a form of cultural resistance?
ALAN BISHOP: The Burroughs/Gysin cut-up technique has always been a source of inspiration for me, although I have never had the need to actually put it on paper and rearrange words.
I have been able to do it in my head, in part by writing as I listen to foreign languages and transcribing them into English.
Sound collage is one of my favorite mediums and with a shortwave radio, I can create audio collage on the spot, anytime and anywhere–especially in places I’ve traveled to, such as North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
No matter what you hear on the radio, whether it’s Police songs, modern R&B, or Outkast, it’s so prevalent now that it’s hard to avoid.
This is due to the American, European, UK, and Japanese companies that have been exporting their culture around the world. It’s been done without anyone actually having to manage it, as it has become a self-sustaining process.
Even in places where it wasn’t initially pushed, it has been taken up by locals and is being played on the radio. Thus, it is easy to find people who enjoy it.
BLVR: Is it necessary to keep selling Coca-Cola these days?
AB: Yes, that’s the same.
BLVR: As you are an avid traveler, I’m highly interested in knowing how many languages you can converse in.
AB: I am not fluent in any language. As I travel more, I realize that I don’t have to be a master of the language to make it in a foreign place. If I am intelligent and observant, I can still understand what is going on as people are all quite similar in the way they think and act.
BLVR: I tend to think of the sound first when I reminisce about my favorite tracks, such as the guitar sound on the Cambodian Cassette Archives or the chickens and infants crying in the background of the amazing vocal/guitar duet from Cambodia’s northeast.
I rarely recollect the titles and almost never comprehend the lyrics.
AB: Lyrics are not of high significance to me and can even be a distraction.
Had I known the language enough to be able to understand that a song I was listening to was a trite love song with poor lyrics, I would be much less likely to like it than if it were an instrumental or something that I could interpret myself, thereby increasing its worth to me.
Similarly, when listening to a Thai song, I cannot understand what they are saying either, but I am still able to take away my own meaning from the expressive vocalization or the sound, much like someone listening to Western pop music who doesn’t grasp what’s being said.
This idea of not knowing the specifics of a song but still appreciating it is much more intriguing to me than knowing what the songs are about.
BLVR: Both parties think the other is peculiar for enjoying the other culture’s popular music.
AB: Absolutely. They consider me peculiar for enjoying their music. I find it peculiar that they like ours.
BLVR: Is it usual to find that many nations do not pay much attention to keeping their culture alive when you’re looking for music?
AB: Economical and standard of living conditions play a pivotal role in the ability of a country to preserve and promote its cultural legacy.
Unfortunately, most countries lack the resources to do this. Consequently, their culture is left to deteriorate as storerooms of old tapes and films are subjected to high temperatures and records develop mold and become warped.
In addition, when records are shipped, millipedes are sometimes found inside of them. Furthermore, no money is being put into the restoration of buildings and infrastructure, and the corruption in these countries is more obvious than it is in the U.S.
BLVR: How long does it take you to work through the records that you have on hand?
AB: I use up a great deal of my free time working on Sublime projects; currently, I have seventy-five in progress. Some of them may take two to three years to finish, and some may never be released.
When I travel abroad, though, I’m very active: I record radio shows, try to capture musicians performing live, and look for people to perform. I take every opportunity to record, wherever it presents itself.
BLVR: Through my extensive engagement with Sublime Frequencies, I came to think of foreign music as readily available, as though there was a Tower Records in each country holding an abundance of tunes. Yet, when I traveled to Southeast Asia, this was not the case.
AB: Many people make the grievous error of thinking it’s a simple matter to just switch on the radio and be done with it. My answer to that is invariably: “Let’s see what you manage to create!
How much effort are you willing to put in? How much time are you going to expend on that radio?” It takes a full hundred hours of listening to the radio to compose a single CD. You truly have to work for it.
It’s true, you can look up music online, but it’s all in Thai when you travel there. Even though you can speak English, it can be mispronounced and the locals may pretend not to understand – just to mess with you.
A lot of people go to places like Thailand looking for music and come back shocked at how we do it in the West. You’ve got to put in the effort – I’ve been to Thailand thirty times and I’m still out there searching every day.
BLVR: Upon returning, do you discover that elements of your culture are dissipating or being replaced due to the globalizing power of homogeneous culture?
AB: With each passing year, it becomes increasingly difficult to experience the music live or to find it on tape. I have witnessed this decline over time and it will continue to do so until a system is put in place to preserve it.
Eventually, people will take pride in their musical heritage and will strive to back it up, record it, and store it. That is my prediction.
When it comes to considering culture, many people do not take music into account. They don’t give it much thought and don’t appreciate the musical heritage.
They see it as a part of their lives: “Oh, I remember that song. You like that? Interesting.” But do they contemplate how great it was? Are they aware of the guitarist, the vocalist’s name? Do they know when it was released? Most likely not. It is not something they pay attention to as much as someone passionate about it, like me.
BLVR: It appears that the main complaint against Sublime Frequencies is that they are collecting music from other cultures and not giving fair compensation for it.
AB: That’s not accurate. We do provide some royalties. When we can find them or are in contact with them, we have contracts with certain artists. But with archived recordings, it’s more difficult.
It is hard to track down who owns the material, so we may pay the artist even if they aren’t the actual copyright holder. Or other times, if we are unable to find the owner, we will just put it out there without any payment.
II. GRATITUDE FOR KARAOKE
Karaoke has been a source of entertainment for many people around the world and has become a popular way to have a good time. We can express our appreciation for karaoke for providing us with a form of entertainment.
BLVR: Coming from a Western point of view, with knowledge of Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, one can recognize how even overseas their music was heard, through American G.I.s who visited during the Vietnam War. This is a fascinating reminder of our own culture.
One Molam song [Thai folk music] with the riff from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” really stands out. It’s not to say it is “lost in translation,” but the way they re-work our pop music is remarkable.
The Bollywood Steel Guitar and Shadow Music of Thailand albums demonstrate how India was influenced by Merle Travis and Chet Atkins’s guitar-picking records, or in the case of the latter, a less well-known surf band such as the Shadows.
When I initially heard the Stones’ riff on “Lam Plern Chawiwan” from Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan Vol. 2, it really resonated. And then, the traditional Molam sound kicks in, and then it goes back to that break with a screeching violin.
The influence of Vietnam and the American military bases on the region are clear, but it is also present in the culture of the Thai people. In the US, children were going to school and returning with this music.
The American youth of that era that were fascinated with foreign rock are not much different than today’s Thai youngsters that are into modern R&B, hip-hop, and pop such as Green Day and blink-182.
BLVR: No matter where I travelled, whether it be Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia, karaoke was omnipresent. It was on the bus, in the clubs and even the audio CDs were VCDs used for singing karaoke. The sound was just an addition, and although it was quite cheesy and a bit frightening, this was the first time people could interact with pop music.
AB: Adjusting to karaoke as a common occurrence has altered our endeavor to acquire what we really desire.
With the setup of the karaoke and the workstation keyboard, the need for a live band and any further progress of the ensemble in the club circuit is eliminated. Most of the bars in Southeast Asia are especially for ladies.
The listeners and partakers who attend the clubs are mainly men who become intimately familiar with the ladies, not the music.
Going to them and solely listening to the music is not what people do–so we [Sublime Frequencies] are either regarded with amusement for doing so or perplexing to the locals by being interested in the music.
At special events, restaurants, and other public functions, the population has the opportunity to become involved with the music by either singing or being encouraged to sing.
This is all thanks to the invention of karaoke, which has created a nation of singers, both good and bad. Unfortunately, live bands have become a rarity in Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma.
BLVR: Assembling collections like the Thai Pop Spectacular, Molam: Thai Country Groove, and Cambodian Cassette Archives has always made me ponder whether the comparable music in the region is more like the universal pop radio hits of a K-Tel comp or something more clandestine, such as Nuggets.
AB: We listened to a great deal of Molam tracks and decided that only the best of them were suitable for the disc. Out of the thousand-plus “good tracks,” we selected a hundred that stood out due to their unique and interesting vocal, rhythmic and arrangement qualities.
We wanted to make sure that we chose the more unusual and appealing ones, as opposed to the typical ones that you usually heard. From the huge pool of music we had to choose from, these were the tracks that we found the most outstanding and captivating.
One can say that Thai pop music is a completely different genre. We are exploring the sounds of Luk Thung and Luk Krung, which is a broad term used to describe almost any kind of music like rock and roll, traditional pop, slow ballad, or something which has a folk feel.
Do you know the Butthole Surfers’ song “Kuntz”? That song is an example of Luk Thung. A Thai would argue that any piece of music on our compilation would be classified as Luk Thung.
There has not been any real attempt to break down and categorize Thai music in different genres as they are not quite into that.
BLVR: Although it is difficult to grasp the lyrics, Molam are usually rather suggestive tunes, right? The one show I watched on television in Roi Et had a lot of hip movements and exposed midriffs, which was strange for the traditionally reserved Thai people.
AB: They can certainly be. Nowadays, the style is quite scandalous. In the past, it was more subtle. Modern Lam Sing and Molam encompass a wide range of topics, from being in love to expressing hatred for somebody who cheated on their spouse.
A lot of the former Molam and Luk Thung artists were known for their wild lifestyles and even for getting shot and killed on stage. There are some intriguing stories behind Luk Thung and Molam singers, especially Khmer Surin music’s king, Darkie, from the 90s.
It is said that he was killed in Bangkok or died due to a drug overdose, but no one has the same version of the story.
BLVR: In the liner notes for Radio Phnom Penh, you talked about how the Cambodian people return to their traditional music, re-recording the instruments and “remixing” it, to the point that the previous versions are removed from the public perception and memory.
AB: It is not uncommon for those who wish to keep the musical legacy of old recordings alive, to spruce them up in order to attract a younger audience. A select few based in Long Beach, California and Oakland, have taken it upon themselves to preserve their old music.
It is peculiar why they would opt to take the authentic versions off the shelf and assume no one would be able to tell the difference.
The new drum tracks, with the modern MIDI keyboard sounds, are almost like a terrible fog covering the music and you can still make out the original vocals in the background.
This has taken over the market; if you want to purchase oldies, this is what you will find. In our culture this would not be acceptable; you can get the remixed version of Rubber Soul but you cannot find the original?
BLVR: Is it a trait of Buddhism that they have a different outlook on the past and don’t cling to it?
AB: It’s likely connected to how they think. There is a mentality that “new is best”; the old is undesirable. You won’t notice Thais shopping in thrift stores; they prefer to have the latest clothing and gadgets.
There is an even more extreme status system than in the United States, that happened many years ago. This is particularly true with music; people want something “fresh”.
It is possible to remove any plagiarism by altering the form of the text without changing the context and the general sense of the passage. By doing so, it is still possible to maintain the same markdown formatting.
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