Arabian Nights: An Interview with Richard Bishop

Richard Bishop isn’t exactly a stranger to Middle Eastern music. After all, the guitarist grew up in a partly Lebanese family and heard traditional Arabic folk music at his grandfather’s home from an early age. And, Sun City Girls, Bishop’s band for decades, incorporated all sorts of ethnic influences. He even owned a couple of Moroccan chanters, the drone-y oboe-like instrument found in many varieties of North African and Egyptian music.

Still, Bishop says he had never focused on the Arabic tradition in a sustained way. Not, that is, until the winter of 2008, when he landed at Sublime Frequencies head Mark Gergis’ apartment in Oakland. In a recent interview, we chatted with Bishop about the experience, delving into the new album, The Freak of Araby, visa issues with his backing band, and the implicit controversy of creating an album with a Middle Eastern influence.

Free of any performing or recording commitments, feeling limited by his primary instrument, the acoustic guitar, and tired of his home in Seattle, Bishop moved into Gergis’ apartment for a few months and discovered a trove of new influences. “Mark had an unbelievable collection of music here that he’s brought back on numerous trips to Lebanon and Syria and Egypt,” says Bishop. “There were stacks and stacks of CDRs and MP3s and DVDs. Most of it, you couldn’t even tell what it was because everything was written in Arabic.”

Being a guitarist – in a tradition dominated by the lute-like oud – Bishop was particularly fascinated with an Egyptian player named Omar Khorshid. Up until Khorshid, whose career spanned the 1960s and 1970s (he died in a car accident in 1981), most traditional Arabic orchestras did not employ a guitarist. It was only when he was invited, by the great Egyptian singer Oum Khalthoum, to play in her band, that the instrument began to become more common.

Bishop says he felt an almost immediate kinship with Khorshid. “In the early part of the career, he was playing standard and classical Middle Eastern songs with the guitar as the main instrument, and that just kind of spoke to me naturally,” said Bishop, who adds that he even found he recognized some of the material. “I had listened to a couple of his songs several years ago and didn’t know it was him, but one of those songs was actually a song that Sun City Girls used to do live on occasion,” he said. “We just thought it was a nice kind of Eastern sounding instrumental piece.”

Khorshid’s material isn’t easy to track down, but Bishop began collecting as much of it as he could find. “What I liked about his playing is it’s a very simple approach,” he explains. “He doesn’t do any shredding. It’s a clean sound with no distortion. It seems like the notes are very carefully thought out.”

That clarity, simplicity, and pop sensibility caught Bishop’s ear, but he had trouble assimilating it. “To be honest with you, I still haven’t quite figured it out,” he said. “I think it’s the simplicity of it is what confuses me. I keep expecting it to be more complicated. So I have kind of a difficult time with it.”

Moreover, Bishop found himself attempting to be true to a musical tradition that was based on different rules than the raga, blues or rock that he’d focused on in the past. “There’s a formula that he uses. I don’t know if it’s certain scales or modes, because I don’t really think that way. I never really was trained that way. So I don’t know,” he says. “It’s just one of those things that, to this very moment, continues to fascinate me.”

Bishop had already decided that his next album would feature the electric guitar, and he was thinking in terms of a clean, melodic, pop sound for it. He had no plans, right up until the first day he showed up in the studio, to make an Arabic-themed album. He did have one cover in mind, a song by Lebanese composer Elia Rahbani, who with his brother had written for the singer Feyrouz. He recorded the tune on the first day in the studio, along with one other original composition that had a bit of Arabic influence in it.

“Afterwards, I was listening to the cover, and an early take of one of these other originals that was kind of an Arabic-flavored song, and I just decided right then and there. I want the whole record to sound like this,” says Bishop.

Bishop called a bass player he knew who played in the Arab style. The musician offered to bring in two percussion players to the studio the next day. This Arab pick-up band recorded one day’s sessions and then disappeared. No one could reach them by phone the following day. (Bishop found out, weeks later, that their work visas had expired and they had been deported.) “The engineer, Scott Colburn, and I had to kind of learn how to play percussion really quick,” says Bishop. “We added the remaining percussion on the record, and I finished the bass parts.”

With the album finished – and the backing band nowhere to be found – Bishop began to think about his upcoming tour. He had already asked Bay Area improvisational band Oaxacan to open for him. He wondered, could they also fill in as the Freak of Araby ensemble.

Oaxacan jumped at the chance, and began familiarizing themselves with the Freak of Araby material, while Bishop left for a European tour. Oaxacan, a three-piece, consisting of Derek Moneypeny on guitar, Amy Friesbertshauser on vocals and keyboards and Mike Guarino on percussion, had some familiarity with the Middle Eastern styles Bishop was playing, as listeners and musicians. Moneypeny had traveled to Morocco on a music-finding expedition for the Sublime Frequencies label (run by Bishop’s brother Alan), and he noted, by email, that “We all have a passion for Middle Eastern music, and in Oaxacan we do, at times, play using something like the modes, the melodies and hopefully the feel of it. It comes out in an idiosyncratic way, but it’s there.”

When Bishop returned, they began rehearsing, creating a live show that is louder, more expansive, and more improvisatory than the record. “I wasn’t sure how it would work until we started a few practices,” said Bishop. “It was a little rough at first because they’re an improvisational band, so I didn’t know how patient they would be in having to actually learn songs. And at the same time, it was a new thing for me having to teach people these songs. I was all the sudden kind of in the position of being the boss. That was very uncomfortable for me.” But, he adds, the show quickly came together, as the four of them rehearsed album songs, some additional classic Arabic material and even a few Middle Eastern flavored Sun City Girls tunes. “I’m real excited about it,” Bishop says, “Now I don’t think there’s anybody better to be backing me up.”

Moneypeny, too, seems exhilarated by the gig. “The songs are a blast, Richard’s a joy, and it’s me getting to play with and support one of my heroes,” he answered when asked what he was liking most about participating in the Freak of Araby project. “How does that sound to you?”

Bishop started his tour in late May in Oakland, and will criss-crossing the US through June. And with the US at war in two Moslem countries, the fallout from Guantanamo continuing and ratcheting tensions with the Arab world, it is, to put it gently, an interesting time to be showcasing Arab culture.

Asked if he had considered the political implications of his latest project, Bishop answered, “Yeah. I did think about it for a few minutes. did think about it, and I thought, you know, fuck that. I kind of want to keep the music part of this separate from Islam, and all that people are going to associate that with.”

Is that possible? Even Omar Khorshid couldn’t keep the political world at bay. After playing in the US in 1981 to celebrate the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, Khorshid received death threats from Islamic hardliners. Many people believe that his death in a car crash in 1981 was no accident, but that he was pushed off the road. Yet Bishop maintains that however enmeshed Khorshid became in political conflict, and however deep the influence of religion and politics on all aspects of Arab culture, these songs can be appreciated on their own.

“There’s a side of Arabic music that a lot of people don’t know – that most of the classical songs – and a lot of the songs that Omar covered instrumentally – are about love,” he says. If somebody, for example Oum Khalthoum or Fairuz or Farid Al-Atrache is singing in Arabic and I’m paying attention to it and really getting involved in it, I can feel that. I can feel that that’s what they’re talking about.”