On their self-titled 1984 debut album, the Sun City Girls sang, “We're jokers on a waltz,” offering as succinct a band description as any. Arguably America's premier underground band, this Arizona-spawned all-male trio has steadily gained notoriety over the last two decades for instrumental versatility, finely honed improvisational skills, and an affinity for blenderizing genres from around the globe. The band also has a well-earned reputation for unpredictability and pranksterism; resolutely uncompromising, it makes music essentially for its own amusement. That others like it is considered a happy byproduct.
“We don't need to draw lines and try to pigeonhole ourselves,” Sun City Girl Alan Bishop says. “We're still just doing whatever the fuck we wanna do, whenever we wanna do it. And if other people can dig it, then we can all just enjoy it together.”
The last time the Sun City Girls played in San Francisco, they gave one of the more notorious performances of their career. Loosely based on the Jacks Creek album, the November 1994 show was the band's take on hillbilly Americana, with the Girls and cohorts re-creating a backwoods campfire jamboree replete with hobo humor, drunken banter, a fiddle player on crutches, and the occasional banjo ploink. Audience response was decidedly mixed: Those near the stage seemed to enjoy it, while those farther back appeared disgruntled.
“That's the roll of the dice,” Bishop says of the infamous Great American Music Hall performance. “We're high rollers, we're gamblers. I know a lot of people bitched about that show, but I thought it was really great. I felt sorry for people who were too far back because we were off-mike most of the time. Perhaps they would've understood more where it was coming from if they could've heard everything.”
Bishop feels some people who might otherwise go to a Sun City show are inordinately afraid of encountering a similar live situation, which gives the band all the more reason to do something comparable. “They're trying to justify to themselves if it's a valuable experience or if they spent their money right, instead of just rolling with what comes down the track. It's not our fucking job to make their lives better. You can't give people like us a reason to piss you off, because we'll deliver the goods. But as I do recall, the evening before at the Bottom of the Hill, we played a really cool show of stuff that maybe they would've liked.”
The Sun City Girls have a long and storied history of toying with audience expectations, though Bishop admits that “preaching to the converted” has made it more of a challenge over the years. When the Bishop brothers — Alan (bass) and Rick (guitar) — joined forces with drummer Charles Gocher in Phoenix at the dawn of the '80s, they were thoroughly reviled by many a hardcore punk crowd. Sharing bills with the likes of Black Flag and Jodie Foster's Army, the Sun City Girls fed on audience confrontation, earning the grudging respect of a tumultuous and sometimes intolerant underground. “It's fun pushing buttons,” Alan Bishop says of the SCG penchant for provocation. “We use it as a means to entertain ourselves, to get people's blood boiling. It just strengthens our arsenal.”
Over the course of more than 20 albums (plus scads of singles, cassettes, compilations, and side projects), the SCG sound has ranged from their signature alien-jazz improv to Asian-tinged psychedelia, Middle Eastern meditations, trashy rock covers, smutty satire, ranting psychodrama, and oh-so-much more. Live, the band's been known to add an unhinged theatrical element, running the gamut from neo-kabuki theater to performance art and slide shows. In short, expect almost anything. “We never really planned it that way,” Bishop says. “We didn't think, “Twenty years from now, if we do 753 different styles of music, we'll be able to do anything that we want.' It's just the way it ended up.”
In the early '90s, the Sun City Girls gradually relocated to their current home of Seattle, where the band established its own record label, Abduction, and continued its long-standing practice of incessant recording. According to Bishop, the band doesn't rehearse per se — it's more of a weekly lodge meeting with the tape always running.
Of course, anybody with the ability to press a red button could be a prolific recording artist. Luckily, the Sun City Girls' off-the-cuff recordings are a damn sight better than what many groups plan out. According to Bishop, the band has “truckloads” of quality material waiting in the wings. So the trio has embarked on the Carnival Folklore Resurrection project, an open-ended effort to release as much of the SCG backlog as possible. In the last few months, the band has put out five CDs — each in a limited edition of 1,000 — with many more to follow. Of the initial batch, each disc offers something distinct: The Dreamy Draw (No. 2) is moody and atmospheric, with some haunting piano and gamelan; Superculto (No. 3) is predominantly percussive and acoustic, with the occasional blast of electric guitar; A Bullet Through the Last Temple (No. 4) features guests on trumpet and upright bass, and is one of the Girls' jazziest recordings yet. The fifth release, Severed Finger With a Wedding Ring, documents the second set of a stellar live performance in Seattle this past March. “We've got at least 200 full projects basically finished and ready to go,” Bishop says. “Before I die, I want to see it all come out. Everything has its own merit as far as I'm concerned, and I think that if people tend to not buy it, I'll just shrink the limited edition number down to where it meets the market, and continue to release it.”
Except for the band's 1990 masterwork, Torch of the Mystics, and a smattering of CD reissues, damn near all of the SCG back catalog is out of print, and the band's rarer works routinely go for top dollar on eBay. Bishop says that with so many unreleased recordings on deck, he would rather focus on constantly putting out new product than keeping the older stuff available. He adds that, with this approach, each release breaks even or makes a small profit, and there are no boxes of CDs gathering dust in his closet. Upcoming efforts may draw from some 28 reels recorded in 1997 at the Seattle studio of longtime SCG engineer Scott Colburn, as well as from such esoterica as film audio collages and shortwave recordings from the band members' many trips overseas. “Say you're in the Golden Triangle,” Bishop says of the radio pieces. “You're getting five different stations coming from Laos, Cambodia, China, Burma, and Thailand, and they're all cross-fading into each other. By manipulating different frequencies with the dial, you can actually turn the radio into your own little analog instrument. It's an interesting effect.”
The Bishop brothers' penchant for recording can be traced all the way back to Saginaw, Mich., where the two started doing “really ridiculous things” with tape recorders as kids, including prank phone calls (three examples of which can be found on the triple-CD anthology Box of Chameleons). “We had probably a thousand prank phone calls on tape,” Bishop remembers. “It was our entertainment for the weekend.” Obviously, the SCG mischievousness was developing even then.
One of the Bishops' all-time favorite pranks was calling the local public television station and getting fictitious names displayed on the high-bidder board. “The year that the Dodgers had Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Steve Garvey, and Davey Lopes as their infield, we had all four of those names up there on the board, and the representative to Congress in the district was announcing those four as the winners. And nobody caught it. So we just continued to do it, and put really ridiculous names up there like Stan Dup and Ben Dover, right there for everyone to see on the television set. We couldn't believe how easy it was to do that, and it just gave us so much confidence. Doing these things at an early age, you just get better at it because your confidence is unshattered. You get better at being able to deceive, to do pranks, and get away with these things.”
When they were growing up, the Bishop brothers weren't interested in becoming musicians, even when their parents bought them a piano and a guitar. Being kids, they just blew it all off — neither started playing an instrument until they were both about 17. From there, it was SCG history.
“But I still don't consider myself a musician after all these years,” Bishop maintains, arguing that most musicians are too caught up in tradition and role fulfillment. “If people could get beyond worrying what the fuck [others] think of them, about offending somebody, or about playing something differently or wrong, then we'd have 100 Sun City Girls out there, wouldn't we? Where the fuck are they? By all means, there are plenty of great ideas and great musicians and players out there. It's frustrating because it just seems like there should be a lot more. It makes it a lot easier for us, but then again, it's uninspiring.”
OK, Mr. Bishop, point taken. One last question: What might SCG have up their sleeves for the upcoming Bottom of the Hill appearance? “We've got everything up our sleeves. It depends on the shirt of the evening.”