Hiding in Plain Sight

The Sun City Girls are Seattle's biggest cult band, with 70-odd albums that run the gamut from fascinating to infuriating. They're also changing the face of aural ethnography with their Sublime Frequencies record label. So why haven't you heard of them?

“The Sun City Girls are America’s premier underground band. No qualifiers such as “arguably” or “possibly” are necessary.”

—Derek Monypeny, Popwatch, 1998

Throw a videotape titled It’s Not Over ‘Till the Skinny Arab Lights the Fuse into your VCR, and you will see, after some nifty Bollywood film collages, bizarre beatnik poetry, and footage of a spastic avant-rock trio playing live, a puppet that looks like a Mexican matinee idol swathed in Mardi Gras beads propped up inside a piano. When the puppet speaks, it has that condescendingly nasal style PBS hosts have, nearly every word punctuated by a dramatic pause. Classic jazz plays in the background. “Good evening, and welcome, to another edition of, Jazz Classics; I’m your host, Cantinflas,” the puppet says slowly.

“Tonight will be an evening of what is commonly referred to as experimental jazz, jazz from the outside so to speak, from way outside . . . so if it’s getting too abstract for you, don’t leave—take a deep breath and try to see the scope of what these fantastic musicians are trying to express with their art. Sit back, make the most of it. . . . You’ll be mesmerized by pure genius.”

Then a scarier puppet appears, resembling nothing so much as a middle-aged Balinese hobo Frankenstein. The dummy bangs haphazardly on a stringed instrument (or maybe the inside of the piano—it’s hard to tell). He turns then to the camera, groans loudly, and shouts in a drunken slur, “You know how long I’ve been in this business? Yeah, you! I’ve been making music for a loooooong time, waiting for you to appreciate it!” And then comes the self-parodying kicker: “Why come to the audience!? I want the audience to come to me!”

That credo could stand as the working philosophy of the band that released the tape this past March: the Sun City Girls.

It’s Not Over ‘Till the Skinny Arab Lights the Fuse is one of a mind-numbing number of releases by the impossible-to-pin-down, travel-addicted, mystically inclined, cantankerous, and often- brilliant musical trio of professional margin walkers. For 22 years now, brothers Rick and Alan Bishop—bass and guitar, respectively—and drummer Charlie Gocher Jr. have delightedly pushed the boundaries of music, art, and good taste. Originally formed in Arizona and named after a retirement community just north of the Tempe/Phoenix area where they lived in the ’70s and ’80s, the Sun City Girls have called Seattle home for the past 10 years.

Unless you’re a devoted fan, you probably have no idea they live here—assuming you’ve heard of them at all. The Sun City Girls have toured Japan and performed with some of the world’s best-known out-there musicians, including San Francisco violinist Eyvind Kang, members of Japanese avant-rock gods the Boredoms, and experimental guitarist-banjoist Eugene Chadbourne. They have scored soundtracks to films by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine. They are widely credited as godfathers of multiple schools of indie rock, from the tribal hippie ethno-prog school of bands like Sunburned Hand of the Man and No Neck Blues Band to Asian garage bands like Neung Phak and Dengue Fever. And on the rare occasions when they’ve played out, fans travel across the country to see them play.

The Sun City catalog is so vast that not even the band members themselves know how many LPs, cassettes, and CDs they’ve released—many of them are doubles, and most are rare—but it’s at least 75 titles. Add to that a dozen 7-inch singles, a half-dozen hour-long VHS tapes, and a 10-inch 78, with more constantly on the way, thanks to their “Carnival Folklore Resurrection” series of limited-edition releases, as well as numerous solo projects, and you’ve got a rabid collector’s worst nightmare. And that’s not even counting solo records or material by others released on their own labels, Abduction and Sublime Frequencies. The group is notoriously erratic—their music veers from haunted, brooding folk to free-jazz blowouts to tape experiments, and their records range from the sublime (Bright Surroundings, Dark Beginnings; Torch of the Mystics; their self-titled debut) to indulgent doggerel (Jack’s Creek, Superculto, Midnight Cowboys From Ipanema).

Just two weeks ago, they played to a sold-out crowd of about 1,600 at All Tomorrow’s Parties UK, a celebrated annual festival “curated” by the critically celebrated Chicago band Tortoise—the Girls’ first show in Europe. (“Everyone was so nice to us,” Alan Bishop reports via e-mail, surprised by the crowd’s docility. “Maybe they were all under some sort of mass hypnosis—that’s what it looked like!”) And in the U.S., the Girls regularly sell out large hipster venues like the Knitting Factory in New York City and Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. (On April 13, they were slated to headline Manhattan’s hip Coral Room club, a swank joint in midtown with women dressed as mermaids in huge underwater tanks.)

The Sun City Girls have called Seattle home for 10 of the band’s 22 years. But unless you’re a devoted fan, you probably have no idea they live here.

But here at home, the band hides in plain sight. The Girls nearly always perform in costume, helping keep a low visibility, and last year they played just one official show in the Puget Sound area, at Bob’s Java Jive, a seedy and reportedly haunted karaoke bar shaped like a giant coffee pot, in Tacoma. But with a worldwide tour, literally dozens of new releases, a new Web site (www.suncitygirls.com) that sacrifices the band’s hard-won mystique for something more easily approachable, and actual Seattle shows in the works (they play the Sunset Tavern on May 22, and there’s talk of the group appearing at this year’s Bumbershoot), there’s a feeling that the Girls are taking stock of their career, trying to put it all in perspective. And that, in turn, has re-energized them. I’ve known the band 15 years, and they haven’t been this enthusiastic and dedicated since 1991.

The exterior to the Sun City Girls’ elaborate compound in Ballard is nondescript and unmarked, with nothing to advertise itself to the casual passerby. Inside are three office spaces, storage for the label releases, bedrooms for both Charlie and Rick, an entertainment center, a huge practice space, more stringed instruments than you can count, a library of mystical and alchemical texts, several shrines to the goddess Kali, thousands of LPs by the likes of Fela Kuti and Ennio Morricone, and the remains of a traveling Gamelan orchestra’s instruments. Invited to a rehearsal, I listen as the band plays Indonesian surf music, then slips into a gorgeous, dead-on cover of an old doo-wop number. As we relax in the cozy front office, Alan lights one cigarette off another, stubbing them out each time in a circular motion in the ashtray, suggesting both arcane ritual and OCD.

Charlie and Alan spend 20 minutes trying to explain a method of musical improvisation intended to physically slow down time, something they’ve been working on since the early 1990s. It’s called “narcolodics,” named loosely—and yes, a little jokingly—after Ornette Coleman’s “harmolodic” approach. I don’t really understand what they’re talking about, nor am I entirely certain they do, either. Which isn’t necessarily to say that narcolodics doesn’t exist—it’s just that some things simply cannot be readily explained. And when it comes to the Sun City Girls, almost nothing is easy.

The Sun City Girls self-release all their material in limited runs of 1,000 or less—numbers that they know will sell out quickly, which in turn will fund the next release. They record very cheaply at collaborator (and “fourth member”) Scott Colburn’s studio, cutting him in on any profits. All three have recently quit full-time jobs—a high-paying gig managing a ticket brokerage in Alan’s case—to work on the band full time. “It’s not easy to do some of the things we want to do and to do them successfully,” Alan says. “It’s a continual challenge to do things our way and still pull them off.”

I wonder aloud whether they’re obscurantist for its own sake, or if they might be concerned with being perceived as snobs. Alan says no to both. “We’ll go on David Letterman if we can do it the way we want to. Going to perform at controlled-environment agenda gigs and having to conform to the same situation other bands have to conform to—simply getting ourselves in a habit of doing that would almost lead to a breakdown of what we stand for to begin with.”

If there’s one band in the world it would be impossible to form a “tribute”/ cover band for, here it is. The Sun City Girls’ repertoire includes psychedelic pop fuzz, sardonic protest folk, creepy musique concrète, blindingly loud noise, bizarre free jazz, gorgeous Spanish lullabies, vibrating insect drones, space-trucking jams, paranoid monologues, dusty cowboy ballads, crusty lounge music, perfectly rendered trad jazz, science-fiction sound effects, prank phone call recordings, and anthemic punk rock—not to mention myriad musical styles associated with the Far East, North Africa, South America, the Middle East, Haiti, and outer space. They also do really rad covers of “Radar Love,” the theme from “Batman,” and Love’s “Alone Again Or.” They channel demons onstage as well, but we’ll get to that later.

Their near-telepathic communication has helped them achieve a purity of expression most musicians abandon as unattainable.

—Ian Christe, Wired

The Girls get along incredibly well for people who spend a lot of time together every day. They claim never to argue. Wisecracking guitarist Rick comes across as a wild-haired stoner older brother who’ll always be cooler than you, no matter what you do or say. Fast-talking bassist Alan is a successful, reformed snake-oil salesman uncle who seems paranoid, but as you get older you realize he really does know something about almost everything. And Charlie is definitely a father figure, albeit in the vein of the absent-minded professor who forgot to pick you up after soccer practice because he was working so heavily on his Theory of Everything.

The half-Lebanese Bishop brothers grew up in a Detroit suburb, where there was a vibrant Lebanese community, including other expat members of Druse, a mystical Islamic sect. “Being surrounded by Arabic music growing up really helped to lay the groundwork for our interest in not only Middle Eastern music through the years, but in music from Southeast Asia, South America, everywhere else,” Alan says. “My grandfather used to play the oud and double-reeded flute. There were Lebanese relatives blowing in from out of town to visit all the time, and at times there would be large gatherings of music and singing and food.”

Guitarist Rick and bassist Alan started to play together at an early age and had bands as early as 1979, but it wasn’t until they met Charlie Gocher around 1981 that they’d found a true compatriot. Charlie was a Southern California transplant and fellow devotee of world music, jazz, and classical music outsiders like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Harry Partch. Alan was making a living running an open mike at a place called Tony’s Pizza. One night Charlie signed up to perform. “He was standing on the chair, balancing on one foot and scat singing to a prepared tape, while also conducting,” Rick explains. “He was freaking me out, man. We wanted him to join the band right then, and we didn’t even know he played drums!”

“I read a pop bio about Harry Houdini, and it inspired me to make it seem like I was breaking out of manacles and a straight jacket,” Charlie says. “So I played the drums like that—and I still do. It’s an escapist reality, in a way!”

According to Alan, Charlie’s performance was “totally unlike anything we’d seen, and it blossomed into creating these environments every night. We’d have punk bands and industrial, free jazz, beat poetry, anything weird, just freaks up there, ranting at the crowd. People loved it.” Clearly, this environment was the perfect incubator for the Sun City Girls. That anarchic open-mike spirit survives most fully in the series of five VHS tapes the group released in March, as well as the mind-blowing double–CD Carnival Folklore Resurrection Radio, released in an edition of 400. (The Girls’ Web site might still have some copies left—hint, hint.)

After signing with indie label Placebo, Alan agreed to tour with nondescript hard-core punk labelmates Jodie Foster’s Army in 1984 if the Girls could open. I saw them in Miami by accident when a friend dragged me along for the JFA show; the Girls came out dressed like Jawas and played an entire set in costume. In Miami Beach. During the summer.

The all-ages crowd of punk-rock goons did not react kindly. “We’d polarize the crowd—people completely into us while the other half would completely loathe us,” Alan remembers. “It was about showing punks who thought they were so alternative just how alternative it could get, and they couldn’t deal with it. They’d call us ‘sand niggers’ and ‘fucking Arabs,’ and yell, ‘You suck!’ We would just turn the jets on and get angry musically, turn everything up and play walls of noise.”

Even in 1984—a year when fellow upstarts like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, and fellow Arizonans the Meat Puppets were busy expanding what “punk” could encompass—the Sun City Girls’ mixture of noise, punk, and free jazz was remarkably forward thinking. According to Alan, though, they weren’t aware at the time that they were doing anything particularly groundbreaking. “We were just letting all of our emotions fly out at people every night on the stage,” he says. “It’s an interesting dynamic, especially when you’re out of your head or semipossessed or in some sort of trance and in another dimension in the middle of an intense expression of music or whatever.”

“I personally am very aware of what’s going on around me onstage ever since that heavy brass doorknob whizzed past my head at an incredible speed at a 1985 show in Phoenix,” says Rick.

In the mid-’80s, Rick and Alan were bitten by the travel bug and began taking months-long sojourns throughout the Middle and Far East, together and separately. “Charlie came with us in ’89, along with our friend Manfred, for a six-month trip in Asia,” says Alan. “We started in Thailand and went south through Malaysia into Sumatra, Java, and Bali. It was unbelievable. We spent every day making every discovery that we could, and getting ourselves into some strange situations. The whole trip was based around finding music and meeting musicians and playing places. We would play for people, using whatever was at hand. We had a few small instruments that we’d bought along the way; we would use other people’s guitars, and we’d play acoustic sets on hotel porches and we’d just hold court and talk about politics, current events.”

“Children would flock around us,” says Gocher. “Forty kids at a time, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin or something. They’d take the day off and just follow us around, wherever we went. It was kind of weird. That’s how we wound up on the porch and doing ‘House of the Rising Sun’ at an outdoor party with a bunch of kids hanging out.”

“And then, finally, we just ate all the children,” Rick chimes in. “It was great!”

I get a lot of crazy thoughts when I listen back to some of the music that we make. My head goes to places that I didn’t know we could go, and I’m [as] familiar with the sound as anybody else!

—Alan Bishop, Sun City Girls

A Sun City Girls show goes from funny to scary and back again in the blink of an eye. All three members of the band express regret that people don’t really lose it the way they did when playing for punk shows. Brian Turner, program director for the lauded New Jersey–based radio station WFMU, concurs: “I imagine an SCG gig these days is pretty much preaching to the converted in many cases, which doesn’t make them any less great but does make me want to see them play on a showboat in Indonesia or something even more.”

But the band’s shows today are far more like the trance rituals the band has seen in other parts of the world, and the group is as antagonistic as ever, just more subtle about it. There’s a lot of tension at their gigs, and it’s the tension of the band feeling out the audience to see what they like, and then deliberately withholding that, to push them in a new, different direction. It’s equally exhilarating and frustrating.

In an online tour diary, Anne Eickelberg from San Francisco cult-rock faves Thinking Fellers Union Local #282 described a Winnipeg show from 1992: “Alan in whiteface makeup crouching and leaning over the balcony above Charlie and Rick. Stilted/flowing gestures, flicking ashes gleefully upon them. . . . And Charlie behind a gay cartoon cow mask. They scared me. More, more more!” [sic]

“What the Girls do, others cannot,” violinist Eyvind Kang explains. “It doesn’t matter if it’s fucked up; the whole point is to get people to stop judging music in general. These Girls are tricksters.”

On the other hand, the Girls don’t always trance out. One legend has it that sometime during the ’90s, the band allegedly made flyers that advertised themselves “playing John Coltrane’s Live in Seattle.” When the band came onstage and faced the standing-room-only crowd, they put down their instruments, walked over to a small portable turntable, played side one of a vinyl copy of Live in Seattle, flipped it over, played side two, thanked the audience, and left. I’ve seen solo performances by Rick that consisted of similar audience-baiting conceptual gestures. These shows are probably better heard about than attended.

“With all of the world music influences coming in, we always temper it by our own imagination, and there’s nothing sacred about it, aside from being possessed by it and what it does,” Charlie cautions. At certain points in almost every show, members of the band do appear to be possessed. This is the most difficult aspect of what they do to define or describe, and it can truly be the scariest element in their performances to witness. “There is a weird energy,” Alan agrees. “I am convinced that we are conjuring certain entities at times that we channel. We have the ability to channel, and we create fields of energy at certain times.”

Charlie was signed up to perform. “He was standing on the chair, balancing on one foot and scat singing to a prepared tape, while also conducting,” Rick explains. “He was freaking me out, man. We wanted him to join the band right then, and we didn’t even know he played drums!”

Rick, who for years made a living selling mystical and esoteric texts (one year in a little shop in Pioneer Square), and who has studied “the history of magical practices throughout the ages,” explains that the band is “very aware of the energies we can generate amongst ourselves when we’re playing. We don’t really know what will happen until it materializes onstage, and many times some of the exchanges between us can be pleasantly surprising, even to us. That’s what makes it great. Dark energies make their appearance from time to time, but most times there is a balance. Some would call it spiritual or sacred, perhaps in a shamanistic way. I consider it magical.”

Most recently, the Sun City Girls have dabbled in do-it-yourself ethnography, thanks to the launch of Rick and Alan’s new Sublime Frequencies label, run with co-conspirator Hisham Mayet, who occupies one of the offices in their compound. So far, Sublime Frequencies has issued three DVDs and seven CDs, all superb. Mayet and the Bishops used to get together to watch and listen to recordings they’d made; when showings of the material at the Rendezvous met with enthusiasm, they decided to release them. Consisting of field recordings from Bali, radio collages made in Jerusalem, interviews with people on the street in Syria, Javanese and Moroccan pop music, and Marrakech street performers, these are a punk-rock, in-your-face approach to what’s typically been the realm of academics.

“This music and its players exist outside the marketability machine, so it’s being played [and] presented unadulterated,” explains Mayet, who’s traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa. “It’s not necessarily technique that we’re after, but rather honesty, passion, and unblinkingly raw interpretations of traditional forms. These performances or celebrations do not exist for the camera. A lot of the footage recorded transpired in a completely serendipitous manner.”

The jewel of the bunch thus far is Mayet’s own DVD, Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya, shot in the desert mere months ago from the perspective of one of the performers. The Tuareg are a matriarchal culture who have rarely been documented; their music and dance a strange hybrid of Arab and African styles. “The whole Sublime Frequencies thing is allowing people to travel to where the music is without having to physically locate there,” says Charlie. “Now, when we travel, we know that we’re ‘on the job,'” says Rick, “trying to get the best and most unusual footage we can in order to release more DVD projects. We will most likely continue to use the ‘no-narration’ approach, which is in direct line with our film philosophy—no spin, no agenda, just pure sound and vision, to be interpreted and further researched by those who choose to.”

The political import in releases of contemporary music from the Middle East is clear. WFMU program director Turner praises Sublime Frequencies titles like I Remember Syria, Radio Palestine, Princess Nicotine, and Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra Vol. 1 as “timely in their importance,” adding that “it’s disappointing to see how the general music world is so immersed in its own problems—complaining about who’s getting paid—rather than addressing the mortifying state of world affairs and releasing music to address it. . . . The Sublime Frequencies series casts an amazing light on the cultures of other nations, including those that Bush considers ‘evil.’ This stuff is just so important.”

Like the band’s current tour and upcoming local performances, Sublime Frequencies is the culmination of 22 years’ worth of collective improvisation, both as musicians and as a working operation. But while it’s still impossible to know exactly what the Sun City Girls are going to do next, they do have one thing mapped out for the far future—sort of. “[We’ve been] talking about doing wheelchair concerts when we’re in our 70s,” exclaims Gocher. “I want an electric one!”

What, pray tell, will that be like? Alan Bishop is unfazed by the question. “What we’ll do in wheelchairs,” he declares, “will far transcend what anyone’s done in them before.”