It took 25 agonizing years to happen, but finally, Sun City Girls’ Torch of the Mystics is back in circulation. Abduction Records, the label run by SCG bassist/vocalist Alan Bishop, is reissuing the 1990 album this week. Members of the ever-growing cult following for the former Seattle underground-rock subversives can quit gnashing their teeth and paying outrageous sums for the original copies (even the 1993 CD versions go for $33 to £100 on Discogs.com) and get physical copies of this sui-generis psych-rock classic without bankrupting themselves.
You can sense from the first seconds of Torch why this record has attained mythical status among music heads who abhor the mundane. The intro to opener “Blue Mamba” is like a fanfare for a potentate of unfathomable powers. The song—and the album—goes on to rewrite the psych-rock rulebook in unbelievably vivid, labyrinthine, and sacred calligraphy. Throughout, Richard Bishop’s guitar tone shoots turquoise lightning to your root chakra. Each song is an unforgettable alchemy of those old rock tools—guitar/bass/drums/voice—forged into something utterly other yet worthy of holy ceremonies that will still resonate even after we fuck up the electrical grid.
Torch of the Mystics’ 11 songs make you feel strange feelings that other rock records do not inspire. While some SCG albums can sound scattershot, diffuse, and too absurdly irreverent for repeat listens, Torch bears a concise, cohesive sublimity that makes it stand out in their vast catalog (which, don’t get me wrong, contains many treasures). It's no surprise that Pitchfork bestowed Best New Reissue honors on the album yesterday.
Below I prod guitarist Sir Richard Bishop to shake the cobwebs from his memory about the circumstances surrounding the making of Torch over a quarter century ago.
The Stranger: What can you remember about the recording sessions for Torch of the Mystics? Did the band sense something extraordinary was happening with these songs?
Richard Bishop: We started recording a bunch of material in early 1988 (I think) and it was the first time we were doing it all ourselves, using an 8 track reel to reel machine which we borrowed and had no idea how to use. Alan figured it out eventually. We may have done some recordings in more than one location, but most of the material was recorded at our friends’ house which was on a busy street (Mill avenue) in Tempe, Arizona, right across from the Grady Gammage Center on the ASU campus. We recorded in the front room of the house and also in the garage. Some of the more ambient and spoken-word recordings were actually made in the front yard right next to the street. A few weeks after we finished recording there, a car jumped the curb and crashed right into the front window of the house. Thankfully nobody was hurt.
We must have recorded a few hours worth of material over a couple of weeks, only a portion of which ended up on Torch. Most of the other stuff ended up on singles that Majora Records released after Torch. During the recordings we were just concentrating on collecting as much material as we could and not knowing what we were going to do with it. We knew we were recording some good things, but I think at the time we were mostly excited about the weirder material—ambient sounds and some spoken-word things, maybe because we were still riding high on the whole Horse Cock Phepner thing. Eventually we listened back to everything and started the process of separating all of the material based on style and content. By the time we began assembling the final tracks for what was to be Torch, we knew we had a pretty powerful release waiting to be unleashed.
Please discuss Sun City Girls’ creative process and mindset at this juncture. There appears to be a sharp focus on composition and concision here—although Alan said in the Forced Exposure interview that “Tarmac 23,” “Café Batik,” “Papa Legba,” and “Burial in the Sky” were improvised.
A lot of the material from these sessions was improvised. We were comfortable with that approach. But each of us had some fragmented ideas about things we wanted to try and since we didn’t have any time restraints or excessive pressure like you have in a proper studio situation, we were able to experiment with different approaches, improvising a lot until something sounded right and then fine-tuning it all until things started to take shape. Also during this time we were beginning to work more with different tunings on the guitars and I think this allowed us to create a unique sound that was different from the previous three albums. Things started to sound a little more psychedelic, and a bit more "ethnic" (for lack of a better word), and when the record was finally released we were aware that there was a certain consistency while listening to it, especially on side one. It definitely seemed to be more focused (or less scattered) than the earlier records.
What was the inspiration for “Space Prophet Dogon,” which is one of the most beautiful and profoundly spiritual pieces of music I’ve ever heard and has made me shed several liters of tears over the decades? When I die, I want it to be played at my funeral.
I think we got the initial idea for this from one of Alan’s radio recordings from a trip he made to Egypt or Morocco a few years prior. There was this snippet of what sounded like a harp (it was a kora from Mali) which had a beautiful little melody but there was only a portion that we could hear. I think at first we wanted to create a similar type of melody based off of that idea, something minimal and pretty simple but it turned into something entirely different.
Discuss, if you could, how you attained the guitar tone on “Radar 1941,” which sounds like if Sun Ra attempted to create surf music. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else create this sound (especially that of the intro).
I was experimenting with lap-steel guitars during this time period. I had two. I had a Magnatone from the 1950s which I had previously messed around with on some home recordings and I had recently acquired another one which I hadn’t used yet. I tried to get a decent sound with the Magnatone and it just didn’t sound right so I scrapped the idea. I did the basic track with my normal electric guitar and it just needed something else. I dug up the other lap steel which was from the 1940s and made by a company called Oahu (quite a famous company, actually), plugged it in, and it had some terrible line noise and hissing. After messing with it and banging it against the amp a few times, we decided to do a take with it. While we were recording it didn’t sound all that great but we kept it. When we were mixing we cleaned it up a bit and added some reverb and it just sounded incredible. It had a sound that I have never been able to re-create. Unfortunately, I have no idea where that lap steel is now.
Why do you think that Torch has become the consensus favorite album among Sun City Girls fans? What is your favorite SCG album, and why?
Well, I guess the obvious answer is that compared to most of the SCG discography, it’s probably the most user-friendly, though I think Funeral Mariachi gives it a run for its money in that department. Not sure if there is any more to it than that. I have to admit that I hadn’t listened to Torch for several years, until it was recently remastered by Mark Gergis for this reissue. And it sounds really good. I think it sounds the best if one listens to it front to back in one sitting. It represents a moment in time and I think it’s a great record. Is it my favorite? No, but there’s no way I could pick a favorite. I love all my children equally. If I didn’t, one may eventually grow up and try to kill me. I have enough problems as it is.
Do you still play any songs from Torch in your solo sets? I recall hearing you do “Esoterica of Abyssynia” once years ago.
I still play a few every now and then. Actually, probably more often than I should. "Esoterica," "Space Prophet Dogon" (as an instrumental), and "The Vinegar Stroke." They’re crowd-pleasers but I’m getting sick of playing them! But they’re there when I need them.
Now that Abduction’s reissuing Torch, do you and Alan have plans to re-release any other long-out-of-print LPs or singles? I know some are clamoring for Valentines from Matahari, 330,003 Cross Dressers from Beyond the Rig Veda, Bright Surroundings Dark Beginnings, Kaliflower, the Carnival Folklore Resurrection series pressed on vinyl, and… and… and… I know you guys both are always plowing forward with new work, but y’all are sitting on a goldmine of a catalog ripe for hungry collectors to scoop up. That money could come in handy.
Yes, I know. We talk about it often and we want do as much as we can. It’s just a matter of finding the time to do it and since Alan handles most of that side of things (all of it, actually), it’s difficult since he is busier than most people I know—shit, he's busier than most governments. I personally would like to see the first three LPs [Sun City Girls, Grotto of Miracles, Horse Cock Phepner] on Placebo reissued next, but we’ll see what happens.
What’s the next Sir Richard Bishop release going to be about and when can we expect it, approximately?
I’m just now starting to think about new material. I’m not sure which direction it will go in yet. My current focus is back on Rangda (with Ben Chasny and Chris Corsano) since we have a new record coming soon [on Drag City] and we will do some touring when that comes out. When Rangda season is over I’ll be able to concentrate more on the solo thing.