Sun City Girls
The Great North American Tricksters
w/ Miss Murgatroid
Fri May 17,
Sit & Spin, $8.
Every time the Sun City Girls take the stage, it's an amazing, bewildering thing. There are three people up there and it sounds like eight. I'll close my eyes to better lose myself in the experience, and hear this weird, high-pitched caterwaul on top of the music. And then there's another otherworldly voice that sounds like Tuvan throat singing as practiced by Bowser from Sha Na Na. It happens over this droney music that's situated precariously between hippie and punk, song and free improv, and between Western sounds and the "bent" tonalities of North African and Far Eastern music.
The musicians must communicate telepathically; they don't use a set list, and they don't look at one another (hard to do anyway, since their eyes are often rolled back into their heads). Musical changes are more explosion than segue. Fist-tight songs become musical freakouts, and then all of a sudden there's this (for lack of a better word) performance art bit that's one part Haitian voodoo rite and one part the channeling of an unknown Borscht Belt comedian. Really.
These fiercely intelligent Girls have been a band since 1980 (current lineup: Rick Bishop, Charles Gocher, and Alan Bishop). It's hard to tell who's doing what, because they each play several different instruments. The Sun City Girls--musical grifters, grafters, and charlatans--are not above a little sonic ventriloquism now and again.
On the phone from his Seattle home, Alan Bishop explains, "We've been together so long we're very comfortable with one another onstage. And even we don't know if something like that is going to happen or not. There's a strange energy transference that goes around onstage, and it's all about the moment--what expression needs to come out. Sometimes I think we're channeling things that shouldn't be in the room anyway. We're not always in control of what we're doing."
Rick and Alan Bishop are half-Lebanese brothers who grew up in Michigan, where they loved to visit their grandfather, a master oud (Arabian lute) player. The Bishop brothers moved to Arizona and formed the band in the shadow of punk rock. From the get-go they aimed to be aggressively different. In the beginning it was the band against the audience: "Yeah, we miss those days, because now we're preaching to the converted," Alan says.
The first time I saw SCG was by accident in 1982. I was 14 and my friend dragged me to see skate-punk act JFA. These guys were on tour with 'em, and they came out dressed in Jawa hoods playing this warped Beefheart-y Middle Eastern thrash. They did this skit where Nancy Reagan gets it on with Mr. T that was political without being heavy-handed, noisy without being the same chords again and again--and it was arty, yet even suburban bumpkins like me could relate. It was so cool.
Since their self-titled 1984 debut, the Sun City Girls--who've lived in Seattle for almost a decade--have released dozens of albums, each of which either defy categorization or make you sound totally ridiculous when you try to describe them. My favorite, and the record that made me fall completely in love with the Girls, would have to be 1990's Torch of the Mystics. It's an album of twisted psychedelic world music that's wholly original and beautiful, like music the Meat Puppets and Acid Mothers Temple might make while smoking kief in a Moroccan jail cell.
Since moving to Seattle, Sun City Girls may be this city's best kept secret, but the band keeps a low profile on purpose. They self-release records on their own label, Abduction, and each member has his own side projects. "We're not interested in even trying to fit into the local music 'scene'; it doesn't matter to us," Alan says. "Seattle is really more of a small town, and that's what I like about it--there's not a lot of pressure or hype and cliquishness. The Sun City Girls is not our only interest; it's not the main focus of any of our lives. It's a muse, an escape, a hobby, and an obsession at times. And in terms of not being more popular, that's probably our doing more than anything--not promoting ourselves and not touring a lot. Even Sonic Youth and the Boredoms have had major-label deals--that's a whole other ball game, one we're unwilling to participate in."