The Other World Music
Sublime Frequencies’ Far-Flung Fantasias
by Dave Segal
A papier-mâché icon of Kali overlooks the main room of Sun City Girls’ Ballard compound. It is grotesque yet riveting—like much of the band’s music. SCG guitarist Rick Bishop and bassist Alan Bishop—who run the Abduction and Sublime Frequencies labels—are obsessed with Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. Which is ironic, considering how creative the Bishops have been over the last quarter century.
Reams have been written about Sun City Girls (who include drummer Charles Gocher), so hit Google for their story. Suffice to say, the Seattle trio’s ingenious assimilation of various world musics into avant-rock structures has logically led to Sublime Frequencies’ existence.
Sublime Frequencies blows the aura of musty academicism off of “world music” documentation. While admirable, most ethnomusicological releases by major labels possess an over-mediated, off-putting pedagogical quality. By contrast, Sublime Frequencies’ offerings thrust listeners and viewers into distant cultures with a raw immediacy. The typical SF experience is exhilaratingly disorienting, full of unpredictable transitions and weird juxtapositions. SF’s audiovisual globetrotters put you in the guise of a tourist with no docent or guidebook. The company’s DVDs and CDs start in media res in a country you’ve probably never visited, flinging you headlong into fascinatingly alien musical rituals. Once exposed to these bizarre strains of exoticness, you will never be the same.
SF’s driving force, Alan Bishop often works 14-hour days at the compound, editing audio and video, answering countless interview questions, planning trips to Southeast Asia, northern Africa, the Middle East, Albania, Turkey, and the Indian subcontinent, and discussing future projects with local and international accomplices. When he claims, “We’re always working on something,” believe it.
“We’re looking for more of a combination of things in terms of traditional and modern, as opposed to just trying to do pure traditional recordings or trying to document a specific tribe or group of people,” Bishop explains amid an array of obscure instruments in the compound. “We don’t mind mixing cultures together on releases or mixing modern with older material. Nobody’s ever done the radio collages before [see Radio Morocco and Radio Sumatra for examples]. We’ve released field recordings from places that aren’t much different from labels that have done things in the past. But the compilations of popular folk music from the countries we’ve released focus more on pop and modern hybrid music.”
“We’re obsessed with this stuff and that’s really the driving force,” Bishop continues. “We’re not trying to necessarily accomplish pure forms of cultural payback to cultures that we know for a fact have been annihilated over time by the modern elite world of politics, war, resource extraction, genocide. That’s all documented and true, but we’re not trying to become apologists for these cultures in a way where we’re as severely disjointed from reality like some ethnomusicology angle.”
Bishop respects some ethno-music labels, but overall he’s disdainful of much of the industry. “[Sublime Frequencies products are] alternative documents to a very tired process. For some reason, people are trying to make these cultures look like they’re still so pure and that purity in music of these indigenous populations are separate and isolated and we should preserve them in their little box in the rainforest and they’re not getting affected by anything, and god forbid a plane flies over during a recording; they’ll cut that out and make it as pure as possible. It’s just not reality anymore.”
SF usually prints 1,000 of each title and they often sell out. It’s common for SF to launch six CDs into the market at once, which can overwhelm consumers. (I say buy ’em all.) “[It]’s not really our aim to worry about selling more and more product,” Bishop says. “We just want to get as many quality releases out there as possible. Business could be better, but it could definitely be worse.”
SF business bustles at quality music shops like Wall of Sound, San Francisco’s Aquarius, and Royal Oak, Michigan’s Neptune. Neptune owner Brett Marion observes, “We really get off on the fact that [Sublime Frequencies CDs are] not so stuffy looking or sounding, and the presentation lends itself to be more of a vacationer’s travelogue of sound as opposed to having to be a student of world musics. It feels more real.”
Case in point is Harmika Yab-Yum: Folk Sounds from Nepal, compiled by Climax Golden Twins member Robert Millis. He extols the label’s M.O. “Harmika represents… an aural collage of who I was then as well as where I was,” Millis says. “And this is what is important to me about Sublime—a nonacademic approach that embraces the fact that countries and societies and peoples, as well as anyone experiencing them, are so multifaceted, so constantly evolving in good and horrible directions, that they can’t be represented by one CD or book or scholar. It is all subjective.”
Bishop concurs. “We’re not interested in a Western-style approach to documenting this type of music. We want to get into people’s heads what [the musicians] originally intended to get in your head, which is the way they recorded it in the studio or the locale they recorded it in. It’s their product, viewpoint, and expression, not a Western-catered, friendly approach to getting Westerners into it because it sounds like a modern recording.”
Is there some inherent quality in the music from the places Bishop & Co. explore that appeals to them so much? “I think it’s because there are way too many great different qualities going on with all the different cultures in music [outside the Western world],” Bishop says. “There’s so much of it and there are so many more styles and ideas that I haven’t been able to hear yet, that it keeps me traveling there to try to find more. I think the sheer amount of styles and creative ideas coming out of there eclipses everything else on the globe. The expressions, the singing quality, the passion for music, the intricacies of the compositions, the celebratory, ecstatic angle… it’s all inspiring.”
More info: www.sublimefrequencies.com.