Sun City Girls in-store at Eastside records, Tempe AZ, 1987
Photo: Michael Pawlicki

Photo: Monica Uhr

The Cloven Cassettes

Photo: Mary Grace Dunn

Barney Kessel

Omar Khorshid

Django Reinhardt playing guitar as woman looks on

"Space Prophet Dogon" tattoo

Photo: Toby Dodds

Photo: David Holiday

Photo: Anne Marie Mussleman

Elvin Jones in Zachariah

"Gocher was a vegan"
Photo: Kerry Kugleman

A Fireside Chat With An Active Shooter

Over the course of 27 years, Sun City Girls enjoyed the greatest independent music career ever known. They were never at a loss for new ideas and worked feverishly to execute them. They maintained a deep love of folk, rock, jazz, and ethnic music, as well as film, absurdist theater, and black comedy. Somehow they pulled from all of these interests, and oftentimes all at once, making the most avant-garde music of their era. They did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, with full disdain for convention. They didn’t expect you to like them and didn’t care if you did. They assaulted their audiences with homemade flamethrowers and bottle rockets. Once they advertised a show titled "Sun City Girls Play John Coltrane’s Live in Seattle" and then set up a turntable on stage to play the actual Coltrane record while sitting around smoking cigarettes and taunting anyone who paid full admission.

In honor of the 25th-anniversary reissue of Torch of the Mystics, inarguably the most sought-after SCG release ever, we grilled Alan Bishop to find out what makes this record different from all other SCG recordings.

Forced Exposure: Torch of the Mystics seems to be lacking a more improvisational approach. Was there (excuse the language) at least one "rehearsal"?

Alan Bishop: Yes there were rehearsals for some of the tracks but we didn't over-rehearse anything. "Tarmac 23," "Café Batik," "Papa Legba," and "Burial in the Sky" are all improvisations.

FE: What happened with Rick's guitar playing during this time?

AB: The problem with anyone trying to assess the time periods of SCG is that none of the records that came out really had any chronological order. Rick was doing great things far before Torch was recorded. Valentines from Matahari came out in 1993 or so but it was recorded in spring of 1983. That's one example, and his guitar playing on that LP is raw and fucked up as it is smooth and crystallized...this is an endless topic — how hopeless it is attempting to analyze our chronological development. No one has the proper info to assess that yet.

But what specifically do you mean about Rick's guitar playing? He just plays and that's how it comes out. The insane playing he does in "Blue Mamba" (solo in the finale) and "Space Prophet Dogon" (after the 2nd vocal chorus to the end) were completely spontaneous, we didn't have endings to those songs until we recorded them. If we did it again it would be different, glad the tape was rolling on those, everything was done in one take. He was doing equally great solos years earlier and all the way through....he was studying Barney Kessel, Jimmy Page, Omar Khorshid, Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt simultaneously in the early 80s so his operating system was completely unique. We never knew what to expect and that's why he sounds so different all the time.

FE: A few years ago you talked about how great Rick played on that record and I thought you said that his playing got a lot better at that time.

AB: Rick continually elevates all the time as he learns and experiments more — I suppose we all do, but by 1988 he had a greater understanding of Indian, Arabic, and Southeast Asian music...but I know he could have run the same voodoo down years earlier.

FE: How was Torch of the Mystics recorded, where was it recorded, who recorded it and engineered it?

AB: We couldn't afford to go into a real studio at that time so I borrowed David Oliphant's TEAC 80 8-track machine and some mics and had to learn how to record to ½ inch tape for the first time. I asked him some questions on how to set things up and operate it then basically engineered everything, trying to figure it out on the fly, recording, mixing, the only cost was tape reels and our time but it got done. Maybe it sounds different because I did some ridiculous things I can't even remember, the editing is haphazard, I barely had a clue what I was doing but I didn't give a fuck, sounded good to me at the time and the fellas never complained. They helped troubleshoot and were slightly more vocal about the mix but I got pretty obsessed with it. We recorded most of the tracks at a friend's house and our apartment in Tempe and on the street at the ASU campus. And it wasn't only Torch, it was a few dozen tracks that ended up on different records through the years.

FE: What happened the summer that you recorded Torch? I'm trying to understand why Torch of the Mystics sounds different than the other records, up to Funeral Mariachi?

AB: We recorded a massive amount of material in the summer of 1988, maybe 60-70 tracks. And each time we setup to record in bulk over the years, the sessions would most likely have a different engineer, location, tape machine, particular sound, etc. If you listen to "The Beauty of Benghazi," "Plaster Cupids Falling from the Ceiling" and "Souvenirs from Jangare" from the double 7-inch Three Fake Female Orgasms (released 1991), or both tracks on the You're Never Alone with a Cigarette 7-inch (released 1992), and "Maybe I'll Kiss and Die a Fool" and "Shin Paku" from 330,003 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda (released 1996), and "Zealous Island" from Box of Chameleons (released 1997), you can hear some of the same recording quality and general vibe because they were recorded during the same sessions in 1988 as the Torch tracks, as were many other tracks used later for Dante's Disneyland Inferno ("Jessup's Diary," "Charles Gocher Sr.," etc.), Napoleon & Josephine (the entire single), Kaliflower ("X + Y = Fuck You"), etc. that perhaps wouldn't be associated with a psychedelic folk/rock sound.

There are zero SCG albums that sound like any other SCG album, so Torch naturally fits that pattern, and it seemed to come at a time and space that resonated with more people than other records did, or it got more attention, or whatever....yet I think the more aware and schooled SCG obsessives will choose something other than Torch as their favorite simply because they are sick of hearing the superficial name dropping crowd who heard Torch and because nothing else sounded like it, say its the best...because they were too lazy or small minded to spend the time on the other releases to realize just how much there is to deal with — of course some of that is our fault because we didn't make it easy for them but fuck them, we did what we wanted for 27 years and never pandered to anyone because we had so many ideas we wanted to develop all the while the exact same idiots who espouse free thought and the rights of artists having the freedom to do what they wish start bitching about those who actually follow their own path when it becomes inconvenient for them to deal with following it, the lazy fucking hypocrites. That probably sounds bitter but I'm really just making a point and I wouldn't have it any other way than how it all manifested.

FE: If a person is lucky she or he might have one single idea to beat that into the ground for a lifetime. But you're not capable of that — you're relentlessly attempting unexpected things. Did you learn this from Charlie Gocher?

AB: We were all relentless. Let’s say I was the recklessly unpredictable one and probably drove the guys crazy with it at times introducing ideas that often seemed to get cross-eyed looks from them — it's somewhat of a curse but it helped make up for the fact that I was the lesser "schooled" on my instrument than Rick and Charles. Charlie was more methodically unpredictable. I learned a million things from him. He steered my interest in jazz into new directions and just being around him gave me even more confidence to feel I could do anything I wanted. He was open to trying anything and to put his own stamp on it to make it something else. There were no other players like that around who were willing to go anywhere with it musical or otherwise.

FE: Can you describe your early encounters with Charlie, maybe something specific that you noticed about him which made you realize he wasn't like other people?

AB: It was apparent immediately that he was coming from somewhere else. He lived in a fucking trailer park with his drum kit eating cucumber soy sauce sandwiches, drove an old beat-up pickup that never seemed to work, drank like a fish and became violent and completely unreasonable when hammered, had the charm of a serial killer you could trust, he was spectacular in every way. He was the one who could have killed Elvin Jones in a duel in the film Zachariah, but he loved Elvin Jones so he would have spared him.

FE: If not Torch, then what's your favorite SCG record?

AB: Probably the record we should have made but didn't.

FE: What is the Sun City Girls' Cloven Cassette series? Who made those beautiful cassettes and how were they distributed?

AB: They were home recordings of rehearsals, improvisations or live shows. I compiled them all — the first 15 or 16 were created in 1986-87 and then the rest over the next few years. The early editions had Xeroxed photo images for covers, some I would hand color, a very limited number were done in crazy deluxe packaging, whatever was laying around like cardboard military shell boxes or cigar boxes with random yet somewhat applicable ephemera tossed inside or glued to the box. These original editions were sold locally in Phoenix record shops or at our shows and traded to friends around the country. When I got sick of making them, Rick created new Xeroxed woodcut covers for all of them and started marketing them for sale through a mail order catalog and Nick Schultz at Majora took that over for a while until we stopped entirely by the early 1990s. There is no record on how many of each were made and distributed. I would guess at least 100 of each were sold and more on select titles but who knows?

FE: Did all of those cassette recordings make it onto CD or vinyl releases later on?

AB: No, that Eclipse 2-LP series stopped at 5 editions and I need to find the master tapes before it can resume. They are hidden somewhere in a sea of boxes and I'll eventually find them to finish the last 5 sets but still some songs will be left exclusive on the cassettes.

FE: What's your best guess on the total number of SCG releases, including everything on Placebo, Majora, Abduction, and whatever other labels were releasing your 7"s, etc?

AB: 75? plus compilations, never counted them.

FE: Please provide Charlie's recipe for the cucumber soy sandwiches — sounds like something we can share with the vegan glam community!

AB: I hate to smash your "Gocher was a vegan" theory but Charlie was eating cucumber soy sauce sandwiches because he couldn't afford pickle loaf or bologna, the same way many people today are vegetarian because they cannot afford to buy meat. If you must know the recipe it was as follows:

  1. Generic (yellow label) white sandwich bread
  2. Stolen cucumbers from the neighbor's garden
  3. The cheapest soy sauce money could buy
  4. Don't forget the instant ice tea mixed with luke-warm tap water to wash it all down with.

Torch of the Mystics also available on CD

More in-stock selections by Sun City Girls

More in-stock selections by Alan Bishop

More in-stock selections by Sir Richard Bishop