Sir Richard Bishop is not a knight. He has never met the Queen.
But many years ago, Bishop— one of the best and least predictable instrumental guitarists to emerge in decades—began adding the honorary title to his solo records. It was a convenient way to distinguish his own work from the massive catalogue he'd assembled with the roving, outlandish Sun City Girls. It stuck.
As it should: Bishop is an ambassador of sorts, anyway. A lifelong listener and avid collector of musical ideas and approaches, he channels decades of what he's heard—the music of several centuries and continents—through a few acoustic strings. The title of his exquisite 2007 LP, Polytheistic Fragments, served as a thesis statement for the funnel effect of his 35-year career: Hear everything, and make it your own.
Bishop talked about that approach from his new apartment in Portland, Oregon, just before he embarked on a tour that brings him to North Carolina for shows in Durham and Asheville.
INDY: In Sun City Girls, your solo records and various collaborations, you seem interested in a very broad definition of the music you like and the music you play. It's never just folk music or just Middle Eastern music or just the blues. When did you realize that you viewed music as an inclusive art, not exclusive?
SIR RICHARD BISHOP: When I started listening to music as a child, I was very excited by it. I was a huge Monkees fan when I was a kid. If that was the more pop stuff when I was young, that was balanced by my grandfather, who is Lebanese, playing Middle Eastern music in his house while I was there. That, at the time, was foreign to me, but as I got older, I realized that was part of my roots, as well.
That was before I had any notion of being a musician. Those streams hit a head when I got the idea I wanted to play guitar. I listened to as much music as possible—good, bad, ugly, whatever I could get exposed to. Music became the focus.
Do you still seek out new music in that way, regardless of whether or not you'll love it?
The past few years, I haven't gone out of my way to hunt down new music. I hear things fragilely or randomly, but I don't actively search new music. I'm totally wrapped up in what I am playing and doing around the house—my back catalogue, my future ideas, going through my old ideas to see if there's something there that could lead to new records. I try not to listen to other guitar players if I can help it, because I'm just going to want to steal all their ideas. I did that for years and years growing up, but if I don't do that, it allows me to come up with my own ideas. Eventually, they are all going to sound like something that came before it that I never heard, but at least this keeps me honest.
How long have you avoided other guitarists?
For the last three years, I've really been focusing on that approach, or non-approach if you want to call it that. It happened by accident. When you're playing for years and years, you listen back to something you've played and you can easily reference it to something that you heard in passing. For most people, that's not a bad thing. But if I cut myself off from that and plug ahead with my own experiments, maybe I can come up with something more original. It's a little game I play.
Of course, if someone is playing something and I find it interesting, I'll listen to it. Guitar players are a dying breed, at least in pop music, but that's OK—who wants to hear pop guitar, really? But when I hear Nels Cline, he's one of my favorites. He can play anything. And there's Marc Ribot. Another great example is Tashi Dorji, who is new on the scene. I am excited to tour with him because I can see what he's doing as opposed to only listening to it. And if he has any good ideas, I'll steal them, of course. I don't want to do that, but that's just how it works.
It seems that some young guitarists take umbrage with the term "guitarist," like it limits them from exploring any other avenues. What do you prefer to be called?
It's OK if it's just guitarist; that's what I am. When you get described as a specific type of guitarist, that's when it's limiting. "Oh, you're a blues guitarist. You're a fingerpicking guitarist. You're a folk guitarist. You're a jazz guitarist." I want to be able to play anything I feel or hear, whether it's blues or heavy rock 'n' roll. A lot of people will call me an experimental guitarist, and that's pretty open to interpretation, too.
I do like to consider myself a guitarist more than a guitar player. The phrase "guitar player" is in vogue, and it always has been. Guitar Player Magazine—I had a subscription when I was 17 years old, too. Everybody "played" guitar. To me, it's work, not play. Guitar player sounds like I'm a young child, and I'm going to play, and it's going to be great. I consider what I do to be work, even if I am just sitting around the house. I might not be getting paid, but it's work.
Does that distinction give your career path a certain sense of legitimacy, as if you were a banker and not simply "playing bank"?
It does require effort. I am not making as much money as a banker, but it's up to each individual to validate your own work. If you don't take it seriously, no one is going to. Even if I am sitting around the house working with my guitar all day, I am working just as hard as the banker. I am not making as much money, but I'm probably having a better time. I don't have a career, and to a lot of people, that's not respectable. I am making a living as a musician—barely—and it's always been that way. As long as I can pay my rent and do what I love to do, I hope I never have to work a "regular" job again.
Regarding money, you recently made almost all of your solo albums available for free on deliradio.com. Why?
The records have been on that site for a while for $5 or $7 downloads. There are pirate downloads of anything you want. You just have to find it. You or anyone I know can go on the Internet and get that stuff for free. I have no problem with that. But then I realize that people want to put it on their iPod, and they can just go download it somewhere. There's no way for me to police that. I'm indicating, "Hey, it's OK. I know you are going to get it if you want, so get it legitimately. Take it. Listen to it. Tell your friends." I want more people to hear what I do.
I am not going to make a fortune with download sales. I am not into it for the money, really. I will make more, though, if I put out records and go on tour. If you're going to pay for my music, come to a gig. It's going to be more in your face. That's where the energy is. That's where the massive failure is, too, and that's what makes it exciting. Who knows what's going to happen?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Guitar royalty."