The Guitar

By  |  April 22, 2015
Sir Richard Bishop with "the guitar" | © Uwe Faltermeier Sir Richard Bishop with "the guitar" | © Uwe Faltermeier

A conversation with Sir Richard Bishop

In the fall of 2013, after finishing a residency in Switzerland, Sir Richard Bishop stumbled into a guitar shop on one of Geneva’s narrow alleys. He wanted to buy a small travel guitar to take with him on the rest of a multi-month international trip. Not seeing anything the right make or size, he opened the door to leave, but the storeowner stopped him. He led Bishop to a parlor guitar that wasn’t on display. It was old, of unknown provenance, and seemed to have an ancient power. Bishop loved the way it sounded—he had to have it.

This guitar is the only instrument on Tangier Sessions, Bishop’s latest album (released by Drag City in February), recorded in a single week in the record’s namesake city. Bishop’s style, which reviewers have compared to such disparate genres as traditional Indian music and Spanish flamenco, clearly sits in a high nest of musical influences. In Tangier Sessions, the music is intimate and improvised. Besides showcasing Bishop’s considerable talents, the album also serves as a record of a musician getting to know his guitar.

Will Oldham (also known as Bonnie ‘Prince’  Billy) and Bishop spoke over Skype about Bishop’s discovery of the guitar and the recording of the album in Morocco.


So, Tangier Sessions has a story behind it. Can you give us some context?

To me, the story is all about the power of this guitar, and the mystery around my acquiring it. My previous records don’t have a lot of stories—I just went to a studio and made a record. But this one has a real history behind it.

What happened after you bought the guitar?

After I bought it, I took it to Thailand for four months—hesitatingly, I admit, but I have a nice hard-shell case that fits it really well. And the guitar was quite easy to travel with, but I never really let it out of my vision. At the very end of that tour I went to Morocco, and by that time I just figured I better document this guitar. That’s when I decided to start recording something. I didn’t know what would happen with the record, but I wanted to make it and I figured Morocco was the place to do it.

The record of yours that I listened to most often, prior to hearing this new record, was the one that came out as part of the VDSQ series. The sleeve says that it was recorded in Switzerland in August of 2013. Was that while you were at the residency?

It was. It was recorded where we were staying in a converted sheep house on an old estate. That sounds like a barn, but it was actually very nice. The album was recorded on a friend’s guitar, one of the dancers I was working with there. I used his Martin.

That record is a wonderful companion piece to Tangier Sessions. When I read that this new old—or old new—guitar came into your life in Geneva, and then noticed the timing on this other record that you played with the borrowed Martin, I thought that the two records just naturally flowed into each other.

Yeah, kinda.

And there’s no reason for jealousy between the guitars because the guitar was a borrowed guitar anyway. You were having an affair in the first place.

That’s true! That’s a good way to put it; I never thought about it that way.

Was there anything from your work on the VDSQ record, or from the Geneva residency, that you think opened you up to the new guitar? Would this guitar—if you’d found it six months before or a year later—have always had the same attraction for you?

I don’t think that the timing had anything to do with it. I was originally just looking for a travel guitar to take around, especially to go to Thailand, so I knew I had to get something. It didn’t matter what. But the circumstances surrounding getting this guitar were pretty unique. I just recognized I need to get this, even though I couldn’t really afford it at the time. The guy probably figured as soon as he showed it to me that I was not going to be able to afford it. I certainly didn’t look the part; Geneva is a very rich city.

So he pulled it out just thinking you might be interested? Like, I’m enjoying talking to you, you might appreciate this guitar, but not thinking you were a potential customer?

Honestly, I don’t think he had any idea that I would be interested in it. I think it was a guitar that he did some restoration on, and he had just finished it. There was a magic to the whole thing. So I bought it and turned it into my travel guitar.

I still get a little nervous just thinking about traveling with this thing. In fact, the first time I flew with it, I was flying from Geneva to Brussels, and I had it with me on the plane. It had the strings tuned down and everything, but when I went to tune it up the following day for a show, some glue had come undone on the heel to the body of the guitar, and I had to have an emergency repair on it.

Even this became part of the whole story of acquiring the guitar, because I took it to a guy in Brussels that same day. He had a huge backlog, but he loved the guitar, and he made arrangements. He said, “I can get it to you tomorrow.”

Woah.

Yeah, he liked the guitar so much that he got frustrated with himself because he couldn’t tell me more about it. He knew about these kinds of old guitars, but he couldn’t tell me who made it. He pointed out that the tuners were ivory. (The guy I bought it from had said they were bone.)

He eventually asked me where I was from, and I told him I was currently in Portland. He said, “You gotta look up this guy Carrie Char,” who’s a Chinese luthier there. And he said, “He’s the only Chinese luthier I’ve ever heard of, but he’ll probably be able to tell you who made your guitar, and he can do any work you need on it.” I contacted Char when I got back and just never got around to seeing him. But, it’s funny, I went and saw him yesterday.

For the first time, in person?

For the first time, in person, and I spent a couple hours with him and his apprentice. And he loved the guitar, too. He was looking at how it was made, and telling me all these different things about it. But the first thing he did was stick a mirror inside, and he showed me where there was writing underneath the hood. He went out of the room and got this little camera, and it looked like the type of camera you would use for a colonoscopy. I don’t know if it was a medical thing or if it was something he bought for use in guitars. He hooked it up to his computer so we could see it and, sure enough, there was this mysterious writing in there, but we couldn’t read it!

You could see what looked like a date, or numbers. We determined the numbers said 1813, which is early.

No kidding. What took you to Morocco after Brussels?

Well, I guess that story’s just part of the whole weirdness of it. Right after I got back from Thailand, I went to Cairo to visit my brother for a couple weeks (he always spends about half of the year there).

In Cairo, I met a woman named Natasha who was living in Morocco, but she was in Cairo to work with my brother. She was telling us a little bit about Tangier, and she knew that I played music. She wasn’t really familiar with my work, but she said, “I could probably get you a show in Tangier,” and I was like, “Suuuure.”

But, sure enough, she pulled it off.

What was that atmosphere like?

We played in the courtyard of the old Spanish post office, which is in the middle of the old town in Tangier, next to the main Mosque. Maybe forty people showed up to actually sit down and watch—probably half of those people were ex-pats, and half of them were local people. In the middle of the set, all of a sudden the call to prayer went off, and it was really loud, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know that I was supposed to stop.

I kept playing, and I noticed that some of the Moroccans were getting up and they were leaving; they were going to the Mosque. And Natasha, bless her heart, she was sitting there watching, and she said, “Rick.” I looked at her and she just pointed up, and it was obvious what was going on. I asked her, “Oh, should I stop?” And she just kind of nodded, and then I had to wait about eight minutes, just staring at everyone while the call to prayer went on.

After that, I still had five days in Morocco, and I had the little guitar. It wasn’t until after I did the show that I decided I was going to record.

I was staying in the top-floor apartment of a building owned by the guy who helped sponsor the show, with access to the roof, which was just fantastic. It was pretty spartan, but it didn’t matter because the place had an almost 360-degree view. You could see the Mediterranean, you could see Spain and Gibraltar on a clear day, and you could see the rooftops. You could see the Kasbah in the distance, and—this was just amazing—you could see all the life on the rooftops as well. It was a beautiful place to stay, but there wasn’t much to do there. I didn’t even have a decent Internet connection or anything, and I couldn’t do much at night except play the guitar. I also read a lot of Paul Bowles when I was there.

Did the idea to record Tangier Sessions in this improvised way come from a buildup of ideas from your previous year of travel and your experience with the guitar up to that point?

I approached Tangier Sessions as I approach any album: I played until something started making some sense.

The strangest thing about it is that with the first two songs on the record—all the songs were recorded in the order that they appear on the album—I’m not using a pick, which is totally foreign to me. I’ve always used a pick. But there was something about this guitar that made it not sound as good with a pick. In other words, the pick got into the way of the wood sound. I noticed that when I played it with my fingers, all stumbling along and sloppily, it worked. The guitar just sounded like it should be played with your fingers. You have to touch it in a certain delicate way to get a nice response out of it. But I couldn’t do more than the first two songs that way. I’ve never been a finger picker.

Have you made more recordings and compositions—or do you anticipate making more recordings and compositions—with this guitar?

I haven’t, but yes, I think the more I play this guitar, the more I want to work with different material, work with some different tunings. So yeah, I plan on getting as much out of it as I can until I—I don’t want to say get bored of it—but until I can’t find a new direction to take it in. When that happens I’ll just put it away for a while and then go back to it.

It’s funny. Since I’ve gotten this guitar and started researching older, smaller guitars, now I have this little idea that I would like to get another old guitar that is kind of strange and has a weird energy.

How do you look for that?

I guess it just happens.


Tangier Sessions is available now from Drag City. 

For the past couple of decades, Will Oldham has made his living as a musician, primarily using the name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He has interviewed Diamanda Galas, Merle Haggard, R. Kelly, Dwight Yoakam, Masaki Batoh, Yusuf Islam and Olivia Wyatt. The most recent, full-length Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy record is ​Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, on Drag City Records.