As much as he's able, Sir Richard Bishop spends his time on the road. As a member of the avant-garde band Sun City Girls or as a solo guitarist, he's spent much of the three decades of his career in motion—moving from Phoenix to Seattle, and then Portland, and spending time, traveling across Europe, Asia, Northern Africa, India and other locales.
Bishop's travels inform the gorgeous playing on his newest LP, "Tangier Sessions." Recorded in the Moroccan city for which the record is named and played on a mysterious parlor guitar he purchased in Geneva, Switzerland, the album indulges in finger picked ragas, twists Middle Eastern melodies into surf rock formations and detours into Malian desert blues.
Its sound is inspired by the circumstances that led Bishop to Morocco. He traveled to Tangier in May of 2014 to play a show, he explains over the phone, driving through the Adirondacks.
"The idea for me was to go to Tangier, do the show, have a good time, and explore around the city on my own." He did, scouting the city during the day and taking hundreds of photographs, but when evening came and the city slowed down, he'd retreat to an apartment above the old city and play the guitar he bought in Switzerland. He began recording his improvisations, which comprise "Tangier Sessions."
"It's a tourist destination compared to other [Moroccan] cities, but it has that literary, bohemian history, with Paul Bowles living there and Burroughs visiting a lot," Bishop says. "It had that going for it, which I think helped with the creative energy going on there."
The intimate album sounds like you're in that apartment with Bishop. "Frontier" demonstrates the guitarist's mastery of "gypsy jazz," while "Bound in Morocco" is more hesitant, slowly unfolding like a worn tapestry. "Safe House" is a flurry, showing off the kind of playing that once caused guitarist John Fahey to remark that Bishop played "like the Devil." In contrast, the album's closing track, "Let It Come Down," is impossibly delicate, its classical lines expressing an unrestrained sentimentality in Bishop's repertoire.
"The room was covered with tiles, so there was some nice bounce back, some nice ringing," he says of the album's clear sound, all emanating from the strange guitar Bishop couldn't stop playing after he purchased it.
"When I first started messing with it in Geneva, it was unmistakable that there was a specific energy to the instrument," Bishop says. "I could tell it had a history of some sort ... I still feel that, every time I play it at a show it's pretty obvious to me that whoever had the guitar before me infused it with something. I don't know what it is or who played it, but it just has that special energy and I think that's what makes it still ring out and sound great."
Bishop has researched the guitar's origins since purchasing it, but they've remained elusive. "I took it to a luthier in Portland, where I'm living," Bishop says. "We couldn't figure out who made it ... but he looked at the craftsmanship that went into it and he's pretty sure it's from the 1850s or slightly before, which is much older than I originally thought."
Ultimately, he concedes that the guitar's sound conveys all he needs to know about the instrument. "We still don't know who made it, but I guess that's not as important any more," Bishop says. "At this point, what's important is that it's very old, it plays great and it sounds great."
Now Bishop is back on the road, traveling the U.S. in support of the album. Faced with performing songs he originally improvised on stage, he approaches the songs through a mixture of experimentation and reconstruction.
"It's difficult to match exactly what I played on the record," Bishop says, "but there are a couple of songs I think I can get pretty close, or at least make it to where the theme of the recording is pretty evident. But there's a lot of room around it to experiment."
Other compositions demand a different path. "With the other ones, I take the feeling of it, the idea of it, and just improvise around it," Bishop says. "Sometimes it just turns into something completely different, but a lot of times it's kind of close to the original atmosphere of these pieces. So it's fun that way."
Performing the songs gives Bishop the chance to reverse engineer his songs, reconstructing freeform ideas he created spontaneously. He also has work to draw from alongside the new songs. "At these shows I'm also doing other material, a fair amount of improvisation in other directions," Bishop says.
Though he's often abroad, the process of touring is very different for him than his preferred mode of travel. "When I'm touring, you have these destinations and a schedule," Bishop says. "It's work – you have to work. It's great, as you get paid for it and things like that, but it's much more focused. It has to be. There's not a lot of room for error. I'm used that that, and I do still enjoy doing this, but if I had a choice I'd much rather be traveling on no particular schedule and just wake up and decide what to do at that time." Touring earns money, which in turn finances his journeys. "I have to do both in order to do either."
When in a foreign country, Bishop tends to avoid making plans, allowing the journey to retain an element of surprise. "You kind of have to ... you really can't plan things out very well. It's never gonna work," he says. "You have to kind of be ready to move in any direction at any time, because you just don't know what's gonna happen."
That looseness, and Bishop's ability to adapt and thrive, is clear on "Tangier Sessions." The record's inspiration revealed itself quickly, and Bishop simply seized the opportunity to grab hold and create.
"Once I started it got the first couple [songs] done, it was like, 'How cool would it be to record a record in Tangier?'" Bishop says. "But I didn't really have that idea going in, that kind of manifested itself after a couple days of being in town. There was just this kind of creative energy to tap into."