Sir Richard Bishop is truly one of the most exceptional guitarists working today. He is best known for his work with the brilliant and inscrutable Sun City Girls, but his recent solo career is no less impressive. His most recent record, The Freak of Araby [Drag City] is a wonder of technical virtuosity and authentic respect for his influences.
Bishop is currently in Southeast Asia (read his blog here) and was kind enough to answer some questions regarding his thoughts on the influence of occultism on underground music, his own thought on esotericism, and the difference between the inner and the outer.
Underground music and esotericism have been a pair for a long time, but there seems to be a much more candid expression this last year or two. Recent examples include the summer Equinox Festival and the Musicka Mystica Maxima Festival put on by the O.T.O. Do you have thoughts as to why this might be?
I was pleasantly surprised when I first heard about these two festivals. I don't recall any festivals like this happening before. I'm not sure what Raymond Salvatore Harmon or the O.T.O. were expecting from these, and I honestly don't know if either was successful but I hope they (and others) will continue in this direction. As to why it is all happening now, it's hard to say. It's possible that more and more people are getting fed up with all the bullshit that is going on in the world today. I mean, there really isn't a lot to grasp onto these days. Maybe by getting involved with the esoteric side of things, musically and otherwise, people, especially younger people, can find something to identify with or at least broaden their personal horizons. And on the other side, perhaps it benefits some of these occult groups by bringing more into the fold to increase their own ranks. After all, the economy is pretty fucked up and maybe the O.T.O. needs more people to pay that $666 a year (or is it more now?) in order stay afloat. Who knows? It really doesn't matter how one interprets it all but I do think it's a good thing. It seems like a natural affinity.
Do you think psychedelia and occultism are inexorably linked, as seems to be the case with many of the so-called psych/folk musicians?
I think some aspects of psychedelia are linked but certainly not all of it. I feel that the majority of psychedelic music from the 60s still holds onto that kinship with drugs and peace and love and all of that crap but it sort of stops there. For a lot of folk musicians, the same thing applies though I suppose you could add the idea of protest. Among the modern psych/folk movement there probably are several bands/artists that do have some personal connection with esoterica or the occult, it's just not always obvious, at least not to me. Some bands, regardless of time period, may be automatically linked to the occult because of particular songs, album titles, artwork or because of some dark, creepy music but they may not have any magical or mystical aspirations at all. There's certainly nothing wrong with that but sometimes groups get umped into these categories by default. Sometimes it's good for a band's mystique. The connection seems most common with Death Metal or Black Metal bands than anything else but how much of a true interest there is in anything esoteric is not clear. It usually takes a colorful or mysterious personality within a group or a specific proven reputation of a band in order to establish that occult connection to where it's there and everybody knows it (Jimmy Page, Brian Jones/Late 60s Stones, etc).
Is your own interest in esoterica a driving influence behind your music, or do you see music as a kind of esoteric practice in its own right?
Anything can be an esoteric practice in it's own right. My interests in the occult and music developed separately but they do overlap every now and then when they need to. But in my solo music it's not always a conscious thing. It just happens. With Sun City Girls it may have been a bit more prevalent because we did often incorporate elements of improvisational ritual and trance into some live shows from time to time. It wasn't necessarily based on any particular system except our own but it often led to some interesting energy exchanges between the three of us and among the audience. But nowadays, though my mind is often thinking in esoteric directions, I don't automatically connect it with the music but like I said, it does relate in its own way sometimes but I usually recognize it after the fact.
There has always been a tension within esoteric circles on the distinction between magic and mysticism, between external effects and internal transformation. How do you make sense of that distinction for yourself?
I see both as part of the same package but I am mostly interested in internal transformation than anything else. And I think that is necessary before any external effects can even happen. But I never really was one who sought out external effects or things like that. I mean, what are external effects anyways? Causing a spirit or an energy to assume visible form? Does one need to actually see it to know that it is present? Moving something across the room without touching it? That's just being lazy. Does one want to make a woman fall madly in love with them? Is that an external effect? Why don't they say hello and go from there. That's all kid stuff. Earn it! Want to be rich? Get a fucking job or start digging for gold or silver. But I think that may be the attraction for a lot of fledgling magicians. I personally don't see the importance of it. But I do agree that there is some tension out there, or at least some disagreement as to what is more desirable or "real." I think that will always be the case.
Nowadays, the word "Magic" (add a K for those who can't spell) is usually associated with the Western Magical Tradition - Ceremonial or Ritual Magic. That was and is the entry point for a lot of people, myself included. Golden Dawn, Crowley and O.T.O. seem to attract a lot of potential initiates. It's a totally valid way to begin but I think a lot of people leave it at that and don't choose to explore other areas, many of which may cross into the realm of internal mysticism. But it's all one and the same for me.
Certain disciplines within Hinduism or Buddhism for example, or even Animism and Shamanism may appear to be entirely mystical and not have anything to do with ceremonial magic but that's not always the case. There are still plenty of ritual elements involved. There are implements and objects in use that may not be visible to you or me. Building an external magic circle can be contrasted with the internal process of "fencing the quarters of the sky," barbarous names can be replaced by vibrational mantras, etc. There are still particular rules or formulas that are followed that have been handed down over the years - it's just not always distinguishable on the surface. Do these practitioners require any external or visible results? It's hard to say, though of course there are always so-called spiritual "teachers" (East and West) who will resort to external trickery or whatever it takes as long as they have an audience that is willing to be duped or are ready to part
with their money. There is a sucker/seeker born every minute!
Do you think art/music is as powerful a form of ritual than traditional religious forms?
I think it can be just as ritualistic but how powerful or effective it is might not be a very positive thing. But it's a matter of opinion. I guess it depends on how its done and who's doing it. I don't have a whole lot of experience in traditional religious forms of ritual but let's take the three "Baby Religions" (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), Whatever rituals they are using they certainly do have a strong control over their flocks don't they? If an artist or a band uses the right formula, anything can happen. Look at the stupid pop music of today, look at the millions of dollars it generates, look at the millions of fans who worship this crap. That's powerful maybe because a lot of people are just still pretty low on the evolutionary scale. So, who knows? It's anybody's guess.
I once read you saying something to the effect that you are skeptical about folks who "talk" about esoteric things. Can you elucidate/ clarify that?
I'm not against talking about it, in fact, I enjoy having intelligent conversations about anything esoteric or arcane with people who are capable of doing so. I learn a lot that way. It's when people start bragging about their magical skills and telling others just how much they have accomplished in their studies, or on the path, and how great they are and things like that. That's when I get skeptical. They want others to respect them, to fear them. That doesn't do anything for me. I can usually tell within a few minutes if someone is full of shit or not. But I don't care if someone has achieved this level or that level, or what series of numbers come after his (or her) fraternal name or anything like that. Why would I want to know about that. Let's talk shop. Sometimes its quite entertaining though. Do you know how many people I've met over the years who think and claim that they are the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley? It's ridiculous. Besides, why would anybody want that?
The Renaissance idea of the magus was much more that of the scholar than the way we today imagine magicians and wizards in the popular culture. Do you see yourself as more bookish than practitioner?
I do not consider myself a magician or a wizard or anything like that. I seek wisdom and knowledge. That's it. I claim no special powers at all and I never intend to. My interests in the occult have been spurned by direct experience and I've maintained those interests with a fair amount of study and research. I have always been a book person and I think that most "magicians" or occultists out there are as well. You don't just wake up one day and make it rain. But I'm not a scholar by any means. I study and read the things that interest me and I know that no school, no matter how prestigious, would ever offer the opportunity. Everybody should be responsible for themselves and seek out that which attracts them without relying on anybody else. So yes, perhaps I am more bookish than anything else and I will say that reading books will only take you so far. But that doesn't mean I don't "practice" or "work" on certain things - though I probably don't do it as often as I should.
Would you mind talking about what you are listening to these days that has you excited about new music?
Unfortunately, I am not all that excited about new music these days. It might be because I don't expose myself to most of it and the so called "new" music I have heard from whatever genres that creep in, really hasn't done much for me. I'm waiting to be blown away by something incredible that's new but it just hasn't found me yet. So I still listen to older stuff from all reaches of the globe but I am still partial to North African and Asian traditional music and a smattering of psychedelic weirdness from various places such as Turkey, SE Asia, etc., but it's usually 1970s and earlier.
Anything you want to tell those kids who are off in their undisclosed locales in the woods taking drugs, drawing magic circles in the dirt, and making music?
It depends on what drugs they're taking! But first off, I hope their location is as undisclosed as they think, but nowadays that may not be the case. Regardless, they should stay out in the boonies - it's the way of the future. Today's cities are tomorrow's prisons. And if their music is any good, let's hear it! If not, bury it somewhere or destroy it by any means necessary. As for the magic circles, they should leave the dirt alone and create a permanent protective field around themselves. You CAN take it with you.