October 4th, 2007 | Interviews

sarah tillman

Sir Richard Bishop is the Indiana Jones of the fingerstyle guitar and has a new album out on Drag City called Polytheistic Fragments. He speaks now to Nikki Darling.

What was it like when Queen Elizabeth touched your right shoulder with the royal sword and knighted you?
Well, it was quite a special experience since she wouldn’t give me the time of day, and since no one except maybe Rudy Giuliani can knight themselves. I got a sword, uttered some barbarous Latin, and knighted myself. After that I was a ‘sir’ and proud to be a ‘sir.’
Were you and your brother both in Paris 1942 with Moe Tucker?
We both were. I was a late addition—Alan was in there first and I replaced one of the original guitarists, which was difficult because he was a friend. Everybody kind of voted me in, and I haven’t seen my friend—ex-friend!—since then. So in the long run, even though it was a short run, I think it was a wise decision since it gelled a little better.
What was playing with her like?
It was great. It was very short-lived. I didn’t look at Moe as the Velvet Underground drummer. When we got there, we saw her as the drummer of 1942, and we would practice at her house. And I saw her as a mom since she had three kids, so that was it—I sort of saw her as a mom figure taking care of her kids. Nicest person—no ego. We only did two live shows with me in the band, but we practiced a lot, and somewhere there is a live tape if it hasn’t been destroyed. I’ve got a great story about us playing live though if you want to hear it.
Of course!
One of the only two live shows we did with Maureen was—must have been 1981, and we played the Whisky a Go Go, and on the same night Nico was playing at the Roxy. At this point I don’t think Maureen had spoken to Nico in years—since the Velvets—so Moe hadn’t seen Nico in forever and the press before it happened had an article like, ‘Nico vs. Moe Tucker!’ And they kind of built it up like a boxing match. We did our show and Paris 1942—it wasn’t the greatest show, but it was good enough. I think the audience was expecting a lot of Velvet Underground songs, but we didn’t really play that many. Maybe one, and it was like the guitar player’s idea—not even Moe’s. And afterward word got out to Nico where we were staying, so after the show Nico came to the hotel to see Moe. You have to remember, I was 21 or 22, and to meet Nico was just exciting. And she showed up with what looked like a very young boy toy and—to be honest—she didn’t look very healthy. Then they disappeared into the bedroom and caught up on what they had been doing, and then a week later some weekly came out and sort of said that Nico had won out. And if I remember correctly one of my favorite lines from it was that we had people running for the door after the first song. Which I think is a fantastic review!
You’ve lived in Arizona for many years and—going by titles like Fingering the Devil and some of your album artwork— I assume you have some interest in the occult. So have you been to the Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin house? I’ve heard rumors it was used as a location for occult activities.
Well, when I was in Arizona, I wasn’t aware that that house had been used as a secret magical fraternity.
Did you just make that up?
No, they can be called magical fraternities. Or there’s orders or groups—Aleister Crowley stuff. O.T.O., the Golden Dawn—those are both considered magical orders or fraternities.
Is the occult something you just have an interest in or something you’re actually involved with?
In the past, both. Not so much anymore. When I was growing up, my grandfather and father were Freemasons, and I think my grandfather dabbled in some ritual stuff—black or white, I don’t think it matters. It just sort of rubbed off, and I think it sort of reawakened itself in my early twenties, and my primary interest was Egyptology. It was just something I was exposed to—something I was drawn to. Especially their magical practices, which were a major part of their religion.
A mariachi player and an Indian steel guitar player are playing in front of you—who makes you cry first?
Let me put it this way: the Indian steel guitar player would make me melt first. The mariachi player would at first make me laugh, because he’s dressed up as a mariachi singer and he looks silly, but if he’s singing, then that would make me start crying first.
A lot of your songs have a very dusty, desert-y, western-type feel—I know you live in Arizona, so how much of your work is inspired by your physical environment?
It’s very influenced by environment. Not necessarily where I live but where I visit and so far the western analogy—it could be like an image of a western desert, or a north African desert, or a Bedouin desert or like a gust of sand across the sky. It could be places I’m visiting and not necessarily living. Places I’ve gone to in my travels. I also live in Seattle and I don’t think I really write songs about rainy streets and clouds. But I spend a lot of time in Asia and North Africa, so that sort of rubs off.
If you could collaborate musically with any artist dead or alive, who would it be?
Everybody would expect me to say Django Reinhardt, but I’m going to say George Harrison. It’s hard to say why—he wasn’t a flashy guitar player. It was just the essence of his being. This probably ties in with his association and involvement with things Eastern and Indian. He was just an amazing guitar player—truly unique. A real musician and it was sort of my goal to find a way to meet up with him and get together. And I actually had this sound engineer who had been in touch with somebody who had worked with George Harrison, and they were trying to get my record to him to hear it. And for a split second, there was a chance where he could have heard it. I mean—I would never expect to play with an ex-Beatle, but I set my goals pretty high. Why shouldn’t I?