Saturday, July 12, 2008

Alan Bishop interview

The following sections were excised from the published Believer interview with Sublime Frequencies co-founder (and Sun City Girl) Alan Bishop. Some topics touched on here include Diplo, M.I.A. and funk carioca, the serendipity of travel, and the academics and ethnomusicologists not having "the fucking spine" to do what Sublime Frequencies does.

BLVR: What was the paper you saw presented at EMP this year about Sublime Frequencies, the one presented by David Novak?

AB: It was an overview of some of the more extreme concepts that have been affiliated with the label and he covered it from an academic (versus the academic ethnomusicological) approach and how different it was. That was his main point and how it challenged so many different viewpoints that were established over the years from the early days. He pointed out the differences in what we did as opposed to what is expected in the genre of ethnomusicology or international music.

It wasn’t that passionate a delivery. We may have made him a little nervous cuz we came in there and announced ourselves, shook his hand, then sat down. He just went with…it was a pretty shoddy sense of research. He started off by saying that Charles Gocher was an owner of the label and he was married to a Burmese woman. It was just all wrong. I’m the one married to a Burmese woman, Charlie was never involved with the label other than just being around. That’s nowhere to be found on the internet. I don’t know where he came up with that. It really shows you that if you can’t get that right… He brought in the Sun City Girl angle as a prelude to mine and Rick’s part in the label. He never mentioned Hisham (Mayet), he barely mentioned Mark Gergis.

He just got into all these things that are so generalized and not-specific, then glossed over very important points just because of a smart-ass quote I gave to Erik Davis designed to piss people off: “If these things start making money and selling like Outkast, I’ll fly over to Sumatra and just hand out Benjamins to anyone that looks like these people.” It was obviously a fucking crack but he prefaced the whole thing with: “Obviously, the label doesn’t believe in paying royalties or compensating musicians, as Alan Bishop is quoted…” and then he just blankets that and moves onto the next point. It’s by no means the case. If he had done any research in any of my diatribes on the Web, he would’ve been able to see that it’s not as black and white as that and it’s not --in any regard-- that we don’t want to pay anyone; we do. It’s just set up where it’s really difficult to pay. You have to make that decision. Are you going to take the risk to do it or are you just going to not let it be heard? That needs to be dealt with, that needs to be said, instead of what he said. You start to wonder how well minds can process information. How smart are these guys? How serious are they if they’re not going to bring this stuff to the table correctly? But that’s just the nature of the game, the nature of information, whether you’re covering politics or sports or music or whatever. It totally is in line with the way that things go down.

BLVR: Which is why you’re there in person.

AB: Yeah, I was able to defend it a bit. A couple questions came up and he directed them to us, as he would have said the wrong answer (laughs). I think he knew that. It tempered the situation. I got a few jabs in: “Well, there are a few things that were said that were completely inaccurate and I don’t know how you could have found them. They’re not even on the web!” But that’s the nature of it. It’s when that information gets spread around and compounded in articles as though they are gospel, then other people are going to propagate that forever and ever, they’re just always there to refer to. It’s always disinformation being thrown out there. To make a point about how we function sometimes, we put out our own disinformation. We want our own disinformation to be dealt with, not the ones that are completely wrong facts said by other people. We can’t have it both ways.

BLVR: Ethnomusicology just left the field, climbed up inside the ivory tower, and has been firmly ensconced there ever since.

AB: And they have their exclusivity and how they have their papers written and recordings filed away and there’s no access to them unless you’re a member of their club. You have to kiss their ass to get in to it and pay them money to get in. That’s the only way you can get it. Which is worse. I look at what we’re doing as practical work in things like that, weighing our options and trying to do the best we can as we move along, learning as we go and we’re making it up as we go along and side-stepping the whole thing and just getting our work done in the only way we have the means to do so without the funding and power machine that the institutions have. It still can make an impact.

BLVR: Having heard appropriations of the music by DJs here like Diplo, I was surprised to hear Sublime Frequencies dip into baile funk with the C.V. release. Did you know much about funk carioca and baile funk before Carlos Casas sent you those recordings from Rio drug gang Comando Vermelho’s parties?

AB: I really didn’t know too much. I’ve heard a few clips and I wasn’t really interested in that kind of music. But when I encountered the music that Carlos sent me, it struck me as something completely different. I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that it was from Rio and that it was recorded within the favelas and I didn’t associate it with baile funk or the Miami bass at all. I had no idea what it was. It just sounded like raw spontaneous hip-hop beat music from the urban Rio, in the favelas. And because it was so raw and the way that it was mixed, and the way that it was presented, I liked it. That’s the only thing to it. I immediately liked it.

An anonymous Belgian holds up a photo of George W. Bush for the sublime Frequencies DJ team and they immediately salute their president (from Sublime Frequencies DJ night in Belgium).

BLVR: You didn’t know about Diplo or M.I.A. and what they had done with it on Piracy Funds Terrorism, their mix CD?

AB: I hadn’t heard Diplo, but I heard his name. I was familiar with MIA’s music but I didn’t see a connection at all when I heard this stuff. To me, that was a different kind of music. MIA was this beatbox urban sound. I don’t know what she does. It sounded okay, but it’s not anything I’d sit around and listen to. Ever.

BLVR: She seems have this similar ethos of taking these third world cultures and re-appropriating them within “western pop” sensibilities.

AB: I find it hard to really say how mush she’s taken. It’s so wide open, the influences are so homogenized now, that it’s really difficult to say how much she’s taking from them. She is Sri Lankan and maybe there’s some things she has done, but even with what Sri Lankans are doing in that vibe, and what the Indonesians are doing in beat music or Thais in hip-hop, it all sounds alike to what the West has always been doing. It’s too close for me, it ‘s a kind of music I don’t respect. I’m not interested in it.

BLVR: Have you ever been down to Brazil?

AB: Never been down to Brazil.

BLVR: Do you find it difficult when you’re presented with music from a country where you haven’t been to wrap your head around it?

AB: Not necessarily. I’m very interested in Brazilian music, just not in that type of Brazilian music. There’s 500 kinds of Brazilian music to like. Funk carioca really wasn’t one of them on my want list when I do go to Brazil. You just never know. I have to hear to know if I’m going to be able to wrap my head around it. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of me not being able to wrap my head around it. I prefer not to go there because it doesn’t interest me. I look at the music as too simplistic or too easy to do or I don’t respect it because too many people that are associated with that music I would just as soon wish would vanish from the universe. I just can’t stand it. It reminds me of all that is wrong with the people that I despise. It’s a personal thing.

BLVR: Who are what are the earmarks of this music?

AB: People who worship pop culture to the point where they try to emulate it too much and all they’re concerned with is fame and money. The slick production quality, the lack of creative ideas and inspiration, the lowest common denominator factor of worldwide acceptance so as to continually promote a handicapped mentality of thought, where stupidity and an inferior mindset are 'cool'; There are pockets that interest me when I hear them but they are few and far between.

Even if it’s poor people growing up in the ghetto, I understand the situation but when it comes to people from other countries emulating what is big and powerful about the rest of the world and they’re blinded by it all, it doesn’t mean I have to feel sorry for them because they’re hypnotized. You either get it or you don’t and if I start feeling sorry for them, then I’m going to become weak and not be able to do what I can do to destroy the fucking thing that I hate.

I can go out and try to do social work that’ll never get anywhere or I can try and go at it with all the ammunition I have to just completely annihilate the thing that I hate. It’s the kind of music that reminds me of the big machine that creates that music and that entertainment and that hypnotism and that social engineering, cultural engineering that keeps people in their place and doesn’t allow them to innovate or evolve into greater beings.

We’re pushing the idea of the higher-minded bootleg being something that is legitimate. Because the system has failed, the system needs to be changed, and the system needs to relax, and the system needs to be less precious. And we’re pushing that envelope and we have the guts to do it and nobody one else out there has the fucking spine. You can’t find them, they’re not there. We’re the only ones.

BLVR: You told me before that you had never been into Laos or Vietnam. I was wondering what it was about those countries that isn’t interesting to you.

AB: That’s not the case. I just don’t have the time. I’ve almost been to both, it just didn’t work out. When I go to a place, I like to stay in one place for a period of time, so that I can get some things going. I could’ve gone to Vietnam but I wouldn’t have accomplished as much as I did in Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, India, other places I have been. It’s a matter of time. There are a lot of places I’d love to go: Brazil, Haiti, Yemen, Sudan, all over Africa. I’m not going to get spread out just to say I’ve been to a place. I have friends and contacts and continuing projects in the places I’ve been. That’s seven or eight countries I have worked in multiple times, that’s a lot for any one person. I’m not working for the corporate world anymore. It’s not easy to accomplish. I’ve got to make it all happen myself.

BLVR: How difficult is it negotiating in new countries?

AB: I think you build off your experiences and the more that you’re used to going into different places. The first time anywhere is mind-blowing. I was overwhelmed by everything. I now have experience in these religious cultures in Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism and have learned quite abit about all of it. it’s not nearly as big a deal as it used to be. There are challenges and you never know when it’s going to come. I'm pretty fearless about anything, I just naturally blend in to the situation. I’m really good with people and have the power of communication, I can pretty much do whatever I need to do no matter where I go and I have that confidence and people tend to like me no matter where I go. It’s pretty easy for me.
BLVR: I feel there’s a serendipity, a synchronicity, once you’re fully in the travel mindset, where magical things just start to happen. You meet certain people…certain things align.

AB: It’s amazing how many instances are like that. The more that you’re experienced, your radar works better. You know what you’re looking for or where you might find something. You know something’s going to be happening and you’re always ready to pull out the camera or record something; you’re going to catch it. There’s too many times when you have documentation equipment with you that you’re just thinking you’re not experiencing this the way that I wish I could. When I watch it back, it’s not going to be the same either.

BLVR: How do you balance it then, being in the moment versus capturing it?

AB: I don’t think about it. I go into mode. That’s what I’m doing…I’m taking it all in and I’m digging it as it’s going, but you have to be aware of what you’re doing if you want to document it in a way that can be used. It’s a give and take. There are so many different situations that are unexpected. Those are the greatest ones. It’s like a gift, it just shows up and you’re at the right place at the right time. In terms of collecting, I’m always looking for old cassettes and old vinyl wherever we go. That’s part of the situation as well.
BLVR: Of the different religions you've come across in your travels, is there any one that is more convincing than the others. If you were to subscribe to one set of beliefs, which do you go for?

AB: Hinduism is by far the most interesting and endlessly fascinating. Nothing else even remotely comes close. Although I will always respect and admire the beauty and discipline of Islam. Muslims are perhaps the most hospitable and kind people I have ever encountered overall.