Prolific musician Alvarius B. (Alan Bishop) is best known for his work with the avant-garde band The Sun City Girls as well as solo albums released under alter-egos Alvarius B. and Uncle Jim. He’s releasing his most ambitious solo project to date.
With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven is a triple vinyl/double-CD release of 35 new songs recorded in Cairo and Seattle. This past summer, Bishop discussed the new release, his long songbook project, bi-continental recording techniques, and the dangers of untrained hard-ons. He is the co-founder, with Hisham Mayet, of the Sublime Frequencies record label, which releases esoteric music and videos from the outer margins of global culture. In 2011, Bishop premiered his Cairo-based band The Invisible Hands with Egyptian musicians Adham Zidan, Mohamed Asem, Cherif El Masri and Aya Hemeda. Bishop talks with PopMatters about the power of the negative in the creative process.
As both a friend and a fan, I’ve noticed your sound has changed over the last few years. It’s getting more traditional, more folksy, less far out.
Actually my sound never changes, it’s that people finally get to see some side of me that was never exposed. My music could be unlistenable to some people and the same day I could play something that their grandmother would like. That’s the problem that I have, because in terms of trying to get anyone to realize what I’m doing, not that I really care, but I have to answer a lot of questions, even with friends and family.
I released a record in January on the Egyptian label Nashazphone that’s completely fucked up. Many who would like the record that we’re talking about today would hate that record and vice versa. The Dwarfs of East Agouza are drifting out there and that’s all free-form and then I could do like, covers of “Moon River” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”, as dumbass normal as any open mic night.
But you put a spin on that normal stuff….
There’s some of that older pop sensibility…the stuff I grew up with in the ’60s and ’70s that I like, but the modern pop sensibility I don’t identify with because I don’t like the production values. It’s very slick, it’s very trendy and novelty-esque and has too many bells and whistles that aren’t needed.
When you’re working in the studio, are you directing your musicians or is it more of a back and forth?
Both. There are some very strong opinions I have about exactly what I want for certain things, and then other things, I let them give me some ideas, and play tracks, and record overdubs that will change my mind. I want them to have freedom to feel like they can contribute something because I want them to play well, I don’t want a slave in there because I could probably do it all myself that way.
The trick is to put together the right people to form an alchemy to make it work right. They have to have enough freedom to create what they hear. Sometimes if it seems to not fit the song, I’ll tell them that. Play to what the song is… if it’s a five chord country song, or it’s a folk ballad, that’s all they are so don’t feel the need to overplay on it.
The musicians on this record are a combination of band members from your other projects.
The Invisible Hands are on most of the record, Aya Hemeda, Cherif El Masri , Adham Zidan, including various drummers we’ve used over the years on various sessions. And then we’ve got The Spoils from Seattle, which are Milky Burgess, Jim Davis, and Don McGreevy, who also played in Master Musicians of Bukkake. Don and Jim are the rhythm section on half the record and Milky plays electric guitar on maybe four tracks. Those guys also backed me up on the Koes Barat record released on Sub Pop, a cover record of the Indonesian band Koes Plus.
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So I recorded those guys on overdubs in Seattle, then everything else was done in Cairo, mostly in a non-soundproof bedroom in Adham’s sixth floor apartment, recorded through ProTools with a couple of nice mics and a shitty practice amp and traffic noise coming in….
But it contributes to the overall tone. You switch from genre to genre but there’s an acoustic cogency across the whole album and maybe that’s partly from the recording environment.
There’s a lot of layers to this, but yeah, that’s part of it. I think that when I first went to Cairo in 2011 to live there, I came out with about 200 songs from my past that had never been recorded. This project is a greater extension of the whole project that really is just me going to Cairo with a stack of songs and going through them. It’s a screwy situation, it’s all over the place and I don’t even really know where it’s going next or what I’m going to release or what I’m going to record or if I’m going to like it, but there’s a lot more to come. It’s all one big long body of work that I guess in one way or another is the Alvarius B. song book, but it always involves other musicians to help curate it and color it and take it to another place. And I’m writing new songs along the way to mix in with the old.
You bring up a lot of themes in this project that we’ve heard before. Various phrases that become not like catchphrases but like the kind of repetitive phrasing you hear in a dream. We hear about the “superstars of Greenwich meantime”, then there’s a phrase I love about “untrained hard-ons”, because I’m still trying to figure out what the hell it means…
Well, people who don’t know how to use their tool….
[Laughing] You’re saying that this project is this ongoing body of work, and then there are these repeated themes… can you comment on that?
There are certain preoccupations that have been part of the music you’ve done before. There’s a “don’t tread on me” mentality that is much more to the fore in this project, especially the closing song “Wanted Man”m where you go into a sort of hillbilly monologue. Because you’re in a persona when you’re doing it, it’s hard to say how sincere it is… or is it poking fun at that mentality?
I think it’s ambiguous and I think that’s the key so everyone can interpret it in their own way. Maybe I’m making fun of it but I’m from that mentality. My dad was a hick, he was born in a town in Tennessee with 35 people and that’s how he grew up and I have that in me. My mom was born in a small town in Texas, so I mean, I’m from that. But I could also be using it to make certain points.
Today, when everyone is so polarized in one camp or the other, everybody is getting played like a $20 fiddle. They’re all morons. Everyone is falling for the trick
again. They fall for it every time. And so you’ve got these polarized camps thinking that they’re right about everything, on both sides of it, and they’re all being fooled again. And people that have PhDs and people who are in academia, the media, experts, scientists… there’s hardly a clear headed mind out of any of them. I’ve been pointing to this through my work all the time. I had these feelings since I was 15, that this world around me is filled with idiots, and maybe it’s a curse. But I’m seeing it, and I can prove it. You give me the courtroom and 700,000 years and I’ll convict every single one of them out there, of the seven billion that are on the Earth. I’ll do it. But I don’t have the time to do that. But I would win every single case, you know. And maybe there’s a 100,000 who aren’t fooled, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m here to fool you, to think that you’re fooled and maybe you’re not.
[Laughing] We’ll get to the dark existentialism in a minute, but… your punk roots also come out a lot on this project, not just in the sound on a couple of the tracks, which get really noisy, but also in the promotion of casual violence for artistic purposes. How do lyrics about drilling people’s skulls mesh with your…
Day to day life?
[Laughing] Libertarian ideology…
Well, it could be autobiographical, maybe not. Maybe I’m one of the last uncaught serial killers and I can espouse it because no one will ever catch me. But I think that we all have these feelings sometimes, don’t we? I think it’s healthy to have a disdain for mankind and to use a sense of anger and violence and hatred for creative purposes. Such emotions have created some of the greatest work in the history of humanity. So you know, it’s a healthy thing, I believe. It is for me. I think it keeps me sane… in one way… and I think it gets points across, it clarifies and interprets some feelings that I just don’t know any other way to express. And I think it resonates with a lot of people, actually.
Let’s talk about some of the sounds on the record. People who have heard a lot of your other stuff and can say this sounds like Alan Bishop’s sound, and then there’s some other stuff on there that’s new. I’m wondering how you decide to match lyrics with sounds.
I didn’t try to do too much on these records. It was a really stripped down recording infrastructure. I tried to let the songs just be what they are. I started everything with acoustic guitar and vocals and then recorded on top of it. I didn’t want to over-produce it, I didn’t want to over-think it, I just thought that each song has its own universe and if it’s going to be a minimal universe that’s what it’s going to be and I don’t need to force anything.
I didn’t really know where any of this was going when I started. In September of 2014, after we finished the second Invisible Hands album
Teslam, I sat down Adham and Cherif in my apartment in Cairo and I played them all these songs or fragments of songs from my entire life, from 40 years ago to now. I played them two hours worth of demos and they listened and took notes and they were all in, I think that’s the key to everything. They were willing to explore anything.
The majority of the electric guitar and all of the keyboards come from those two guys and so it really helped solidify a sound for all these songs from the inception. Adham ended up being the co-producer and he was the engineer for everything and came up with some really interesting ideas. I usually don’t co-produce, but it was great working with him and he did an amazing job with very few tools to work with.
To talk about the cover songs, most of these are pretty obscure….
Yeah, I suppose… and even if you know the artist you might not know the song. You might know Morricone but might not know the track “Il Forte/The Fort” is from
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where it’s done very slowly, like a funeral march, and I turned it into a more up-tempo thing. And Sly Stone wrote “Are You Sure?” but he gave it to Beau Brummels and produced it. “Wanted Man” is a Dylan song given to Johnny Cash. Yeah, and Lee Hazelwood, and Gene Clark …. Not their most famous songs, but songs that I love, that’s why I wanted to do them.
You’ve appropriated them, you’ve changed the lyrics to fit more with your own commentaries and your own outlook.
Yes, with a couple of exceptions. I have no problem re-writing anyone. Nothing is sacred when it comes to words or poetry. I find the original “Wanted Man” and the Nick Cave version pretty boring and cheesy. The original is boring and typical for Johnny Cash and fair enough, it’s Johnny Cash, it works for 1969, but the Nick Cave version was a little bit cheesy, he’s trying to sound like a bad ass and it doesn’t work. My version is ridiculously absurd but I think it’s more updated and a little bit more
But as a commentary on your previous work…
On the whole world, actually, and the people in this world. It’s a commentary on them and it’s a commentary on what’s swirling around out there in a million different layers that most people who are very singularly dimensional will refuse to ever even think to consider the possibility of what’s swirling around them right in front of their eyes and they don’t seem to want to acquire the tools to find their way into these worlds that are probably even more real than the ones that they think are real.
To me this project is your most personal statement. It seems to be coming a bit closer from the heart, closer from home.
Well, yes, it’s more traditionally recorded and presented as something that is more familiar to more people, more accessible, more… coming from my youth, I suppose, the music that I used to listen to. So in that way you’re right, but it encompasses a lot of different things and I’m not really sure what it all means. I think that the three records are a statement that work together as a trilogy, as a 35 song narrative, yet each record has a different personality, yet they sonically fit together enough for me to release as a volume set of three parts.
Are you anthologizing yourself?
I don’t know. I’m just trying to do it in a way where I’m not going to lose money [laughter]. I wouldn’t want to do it cheaply, maybe I’ll do a nicer box-set later, but for now I think it’s going to have to stick with this and people can buy what they want.
To get to specifics, what does the phrase “Mark Twain August” mean?
That’s for you to tell me. I have a lot of different interpretations for it but I would hate to spoil the party. I think there’s enough in there so people can formulate their own interpretations. I really don’t like to try to define what I’m saying because often these things come off the top of my head anyway and I really don’t know where they’re going or what they mean.
That’s the only track with a banjo on it.
Milky plays banjo on it. I thought he was going to laugh at me when I said I wanted a wah-wah banjo but instead of laughing he just went out and got it and hooked it up and played it. And it was incredible how it all turned out.
And he’s doing the backing vocals, too?
No, Adham and Cherif are doing the backing vocals on that. I think all the backing vocals on the male parts are those two guys. It’s primarily the Invisible Hands, Aya, Cherif and Adham, doing the backup vocals on most tracks with Aya doing several co-lead vocals with me. Hana Al Bayaty is doing vocals on three tracks and I’m doing a lot of the backup vocals as well.
Tell me about “I’ll Carry Your Dwarf”. It’s the only track where you don’t sing the lead.
Yeah, Hana is doing the lead there, and we do a co-lead on “Mandolyne” and she’s doing the backing vocals with me on “Crackled Witch.”
Those are your lyrics? or did she write them?
I wrote the lyrics but she came up with the idea for the song. She gave examples of how it could be stated, like “I won’t do this, I won’t do that, but I’ll carry your dwarf.” So I ended up writing the rhymes and the lines but we really worked on it together.
Because it’s a female lead vocal it seems to push back against some of the more overtly masculine songs.
It had to be a female vocal. I couldn’t do the vocal because a male doesn’t carry a child.
It brings the whole record down to earth because you get this kind of feminine commentary about not putting up with a lot of shit you get from a man.
Perhaps. I think more than anything it’s absurd and it’s the kind of comedy that can attract anyone.
I don’t listen to a lot of modern pop, but from what I’m exposed to, the only sound that is similar to this new record is Jack White’s solo albums, especially
Blunderbuss (2012) and Lazaretto (2014). There are a lot a similarities in the instrumentation, a lot of organ, a lot of acoustic guitar, and also some of the themes… There’s a heavy “don’t tread on me” Americana vibe.
I haven’t heard any of that stuff, I’d be curious now that you mention that, but I haven’t heard any of his solo work.
White’s far more mainstream than you are, but he’s also kind of on the periphery of the mainstream… the old word for that was “alternative”, I don’t know what they use these days.
Yeah, I don’t either, but I know he’s very eclectic in his decision making on where he goes with his music.
What I’m hearing is your work moving closer to the mainstream periphery.
I always thought that the mainstream was moving a little bit closer to me, but if you want to put it that way, that’s okay. I know that I’m not ever entering that world because that’s the world of the industry and the industry turns me off. I’m putting it out on my own label, there’s going to be a thousand copies or less of everything here. It doesn’t have anything to do with the mainstream in terms of philosophy, but when you’re talking about the way that the songs are structured, verse-chorus… these kinds of things, then perhaps I can see it, but… really for me, if the mainstream was closer to this record then that would be really interesting.
Anything else coming up? Sun City Girl vault material coming forward, or any Uncle Jim stuff?
Yeah, there’s going to be some Sun City Girl albums being reissued. Alvarius B. and Dwarfs of East Agouza and Invisible Hands are all continuing… it’s a slower process with the Hands, there’s lots of scheduling issues with everyone. Something I’ve been thinking about is an Uncle Jim touring show, which would be fun to do. The longer I wait, the older and the more like the real Uncle Jim I will become. So I have a little time….
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With a Beaker on the Burner and An Otter in the Oven double-CD released on Abduction Records 3 November.
With a Beaker is also released over three separate vinyl LPs: Vol. 1 Natural Wonder (6 October), Vol. 2 A Mark Twain August (20 October ), and Vol. 3 Heathen Folklore (3 November).