For 27 years, Seattle trio Sun City Girls thrived in the outer reaches of warped music.
The Phoenix-born, multi-instrumentalist brothers Richard and Alan Bishop, and percussionist Charles Gocher, forged strange and exuberant sounds that never adhered to any rules of commercial engagement. The group made a legacy out of jamming the senses with musical signals from every point of the universe into an all-encompassing jumble. They even appeared in photos wearing piecemeal costumes that could have easily resembled some deranged faction of al-Qaeda.
Indeed, art/terrorism was their calling card.
But when Gocher died from cancer in February '07, the antics came to a halt. A year after his death the Bishops have reconvened as an acoustic duo – the Brothers Unconnected – to put some closure on their lifetime spent with Gocher and give him the dignity and reverence he deserves.
The group's voluminous catalog of cassettes, 7-inches, LPs and CDs lurches through waves of freaky folk songs, wild improvisation and singer/songwriter fare. Their most acclaimed release, 1990's Torch of the Mystics, is an Eastern-influenced collection of indie rock. But the album presents a false sense of character as it only captures one phase of the group's ever-shifting status.
Since forming in '81, SCG existed outside of punk rock, but it was within punk venues that the group received national exposure.
Alan was recruited to play bass for Phoenix punk band Jodie Foster's Army in '83 on the condition that Sun City Girls go on tour with them. "The only reason I did it was so that the Girls could play shows around the country and fuck with everyone in our path," Alan says, laughing. "We didn't come from punk roots. We performed with punk bands because there was nowhere else to put us. Even the punks didn't know how to deal with us."
Channeling such an intense lineage via two acoustic guitars is an odd means of surveying Sun City Girls' landscape. But that simple, direct approach adds introspection to the music that is just as challenging to audiences as anything they've ever done. "There is no buffer between us and the crowd," Alan explains. "It's like a campfire show.
Even in San Francisco where 300 people attended a recent show, there wasn't a peep from the audience, he says. "It's not easy to make a room of 300 people be so quiet that you can hear a pin drop. People have been weeping during some of the songs, but they've also been dying of laughter. The humor is unreal. You're not going to see two guys with acoustic guitars crack you up as much as this will."
The show begins with a 40-minute screening of Gocher's film collages, titled The Handsome Stranger. Afterward, Alan and Richard sing and strum through two sets: one of standard guitar tunings and another of an open tuning system of their invention. Then they wind through an overview of their catalogue. "It's easy to do it like this," Alan says. "You can understand the lyrics and the songs pretty much entertain on their own."
Stripped-down renditions of "Rookoobay," "The Flower" and "Space Prophet Dogon" are as weird and wonderful as ever, but the bare-bones arrangements shed the ambiguity of their original versions. Where there was once chaos and absurdity, intimacy fills the blanks between the notes and the hidden comedic inflections in both voice and guitar.
These skeletal offerings from Sun City Girls' catalogue provide a fitting epitaph. And even though Gocher has left this world, his presence is felt in the Brothers' strange take on an already strange body of music.
"It was either do it this way or not at all," Alan says. "Gocher is still with us. He conjures himself up in some interesting ways. Blowing a fuse here or knocking over a guitar there. He's definitely along for the ride."