The Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop Goes To The Movies

andybeta | May 23, 2008 10:00 am

Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he talks to fellow film-music obsessive Alan Bishop about Ennio Morricone, underheralded score composers, and the work his group the Sun City Girls did on Harmony Korine’s latest movie, Mister Lonely:

Late last year, two head-scratching, ear-gouging soundtracks from the massive back catalog of the Sun City Girls, Dulce and Piasa, were reissued on CD, shedding light on the Seattle trio’s long-held obsession with film and film music. Scanning the band’s Web site reveals a soundtrack section featuring surefire drive-in classic titles like Guns of El Chupacabra, Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise, and a few short films that have either never been released or have quickly disappeared into the arthouse ether. (The entry for Karen Young’s 1995 short The Pesky Suitor notes that young actress Claire Danes makes her film debut to the strains of The Girls’ “Space Prophet Dogon,” from the epochal and out of print Torch of the Mystics.)

This spring, along with separate cues and contributions from Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman, The Sun City Girls recorded a soundtrack for enfant terrible Harmony Korine’s latest film, Mister Lonely. Released by Drag City, the soundtrack bolsters an oddball story about a community of celebrity impersonators (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Shirley Temple, Charlie Chaplin, etc.), skydiving nuns, and the other inscrutables that always comprise a Korine joint. With such an excuse, how could we not talk to the Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop about working with Korine, and about the Maestro himself, Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone?

Q: With Sublime Frequencies curation and whatnot, it always slips my mind that you are an Ennio Morricone fiend of the highest order, having curated the Crime & Dissonance set that Ipecac released a few years back.

A: My Italian soundtrack collection, I’m always re-revising that and doing comps. The last two days, up until you called, I was backing up my Morricone stuff so that I can go through it again. There’s a possibility that Ipecac will want to do another Crime & Dissonance set. There are a lot of unreleased things in his back catalog, especially in the ’60s, a ton of stuff that hasn’t been heard.

Q: What movie turned you onto the Maestro in the first place?

A: As it must have been for many my age, it was The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. I was eight or nine years old when I saw it for the first time and it was a combination of the music, the actors, and the film. I was hooked for life.

Q: Can you recall your physical reaction to his music?

A: No, not really, that was 40 years ago. It took over my mind for a while… at first it was all those Leone western themes. …When I heard them, I felt immortal. They embodied “music as a talisman” for me. Music as a psychological, mental, spiritual, and physical weapon. They still work that way for me.

Q: Is it even possible to grasp the full breadth of Morricone and what he’s done over the last half-century?

A: I’m a lot closer than most, but only the Maestro himself knows the whole deal. Many people have no idea that, along with scoring films, he spent the first half of the ’60s composing, arranging, and conducting hundreds of songs for the most famous Italian pop singers of the period like Gianni Morandi, Rita, Christy, Gino Paoli, Mina, Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka–the list goes on and on. And his arrangements for them are off the scale and much more advanced and maverick than what was happening elsewhere at the time.

Some have called him the father of the modern pop arrangement. No one was more clever at arranging pop songs than Morricone from 1962-1966. Most of those tracks are extremely hard to find (which you’d have to hear to see what I mean), but some have been reissued on BMG Japanese CD box sets–others are probably available on Italian ’60s CD comps you could still find in Italy, but they don’t always list Morricone as the arranger/composer/conductor on the inserts. Throw in his 400-plus soundtrack scores for film and TV, his improv/experimental work, chamber music, and concert music, and you’ve got an endless research project staring you in the face.

Q: I am going to presume that he is your favorite soundtrack composer, but who are some others that you like?

A: Other Italian composers from the ’60s/’70s including Piccioni, Nicolai, Ferrio, Travajoli, Alessandroni, Bacalov, Umiliani, Cipriani, to name a few. John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Francis Lai, Asei Kobayashi, the great film composers from India, so many others. Bernard Herrmann is amazing.

Q: Who is the most underappreciated of the set?

A: Most soundtrack composers I’ve ever been interested in are supremely underappreciated. Many are still relatively unknown today. Their names get thrown around a lot as references and influences, but only a tiny fraction of each composer’s body of work is accessible, and the rest very few have heard. How many people really collect and know soundtrack music the same way they’d know pop or rock music, or even jazz? Not very many. So really, it’s a question of who’s the most underappreciated of the already underappreciated world of soundtrack composers. And that list is a long one.

Q: The past few SCG CD reissues have been soundtracks, like Dulce and Piasa, but they are somewhat imaginary soundtracks, in that-as the liner notes say–there is no longer any extant film for them. How crucial then is it for the music to offer conveyance of its own, made for images yet separate from them?

A: Absolutely crucial. Many films suck, but the music is brilliant. There is always the possibility that music created separately from the images can work as well or better than music which was made specifically for the images. There are many variables involved in the process and the decisions are ultimately in the hands of the filmmaker, not the composer or musician.

Q: Stemming from the above quote, I’m curious as to how you approached work on Mister Lonely. Were the Sun City Girls contributions to the soundtrack created in conjunction with the film’s images? Or did you guys just play separately and then had it melded together by Korine?

A: We worked on material by reading the script, asking Harmony for some basic ideas/ moods he was aiming for, and without seeing any images. Then later, we composed a few short cues for clips he sent to us he was having some trouble with musically.

Q: What is your favorite scene of the film?

A: There are many. “The Pope stinks” scene, the skydiving nuns, and the slow-motion Marilyn scene are all great.

Q: How did this experience differ from working on Korine’s film about David Blaine (for BBC2)? Didn’t you guys contribute to that short film as well?

A: On the Blaine film, he merely chose an already existing SCG track for his intro cue.

Q: Those strains of Bobby Vinton’s elegiac “Mister Lonely” are haunting and evocative, and on the soundtrack, you guys do a gorgeous instrumental take on the song with longtime collaborator Eyvind Kang. Did the Bobby Vinton cover stem from Korine originally or from your end?

A: Harmony wanted us to try “Mister Lonely” in case he couldn’t get the original, or as an experiment. We did several takes of miscellaneous instrumentation and vocals. We even had Herb Diamante sing lead on the main vocal version–it came out great and Herb will be using that version on his new record.

But Harmony ended up getting the original Vinton song after all, and who can blame him? The Polish prince must be sitting on a beach somewhere thinking to himself: “David Lynch… Harmony Korine… American directors title their films after my songs!”

Crime & Dissonance [Ipecac Records]Mister Lonely – Trailer [YouTube]