There are only a few bands that I feel I associate with my coming of age as an early, twenty-something adult in New York City. One of them is definitely Bishop Allen.
From the start, band founders Justin Rice and Christian Rudder rooted their sound in solid, hook-filled songwriting while filtering it through the indie, twee stylings trademark of the early aughts. As those genres grew and evolved though, bands had to find their footing along the way, some faltering, some finding even more substantial avenues for their music. After a significant hiatus, Bishop Allen’s proven that they fall soundly in the latter camp with their most recent release, Lights Out, allowing songwriting to take a front seat to stylistic choices.
We got a chance to check in with frontman + primary songwriter Justin Rice (above, second form the left) as they prepare to play Los Angeles. Read on to learn about the band’s evolution over the years, Justin’s view on the Web’s impact on music, and our mutual infatuation with obscure British 90s punk. And give a listen to literal album opener, “Start Again”.
raven + crow: So, first question’s gotta be one you’re fielding a lot lately—where have you guys been?
Justin Rice: From 2002 until 2009, we had extreme band momentum—every show was followed by another show, every tour by another tour, every album cycle by another album cycle. It was great, but there wasn’t much time for the ins and outs of daily life. So we took a year off. Turns out band momentum works the other way, too—a year off made us a body at rest, and one year quickly became three.
We reconvened, reassessed, gathered our strength, gave a big push, and started writing Lights Out two years ago. We finished it in December, it came out in August, and we’ve been back on the road gathering steam since then.
That strikes me as a pretty common thread that runs through bands who’ve come of age just as the whole industry was beginning to shift…but also, I fell like, just a manifestation of growing past your twenties and getting your shit together, whether you’re in a band or not. So, was the stepping away from Bishop Allen also a stepping away from music for most of you, or were you working on other musical projects independently too?
Darbie and I recorded songs as The Last Names. We put out an album—Wilderness—and released 40 covers in 2012. I scored two movies and a TV show, and helped record and mix songs for other bands, including a great Trummors record. Darbie started a line of jewelry and paper goods—Field Guide Design—which you can find at various boutiques, at craft fairs, and on Etsy. Christian sold the company he co-founded—OkCupid—and wrote a book called Dataclysm that came out a few weeks ago. Michael recorded and toured like crazy with Yellow Ostrich.
Okay, that’s a lot of information to process, but firstly—Bishop Allen Christian is that Christian‽ I had no idea.
Thanks! I’m a huge Trummors fan, and helping them with their record was a privilege and a great experience. We’re thrilled that they’re joining us for our West Cost shows, including the LA show at the Bootleg. It’s going to be fun. Also, we’ve got a night together in Big Sur, which feels like a real Trummors-esque place.
Oh, Big Sur is super-Trummors. We’re also really big fans of Yellow Ostrich—did an interview with Alex a little while ago about how great that most recent record is. And love Darbie’s work. In short, great job being excellent as not Bishop Allen, Bishop Allen.
Back on the whole issue of struggling to make a living off of music as life shifts around you, I guess it should be obvious, but it’s so much harder to make time for music—traditionally something that doesn’t pay that great for most of us—as we start getting older and, say, want spend our money on things other than instant ramen and gas money for a show two states away. But it’s kind of a bummer too, right? That that’s a reality?
I never got the memo about growing up. Making music is a definitely a struggle, and that struggle does indeed become more sharply defined as I get older, but I can’t imagine *not* doing it. It’s a strange compulsion, akin (and related to) toe-tapping—if you’ve got the nervous energy to do it, you find yourself compelled to no matter what. If the consequence is months of ramen, which it often is, then you can curse your impulses, but you can’t necessarily curb them. Writing a new song—making something from nothing—is a kick for me, and chasing that kick is ever deeper ingrained, and so I always find myself adjusting my life and my expectations to accommodate music. Damn the torpedoes!
That’s the best possible response to that question. You pass the test, Justin!
It seems like, for most of its existence, Bishop Allen’s always been a band that revolved around that initial partnership between you and Christian. Do you feel like that’s still mostly the case or has the band’s core grown beyond the two of you at this point?
Every record and every tour is a reinvention. For this record, Christian had less time to give than before—he was busy writing his book—but Darbie Nowatka and Michael Tapper contributed more. Darbie helped edit the lyrics and hone the songs; Michael helped not only with the drums, but with every aspect of the arrangements. We also enlisted Dave Lerner from Trummors, who played bass, and Matthew Cullen, a friend of ours from Kingston, who produced, mixed, and played a fair amount of guitar. So much of the work is done alone—writing, coming up with and refining parts, practicing—and we’ve never been a band that sits down altogether to jam things out. So, while there’s always a lot of participation and collaboration, it’s never quite the same people taking on the same roles.
That makes sense and seems like a natural way to positively evolve a band’s sound along with its circumstance. And yeah, it’s great to hear Michael had a lot of input on this record—we’ve always greatly admired his creativity as a drummer and—more generally—as a musician. His drum set in Yellow Ostrich is nuts, man.
Michael was a big part of making this record. We’ve been playing together for a while, and I imagine we’ll continue to do so for a long time. He’s awesome.
Here here! We’ve asked this a lot lately, but—not to harp on an issue—but what are your thoughts on how the music industry changed with this whole Internet thing?
I’ve never quite felt like a part of the music industry. Music has always been about working with close friends in little rooms, seeing what we can come up with that’s interesting and satisfying to us. The Internet has allowed us to get our music out there and to find willing ears despite the fact that we’ve never sought the blessing or imprimatur of any kind of executive or gatekeeper. We came of age with the Internet, and without it, it’s hard to imagine our music making it much further than the club on the corner.
I applaud your use of the word, ‘imprimatur’, sir. Do you think it’s helping or hurting creativity in music though? The Internet, not the word ‘imprimatur’.
The idea that you can make music that other people might hear helps inspire creativity, as does the ability to seek out cool songs from all over the place. That said, the amount of music out there and the constant, shifting chatter of endlessly new material can be overwhelming. There’s a lot to take in, and it’s easy to feel lost in the chaos. Some days it helps; some days it hurts.
Well-said. How about New York—am I correct in thinking I heard you all moved upstate recently?
We moved 100 miles North of New York City to Kingston, a rough-and-tumble town on the banks of the Hudson and at the feet of the Catskills, four years ago.
How do you like it up there?
It’s great up here. There are a lot of cool neighborhoods—ours is all stately-yet-shambolic Victorians—and tons of artists and musicians. I actually know more musicians now than I did in Brooklyn. It’s a little underpopulated, and there’s a raw potential that’s exciting and inspiring. We can also hike amazing trails, go canoeing, tubing, or flyfishing, and buy fruit and vegetables right from the farm.
Christ. And to think I moved all the way to California for that shit. Do you miss Brooklyn at all?
When we moved here, we were worried we’d fall off the map—New York City felt like the center of the world, and when we left we were concerned we’d end up isolated and alone. A few months after moving here, we realized that fear was unfounded. We’re so much more productive, and we’ve met so many great people, and though Brooklyn is still a quick train ride away, we find ourselves heading down there less and less. Honestly, I don’t even think about Brooklyn that much anymore.
Man, if you haven’t already, you should read Goodbye to All That. It’s this anthology of writers who lived in, loved, and left New York City and what you just said strikes me as so that book. I just feel like—especially in the past few years—we’ve seen a lot of change in NYC and Brooklyn. There’s been such a dramatic shift in the economics that’s become so much harder to ignore. Do you think it’s gotten harder to live there recently? Or we all just getting old?
It’s definitely getting more and more expensive to live in Brooklyn. When I do visit the neighborhoods I lived in during my ten-year stint there, they’re almost unrecognizable—our old practice space, for instance, is now million-dollar doorman condos. And places where I once sought refuge are dressed-up, developed, and incredibly crowded. There are a lot of reasons—the rezoning of the waterfront in North Brooklyn, the creation of the water taxi, the waves of development that follow artists’ reclamation of dead industrial spaces—and they’ve all combined to create a really high rate of change. It’s not just us getting older—whole neighborhoods have been rewritten dollar by dollar. I’ve noticed the same thing happening on other tour stops—Fishtown in Philly, for instance—but in Brooklyn, it’s extreme.
It makes me sad, in one sense, but what makes me more…just worried is that kind of thing spreading to all of the urban centers in America. I feel like American cities are going to be exclusive to the über-rich in ten years or something. We’re going Hunger Games, people!
Back to you though, you recorded your forthcoming album, Lights Out, upstate too, right? Do you feel like that had an impact on the writing or the sound of the album?
We recorded Lights Out in our attic studio, and mixed it in Matthew Cullen’s studio a few blocks away. The record was written and recorded after our move here, and thematically and sonically, it was heavily influenced by our new digs. A lot of the record is about what it means to move on, and about what you can discover by committing to a change. Some of the songs are metaphors, but those metaphors are also literal: “Why I Had To Go” is about why we left New York City, for instance. We also took advantage of musicians we met here in town, and their contributions really shaped the sound.
Where does the album title come from?
We had a giant list of possible titles. We liked the ring of Full Moon Fever, the Tom Petty record, and Deserter’s Songs, the Mercury Rev record (Mercury Rev also live in Kingston), and we wanted something that had a sense of longing, transition, and abandon. Lights Out is a moment of change, and it can either connote bed time or party time—an ambivalence that seemed appropriate.
I like it. We really, really love “Why I Had to Go”. It got us excited to hear the rest of the album when we first heard it. What’s with the video? It’s really fun, but any deeper meaning there? I know Dave + Anne (Trummors) are featured in there—was it basically just a bunch of friends getting together and having fun?
The video features everyone who worked on the record plus a bunch of our friends in and around town hula-hooping in slow motion. Not only did hula-hooping seem to enact the lyrics of the song — it’s “an endless repetition of an action” — but it gave people an all-consuming task that made them unselfconscious in front of the camera. We were hoping to get natural expressions of innate character, and to show the humanity that comes out in commonplace activity. It’s like dancing, but with a giant hoop to distract you.
I think it read that on the original hula-hoop packaging. Are there any other great new bands that you’ve been listening to a lot lately?
Holy fuck, dude. I loved The Yummy Fur. I still have “Hong Kong in Stereo” in one of my regular playlists. Those guys were awesome and you’re so right about Parquet Courts filling their shakily awesome shoes. We have to hang out and talk about them and Milky Wimpshake and Pussycat Trash and Huggy Bear all night next Tuesday.
How’s the tour going so far?
We just finished the first three-week leg of our US tour, and we’re about to embark on the second. So far, so good—it’s been great to get out there, stretch our legs, see the country again, reconnect with friends and fans. There’s a rhythm to touring that’s mesmerizing, and, though it does wear you out after a while, it’s also very satisfying and very soothing. You’re with a group of people, and your lives are intertwined, and if you get along, which we do, it’s a great opportunity for camaraderie. Good time and great oldies. And audiobooks.
Mmm, John Grisham reading John Grisham. Well, we’re really looking forward to next week’s show at the Bootleg. We really like that venue and can’t to see you all live again.
Thanks! We’re really looking forward to it, too. LA is an amazing place, and we’ve heard great things about the Bootleg.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can get tickets to Bishop Allen’s show with the oft-mentioned, awesome Trummors next Tuesday at the Bootleg; rest of America, check your local listings. World—get their new album, Lights Out, via iTunes or digitally or in physical form via SC Distribution.