Bishop Allen has been growing up, by our side or right in front of us, for fourteen years. There Justin Rice and Christian Rudder were on the cover of Charm School in 2003, their hair in a post-collegiate hangover, dressed for young adulthood in a blazer and tie. Three years later, they would record and release an EP every month, the kind of ambitious idea that seems just crazy enough to work in your late 20s – and one that was way ahead of its time in 2006. The band’s winking power pop songs were a snapshot of a time and age in Brooklyn: drinking on roofs, taking the Chinatown bus out of town, attending a friend of friend’s weddings and not knowing another soul.
And on “Why I Had to Go” – the second track from the band’s recently released Lights Out – Rice lays out exactly why he turned the page on that chapter of his life. “We were clever then / We talked forever then / And the night of our invention it would never end,” he sings of those seemingly halcyon days, and hey, haven’t we all felt impossibly smart and invincible? But we get older and shitty apartments feel smaller and the realities of urban renewal sink in and you begin to wonder how you ever went to happy hour every night of the week: “It is a narrowing / It is a shrinking / And there’s a danger of overthinking / It was everybody getting tired of drinking every night / There was a little left to believe in / Which is how I really knew I should be leaving.”
Where Rice and his wife (and Bishop Allen bandmate) Darbie Nowatka left for was Kingston, a scenic town nestled in upstate New York’s Catskills. That’s where I find Rice at end of July, reaching him at his Kingston home and catching him short of breath after running a flight of stairs to answer his phone. #SuburbanProblems.
Its was Kingston that Rice wrote Lights Out, the band’s fourth record and one that follows a full five years and change after its last effort, Grrr… Rice filled that time soundtracking movies, and in a nod to his earlier ambitiously structured project, launched The Last Names, which found him and Nowatka recording and releasing a new cover every week for a year.
“How long do you have to hammer the nail before you finally figure out if you’ve succeeded or failed?”Rice asks on Lights Out track “Hammer and Nail”. It’s, again, the kind of introspective question that comes with age, and one that’s ultimately rhetorical. But speaking with Rice, he sound much more comfortable in how life has played out, especially the decision to move ninety miles north of the big city. “It was totally luck of the draw,” he says. “We trusted our instincts, and for once it paid off.”
How would describe your life in Kingston?
We moved here just over four years ago, and we moved because we had lived in New York City – in Greenpoint, Brooklyn – for ten years, and in the same apartment for seven of them. At a certain point, we sort of outgrew it, and our landlords were getting nosier, and there just wasn’t enough forward motion in life. We felt like we really needed to move. But when we were looking around in Brooklyn, there was nothing affordable, and we realized that there was nothing keeping us there. We’d always come up to the Catskills area whenever we got out of the city, so we started looking at houses here, and it turns out that you can afford to buy something cheaper than you rent in Brooklyn.
We picked Kingston because it’s actually where it’s the cheapest. It’s sort of like a gritty, tiny city. It’s in the midst of all of the natural beauty of the Catskills and the Hudson Valley, but it’s still has kind of neighborhoods. There are a lot of artists. It feels kind of under-populated and underdeveloped – in a cool way. But when we moved, we were like, “Who knows? I don’t if there will be anyone that we end up making friends with. We’ll just give it a shot. Roll the dice. Cut the strings.” We didn’t know what to expect. But it became immediately apparent that the pace of life here is great, and that there are tons of people around that are doing awesome, interesting things.
My daily life up here surprisingly not only involves nature walks and enjoying the river and the mountains that are nearby and the swimming holes in the summer, but there are also a lot of musicians and a lot of shows. There are a lot of artists. We have this house. We have guests. We work on music. We walk down the street to our friend’s gallery – we hang out with them and go to shows. It’s weird – it’s a very manageable pace and a manageable size, but there’s also an insane amount of stuff going on.
Was the video for “Start Again” intended to give a peak into that new life?
That was the exact idea. Taking a while off and not putting music out into the world as a band, it felt important to share a glimpse into what our lives look like now, which is different than what they were the last time that we put out music. Part of it was also: Here’s this town that we’ve discovered, and it has this geography that is innate to our everyday lives but is still aesthetically interesting. The idea of tracing a map through our daily experience and having it be the actual places that we go and the actual streets that we walk down was part of the idea. We wanted to share this personal moment of reemergence, starting from where we’re coming from in the most literal way.
Did you miss Bishop Allen during the hiatus?
Absolutely. When we ended the last tour that we went on, we definitely were like, “Ok, we’ve sort of been putting one foot in front of the other for several years, and at this point it would be good to pause for a minute and look around and do something else with life.” When you’re really putting out records and touring, it becomes all consuming, so it was necessary to stop, but it became clear to me very quickly that after a year of taking a break, I missed very specifically the music that we make and the people that we play for and everyone that we play with. But once you pause, it does take a while to ramp back up.
I missed doing Bishop Allen stuff, so as soon I as could, I got back to it. But, weirdly, one year of intentional time off turned into five. Once you pause, all those things that normally happen very quickly take longer. You have to get that momentum back.
Were you always sure that Bishop Allen was something that you would come back to?
I always thought I would. It’s a very natural thing for me to do. It definitely exercises a part of my brain that I like, and we’ve always had good relationships with everyone that we’ve worked with. We’ve worked with great people – not just within the band, but booking agents and the label and all that stuff. It’s always been such a positive experience that I always imagined it continuing.
Did stepping out of the traditional cycle free you up from some expectations? Do you think that the lack of a looming deadline affected the music that you made?
There was no deadline, because it had already taken so long to get it going. It doesn’t really matter if it comes out four and a half years later or five years later. When you’re in the thick of it, six months can be a big deal. So, definitely, it allowed us to relax and take time doing it, and that’s probably why it took a little bit longer to make this record. The great thing about it is that it allowed us to experiment a lot more with the arrangements, and to try instruments that we had never tried, and to approach songs where we had never really approached them.
What’s important when you take time off isn’t the timeliness of the release – a record has to feel worthy of the time that you haven’t spent doing it. You want to take a second and make sure that you have it the way that you want.
You mentioned new approaches and instrumentation. There’s a greater incorporation of synths, and more movement that comes along with them. What was driving that? Were there any preconceptions about what Bishop Allen was that you had to get past?
I think the palate is definitely more synth driven, and less acoustic. It comes from more ‘70s and ‘80s music, and less from folk traditions. There are more keyed instruments and fewer stringed instruments. A couple of things drove us there.
One, whenever you’re making a record, there’s not some platonic or absolute idea of what the record is. It’s what you’re feeling at that moment. It’s a documentation of a moment in time that you’re living in. Obviously what you’re listening to at that time has an impact on what you end up wanting to make. And I think, definitely, some of the records that we happen to be listening at that time, what felt good to us – which were not necessarily contemporary records – used that palate. There’s a great energy to a lot of B-52s and Talking Heads and Sparks records. Those are the records that we happened to have been into.
And the second thing that helped us make that choice – it’s always instructive when you’re starting to write songs to sit down with an instrument that you’re not familiar with and learn it, especially if you’re driven to it by natural curiosity. In the past, we’d started with guitars, and then we went through a phase where we wrote a bunch of songs because I was learning how to play the piano. This time, right around the time that we were about to put out the record, Korg reissued the MS-20, which is a ‘70s analog synth that’s really basic. It’s a great starter. It’s got two oscillators, and you can control all of these different parameters, and you can route the signal through all of these different patches. It also has this cool growly, visceral, gutsy sound. Getting that piece of equipment and playing around with also drove us towards making the record that we did.
In terms of choosing a palate that’s slightly different than what we chose before, like I said, I think often times the songs that we write are driven by curiosity about some instrument, and it’s a good way to unlock new potential for your brain to think about songs – to work through songs in a different order than you have before, which leads you down different paths. And having this much time off, it doesn’t feel like you need to come back sounding exactly like you sounded before you paused. In fact, whatever happens, you don’t want to be an older version of what we were. You want to be something slightly different.
Is there anything you learned or picked up from Last Names covers project? I would imagine that sort of breaking down songs, looking under the hood at its mechanics, could have an effect on how you approach your own songs.
It’s exactly what you’re saying. When you listen to a song and you experience it as a whole, the song works for you or it doesn’t work for you, but that’s the finished product. The mechanics of how it affects you or how it ends up functioning, why it’s good or bad, you don’t really understand until you open the hood and start to look at how the components work together to create the whole. Doing the covers was a process every week of breaking a song down, and often times it was suprising. You’d realize, “Oh, this song that I love so much only has one chord progression the entire time, and the verse and the chorus just go over it.” You’ll find simplicity in things. Or you’ll find songs that seem really simple on listen, but you sit down and realize that there are these intricate parts and time signatures that change that you didn’t realize, or a bridge is out of key. So not only do you see the actual tricks and methods that somebody uses, but you see how they work to create the whole. I would say that it was incredibly instructive to sit down and figure how someone actually puts a song together. It’s interesting because I feel like that’s how folk music always works. You would learn a canon of songs. I never did that. I never went through that journeyman process. So, [the covers project] was a self-directed attempt to learn in that way. It changes the way you look at songs.
A good slice of the songs came from the late 50s and 60s – the Shirelles, Dion, the Everly Brothers. Is that an era of music that you’re drawn to?
I love all of that stuff. They’re amazing pop songs that have real yearning to them. I think part of the reason that we ended up picking those songs is that there’s an oldies station up here, and it’s one of the only stations to listen to. But it’s cool, because it doesn’t play only the hits. It delves into b-sides, and a lot of the songs they play I’ve never heard before. When you hear songs from that era that you’ve never heard before, you realize how imaginative they are, and a lot of them have a really cool ambiance. There’s something direct and honest and conversational about them. It’s not a put on. There’s this true yearning that existed in songwriters of that era that I really relate to.
There’s a conversational and direct quality to songs on Lights Out.
Yeah, definitely. The idea that I had in mind when I was writing lyrics and doing vocals was to eliminate affect and try to be conversational. Also, just in singing it, in the past there were songs that we’ve recorded that I feel like have emotional content that I would try to convey through vocalization – you know, singing with emotion. This time around, I was like, “I don’t want it to be about conveying emotion through vocals. That can feel like a put on.” In a more positive way, what I wanted was for it to feel totally conversational – like the vernacular American back and forth, and not to be overwrought. It was very deliberate.
What’s the story behind the photo on the cover?
We were trying to figure out what we wanted the record cover to be, and we were staying at our friend Janet’s apartment in Brooklyn, and that was a photo on her fridge. We pulled it down and were like, “What is this?” It was her, from her senior skate night in 1991 in Chico, California. It just has the perfect vibe of what we wanted. It’s these young, teenage girls – seniors in high school – and they’re just going wild and dancing with total abandon. It’s in this void, lit by a flash. It’s just this roller rink in Chico – it’s not the center of the world. It’s not Studio 54. But it doesn’t matter. Even though they’re in this void, there energy and abandon was exactly what we were hoping to get across. And we literally just found it sitting on her fridge.