Justin Rice of the beloved indie pop band talks about their first album in five years, 'Lights Out,' Joan Didion, and his punk roots.
Photos by Matt Petricone
Bishop Allen was a band born out of boredom. In the post-college blues stage of their lives, Justin Rice and Christian Rudder began fiddling with a FourTrack in their living room. Suddenly, the divide between their songs and those of actual musicians didn't seem so wide, and they wholeheartedly leapt into making unrepentant twee indie pop. Before long, the duo had a debut record, a monstrous year-long project of releasing an EP a month—and suddenly—a record deal with fledgling label Dead Oceans. A string of three successful records left them at the height of their appeal in 2009—and then they kind of dropped off the face of the earth
Cut to five years later, and twee has fallen heavily out of favor with the mainstream. Where once indie pop sounded new and thrived on the power of bedroom bloggers, mainstream, professional publications and conglomerate record label machinations have now beat the genre to death. Still, Bishop Allen's newest record Lights Out, which is out August 19 on Dead Oceans, feels like a time capsule of sorts. It leans more on the synth side of things than their earlier, acoustic-based work, but the conversation songwriting and instant, snappy appeal remains.
Just listen to "Why I Had To Go," the album's second single that Noisey is premiering below for a taste of effortless, nostalgia-laced pop. There's not a trace of EDM, ennui or belabored stylizing on the record—a rarity for a 2014 pop release of any nature. So what the hell have they been doing in the half a decade that they've been on hiatus? And why come back now? I spoke with Justin Rice, who called from his new digs upstate—Kingston, New York specifically—to unravel the story of the band's new record, as well as to talk about Joan Didion, the B52s, and his old punk band, the Pissed Officers.
Where have you been? What's the story behind the five year gap?
We meant for it to only be a year because we needed to pause for a minute. Once you start getting momentum going us a band every next step seemed really inevitable. It's great to have that momentum and it's what you need, but it also makes it hard to focus on anything else in your life. You're always cloistered somewhere trying to write new songs when you're not on tour. The problem now that I realize is that if you do stop that cycle you kill your own momentum and it's really hard to get shit going again.
But you used that time to focus on more personal elements in your life?
In that time, Darbie (Nowatka now Rice) who is also in the band and I got married, and we moved from Brooklyn to Upstate New York. Christian had a daughter and sold a company that he started and wrote a book that's coming out in September. I also did soundtracks for several movies. When you take that time off, the other stuff comes in, and then that stuff starts to have momentum. In order to get this band started again, it really took a deliberate choice to stop doing other stuff so I could start doing this again.
Today we're premiering the track "Why I Had To Go," and that song seems to touch on some of what you're talking about.
Yes, this was my experiment in Ableton Live. It's a great songwriting tool because it doesn't sync linearly, and it loops instantaneously. I was just learning how to use that program, layering melodies on top of each other. But then one day, I took the train from Kingston down to New York City, and I had the instrumental melody in my head. I was thinking about what it meant to me to go back, and all the words started to come. I got off the train at Grand Central, walked over to Bryant Park, and sat there for the next five hours scribbling lyrics in my notebook.
It's very literally a song about coming and going from New York City, but it's also about what it feels like to be a little bit older and look back—the ambivalence that you feel. How you sort of cherish these moments that you had but also feel a certain amount of nostalgia and you cringe a bit. You want to go back to the city and you want to see all the people that grew up with, but you also sort of don't. You're sort of happy that you don't have to live that anymore.
There was this period in the early 2000s when you guys started off, in which indie pop, twee and folk were super popular and simultaneously critically-acclaimed. Now, it seems like a lot of these bands are written off, have you noticed this shift or backlash?
Of course I read my own press, but I have to take the long view of things. I want to say that I don't read our press because that's a really healthy thing to say and do. You don't write the music hoping that you'll cash in on a moment or get critical acclaim. You write it because you have these thoughts that make sense as songs. And you sit down and work them out until through their own internal logic they turned into whatever they turn into.
Of course it's devastating when you feel a shift, like 'oh we're maligned more than acclaimed at this point.' But at this point, I have so little perspective on anything. I've kind of been sitting still for five years. I also feel like when it was happening some people were really into it, but there were always people who thought it was total garbage.
Before you had this indie pop sound though, you and Christian were in a punk band right?
We technically met in English 10A at Harvard, but we really became friends through running into each other at a Jawbreaker show. We bonded over our mutual love for The Misfits and Black Flag and stuff like that. So we started a punk band together called the Pissed Officers. It was a little insane. We thought we were playing anthemic rock like Stiff Little Fingers or something. But we just played every song as fast as we could. And we had a really athletic drummer, so our set was so fast—I'm talking 17 songs in seven minutes. They were just these really short bursts of white noise. Like one song was called "Be Nice to Bikes." We thought it was forthright, funny and catchy, and it turned out it just sounded like "BLERHG."
Is that why you switched to another sound and went into an indie pop direction? Did you feel like the lyrics and meanings were getting lost?
No, no. Nothing was ever conscious. When we met each other we were just doing things totally intuitively. Years later, we were living together and both had jobs. In our free time, we would sit in our living room of our apartment and just record. Eventually, Bishop Allen came together because we were fooling around with this FourTrack. We started recording tons of songs, and maybe two or three of them when we listened back seemed like an actual band people would listen to. And that was exciting!
What else inspires you musically speaking? What are some bands that you've been listening to lately, old or new?
For artists that I always listen to and come back to there's Talking Heads, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac. I also really like Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. But there's a lot of new bands that I really like. I just got this Hospitality record, and it's great. And this record that just came out on Dead Oceans, Strand of Oaks is really really good. Lately I also listened to every B52 song, and I got really into the B52 record Whammy.
How do you think this album compares to your earlier work? Is it a continuation for you or a shift?
I feel like it's a lot different. A lot of the textures we used in the past were acoustic and derived from folk music. On this one, the palette we used sonically was electrified and included a lot of synths. I feel like it's always been informative to make a record to understand an instrument, so that logic that led us to make it was the same, but the actual palette was different. There's usually some idea of what the spirit behind the record is, and for this one it was meant to be conversational and to remove affect. I wanted to have a really direct engagement with lyrics and vocal delivery so that it felt like you were talking to someone you know. I wanted to capture that tone that a lot of great American essayists have. Like Joan Didion has that tone. It's not fussy, and it has insights, but you can share in them.
Caitlin is also a fan of Joan Didion, particularly "On Self-Respect." She's on Twitter - @harmonicait
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