Interview: Justin Rice opens up about Bishop Allen’s new album ‘Lights Out’, moving Upstate, and designating a time frame to the muse.
The streets you know come to define you, especially if you’re Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, who lived in a house on Bishop Allen Dr. The two met in an English class during their sophomore year at Harvard, and have come a long way from making music in their dorms. In 2008, they were featured in the generational cult movie Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist which amassed them a sizable fan-base, but surprisingly enough, the band went on a hiatus after releasing their third studio album Grrr…, leaving fans to wonder if they’ll ever hear from them again. Five years later, Bishop Allen is finally back with a new “sad party record”.
When I spoke with Justin over the phone (after staying up the night before trying to remember the password to my YouTube account so I could take down my graduation montage set to “Click, Click, Click, Click“), he was humble, honest, and witty. I got the scoop on Lights Out and moving to Kingston (where “Start Again” was shot). We also talked about collecting vinyl and the return of the cassette.
Gauraa Shekhar: You guys have definitely moved around a lot. Starting in Cambridge, where you guys went to college, then Brooklyn, followed by the big move Upstate to Kingston in 2009. Would you say that each city you’ve lived in has influenced your sound?
Justin Rice: In addition to those places, we’ve also lived in Virginia and Austin. In each environment, there were different interactions with people and different ways musicians interacted with each other. In New York City, there were a million bands and it was an environment where everyone was just really competitive. As a band, you’re always trying to figure out how to be as good as you can be in order to stand out from all the other bands around. Whereas in Kingston, it’s a very cooperative environment and it’s easy to collaborate with people. I think those different relationships affect the way that you sound.
GS: I know in Syracuse, besides the random assortment of touring artists (ranging from EDM to jam bands to Aaron Carter), there’s quite a local scene. What is the music scene like in Kingston?
JR: There’s a place here called BSP—I don’t know how long it’s been open—we’ve lived in Kingston for maybe four years now and in the past year and a half to two years it’s grown into a really vibrant hub for local music here. Not only is it great for local bands, but it has also turned into a real stop for a lot of touring bands so there are good shows every night. It just always seems like a community supported space and a very engaged and active group of people show up to a lot of shows. It’s almost like a normal social event as opposed to in the City where there’s so much stuff going on that you’d only go to a show if you were really interested. In Kingston, people are more open and supportive of the space and bands that are playing here.
GS: Eight years ago, Bishop Allen recorded and released an EP every month for a year. You did the same thing with The Last Names—where you and your wife Darbie released one cover a week for a year. Would you say designating yourself a time frame is more effective when it comes to the creative process rather than sitting around waiting for a muse?
JR: Yes. For me, having a structure and a set of goals is definitely an effective way to write and record songs. When moments of inspiration come to you, you have to make sure to grab a bunch of them. You have to grab on to a song idea, a lyric idea, a melodic idea and somehow make a record of it whenever the “muse” speaks to you, but to actually take some sort of fleeting inspiration and turn into a finished product is a matter of sitting down with whatever thought you had and seeing it through. A good way is to sit down every day and work with the material that you have and grow it into a finished product. It’s nice because when you’re working on a daily basis, you’re basically taking the whole giant process of creating a record and turning it into a series of tiny, tiny decisions — it’s a lot easier to deal with than giant overall decisions.
GS: Were you working on Bishop Allen material simultaneously along with the Last Names and other projects?
JR: No, not really, which is part of why it took so long to put out this record. For me, it’s really hard to do two things at once. So it’s always like—focus on one thing and put it down, then focus on the next thing, then put it down.
GS: Rumor has it that Bishop Allen finished recording Lights Out last December. What led you guys to wait almost a year before releasing it?
JR: We finished recording it last September, and we finished mixing it around January and then we turned it into the label and they chose this release date for us. They have to schedule our release date—they have a lot of other releases that they’re dealing with and they don’t want to put them all out on once—there’s almost like a queue that you wait until it’s your turn. They already had releases scheduled all the way up until August basically on the day that we turned the record in.
GS: You guys originally started out without a label and/or publicist. What made you change your mind about the DIY aesthetic?
JR: I feel like we still do a lot ourselves—we’re very engaged in every single part of the process—from recording the music, mixing the music, releasing the music, making videos, all of the stuff—we’re still very hands on. That said, when we first started out, we didn’t have a choice. It’s not like you wake up one day and start a band and automatically get all of the support that you want—you have to earn it—go and tour and make people want to work with you. We worked on our own for so long that we found a way of doing it that we were really happy with—we weren’t actively seeking labels, but at some point in the middle of the EP project in 2006 that you mentioned, people started coming to us. We’d meet with most of them and we could tell that the relationship wouldn’t be perfect, and since we’re happy doing it on our own, we were planning to stay that way. Eventually the label that we did sign with, Dead Oceans, approached us, and the impression they made was different from any other label made—they were very forthright, very clear, had a good vision, and seemed to proceed from a simple common sense point of view, so it seemed like they would be good people to work with specifically. The reason why we signed with them was because they seem to be doing things right. Dead Oceans is a part of the whole group of labels—Dead Oceans, Secretly Canadian, and Jag Jaguwar—they’re doing great—they’re putting out great records and getting them out in a way that artists couldn’t do themselves. Finding a good relationship and knowing that the people you’re working with can help you exceed beyond what you’re doing on your own.
GS: Is there any other band on the label you can say you’re particularly a fan of?
JR: The last record that just came out on Dead Oceans—it just came out last Tuesday—Strand of Oaks—that record is amazing!
GS: Would you say the recording process is more laid back in Kingston than it is in Brooklyn?
JR: A lot of times, we’re just tinkering in the recording studio and whether that studio is in Kingston or in Brooklyn, it doesn’t really matter because it’s not like we’re booking studio time and hearing the pressure of a ticking clock. That being said, life up here in general is a little easier, so it does spill over into the recording process. For instance, when we’re in the middle of recording, and trying a bunch of stuff on computers, preamps and microphones, the process is kind of the same in both places. But when we take a break from that process here in Kingston, we stroll outside and we’re in the woods, and it’s more peaceful and much more relaxed.
GS: As former math majors, do you guys have a tendency to look at your music from a very technical standpoint—like focusing on cadences and all?
JR: Well, I was not the math major—Chris Rudder was; To me, though, there is a lot of mathematics in music—and a lot of songs on this record, for instance, have a lot of synthesizers on them—and synthesizers are all based on frequency modulations and sound wave forms. There’s a physics to taking two oscillating sine waves and running them through the parameters to make a sound wave that has the shape that you want. Definitely in learning how to use those synthesizers, there was an understanding of the physics of the sound—that’s very helpful in terms of being able to craft the actual sound.
GS: Lights Out has a very cool packaging—it’s a thoughtful collectible without being overpriced and gimmicky. The deluxe bundle pack comes with the CD, a white vinyl and a glow in the dark custom print poster (which definitely highlights the theme)—all under $23. What made you choose this layout rather than, say, pressing the album on vinyl mixed with blood and tying it together with custom art prints, like a lot of artists are doing these days?
JR: I feel like at this point there are a lot more people who are interested in vinyl as an artifact—as something that you can collect, and I think that the urge to collect is a little more pragmatic than it used to be—the idea of making something that’s really expensive appeals to a very, very small segment of people who can afford the luxury of buying it—it’s an approach that I understand. But we wanted to make a collectible item that’s really just accessible to everyone—that feels special and limited but what makes it limited is not necessarily the price point—it’s an easy collectible that you can reach and doesn’t feel insane. Part of that is, I think, that we want to make cool things that you can enjoy—like a cool poster on your wall? Great. But I just don’t feel precious about it—it’s not something that should be put in a museum.
GS: I know you’re vinyl collector yourself. What are a few of your most prized records?
JR: I would say, “Wanna Buy A Bridge?” which is a compilation of early Rough Trade singles. “No New York”, which I have on vinyl, which is the Brian Eno produced compilation of early no wave dance in New York. A lot of the records I have, I listen to them, love them, but I don’t set aside the most expensive, rarest records. I love Astrud Gilberto, but there are not that many records that she put out, but those are like the records I listen to all the time; or like every Bob Dylan record, but I don’t necessarily own the most premium, first edition unless I accidentally stumble on them. I collect records to listen to more than anything else. That said, those two records that I mentioned initially are pretty hard to find. They’re really, really good.
GS: A lot of the newer indie bands are now coming out with eight-track cassettes—what are your thoughts on that? Do you think cassettes are going to make a comeback too and hit—dare I say—the shelves of all the Urban Outfitter/Hot Topic stores?
JR: (Laughs) I doubt it. The thing about it is that an eight-track player is a hard thing to find. I think before they actually make a comeback, there has to be someone who decides to manufacture eight-track players. But it’s kind of the chicken-and-egg thing—I think that there are definitely downsides to the eight-track format that prevent it from lasting—I think it’s an outdated technology. Any tape format wears out faster than vinyl—you listen to it too many times and you’re degrading it till it eventually stretches out and it won’t last generations. Secondly, with an eight-track, there is a problem when it plays—you can’t fast forward. So if you have your favorite song on an eight-track on one side and you want to listen to it, you have to flip the tape and listen to the other side an equal amount so it rewinds the tape back, and then you can hear your favorite song again. It’s practically because you can’t choose your entry point—you’re forced to listen to it from A to B without having much control over basically where you drop the needle or where you skip to track-wise. It’s a really difficult format to actually listen to.
GS: Hey, as long as it looks good on your shelf, right?
JR: (Laughs) Hey, definitely, it’s cool. I’m not opposed to eight-tracks, I just don’t really see them coming back.
GS: A lot of the indie bands today have signed hefty sync deals with publishing companies. Would you guys consider trusting a company to place your songs in other media?
JR: I doubt it. I guess it would depend on the company and what offer it was, but it would really depend on the company as it’s hard to imagine giving away the rights of something that you create. It’s hard for me to picture that as a good idea. Historically, it’s been a bad idea for a lot of people. In the music industry, a lot of corporates took advantage of artists who didn’t understand that they were signing away their rights to songs and they turned those into giant mega corporations and left the actual creator. I mean, I obviously wouldn’t sign a deal like that but that is sort of the idea—you’re taking something that you’re creating and selling it to someone without ever knowing what the value of it might end up being. On an economic level, it might make more sense, but on a spiritual level, it doesn’t feel great to know that you no longer are in possession of the actual publishing of this thing you wrote and someone who doesn’t even write music is.
GS: “Click, Click, Click, Click” has been featured in a lot of movies. Did you have a say in all of that?
JR: Yeah! There is a company that handles licensing for us—Bank Robber Music—they handle licensing for thirty labels—hundreds and hundreds of bands. They try to pitch songs for placement in movies where they think they’ll be appropriate, but they’re always working with the artist they’re representing so they’ll check in and say, “hey, this TV show is interested in licensing your song—would you want to do it?”. It’s always done very knowingly with both sides being very, very clear about what it is that is going on.
GS: You’ve actually licensed that song for a Sony ad before. If you could pick an ad to have your new songs featured in, what would it be for?
JR: I feel like a lot of the times when you’re licensing your song for a commercial, it does lessen the value of your song. You usually do it out of necessity—it’s more about the money than the exposure. It’s a way to keep making what you make—also, most of the songs that I write, for instance, I don’t think they need to be protected—they’re not some sort of treasure that you hoard or put a moat around to make sure that you never diminish their value by licensing them to some corporation. But at the same time, I don’t know that there’s an ideal ad. There are terrible ads and then there are ads that are okay. The two places that I’ve seen have a cooler take on music and use it in ways that seem interesting and seem to actually appeal to me for instance are Volkswagen ads and Apple ads. They seem pretty smart about what they use and how they use it—but even then, it’s not that different.
GS: Yeah, the other day I just saw Elliott Smith being used in a diaper commercial and I was cringing as I was watching it.
JR: Anytime I feel like, “I can’t believe they’re using Elliott Smith to market diapers”, it’s also like, I’m the person in front of this TV being marketed to by this diaper commercial. It feels bad, but that’s part of the point, I guess.
GS: The release party for the new album will be held at Brooklyn venue Glasslands on August 21st. Any specific reason you guys chose to kick off with a 21+ show?
JR: No, we just wanted a venue we were happy with in New York City and I feel like 21+ in New York City is a different animal than 21+ in a lot of places because, honestly, if you want to get into the show, you can get in no matter what the age is.
GS: Actually, Glasslands happens to be one of the strictest venues in Brooklyn where age policy is concerned. They’ve been hosting a lot more 18+ shows this year, though.
JR: I wasn’t aware of that! Definitely, I’d like for all of our shows to not be 21+, and whenever possible, we try to make that happen but sometimes by mistake, or because of the lack of suitable options, we have to go with a 21+ show. I didn’t realize that 18+ shows were an option. Maybe I can look into it and see if we can get that changed. Thanks for letting me know!
GS: What can we tell our readers to look forward to in the upcoming album?
JR: I think the new record is kind of a little different from anything we’ve done before. This record was done altogether at once, so I think it’s rather coherent. Mood-wise, I think there’s a certain sadness to a lot of it, but it’s sort of a party record—it’s a sad party record.
GS: A sad party record?
JR: Yeah, in a good way. That sounds weird, but what I mean is that a lot of it is pretty upbeat and dance-y and it’s fun, but it acknowledges a certain sadness at its core. It’s a melancholic dace record I guess. Definitely, there are some different sounds—some synths that we had never explored before and I think that it’s kind of hard for me to pinpoint.
Lights Out will be out August 19th on Dead Oceans. Pre-order it here.