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TGH interviews Bishop Allen's Justin Rice!

I told you a surprise was coming, and this is it. The interview occurred over a sequence of e-mails - I had hoped that would be easier for Justin to do while Bishop Allen finished its summer tour, but the opposite turned out to be true.

Some background: Bishop Allen began with Justin Rice and Christian Rudder’s friendship at Harvard, and the band is named after the street they lived on there, Bishop Allen Drive. After college, Justin and Christian moved to New York City (where they are currently based out of), recording their debut album Charm School (2003) after recording it themselves. In 2006 they self-released an EP every month, and this year Bishop Allen signed to Dead Oceans. In July, the band released an album mostly made up of songs from the EP series called the Broken String. Justin informed me that he, Cully, and Giorgio are Texas natives, all from different cities; Darbie is from New Jersey and Christian is from Cleveland, Ohio (yeah Ohio!) but has also lived in Mexico City and Arkansas. Bishop Allen’s current line-up is its third, but this group has been together since at least the beginning of the 2006 EP series.

TGH: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

Justin: I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I remember my Dad standing in front of the mirror shaving, belting out Otis Redding songs loud as an opera singer. I lived on the Led Zeppelin box set when it first came out, and I found an R.E.M. record, Eponymous, when I was in fifth grade. In high school, I started listening to Fugazi, and, from there, I moved to Minor Threat and all things Dischord Records-related. When I met Christian, it was right around Halloween, and he was in a one-night-only Misfits cover band. He had carved "Misfits" in his dorm-room door. We were college radio station DJs together. We did a show at three in the morning, playing all kinds of obscure punk records. The Clash, sure, but also the Dils, the Dickies, Eater, The Sick Things. The first underground pop record I fell in love with was Night Club by the Yummy Fur. I walked around singing to myself in a Scottish accent for a year.

TGH: I know your songwriting process with Christian Rudder is innately collaborative but that one could roughly say that, of the two of you, you’re the lyricist. What would you say your half of the process is like?

Justin: Not every song evolves the same way. Some arrive pretty well formed; others we build piece by piece. In general, the lyrics begin with a simple experience or observation, with something I find strangely compelling. "Chinatown Bus," for instance, started when I saw a butcher's knives in Shanghai whose handles hand worn into permanent hand prints. "The Monitor" started when I realized that the Continental Ironworks, where shipwrights clad the U.S.S. Monitor in armor, was a block from my apartment. I then try to figure out why that experience or observation interests me. It's kind of like writing an essay because it's about unraveling a thought to understand its constituent parts. It's also kind of like doing a crossword because the parameters defined by melody, rhyme, and meter tend to be fairly definite, and so I spend a lot of time trying to find the right word or phrase. It takes a while to finish the words to a song, and a lot of it is slogging through possibilities. There is one thing that I think is important to me: I need to write something every day.

TGH: What did you do work-wise before you started Bishop Allen? “Middle Management” would indicate a certain familiarity with white-collar office jobs. I remember reading that Christian was involved with the company that came to make spark notes somehow.

Justin: Christian wrote pretty much everything on, which was a Truly funny website. He also helped design all the tests you could take -- personality profilers and whatnot -- which meant a lot of time in an office working out back-end kinks in fairly complicated programs. In the first six months after graduating from college, I worked seven jobs, all at websites, all copy editing. The internet boom was about to bust, and everyone I knew worked in a weird office somewhere. Most everyone I know could see through the ugly optimism that whitewashed the workplace. Unlike thespark, which was actually wonderful, and which Barnes and Noble ending up buying out, everywhere I worked, and everywhere most everyone I knew worked, was clearly doomed to failure. In the end, I landed a job working for Errol Morris, an amazing documentary filmmaker, which eventually morphed into a job as a one-man, traveling-to-find-random-people-for-commercials kind of thing, which I still do a bit to this day.

TGH: Songs such as “Like Castanets” and “The Chinatown Bus” would indicate you’ve traveled a bit as well. Any influences there?

Justin: We've played all over the U.S. a bunch of times, and we're about to do another lap with John Vanderslice in September and October. We've also played in Sweden, and we're going to Europe in November. I also travel alone a lot, which is a good thing to do if you're trying to write songs. When I'm in an unfamiliar place and there's no one to talk to, the voice in my head starts to chatter incessantly, and writing things down is one of the only ways to deal with the odd combination of isolation and internal verbal torrent. "Like Castanets" is about a trip I took to Santiago, Chile for a film festival. I've worked on a lot of TV commercials doing research and "real people" casting for a production company, and I ended up wandering around all over with a video camera talking to strangers. I've been to Tokyo, Sydney, the Moroccan desert, and the West Texas oil fields. Once, on a flight from Paris to Shanghai, two stowaways fell from the wheel wells when the landing gear dropped. I read about it in the paper the next day. They fell through a woman's roof while she was cooking breakfast for her family. They were frozen solid.

TGH: Historical events seem to figure prominently into a lot of your songs, “The Same Fire,” “Don Christopher,” and “Abe Lincoln” being fairly obvious ones.

Justin: I think history's pretty interesting. I especially like it when I can superimpose some historical picture over the present. You can stand in the Lower East Side and picture Bowery B'hoys and Dead Rabbits running blind tigers in old Five Points while some dirty Tammany Hall politician delivers a sack of money to a back-room brothel for Boss Tweed. I don't care as much about historical accuracy as I do about historical imagination. There are a lot of great colors in history, and I've always liked digging in the archives. "Don Christopher," for instance, was inspired by the introduction to Frankenstein, where Mary Shelley mentions, while describing how she wrote the book on something like a dare, "the familiar story of Columbus and his egg." I had never heard the story of Columbus and his egg, but I liked the sound of it, so I looked it up.

Bishop Allen - The History of Excuses
(this song is the one that references Boss Tweed)

TGH: How did you pick which songs from the EPs to put on the album? Did you have any unifying idea you used to pick which songs to put on?

Justin: We started with the songs we liked best. Then we picked songs we thought we could change and grow with a little more time in the studio. Then we filled in with songs that we thought would round out the record. At the beginning of recording the album, we were working with sixteen songs, which we winnowed away based on how things were sounding. Recording is a process of making millions of minute decisions. They all add up to make a record, but it's hard to account for them in an overall way.

TGH: You went into the studio to essentially re-record songs fans already had heard and knew. Did you have any specific vision of how you wanted to change and improve those songs? How successful do you feel you were with re-envisioning the songs that made it onto the Broken String? Which song on the Broken String would you say is your favorite, in terms of the recording?

Justin: Re-recording songs was much harder than we thought it would be. Once we decided to sign to a record label, we knew we needed to make something that they could put out, promote, and get into stores. The lead time for a full-length tends to be around six months. They have to get the gears turning, and there are tons of logistics to work out so that everything happens all at once. So we finished the Broken String in March, just two months after the last EP. Though we thought about writing new songs, we didn't really have the time. Also, we wanted to try to take some of what we had been working on and give it a new depth and clarity. We wanted things to feel different -- we're a band that enjoys experimenting, not a band that wants to do the same thing over and over -- and so we worked hard to dress the songs up, and, in many cases, to rethink them entirely.

I like "The Monitor," "Chinatown Bus," and "Flight 180" best. The drumming has a lot more thunder, for one thing. There are higher highs and lower lows. They feel more musical. I don't think it's ever as rewarding to re-record songs as it is to write new songs, but I think it was good to give some of the EP songs their due.

(previous post on "The Monitor")

TGH: How do you feel your music has changed since Charm School?

Justin: I hope we've gotten better at making songs that are diverse and dynamic, and that we've improved our ability to convey interesting ideas both lyrically and musically. It's hard for me to think about Charm School, or about anything we've recorded for that matter, in any clear-headed way, and so it's hard for me to make comparisons. We wrote those songs in 2002 and 2003, and my life felt very different at that point. I barely remember most of it. Once we finished that record, we had a really hard time writing songs again, and we stalled for almost two years. That won't happen again. Because we've learned how to keep writing no matter what.

TGH: Do you know what you’re going to do after the tour is over? Do you have any sort of mental calendar for your next album, or are you taking the approach of working on some songs and seeing what happens?

Justin: Every moment of the next six months is planned, which is strange and comforting. We tour the U.S. with John Vanderslice in September and October. November and December, we tour Europe. January, I'm acting in a new movie. February and March, we record our next full-length. After that, we tour the U.S. again. Between now and the Vanderslice tour, we work on new songs every day.

TGH: Are Cully, Giorgio, and Darbie going to stay with you guys? I know Cully and Giorgio are planning to go into the studio to record another album as 1986 after you finish your tour.

Justin: We hope Cully, Giorgio, and Darbie stay with us. They're included in all of our upcoming plans, and we love playing with them. Cully and Giorgio have a wonderful band called 1986, and so we're working to make time for both bands to get things done. So far, so good.

1986 - Better When You're Stoned

TGH: You’ve been touring with Page France and the Teeth this summer. How’s that been?

Justin: The tour was amazing. When you see a band night after night, you really get to know their songs intimately. And, when the bands are as good as Page France and the Teeth, you learn a lot. It was really helpful to see how their minds work, and they continue to inspire us as we sit down to work on new songs. Unfortunately, Page France's van broke down, and they spent a week outside Phoenix waiting for the right part, the computer, to come in, so they missed San Francisco, LA, and Portland. When they caught up with us again, it was a huge relief, like when your broken arm heals and they finally take off your cast. Also note: there's a song on the new Teeth record, "The Coolest Kid in School," that is my favorite song in the world right now.

The Teeth -The Coolest Kid in School
The Teeth's Website/Myspace
(previous post on Bishop Allen, Page France, and The Teeth @ the Black Cat)

TGH: If you had to pick between only touring or only writing songs and recording and the studio, which one would you pick? Which do you like better? How do they interact for you?

Justin: I'd pick writing and recording. It's a compulsion, chasing the perfect song, and it's also what makes me remember to get out of bed. It's vital to me to keep learning, to keep inventing and re-inventing what we do. But I do love touring, and I think it's a necessary part of the process.

When you're recording, you're shut away with no outside contact, and you lose track of the audience. It starts to feel like you're playing guitar alone in your tiny room, and it's easy to feel like giving up. Going on tour, we get to see people react to the songs we make, and it's immediately gratifying.

TGH: What made you decide to sign to Dead Oceans?

Justin: They approached us with a fair offer, and their ideas and aspirations made a lot of sense. We were very cautious. We talked with them over email, on the phone, and in person, and realized, after asking a million questions, that they know what they are doing, and that they can do a better job of selling things than we can. We also like them personally, which is a very big deal for us. Now we're free to focus more of our energy on making music.

TGH: Being often termed a “blog band,” how do you feel like that's translated when you tour and interact with fans?

Justin: We've forged a strange path, mostly without any kind of institutional support, and blogs have helped immeasurably. They tend to be written by people who care passionately about music, and they're not on corporate lock-down like so much mainstream press. I like how democratic they make things. When we were making the EPs, we focused all of our attention on making songs, and almost none on promotion. But bloggers sought out the songs each month, and, when they found ones they liked, made some small fraction of the world aware of what we were doing. The music we make is, to a large degree, about connection, and blogs allow a direct interaction between us and anyone who cares to listen by simply by posting songs.

In a magazine, you can read about a band and imagine what they might sound like. On a blog, you can listen to the music unmediated and judge for yourself.

TGH: Do you have a favorite song you’ve recorded?

Justin: Honestly, I have no idea. I just can't listen to our records. I like playing "Like Castanets" best, especially now that my hand calloused up and I don't rip my fingers to shreds.

TGH: What music have you been listening to lately? Are there any recent releases you particularly like? What are your (and Christian’s, I’m guessing you’d know) favorite bands and albums? I’m hazarding a guess here [my guess was right, Justin was a comparative literature major in college], but also favorite poets and poems? [also books]

Justin: The Teeth record, like I said, has some of my favorite songs right now. I love the Fiery Furnaces. I've listened to Of Montreal a lot over the last few months. The Zookeeper record that comes out soon. Warhorse favorites? The first eight Dylan records. I think Christian's pick is Blonde on Blonde, but I'm a Highway 61 Revisited man. The Velvet Underground box set, pretty much through and through. The Springsteen record Nebraska (which we just listened to driving through Nebraska). Otis Redding, anything and everything. I'm finally catching up with the deeper cuts in the Beatles catalogue, but Christian knows those backwards and forwards.

Poets: I can be fickle and demanding, and no one writes good poems all the time. Anne Sexton. Charles Simic. Baudelaire. Rimbaud. Robert Penn Warren. I'll go for both William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot, even though one was pitted against the other back in the day. Christian got deep into the three volume history of the Civil War by Shelby Foote. He read it a while ago, but started it again on this last tour. I can't think of a book I've read twice.

.........THE END

Bishop Allen - Rain [alt link] (The Broken String)
Bishop Allen - Busted Heart (Charm School)
Tour Dates with John Vanderslice
Buy The Broken String and 2006's EP series
Bishop Allen's Website/Myspace

Now, I know you all read this interview and now want to get your hands on a copy of the album version of "Like Castanets", "The Chinatown Bus", "The Monitor", and others. I thought about asking permission to post one of them, and then I realized there's a way you can get it for free that I'm perfectly willing to encourage.

Get a FREE trial subscription to eMusic, and you get 25 free downloads, and mp3s with no restrictions on them (unlike iTunes). Did I mention that it's free? I have an eMusic subscription and love it.

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4 Responses to “TGH interviews Bishop Allen's Justin Rice!”

  1. # Blogger jeffro

    very cool interview!  

  2. # Blogger Kate

    thanks, I was amazed with how much I learned myself.  

  3. # Anonymous Anonymous

    i love bishop allen. great interview!  

  4. # Blogger Joshua Lachkovic

    Crikey, can't believe I missed this, brilliant interview Kate, with a brilliant band (member)


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