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Bishop Allen: Justin Rice

Article written by Ged M - Mar 10, 2008

Bishop Allen’s claim to fame is that they released an EP a month in 2006 – 58 songs in all (4 per month; August’s EP was a 14-track live album). That enterprise and effort led to a deal with feted indie label Dead Oceans, who released their melodic, addictive indiepop album Bishop Allen & The Broken String in 2007. It wasn’t their first album (Charm School on their own Champagne School label came out in 2003) but it’s the one that is garnering most interest. The band is built around one-time university classmates Justin Rice and Christian Rudder plus various collaborators, who currently include Darbie Nowotka (vocals, artwork), Cully Simington (drums) and Georgio Angellini (bass).

They’re now a Brooklyn band but formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts when Justin and Christian were Harvard undergraduates; the band’s name comes from the name of the street – Bishop Allen Drive – on which they lived in Cambridge. A fellow student was acclaimed “mumblecore” director Andrew Bujalski, who later persuaded them to star in his movies: first Christian in Funny Ha Ha (2002), followed by Justin in Mutual Appreciation (2005). Justin has more recently starred in the so-far unreleased Let Them Chirp Awhile for Jonathan Blitstein and they both appear in the forthcoming Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, starring Michael Cena (about the New York indie rock scene). You may have also heard their ‘Click Click Click Click’ which features in a Sony camera ad. We spoke to Justin Rice before his gig at Gramaphone on their first European Tour on 25 November 2007.

SXP: What’s it like to live in Brooklyn? Any band that is any good at the moment seems to come from Brooklyn, though I’m sure they’re not all originally from there.

Justin: No, almost none of them are. I don’t know anyone who grew up in Brooklyn. Everyone moves there [because] Brooklyn is the cheapest part of the Borough of New York that’s also convenient to Manhattan. In fact, it’s so big and there’s so much going on that there’s no continuity, it’s not a single community. But there’s a ton of energy and you always meet people – but who you meet and who you don’t meet is almost random. You run into people all the time; you go to a bar and look around and half the people you recognise from one band or another.

SXP: Brooklyn bands can get big in London even before they’re really known in the US. Most bands seem to come to the UK at some point.

Justin: We share a practice space with We Are Scientists. They’ve got a big label releasing them in the UK and basically they’ve been here for the last 2-3 years. They hardly play in the US but they play here all the time. How they get here is very different from the way we do it. Everyone finds a way over here – there’s a million different ways to do it.

SXP: Where are you and Christian originally from?

Justin: I’m originally from Texas and he’s originally from Arkansas. But I’ve got to say, neither one of us opted to stay where we grew up. I moved away in 1995 and I haven’t been back that much.

SXP: You met at Harvard University. How soon was it before you began making music?

Justin: Almost immediately. We were in a band called the Pissed Officers. We were a punk rock band and we played unbelievably fast; we would play 17 songs in about 7 minutes. And they were all kind of funny. I remember there was a song about writing bad cheques and a song about riding BMXs. We both realised we liked music a lot and we both worked as DJs at the radio station which was all about underground pop and punk and hardcore and weird sorts of records that you’d pick up at shows and in record bins. Over the course of time the nature of the music changed but the working relationship actually started at the very beginning. We were roommates and I’d record stuff at night –this was after we’d already graduated from college – so it’d probably be in 2000 or 2001, and after a while we had a whole slew of 4 track recordings that we decided to turn into a record. So we started working on Charm School about 2002 and we finished it in 2003.

SXP: Is Bishop Allen just you and Christian? On Charm School there are Bonnie and Margaret and you’ve worked with other people.

Justin: Bonnie sang on Charm School, she’s the female voice on there. Margaret never appeared on any recordings but they were both in the band when we put out that record so we put their photo on the back. Bonnie is a teacher and Margaret is in publishing and, a few months into it, they both realised the idea of being in a band kind of sucks so they left. At that point we decided to keep going no matter who was in the band. The line up we have right now, Cully and Darby have been playing with us for about a year and Georgio for about 6 months. We always encourage people to stay but inevitably people have other projects that lead them away. As long as Christian and I continue, we’ll keep doing this.

SXP: In 2006 you decided to put out an EP a month. Where did the idea and the music come from?

Justin: We had been working on a follow up to Charm School and we’d been working with the same 12 or 13 songs for about a year and a half and got to a point where we realised that they weren’t good. Instead of getting closer to being finished they just got more lifeless. And there was a point where it was unclear what the hell we should do. About that time we found a piano on the street, this old beat up piano, that a school had left out in the trash. We wheeled it back to our rehearsal space and just started fucking around, me and Christian. We ended up writing a bunch of songs that we hadn’t really thought about, we hadn’t worked to death, and they were totally unrelated to what we’d been spending all out time agonising over. They had a freshness and vitality that was lacking in the songs we’d been working on previously. And in that heady excitement we came up with the EP a month project. I can’t remember who started it but it was a back and forth double-dog dare: “we should put this out as 4 songs”. “No, it’s a season”. Eventually, it turned into an EP a month for a year. Once we arrived at that, it had such a perfect logic to it that we really felt like we had to follow through.

SXP: Was there a point – maybe in June – where you questioned what you were doing?

Justin: There was a lot of panic and a lot of moments where we asked ourselves: why are we doing this? But it’s also one of those things where you can’t back down. And there was a real energy we’d found; every time we finished a song, it built momentum. As for how we came up with the music, basically we grabbed anything that came into our lives and built a song around it. And then a lot of it was spending an inordinate amount of time just sitting there, hammering away at songs. It seems like an impressive feat to some degree but them you realise, in the 60s, people would record 3 records every two years or a year and a half. Ray Davies wrote 20 songs in the first three months of 1968. Now things are regimented into yearly album cycles. That’s not the way it’s always been and it’s not necessarily the most productive way. The other thing that makes it a lot easier these days is that recording has come so far that you don’t have to go into a studio so we can tinker away. It’s actually easier. So many people have talked about how [new technology] is enabling and opens up new possibilities and makes music more democratic. I definitely think we’re inspired by that possibility.

SXP: We were talking to Christian and he said that you’d sold 6,000 of some of your EPs. Which is impressive when you consider you’ve got no label backing.

Justin: A lot of that also has to do with the fact that blogs make it so it doesn’t need approval from the top or some sort of corporation to back it; it’s the way that music can be shared immediately.

SXP: Your first album is self-released, and then you released the EPs, now you’re signed to Dead Oceans. What do they bring?

Justin: They can get us distribution of the old fashioned kind, they can also spend more promoting records and they have a huge staff that deal with the administrative and logistical issues, instead of us having to deal with manufacturers, instead of us having to fulfil orders, instead of us having to keep on top of payments. We definitely want to make records – we don’t necessarily want to sell CDs. It lightens the load for us and we’re more able to focus on the things we want to focus on. We weren’t looking to sign with a label but as the EPs were coming out more and more labels would come to us. When we met with [Dead Oceans], we liked them. They have good ideas, they gave us a very fair agreement, and they have no bullshit about them. We don’t necessarily want to do things the way other people do. They have the same approach only they’ve done it more – they’re five years ahead of us. Every other record label that came to us said the first thing you have to do before you sign a record deal is agree to stop putting out the EPs. We were like: OK, that’s a non-starter, that’s a deal breaker, we’re not going to talk to you if you don’t see the necessity of us continuing. And Dead Oceans [said]: once you’ve finished with the EPs we’ll figure out what the deal should be.

SXP: Dead Oceans is a great label with bands like Dirty Projectors.

Justin: That guy’s a genius. I love Black Flag. My love for Black Flag dates back to when that was the most important music in the world to me – and it still is in some ways [though] my life is so different. The idea that someone took that same sentiment and translated it through his warped sensibility, it’s insane…it’s a great, unbelievable record.

SXP: For the new album …And the Broken String you recorded two new tracks and re-recorded songs from the EPs. Was that easy to do?

Justin: It was a nightmare. We knew that we wanted to take some of these songs and work with them in a slightly more sophisticated environment with more time and a more detail-oriented approach to the arrangements. But you don’t get the same reward from rerecording a song as you do from writing a song. Secondly, you’re always holding it up to the other version and comparing it. In the end I’m glad we did it. The arrangements are better, there is some more depth and clarity and some more shimmer and light. I think the highs are higher and the lows are lower on the re-recorded versions. And that’s definitely what we were going for. But it was hard, if not harder, than making new songs.

SXP: The artwork is impressive.

Justin: Darby did that. The design was all done by her but we worked pretty closely together. In general, I think our aesthetics happen to match. We both wanted the artwork to fit very tightly to the songs: it’s all Victorian engravings with modern silk screen on top of it and it tends to illustrate the songs. I didn’t want anything to be obscure. It’s the same thing as when I’m writing lyrics. I don’t want it to be puzzling on purpose or to be dense for no reason.

SXP: Any issue about the packaging; would the label have been happier with a jewel case?

Justin: The original idea that we had was too expensive. But this is one of the examples of how [Dead Oceans] are great. They said the first idea is going to cost this much, here’s the way we’d prefer to do it (which was the cheapest), here’s the compromise. Then we talked about it for about a week and they said let’s go with the one that’ll make us all happy. Once they saw the illustrations they were like: “we get it, it’s not gratuitous”. This is the way it should be.

SXP: CDs are usually glossy and mass-produced. The CD feels like though and effort has gone into crafting it.

Justin: Yeah, and the kind of music that we make should feel like that too. It should feel like something made with care and attention, yet something homemade. To me it’s small and intimate and has humanity, not something that’s manufactured.

SXP: Turning to movies, how did you come to act in Andrew Bujawski’s films?

Justin: We went to college with Andrew. He actually lived with us on Bishop Allen Drive. A few years later he called me: “I’m interested in writing a screenplay and I want you to play the main part in it.” I didn’t even think about it because any time a friend of mine asks me to do some sort of project I’ll agree. I didn’t necessarily think it was going to happen but he set to work writing the screenplay and about a year and a half later we actually shot the thing. We shot that almost 4 years ago.

SXP: And Christian appeared in his first film too – Funny Ha Ha.

Justin: A lot of what he does is he casts his friends in roles he thinks they’re suited for. Which is not to say we are the characters we portray in his films, but some element of these characters is based on us and some element is the way he imagines our lives to be or some role he imagines we could play. I can imagine him doing something very different in the future but right now what he’s interested in is making these movies that have a genuine feel and part of the way he gets that is by getting his friends.

SXP: You talk about character but the character in Mutual Appreciation is an indie musician coming back to town and there’s a Bishop Allen song on the soundtrack.

Justin: That’s true. At the same time I wouldn’t necessarily find myself in the same situations he put me in. For instance, the scene where I call my dad and ask for money, that’s not something I’ve ever done in my life, because that’s not the kind of relationship I have with my parents. He imagines that’s a situation I might find myself in and respond accordingly but it’s not necessarily true to my personal life.

SXP: Would you think about acting as a career?

Justin: I acted in another movie last October and I’m supposed to act in two this coming year. Someone has ordained those movies as part of a movement, and it’s getting press, so people start sending me scripts. Basically I’m not an actor, I’m not trained. Movies are definitely something I’d consider doing but if someone sent me a script and it was having me do something that was really far from my own personal character, which they have done, I’d say I don’t think I’m the right person because I’m not someone who can be out of character.

SXP: Any current movies?

Justin: I’ve got one that shoots in January and one that shoots in April. And they’re both shoestring productions - they may never see the light of day! On any movie I’ve ever worked on, you never feel like you’re part of something. It’s not like you go to a club and there are all the independent filmmakers and you toast each other. You’re very divorced from any idea of distribution or reception of the film; you’re just focusing on making it. You can make a movie with nothing, you can make something fresh, it doesn’t come out of the studio system in Hollywood and it’s made from your particular point of view. There are a lot of people doing that now and it’s great. It’s the same thing with music: all these bands in Brooklyn. Why not?


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