Bishop Allen’s Justin Rice Talks ‘Lights Out’
by: Claire Voon
photography by: Connor Durkin
August 26, 2014
After Bishop Allen released their first album in 2003, the band maintained an active presence in the music scene, cycling through the processes of writing, recording, and touring—until five years ago, when frontman Justice Rice and multi-instrumentalist Darbie Nowatka wed and moved out of their Brooklyn apartment of seven years to Kingston, a small city in the Catskills.
“You get a lot of momentum, and it propels you forward as a band,” Rice said of the outfit’s constant engagement with their music. (In 2006, they released one EP every month for a year.) “But it gets hard to take care of the ins and outs of daily life. At that point we needed to take a year off.”
One year, however, turned into five, during which Rice helped other bands produce their records and composed some film scores while Nowatka launched a jewelry and paper goods company. Co-founder and guitarist Christian Rudder (who also co-founded OkCupid) wrote a book and had a daughter; drummer Michael Tapper invested himself in the band Yellow Ostrich.
Lights Out, the group’s third full-length album, emerged from this newfound ease of life, colored especially by Rice and Nowatka’s proximity to nature. Recorded in their house’s attic—larger than any practice space they’ve ever had—the 12-track album reflects the growing up that’s happened during their hiatus, sounding more seasoned and sophisticated in its reflections and inquiries. That doesn’t mean Bishop Allen have lost their penchant for wild and energetic shows, however, which date back to when they played “outrageously packed,” smoke-filled rooms in the Lower East Side or parties in Brooklyn lofts, many now razed.
“I definitely want our shows to be like a party,” Rice told me, “And so far, so good.”
We had met up last week on the band’s second day of touring outside Glasslands Gallery, where Bishop Allen were playing their release show. Being back in Brooklyn, Rice inevitably steered our conversation towards how much the city—specifically North Brooklyn—had changed. Aside from lamenting the replacement of his old practice space by condos, however, he discussed with me the making of Lights Out, saying farewell to the city à la Joan Didion, and his pet parakeet that sings.
What was it like playing your first show in five years?
It was terrifying. Throughout the entire thing, I have to say. I’m slowly getting my sea legs. Almost every time I’ve ever played a show there’s a certain amount of nerves, but it just gets you into the moment. The experience of playing is very strange—when you’re on a stage the sound gets really hard to control and varies a lot. You have to be confident that you’re doing the right thing even when you can’t hear your voice or the notes you’re playing on the guitar. So to have that confidence is one thing, and to be prepared is the other half.
I feel like location is an important part of Bishop Allen’s identity and music—the band’s name is adopted from a street in Cambridge, for example. How did being in Kingston influence the moods and sounds of Lights Out, especially compared to being in Brooklyn?
We moved up there really for the house, and it turns out that a lot of people have the same idea. So there’s not a lot of industry, but there’s tons of old buildings, old houses, and it’s just rife with musicians and artists. So immediately we realized that there’s tons of kindred spirits living all around us. And unlike Brooklyn—where that’s true but the density is so great there’s no way you can know them all—you live in a place like Kingston for a year, and you know them all. So the openness, the support we found was really great. In terms of making the record and having people help, it was way easier than it’s ever been. The town itself is situated on the Hudson at the foot of the Catskills, so a lot of this record was thought about while canoeing or walking trails in the mountains. I feel like we worked without distraction more, and it was informed by the feeling of being slightly outside everything.
What do you miss most about New York City, and what are you most excited to have eradicated from your lives?
The thing I miss most is everyone we know here; there are so many people we love here, and we don’t get to see them as much. And the ease of culture, the amount of stuff that’s going on is way more than anywhere in the world. You eat better. You see more shows. There’s better art. So it’s really culturally stimulating and challenging in a good way. If someone is doing something great, you feel like you also have to be great. And I miss that.
I don’t miss the sort of horror of everyday life, like how hard it is to do your laundry or the subway—the L train at the wrong hour…the amount of stress in getting around and taking care of living. It’s harder on your psyche.
So you kind of have that Joan Didion “Goodbye to All That” sort of feeling.
Exactly. I think everyone up there…that essay was like a catalyzing event. Either you’re like, I agree with this, and I’m gonna follow Joan’s footsteps or you’re like, I can’t believe someone else thought exactly what I did. For me I look back on what it was like to live here, and I don’t necessarily look back with nostalgia. I love living here, and I think of good times, but I definitely felt it was impossible to leave. If you leave you fall off the face of the earth somehow. But when we took the risk and moved, we straight-up moved, cut the strings. I think that only works when you’re ready, when you hit that “Goodbye to All That” moment.
If Bishop Allen circa Charm School heard this latest record, would anything surprise them?
This album has a lot more synths on it, and a lot of them are really intentionally synth-sounding. When we started making Bishop Allen songs there was definitely a deliberate attempt to use a lot of acoustic instruments. So I think they’d be surprised by the amount of synths and electric instruments we used instead of acoustic instruments. But what’s interesting is that what we did right before Bishop Allen was all weird electronics. So they’d be like, Wow you’re going back to that now? I thought we left that behind.
I understand you have a parakeet. Does it dig the new album?
He loves the music. I actually go into his room sometimes when I’m writing a song and play it for him. He listens to classical music all day, but he responds way more to me playing than he does to that. His real name is Lil’ Admiral, but we just call him Budgie because he’s a budgerigar parakeet. That bird we found when we were moving to our new house. It was 6 a.m. on a cold April day, and we were unloading a van full of furniture, and he was waddling down the street towards Darbie, and she put down her hand, and he jumps into her hand and fell asleep. For the next three days he just sat in her hair and slept. I guess he had been someone’s pet, so we went around the neighborhood putting up fliers, and we didn’t find anyone who had lost a parakeet. But clearly he was living with someone and was like, Yeah, I’m free! and flew away and was out in the world and was like, Oh, it’s cold, and I don’t know what to eat anymore so he saw us and was like, Save me. He loves to sing.
And Justin’s WILD wish:
I would love to tour India with a band. I have no idea how what would go over, but I think that would be so wild and crazy and out of the ordinary. For it to truly be wild, all that stuff that’s awesome about touring has to be magnified, like where you get special access to places that most people won’t. We played in France and got to eat in a farmhouse. It’s that kind of thing where you do get a connection with people that’s abnormal—it’s not something tourists can get. I think that stuff would just make it so amazing. Imagine that in India.