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Kill the Lights and Start the Party: An Interview with Bishop Allen’s Justin Rice

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Bishop Allen for years seemed to be one of the hardest working bands in New York in a very implicit sense. For example, the band spent 2006 recording an EP every month of the year, which is kind of like the indie rock version of spending summers making beats every day. After the EP project came 2007’s The Broken String, and after that, radio silence. But not quite — the band was just busy getting older and getting all kinds of other shit done, including a couple members, Justin Rice and Darbie Nowatka, getting married. Christian Rudder wrote a book and created a popular dating site you probably frequent (OkCupid), among other side projects for all members. Now, with Lights Out, the band has found a new home in Kingston, New York. The move to this somewhat sleepy town hasn’t really changed their catchy indie pop sound, but has created an introspective narrative that builds up throughout Lights Out and leaves you feeling cathartic — kind of like having a conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time and letting it all out — but followed by a dance session, of course. Below, Justin fills us on his new hometown, why he left NYC, and more details on the band’s great new album.

 

I wanted to ask you about your new hometown, Kingston. I go there pretty frequently actually so it was kind of random and cool that you’re situated there now. How did you end up there?

We lived in New York City, in Brooklyn, for a long, long time. Basically after living in the same apartment in Greenpoint for like, 6 1/2 – 7 years, it’s kind of time to move on. We couldn’t really grow any more there. And, also at the same time our landlord was being weirdly intrusive. When we started looking to move, we started by looking around more in Brooklyn. All of the rent had gone crazy, it was really expensive. Darbie and I, we’re the two people who moved up here, we realized that we didn’t have anything keeping us in Brooklyn. We didn’t have jobs or anything.

We’d always come up to this area, the Catskills basically for whenever we’d get away from the city. So we started looking at houses up here. At first we thought, “Oh we want to live in the country, we don’t want to move from the city to a city. We want to move to a beautiful bucolic world to escape.” As we started looking around at houses and we didn’t have a lot of money to spend, we realized that Kingston was where all the cool, affordable houses were. We started to spend a little more time in this city. And I was like, “Oh my god, there’s tons of people here doing cool stuff. It’s a great vibe.” Honestly, we realized that moving to a community instead of moving to an isolated spot was definitely the best move. We made the move here and it’s been great. We’ve met a lot of people, we’ve been really productive. The lifestyle, it doesn’t weigh as much.

I could totally see that. I mean, the times I’ve been there it feels like kind of spread out, compared especially to Brooklyn. So I think it’s interesting that there’s a community there, considering here how close you’re forced to be with people but you’re so apart from each other in terms of community.

Yeah, absolutely. Part of it is that here, that once you sort of get the lay of the land, there’s not that many places that you can go. There’s plenty to do but there’s not a lot of redundancy. So you go to a cool bar up here, which is the Spotted Pig, and you go there three times and you see the same three people there. You know, years later you’re like, “these are my friends.” The weird thing is since I moved here I know more musicians now than in Brooklyn. After years of playing in bands in Brooklyn, I never found a way to expand the circle of the people that I knew in Brooklyn.

That reminds me of this comedy show I went to like, last year. There was a comedian that had just moved to New York and his joke was, “New Yorkers are nice and all but you guys have reached your quota of meeting people so nobody wants to start an actual friendship.” The longer I’m here the more I see that as completely true.

Yeah, I totally agree. The weird thing about a small town is that — it is a small town. There’s gossip, you kind of know everybody’s business. But I see the positive to that too, which is that people are very supportive, concerned, and they look after each other. I only felt a sense of urgency or even competitiveness in Brooklyn, you know everyone is struggling to survive or to make it to where their threshold of success is. Here, that’s definitely not the attitude. We’re helping each other out. This town is under-appreciated and it’s a little bit raw, there’s a lot that we can all do, so there’s this sense of let’s make our city better, lets make this community cooler, which is fun.

Yeah, that’s awesome! So, congrats on Lights Out, I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. I wanted to ask you specifically about “Why I Had To Go,” especially since in our conversation so far you’ve talked a lot about moving to Kingston. The first few lines — and let me know if I’m projecting or just totally off  — “it was everybody getting tired of drinking every night,” seemed like part of the reason you said goodbye to NYC and Brooklyn. Is that a correct assumption?

That’s true, I feel like in New York you get into sort of a routine where… I don’t know, there is great night life, it’s fun to go out, you’re always hanging out in bars. But, at a certain point you do that for ten years and you’re like “I’m tired of hanging out in bars.” I think the song is very literally about the ambivalence. I wrote those lyrics basically on a train ride down the Hudson, that I was taking to go back to visit New York. I realized that I felt really ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I was really excited to go back to see people I hadn’t seen in a while. On the other hand, I was very excited that it wasn’t my day to day existence anymore. There’s something awesome about being in what feels like the center of the world, but at a certain point and I think at a certain age, it sort of wears you out. It’s nice to sort of step back and get some sort of perspective from it. When you’re away from it there’s sort of a longing to be a part of it and when you’re in it, there’s a desire to escape it. So I feel like that song is kind of about that, that ambivalent feeling. It’s kind of like, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”

Lights Out seems to be an album about transitions. Even with the title it implies the end of fun, to me. Can you elaborate on that?

I think that in the making of this record, the time that’s passed, [including] the actual move from Brooklyn to Upstate. I think there is a sort of transitional phase. Obviously it’s a transition from being younger to getting older, and it’s a transition from being in the center to being more on the periphery, it’s a transition from being inactive to activity, a lot has changed since the last time we sat down to record. At the same time, for me, it’s not always a transition into something darker or dimmer or less fun. Sometimes it’s into something more mysterious or more interesting. Definitely with the title Lights Out I could see, yeah it’s time to “turn in” or sort of kill the fun. At the same time the image that’s on the cover, it’s like there’s a moment where you kill the lights and that’s where the fun starts — the after party. Weird times where not everything is so clear but maybe more interesting.

I actually was going to ask you about the album cover.

We were pretty much done with the record and we were kicking around ideas with what to do with the cover. We were at our friend Janet’s house, she owns a gallery here. She’s the girl with the blonde hair and kind of flipping it up. It’s from a senior skate night from her high school. We looked at it and were like, that’s it! These girls are dancing in a weird abyss, they’re not at Studio 54, they’re at some skating rink in Chico, California. They don’t give a fuck, they’re just going for it and really living in that moment and that’s the feeling that we wanted.

So going way back to Middle Management, I have a job interview question for you. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Ah, man. In five years, I would have liked to have gotten back to the path and have a few more records out. In addition to putting out records and going on tour, the thing that I’ve realized that I enjoy the most is actually writing songs. I’m hoping in five years I’d really like to be writing songs with other people. This year’s the first time that I’ve sat down to co-write with people, which is a concept that seemed foreign to me, it’s something I’d see on that TV show Nashville. Then I did it two to three times already this year, and it was really awesome. It’s very strange and you have to get over yourself very quickly in order to be able to communicate with someone you don’t necessarily know that well. It’ll reveal your own strengths and your own shortcomings.

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Interview by Alex Martinez. Follow her on Twitter @xxalexm.



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