Established in 1636, Harvard University is America's oldest and most prestigious institution of higher education. Eight US presidents and numerous international heads of state are among its esteemed alumni, along with 335 Rhodes Scholars and 62 living billionaires. Its list of affiliated faculty, students, and staff includes the names of nearly 150 Nobel laureates and such famous attendees as Bill Gates, Yo-Yo Ma, W. E. B. Dubois, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein, e. e. cummings, William S. Burroughs, T. S. Elliot, Mark Zuckerberg, and Ted Kaczynski. And, perhaps somewhat less known, is the fact that the Ivy League school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is also the birthplace of the acclaimed indie rock band Bishop Allen.
"I've always wanted to write the kind of songs that are frank and noble, in the American vernacular," says singer and guitarist Justin Rice, who co-founded the group with guitarist Christian Rudder, a fellow Harvard student, in the early 2000s. "I mainly try to write lyrics that share moments. But I want them to be very conversational, like a Joan Didion essay."
With three critically applauded albums and, literally, a dozen EPs (more on those later) already under their belts and a new full-length, Lights Out (Dead Oceans Records), set to drop this month, Bishop Allen has accrued a devoted fan base with its brainy, unapologetically melodic brand of contemporary pop. It's the kind of sweet, cheery sound that's made the band a natural choice for sitcom soundtracks during its 11-year existence. But in Bishop Allen's approach there also lurks a distinctively clever type of wordcraft that's, yes, confessional and literate a la Rice's stated MO, but sometimes at odds with his group's sugar-and-sunshine delivery: "Go on, black hole / and tear the sky to pieces / Go on, black hole / tell me you've had enough / No sun, no stars / No, only emptiness above," coos Darbie Nowatka, the band's other vocalist and Rice's wife, above the blissful synths of the new disc's "Black Hole." Such lachrymose lyrical specimens might make one wonder just how hard the network nabobs who've sourced the outfit's tunes for TV placement have been listening.
"I kinda grew up in this country-club culture," says Rice, 37, about his Dallas, Texas, upbringing. "My dad's a lawyer, my mom works for charities. I went to an all-boys private school where we had to wear uniforms. It was good for me as a little kid. But by the time I was 15, I wanted to get out." And as has been the case for so many other alienated teenage musicians of the last four decades, it was Rice's discovery of punk rock that pointed the way. "Nirvana was a really powerful influence on me and my friends when they first hit," explains the singer, who played in his first bands during high school. "But when they got bigger and the preppy kids embraced them, we felt like they'd been coopted. So we started digging deeper. Fugazi became the next key band. They were popular but still far enough from the mainstream, and they had this strong sense of politics and a DIY aesthetic. Dallas is a lot of shopping malls, pretty bland and modern. Except for [fabled nightlife district] Deep Ellum, where I started hanging out as a teenager, going to punk shows. It was intense sometimes; there was this whole SHARPs-versus-Nazi skins rivalry between groups of people who'd go to the same shows [SHARP is an acronym for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice], so there'd be fights sometimes. I always thought it was so stupid, how people who were there to see the same bands wanted to fight each other. But I guess the punk scene has always been this weird confluence of thugs and art school kids."
Rice entered Harvard in 1995 to major in comparative literature and film production. It was in an English 10a class that he and Rudder met. "[Rudder] was clearly the other 'weird kid' and I noticed him right away," Rice says. "But we didn't actually talk until we ran into each other at a Jawbreaker show." Like Rice, Rudder sensed an immediate kinship. "When you're in a really small class and you see someone you haven't met before wearing T-shirts with the logos of the same obscure hardcore bands you're into, you think, 'Hey, I should really get to know this guy,'" recalls Rudder, who hails from Little Rock, Arkansas. "So when we finally did talk, right away I felt an immediate connection." The pair started their own hardcore band, the Pissed Officers, who began playing locally and releasing small-batch vinyl. Of crucial importance was the duo's stint as DJs on Harvard radio station WHRB's punk/indie program, "Record Hospital." "WHRB is a commercial station, not funded by the school," explains Rice. "But it was run by these amazing, cool people who were really into interesting music. As a DJ there, you had to take part in what were called ULAs, or Universal Listening Assignments, which were weekly meetings where you'd sit down with a box of records relating to a certain genre and study them. So one week it might be all about 1960s garage bands, or maybe free jazz or proto-punk bands. I remember one ULA that was all about Ohio underground music. So there was this real effort to create a body of knowledge about underground music to pass along to the following generations."