Bishop Allen | Music | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Bishop Allen 

Pontiffs of Pop

Justin Rice - FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
  • Justin Rice

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."

The Pissed Officers evaporated after three years, and following graduation Rice and Rudder roomed together off campus. Also on premises was then-aspiring film director Andrew Bujalski, who is now cited as the godfather of the amateurish, microbudget indie genre dubbed mumblecore. The director cast his roommates—neither of whom had acted in films before—in his first two comedies, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005). "It's hard to articulate what makes me think a nonprofessional actor will fare well on screen, but I suppose a lot of it has to do with my own personal rapport with them," Bujalski says. "If our communication is strong, then I should be able to get the bare bones of what I need on screen, and if they have the natural charisma of a Justin or a Christian, the rest of the work is done for me." Rice would go on to develop a parallel calling as an actor in such films as Let Them Chirp Awhile (2007), Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist (2008), and Alexander the Last (2009), and the web series "Dead & Lonely." "Music has always been Justin's heart and soul, and the acting a kind of happy byproduct of that career," Bujalski observes. "He belongs to a great tradition of musicians-as-actors—from Meat Loaf to Tupac, they're pretty damned reliable on screen! I assume it's something to do with their innate senses of rhythm."

But around the time he and Rudder were making their early film forays, something else came into Rice's life that would also alter its course. "I got a Tascam 4-track," he says. "I've never been the best musician per se, but all of a sudden I discovered how to focus on isolated moments and invent songs by layering different instruments and parts. Christian and I would work up 20 songs and maybe two or three of them would make us say, 'Hey, this sounds like something.'" That something would be Bishop Allen, named for Bishop Allen Drive, the Cambridge street the twosome lived on during their communal creative renaissance. Their musical approach had changed dramatically, moving from the youthful thrash of the Pissed Officers to a sound that hints at Pavement's more tuneful interludes and even Simon and Garfunkel. In order to devote themselves wholly to the new project, Rice and Rudder decamped to Lynchburg, Virginia. "We wanted to live somewhere really cheap where we could just concentrate and make a record," Rice says about the effort behind Charm School (Champagne School Records), the band's 2003 debut. "When we were making that album I realized what mixing was all about, and learned how to get a natural sound in the bedroom we recorded it in. Pretty soon, Christian and I thought it would be great to play the music live."

With Lynchburg not being known for its club scene, the band relocated to Brooklyn in May 2003 and recruited players to flesh out their ranks. Charm School elicited glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and NPR's "Weekend Edition," and the band began touring heavily, not taking a break for the next three years. The "break" turned out to be a project that saw Bishop Allen self-releasing a new four-song EP every month in 2006, each of them titled for the month of its release (although August is a 14-song live disc). What, exactly, was the reasoning behind such a ridiculously high-bar-setting campaign? "We'd toured a lot and started work on our second album [2007's Bishop Allen and the Broken String, on Dead Oceans Records], but it just wasn't coming together," says Rice.

The EP project opened another door when "History of Excuses" from March was used in an episode of NBC's "Scrubs." Since that windfall, Bishop Allen's music has been picked up by numerous television shows and film sound tracks. "It became clear to us early on that music licensing was a really good way for a band to stay afloat," Rice says. Rudder, though, has done pretty well for himself outside the band: In 1999, he and some friends started SparkNotes, a study-guide website they eventually sold to Barnes & Noble for a reported $3.5 million, and in 2004 he and the same crew launched the popular online dating service OkCupid. "It's a pretty crazy pendulum," says the entrepreneur, who currently lives in Austin, Texas, about balancing work with rock. "I wish I was able to contribute more [to the band], but I love doing it because it's not just a 'hobby band' to me—I still define myself as a person who plays in Bishop Allen."

Rice and Nowatka, who also serves as the band's graphic designer, met in Brooklyn and were married in 2009, shortly after the release of third album Grrr... (Dead Oceans). "Darby had never thought of herself as a singer, but I'd hear her singing to herself sometimes and thought she sounded really good," remembers Rice. "When we were making the EPs there were some songs I thought would be great with a female voice, so I talked her into doing them. She's been in the band ever since." The couple moved to Kingston that same year, and, to keep musically active during the six-year hiatus Bishop Allen has been on since touring for Grrr..., started the side project Last Names, which in 2012 released 40 free, download-only cover tracks—nearly one a week—and an album of originals, Wilderness (Independent).

After the lengthy lull, however, the flagship band has returned with Lights Out, a set Rice describes as having "a new palette, more electric. There are a lot of analog synths on this record. And it's much easier to dance to than our other albums." To promote the album on an upcoming 40-show tour, he's put together a new Bishop Allen lineup that features Hudson Valley stalwarts John Rosenthal (ex-Giraffes) on bass and co-producer Matthew Cullen on guitar. "Cutting the cord and moving to Kingston was a gamble for me and Darbie, but it turned out to be great," says Rice. "We didn't expect to meet so many like-minded people—we definitely don't miss New York. People talk about [the region] going 'full Williamsburg' someday, and if that happens we'll just move farther away [from New York]. But right now, everything has us feeling like we're in just the right place."

Bishop Allen kicks off its US tour at the Chronogram Block Party in Kingston on August 16. Lights Out will be released on August 19 on Dead Oceans Records. Bishopallen.com.

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