Published Jan 29, 2009Subtly ubiquitous, Brooklyn pop rock combo, Bishop Allen, have clandestinely seeped into public consciousness. Their hook-heavy songs have appeared in plethoric milieus, from independent films, like Mutual Appreciation, to camera commercials. Last year, the fleshed-out, touring incarnation turned up for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.
Front-man Justin Rice and guitarist Christian Rudder formed the band as a household project that has since yielded two full-lengths and 12 EPs (one per month for all of 2006). At a recent Toronto tour stop, Mumblecore thespian and Bishop Allen singer Justin Rice sat down - well, leaned against a wall - to discuss Victorian literary nomenclature, vinyl fetishes, and forthcoming record, Grrr....
The new record, Grrr..., references various animals throughout; it's a musical zoo.
It was actually an accident. When we were working on the record we had a working title: we were calling it Penny Dreadful, which is an old Victorian name for pulp novels. But, as we were finishing the record we were listening to the songs and the lyrics didn't end up being stories as much as inventories or lists or phrases or descriptions and a lot of those descriptions accidentally had animals. I didn't set out to intentionally write a record that had lots of animals on it. It's just that, looking at it, and trying to think about the images that might go with the record, there were so many of them that had to do with animals that we started kicking around animal names. We needed something that felt kind of playful, because we wanted to make a record that was playful that was the best animal name we came up with.
"Grrr..." itself is playful, but it's also a growl and that mirrors several of the tracks on the record, which seem fun but have weightier undertones. Were you considering that dual meaning?
Yeah, yeah, because I think a lot of the songs did end up having some sort of dreadful undercurrent. For me, the things that feel more genuinely fun or interesting or playful always have some underlying difficulty.
Is the light sound a way to make the denser lyrics more palatable?
Right; in a lot of ways I feel like the kinds of songs I tend to be drawn to are almost playground songs. It's like, "Ring Around the Rosie," which is a song about the plague. I feel like it's a well-established cultural thing where there are a lot of really catchy songs that contain these darker lyrics and I've always liked that.
How quickly did the album come together?
We did it over four or five months in Brooklyn. We have a practice space with a ProTools studio that's decent and we did a lot of the record there. What we didn't record at our practice space we recorded at another studio, Trout Recording, with this guy, Bryce Goggin, who's worked with Apples in Stereo and Pavement and Luna and Antony and the Johnsons and Akron/Family. He's an awesome guy and his studio is just full of really weird, old, analog equipment. The studio's him and these two other guys who just sit there and fix stuff. So you go in there and it's this crazy, really big space where there're piles and piles of really weird looking stuff, just jury-rigged. He was like a guru, but in a very humble way. When we do records on our own we've always done them digitally so we were working with tape for the first time.
How did working with Bryce and recording on analog ultimately inform the sound?
People always say tape is warmer. I've never really know what that means, but I heard it for the first time. Things never end up sounding the way that you imagine they will. One of the most fun parts is trying things out, discovering things. It's a process of experimentation and discovery that makes the studio great and the songs that existed in my head usually end up with more character than I would have thought.
Are you worried about over-saturating a song?
I worry about that, too. You keep that in mind as you're working. I think, for us, a big thing is that we don't ever want to polish too much. I definitely respond so much better when I listen to it and there's humanity there. The goal is to bring humanity to it, not to try and perfect something.
The longest song on the record is "3:13." Did you consciously give yourself time constraints?
I think, in general, the songs tend to find their own lengths. It's almost like doing a crossword puzzle. As you're working it out there's a definite logic to the material that dictates its own form, to a certain extent. I know that when we set out to make this record we wanted it to be less belaboured and less melodramatic than what we had done, in part, on [previous album] The Broken String and on the EPs before that. We wanted it to be snappy. Right before working on this record we were listening to Clash songs, listening to Buddy Holly songs. I feel like pop songs and early rock songs have a simplicity to them and that simplicity means that they should be short. So, yeah, I feel like it was something that we intended to do and also something that the material allowed for.
That said, the songs are deceptively opaque. With the horns on "True or False" and scattered strings throughout, there's a lot going on, even though songs are just over two minutes long. Was it hard to make it cohesive? Did you demo 50 tracks?
In the past songs had been written all over the place and cobbled together in various ways, but [for Grrr...] we were approaching the building of the songs in a very similar way. Part of the reason... was because we were trying to make something that was more cohesive and I feel like, for The Broken String, we made a whole slew of songs and picked certain ones. The way that it ended up coming together was more like a record of singles, less like a record that was done in a marathon stretch. This one was done in one marathon stretch and, once you're working that way, it really helps to make things coherent.
It's common now to talk about the re-emergence of the single, where there's less emphasis on the record. Yet here you've made a record that works together, using self-reflexive or recurring elements. Yeah, I think it's really great that the single is back. It harkens back to the days of early rock and roll or even soul music. Like, Otis Redding just made tons and tons of amazing singles. It's really great to me that's it's possible to do that again, because I feel like post-'60s, after Sgt. Pepper's..., there was definitely a tendency toward lionizing the LP. I think it's really nice to have the choice to approach songs in different ways and I've always wanted to make a full-length. I think most people that are into rock'n'roll and like the Beatles or like the Kinks or like all of that stuff from that era have the same goal that those guys had, which is to make the perfect full-length record. At the same time that everyone's downloading music it's interesting that vinyl sales, for us, have gone way up. I think now people get download codes when they get vinyl and they want the vinyl record rather than a CD, which is a shitty artefact.
The vinyl record is a fetish object.
Yeah, exactly. And it is better. You can look at it and see the bright spots and where songs begin and end. I can collect records but CDs always annoyed me.
And you once released 12 EPs. Incidentally, would you try a similar project?
I had an idea, but I don't know if I should - well, it's really labour intensive. I kind of know German and I kind of have a grasp on Spanish, a little bit, and French, not so much, and maybe Swedish. So, I could do four EPs: German, Spanish, French, and Swedish. I think I have to learn the languages fairly well, so maybe in three years I'll get around to them, but that's a challenge right?