Just about to head off on their spring tour, Justin Rice, one-half of the singing & songwriting combo Bishop Allen, took the chance to talk with QRO. In the conversation, he discussed the upcoming tour, their upcoming new record, their last full-length, The Broken String (QRO review), their new label, making music with partner Christian Rudder, releasing one EP for each month of 2006, appearing in movies, being ‘big in Sweden’, the ubiquitous Jon Natchez, the Fung Wah bus, and more…
QRO: Are you looking forward to this spring tour?
Justin Rice: Yeah. We haven’t played a show since December. It was kinda nice to take some time off, but I think we’re all really excited to get back to it.
QRO: How did the European dates come about?
JR: We toured Europe in December, and we were planning on going back some time, and we were invited to play Primavera Festival in Spain. And so, once that happened, the booking agent set up dates around it.
QRO: When you played there in December, was that your first time in Europe?
JR: Pretty much. Well, we’ve been to Sweden before, but only Sweden. December was our first actually time out in Europe, stretching our legs. It was amazing.
QRO: Is there any reason you’re ‘big in Sweden’?
JR: No, I don’t know, I have no idea. There’s something about the kind of music we play that I think appeals to Swedish people. As far as why that is, I don’t know. There’s a lot of great Swedish pop bands that exist these days (QRO’s Swedish Sensations), and I just think, for some reason, there’s some sympathy there, some shared sensibility between a lot of American bands and a lot of Swedish bands.
QRO: Did you notice any differences between European and American crowds?
JR: Yeah, the crowds are definitely different. They speak different languages, I don’t know. They come from slightly different cultures. And their response kind of depends on where you are, you know: German crowds, and French crowds, and Dutch crowds are somewhat different, as far as their level of enthusiasm, whether they participate in the show or just sit back and watch.
The thing that was remarkably different between the United States and Europe was actually the way the venues operated, and the way that the promoters worked: they were so unbelievably happy to have us in Europe. In the U.S., that’s a lot more rare. A lot of the times, when you play a club, people are like, ‘Well, it could be you, it could be another band, I don’t really care who you are, what band you’re in. It doesn’t matter to me: you’re all interchangeable.’ And when you go over to Europe, they’re really excited about you in particular. It’s pretty nice feeling.
QRO: You mentioned the Primavera Festival. Will you be doing any other festivals this summer?
JR: Not that I know of. A lot of the reason is that we’re recording this summer.
You know, it’s time for us to really be making some new material, be working on new songs, and stuff like that. We played a lot of shows behind the last record, but you reach a point where you’re like, ‘Okay, enough’s enough. Gotta make some new stuff now.’ Or you’ll go crazy.
QRO: Do you do anything differently when you play outdoors?
JR: Sometimes. It’s weird, playing outdoors: it sounds a lot different on the stage. It’s kind of nice, to play outdoors. I think that you do end up playing a little bit differently, though, because you don’t totally have as good of a sense of… you don’t get the sound of what you’re playing coming back to you. It’s a very isolating experience; you’re really isolated with your instrument. It just makes you play differently.
As far as specifically, choreography-wise, or ideologically wise, no, not really. I think you have an idea of what you want to do for an entire tour, and then you show up to a given space, and you end up adapting to the space, but I think it’s not conscious.
QRO: How far along are you guys on work on the new record?
JR: Hard to say. We worked on songs for most of February and a little bit of March. We started to really test out some ideas, but we don’t have any songs that are walking around, fully formed yet. None of them quite have legs yet.
It’s one of these ‘hopefully’. There’s still going to be some writing time, then recording by the end.
QRO: For the new record, is it going to be all new material?
QRO: Because, I know, when you did The Broken String, you took it from the EPs, a lot.
JR: That was the idea for that record. To try to go into a studio environment, which was something we’d never really done, and try to see what happens if we adjust some of the songs we’d already recorded on our own to the studio environment.
But this time it’s going to be all new. You know, there’s a reward you get, personal satisfaction you get from writing a new song that you don’t get from re-recording an old one, and I think it’s really important to me right now to feel that sense of personal satisfaction.
QRO: What drew you to Dead Oceans (Evangelicals, Dirty Projectors), your current label?
JR: When we were putting out all those EPs, various labels started to approach us. We were sort of content with what we were doing, we were happy putting out records on our own. But when Dead Oceans came, the way they approached us and everything that they said made a lot of sense, and the way that they think about putting our records and their goals were very similar to ours, but they had more experience and more resources to do it, to put out records.
Their common sense approach really appealed to us, and then we met them. We met all the people who were involved with the label, and with the other labels that are related to Dead Oceans, too (Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian). And it’s like, they were smart, they were good people, they were people that I wanted to be around and that I felt excited to be collaborated with. So, I think it was the way they approached business, and it was a nice personal connection, too.
QRO: Was there any added pressure on The Broken String, considering it was your first time in the studio, your first with Dead Oceans, and stuff like that?
JR: Yeah, I think that we felt a certain amount of pressure, but I think it was all in our minds – and I think, even then, we knew that. There wasn’t external pressure; there was internal pressure, because we thought, ‘Well, this needs to be good.’
And there always is that, when you’re working on songs.
But the idea that this was the one that was going to be out there in a bigger way, with better distribution, and things like that, definitely added some pressure, put some pressure on me – but I invented that. No one was calling me on the phone, saying, “This better be good…”
QRO: Where did the idea for the ‘EP a month for all of 2006’ come from?
JR: It was kind of a ‘double-dog-dare’ conversation between Christian Rudder and myself, where we had been stagnating, had been working on a set of songs for a long time that we couldn’t finish, for whatever reason. I think it’s not an unusual thing to have happen, where you’ve been working on something for so long that it stops making sense.
And we couldn’t find our way out of it, so we decided to put out an EP of just entirely new stuff that was unrelated. And in the course of the conversation about putting it out, someone said, ‘One EP? How about a ‘season of EPs? How about one each month, for a year?’ Just kind of an escalating conversation, like that.
QRO: Was it hard, keeping up that pace?
JR: Yes, it was. But at the same time, once we found a rhythm, and figured out a work week and work flow, these kinds of concepts that people use to describe almost any kind of project that goes on for a long time, once you find those, once you figure out how you can best achieve those small set of goals, and then repeat that process over and over again, it requires constant vigilance, but it also ends up being relaxed, in it’s own way. You feel like you know what you’re doing.
QRO: Why did you make August EP live, and so much longer?
JR: That one, a lot of it was because we hadn’t really been able to tour, because we didn’t have enough time to work on the EPs and tour, and we wanted to go on a tour. It was kind of cheating – ‘Well, we should put out a live EP, because we won’t have time to record all new songs.’ We just figured that, in the process of making it live, we might as well put on a whole show.
If you imagine the EPs as the document of a year, where each month, you’re sort of checking in on the thoughts of the band, or the band is expressing little letters that get sent in the mail, ‘Here’s what we’re doing in May. Here’s what we’re doing in June.’ By the time we got to August, it was like, ‘In August, we went on tour, and here’s what it sounded like.’ Wanted it to capture that moment, ‘time capsule’-like.
QRO: How difficult was it to pick which songs from the EPs to include on The Broken String?
JR: It was hard. We started out with a lot of ideas, and in the course of recording, we sort of winnowed them down to what we ended up with. Part of that was just that because, as we were recording, some things were sounding better to us than other things.
I think there were a few songs, and I can’t even remember which ones right now, I think there were a few songs that we probably, when we were done, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t put this song one there.’ But it seemed obvious, which ones to put on recording, which ones were working out.
QRO: How did you and Christian meet?
JR: We met in college (Harvard). We had English 10A together.
QRO: And how did the rest of the band come together?
JR: We sort of found people piecemeal, over the years. And it’s not always the same people.
Actually, my college roommate, Jon Natchez (Beirut, Skavoovie and the Epitones), is a great resource: when we need a drummer or something, we’ll call Jon, ‘Hey Jon, do you know any drummers that might be good for us?’ And he’ll introduce us to somebody, and it’s through this chain of connections that you’re finding people.
And we’re constantly finding people to play. The guy who’s playing drums on this tour has never played drums with us before, but he’s played in a band that we’re friends with.
JR: Exactly, exactly right. When they need horns, they call Jon, and when they need more horns, they ask Jon where to get more.
QRO: You and Christian have done some acting work in independent film. How did that come about?
JR: Well, it started because our roommate, Andrew Bujalski, after graduating from college, started making movies. And his idea was that he wanted to make these scaled-down movies that were about his experiences or his world-view, his own personal context or environment – and he wanted to put our friends in it.
So, he cast us, and a bunch of his other friends, and over the course of a couple of years, he did a couple of movies. Christian was in one, I was in the other. But that was it: he just kinda asked us to do it.
He lived with in our apartment; he was our roommate also. He lived with us in our apartment on Bishop Allen Drive, which is where we got the name of the band.
QRO: You guys were also in Sony Pictures’ upcoming Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Michael Cera, Kat Dennings)…
JR: The director for that, this got Pete Sollett, who made this movie, Raising Victor Vargas, that movie was in development for a year or two, and during that time, he just went out and go see shows all the time. He knew that he wanted real New York bands that were from the environment where the movie takes place. He wanted to have authenticity to it.
He saw a lot of bands, and ended up asking us if we wanted to do it. And we met with him, and he’s a great guy, and a really great filmmaker, so obviously we wanted to do it. For me, a lot of me wanting to do it was wanting to work with Pete Sollett, the director.
QRO: How was making the video for “Click Click Click Click”?
JR: It was stressful, because we had no crew, basically. There was three guys, and the director, and then the band. And we shot it in a pretty crowded street in Williamsburg, because we wanted it to be in the neighborhood that the song references, south side of Williamsburg, Puerto Rican neighborhood. And we wanted all the flags and stuff in the background.
So when we were shooting the part that actually comes in pictures, it was pretty crazy ‘cause, we’d just have to wait for a break in traffic and then walk down the street, and hope that we didn’t get run over. We didn’t cordon of the street, we didn’t get permits; it was definitely shot on the fly.
They captured single frames from the video, printed out a thousand pictures, and I think that took like three weeks, just the sheer amount, just tons and tons of shit work. But I didn’t have to do that – the director did that…
In the end, we were pretty happy with the video, and it was pretty fun, but it was definitely a slightly grueling experience. We’d walk down that entire street, and then something would go wrong right at the end of the song, and we’d have to do it all over again. And it started getting really hot and gnarly.
But in the end, it felt reckless in a way that made it fun.
QRO: How long was it before some photography company approached you, wanting to do “Click” in a television commercial? Because it seems like that would be…
JR: It was pretty fast. It wasn’t overnight; it probably took six months.
At first, the song was going to go, “Take another picture with your mother-fucking camera,” but we decided that that was just too antagonistic, and didn’t really fit with what we were going for. So we changed it.
But I wonder, if it had been “mother-fucking”, if they still would have come to us, if they would have been like, “Can you change this one word? ‘Panasonic camera’…”
QRO: A lot of your songs tell stories, like in “Click”. How much truth is there to them?
JR: It kind of depends. Some of them, I think, are just ‘though exercises’, and some of them are factual. I guess I’d say there’s a difference between being truthful and being ‘factual’. There are facts scattered throughout, sort of blended with something that fits because of the diction or the rhyme, or just because I wanted the concept to just go some direction it didn’t in real life.
But I think, like anybody, I like sort of ‘magpie’ things from real life, and sort of build around them.
QRO: Have you ever actually ridden the Chinatown Bus, the Fung Wah?
JR: Yeah. There used to be a bunch of other competing companies that I’m sure still exist on some sort of level: Fung Wah, Sunshine Travel, Travel Pack. Fung Wah’s the original.
It’s gotten more regulated and normal now, than it used to be, but I used to ride that thing all the time. Cheaper than taking a cab to Brooklyn, you can ride to Boston.
QRO: You seemingly choose some odd subjects for your songs, like “The Chinatown Bus” and “The Monitor”. Is there any specific reason for that?
JR: I pick things that interest me. If there’s some detail or some moment in life that I look at and I think, ‘That’s funny; that’s weird; that’s odd; that’s strangely compelling,’ I’m more likely to take that thing, that idea, that moment, and think about it.
I don’t know if it’s a deliberate choice, but things that I find intriguing are things that stick out to me.
QRO: Do you still have that piano, ‘Corazon’?
QRO: Does it ever bother you that you can’t take it on tour?
JR: We can’t take it on tour; it’s way too heavy. I wish we could. That’s been a problem, because I like the way that that piano sounds, and I like playing it. And we try to bring other things that emulate pianos on tour, and it always a nightmare, and you end up being like, ‘Well, let’s just use a sound that doesn’t sound like a piano. Let’s not have this thing imitate being a piano. Let’s use a Wurlitzer.’ Which is great, but I do wish we could bring her out.
QRO: Is there a Daniel of “Song for Daniel”?
JR: That song’s not directly about Daniel Johnston, but that’s kind of what I was thinking of. I watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and it reminded me of someone that I know. I sort of wrote it for Daniel Johnston, sort of wrote it for someone I know very well. Who’s name is not Daniel…
QRO: What was it like, expanding to having Darbie [Nowatka] singing, like on “Daniel” and “Butterfly Nets”?
JR: It was great. I always like hearing other people sing songs, and it’s something I like to keep experimenting with. Sometimes I just think a song sounds better in someone else’s voice, and oftentimes it changes what the song ends up meaning when you listen to it, how it ends up playing.
I mean, especially with a girl. If I were singing “Butterfly Nets”, it would come across way different than having a girl do it.
QRO: Are there any songs that you particularly like to play live?
JR: I like playing “Like Castanets” live. I don’t know why. It’s fun, especially when we get to have a horn player. We don’t always have a horn player with us, so sometimes we use a melodica, but sometimes we’ll have a horn player. Jon came on tour with us once, but we’ve also had shows where there are like three of them, because we’ve been in New York or something. It’s pretty fun to do that kind of thing. That song’s pretty fun to play.
QRO: Are there any songs you can’t play live, because of the arrangement, don’t like to play live, or just don’t play anymore?
JR: Yeah. There’s a lot of songs that we’ve never played live. In the catalog we have of sixty-something songs, almost half we’ve never played live. Because a lot of them were recorded with just Christian and I, or we made the basics and bring in other people to play on top of it. It’s not like the band we have that’s going on this tour is familiar with all these songs – nor am I. Some of those songs, I can’t remember how to play them.
And there are some songs that we try to play live that, after a while, we realize the song isn’t, for whatever reason, carrying across live. It happens a lot. Songs go through different lives; sometimes it’s great to play a song live for a while, and then you wear it out. Then, a year later, you’ll find that, for some reason, you can put it back on and it feels different.
QRO: A lot of those first type of songs you mentioned, of just you and Christian, are those older songs?
JR: No, it’s kind of always been like that.
QRO: Even with the material that you’re working on right now?
JR: Well, yeah. With that stuff, it’s going to start with me and Christian. Like, that’s what we do: we sit around, the two of us, and work on the songs, and get the basic song structure down, and then work on the melody. And a lot of the times, we’ll work on the ‘hooky’ parts. And then, we’ll sit down with people playing other instruments, and work out the arrangements, break stuff apart and put it back together.
But a lot of the basic work that happens is me and Christian. And a lot of the songs that we have, especially on the EPs, really, we were the only two people who touched them.
When we record this record, I’m sure we’ll have at least someone playing drums and percussion. Cully Symington did it on the last record, and he was really good, but I don’t know if he’ll be available or what he’ll be doing.
QRO: What cities have you really liked playing at?
JR: Well, there’s the obvious ones: I liked Chicago, Austin, Portland, Seattle. We’ve had a lot of good shows in random places, too: Provo, Utah has always been a surprisingly good place to play.
QRO: Are there any places that you haven’t been to that you want to go to?
JR: Yeah, lots. We just have started to see Europe. There’s a lot more places in Europe that I would like to go. We played a show in Croatia, which was awesome. And that was as far east as we went. We were looking east and thinking, ‘It would be so fuckin’ awesome to go further east on a tour. To go to Poland, to go to all those weird places over there.’ And I think it’s possible.
Second, I would love to play a show in China. And I don’t know why.
The U.S., I feel like we’ve seen every nook and cranny of. And
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
JR: I’ll just tell you a tour story, without it having the burden of being my ‘favorite’.
When we were on tour last year, we had a day off in California, and we went camping in Big Sur. While we were there, we had the night off, but we ended up wandering around, and we found this open mike night. We went and got all of our stuff, and set it up, and played the open mike night. People would come up, and then we’d play a song, people would come up, and then we’d play a song.
And by the end, there was no audience anymore. Every single person in the audience was playing with us. Everybody was playing an instrument. Some guy was playing a keyboard, three guys were playing guitar, there was another guy singing – I’d yell out the words for the next line, right before it happened.
It was really, really fun that we’d somehow crashed this open mike, and it was okay. And not only was it okay, but it turned into this rollicking, really fun, all-inclusive night.