Bishop Allen, creators of the song which this site stole its name from, are releasing their third studio album today. Grrr… is a much quieter, focused effort than their previous two and that’s why I was all the more glad to get to do a little digging inside the head of Justin Rice, singer and main songwriter for the group.
Now, unfortunately the deep, emotional stuff is about halfway through the interview, but there’s a lot of fun stuff in the entire text. All the major bases of any good article are covered: marimbas, freaky arthouse movies, and — duh — that huge movie they were in with Michael Cera where they played themselves.
The You Ain’t No Picasso interview with Justin Rice of Bishop Allen
With all the past EPs or albums, I kind of knew what was going on. Where the record was written, etc. But Grrr… was very quiet and very quick. I really have no idea what it was like.
We recorded a lot of it in our rehersal space in Brooklyn and at this place called Trout Recording, which is also in Brooklyn. Trout is this place that’s full of old timey vintage gear that’s run by Bryce Goggin who recorded drums and also mixed the record.
When we wrote this album, it was kind of new for us too. The process of actually writing and recording it was very systematic. We set aside time to do it and we sat down and did it all in several big pushes. It was done over the course of three or four months, basically.
Christian and I would split up time in the practice space. He’d go in the morning and we’d overlap in the afternoon and I’d stay at night. We developed a pretty consistent work flow which is to do these set hours and very deliberately generated as much stuff as we could and slammed it down until we were actually recording it. we demoed everything. Then we took those demoes and actually played to them when we were doing the recording.
Can you remember a time when, working separately, one of you changed the direction of a song?
That happened all the time. The songs don’t tend to come fully formed. Normally they’re some musical, rhythmic or lyrical idea that initiates the song. A lot of the time I would make a demo of a song or Christian would make a demo of a song and when the other person came in to listen to it… New ideas would turn the song upside down. The songs were constantly in flux. …We found the album through a lot of experimentation. It’s a little bit like a laboratory.
More like discovering songs than making them?
Yeah, I think so. And a lot of it has to do with what instruments are available and what’s sounding good.
On this album I would put down drum beats and then we’d figure out what the rhythm and the tempo of the song might be and that’s something we’ve never done before. That puts you into a place like “ok, this song is kind of like a waltzing rhythm…”
Like “True or False” started was made by starting out with a drum loop and playing other drums on top of it and that rhythm existed before there were chords or melody for that song.
But you had lyrics for that one?
Nope. Lyrics came last on that one. But it started out as kind of a shuffling double-dutch rhythm … kind of a schoolyard thing with a shuffle to it. So what would a song be like that had that? How would that beat work? And I don’t know how to make that beat any normal way, so a lot if it was just turning on mics and experimenting.
Now, you mentioned “True or False.” To me that felt like an updated version of the old duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside” but more of a playground thing.
I don’t know. I had never thought of that song specifically, but that was the feeling it was supposed to have. It’s a dialogue song… There’s something about that kind of sentiment that works with that shuffling, playground beat.
Now, before I forget, I have to ask the Nick & Nora question. How did you wind up in the movie? Was it the standard “we like the music, we want the song” kind of deal, or was it deeper than that? And also, what was the experience like?
Well I think that Peter Sollett, the director of NANIF, when he was developing the movie — which, that script was in development for like a year or two — and while that was happening, he was going out constantly to shows in NYC. He came to one of our shows and loved it. He thought it was fun and was like “this is exactly the kind of band that I want for this movie.” He contacted us and we met him. We knew who he was because we’d seen Raising Victor Vargas, which is a fantastic movie. I don’t know that it came up in that first talk that it was a Michael Cera project, I didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. But Peter’s great and he liked our music a lot and we got along on the first meeting. And so that was it. He reached out to us and we went out for a drink.
Shooting it was great. we were only there for two days. There were big big holiday sets and there were tons of extras and a big crew. Michael Cera at that point was a legitimate movie star, but you’d never know it. He’s not exactly the persona that he protrays, but he just seems down to earth, innocent, nice and very funny.
It was pretty fun. There’s something about going to a set like that and being the talent. Everyone’s just so nice that it makes you feel important. It’s nice.
So will you be demanding Kraft Food Services at your next indie film? [laughs]
[Laughs] No. I’ve worked on a lot of film sets that have Kraft Services and a lot that don’t and I have to say that I’m not a fan. I hate it. It’s just food sitting around and there’s a lot of down time. Mostly a film set is a very boring place. There’s a very small portion of the day where you’re expect to do something. But you tend to be paying attention all the time. Eventually it wears on you and if there’s food around you just snack all day and it eventually just wears on you and you feel awful. So no, I have to say no Kraft services.
When did you find out that in addition to being in the movie, your song would be THE song and in all the commercials?
That was after we shot it. Basically when they were cutting the trailer, they called and said “we want to use your song for the trailer.” I don’t remember how that happened, but I think it was something that happened during the post production.
Was it always “Middle Management?”
Yeah. That was always the one. They wanted it to be sort of rocking and punked out.
Back to the new album. In “Dimmer,” one of the things that struck me about that one is that there are a lot of images that could either apply to yourself or the band — lines like “can you see me now?” and the dark horse imagery, specifically.
At the time those were definitely thoughts I was having about myself. So much of my life is caught up in the band. I definitely was not thinking about the band… I was thinking about myself. There’s something about the process of starting to write songs where you start to feel kind of weird. There’s a certain aspect of it where it’s necessary to retreat from the world a little bit. When we’re on tour, the songs that we’ve written in the past, we perform them every night . It’s a very public exchange: we play the songs, people listen, they appreciate them, they have a good time, we go on. But when you start writing songs and recording songs, you spend a lot of time along with your guitar or at the piano and after a while you kind of forget that the songs you’re writing actually end up in the world and you start to feel a little bit isolated and a little bit weird.
So part of it was about that experience of how strange it is to be sitting alone in a room and about how I feel like I’d lost contact with the world at large.
Sometimes I feel like as I grow older, the world seems like a less focused, more random kind of place. I guess i always had a sense of where I belong in it or why anything i do might be important. It’s just becoming less and less present that kind of nags at me as the years go on.
Then there’s also part of me that reacts to that feeling and it’s like “no, wait a minute!” I almost dismiss that feeling as kind of self-indulgent and childish. You know? As long as you’re doing something, you’ll be fine; you’ll be engaged with the world. Just figure out something you can do. You’ll be engaged with the world if you can just get up every day and figure out something you can do: create something, make something, say something or talk to someone.
It definitely came out of this feeling about writing songs about my place in the world in general. I kind of wanted to make light of that feeling. That song has both that feeling and the call “olly olly oxen free” which is what you say in hide and seek. There’s something about how those feelings are about craving attention in a childish way.
I feel like a lot of people can relate to this. I decided that it’s what I do after I have this feelings that really matters. It seems from my point of view that you do a good job of that. Does it feel to you like you do a good job of channeling those feelings into creativity?
Um… Yes. I do. I think most people who create anything or write anything or make any kind of music or have the impulse to put pen to paper… I feel differently all the time. Sometimes I feel really great about what I’m doing. Sometimes it just feels pointless. Sometimes I think I’m doing a good job of taking the fear of meaninglessness and turning it into something that makes the world a little bit brighter. Sometimes I think I did ok, but it’s not good enough.
I think it’s natural to feel conflicted about anything that you create. I also think that sometimes the fact that I never feel like I’ve finished… I’ve never finished a record and been like “ok, well that’s the one. that one is perfect.” It’s always like, “well now that we’re done with that, I’m glad.”
It’s funny that you say that. I’m reading Shulz’s biography. It talks about how he wrote to one of his contemporaries after his second Peanuts book was published and and expressed to them that he was still unhappy with his art, even though he was fairly rich at this point. He basically said “at what point do I finally feel good about what I’m doing?”
I doubt he ever did feel that way, did he?
I doubt it, but it kept him working harder. And I hear this a lot from bands when they’re being really open. And it’s odd for me, because I’m kind of in a middle situation. I have contact with bands, but also a lot of contact with fans. So I might talk to a group that’s headlining a festival one day and get home and answer emails from a high schooler in Minnesota that night. And I can honestly say that what you’re doing does matter, and it matters to a lot of people. I get lots of emails about bands, especially yours. And people still thank me for turning them on to Bishop Allen.
I’m glad to hear that, you know.
But anyway, back to the album for a minute. “Lion and the Teacup” focuses on small details, but weirdly paints a more full picture that way. We don’t know what the couple fought about, but the girl in the song is probably one of the most defined characters you’ve written about.
When writing that song, I wanted to be deliberate ….when making the music and writing the lyrics to go with the music, we wanted to keep away from melodrama. I feel like there are lots of bands out there who do these really big dramatic songs really well. Whatever, the Arcade Fire, U2 or even Coldplay. I feel like there’s this line of music that lives to swell and to grow and to do these huge gestures that play well to stadiums or whatever. I think with this record we wanted to stay away from that and make something that had a kind of personal energy and was upbeat and was purposefully smaller. When writing that song, that’s what I was trying to do.
I liked the idea of calling someone in a lovingly derisive tone “copra cita.” …And then rhyming that with teacup, I don’t know why. They don’t really rhyme.
I’ll go ahead and ask this now since it’s the first animal title…. Are all the animal titled-songs on purpose or not?
It was an accident. It was totally an accident. It was definitely not a conscious decision to put animals all over the place. I’m sure that had to do with things I was reading as we were writing this record, but I don’t know. It was actually a surprise to me to look and see that the whole record was littered with animal names.
Did that play into the choice of Grrr… as the album title?
Yeah. We were calling the album something different as we were working on it. We were calling it “Penny Dreadful.” Penny Dreadfuls are like pulp novels for boys in the victorian era. They’re garish, compelling serial narratives that exist in the 1890s. Sweeny Todd, he’s a character who was created in penny dreadfuls. But was we were writing it, we realized that the songs weren’t stories this time. At all. And also there wasn’t anything about them that was dreadful or dramatic. The songs were actually playing out more like inventories, lists or other encapsulated observations. So we decided it wasn’t the right title. It doesn’t make sense.
So we had to think of a new title. It was clear that there were animals all over the place in the lyrics. We chose “Grrr….” because it seemed playful and I think that’s the other thing we wanted it to be is playful.
Now, “Dirt on Your Shoes” — can I assume that song is about Christian Rudder?
But he did get married two years or so ago, right?
Yes. But that song… I went to Mexico last year and I was reading this book Under the Volcano which takes place on the Day of the Dead. And the Day of the Dead is such an interesting ceremony and there’s all these symbolic elements to it. That’s kind of where the song started. It didn’t start off as a narrative about the band or anything.
I think that song is about Mexico, but I’m not entirely sure…. [Laughs]
Wow. All this time I’d been reading it as a marriage song.
I didn’t set out with a specific purpose when I was writing the lyrics. When the tune originally popped in my head it came with a few word. Those words were coming from some experiences I had in mexico like reading under the volcano. I had a scene in my head I could play out that wasn’t really ultimately really specific or taken from one specific experience.
So I guess it could be a wedding song, I don’t know.
In the “Ancient Commonsense of Things” you list off a few everyday item couples — the hammer hit the nail, the clothespin and the laundry — and then you get to strings in a symphony. It made me think of your song “The Monitor” where you talk about men struggling in a war and compare that to you making music and ask if your courage and theirs are the same thing. Is the role of art in society something you think about?
It’s something that I think about every day. Again it comes down to the question: is what I’m doing important? Is it relevant? Is it something I should keep doing? Why do I do it? Those are questions you confront every day. I think everybody does, no matter what they do. And does the world need more pop record? I don’t know. I think confronting those questions is just a natural thing that happens almost every day.
I think with that song there are also moments where I can look around and see order and symmetry and things that make sense.
And I had been reading a lot and seeing that this guy GK Chesterton was quoted quite often. I didn’t know anything about GK Chesterton, but I went and found this book of his essays and I started reading them. They were full of all these great lines! I made basically a commonplace book where I wrote down all the lines I really liked out of these Chesterton essays. There’s this one line in an essay called “Lunacy and Letters,” which is basically an essay about the british library and why so many eccentrics hang out there. He’s talking about books, and not books as knowledge, but books as material artifacts. The book has such inherent logic to it. People who love books just understand when they hold a book that the way the object is created just makes sense to them in that same way that a blacksmith’s hammer or a plowman’s plow makes functional sense in a human way. And I liked that idea. but I also like the idea of objects that work together.
And Chesterton just tossed off this line “something about the ancient commonsense of things” and I thought that is such a great way of putting this relationship you can have with objects. and for me that magical relationship you have with objects is imbibed with a certain sense of humanity — it speaks to human relationships.
People put a lot of themselves into the tools
And vice versa. Tools can put a lot of themselves into people. There are certain things that when you hold in your hands, it’s not like “a person made this and then a person uses it.” There can’t be a blacksmith without a blacksmith’s hammer. It’s a chicken and egg thing. It’s like a circle. The thing, its use and the person who uses it are all the Thing. You can’t separate one from the others or put one before the others. There’s a perfect syncronicity to them. A synthesis.
“Oklahoma”… I know you spent time in Norman, OK and record the last album there with the Starlight Mints.
Yeah. We recorded most of it in a studio in Norman.
What about the state lent itself to a comparison with a girl’s eyes?
Well, I grew up in TX near the Oklahoma border. So I’ve spent a lot of time there. Oklahoma is this big, flat scrubby unwanted place. But the sky is tremendous and there’s something about it that feels kind of raw and inspiring in a way; but also overlooked.
But there’s also something interesting about the settling of Oklahoma too. The Sooners were these people who basically left to settle in Oklahoma before they were allowed — it’s this whole state that is founded upon the principles of jumping the gun, or cheating; not following the rules but going out and acting in your own self interests. It’s this positive thing, but also a fucked up thing.
Yeah. I have a friend who goes to OU and I was really confused when she explained their mascot to me. I thought “Why would you glorify these people?”
Right. That’s their heritage. Well, not THEIR, but it’s one of the stories of their founding.
What was it like writing that song?
First I made a demo of a song that was entirely different. for a long time that song was called “Manus Manum Lavat,” which is one hand washes the other. And it was this whole thing about hands washing each other. But it wasn’t working. I had an idea for a chorus and just threw in a verse. And of course it didn’t work, but the verse had some spunk to it. So then I went back and redid the entire song and got rid of the original chorus and redid it entirely, ending up with “Oklahoma.”
That was one where, for instance, the chorus for that song are three out of four, it’s not four full measures. It’s in 4/4 but it’s three measures long but it cuts early. It’s something the Pixies did a lot. That’s one place where Christian came in and said “I think it would work more like this.” And that’s kind of how it’ll work. I’d make a demo. the chorus wouldn’t really would, but would trip over a verse and Christian would come in with some suggestion of how to do a chorus and we’d work around it.
Last time we talked, you told me about how you’d had an awakening after learning the piano. Do you still write mostly on piano?
This was mostly written on the guitar and on the drums. a lot of these songs were written with some sort of beat in mind. I didn’t want them to be just a typical backbeat 4/4 rhythm like that. And we’d written songs before like “Like Castanets” where we’d have people come in who knew how to play drums — I don’t really know how to play drums really well. and over the course of the year, listening to Cully and Michael Tapper who’s been playing with us recently, their approach was to make beats more lopsided or come of in a way other than just the two and the four. So a lot of the songs would start with us trying to find a pulsing rhythm or a lopsided rhythm and then we’d build on top of that.
So a fair amount of the songs were written on the drums and then on the guitar, but also on the marimba. In the year before we made this record I’d listened to a lot of stuff that just happened to have marimba in it like Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart. I’d actually went and saw this really amazing performance of this Steve Reich piece and they had like twelve marimbas that changed over the course of an hour and a half. it’s this crazy thing they did for the River to River festival in new york where they did it out at the winter garden, which overlooks the Hudson River. it was done at like 4am so at the end the sun was rising.
So after all those experiences and knowing that we wanted to have a record that was based on rhythm, we started going around and trying to find various percussion instruments. and one of the things we really wanted was a marimba. so we found this guy on craigslist, a commercial fisherman in long island who builds marimbas. We got him to build us one and we brought it in. “The Lion and the Teacup,” which is a very marimba-heavy song, was basically written on the marimba.
A lot of people, myself included, are calling this your lyrical album. But for you, this is actually the rhythm album?
It is for me. But there are songs in the past where I’ve written the lyrics entirely first and tried to figure out the melody later. “Chinatown Bus” or “The Bullet and Big D,” those folkier sounding songs were written often with a huge chunk of lyrics and then trying to figure out what the melody could be. And the melodies on those are less important than the lyrical phrasing. The melodies on those particular songs are driven by the rhythm of the words.
On this record we didn’t want it to feel folky in the same kind of way. We wanted it to feel a little more beat-driven. So it didn’t work as much to come up with the lyrics first. So for me, at least, when I come up with lyrics first, it tends to fit into a song that’s structured more like a folk song and less like a pop song.
It’s definitely like the lyrics were written as we were writing the songs and a lot of them were completed after the bones of the song were in place. that said, I did a lot of drafts on the lyrics. I wanted them to really fit the feeling that we were getting rhythmically. so I think there’s something about lyrics that work well when they’re dictated by a rhythm. So I think while it is true that this is an album dominated by the pursuit of certain rhythms, I think that’s also a lyrical pursuit.
Last time I was in New York, I had to miss out on seeing a late night showing of the Holy Mountain with you. What’d you think?
It’s one of the craziest fucking movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s insane. I’d definitely recommend it. If you ever get a chance to see it, you should see it.
I was really tired, too. and it’s a non-narrative movie. if it’s close to anything else I’ve ever seen I’d say It’s close to a Matthew Barney Crenmaster thing. I just kept drifting in and out of sleep as I was watching it. it was a really weird experience. It had the logic of a fever dream, but it was really elaborate and ornate.
Yeah, I was disappointed that I couldn’t go. I wound up having my first New York karaoke experience, though.*
Definitely very modern.
Yeah, I felt pretty touristy.
Oh, that’s also a New Yorker thing to do
[Laughs] Well good! I feel better
* Justin from Aquarium Drunkard was involved, among others. He and I tried to sing the Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies” while drunk.
Bishop Allen’s new album Grrr… is out today. You can find it at your local record store or online. Hit up Bishop Allen’s myspace for tour/album information.
Justin also acted in a couple of movies that will be out this spring. Alexander the Last is premiering at SXSW and will be available on Time Warner On Demand in the IFC section March 15. Harmony & Me is playing at the New Directors, New Films festival in April.