20 Questions: Bishop Allen

Photo: Matt Petricone

They started with an "EP a month" gimmick that actually proved how good they were at songwriting, and to celebrate their first new album in five years, tell us all about Winston Churchill.

Bishop Allen

Lights Out

Label: Dead Oceans
US Release Date: 2014-08-19

For Dark Oceans, a label that's been completely unafraid of exploring the dark psyche of the modern indie rock landscape, the signing of a band as poppy and joyful as Bishop Allen may at first seem a bit unusual.

However, this long-running project that was initially formed by Justin Rice and Christian Rudder have been making waves ever since their debut album Charm School in 2003. What initially brought them to national attention was their 2006 effort wherein the band recorded a fully-produced EP every month for the course of that year, filled with soaring harmonies, jangle-pop guitars, and a wry sense of wit and wisdom. The best from those sessions helped form their 2007 effort The Broken String, which started the band's fruitful collaboration with Dead Oceans.

Yet not much has been heard since the group's release of 2009's Grrr..., so it was the delight of indie rock fans everywhere when it was announced that Bishop Allen would finally be releasing a new set of material after a nearly five-year wait. Lights Out features the same homespun charm as their best early work, but also shows them having matured into pure pop craftsmen, able to churn out a hook most bands have spent their entire careers trying to capture on every single track of their album. To help celebrate this occasion, Rice answered PopMatters' 20 Questions, revealing the horrowing tragedy he found in Big Star's story, the pain of seeing Star Wars: Episode I, and an informed and powerful admiration for Winston Churchill (no, really) ...

* * *

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Halfway through Nothing Can Hurt Me, the 2012 Big Star documentary, there's an interview with Chris Bell's parents. Tourists, they explain, sometimes show up outside their Memphis house to take photos, and his mother says something like, "and we don't understand why ... and we just want our son back". I lost it. I am drawn to the tragedy of Big Star: under-appreciated, unlucky, and undercut by their own sense of failure, they managed to make music that was interesting, inspired, and endlessly inspiring. And everyone knows that now except for Chris Bell, who died young in a car crash, and, apparently, his parents. What brought me to tears, however, was more than the story of underdog tragedy: it was the humanity of a mother's grief. It must hollow you out to outlive your children.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I'd like to say that I'm like Hank Morgan, the Yankee engineer from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, who, when he finds himself transported back to medieval England, convinces the court that he's a magician, and proceeds to use good-old American know-how and ingenuity to modernize, democratize, and generally improve the lives of the people. But if I woke up in the 6th century, I'd probably just freak out, catch the plague, die of exposure, or get cut down by a knight on horseback. In reality, I'm probably more like another Yankee, Henry Adams from The Education of Henry Adams, who finds himself at the end of years of schooling perfectly prepared to thrive in the century that just passed, but woefully under-equipped to deal with the century that is just beginning. I think I'm ready for what's happened. I'm not so sure about what's coming up. Also: Henry Adams isn't technically fictional. And I'm from Texas.

3. The greatest album, ever?

I'm an emphatic listener, so I'm always like: "this is the best record of all time!" Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. 13 Songs by Fugazi. Whomp That Sucker by Sparks. Dazzle Ships by OMD. The Modern Lovers by the Modern Lovers. The record I come back to most: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan. The sneer, the swagger, the effortless abandon. Lyrically, it's pretty much just a long list of characters -- hundreds of characters doing thousands of tiny things -- but each character, though quickly drawn, somehow manages to be totally engaging.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars. When Episode I came out, my roommate returned from the opening screening, locked himself in his room, and wouldn't come out for four days. Despite the palpable sense of betrayal oozing out from under his door, I went to see it myself. It stung. And yet: I grew up to Star Wars, and though the new chapters undermined my devotion to it, the original three still hold a special place in my imagination.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Crossword puzzles. On tour, we work together on New York Times Friday puzzles, and we always get through them. It's part of our band bond. When writing a song, the end game always feels like a crossword: you've got a structure, a meter, a rhyme scheme, and some key lines, and you have to patiently fill every gap until the thing feels complete, correct, and intact. The more crosswords I do, the easier it is to finish songs.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

In 2006, we wrote, recorded, and released a four-song EP every month. It started as bravado, and ended as a feat of stamina. I think I know how a marathon runner feels. I'm proud because we didn't give up.

7. You want to be remembered for ...?

I'm not a great musician. I'm passable, and can find my way around a lot of different instruments, but I'll never really slay. I appreciate virtuosity, but it's not something I'm compelled to strive for, and it's not the basis of my favorite songs. I grew up going to basement punk rock shows, helping friends put out seven-inches, and collecting zines xeroxed at the local copy shop, so I identify with music that's close, personal, and homegrown. Rather than being remembered by a lot of people as a great, I'd like to be remembered by a few people as the guy who wrote their favorite song. The goal is to create something specific, and the legacy is that it engages the right person in a lifelong conversation.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

To be really inspirational, I think you have to overcome adversity and turn a bad situation around. So, like, Winston Churchill is inspirational. He was brash, and broadly criticized, but he managed to find strength even as German rockets rained down on London, and to articulate that strength to a populace on the verge of giving up. If he had doubts, he pushed them away, and the confidence he mustered was necessary to turn the tide of the war. I like him because a lot of what he did, he did with words.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Well: now I'm on a WWII kick. I love plainspoken, American vernacular done right. Mark Twain, for instance. Joan Didion. But the (unheralded?) masterpiece I wish bore my signature: One Man's Meat by E.B. White. White is famous for Charlotte's Web and The Elements of Style (AKA Stunk and White). "Omit needless words" is his famous dictum. One Man's Meat is a book of essays written for Harper's during WWII and widely distributed to soldiers abroad in which White chronicles his life on a saltwater farm in Maine. Every essay is haunted by the specter of the war, but each one finds hope in everyday details. He writes about raising chickens, hay fever, whether his schnauzer, AKA "the superintendent", is unpatriotic, his first time seeing a Ferris wheel, air raids and civil defense drills, and the ins and outs of small-town politics. It's hard to describe how sharp, succinct, and sad the essays are. The most famous is "Once More to the Lake", but my favorite is "The Death of a Pig". I wish I'd written it. That or 75% of the Talking Heads catalog.

10. Your hidden talents ...?

I'm an amazing snapper. I can snap off of anything solid: your ear, a wine glass, a cactus. Anything. If anyone needs a session snapper, I'm available.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

My grandfather was a farmer in Arkansas. He raised pigs, and grew grain to feed the pigs. Once when I visited him, I woke at dawn to find him leaning on a rake at the edge of an alfalfa field staring serenely out at the distant Ozarks. "The thing about work", he told me, "is that it can be lonely. But just give it some time: you'll get used to it." One of the best things about making music is that it's often collaborative: you play in a room or on a stage with other people, and your interaction is what gives a song life. Before that can happen, though, you spend a lot of time alone writing and revising songs and practicing your instrument. When that time alone seems empty or endless, which it often does, I try to settle back, lean on my rake, take the long view, and tell myself: "You'll get used to it."

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

When I was in Japan, I bought a Voigtländer camera for a song. It's a Leica knock-off, once manufactured in Germany, then manufactured in Japan, and it's indestructible. For most of my 20s, I took it with me everywhere, so I've got pictures of everything: all my friends, every stop on tour, everywhere I lived. It's a rangefinder, so the framing is always different than you imagined, and every picture has an amazing, unconscious quality.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?

My wife Darbie is an obsessive thrift-store hunter/gatherer, and I realized recently that I like wearing old clothes. There's something about reclaiming what's been tossed aside. It's like: someone gave up on or outgrew this, but I found a way to give it new life.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I'd like to talk to Karl Marx. Dinner at the Ritz would probably be inappropriate -- maybe we'd meet at a diner or a dive bar -- but I'd like to hear what he has to say about today's economy, and about the current state of capitalism. Forget Communism, and predicted uprisings: I'd like to hear how he imagines his critique of capital playing out against today's corporate interests. Also, I bet he's got a lot of great dad jokes.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

I'd go to downtown New York in the 1970s. Not only is CBGBs in full swing -- Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks -- but the city is on the verge of bankruptcy, so it's a fallow urban jungle being rewritten and reimagined by all kinds of passionate weirdos. Everything is dirty, broken, and fucked up, but also cheap and full of potential. I'm sure it was harrowing, but it also gave rise to some of my favorite music, art, and fashion, and it would be amazing to be a part of that.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Do sleepless nights pacing back and forth in the kitchen count? Or is that evidence that I fail at stress management? Breathe in, breathe out.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?

Beer is essential to life. The first time a cholera epidemic was methodically mapped -- which is when the concept of "patient zero" was born -- they discovered that there was a hole in the outbreak surrounding the brewery. Why? Because everyone who worked at the brewery, and therefore lived nearby, was partially paid in beer. So they didn't drink contaminated water. For them, for monks, and for me, you can find rare sustenance in malted barley.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Five years ago, we moved from Brooklyn to the wooly wilds of Kingston, NY, a small city on the banks of the Hudson and at the feet of the Catskills. It's near Woodstock, long a haven for artists and musicians, and it's full of ancient stone houses and stately Victorians. We're close to swimming holes, cascading waterfalls, rugged cloves cut steep into mountains, and amazing hiking trails and fly-fishing streams. We've also got a great venue (BSP), my favorite bar in the world (the Stockade Tavern), and amazing farm-to-table restaurants (Elephant, for instance). It's city and country, and only 100 miles north of NYC. It's my environ of choice.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Though I'm tempted to bring it back to Churchill ("Never give up. Never give up. Never give up."), I think I'd actually ask: why can't I afford affordable care?

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

We've got a record coming out August 19. Lights Out. We just finished shooting videos for it, and now we're getting ready for tour. Tour starts in a week. Time for band practice!

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