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Bishop Allen

The Best of Both Worlds

Jul 02, 2009 Bishop Allen Bookmark and Share

Shortly after beginning their Spring tour in support of the recently-released third album Grr…, Bishop Allen frontman Justin Rice spoke over the phone with Under the Radar while driving on the way to a gig in Salt Lake City. Not only is Rice the band’s frontman, but he’s gained a following in film circles as well, having acted in a number of films, including Mutual Appreciation, Let Them Chirp a While, Alexander the Last and, most recently, Harmony and Me.

Are there things from the Grr… sessions that haven’t been released?

Justin Rice: There’s some stuff leftover from this album, but none finished. It’s all in half- or three-quarter-finished form. Probably the first thing we’ll do is try to find a fresh way to work on that stuff. I can imagine some kind of EP between now and next record. We don’t want to wait as long between records this time.

Is it more of a “band” now, rather than just you and Christian Rudder, as on your early releases? How does that change things?

It changes things for the next record in that we’re becoming more comfortable playing as set group of people….There’s an inevitable lag between the time you finish record and put it out. Right now [we’re] on tour and [it’s] going great and we’re pretty happy with the way it turned out, but it feels like something that’s finished and it definitely, to me, is about what’s next.

How was the process of making an album different this time around?

We wrote it over shorter period of time. We sat down to write songs that cohere together, rather than writing songs over a year and putting them together to make a record, so it was more of a full-length oriented writing, and that’s a way we’ve never really written before. We also went in for part of this record to a studio and worked with a producer to do mixing and overdubs and stuff, and that’s something we’ve never done before. The way I think a record is gonna sound in my head is never the way it turns out. But I also know that if we’d never worked at Trout [Studios] it would’ve come out differently than it did. For example, I never really understood the concept of warmth in an audio way, but now I do. I can see that there’s a certain sound you get when you work with old analog equipment that feels different.

Obviously the economy and the recession are a big topic right now, and last year the story was that gas was $4 and nobody could afford to tour. Now it’s only $2, but nobody seems to have any money anyway. Is any of that affecting you guys?

It’s hard to say if we’re affected by it. There’s a part of me that’s optimistic, that says that people can’t afford to go on vacation but they can still afford to go see a show. It’s just a small indulgence in people’s lives that like the kind of music we play—that they haven’t given up on listening to music and seeing bands; that it’s possible for us to continue without being undermined in a significant way by the economy. We’ve been talking to venues as we’ve been playing, but [the affect of the recession] kind of depends on the cities.

Do you have examples of different cities?

Dallas was saying they were having a hard time with all their shows—they’re much less attended than they’d been years before. But in Washington DC they said attendance hadn’t changed at all—shows are just the same as they were. It definitely seems like regional mind sets, and it just has to do with whether people believe that music is integral to their lives or is an extravagance. We’ve been a band for a long time and spent a long time on the road before when we didn’t make much money, so we’re used to a pretty frugal existence. My optimism, I guess, is that I don’t think it’ll be as hard for us as it will be for a lot of other people, but I could be wrong.

The press materials for the record said you read several Phillip K. Dick novels while writing the album—did that influence the end result in any way?

I tend to read all over the place, and in this case I read Jonathan Lethem’s 5-novel Dick set. I tend to read fairly compulsively and Phillip K. Dick is someone who’s good for compulsive readers because he’s a compulsive read. It starts and it’s kind of annoying, and by end you can’t stop thinking about it. In some ways it feels like it did affect the recording, because when you read Phillip K. Dick, he’s not a literary writer exactly, and sometimes you feel like it’s bad writing almost, but his concepts and the ideas are always so engaging. Reading something that’s heavily concept-oriented and is driven by some kind of idea when you’re working on a record [is helpful in the mindset that] ‘These songs don’t have to be flawless, they just have to adhere to an interesting concept.’

Will there be future albums on Dead Oceans?

I think our Dead Oceans deal was two albums with an option for a third. We’ve gotten along really well with them, and they’ve been really responsive to our desires. They’re really smart and they seem to be cultivating an interesting roster and they work really hard. And they have no bullshit bones in their body. They don’t blow smoke up our asses. A lot of label people we’ve met, they sort of creep you out, whereas those guys are so down to earth and put out records based on this highly rarified set of common-sense principles. And as people who have put out our own records for a long time, we needed someone like them.

What about your acting plans? Do you plan to keep acting? How do you balance two different careers?

I definitely will focus on the music – it’s the thing I’ll spend my time on. I don’t ever anticipate going to auditions and living the life of a working actor; learning to read three pages of dialogue and going in front of people and getting rejected. As far as that goes, it’s possible to do all those things because usually when you’re on an acting job it’s real limited time-wise. It’s like three weeks. So when you’re done with it you kind of walk away. Dealing with music stuff is pretty similar—we try not to work 100% of the time—it’s about dividing things into specific projects for certain periods of time so that it’s possible to do both.

Tell me a bit about your work on Alexander the Last.

I had acted in a movie with [Alexander the Last director] Joe Swanberg in January [The Mountain, the River and the Road]—I don’t know if it’ll come out or what the deal is. It’s not done with all of the post-production stuff. But I met Joe and spent a few weeks with him on location and it was very intense in northern California but kind of remote. We spent a lot of time together in that two weeks. It was my first time spending time with him and watching him finish the film and it was really inspiring—Joe works constantly, despite criticism, and he has a lot of ideas and he’s really energized and enthused about his work and very diligent about pursing it doggedly. Not only that but every movie he makes is better [than the last]. So the prospect of working with him and being around someone like that—who I also think has always made movies that have interested me but now are starting to get really fucking good—the prospect of collaborating with him was really exciting.

How did you get comfortable for the rather intimate scenes in the film with Jess Weixler?

To be honest, a lot of how it’s possible to do scenes like that has to do with being around people like Jess, who just knows what she’s doing. A lot of what I had to do in that movie was just be responsive to her. It’s all her work. I just had to be game and go along with it. It wasn’t that comfortable but I just got over it fast.

You’ve been in a few “mumblecore” films at this point; do you worry about becoming the face of that genre, or that it’s a limiting acting style?

I’ve never pursued acting, and I wouldn’t really call myself an actor – I don’t audition, I haven’t really worked on learning how to do things outside of what comes naturally. I think if there’s any skill that I have it’s that I can behave naturally when the camera’s rolling. Those roles and being that kind of person are probably somewhat limiting, but I’m pretty limited in what I’m capable of delivering at the moment. I think that if I was really pursing acting I’d try to do something to get out of that role, but right now all of these things have just kind of happened to me. It’d be really crazy to do some kind of science fiction movie or a period piece, but I’d have to put some serious work into being able to do it.

I’m a pretty big Andrew Bujalski fan—were you involved with [Bujalski’s forthcoming film] Beeswax at all?

No, and I’m glad didn’t have anything to do with Beeswax and got to watch it with no association and no thoughts going into the screening of what it’s going to be like. It’s a really beautiful, really elegant, really nice movie. It’s the first time I can watch something he’s made and understand what it’s like to watch it.

So what’s got your attention now, in terms of books and music and films?

There’s not a ton of time, but I tend to read a lot of different books. I’m just finishing that new Roberto Bolano book, 2666, and I’m about to go read this new theory book by Slavo Zizek [In Defense of Lost Causes]. And I also like adventure books – I’m pretty obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson. I love going to bookstores and digging through second-hand bins and finding weird things; collecting Penguin paperbacks and old MC Wyeth editions of books. That’s what I tend to do when we’re not playing music. I read a book by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. I’m kind of all over the place with that stuff…. And then I also like all those movies. I’ve started to meet a lot more of the people that make those movies that play at SXSW. Andrew’s movie; Chris Swanberg’s movie, Joe’s wife, she made a pretty cool movie I just saw.

Were you ever in a rooftop brawl as the album claims?


That’s disappointing.

The only time anything like that’s ever happened was I was on the street in New York and I got punched in the face.

Wait, just, like randomly?

The girl I was standing next to started arguing with a guy and I only kind of knew her but just happened to be standing outside. They got in an argument about a taxi and she goes “What are you gonna do, punch me?” And he punched me instead.

Damn. Okay, so has anything remarkably good or bad happened on this tour so far?

Well we’re touring with Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, and they’re really good and their record just came out and this one of their first tours. But their transmission just blew up and they’re stuck in San Francisco right now, and it’s tough because we’re about to have all these drives west and they’re falling further and further behind and now we’re just hoping they can catch up.

[The tour eventually continued after MSHVB was absent for a few days.]

Do you feel like your involvement in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist widened your audience? Are there younger kids at your shows now?

I think [the shows are] a bit bigger and some of the more people who are coming are a little bit younger, but it’s not mind-blowingly different. But it is still a change.



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July 25th 2009

Mr. Rice and Co. looked awesome in their rubber boots at the Obstwiesenfestival in Dornstadt.
Thanks for the wonderful show.

July 14th 2010

I received my first mortgage loans when I was very young and that aided my family very much. However, I require the college loan as well.