Q & A: Bishop Allen's Justin Rice Talks Punk, Being in Depeche Mode (sort of), and Puzzle Obsessions

Bishop Allen are a prim pop confectionary who churned out their third proper full-length last March titled "Grrr..." The candy-coated tracks are worth the impending toothaches, placing Bishop Allen, named for the street where the founding members lived, in cahoots with fellow saccharine rockers Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors and, Phoenix's own, Miniature Tigers. Stateside will present Bishop Allen at Modified Arts on Wednesday, Nov. 11, along with support from Darwin Deez and Futurekind. Frontman and founding member Justin Rice was available for a mid-morning chat a few dates into the tour.

UP: You and Christian [Bishop Allen bandmate] studied at Harvard. How did the two of you meet?

JR: We both worked at the radio station in Cambridge where there was an obsessive record collector's vibe. That's why we make music. We both really liked records and we found at the radio station, and the music that was celebrated was homemade.

UP: Your labelmates Dirty Projectors, also former ivy leaguers, are often called high art. How would you describe what you create musically?

JR: I think we write sort of catchy mischievous pop songs. Um. You know. I think they're fun to listen to and fun to play. When you listen to them, you're in on the joke, or sort of in on the game.

UP: If I'm not mistaken you and Christian have some hardcore punk roots. Tell me a about how you first got into music, and how you've ended up at, and as, Bishop Allen.

JR: I think that for me the time when music made an impact on my life was when I was in high school and I found all these punk rock records. It wasn't just the records it was this scene. Making records setting and up shows on their own. I really identified with those people. When I went to college, I met Christian at the radio station which specialized in punk, noise, etc. People who worked at the station, everyone had a band or printed records or set up shows. It was a community that was really proactive in, I don't know, involving themselves in a world that interested them. So that was definitely how we ended up doing this. In the kind of stuff I really like, it wasn't aggressive mean or tough. It was the other side: the arty side, the weird side.

When we were in a hardcore band the songs were sillier and a lot faster, but there were a lot of similarities. You listen to a lot of music, and it's not interesting to have everything prescribed in such a small way. At some point in listening to hardcore records, you get sick of them and want to discover new things.

UP: So what bands were you into?

JR: You know, I saw Fugazi five times. It was hard to get exposed to bands, but through Fugazi I discovered Dischord and really got into it; both the current stuff and the back catalog.

Christian was really into The Misfits. When i first met him, he was in a misfits cover band. He was also in a Devo cover band. They only played one time. They nailed the performance. They had all the instrumentation, the outfit changes. They billed it as "Devo Live" with the words "all new member written really small. At that time Devo hadn't been around for 15 or 20 years. And, Christian and I had a band called Depeche Mode. We used Casio keyboards, pre-programmed beats and sounds, and made, like, snarky pop.

UP: Do you have any Dead Oceans label mates you're bonkers about?

JR: Actually, I like a lot of the bands on Dead Oceans. Dirty Projectors, Bowerbirds, John Vanderslice. The new Califone record is really amazing. Some of the bands on Dead Oceans I've like for years, like Califone. Some have people I know in them that are relatively new, like These Are Powers. Some are new like Bowerbirds. I think they're doing a good job of cultivating a roster that I really enjoy.

UP: What's the singular best moment you've had with this band so far?

JR: Oh. Um. I don't know. You know. We've been doing this for a long time; put out records, been on a lot of tours. I remember at the end of 2006 when we were overdubbing the last cymbal crash on the last EP of that year. We released on EP a month that year. I really liked the song, how it sounded and the feeling of completion.

We were playing The Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, where we started. I saw The Fall there and The Raincoats there. I thought: I want to play there. And we've done that before, but it was great, so fun, the fans were great. It was a feeling of victory.

UP: As far as your tour, how are you and the band getting psyched up? Do you have any tour rituals?

JR: We do a lot of puzzles, lots and lots. We tend to do them together. By puzzles, I mean word puzzles. When we do them together we do hard ones, like the Saturday New York Times one. They're not easy, but we've sort of gotten better over the last few years. We've started these cryptic puzzles in Variety magazine. So we do a lot of those together. You can just sort of ride in a van and think hard about a particular phrase and that keeps you occupied and keeps you engaged.

UP: According to the Dead Oceans site, on this tour you'll unfurl some sorts of surprises, cover songs and magic tricks were suggested possibilities. Can we have a hint?

JR: Yeah, I mean. There's nothing that crazy. We learned some covers, and there's a bunch of songs, our own and covers, that we've never played and are playing now. This will definitely be a different tour. I wish we had magic tricks, you know.

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski