Indie-rock outfit Bishop Allen returns after extended hiatus 

click to enlarge MATT PETRICONE
  • Matt Petricone

After Bishop Allen gave us the catchy, understated Grrr... in 2009, the then-Brooklyn-based indie rockers fell silent. But the band reemerged this April with its fourth album, Lights Out, an intimate and conversational record knit together with the same line of revelation that has transformed Justin Rice and fellow founding member Christian Rudder during their time off the grid.

Rice married Darbie Nowatka (keys, stringed instruments), and they moved upstate. Rudder sold a company and wrote a book, and the couple had a child. What was intended to be a one- year hiatus turned into three.

“We needed a moment to deal with the other aspects of life that are hard to deal with when you’re constantly on tour,” Rice said. “When you’re trying to be a band in your 20s, you have to be enamored in exactly what you’re doing, and it feels very urgent. Once you’ve lived through that, the urgency fades away.”

Bishop Allen formed in 2003, with Rice offering his voice and Rudder playing stringed instruments. They lived together in a house on Bishop Allen Drive, the namesake of Rice and Rudder’s musical project, and were complemented by a rotating cadre of bassists and drummers and everything else. These days, Michael Tapper drums on a permanent basis.

That year saw the release of their debut album, Charm School, a thoughtful, early foray Frankensteined together over a long period of time. Rice and Rudder played and recorded every instrument into a 4-track, with a drum loop, in a bedroom that doubled as a recording studio.

“To me, an effective way to sit down and write a song is to start recording it,” Rice stated.

He tries out arrangements and rearranges the structure of the song until he has what feels like a good germ. More than a decade later, Rice still swears by this piecemeal creative process, and the 4-track recorders haven’t gone anywhere.

While hitting dead ends writing their second album, Rice and Rudder found a discarded piano that changed everything. With the help of some neighborhood kids, they pushed the piano back to their practice space. Rice wasn’t a piano player, but he sat down at the keys anyway.

“When you pick up a new instrument and start to learn how it works, it leads you to new places,” he said.

Rice started making up songs, and everything felt fresh and vital. That shot in the arm turned into 12 EPs in 2006 — one for each month. They signed to Dead Oceans, and in 2007, much of the EP material was reworked — along with some new material — for their second full-length album, Bishop Allen & The Broken String, recorded at Blackwatch Studios in Norman while snowed-in by a crippling winter storm.

“It was a strange, sequestered experience,” Rice said, “but at the same time, it was really amazing because we felt like we could do whatever we wanted.”

Rice described Bishop Allen’s songs as plainspoken, gentle Americans. He hopes listening to Lights Out feels like reading a letter from a friend.

“The approach to the sonic palette is much more scientific and, I think, more adult,” Rice said. “The world seems a bit more melancholy to me now than it did when I started the band. I think a lot of the most beautiful moments in life and in music are melancholic moments. I think there’s something sincere and true about longing and sadness and it feels very human, and because of that, there’s beauty to it.”

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