Monday, May 15, 2006

Here's the Justin Rice (of Bishop Allen) e-mail inquisition you've all been waiting so patiently for. Enjoy.

Me: On January, it feels like you're channeling late 60's Beatles in terms of sonic quality and overall structural playfulness. Was this intentional, or do you prefer to let a song 'write itself' and ignore any desire to consciously steer a song in a particular direction?

Justin: To me, writing songs is a kind of thinking. The process starts with a fragment -- a picture, a story, a snippet ripped from a book I've read, a melody, a rhythm -- and that fragment begins to generate corollary fragments. Those I begin to piece together, and eventually I start to get a sense of the overall shape and character of the song. The goal is to see it through until it's fully realized, to shape it so that it begins to breathe on its own. It's a kind of thinking that is both conscious and unconscious. I don't try to write a song that sounds like something else from the get go, but sometimes I do discover similarities, and they don't often worry me. It seems natural that music I like should have a place in the music I make.

However, Christian Rudder, who writes with me, is the Beatles man. Maybe he's channeling that stuff without telling me.

How do you stay motivated? Do you have any routines when it comes to writing, either in general (such as the old 'song a day' adage), or during the actual process of turning an idea into a song?

I get up everyday in the morning. That's the first step. I don't like getting up, and I don't enjoy life the first hour I'm awake, but I make myself do it. I go to our practice space and play the piano for a while, then start recording. I work there until at least six o'clock, usually later. At night, starting around ten, I work on words. I do these things whether I feel like it or not. For me, being productive is mostly about discipline. Nobody makes me do it, so I have to make myself.

Why did you choose to pursue music? Do any other art forms inspire you the way music does? Ultimately, why do you write music? To have your message heard, self-therapy, some combination of the two?

I'm still not sure why I chose to pursue music. Lots of days, when I can't play things the way I want, or when I can't fit words into the structure of a song without mangling them, I think I should quit making so much damn noise and start only just writing. I've got piles of books, and I like being around them. I don't, however, have a record collection. Or an iPod. I also used to watch maybe two hundred movies a year, and I still work on movie sets sometimes.

However, several years ago, Christian Rudder and I recorded a few songs -- "Busted Heart," "Ghosts Are Good Company" -- and I let loose some strange compulsion. Thinking in songs fits somehow fits with my brain, and I find that I do it all the time, like it or not. I enjoy working with Christian, and with Christian, and with Jack, and there's great comfort in company. We urge each other along.

Has a general pattern emerged in the way you and Christian work together? Do you tend to write alone, then work out details together; or are both of you involved with each song (more or less) from the ground up?

The way we work changes from song to song. Sometimes we'll both work on a song together from the beginning, sometimes one of us will bring in a song mostly finished. Usually, it's somewhere in between. Some days I'll sit at the piano and Christian will play the acoustic guitar with his hands and the drums with his feet. Some days we'll both play electric guitars. Some days I'll play the banjo and he'll play the glockenspiel. Some days I'm in there by myself hashing through the protools sessions trying this and that, and some days Christian will be in there by himself doing the same. Often, we'll share parts, and those parts -- dozens of them -- will float out in the ether looking for their complements, and then, one day, one of us will put the right two together. I usually think about the words walking all around the city, and work late at night putting them together and sanding and polishing the joints. It's a very fluid process.

If you're like most artists, you're never satisfied with your work. Is there a particular goal you're trying to reach (even if it's unattainable)? If your answer is "I just enjoy the process", then what are your career/personal goals for Bishop Allen?

When you're working on songs, you deal mostly with details. You work out melodies, chords, and structures, and decide on the tempo, the key, and the time signature, so you mostly don't think big picture. I am not sure what I want, but I am learning more and more everyday how to better write songs, and it's the process of learning that keeps me interested. True, I'm never satisfied, but I think what keeps me going is the hope that I can always do a better job than I've done before. It's chasing an ideal. It's trying to scratch an unscratchable itch. And it's finding new details to obsess over.

Just for the hell of it, what's the funniest three-word phrase you can think of?

Free hot bread!

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