Last December, Christian Rudder heard that an elementary school had discarded a rickety, beat-up piano, which was now sitting on a Bay Ridge sidewalk, free for the taking. So with help from a friend and a dozen grade-school kids, he loaded it into his van and hauled it to the Williamsburg recording studio for his band, Bishop Allen. Justin Rice, the group’s other full-time member, was out of town at the time, but upon his return he was inspired to incorporate the instrument into their textured, intellectual pop sing-alongs, despite barely having touched the piano since he was six years old.
“Something about its character made me interested in it,” Rice says, “with its chipping white housepaint and barely-in-tune strings just struggling to make sound.”
The next month, the group included a song about the piano on a four-song disc called January. The CD was the introduction to a ludicrously ambitious year-long project, in which they set out to self-release an EP of original music every month in 2006. (At press time, the November and December editions hadn’t come out, but Rice says they’re imminent.) Equally inspired by their quest for recognition and the Puritan work ethic, both men worked full-time on the albums, each named for the month in which it was recorded. Rudder got married in June but delayed his honeymoon, while Rice fulfilled orders by hand, which came in from around the globe. Rice’s girlfriend, Darbie Nowatka, designed the minimalist album covers.
Maintaining musical inspiration was also a challenge. “When you force yourself to write, record, and release 48 new songs in a year, you can’t be so rigid or have just one idea,” Rice says. “You always have to be changing what you think, trying to renew your interest and find a new perspective. It’s been, like, endless exploration.” Their guitar-bass-drum configuration gave way to an increasingly diverse sound; after the piano, they added banjo, ukulele, violin, viola, and glockenspiel, as well as a half-dozen players. The increasingly rich EPs each yielded an insanely catchy song or two, with highlights including “Click Click Click Click” (off July) and “The Monitor” (off March), both of which can be downloaded for free.
Rudder works for a dating web site he co-founded called okcupid.com, while Rice occasionally does casting work for filmmaker Errol Morris. But they say they both put at least 40 hours a week into this endeavor, which was, at times, marred by technical near-catastrophes. The $5 CDs were originally mailed in fragile cardboard sleeves — about one in five of which was crushed by U.S. Postal Service sorting machines. The entire April run had to be re-pressed because of a manufacturing mistake. The project eventually coalesced, however, and Rice says they’ve sold some 20,000 copies of the EPs.
Bishop Allen was probably best known previously for “Things Are What You Make of Them,” an ode to common sense off their 2003 debut, Charm School, that got picked for the Saved! soundtrack. Rudder and Rice formed the band in the late ’90s when they were Harvard roommates living on Bishop Allen Drive in Cambridge. Their third roommate, indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, cast them in his movies — Rudder played the lead in 2002’s Funny Ha Ha, while Rice stars in the auteur’s second feature, Mutual Appreciation. That film, which played in New York in September and is slowly being released around the country, details the post-collegiate travails of a Rice-like character leading a Bishop Allen-like band. “Some people try to be happy,” he says in the film, “but that’s not what I’m interested in.”
“There were definitely moments when I felt over my head and out of my element,” Rice says now, adding that he’s had no formal acting training. Then again, until recently he’d never crafted a box set’s worth of songs in a calendar year, either. “Everything I’ve ever learned is through brute force,” he concludes. “Or else common sense.”