For the past nine months, Justin Rice and Darbie Nowatka have been covering songs by a bevy of prolific artists, including British rockers Badfinger, renowned songsmith Neil Diamond, and the late country singer Roy Acuff. The collection of reinterpreted tracks not only demonstrates the duo’s first-rate taste in music but also a desire to keep their creative appetites in check. And as if this harmonious pursuit wasn’t ambitious enough, the husband-wife team, who recently adopted the moniker The Last Names, recorded and mixed an entire album of original material, ‘Wilderness.’ Scheduled for release on October 2, the LP is comprised of twelve luscious tunes inspired by the changing of the seasons, adventures of relentless explorers, Hurricane Irene, and time spent in the couple’s new house in Upstate NY.
Continue below to read what Rice had to say about each track on ‘Wilderness.’
After ten years living in New York City, my wife Darbie and I moved 100 miles north to Kingston. It’s an old quarry town on the Hudson River at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. We traded a tiny railroad apartment for a spacious Victorian house — the house is cheaper than the apartment was — and suddenly we had space to work and a new environment to explore. We turned the top floor of the house into a ramshackle recording studio, and I started writing songs I imagined were destined for the next Bishop Allen record (both Darbie and I are also in Bishop Allen).
We spent days wandering our weird new surroundings — the trails, cloves, and waterfalls of the “forever wild” Catskills, the tiny towns stuck in the amber of the 1960s, the ruins of forgotten resorts and abandoned factories — and the feeling of the place seeped into the songs I was writing. They were unlike anything I’d written before. They were dreamier, hazier, more shadowy, and Darbie sang lead on most of them. I realized they weren’t Bishop Allen songs at all, so I enlisted Darbie to help finish them, and we started The Last Names.
We recorded and mixed ‘Wilderness’ by ourselves. We experimented a lot with open guitar tunings, garage-sale organs, and classic delays and reverbs. We dug through hours of mellotron samples, and played around with a tiny handmade synth called the Pocket Piano. We brought our old friend (and frequent collaborator) Michael Tapper up to play drums and percussion. After hours and days and months of tinkering up in the attic, we ended up with something we’re really excited about.
In the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains, there are tons of abandoned hotels and factories leftover from an era of more tourism and greater industry. We’ve taken to exploring the ruins. The best one we’ve been to was a Las Vegas-sized resort left fallow since the mid-1980s. Standing in the middle of it, you can feel the life that’s left behind. You can almost see the bellhop hurrying luggage to the elevator, the sunbather putting down her book to close her eyes, the harried husband sneaking off for a quick drink at the bar. Now the rooms are littered with old trail maps, dirty mattresses, and empty booze bottles. The indoor pool is full of deck chairs and kickboards. There are trees growing up through the tennis courts, and vines crawling in and out of every window and door. And standing there you think: “How long until the wilderness takes this place back?”
We read the news as New York City braced for Hurricane Irene, and felt the collective gush of relief as the hurricane passed through there without doing much damage. No one expected much to happen up here — we’re so far from the shore — but, shortly after the storm subsided, the mountains, already saturated due to months of heavy rain, dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons all at once into tiny stream beds, which overflowed onto main streets and into storefronts and living rooms. In places, the water crested 18 feet above flood level. Margaratteville and Prattsville were nearly washed away. Two days after the storm, we stood on the banks of the swollen Rondout Creek watching as chimneys, decks, patio furniture, and entire pumpkin patches floated by, bobbing up and down in the dirty water, slowly making their way to the Hudson.
There’s a book on our shelf called Dead Reckoning. It’s full of first-hand accounts of exploration from 1800-1900, which was, apparently, “The Golden Age.” Mary Kingsley writes about her time alone in the jungles of West Africa, Francis Parkman about hunting buffalo with the Sioux in the Black Hills, Fridtjof Nansen about his attempt to walk to the North Pole. In most of the stories, the explorers get hopelessly lost. Before GPS, when a ship was at sea and it had been a cloudy, starless night, sailors would have to estimate their position based solely on speed and direction. They’d give it their best guess — dead reckoning — and cross their fingers.
“Last One Standing”
I talked to a guy about writing songs for a musical, and he told the second song is typically the “I Want” number: the lead dutifully explains his/her desire, and that desire becomes the engine of the play. At first, this song was a list of things I have been — believer, conductor, liar, detective, teardrop, shadow, thorn — followed by a simple “I want” — “I want to be the last one standing.” It felt too expository, like our lead was oversharing. We made it a duet trading line for line, and suddenly it became about two intertwined people trying to explain away the past and apologize. The last line ceased being simply a statement of the desire to survive: it became a promise they make to stick together. We decided to put it fourth instead of second.
I read a book about wandering the forests of England called Wildwood. There was a chapter about the age-old practices of pollarding (evenly cutting the tops off of trees) and coppicing (cutting trees down to stumps), both of which were essential since wood was a primary fuel, and they had to make sure there was enough not only to cook and heat homes, but also to smelt iron. The forest belonged to the King, and how and what and when you could take were highly regulated. Coppiced trees grow back as a dense thicket of straight shoots, and when you cut them every ten years or so, they stay orderly and manageable. But now that we don’t rely on wood for fuel, now that we’ve ceased to cut the coppice, what do those thickets look like? I imagine they are dense and dark and impenetrable.
At night in the winter, when there are no leaves on the trees to obstruct my view, I can look out the window of my study and see a frozen creek far in the distance. When I’m trying to write, I imagine walking slowly down the snowy hill toward that frozen creek pulling a sled behind me. And I imagine the frozen creek is a frozen lake. This is the only song on the record without drums or percussion of any kind. We tried putting some on, but the song felt lonelier without them. It’s also the end of Side 1.
When we moved upstate, we started finding great records everywhere. We find them at garage sales, flea markets, junk shops, and weird little record stores that still seem to thrive anywhere within thirty miles of Woodstock. Everything costs about a dollar. Some days we’ll come home with a stack, then spend weeks going through it until we find something that really sings. If something really sings, it stays on repeat until we know every note and every breath. When we started writing this record, we were obsessed with Nancy & Lee. It’s part Okie, part go-go. It’s at once bright-eyed and world-weary. Listening to that record, we knew we’d found some kindred spirits.
“The Blackest Night on Earth”
This song started with the title, which came to me late one sleepless night. You feel fragile walking around a quiet house in the dark. You tiptoe because when a floorboard creaks, or your foot lands heavy on a stair, it feels like you’ve broken a bone or chipped a tooth. I remember walking out into our yard, which is untended and overgrown, thinking: “Where’s all the noise? Where are all the lights?” And I was happy to be so far from the city.
“One Black Feather”
An autoharp and an omnichord sit side by side on a desk in our studio. The autoharp is an old folk instrument: it has 36 strings, and when you depress a button marked with a chord name it dampens all but the relevant strings so that when you strum it, the chord you’ve selected rings true. The omnichord was invented by the Suzuki Musical Corporation in the 1980s. It attempts to mimic an autoharp, but it’s weird and digital, and it sounds not like an autoharp, but like some past vision of the future. The cover of the omnichord instruction manual features a drawing of an alien and a human shaking hands. We used both instruments on this song.
Our apartment in Brooklyn was a railroad. There was one window in the kitchen, and one on the far end by the bed. Neither got much sunlight. Our house now has windows everywhere, so we know when the sun rises and sets, and where it is at any given point during the day. We were home all year when we were writing this record — it was the longest we’d ever stayed continuously in one place — and so, for the first time, we really experienced the seasons shift. This was the last song we wrote, and as we were writing it, we could really feel the long days giving way to long nights.
We’ve had a steady stream of visitors since we moved. Most stay a day or two, but some have stayed for weeks. When they stay for weeks, it’s usually because they need to get away from their crowded city lives. Often, something has gone wrong, and they’re tired of dealing with whatever it is, tired of constantly confronting their problem and talking it through with commiserating friends. We have an open-door policy, and when people come who need to be left alone, we do our best to leave them alone. They can close the door to the guest room and sit in silence, or check their email or whatever. We decided to sing this song in unison to give it the feeling of a unified, wholehearted invitation.
This was the first song we wrote, though it ended up being the last song on the album. We record in Pro Tools, and there’s a function that allows you to play or record at half-speed. You just hold shift before you hit the space bar. We discovered it accidentally, and found that the sound of a song playing half-speed — everything slower and pitched an octave lower — was a perfect fit for the songs we were writing. We started playing slower and pitching everything down — not just guitars and keyboards but also drums and percussion — and suddenly it was easy to write the rest of the record.
Pick up The Last Names’ debut album, Wilderness.
For more information on The Last Names, check out their official website.