“Frank Sinatra’s daughter and some weird Okie cowboy — it just felt suited to our personalities and what we like,” says the Last Names’ Justin Rice. “To take that and muck it up and put it underwater is where we started.” The frontman for indie-pop cult heroes Bishop Allen is talking about ur-hipster twosome Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, whose quirky ‘60s recordings were a key inspiration to his own new duo, the Last Names. Rice and his wife, Darbie Nowatka — who also plays in Bishop Allen — began concocting the dreamy pop morsels of the Last Names’ debut album, Wilderness, after exiling themselves from the indie-rock haven they used to call home.
“We lived in Brooklyn for about 10 years,” explains Rice. “We needed to move and we couldn’t really find a place that we could afford. We started looking at places upstate, near Woodstock, and ended up settling on the city of Kingston. We found a great house up here. It had this great, huge space on the top story that we turned into a recording studio. I started working up here every day writing songs and recording stuff that I thought was gonna be for the new Bishop Allen record, but as a result of moving we were in a new environment — all these weird towns that we overlook were hubs of tourism in the 1960s that have been sort of forgotten, and there’s this strange feeling of decay, it’s almost like they’re stuck in amber. But it’s something that we really like, this old-timey quality. We realized that the songs we were writing weren’t for Bishop Allen at all; they were for something else. So we decided to start a new project.”
The upstate ambience wasn’t the only thing about the couple’s new abode that affected the music they were making, though. “There’s just tons of vinyl around,” says Rice, “leftover from the heyday of Woodstock. You just stumble on garage sales, and it’s all really cheap. So we started finding all these great records. Someone had a cache of old bossa nova records — Astrud Gilberto and also Joao Gilberto. I had sort of listened to this via Stereolab or something but had never actually sat down and listened to a lot of bossa nova records. We found basically every [Harry] Nilsson record. Then for the next month it was Nilsson and bossa nova.” The crucial component of the puzzle, however, had yet to appear. “The other thing we found was the Nancy & Lee record and Nancy & Lee Again,” recalls Rice. “Lee Hazlewood as a songwriter was somebody I never really considered, I guess, and it turns out that he’s probably one of my favorite songwriters.”
Listening to Wilderness, it’s easy to imagine how the feel of Sinatra & Hazlewood’s sometimes surreal, dreamlike duets (e.g. “Some Velvet Morning,” “Sand”) might have crept into Rice and Nowatka’s home recordings. While Bishop Allen’s discography is full of peppy pop tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside the likes of Peter Bjorn & John or Vampire Weekend, the Last Names’ tracks are moody, midtempo, atmosphere-soaked affairs that could have soundtracked Twin Peaks if the duo hadn’t been busy attending grade school during the spooky David Lynch show’s run. Rice says the duo’s eureka moment arrived with a little technological aid. “In ProTools you can record at half-speed. Everything plays at half-speed so it’s all really low and sounds murky. Darbie heard it and she was like, ‘That’s the sound we should have, that crazy, weird, underwater sound … we should take that and marry it to Nancy & Lee.”
Though all the songs on Wilderness are original, the Last Names are still in the midst of their year-long online 52 Covers project, fueled in part by their garage-sale vinyl finds. It helped keep the creative juices flowing throughout the making of the album. “It felt like a good challenge and an interesting structure to record one [cover song] a week and put out 52 covers,” says Rice. “Sometimes when you’re recording a lot in your house and you don’t get out much, it really helps to have some structure, because otherwise you can really go crazy. So that was part of it.” The ambitious endeavor began on the first week of 2012 and will keep going through the last week of the year. It already offers a wide-ranging selection of songs, including the pair’s personalized takes on tunes by everyone from the Everly Brothers (“Take a Message To Mary”) to Brian Eno (“Needles in the Camel’s Eye”).
But for all of the duo’s outside influences, the music Rice and Nowatka make together ultimately comes from a very personal place — somewhere even more intimate than the source of conscious thought. Full of gauzy keyboard tones, aqueous, reverb-laden guitar lines, and warm, whispered vocals, it’s the sound your mind makes at the moment of moving back into the waking world from dreamland. “It’s the kind of thing that makes sense in dreams,” says Rice of the feelings the Last Names tried to capture on Wilderness, “the kind of thoughts you have in dreams, that are all sort of tangled up and messed up, I think are really interesting and help define your humanity.”
Wilderness is out October 2. Order it here and stream it below: