This spring, Derek Bishop released his second album, Bicycling in Quicksand.
It’s a bouncy, funky collection of 10 songs that show off Bishop’s unique energy. Using 2015 production methods, he’s delivered old-school dance music, the type some of us miss and others wish we were around for. It’s a perfect summer soundtrack
Derek Bishop spoke to us about the beautiful dancey era of days past and told us his plans to bring them back. He’s on the road this summer, with an upcoming vinyl record release showcase on Saturday, June 13, at Pianos in New York City at 7 PM.
Bicycling in Quicksand has a throwback vibe, but you can tell it was created by people who have given lots of thought to its production. Is that lo-fi/hi-fi feeling by design?
That was our intention. I came to the table with my producer and said I wanted to make a disco record, but not like what you hear on the radio now — the very processed dance stuff. I’ve seen clips of Donna Summer on YouTube, and she has a backing band with a full 18-piece string orchestra, as opposed to now, when someone comes out and maybe they have two keyboardists.
Wait, was Donna using live strings?
That was how they recorded it. They had a lot of synthy stuff, of course, but all those strings you hear were an actual orchestra.
Now, I wasn’t able to bring in an orchestra, but I wanted to do everything I possibly could to emulate that sound. We got some vintage keyboards and a couple of string players, and through the technology we have today I was able take the old-school instruments and sounds and work them in. We recorded everything live to get that rock-band sound, and then I was able to layer on top all the ABBA-esque backing vocals and keyboards. But that was our goal from the start, to sound throwback-ish but fresh.
It definitely reads. You know, it took a second listen to really get all that was going on, and I think it’s because the album is so layered, both in production and themes. They’re fast songs with dense lyrics — a lot to take in at once. But when you go back, it’s very rewarding. Did you know you’d be packing so much into each song?
[laughs] I tend to that. I know I often take one song and make four out of it. When I give the charts to the band, sometimes they freak out, like, “Why are there five different verses that go in different directions and three bridges and things like that?”
But a lot of it just comes from where the song wants to take you. I’ve got an idea where I want to go lyrically, and I want to make sure those bases are covered. I don’t want to do a half-assed version of the song, so I write better when I have the lyrics finished first. Then, I’ll let the music take the lyrics where they need to go. Which means sometimes I veer off to a long sax solo from the ‘80s or something.
We were having fun with it. We wanted to pack in as many references and winks and nods to certain types of music, and we hoped listeners would pick up on them. And if they don’t, that’s OK! You don’t need to absorb everything. It’s like how growing up, you know a lot of songs that were catchy and even sing along with them, but it isn’t until later, maybe as an adult, you really get what the song is about.
You mention you were winking: Are you actively quoting a specific artist or era?
In some cases, yeah. And maybe some of that is so thin that only I am picking up on it, but that’s OK. It’s what gave me the genesis to take this song in that route. For example, with the title song, “Bicycling in Quicksand,” I had just watched some movie where Foreigner was on the soundtrack and I realized you don’t hear songs like that anymore. So I was in the process of working on that song and thought I should it give it some of that vibe. And of course, with some of the keyboards I have from the ‘80s, you put that sound on top and suddenly it sounds like “Jump” by Van Halen.
I didn’t want to overtly reference anything, just wink. So maybe you listen and hear ABBA or (and I’ve gotten this) “Pinball Wizard” from Tommy.
Since you bring up Tommy, you used to be an art designer for Broadway cast albums, right?
What were some of yours?
I did a lot of Stephen Sondheim’s recent shows. I did Fun Home, Lady Day with Audra McDonald, actually, a lot of the recent Audra McDonald shows. Oh! I did Xanadu. I realized I could retire after I did that one. That’s all any young gay man wants to do, something that gay! I put all the rainbows and stars into one graphic design package, so at that point I had reached my potential as a designer. [laughs]
What a great note that must be to get: “We like it, but could we have some more disco balls and rainbows, please?”
[laughs] It was such a treat — and so rare. Because no matter what you’re working on, people are usually, like, “No, we don’t need that much pink.” But in that case it was, “More glitter! More pink! We want unicorns!” And before I was doing that, I was doing romance novel covers, and it’s that same type of thing, where they wanted more curly letters, more tacky, fun, curly shit. You’re trained as a designer not to do that stuff, so when someone gives you the freedom to do it, it’s kind of lovely.
But really, these jobs allowed me to create without the fear of judgment. If I wanted to put a couple extra “disco balls” on a song, I did it. I didn’t care if sounded too much like ABBA or too retro. It’s what made me happy in the studio.
Well I challenge you on that, because I don’t think there is a phrase, “too much ABBA.” But second, there is this decided visual element to your songs. I’m thinking Ziggy Stardust or “Seven Seas of Rhye.” It’s not the lyrical imagery, but there’s something that sounds like it comes from a visual place. Knowing you have that design background, I’m wondering if a visual popped up in the writing process.
Someone asked me if I conceive the videos when I’m writing the songs, and I wish that were the case, but I’ve never had a big enough budget to do something that grand, Ziggy Stardust or “Pinball Wizard.”
When I’m playing certain instruments, especially those from decades ago, I feel like I’m in one of those bands where everyone just dressed really cool and had a certain look. Now everyone looks the same for the most part, in T-shirts and jeans. So I was definitely harkening back to that era when album covers were cool and there weren’t videos, but there was a definite visual aspect to all the music. You’d get an album full of 12×12 pages of lyrics and all that. I was definitely thinking along those lines.
I loved those days, with the liner notes. Which you see some of now, like with the Scissor Sisters’ debut album: a very cool cover with this beautiful spread of the band in the liner notes. Even if you weren’t listening to the music yet, you were still in their world.
They’re a great example of a band who, especially from the get-go, took that element you just described. There was a visual element to their music that included the packaging and the look. They were a throwback in that same way, referencing that cool stuff from the ‘70s and ‘80s and even the ‘60s. I was immediately drawn to that when they did it and knew I wanted to do something like it when I was making this album.
Do you get a sense that listeners are coming with you on that journey? Or, as the music industry and its marketing has evolved, are we less comfortable in joining you now?
I think we might be less ready to take the journey because we’ve gotten less used to being on it. For example, you know how when you keep using a calculator you forget how to do math? We’re all used to downloading and getting instant little singles and mp3’s, so music has become detached from the visual element because of it. Very few people buy CD packages, albums — though, there is a lovely market for it, and I hope those people find my record.
But yeah, I think audiences may have forgotten that buying an album can be an event. It can be something where you sit down and actively listen to something. I mean, I love to listen to music when I’m jogging or doing the dishes or whatever, but with some of those lovely albums from years gone by, they’re things you really have to let absorb. And I think if people started doing that again, they’d find that listening could be very active.
Do you remember the first album you went to the record store to buy?
I do! It was Olivia Newton John’s Greatest Hits.
Amazing! We’ve come full circle!
[laughs] I guess I never really got out of that circle.
Actually, “Physical” was #1 the week I was born. It was written in the gay stars!
I think that song was #1 for about half the year, so you had a big window.
But even that album, it had inner sleeve and photos and lyrics — like, twelve things for you take apart when you got it. It was really cool. That was also one of the first albums that, when it was released, that also came out with a video album; MTV wasn’t even around then! Kudos for her for putting that stuff together. That’s what I miss, that kind of buying event. I’d release that same kind of packaging if I had the budget.
That’s the second time you mentioned budget. I’m wondering if having parameters to work in has been an asset?
Oh, absolutely. I took the album photos myself because I ran out of money.
Really? They look really good. (And pretty hot, too!)
Thank you! We were spending a lot of time on the record, and I never wanted to say we spend too much time making it. If you’re going to spend any time, or if you think you are good in any way whatsoever, you know you can be better. All it takes is practice and more time. So the album was coming out so well, I didn’t want to put the brakes on and tell the producer we’d spent too much time and we should just present it as is. I was willing to go for as long as it took. But in doing so, I knew that any money I might have budgeted for a cool cover shot went out the window. So over Christmas, I was at my mom’s house, got one of those big white backdrops and took a bunch of pictures and hoped whatever came out worked.
And that’s the album cover?
Yeah. I was really, really pleased with what came out of that. So yes, budget parameters can open up doors you didn’t know to look for.
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Last modified: October 8, 2019