It all starts with a bona-fide love story: When Darbie Nowatka and Justin Rice first met and mingled in New York, they were certainly not thinking of a mutual career in music. First, they moved in together – and got married in 2009. Back then, Justin was already making music with Bishop Allen, while Darbie pursued a career in the visual arts. But when Bishop Allen decided they needed a female voice in the mix, Darbie discovered her own hidden talents, joined the band – and started her very own project, The Last Names, with her better half.
With living space in New York at a premium – and beyond sky-high for creative free spirits – the couple moved to the nearby countryside and settled in an old Victorian house among the relatively unspoilt and romantic Catskill Mountains. Here, they transformed an attic into a jury-rigged recording studio and opened their eyes, hearts and minds to their new enchanted and enchanting surroundings. The long-forgotten town with its moss-covered landscapes, dilapidated ruins and empty factories inspired many of their evocative songs.
The latest result of their personal and professional pairing, Wilderness, is a mysteriously melodic and, most of all, melancholic debut that invariably propels our thoughts to tranquil meadows and untouched nature – far, far away from New York’s everyday bustle and urban madness. Between the lines and the softest of notes Wilderness thus reflects the intertwined lives of Justin and Darbie somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
In addition, the vinyl version of their work comes in a hand-woven paper pattern that is both eminently pretty – and surprisingly customisable. Letting us all the way into their world, the likeable pair whisked us away into the stimulating environment of this Wilderness and told us how it all works between the two of them. For an added visual treat and some special moments on location, please check out the exclusive photo shoot above!
The two of you are both a couple and a band. So, what came first: love or music? What is it like to work – and live – together?
Love definitely came first. We met, moved in and have been inseparable ever since. Before we got together, Darbie had never really had anything to do with music. Only when Bishop Allen needed a female voice for the song Butterfly Nets did we manage to persuade her to sing – and we’ve been working together ever since. At the same time, making music has its ups and down. On the one hand, it’s really great when you can share your successes with the person you love, but on the other it can be really helpful to be there for each other when there are obstacles to overcome.
If you had to pick a genre – where would you slot in The Last Names?
Dreamy garage pop.
How do you write your songs? How spontaneous is the process?
Usually, it starts with Justin sitting down at the piano or taking the guitar up to the attic to come up with the basic structure and a few lyrical building blocks. Once that is done, he plays it to me and I help him to separate the wheat from the chaff. Then we record the good stuff and recombine it all, agree on a timbre and tempo and add further instruments until everything feels right and finished. After all that, we take a little break, go for a walk, return, give it a final polish, remove any superfluous bits and pieces – and that’s it!
Justin, you are not only a musician, but also earn your keep as an actor. Both involve being on stage – where do you see differences or similarities between the two?
There are quite a few similarities between acting and making music. Both involve planning, a good memory, rehearsals and then – during the actual performance – a sense of laid-back spontaneity on stage. At the same time, there are differences: When I am acting, I speak the words of another person and need to take on a different persona. In music, on the other hand, I can make my own songs, words and ideas come alive.
How does New York come into all of this? To what extent does it inspire you?
Both of us are explorers – we love to discover new things and there is so much more than New York City! Take a two-tiered waterfall, ending in a magical swimming grotto with permanent rainbows. Or an abandoned hotel complex from the 1960s with moss-covered floors and vines on the walls. Many of the strangest and most inspiring things we have come across so far are well outside the metropolis – somewhere in the tiny towns all the way in the middle of nowhere.
Your debut album Wilderness will be released on 2 October. Anything we should know in advance?
Wilderness tells the story of our move from the city to the countryside and of live within imaginary boundaries. We recently started listening to old flea-market finds, something that definitely left its mark on our sound. We combined odd organs, mellotrons and unfiltered vocals with guitars and later recorded it all with modern synths and MIDI controllers. In the end of the day, we wanted to make a record that felt both extremely old and incredibly new.
We couldn’t help but notice the exceptional packaging of the album’s vinyl version, woven from colourful handmade paper strips. Where did you get the idea for it all?
Darbie spent some time at Art College and always comes up with inspiring design ideas. This time around, she took inspiration from a particular Victorian weaving technique, taught as part of an educational initiative by Friedrich Fröbel in the mid-18th century.
Beyond these aural and visual experiments, you are also in the middle of a 52 covers stretch. Could you tell us a little bit about this project?
In order to keep moving and developing, we decided to record and release a new cover version every week. That’s a lot harder than it might sound, but really worth the effort. It allows us to take our favourite songs apart and make them our own. Once we’re finished recording, Darbie creates a collage for each song, transposing the covered artists into a unique Last Names dreamscape.
While we’re on the subject of favourite artists – could you tell us about your personal all-time faves and the latest great albums or artists you have come across?
They keep changing all the time! Right now, the following occupy our record player: early Cher, Nancy and Lee, The Hollies – and a recent release by our friend Trummors. At the same time, we are currently reading Big Day Coming, a book about Yo La Tengo, so we need to mention their stuff as well. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is their best track ever.
Any particular artists or newcomers we should be looking out for this year?
Definitely Yellow Ostrich.
Last, but not least: Do you have a favourite saying or quote (by another musician or artist)?
“Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb.“ (Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back)