Bishop Reilly: Real life a muse for musical duo

  • With their new album, “Below the Underdogs,” music duo Bishop Reilly delivers a darker and more complex sound inspired by their singer’s seven years working as a prison guard. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • With their new album, “Below The Underdogs,” music duo Bishop Reilly delivers a darker and more complex sound inspired by their singer’s seven years working as a prison guard. From left are Jeff Bishop and Robert Reilly. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2021 7:07:44 AM

LEYDEN — With their new album, “Below The Underdogs,” music duo Bishop Reilly delivers a darker and more complex sound inspired by their singer’s seven years working as a prison guard.

Released this summer, “Below the Underdogs” is the fourth independently produced album from guitarist-producer Jeff Bishop and singer-songwriter Robert Reilly, known together as Bishop Reilly. The latest music video from one of the album tracks, “Free” was released on Oct. 30.

With this latest album, Bishop said the duo wanted to deliver something that was a bit more cohesive from start to finish, and something with more of a personality to it than their previous records. A native of Manchester, England, Reilly, 54, has played with different bands in Europe before finding his way to the United States nearly 25 years ago. He played in Nashville and different cities up and down the East and West coasts.

“For the first 15 years of my adult life that’s all I did — until I had kids,” Reilly said. “I played professionally from 18 or 19 until my mid-30s.”

He and Bishop first met amid the U.S. East Coast rock club scene of the ‘90s and 2000s when their respective bands appeared at many of the same venues. Bishop said the two musicians “view the world in similar manners, so it was natural for us to gravitate toward each other with a friendship.” As they gradually came to respect one another’s talents, their friendship grew into an artistic collaboration and they formed the duo Bishop Reilly.

As they played together and both began to have children, the pair came to the same conclusion — they weren’t making enough money playing music to help support their families. As much as he loved it, Reilly said, the full-time pursuit of musical success “took a back seat to being a dad and a husband.” A neighbor suggested he apply as a prison guard at a facility outside of Philadelphia in 2001. This started a seven-year journey that inspired many of the tracks on “Below the Underdogs.”

A consistent paycheck starting at $40,000 a year, with good benefits, was an enticing offer for someone “scraping it as a musician.” He worked at the facility in Philadelphia for four years, before moving to Maine and transferring to work at a maximum security facility in Maine for three years. His creative life stopped for a time as it became hard to balance gigs with this new job and family time and he grappled with imposter syndrome.

“There were times I’d be looking at my piano and guitar, and my singing voice had gone … and I felt like I’d failed,” he said. “My goal was to be able to support my family but now I’m in this wild world.”

“Below the Underdogs” is the fourth album from Bishop Reilly. With 11 tracks, this latest release brings a new flair to the duo’s style with songs coated in the feelings Reilly dredged up from his years as a prison guard. The things he witnessed or heard working these jobs took a long time to percolate, he said. Once he did tap into these buried feelings, he compared it to setting off depth charges -— tapping into one thing would set off a string of explosive memories.

“It was a good muse once I started to get back into it,” Reilly said.

‘It’s about escapism’

Reilly said Bishop mined their sound to be evocative of the emotions Reilly wrote into his lyrics. For many of the lead guitar tracks on the album, Bishop played on a hollow-bodied Gretsch guitar, which provides a rich, organic tone enhancing the album’s soundscape — one that’s reflective of the “dark and complex” feeling of walking through prison halls.

“It’s about escapism,” Reilly said. “There were times I was thinking — how am I possibly going to get out here?”

While a “vast majority” of men and women who he met as prison guards work hard and abide by the book, Reilly said “there are some who have no business being in charge of other human beings.” He shared a story about a time when he was transferring an inmate, who was in on charges of pedophilia, to a protective custody unit of the prison and two guards “with reputations” yelled to Reilly from the down the hall to hold the inmate for them.

“Straight away I knew what was going on, because the stairway from the corridor to the protective custody unit — there were no cameras in it,” Reilly said.

He jammed the buzzer for the stairwell door until the control room let him into the stairwell and he quickly shut the door between himself and the other approaching guards. After he signed the inmate into the protective area, he came back down the stairs and found the two guards waiting for him.

“They’re bearing down over me and I’m playing dumb,” he said. “They say, ‘the next time we tell you to wait — you wait.’ ... They were going to beat the guy up, even though he was in my charge. For that time from the shift commander’s office to getting him signed into the PC [protective custody] I’m responsible for this human.”

For a couple of months after this the guards gave him the cold-shoulder until “a crazy thing happened.” One day, a shift commander named Doug, “who kept the tough guys under control,” invited Reilly into his office over the intercom.

“I sit down, and then he opens his desk drawer and pulls out a CD — the second record Jeff and I made,” Reilly recalled. “The thing was, if he called you by your first name that meant you were in. He goes — I got to tell you, Rob, this is terrific.”

It urns out, Doug had gotten the CD from someone who worked the night shift. What he was trying to hide from his coworkers, Reilly said, ended up being a “golden ticket.” The two immediately started to talk about music and continue a friendship to this day.

After several years, working in prisons began to change Reilly, he said. He would come home from with maximum security inmates for 12-hour shifts to find himself acting “tired and short-tempered” toward his family. Realizing this couldn’t continue, he quit his job at the prison in Maine.

Making time to jam

Reilly has worked as a program manager with an outdoor adventure therapy program for people in recovery for the last three years. He and his wife, Sarah, moved to Leyden in November 2020. Their three children are now 19, 21 and 23 years old.

For his day job, Bishop works full-time in the tech field as a software developer, and runs a team of project managers for Comcast Business. He has been married to his wife for almost 22 years and they have three children of their own, ages 18, 15 and 13.

Despite busy personal lives and distance, with Bishop living in southern New Jersey, the pair makes time to jam. They meet in the middle to record their parts and co-write some of the songs. Reilly said his studio is pretty mobile, so he will bring the gear needed to perform together, then he takes it all home to build up the arrangements and record everything else.

“I think our prior albums are good, competent albums that are essentially collections of good songs, but this one definitely had more of an overarching theme that united the entire album into a bigger storyline,” Bishop said of their latest release. “It’s not just a collection of songs, but a continued progression of songs that sum up to more than just the component parts. We wanted to do something that could sit in the same space as some of our favorite albums we loved as kids.”

In terms of their personal styles, Bishop said they complement each other nicely, like “two sides of a coin.” With Bishop occupying the role of producer/instrumentalist to Reilly’s singer/songwriter, they have delivered several indie albums anchored by Reilly’s soulful vocals and Bishop’s considerable instrumental chops.

“Ultimately, I think we each respected each other. Not only what the other brought to the table musically, but also in terms of the similar ways we conduct ourselves,” Bishop said. “We take what we do seriously, treat people respectfully, and approach the business of making music in a professional way.”

More information on the music duo can be found on their website - www.bishopreilly.com. Bishop Reilly’s music is available on SPOTIFY and all major streaming platforms

Other music videos for tracks from the full “Below the Underdogs” album can be found on Youtube. “Before The Dam Breaks” https://bit.ly/3Hc3clW. “I Don’t Want To Go To Work” https://bit.ly/3C4VW7x.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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