Interview: Bon Iver's Justin Vernon
Bon Iver plays Town Hall this Wednesday, December 10 and Thursday, December 11 and then the Music Hall of Williamsburg on December 12. All dates are with the Tallest Man on Earth. Tickets are still available here.
Bon Iver, "Skinny Love" (MP3)
"My next record might be super fucking happy, and I don't want to shy away from that if that's what's happening, you know?"
Jesus references aside, you would think that since the highly praised release of For Emma, Forever Ago last February, Justin Vernon's life has changed dramatically--after all, just a year ago he was band-less, girlfriend-less and broke, whereas today he's beloved by folk-loving kids the world over. Although the bearded troubadour admits to "living his dream," not much has changed on a day-to-day basis, apparently. He just bought a house in small-town Wisconsin, right down the street from his childhood home, and when he's not touring, he's been playing music with Collections of Colonies of Bees, a Milwaukee-based experimental band, gearing up to write and record the next Bon Iver album in February, and awaiting the release of a four-song EP Blood Bank out next January 20th on Jagjaguwar.
I recently spoke with Vernon over the phone about life on the road, making sad-guy music, and how Bruce Springsteen is sort of bollocks these days. - Nick Anderman
You just got back from a tour, right?
We've been home for a little bit. I got home on October 15, so it's been about a month now, which doesn't feel quite long enough. But at the same time, I'm really excited about going back on the road. It's a weird relationship with touring that you can have, I think.
Had you done much touring before the Bon Iver album came out?
Not really. I did one tour as the guitar player for a band called the Rosebuds, and I did a couple of small tours with bands when I was growing up, like where we'd do three days or six days or whatever. Never had I ever really been out--it's been a pretty steep learning curve. I'm kind of a homebody, so it's just weird to be out there and love it and enjoy it a lot, and then at the same time want to be home. I'm always very happy to be out there.
What have you been up to since you've been home?
I've been working on some music with this band called Collections of Colonies of Bees, which has been really noisy and rackety. A lot of the other music I've been working on is not Bon-Iver-centered--it's been random other things, like a remix here and there.
A lot has been made of the fact that the Bon Iver album was recorded in a cabin in the woods in rural Wisconsin already, so I'm only going to ask you about it tangentially. How did your family react when you told them, "Ok, now I'm going to move to the forest by myself"?
I just sort of told them that I needed to go up there and that I needed time alone or whatever, and they were like, "Alright, cool." I don't know if anyone really knew what I was trying to do--I mean I didn't--but no one was worried or anything. Living in the cabin was not overly majestic. It was pretty bizarre to be living by myself out there, like that, [laughs], but it was also a really, really special opportunity. Just to be by yourself for that long is pretty weird.
You didn't have contact with anyone the whole time you were there?
Well, my dad would swing by every 10 days or so, and he would drop off beer and eggs and cheese--basically things I couldn't hunt.
The songs that you wrote there are really different from the stuff you did with your old band, DeYarmond Edison. Did you have an idea about what you wanted to do before you went to the cabin?
The songs definitely weren't thought of before I got there, but maybe the sentiment was already there. It was a very tumultuous time, so I don't really remember exactly how it happened, but I think the songs were the result of me being alone and playing music for the first time alone ever, or at least since I was 14 and messing around on my four-track. It was this weird charmed mentality, which was really nice.
When you started putting songs down were you like, "Oh, well now I'm making an album"?
About six or seven songs in I definitely realized that I had stumbled upon this path, or lineage of songs--they started to speak to each other and make sense. At that point I was like, "Yeah, I'll put this out." In between DeYarmond Edison records I used to put out these little 100-copy things, little EPs or whatever. I thought this one was a little better than those, so I thought I'd push a little harder. Kyle, my manager, and I made 500 copies of it, and that was sort of it--it was out of my hands at that point. People began to write about it on blogs--it was a really weird thing to watch.
So how have things changed for you since then?
They haven't changed much, actually. Other than the fact that now I'm living my dream or whatever. [laughs]
Is there actually a sense that you've accomplished what you wanted to accomplish?
It would be pretty silly not to say that, I guess. It seems somehow uncool to say that I'm "living my dream" or whatever, but I'm kind of coming to grips with the fact that I totally am right now. It's pretty weird.
There is this weird sense that you being alone in the cabin played a major part in the creation of the record. Is it going to be hard for you to write Bon Iver music elsewhere now?
I think the important lesson here is not that to make a good album you move to the woods. The lesson for me has been that if you want to make a good album, or a good record of what is happening in your life at a given point, you have to dig super deep, and you actually have to do some really hard thinking. When I'm around other people I'm very easily influenced by what I think they might think about musical decisions I make. The important thing for me is to have a sort of isolation mentality, so that even though I'm not isolated physically I'm still alone in my head.
So you had all this really personal, emotional music--what was it like to try to recreate it live?
It was a process. I was pretty nervous about getting up onstage because the songs were so complex in terms of the way they were arranged. They definitely don't sound like just a guy with a guitar, so getting up there with a guitar was not what I wanted to do. Basically, I just got up there because I had to, and it started to feel natural and not boring--which playing guitar and singing usually was for me at that point. The band came together sort of naturally too. Sean, our drummer, just showed up at a gig one day and he was like, "Dude, I know all your songs and I can sing them and play the drum parts," and I was like, "Cool." I already knew he was a good musician because he's a big jazz guy in town, so he just played the first gig with me and sang four of the songs. It was ridiculous. And then Mikey was a guitar student of mine when I was in college and he was in high school, and he's just a perfect fit.
Right before I got on the phone with you I was reading this article by [British electronic musician] Matthew Herbert, where he was basically lamenting the fact that musicians these days don't really talk about politics in their work, and he was saying that they should, because so much is going on politically right now. I'm curious to hear what you think about this.
Great question, actually. From my standpoint, [Obama being elected] was such an important thing for me--like, I didn't realize how much it meant to me personally. I realized that you're completely right--this is a time to stab into that somehow and to be talking about it. I think it's really important that for the first time, 20 million people, like you and me, sort of feel like they believe in what America could be. I don't know. If I feel like I have something to say naturally, then I'm gonna say it, and if it just so happens to be about politics, then great. I'm not going to go looking in a place that I shouldn't be as far as expressing something, you know what I mean? In a sense this is a really easy question for me to answer, in that I'm not going to do anything unnatural. Still, it is pretty interesting that apart from just going to a Barack Obama show and playing, you don't see a lot of activism [from musicians], and I'm also not positive that the kind of activism that people seem to be doing is ever going to work again. I think something new is on the horizon. It's going to be really interesting to watch. I definitely think things are going to change pretty drastically.
So you have these political impulses but at the same time you have standards as far as making music goes, so you can't just pour all your thoughts into a song because it won't necessarily be good.
I'm not going to go talking about something that I don't think I can talk about exquisitely. That's the whole thing with expression, I guess. You have to go looking for what you're meant to be expressing, so you can do it poignantly and better than the next guy.
I do wonder, though. I'm consciously not thinking about what the next record is going to be, and so when I sit down in February to work on it--I'm taking three months off to just focus on the record only, and I'm not going to think about it before then--I'm sort of wondering if its going to be this super-positive, "Go America" vibe or something. I guess we'll see. My next record might be super fucking happy, and I don't want to shy away from that if that's what's happening, you know? Especially not for some weird music scene reason, like people saying, "Oh, you're Bon Iver, you have to be the sad guy and make another sad-guy record." That's just not cool.
That said, lots of people do that. Even the good ones do that, I think, where they just keep becoming themselves and it becomes this weird incestuous thing where I think a lot of people's fucking art dies off at a certain point.
That's really interesting--like they become sort of copies of themselves and they just keep doing what they know they're supposed to be doing.
Well, and I think people get in ruts that way and some people are just so fucking rich or whatever that they might not notice it. You know, I'm really just thinking of Bruce Springsteen now, because I heard a song last night on Monday Night Football at halftime or whatever, and it was just awful and I'm like, "Dude, how can you be that bad?" But, you know, he's also written a few good songs, so...I mean, whatever.
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