Child of Winter, Child of Sun – Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) Interview
July 28, 2011 § Leave a Comment
[this interview first appeared in abridged form in Dazed & Confused Magazine's July 2011 Issue]
Justin Vernon isn’t Bon Iver – that’s the first thing you ought to know about him. He calls him self its ‘curator for the time,’ and suggests – rather coyly – that some day that position might be held be someone else. But, for now, Bon Iver is a project that he leads – a project often (much to Vernon’s despair) more recognised for its back story than its musical efforts. Yes, it was recorded in a cabin in the woods, yes he had just broken up with his then girlfriend and his previous band, yes he had a pretty huge beard – but that’s just not what it’s all about.
He left the that cabin almost four years ago now and, having entirely re-assessed his signature sound, all but retiring that acoustic guitar, Justin Vernon emerges – wearing an impressively well-notched belt that, without any hint of irony or ostentation, holds collaborations with Kanye West (featuring twice on his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album) and contributions to the New Moon soundtrack – ready to unleash his project’s third release: The imaginatively titled Bon Iver.
It’s a far cry from the lo-fi, beard-scratch-inclusive, acoust-a-croon of their inaugural LP – recorded in a brand new studio and accented by hints of post-rock, Peter Gabriel and Prince – Mr. Vernon’s self-titled effort is the boldest statement of his musical intent to date. And it probably isn’t what you were expecting…
What do I call you – is it ‘Bon Eye-Ver’, ‘Bon e-ver’ – ‘Mr. Bon’?
It’s pronounced ‘Bon E-Ver’ – people started calling me Bon Iver and Mr. Bon, but it’s really not nom de plume; it’s not an alter-ego. It’s not the name of a band – it’s not the name of a person – it’s a project. It’s that element; I’m just Justin.
Bon Iver is very different to both previous records – how would you describe it?
It’s called Good Winter, Good Winter – but it’s not about winter; we’re putting it out on the Summer Solstice – that’s sort of the beginning of life, of the longest life there is, you know. But it’s also wishing ‘good death’ to this place – this Bon Iver, Bon Iver. But this album is more about dealing with joy as it comes – inviting it in.
The first track is a ballsy way to start – is it meant as a sort of ‘fuck you’ statement?
There’s two answers to that, I’ll give you the second – and the second one isn’t as important: Yeah, it’s saying ‘You will not tell me what to do, you will not dictate what I do as an artist,’ but that’s the unimportant reason. I wrote that song because I needed it – I needed to thrash and chaotically deconstruct things that had become too plastic in my life. That’s why it’s called Perth, it’s like beginning, it’s like birth. There’s a chaos to that and there’s also a beauty.
It’s hard to believe that you ‘Forgot how to write songs’ – was it more about trying to avoid being typecast for the beard, the falsetto and resonator guitar?
I think I might’ve been stoned when I said that. I didn’t forget, I just couldn’t write with a guitar anymore – it wasn’t speaking to me. I had to locate a new sonic space; people talk about their “magic guitar” that they use to write songs – I don’t have one of those anymore – it takes more. It takes the studio and the gear and the microphone to have it sound the way that I need in order to write a song. That’s what I meant by that: de-construction/re-construction.
In that sense how has the process of writing songs changed for you – it’s a much less lyric driven album, so you must’ve had quite a different approach to writing it?
It wasn’t altogether different to For Emma – that was the biggest change that I’d gone through sonically, songwriting wise, so the process didn’t change that much between then and now – I just wasn’t using an acoustic guitar as much. On this record I allowed myself to go in to a different zone, but lyrically it’s the same for me as it was on a lot of the songs on the first record – more like flume than any other song. There was this vast, vague landscape you could go in to and not have any real idea what’s going on, but somehow, at the very same time, know exactly what’s going on.
I know what you mean about it not being lyric-driven, because I agree with that, lyrics were the secondary thought. I actually worked on the lyrics on this album for much longer, over the course of years, to get them right, and to get them right seems strange because they always read like I’ve just stopped in the middle of writing. But, somehow, each song is complete in that way.
You’ve had really positive feedback for the first two records, did that have any effect on writing the record at all?
No, but it fills you with enough confidence, I guess. I was lucky that my first record was this thing that helped me out – but I didn’t care – I just don’t give a shit what people think, per say, I just know that I need to do what’s important for me and if as many people like it, then great. But I knew handing in this record that I loved it and that I’m proud of it; that’s kind of all that mattered. So I never thought about how the songs would sound – I never thought about how this would sound in a record review. I really feel super-separated from that.
You’ve got Volcano Choir as an experimental outlet – why fix what isn’t broken – why not just experiment with that and leave Bon Iver as it is?
If you’re not experimenting I don’t really know what you’re doing; you’re basically just musically jerking off a bunch of times. And nobody wants to watch anybody masturbate.
So, when you were writing the new record, you didn’t hold back at all and try to keep something that people might recognise as being Bon Iver?
Nope. Again, I don’t not care but I also don’t give a shit about pandering to something in any way other than what I need to do artistically for me. It’s way too big of an opportunity to express myself – I jut knew that was the most important thing.
Do you think Kanye West was a fan of Bon Iver or do you think he was just box-ticking by including you on the album?
He was, man. I knew he wasn’t just shining me on – he asked me to fly to Hawaii for Christ’s sake. He was in to what I was doing; he would sit me down and talk to me about the lyrics to Blood Bank and I was like, ‘Who are you, man?’ He’s a good fan and just like anybody. He just gets put in to a rap genre; he is a rapper and he wants to make rap records, but he’s smart.
Smarter than people give him credit for?
People are fucking racist. However you want to look at it, they’re afraid of a black guy with an open mouth – it’s ridiculous. And, not through any fault of their own psyche, they’re gonna pinpoint that and put him in a corner. He asks for it sometimes, but he shouldn’t have to shy away from what he’s feeling.
You played together at Coachella – how was that?
It was cool to be part of a scene like that, even thought I’m not really adding to it – I’m just up there. They gave me a bunch of white clothes and just said, ‘Go up there.’ It was surreal; it was cool to be a part of that big of a visual production but I’m not capable of constructing something like that for myself.
You’ve never been interested in making videos for Bon Iver, then?
It’s something that I’m interested in. We’ve been working on a film, this non-narrative art-video project that will be a visual compliment to the record, so I’ve been doing a lot of photography and filming on my own – it’s something that’s gripping me at the moment, but I don’t know about dancing and stuff like that. I don’t like when people are all about the weirdest shit. What I like about Kanye is he’s totally enthralled with classic art, like giant pieces of stone, but I’d rather just show up and play.
Speaking of films, what possessed you to make your soundtrack debut with a film for desperate teenage girls about shiny vampires?
That’s a weird one. I don’t know those films and the little bit I’ve seen was pretty unwatchable. And, to be honest with you, I said no to that because I don’t really jive with that shit. But, the next day, I was working on this song and I though ‘Shit. This sounds like a fucking emo-vampire-song.’ I was feeling really weird about it, but driving down this country road in the middle of nowhere I saw this farm girl and she had iPod headphones in; she was wearing a Twilight t-shirt and I decided: ‘I’m doing it’. People don’t read Pitchfork or read music magazines to hear about bands – I heard about Dinosaur Jr. for the first time because of Wayne’s World 2.
This new record has some scattered 80s sounds to it, did that rub off from Peter Gabriel or just from music that you listen to?
I think there’s bits of that sound that one Korg and one keyboard can give you; it just breathes a certain sonic space – it’s a digital snapshot of an analogue-synth-sound. It’s just impossible to replicate.
I was half expecting you to break out in to Purple Rain mid-song…
Good… I almost did…
The place name’s on the album, do they relate to the content of the songs at all?
Yeah, they all do, take ‘Towers’ for example: ‘Towers’ is the name of the dormitory that I lived in in college; it’s made up of these two towers – North and South – my girlfriend lived in one and I lived in the other. It’s about falling in love, but also about what happens when you’ve long fallen out of love and those reminders are still there. You drive by them, these two buildings, and you look, and you realise that we really built that up. That we really built that love into these things, and for a long time afterward looking at them really made me feel sad; to see these empty buildings that I don’t go in to anymore. But then, as time goes on, they start to become kind of joyous in their own way: you can look at them and think ‘that love was great and these buildings still stand tall’. But there’s also an element of the fact that they’re just buildings – they’re gonna fall down one day, and they’re not that important because there’s new love in your life and you’ve got to break things down that get built up.
Carrying on in the vein of location, it’s pretty well documented that For Emma came from a very specific place – is there anything since that even comes close in terms of inspiration? Is it weird to think there are probably people sat with their fingers crossed hoping that your life fucks up again?
I definitely saw that out there. But not everything in my life happened in those three months; you live your life and you realise it’s not that important. That’s why it’s taken three years to make this record – it allowed so much of that stuff to come in without the need for suffering. It was more about just exploring feeling in general rather than some specific hook up that I had. There are specific things on the record but they’re more joyful than they are anything else.
You’ve got a bunch of tattoos of elemental symbols, do you feel like you’re letting down that ideology people associate you with for the sake of technical progress? Do you ever feel like just going outside and shooting something to address the balance?
I want music to sound good, but that doesn’t always mean make it sound better. What’s better? The 80s came and all of a sudden people had this mastery of technology – and guess what happened – music started to sound glassy and impure. People have said this record ‘doesn’t sound pro,’ but it sounds pro to me. So I let them re-mix it, but mine sounded better. This is exactly how I wanted it to sound. I mixed it, I spent years mixing it, and it’s like…it’s done.