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.
February 25, 2011 § 1 Comment
It’s a difficult life for Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, being the flagship band of what’s probably the most respected indie label on the planet; there’s the pretty constant weight of expectation and the inescapable fact that people – least of all music fans – don’t respond well to change. With that in mind, being renowned for your deeply personal brand of brooding lo-fi folk, putting out an album that not only reeks of optimism but is also 99% electric guitar is a bold move. A move that I’m sure not everyone will appreciate. Still, perhaps the rumours of their impending retirement have eased the burden slightly…
I caught up with the indie holy trinity (on behalf of Dazed Digital) at the bizarrely plush Landmark Hotel to shoot the breeze about CD sales and sorbet.
(click the link to read the original abbreviated publication).
DAZED DIGITAL: After what I saw on wednesday, you seem at the top of everything, and still seem to be having fun with it…so are you still set on retiring Bright Eyes after this?
Mike Mogis: Wednesday?
Conor Oberst: [to Mike] He was in Nottingham.
Conor: No…probably not. Definitely not. We’re not retiring Bright Eyes. We just say that every tour.
DD: A lot of people do….
Conor: We’re just trying to get the word out…sell a few CD’s.
DD: Has it been working?
Conor: Well, we won’t know until this coming week, you know.
Mike: When we got done mastering the record, Conor said something to the effect of “we’re just starting to get good” – and I do kind of feel that way. As a live band we’re taking ourselves more seriously; we practice more and we’re getting better as musicians; we’re better than last time we toured as Bright Eyes. I think it’d be a shame to stop.
As long as everyone wants to do it we’re going to continue to do it. We’re all good friends, close, we’ve been close for years – it’s comfortable. As long as we can make good music I think we’ll continue to do it, you know?
DD: If this [The People’s Key] had been the last album, would you have been happy to end it on that – was it what you wanted it to be?
Mike: I think in and of it’s self it’s a good…
Conor: [to Mike] Wait, but you just said every album should be your first and last album.
Mike: In and of it’s self it’s encapsulated well, I think. I’d be sad if it were the last album – but that’s more for personal reasons than the content of the album.
DD: People always love to hear the old stuff, but there seemed to be a pretty positive reaction to the new songs when you played them – how do you feel people are receiving it?
Conor: I don’t have a very good idea, you know, ‘cos I don’t get on to any sort of social media at all.
Nate Walcott: They seemed to clap.
Mike: Yeah and people were yelling out new songs, mostly Haile Selassie, both nights.
Conor: I guess there’s always going to be a familiarity factor with the old material.
Mike: Yeah, people cheered songs from Digital Ash that they never cheered on the Digital Ash tour.
Conor: I definitely feel like people tend to like…
Mike: Songs that they know?
Conor: I think they tend to like our albums like two years after they come out…they hate everything we do right when we do it.
Nate: Mystic Valley Band’s gonna take a little longer. People will like that in, like, ten years time.
Conor: Well, no one hated The Valley Band more than The Valley Band…so we had that going for us.
DD: With that in mind, you’ve got a pretty huge back catalogue now – on Wednesday you were playing songs that were older than some members of the audience…
Mike: It’s true, Falling Out of Love, I think you [Conor] were even quite conservative saying that it was 16 years old, because the record came out in ’96. I remember Ted Stevens playing me that song during the first Lullaby recording.
Conor: I think I was like fifteen…sixteen.
Mike: It was on a tape he had when we were recording Blanket Warm which was in 1995 and he had it on a cassette tape – we were driving in his Oldsmobile.
Conor: Are you getting all this?
Mike: It’s not important…it’s his way of saying “Come on, shut up Mike”.
DD: Is there anything you try to avoid playing? I mean, there are things that I wrote when I was 14 or 15 that I wouldn’t be happy with people reading or hearing now…are there things you just don’t want to play?
DD: You want to keep quiet about that one?
Conor: No, no. I think there are some songs that, you know, stand the test of time better than others for sure.
Mike: When I was preparing for this tour I was listening to all the albums and some of them still… some off Letting Off the Happiness…some of them I can see why you wouldn’t. I mean, they’re good songs but they come from a mind, a mindset, that I don’t feel…
Conor: Still in.
Mike: Like, Pull My Hair. That can still be played today for some reason…it’s kind of fun.
Conor: I think some songs, too, go out of favour; I feel like I’ll get sick of a song for a while and I wont play it then it’ll make kind of a comeback.
DD: In that same sense, you’ve been around for so long now – a lot of your fans have grown up with you. As your records have got more stable and more focused and you’ve got more stable and more focused, they’ve (hopefully) done the same. But there’s always going to be people who hang on to what Bright Eyes was. To them Bright Eyes is like a sort of Peter Pan figure…how do you feel about that? They’re always going to want you to be that…
Conor: Yeah, I feel like there’s an inherent desire from fans of music, and this doesn’t just have to do with our band, I think it’s pretty much across the board. I mean, people resist change; if they like something then they want you to keep doing it over and over again. Which is very, like, kind of short-sighted in my opinion.
Mike: You want to see what they’re going to do next. Take it in a visual art – like a painting or a sculpture. I mean, if they make the same one…
Conor: [to Mike] I feel like that and you feel like that, but I think a lot of people feel like “Oh, I like that, give me more of this certain thing”. There’s this weird time when someone does something that’s on a new record or whatever when there might be…it takes a while to get used to whatever differences there are.
Mike: It takes a little bit of time for fans, not just of us, but of a particular artist, to accept a stylistic change. And, I guess with Bright Eyes, we purposely create change with every record. With our fans they’re either very patient or very forgiving. Very.
DD: You say a stylistic change, but I think it’s been a bit more than that hasn’t it? Since 2005 there’s been a sort of shift – in this new record I hardly heard the word ‘I’ once. It’s gone from being really introspective, and maybe self-indulgent, to being more about things that are going on externally. Was there anything that prompted that…any event? Or just getting older?
Mike: Lyrically speaking, I obviously didn’t write them, but I’m in the band and I listen to them a lot. I think the songs are written from more of a universal perspective on purpose. With the earlier records being a little more confessional and maybe having some autobiographical elements to them, there’s something just more personal about them. This is more open-ended and I think a lot of people respond to that sort of music. When it’s not so cut and dry you can put yourself in to a phrase and take something totally different out of it than anyone else would take and how they would emotively react to that; you can put your personal life and agenda in to this idea or this thought or saying and you get a lot out of it. And, honestly, you can connect with a lot more people that way. I think that that was a conscious choice with this record – to try and draw in more people – it’s a slightly more positive record. We’re trying to spread positivity. That’s not something that we’ve actually thought too much about before. Not in a bad way, because we’re nice people, you know?
DD: You’ve put something out there consistently since 1998, EP’s or albums, and this has probably been the longest we’ve gone without Bright Eyes for a long time. What was it about this record that took longer to write?
Mike: Between Cassadaga and this record Conor:‘s been a part of, and written, three other records.
Nate: I think it was necessary. It wasn’t that it took so long to write this record, but it was necessary.
DD: Do you think it helped – that time apart?
Conor: Have you ever…umm. It’s like…have you ever eaten a really fancy meal that’s like…when they send sixteen courses?
Mike: [to Conor] No…not really. I guess the closest thing would’ve been in Japan?
Conor: Oh, well, if you eat a real fancy expensive meal they send like sixteen courses or whatever – but they’re all just bite-size. And every so often they send a palette cleanser, which is some weird sorbet. I feel like we had to…
Mike: Cleanse the palette?
Conor: Eat some sorbet…in between our duck pâté.
DD: Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk sorbet?
Mike: Monsters of Folk, yup. What did that taste like, Mystic Valley Band sorbet?
DD: This record, I think, you can probably see separately in a lot of ways. It’s much more of a rock record than the others were. I’m sure that’s taken a lot of time to cultivate? I mean, it’s a progression from Cassadaga but it’s completely different to Letting Off the Happiness or Fevers. Have you tried actively to preserve any of what Bright Eyes has been in The People’s Key, or just tried to write a record?
Mike: Not necessarily. But I do remember when we did Beginner’s Mind, we did think about it a little bit…that’s the only song where Conor actually plays acoustic guitar.
Conor: That gave it an old school feel.
Mike: [to Conor] I remember you saying you didn’t want it to sound that good. You said, “make it sound like a 4-track or an 8-track recording” so we used kind of a crappy mic. But that’s the only thing I can think of.
DD: That electric guitar is sort of the first thing you notice. If you listen to the whole album for the first time you really notice that it’s electric most of the way through. When I was listening to it for the first time it sounded like a Metallica riff on Firewall.
Mike: That’s hilarious. [to Conor] That’s what you always called it.
Conor: I feel like I have enough confidence in the sort of essence of our band or, like, the sound that we all make when we get together. I think that we can use whatever instruments and it’s gonna maintain the spirit of the band…the essence of the band. I guess I didn’t worry about it. I definitely didn’t worry about it not sounding like a Bright Eyes record.
Mike: If you listen to Letting Off the Happiness, the production on pull my hair, that particular song, I’d be happy with some of that production aesthetic right now. I was like “Woah, that’s fucked up sounding”.
Conor: I think we always do the best we can with what we have. Or try to do the best we can. I don’t know…it’s funny when people describe, or act like, we’ve moved away from making lo-fi records when we were trying to make as hi-fi records as we possibly could. It’s just we didn’t know what we were doing and we didn’t have any nice shit, so it didn’t sound that good – you know what I mean? It’s not like we were saying “This is cool lo-fi music”. That’s probably the only time, on this one record, where I was like “Try to make it sound shitty”. It’s ridiculous, I think, to want to – in that sense – go back in time…I just think you do the best you can with your interests and what you have at your disposal, as far as equipment and people.
DD: Where are you at now in terms of your interests? You’re doing a lot of stuff like the ACLU show a little while back. You can feel that on this record, I think.
Conor: Umm. Well, I think, you know, that was in response to what was going on in Arizona and also in Nebraska – it’s kind of going on everywhere in America right now. This really, barbaric, shortsighted…
Conor: Backwards, xenophobic fucking craziness. And that…I find that repulsive and offensive.
DD: It’s kind of coming through here as well…it’s fucked up.
Conor: To me, if there’s a theme in the record, I think it’s the idea that we’re all the same. People try to make it sound like you’re some kind of idealist, a daydreamer, if you think everyone should live together. But I think you’re just practical – I mean, think of all the misery we’d save if we just got over all our stupid hangups. Im not saying we should all sit around in green grass and comb each others hair or anything. Just not murder each other for no reason. Maybe not just exploit every vulnerable segment of the world.
DD: Thanks guys – I’m going to get in the shit if I take up any more of your time. Oh, Conor:, happy birthday for Tuesday and good luck with the album.
Conor: Thanks man, really.
The People’s Key was release on February 14th 2011 – the day of their first London show in three years and one day before Conor’s 30th birthday.
September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
“These days nobody wants a real job. Every one just wants to be Alexa Chung”
Enjoying my cup of tea and strawberry tart at my favourite Soho café, Maison Bertaux, taking in (Mighty Boosh star) Noel Fielding’s artwork isn’t so much a leisurely activity as it is a necessity.
It’s more of an optical assault than an exhibition – wall-to-wall paintings, sketches and scrawls aren’t enough – the strange shapes and intense colourings are merged together by bizarre, frantic (and occasionally profound) writings in black marker, the whole thing surrounds you in a way I find oddly intrusive and disconcerting. But still, as I’m getting to the custard (commonly known as the epiphany portion of the tart construct) it’s not the encroachment that’s bothering me – it’s the actual body of artwork.
Now, I’ve seen The Mighty Boosh so I know that ‘out-there’ is kind of the norm when it comes to Noel; but, much like the later Boosh episodes, the whole thing feels a little forced. Well, almost the whole thing. Between the abstracts and the doodles of Morph and Chaz with their cocks out (poor Tony Hart) there’s a single painting and corresponding sketch that stand out; one medium-sized and ornately framed, one small and unassuming, and they stand out solely because they don’t try to.
The whole situation’s very Joseph Heller, but these two works – with their colour, style and simplicity – conjure a vision of deep-rooted trouble that none of the more obtrusive pieces can really convey. It’s very much a Bryan Ferry themed event, with 90% of the writings and a lot of the art work being focused on the Roxy Music front man, but if you’re passing by – or having some of their world famous pastries – check out Vincent Gallo; that’s where the magic is.