Bon Iver’s Big Thaw

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By: Andrew Bruss

Justin Vernon – Bon Iver
About halfway down the Cape Cod peninsula, stretching eastward into the Atlantic, Bon Iver hunkered down for a week in an old movie theatre. Dennis Mass’ Cape Cinema was built in the 1930s as an opera house but for Bon Iver, it’s acting as a performance venue, a practice space and a tucked away spot that provided a little rest and relaxation while they gear up for an extensive summer tour that kicks off in the U.K., runs through Germany, takes them through the deep South, the Pacific Northwest and a half dozen festival dates like Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits.

Two years ago, nobody outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin had heard of Bon Iver. At that point in time, the project was a one-man act, with everything written and performed by Wisconsinite Justin Vernon, age 28. As the act gained notoriety, Vernon enlisted some local musicians to help fill out the highly textured approach he created by himself in the studio, as he hoped to bring the Bon Iver sound into the live spectrum. Now, his tunes have reached every corner of the free world and Vernon’s touching, sorrow-soaked songs have made him the envy of everyone from collar-popping yahoos to introverted flannel-clad beardos. This night, following a sold out performance at the Cape Cinema, the Bon Iver of Spring 2009 is cutting lose, hanging out with friends from all walks of life, riding the high of a killer performance and soaking in the beauty that is downtime, something they’ve had little of over the past year or so.

In the early days of Bon Iver, it was nothing more than Vernon and his guitar, recording multi-layered tracks at his old man’s place in the woods of Northern Wisconsin. Much has been said and written about the supposed “guy goes to a cabin, comes back with masterpiece” angle, and truth be told, the album he recorded has truly struck a cord with listeners worldwide, offering an auditory history of a moment in time that has resonated in a very significant way. The album in question, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago (read the review here), made a big splash, making the “Best of 2008” lists of Rolling Stone, JamBase, MOJO and Spin, to name but a few.

Justin Vernon – Bon Iver
But, as much as critics have sunk their teeth into the “guy in a cabin” mythology, the real story is what happened to that guy once the world sunk its teeth into his first batch of songs. The beast that is the music industry has a way of screwing-up success stories, whether through inflating egos, exposure to excess or the artificial bubble it’s been known to build around current stars. But, Vernon and his Bon Iver cohorts have thus far avoided the many pitfalls a rock & roll lifestyle will offer.

While folks grubbed out, boozed up and schmoozed at an art gallery next door to the Cinema, Vernon told me that none of his recent success entitles him to treat people differently, nor does it entail that he should be treated differently. “We’re not any more special because of [our success],” Vernon said. “We have this music and we play it and we’re extremely honest about it, but I don’t think that deserves a pat on the back. I’m not saying it’s not good, but it’s basically just us. This is who we are.”

Vernon’s pragmatic view of his current situation is very intentional. His emphasis on not being treated differently has been reinforced by the folks he surrounds himself with. Vernon’s brother, Nate, 25, keeps the trains running on time as Bon Iver’s tour manager. Sean Carey, one of the group’s two drummers, has been on board since Vernon was playing small gigs back home, and Bon Iver guitarist/vocalist/Vernon protégé, Mike Noyce, 21, got involved because he took guitar lessons from Vernon when he was in high school. Of the experience, Noyce says, “I stopped taking lessons from Justin after a while. After I stopped taking lessons, we started hanging out [socially] and that’s when I really started to feel like I was getting a lot out of it.”

For Emma was a gritty, heart-wrenching album that revolved around acoustic guitar and vocals that alternate between falsetto and baritone on a moment’s notice. While his fluctuating vocal tendencies were just as apparent as ever at their performance at the Cape Cinema, the edge that Vernon’s cohorts provided couldn’t have been clearer. They closed the main part of their set with the title track off For Emma, and as the tune wrapped they trailed off on a hard-hitting jam that featured simplistic-yet-explosive percussion, while Vernon raged on an electric guitar, evoking images of a mutton-chopped Neil Young as the bearded frontman wailed on a single note, abusing it with layers of distortion as he bent the strings as much as he could. Blood Bank, their follow-up EP to For Emma, debuted this January at #16 on Billboard’s Hot 200, and the self-titled opening track features Vernon getting grungy with a distorted guitar tone, and the last track on the EP, “Woods,” even utilizes a bit of Auto-Tune to manipulate his voice in a way that his already-stellar vibrato couldn’t.

Continue reading for more on Bon Iver…

 
We’re not any more special because of [our success]. We have this music and we play it and we’re extremely honest about it, but I don’t think that deserves a pat on the back. I’m not saying it’s not good, but it’s basically just us. This is who we are.

Justin Vernon

 

As for his influences, Vernon says it’s all about folk-icon John Prine. “He’s the one. Everything I do is a copy of him.”

Bon Iver by Aaron Landry
Whether he’s onstage or amongst friends, Vernon is the biggest guy in the room, in terms of build and persona. He’s a pretty tall dude whose head stands out above a crowd, and regardless of his size, his mixture of humor, sincere warmth and genuine charisma make him the focal point of any crowd he’s in. Plenty of folks with this type of presence may feel the need to either shy away from it or exploit it, but with Vernon neither is the case. Rather than embrace or hide from his natural social presence, he seems comfortable with it. He casually joked with his audience about the fact that people have come to expect an encore after an act says they’re through, and that nobody has “mastered the art of the encore.” Following the show, while folks munched on cheese and crackers, kicking back bottles of Sierra Nevada, a slightly-inebriated Vernon decided to take a seat behind a keyboard and hammered out a sloppy, intentionally humorous take on a Bruce Hornsby tune, as a friend playfully heckled, “You suck!”

Vernon’s comfort in his own skin has allowed him to handle the rapid praise heaped upon him from the media. “I see the hype and I can calculate it as overrated,” he said. “But so far I don’t think we’ve done anything that’s been un-founded by what we’ve accomplished, and if there has been anything [in the media] that says we’re overrated I don’t get mad about it. I just think, ‘Well you don’t know who we are.'”

Justin Vernon – Bon Iver
For as much attention as Bon Iver has garnered, Vernon says he’s yet to feel as though dealing with journalists has left him burned or jaded, but he doesn’t kid himself about the realities of tangling with the press. “I’ll tell you this man, there are two kinds of people – the type who are fake and want something from you without having met you, [the type that] want to use you for something,” Vernon said. “I’ve never met any of those people. The rest of the people are… [pauses]. It could be that I give people the benefit of the doubt, but most of the people I’ve met have said, ‘Thanks for your music, man. It’s been a big thing in my life.’ I just say, ‘You’re welcome. Thank you.’ So far I haven’t experienced any bullshit,” something he admits is rare.

In addition to keeping his career in perspective, Vernon seems to be very intent on keeping his background at the forefront of who he is and what he values, regardless of the heights Bon Iver reaches, and he’s proud of the grounded community he hails from. “There is nothing but 60,000 people in Eau Claire, Wisconsin who are trying to change the world,” he said. After thinking about this statement for a moment, he clarified, “[They’re] not trying to, they are changing the world.”

Vernon said that besides folks making a big deal out of “the whole cabin thing,” he thinks it’s pretty incredible to be at this stage in his career without feeling manipulated or exploited by journalists, record labels or opportunists. Regarding the picture the press likes to paint of Bon Iver, Vernon said, “It’s not degrading, but I recognize it as something that isn’t real. It’s real [in a way], but whatever. People don’t know me. They may want to know me, or may want to know us, but they won’t. And if they try to then whatever they know or want to know is more important than anything I could ever tell them. So, I’m pretty relaxed about it.”

Even with his fans, who he values immensely, Vernon doesn’t feel as though the taste the public’s had of him gives them an understanding of who he is. When asked what he’d say to a fan who feels they’ve connected with him personally through the way his music has moved them, Vernon replied, “I’d tell them that I’m extremely touched that it was my music that did that, but there were a series of musicians and people in my life that directed me to that point.” He added, “It’s all part of the process. It’s all about growing and changing.”

When asked about the future, Vernon said that he wants to be remembered as a family member and as a friend, not just a musician. “We’re in an extremely humble place, and we’re trying to play humble music,” he said. “Nothing we’re trying to do is supposed to make headlines.”

Bon Iver tour dates available here.

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