Bon Iver bandleader and longtime Eau Claire resident Justin Vernon visited The Current’s studios lately to help us out with an all-Eau Claire edition of The Local Show. What follows is a transcript of his interview with host David Campbell; you can find audio of his Theft of the Dial here, the playlist for the Eau Claire Local Show episode here, and listen to the show in the widget below.
David Campbell: The New York Times quoted you as saying you wanted to get to know every inch of this city, rather than getting to know a bunch of inches of any other city. Why do you feel like you have such an attraction to and in some ways such a monogamous relationship with Eau Claire, Wisconsin?
Justin Vernon: I’ve lived there my whole life. It’s ups and downs with any place that you live, but, I’m not sure, I think that I just became interested in the fact that every year that I live there — I’m 31 now — every year that I live there there’s something new that I can discover about it that I like about it, whether it’s sort of a weird underbelly thing about the town that I don’t know, or whether it’s a new band, some high school band or something. And I just thought that it’s a good way to get to know a place by knowing it for your whole life rather than moving on. And it can be a challenge sometimes. We’re a small town and we don’t have everything. At all. [laughs] Especially what we have up here in the Cities. But it’s also kind of the reason that I want to stay, sort of be a part of it, lend myself to it, or whatever.
Campbell: Is that feeling the impetus for the Wisconsin tattoo on the chest?
Vernon: Yeah. I got the counties, that sort of general area highlighted. Just that knowledge I think you get from a place, from being there a long time. And that connection that you have with it after that.
Campbell: Tell me about growing up in Eau Claire.
Vernon: You know, it’s a pretty lukewarm cultural experience, to be clear about it. But there’s also just so much talent and I think that the schools there and where I grew up… I was lucky. I think that the public school system and their general societal ways of doing stuff really treated me well. I know that it didn’t treat everyone well, but for some reason it worked for me. I’ve heard people say that they were born in the wrong place, and I just feel like I was born in the right place.
Campbell: When you started playing music was it a thing that you did in your family, or was it something that you experienced through public schools?
Vernon: Music was big in my family. We had piano lessons and stuff, my brother and I, and my sister. My dad and mom were both musical people. I started out on John Prine, playing guitar around the house, and quickly wanted to write songs and stuff and then studied music in high school. There were a lot of options, a lot of classes you could take about music, and the teachers were unbelievable world-class teachers.
Campbell: Where do you stand on the funds for music programs in schools?
Vernon: It’s a very complicated, complicated thing to answer. Because I think in one way you see the country kind of fighting with itself as far as, you know, “where does the money come from for this?” And money for arts and things like that. And like I said, it treated me nothing but well. But then you look around like, “Should I have had this wonderful education if A, B and C person didn’t have any of the opportunities I did, because they didn’t get to go to that school and they were stuck in Durand, Wisconsin or something?” So it’s really complicated. But I know this: when there’s money there for arts, and there’s teachers there that care about music and kids, it only benefits everyone.
Campbell: Do you think you’d be where you are without that special experience?
Vernon: I would not be. I would not be. I think that there’s plenty of people that have made their way in the world without that kind of support and education, but I would not be anywhere without it.
Campbell: When did you venture away from the school-band projects and first start playing out in Mount Vernon, and later in DeYarmond Edison? When did you first make that leap?
Vernon: I started playing in bands in middle school, but my first kind of real trip was actually a band with James Buckley, who’s up here in the Cities. I was a freshman and he was a junior, and he sort of recruited me to be in this really strange band where we wore like antarctic winter masks and koala hats and stuff. It was called Pleeb. And that was when we started showing up at, like, confirmation classes and playing these really weird, really weird shows. It just sort of went out through that, just joining different bands, and trying to play as many Battle of the Bands and gigs at bars that we could get into.
Campbell: What was the community like in Eau Claire at that time?
Vernon: Well, there were a lot of cool musicians that were my age and a little older, and then there were all these different eras of people playing at the bars and the clubs. Some people knew each other, some people didn’t, but you could definitely tell that it was a music town with a knowledge of itself, and that kind of connected it.
Campbell: How did you make the decision to move to North Carolina? What were you looking for that you couldn’t find in Eau Claire?
Vernon: Brad [Cook], Phil [Cook], and Joey [Westerlund] and I, who are now Megafaun, we all kind of went down there as DeYarmond Edison, and we just wanted an adventure. We had been in Eau Claire, what we called “incubating,” for too long. We were like chicks under the light for years and years. And when I got to North Carolina our minds were sort of exploded with a new community, new people, with new perspectives on music. We got this residency at an art gallery and started doing really experimental music and things like that. And so in that regard, it completely smashed open the windows of music in my life. I quickly became pretty homesick. But I wouldn’t be here talking to you guys without that experience.
Campbell: After Bon Iver blew up, is that why you decided not to relocate to one of the coasts or the bigger cities, but to work out of Eau Claire and build a studio and make that your home base?
Vernon: Well to be honest with you, I haven’t had time to blink. I just had lunch with my mom before this and I didn’t have time to — we were just talking about how the last five years have been kind of crazy. When that happened I was sort of homeless, I didn’t really know where to be, so my brother and I found a spot to maybe build a studio, and to be honest with you I just haven’t had time to think about where else to be. But in the meantime, whenever I get home from tour and I’m driving in Eau Claire I kinda just do some fist pumps because I’m happy to be there.
Campbell: We’re going to spin some music that you’ve selected from some of your favorite contemporary Eau Claire bands, some bands that don’t exist anymore, records that you’ve reissued on your label, and we’re gonna start out with one from a collaborator of yours, Ryan Olson. This is a band that he was in. Tell me about Sled Napkin.
Vernon: Ryan and I have become friends, and we’ve collaborated a lot and argue a lot about things. But when I was in eighth grade, he was a senior, and I wrote him a fan letter. I was like, “your band has changed my life,” and he never got it, of course, or if he did he didn’t tell me he got it. But yeah, eighth grade I would go to the high school battle of the bands and watch them play, and it was just like the energy up there, and the fact that they were just kids from the Third Ward in Eau Claire, I was just kinda like my mind exploded. And the songs that I’m gonna play by them are from this 7″ by them I have that’s pretty rare. So I feel pretty cool to be able to play it for you guys.
Listen: Sled Napkin, “Wolfshirt”
Campbell: Does Ryan Olson know that you snuck the Sled Napkin 7″s in here? And are there more?
Vernon: There’s more Sled Napkin. I’ve got the tapes, I’ve got the albums. But this is the special one. There’s actually an insert in this 7″ where he’s wearing a sticker of one of my bands, Pleeb, that I played in with Buckley, on his hat. I was really proud of that. I like nostalgia. Ryan doesn’t. So I told him that he just didn’t care. He was like “don’t do that.” But I did. Sorry.
Campbell: Amateur Love’s It’s All Aquatic was rereleased on your label Chigliak earlier this year. What can you tell me about that?
Vernon: This band, we shared a house and shared bandmates throughout the years, and they were really my favorite band. Which was distracting when I was trying to write songs with the other guys in the band, because Josh, the songwriter in Amateur Love, was better than me. But years and years later, it became, I think, probably the most important record to come out of Eau Claire, probably ever, as far as what it did to the scene. It really ignited a lot of stuff there. I really had this sensation. There was a lot of records out there that touched maybe a thousand, two thousand people tops, but that were extremely, extremely important to those people.
Campbell: It was Eau Claire’s Marquee Moon? Everybody who heard that record started a band?
Vernon: Yeah. Exactly. Including bandmates of mine, you know. So I re-released it on vinyl ’cause it was never out, just to kind of give it a little light of day, ’cause I thought that if those people liked it, maybe some more would.
Campbell: You mentioned earlier in the interview that the last five years of your life have been pretty wild. They must feel magical and not real. What’s the most odd and unexpected experience that you’ve had since Bon Iver exploded?
Vernon: Honestly, there are so many extremely odd situations. Probably recording Rick Ross’s verse on Kanye’s song in a bathroom. That was pretty cool. I don’t know! It’s all kind’ve silly or obtuse or something. All the experiences are like “With famous people … blah blah blah.” Those things that are notable and strange, that maybe not everybody gets to experience. But, that being said, that’s exactly why Eau Claire is important. And my family’s up here in Minneapolis and St. Paul now, I’m the only one left in Eau Claire. But that’s why I gotta get away from the coasts and get back to the Middlewest here. Because none of that stuff really matters at the end of the day. It’s good to be back.
Campbell: You’ve had the opportunity to do interesting collaborations. Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
Vernon: Right now we’re on the tail end of touring Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and I’ve already got three projects of my own that I’m collaborating on, where I’m not the central songwriter or anything. That’s really important for me, to clear the cobwebs out. Because Bon Iver is really special to me and it’s central to who I am and what I’m trying to express with music. But all these other things are really important as well, just as Gayngs and Kanye were really informative in the way that I put the last Bon Iver record together.
There’s a long list of people. Emmylou Harris. I’m talking to the Blind Boys of Alabama right now. Bonnie Raitt. It’s a very long list of people that I’d love to do music with. But life is long, so we’ll see what happens.
Campbell: What is the latest with Bon Iver? What are you up to these days?
Vernon: Winding it down. I look at it like a faucet. I have to turn it off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious or discovering. There’s so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it – if at all – I’ll feel better about it and be renewed or something to do that.
Campbell: I was curious when you made the decision to do the gymnasium performances, if that was in some way an opportunity to pay back the people of this community that has been so instrumental in growing this thing that has become your life.
Vernon: It was very much. I always feel bad because there wasn’t exactly a perfect venue for us to play in Eau Claire, and we have so many people in the band and crew that aren’t from Eau Claire that we can’t just throw a show quick together. And playing in Zorn [Arena in Eau Claire] was cool. Professors of mine were there, people who helped form who I am. It was near Christmas and it just felt very Christmas-y and thankful and a lot of gratitude involved. A very happy, shiny situation.
Campbell: Who are some of your favorite other Eau Claire bands or musicians that you’ve known or come across growing up that no one outside of Eau Claire would know about?
Vernon: There’s a flute player that plays at a sushi restaurant who’s actually another Grammy-nominated artist. His name is Peter Phippen.
Campbell: You’re not the only Grammy-nominated artist from Eau Claire, Wisconsin?
Vernon: No, there’s three of us.
Vernon: There’s Geiff Keezer, the piano player, he was in Art Blakey’s band for a long time. He also went to my same high school. Yeah, Peter Phippen plays flute, it’s really gorgeous stuff. There’s some bands there right now — Ronald Raygun is a really fierce band. A guy making pedals, his name is Ben Hinz, his effects pedals are taking off a lot. The Heart Pills, there’s just a lot of up-and-coming bands grabbing their identities right now and the venues are getting a little better. I mentioned Meridene before — there’s a really awesome punk band with way too many swear words called Dios Mio, they’re awesome, you have to check out their music video.
Campbell: Tell me about the development of your love for and experimentation with Auto-Tune, specifically the track “Woods” that you assembled that led to your collaboration with Kanye West.
Vernon: I think intent is a hard thing to a) decipher and b) recollect after the fact. I remember where I was — I was in my bedroom in North Carolina when I put it together, but I think I was like, in my mind, really needing to go back to Wisconsin, go up north and stuff. And so I was just in a place, and I’d been producing some records and messing around with Auto-Tune, and I just started — when you crank Auto-Tune, you can use it really subtly, which is most of your pop radio vocal, to have a more accurate, normal human-sounding thing, but when you crank it up it just becomes this robotic thing that’s no longer your voice. Your voice is being changed by this thing, and so when you can hear it being played back, it’s just a different experience. And I think, much like all the vocals for me with this Bon Iver project, which was much different than anything I’d ever done before with the high singing and sort of femininity, that was just an experiment that I kept layering, and I was using another thing called Harmony Engine which you can get deeper vocal tones in, and I don’t know. It wasn’t meditation I guess I needed to make, so I don’t know about intent or anything, but I needed to make that song at that point.
Campbell: Are you still interested in using that effect, or are you playing with other things now?
Vernon: I mean, what’s weird is I really think “Woods” is a great success at utilizing it, and so I’ve used it a lot since then. I’ve done some stuff with James Blake, who also kind of utilizes those kind of vocoding effects, and I’ll continue to use it. I’ll use it in another band I play in called Volcano Choir, but yeah, it’s something that I don’t want to think about too much. I’ll just use it when it sounds right, hopefully.
Campbell: I’ve heard you refer to the now-infamous cabin stay, which is the birthplace of your first record, as an attempt to purge some old hang-ups and lingering feelings that just wouldn’t die. That action, letting go, seems to be one of the things that we as human beings seem to have a hard time with, intuitively. What action or process ultimately freed you from the burden of those hang-ups, and as a subquestion, have you ever considered writing a self-help book?
Vernon: [laughs] I would never be able to write a self-help book that would make any sense to anyone, including myself. No, it’s very ninja-like, the way in which I purged all these old things. Because I’m a really nostalgic person, to a fault I think, to be honest, at times, and I think people do cling to things. People like to define themselves based off of their experiences or their root system, you know. Sometimes they feel like they can’t change things. And to be honest with you, before I started making that first Bon Iver record I was kind of thinking about giving up on music, just allowing it to be a hobby. Maybe I wanted it too bad, and I think that that process of sort of opening myself up to this vast possibility of letting go of the most important thing in my life allowed me to understand how important it was to not do that. And I just, I had to face stuff.
And that’s the hardest thing, I think, when we walk around in the world, it’s like everyone has a mirror on their face. Everyone’s sort of posturing to be with each other, and to love each other even. And so it’s very complicated. And I think for me, I was just forced to. It was either that or disappear, you know. Not die, but just like my soul would be crushed or done or something. So I think I had to do that.
Campbell: Sort of find your own authenticity?
Vernon: Yeah, and that’s exactly what it was, and it was accidental, and I’m happy it happened.
Campbell: I’m very curious if Kanye West has ever made his way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Was that ever discussed, and if so, what did that conversation sound like?
Vernon: That was the original plan. I was a little intimidated to go out to Hawaii, and I also, the way I work isn’t exactly traditional in the studio, where I go and sit in front of a microphone and have somebody press record. It’s like, kind of more building block stuff. So the first conversation we had was just like, yeah, I’ll come out there and we can work on stuff. And — this was a couple of years ago I guess — and there was a huge snowstorm and his flight got canceled. He was literally on his way and we were like do we have to make the beds? Should we order pizza? We don’t know what to do, but the flight got canceled and it ended up being really cool to go out there because there were so many more collaborators there when I was there, and I got to meet a bunch of cool people, and that sort of environment made it better for his record.
Campbell: Do you think that there’ll ever be another Gayngs record, or a group with a similar approach and function?
Vernon: Yeah, I’m working on something right now, it’s been on the internet a couple times, with Ryan and Astronautalis and S. Carey. We have a new band that’s in that sort of — uh, how do I say this without swearing a bunch of times. [laughs] We’re trying to disturb things a little bit. Gayngs is about, it’s about having fun, and I don’t even know how to explain it, but basically the short answer is yes, there will be always things like that where you just try to take yourself a little less seriously in order to take yourself more seriously.
Campbell: You’ve also had the opportunity to get back with Joe, Brad and Phil, these guys that you’ve had this rich musical history with. Is there a possibility that you’d work with them either under the DeYarmond Edison name or on something else?
Vernon: Definitely. We talk about it all the time. In fact Megafaun got commissioned by Duke University to reinterpret Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South boxset, and they collaborated with a group out of Richmond to do all the arrangements and things like that. We did a three-day concert in Duke, and we also did it in Cincinnati for Bryce Dessner’s festival. That was a great way for us to get back together. But we’re always talking about doing music. Phil’s going to be on the next Shouting Matches record with me and Brian Moen, and we’re working on that this winter. We’ll always be together.
Campbell: Finally and most importantly, how are the Green Bay Packers looking this season?
Vernon: Ain’t nobody gonna touch ‘em.
Vernon: Yep. 100%. Print it right now: Super Bowl Champions. Or at least NFC Champions.
Campbell: You heard it here first from Justin Vernon. Thanks a lot, man.