The American group’s main man talks to us about musical chaos, writing songs for teen vampires and monster hits with Kanye West
Justin Vernon isn’t Bon Iver. That’s the first thing you ought to know about him. He simply calls himself its “curator for the time”, and suggests that some day that position might be held by somebody else. For now, however, Bon Iver is a project that he leads – a project often (much to Vernon’s despair) much more recognised for its legendary 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 not what it’s all about.
He left that cabin almost four years ago now and, having entirely re-assessed his signature sound (all but retiring that acoustic guitar), Justin Vernon has emerged wearing an impressively well-notched belt that features collaborations with Kanye West (featuring twice on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and contributions to the New Moon soundtrack. Now, he’s ready to unleash his project’s third release, the eponomously titled Bon Iver. The record is a far-cry from the lo-fi, beard-scratch-inclusive, acoust-a-croon of their inaugural album, being recorded in a brand new studio and accented by hints of post-rock, Peter Gabriel and Prince. Indeed, Vernon’s self-titled effort is the boldest statement of his musical intent to date, but it probably isn’t what you were expecting...
Dazed Digital: What do we call you? Is it ‘Bon Eye-Ver’, ‘Bon e-ver’ – ‘Mr Bon’?
Justin Vernon: It’s pronounced ‘Bon E-Ver’ – people started calling me Bon Iver and Mr Bon, but it’s really not a nom de plume; it’s not an alter ego. It’s neither the name of a band or the name of a person – it’s a project. I’m just Justin.
DD: Bon Iver is very different to both previous records. How would you describe it?
Justin Vernon: Well, we’re putting it out on the summer solstice, and it’s about us explaining what Bon Iver is. This album is about dealing with joy as it comes – inviting it in.
DD: The first track is a ballsy way to kick-off. Is it meant as a ‘fuck you’ statement?
Justin Vernon: There’s two answers to that and I’ll give you the second, although 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.’ 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.
DD: It’s hard to believe that you said you ‘forgot how to write songs’ – was it more that you were trying to avoid being typecast for the beard, the falsetto and the resonator guitar?
Justin Vernon: I think that I might’ve been stoned when I said that. I didn’t forget, I just couldn’t write with a guitar any more. 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 any more. It takes more now – it takes the studio and the gear and the microphone to have it sound the way that I need it to sound in order to write a song.
DD: You’ve got Volcano Choir as an experimental outlet. Why fix what isn’t broken? Why not just experiment with that project and leave Bon Iver as it is?
Justin Vernon: 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.
DD: Do you think Kanye West was a fan of Bon Iver, or do you think he was just box-ticking by including you on his album?
Justin Vernon: 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 just gets put into a rap genre. He is a rapper and he wants to make rap records, but he’s smart.
DD: Do you think he is smarter than people give him credit for?
Justin Vernon: 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.
DD: What was it like to play with him at Coachella?
Justin Vernon: 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.
DD: Are you interested in making videos for Bon Iver?
Justin Vernon: We’ve been working on a 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.
DD: What possessed you to make your soundtrack debut with
a film about shiny vampires?
Justin Vernon: That’s a weird one. To be honest with you, I said no at first because I don’t really jive with that shit. But, the next day, I was working on this song and I thought, ‘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 headphones in and was wearing a Twilight t-shirt. That’s when I decided to do 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.
DD: 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?
Justin Vernon: 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 had. There are specific things on the record but they’re more joyful than they are anything else.
DD: You’ve got a bunch of tattoos of elemental symbols – do you feel like you’re letting down the ideology people associate
you with for the sake of technical progress?
Justin Vernon: 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.
Bon Iver is released June 20 on 4AD Records