Bon Iver Showcases Bold New Sound
Bon Iver perform at the 930 Club in Washington, D.C. Photo by Veronica DeVore
Since its origin as a solo project in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods four years ago, the band Bon Iver and its critically acclaimed albums have grown in number, scope and sound. With creative director and front man Justin Vernon at the helm, the original four-piece line-up has more than doubled in size for its current tour headlining a newly released self-titled album. At a recent tour stop in Washington, D.C., Vernon and his band mates Mike Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan were joined onstage by violinists, horn players and percussionists for a performance that showcased the full range of the group’s bold but carefully crafted new sound.
Art Beat talked to Noyce and Carey about their roles in Bon Iver, the band’s creative process and the evolution from its first album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” to the new album and tour currently underway.
How did you get involved with Bon Iver?
Mike Noyce: When I was in high school, I took guitar lessons from Justin [Vernon] and that’s actually how we met. So basically, I got lucky, and he called me while I was at college in Appleton, Wisc., and asked if I wanted to come back and play for a little bit and see if anything worked out. It did, and so I dropped out [of school] and went on tour for most of a year and I’ve been doing that ever since. I knew I wanted to be playing music and it was a really cool opportunity with musicians who I really admired. But being gone for eight months out of the year and going from having been a musician who just wrote some songs and played in a few cafes to playing sold out shows was a little bit overwhelming. It took me a while to adapt, and our schedule has also gotten a lot easier over the past couple of years.
Sean Carey: Basically I got set up with Justin like it was a date, because I had friends that knew Justin and knew he was working on some new stuff. They sort of tipped me off and said, “Hey Sean, you should learn some of Justin’s new stuff because he’s looking for a drummer.” I learned all the songs through MySpace because Justin had basically the whole [first] album posted long before it was even released. I think I played five songs with him and that’s kind of how the whole relationship started.
Bon Iver file photo. From L-R: Matthew McCaughan, Mike Noyce, Sean Carey and Justin Vernon perform on June 30, 2009 in London, England. Photo by Andy Sheppard/ Redferns
What was the process of adding instruments like for this tour?
Mike Noyce: The instruments I play on stage I’ve played since before I started [with Bon Iver]. I have had to re-learn playing the viola a lot in order to do it with this group. The violinist is really accomplished and I just played when I grew up and then I stopped playing for a little while, so I kind of had to step up my game in order to play with him. I don’t think many people picked up any instruments just for the band; I think there are a lot of multi-instrumentalists in this group. The reason it’s a lot more instrumental is primarily that there were a lot more musicians involved in the recording process. And before, it was mostly Justin. Justin is an incredible guitar player and vocalist and he can play drums and other things really well too, so I guess [now] it’s a more expanded picture with more guys.
Sean Carey: Justin kind of directs the whole thing and he worked on a lot of stuff by himself and then he’ll bring in different people to do what they do. He brought in these horn players from New York and Montreal and Richmond, Va., and kind of worked with them to compose parts. [Justin] really…knows what he wants and he knows how to describe it, and just a matter of getting the right musicians to do that.
To you, what are the main differences between Bon Iver’s first and second albums?
Mike Noyce: There are more musicians involved (in the second), and I’d say the second album is more of a studio album. It took a while to complete and it used a lot more gear and studio engineering techniques that weren’t used on the first album. There is a lot more layering and it’s just a lot bigger sounding.
Sean Carey: The main difference, I think, is the use of the different instruments — woodwinds, trumpet, trombone, and the orchestration and the arranging and just the broadness of it. “For Emma, Forever Ago” was way more singular and it was a specific place and time and used only minimal instrumentation. With the new record, it’s just expansive, and there is just a whole lot more going on.
What are your experiences as a band in front of an audience and in the studio, and how do they differ?
Mike Noyce: In a way, having an audience in front of you kind of jumps starts you into being in the moment and gets some things out of you that you wouldn’t maybe be able to accomplish otherwise musically. Sometimes, the same thing can be said of someone hitting the record button and putting you on tape. In the studio, I feel like we’re just hanging out and there is less pressure and we can experiment a lot more. Being on the road and having a performance, we’re doing a lot of the same thing over and over and we’re working to really hone that.
Sean Carey: In the studio it’s a lot of piece by piece [work], so when we started rehearsing the stuff live, there is a lot to figure out about who was going to play what. I think that’s the most fun, just figuring out…how those parts work together.
What do you think the future of the band will look like in terms of instrumentation and sound?
Mike Noyce: I think that there will be a lot more instrumentalists involved in the future, or at least more significant contributions from other people. I think it’s becoming more of a group process and the results of that will be that the sound will definitely be changing because it will be incorporating so many other people’s ideas. I think it’s been moving away from the acoustic guitar singer/songwriter realm slowly for a while and I would expect more electric guitar and more different guys involved. I really, really, really enjoy the company of the people we have involved in this tour and the musicians are all really strong, so I would just hope that people can make it out and see the shows.
Sean Carey: The amazing thing is that we have all these musicians that come from way different backgrounds. Me and Mike and Matt and Justin have played a lot together, but we haven’t played a lot with these other guys and so it’s just amazing to see everything come together and to start to form these new bonds with new musicians. I definitely think I’m going to be a better musician at the end of this tour cycle — I don’t know how I couldn’t, just being surrounded by all these really, really great musicians and professional people. It’s going to be really interesting to see what we sound like a year from now.