The hush has evolved into a roar. The solitude has found companionship. And a project that began as an intimate, homemade album has grown into a full band, touring relentlessly to breathe new life and energy into songs in front of thousands of people a night. Often muted and spare on record, Bon Iver burns with an entirely different intensity live, a gathering storm of percussion and surging guitars all held together by Justin Vernon’s singing, the high and often spooky howl that stamps his music with such a tremendous feeling of isolation.
It’s been a long and improbable journey for Vernon’s songs, which were born of heartbreak and solitude in a backwoods Wisconsin cabin, the soundtrack to snowy introspection, healing, and rebirth. Maybe the songs themselves got cabin fever, crawling out on their own for fresh air and sunshine. Regardless, the now-concluding second chapter of Bon Iver is the story of how songs from an isolated winter became music for all seasons.
The first step from a solo Bon Iver to the band that’s toured for nearly two years in support of For Emma, Forever Ago happened by chance when drummer Sean Carey’s band was opening for Vernon at his first hometown show after completing the album. “He was kind of an Eau Claire legend, not that he would ever call himself that, but he was already a successful musician around here,” recalled Carey. “He moved away to North Carolina for about a year, and when he moved back was when he recorded the album. But he really needed a band.”
Leading up to the show, Carey listened repeatedly to the songs Vernon had just put on MySpace, learning the structure and the lyrics so he could join in on drums and vocals. “A couple of his buddies were a couple of my buddies, they were the guys who played the horns on For Emma. They just hinted to me that I should maybe talk to Justin about playing,” Carey said. “When we got to the gig, I told Justin that I’d learned all of his songs. He was kind of taken aback by that, but we sang some of his songs backstage beforehand and it just clicked. I played on about half the set that night.”
Vernon self-released For Emma in the summer of 2007, and as the glowing reviews began piling up, Bon Iver drew the attention of Indiana-based Jagjaguwar, the label that gave the album widespread release in February 2008. Positive reviews continued rolling in, and For Emma became one of the year’s most acclaimed albums, landing on best-of lists across the United States and UK.
Carey and Vernon played as a Bon Iver duo for a short time, then Vernon added his guitar student Michael Noyce to the band. Bon Iver was one of the breakout bands from 2008’s SXSW festival in Austin, with an NPR live broadcast and interview. Matthew McCaughan, a friend of Justin’s from their time in the North Carolina band the Rosebuds, later joined on bass, drums, and vocals.
“Justin realized that he didn’t just want to be a one-man band, or for it to be all about him, even though the record is so personal and he was very isolated,” Carey said. “He realized that in the live show it needed to be a band as much as possible. One thing he really did well was to let the songs evolve and breathe and grow. He wasn’t stuck with the version on the record. Even more so than us sometimes, he was wanting to bring in some changes.”
Carey says “Blood Bank,” from Bon Iver’s follow-up EP, and “The Wolves (Act I and II),” from For Emma, are the songs that have seen the most radical change, becoming more powerful and much more energetic live. With “Wolves,” the crowd becomes the choir, singing the refrain What might have been lost, over and over, with a wild and unrestrained cry that peels apart the division between audience and band.
“Justin has been really trying to include the crowd as much as possible since the very start. He used to actually hand out lyrics at some of our first shows,” said Carey.
More than any other song, “Wolves” has stayed consistent from one performance to the next, with a raw energy and power that draw the crowd’s emotional response. “That’s a song where I really get to unleash and do anything I want,” said Carey. “When you have thousands of people singing and you have the rest of the guys in the band really propelling the music, you can lose your mind and just go ape on the drums.”
After a summer that saw the band play fifteen festivals in the United States and Europe, Bon Iver is wrapping up the For Emma touring with a short run of West Coast theaters, with Vernon’s former bandmates Megafaun opening, before playing the Austin City Limits festival and one final show in Milwaukee. (Expect collaboration between Bon Iver and Megafaun, Carey says.)
“Everything’s happened so quickly that it’s been hard in some ways going from performing in really small venues to really big festivals. But it’s also happened so fast we haven’t had much time to think about it. Festivals are sometimes a lot of fun and sometimes kind of a pain. They’re a lot of rush, rush, rush,” Carey said. “When you have your own show in a venue you chose and a more intimate crowd, you have time to set up and get to know the room and we’re really looking forward to having some time in the halls and playing some really great theaters.”
Bon Iver will take its first real break after this stretch of shows. “Justin has had so many great offers to play wherever and keep playing and keep touring on this record. It’s hard to turn those down and say, ‘I need a break,’ but he really does,” Carey said. “This is definitely the end of round one.”
The next chapter will be a new record, which the band hopes to release by the end of 2010, Carey said. Vernon has already started writing songs, and once again, it’s more of a solitary process. “It’s definitely going to be centered around Justin. He’s already started to record some songs that might be used,” Carey said. “It won’t have the same crazy cabin story as the last one, but it’s going to be centered around him. He’s going to have us play here and there on it, but it’s not group songwriting at all.”
The pattern works, Carey said, and Vernon’s bandmates have no interest in changing it. They’ll simply take up the new batch of songs, look for the spaces and the hollows, and let the live evolution of Bon Iver’s next chapter start anew.