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The Latest Eruption

Vernon’s Volcano Choir releases second album

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by Thom Fountain

BLURRED LINES IT ISN’T. Volcano Choir – Justin Vernon’s collaborative project with Milwaukee post-rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees – will release their second offering, Repave, on September 3.
BLURRED LINES IT ISN’T. Volcano Choir – Justin Vernon’s collaborative project with
Milwaukee post-rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees – will release their second
offering, Repave, on September 3.

Justin Vernon is well out of the cabin at this point. The Bon Iver frontman, Grammy winner and all around local music hero has always had a plethora of side projects and collaborations (my count puts him at six records released this year he’ll have had a hand in, and that’s just what we know about now), but they’ve been noted as just that: side projects.

That all might change starting Sept. 3. Volcano Choir – Vernon’s collaborative project with Milwaukee post-rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees – will release Repave that day, their follow-up to 2009’s Unmap. While Unmap was an extremely experimental, creative stretch beyond Bon Iver, Repave is something different. The album holds the deep, layered compositions that gave Bon Iver success on their second release, with guitars stacked on synths, stacked on driving drums. Vernon’s voice soars over the intricate arrangements with the same familiar falsetto. It’s a full-voiced record that seems to hold close ties to Bon Iver sonically, though Vernon said that’s not on purpose.

“I’d just listen and breathe with them and internalize them and then over the course of time write words and melodies. It was a long process, as well as a kind of excavation. That’s how I like to write.” – Justin Vernon, on writing for the new Volcano Choir album Repave

“Well, I think for me the records are very, very different. People have been saying (that they’re similar), so it’s obviously true to some folks, which doesn’t bother me or anything,” Vernon said in an interview with Volume One.

And it’s true that this isn’t a Bon Iver record, even if people find similarities. It’s equally influenced by the sound of Collections of Colonies of Bees, with near stadium-rock hooks and hypnotically repeating guitar lines that suck you in. In lead single “Byegone,” the atmospheric introduction and verses open up to massive drums and a resounding chorus hook – you just try to not sing the “set sail” lines along with the band.

Vernon’s role on Repave was that of a lyricist. The songs started coming together while Vernon was on tour with Bon Iver in 2011 and demos were sent his way. Lyrically, Vernon said he often focuses on changes in people’s lives and relieving the pressure of the world. You can see this in “Alaskans,” one of the tamer, but pull-at-your-heartstrings kind of songs on the record where Vernon repeats the words “Rely … behave … decide … repave.”

“I got to kind of react to everything that was written,” Vernon said. “I would be out on tour and get to listen to these amazing demos of what would become the songs on Repave on my headphones. I’d just listen and breathe with them and internalize them and then over the course of time write words and melodies. It was a long process, as well as a kind of excavation. That’s how I like to write.”

Working on songs in a long-distance fashion isn’t new to Volcano Choir. Most of their debut record was done by sending pieces of demos and tracks back and forth. That all came to a head when the band toured Japan in 2010 and were forced to figure out how to play songs live that they’d never attempted.

“The idea was, ‘Let’s go tour Japan.’ That sounds great except no one had ever played those Unmap songs,” bandmember Chris Rosenau said in a short documentary about the making of Repave. “No one had ever played in the same room at the same time. We created all this stuff and then we had to learn it.”

The new record seems born out of that live experience, with songs that soar behind a full, live energy that seem made to fill huge rooms, playing many of the venues Bon Iver did on their first tours.

So what does that mean for Vernon’s main project of the last six years?

“I think the Bon Iver stuff is just me when I need to do me, and just me. I’m not feeling like I need to do that right now,” Vernon said. “As far as personal growth, how many years in a row can you spend dealing with pretty fundamentally humungous personal philosophy and internal debate. And that’s what Bon Iver is for me, an extremely cathartic experience as far as searching and asking myself questions and all that. And the music part is really challenging, always trying to become a new writer and a new recording artist. But I can’t do that all the time, man. I can’t take myself that seriously. With Volcano Choir, it’s almost more rewarding in a weird way because it’s a wider river.”

That excitement is apparent throughout Repave. Even on slower, softer tunes like “Alaskans” you can feel a pulse of energy, a feeling that something new is on the horizon. And right now, Volcano Choir is it.

Volcano Choir’s Repave is released Sept. 3 and will be available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., and Revival Records, 418 S. Barstow St.

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