an interview with the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival masterminds - Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, Michael Brown, and Michael Perry

Interview: Eric Christenson and Nick Meyer

Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, Michael Brown

The drive out to Justin Vernon’s April Base studio is pretty. The further away from Eau Claire you get, the thinner the roads seem as snow packs up on the shoulders. And among the rolling hills and cold, bare trees, it looks and feels as much like a Wisconsin winter as you can get.

In the house, we’re greeted not only by Vernon, but by Aaron Dessner, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist for The National, who’s co-curating the new Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival with Vernon. Also hanging out are stage-designer Michael Brown, the festival’s creative director; and local best-selling author Michael Perry, who lends his words and his voice to the festival as its official “narrator.” The room has a giddy sort of energy, like a bunch of individually creative minds have been given the keys to a massive new toy that needs all four of them there to fully work.

They’re in the middle of some serious planning: White boards (one marked “FRIDAY” and one marked “SATURDAY”) cover a shared coffee table, and almost everybody has a laptop within reach. They’re all talking about a part of the festival called a “centerpiece” — we won’t spoil it for you — and Vernon’s joking about how he’ll feel after the two-day festival’s done.

“I’ll be tired and ready to leave,” he said. “I’m dead serious about getting a boat though. From the back of the second stage – you can get over by Highway 37 so you don’t have to wait in the traffic.”

It’s clear they’ve thought this all the way through.

The chat that followed reflected how much work and sweat has already been put into this festival to make it one of the coolest and most exciting things to hit the Chippewa Valley in quite some time. It’s not just another notch on the post of Justin Vernon’s career; it’s an all-encompassing culmination of everything – in the hometown that started it all.

Michael Perry

Christenson (V1): I guess we could talk lineup first. Almost everyone on the lineup you’ve collaborated with at some point, or a good chunk of them. Are you just gonna limit it to Bon Iver at the festival? Or are you gonna hop on stage with everyone?

Vernon: I’ll probably get up there. That’s kind of what Aaron and I have been talking about since the beginning of this thing. These are the bands that are playing, but hopefully that’s just a portion of what happens. Hopefully there will be small things that pop up, spontaneous stuff. Hopefully they won’t just come and play their set and be done once they get off stage.

Christenson: Does that happen at other festivals, really?

Dessner: No, not in the way we think of run-of-the-mill music festivals, but maybe at art festivals like the Sydney Festival, environments where more spontaneous things happen.

Vernon: Ninety-five percent of the traditional music festivals that you (Dessner) and I would’ve played at along the way are just blocked. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, we’re just trying to not have that exact feeling.

Christenson: So, it’ll be loose?

Vernon: It’ll be tight with a bunch of looseness about it.

“This is just our place. We have our own thing here. It’s definitely different than anywhere else. We’re not exactly sure why.”
— Justin Vernon

Christenson: I feel like a lot of people are gonna be traveling here, for the first time ever. What, in your mind, makes Eau Claire worth traveling to?

Vernon: It’s a hard one to answer without just saying the places that I like. So that’s the caveat of the general answer. This is just our place. We have our own thing here. It’s definitely different than anywhere else. We’re not exactly sure why. We’re not necessarily overly proud of it, but we also are.

Perry: What I love about it is you're bringing in internationally recognized acts and yet you’re blending them right into our local scene – whether it’s the local food that’s gonna be at the festival or whether it’s local acts mingling. And symbolically, you’re performing within view of the Chippewa River, which is what defines the Chippewa Valley.

Vernon: It’s what literally formed the damn thing, right?

Meyer (V1): And the grounds are just naturally way different than most music festivals, too. Here there are trails and hills…

Vernon: We’ve seen a lot of cool stuff at a lot of different festivals, but there’s only a few that stand out. The End of the Road Festival is in a field in England. And there are mazes and all the walkways are gorgeous rock and there’s shaped bushes and stuff. It’s nuts. We’ve seen a lot. There are plenty of cool things, but ours will just be ours.

Christenson: A lot of these bands are going to be coming to our area for the first time. Is that the experience you want them to have? Like it’s not just your place, it’s their place, too?

Vernon: We should figure out a great camping situation for them up there, because they’re just gonna be staying in the part of Eau Claire that is not great. This year they will just be staying at the Hampton Inn or the Holiday Inn Express. I don’t like that because that’s everywhere. But I think we’ll be trying to encourage a lot of collaboration and stuff at the fest that will be the community and them intermingling … But also you gotta tell Melt-Banana (the Japanese noise rock band) to go to The Joynt, too. (Laughs) You know what I mean?

Dessner: The other thing is there are very few music festivals that I would want to emulate or get things from, but some of the ones that do feel special are actually in places where people haven’t been before, and they’re discovering. It’s a nice feeling of getting away and discovering something new and also tapping into a community that has its own vibrant musical thing happening, which is definitely here. It’s gonna give it a lot of character that you don’t necessarily find in other places.

Christenson: Does it help that the Eau Claire surrounding area has kind of a low population comparatively? Does that matter?

Dessner: In my mind, purely as an outsider, I think about the landscape as a big draw, I’ve thought a lot about that, with the water and how green it is here. For a festival – for an outdoor gathering – it’s kind of ideal, as opposed to a desert or in a crazy hot, humid situation.

Vernon: Last summer, we were rewarded for a hard winter. It was an amazing summer.

“…we’re working really hard right now when its 20 degrees, so that come July, everything will be fat and green and lovely.”
— Michael Perry

Perry: I think you’ll see in some of the promotion that comes out that we’re working really hard right now when its 20 degrees, so that come July, everything will be fat and green and lovely. But I liked what you said. That business about this being “our place” and “we think it’s special” is tricky because it’s hard to pull off without sounding like you’re saying it’s the best place. But it’s a valley, and those grounds are festival-tested. Thousands of people have enjoyed that place.

Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner

Dessner: Some of the musical things that can happen here I think can’t happen in New York or in London or in LA, because if you bring people together and put musicians in a place where they can be spontaneous ... Sometimes you’re not as spontaneous when you’re under the microscope. Like if you get up and do a weird improv set in New York City, it’s like, “Oh you’re launching a new project.” I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and this is one of the great things about doing performances there is it’s easier to be like, “Justin, come do a set of random stuff.” Ultimately, the goal is to blend the traditional performances that these bands and artists are gonna do with more adventurous programming of fine art and new music and film. That’s the goal. This is the grid of the three main stages, but then there’s other smaller, weirder stages and other installations and stuff that are gonna be going on.

Christenson: I liked what you said about the setting mattering a lot. There’s definitely a different creative energy in Eau Claire than what you would find in those bigger cities. Would you agree? Is that something you’re trying to hone in on?

Vernon: You’re right. It’s better than a desert. Right now, it’s like a snow desert, and we have to get through the winter and everything, but in the middle of July it has the potential to be one of the most beautiful places in the whole world. Amazing thunderstorms at night, beautiful blue skies, 70-degrees and the green is so lush — it’s as lush as North Carolina in the middle of the summer.

Perry: It’s a jungle here.

Vernon: It’s a jungle in the summer.

  • Bon Iver
  • The National
  • Spoon
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • Poliça
  • Low
  • The Tallest Man on Earth
  • Indigo Girls
  • Aero Flynn
  • Allan Kingdom
  • Blind Boys of Alabama
  • Boys Noize
  • Charles Bradley
  • Colin Stetson
  • Doomtree
  • Elliot Moss
  • Field Report
  • Francis and the Lights
  • Givers
  • Grandma Sparrow
  • Haley Bonar
  • Hiss Golden Messenger
  • Liturgy
  • Lizzo
  • The Lone Bellow
  • Marijuana Deathsquads
  • Melt-Banana
  • Mueller
  • No BS! Brass Band
  • Phil Cook
  • Phox
  • Retribution Gospel Choir
  • Rosenau
  • S. Carey
  • Sam Amidon
  • Spooky Black
  • The Staves
  • Sturgill Simpson
  • Sylvan Esso
  • yMusic

Christenson: To shift gears into what you’re planning here. Which acts are you most excited for? All of them? Can you say all of them?

Vernon: Mike Perry’s really stoked about (county singer-songwriter) Sturgill Simpson.

Perry: I’m really revved about that. I’m revved about Sturgill because he’s someone I relate to even back through generations preceding him. His style of music is this modern manifestation of something that changed my life 20 years ago. One of the things Aaron and Justin are trying to do is bridge certain gaps so it’s not just fans of The National; you’re trying to get people to come in from all walks of life. Maybe if I had heard Melt-Banana was gonna be here, I might not have known who Melt-Banana was. Now, when I get there and see them I’ll probably be amazed, but maybe I came to see Sturgill.

Vernon: This is one of the reasons why Mike has been centrally involved where we just want to make sure he’s around for stuff, because of his ability to understand that and teaching me that through the years. Everywhere has their niche, but snowmobilers are musicians here.

Perry: You had a band recording in here the other day and the lead singer was a machinist, whose work is in such demand. He’s making real physical stuff that people need and use, and yet he has a band and so he’s in here recording. That’s one thing about this area. You can’t get away with being precious because you’re gonna be down at the bar with somebody who hung dry-wall all day. My brother’s a logger so he’s not really all that interested in hearing my struggles with the modern essay form. (Laughs all around.)

Dessner: The most facile, flexible, diverse musicians that I know, a bunch of them come from here. The Cook Brothers, Sean Carey, Justin. It’s not a huge place, but there’s this really strong musical thing happening here, so having a community gathering around that makes total sense. It’s kind of a realization of everything that’s already happening.

Vernon: That’s one of the main things I want to happen. If you’re not sure what this is, it will be nice to come to. You can come on Saturday and check it out. It’s not gonna be some insular thing that just for people who read music blogs at their 20-something job. Hopefully, you can get people to just come out and check it out.

Christenson: When you have such a diverse lineup, it doesn’t really matter if everyone that goes is into the whole thing, right? And that sort of leads into the art idea. It seems like you’re trying to have everyone there have this amazing shared experience, rather than just going to see a band they like.

Brown: That kind of answers you’re original question, “Why should people come to Eau Claire?” The whole idea behind the name being an augmentation of the city name is that we’re creating a community that somebody would come to interact with. The emphasis is specifically on each person having a unique experience that they wouldn’t have at a concert or a normal performance. It’s about giving and taking and interacting with that community.

Christenson: It’s kinda because it’s here. This is such a unique place to have something like this. I mean, it’s perfectly equipped to pull it off, but it’s still sort of in that weird area between Minneapolis and Chicago.

Dessner: I think that’s why it’ll work. If you draw a circle around Eau Claire, it does touch these other bigger metropolises, but it’s equidistant between a lot of big populations. Hopefully, there’s a center of gravity that we create. Some of the best festivals happen in the middle of nowhere, but we’re actually right near a thriving town.

Perry: Well, historically the State Theatre in its glory existed because of the vaudeville circuit where artists were going from Chicago to Minneapolis on the train, so they’d stop here and do shows.

Dessner: That should be our answer.

Christenson: Mike’s just here to come in at the end and make all of it sound amazing?

Perry: He only bats about .250, but when hits, it’s a nice solid double.

Vernon: Don’t be over-confident, Mike.

Perry: You think .250’s a little high?

Christenson: We’re also interested in talking about the role of the tent stage.

Vernon: There’s a whole other zone that Country Jam has never used. It’s this weird pathway through the woods, it goes up this huge hill and there’s this whole other field where we’re gonna have another 6,000-7,000-person tent and then a bunch of art villas, like weird performance spaces and domes.

Brown: We’re trying to get people to explore the grounds a little bit more. Specifically, by having the tent removed in a whole other portion of the festival. Well, if everything happened in one contained area inside the bowl, the potential experience overall would be kind of stagnant even though you’re constantly surrounded. By going on a little journey up to this whole area, it cleanses your palate in a way to go into a different mindset.

Dessner: The idea is not only does it host wild hip-hop and things, it also can accommodate more of the new music like yMusic (classical/pop group), Colin Stetson (experimental horn player and member of Bon Iver), or the Found Footage Festival – it can be more like an art space. Bigger music festivals that exist today, they generally program based on trends like what’s selling, what’s media-driven. … There aren’t many festivals of this kind where you can say, “What would we really be interested in?” This has been kind of the best-case scenario working with Justin. Most of these acts he’s either worked with or he’s super passionate about the music. It really is a strong reflection of the things that feed his creativity. The list is so long of things that are inspiring. This is the surface.

Meyer: A lot of us are aware of some of the people Justin has worked with, but who on this line-up has The National worked with in the past?

Dessner: A lot of these people we’ve played with for years. Whether it was our first show … (The National’s) first real break was opening for Low in Paris in 2001. They were super nice to us and they gave us an amplifier. That kindness. 

Meyer: Sparhawk (of Low) has played in Eau Claire so many times now, with Black-Eyed Snakes shows we used to do at the Stones Throw 10-plus years ago, and now Retribution Gospel Choir’s played here a bunch. So it’s kind of a full-circle thing for me to see Low be a part of this festival.

Vernon: (To Aaron and Michael) Nick used to book the only venue in town that mattered in those days. And not to be lame or embarrassing to Nick, this all does go back to (Chris) Porterfield (of Field Report) and me and Nick. Nick is the singular catalyst – and Volume One. It was the first time that anyone decided to stick up a mirror to Eau Claire that was larger than just punk press – and that goes so far. And we were around each other at the time. Nick was playing in bands with us. We were playing all together, and that’s a part of it now too. That’s why you guys are here ahead of everyone else instead of doing all the other press stuff later. Because Nick’s responsible for so much of this momentum, and that to me is a big part of it, too, and it has to be a part of the story. I don’t know if you saw the Aero Flynn press release that Porterfield wrote? That’s my life story. You don’t need any more than that. My whole life story for the last 10 years is that letter. And that’s unique. When people interview Chris Porterfield or Megafaun (former locals Cook Brothers and Joe Westerlund), they always ask about me. But that’s just people’s perspective on that circle. Brad and Phil and I’s relationship is so tight still and Mike Perry used to babysit them when they were little.

Perry: I can still see little Phil with his snotty little nose looking through my dad’s lambs at his sheep farm. (Everybody laughs.)

What is Eaux Claires?

The Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival is a two-day arts festival at the Country Jam grounds that is curated by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National.

Designer Michael Brown, the festival's creative director, said the name is taken from the original French spelling, but also it contains a bit more.

"The whole idea behind the name being an augmentation of the city name is that we’re creating a community that somebody would come to interact with.

The emphasis is specifically on each person having a unique experience that they wouldn’t have at a concert or a normal performance."

The first-ever Eaux Claires is July 17 and 18 in Eau Claire, Wis. with headliners Bon Iver, The National, Sufjan Stevens, Spoon and the Indigo Girls.

Justin Vernon

Festival Co-curator

Eaux Claires is Vernon's brainchild in his hometown of Eau Claire. Many of the acts on the lineup are his collaborators and personal friends.

Aaron Dessner

Festival Co-curator

Dessner is a songwriter/multi-instrumentalist for New York City indie rock band The National and a prolific producer in his own right.

Michael Brown

Creative Director

Brown has designed stages and lighting for tours of Bon Iver, The National, Grizzly Bear, Volcano Choir, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Michael Perry

Festival Narrator

Perry is a New York Times best-selling author, radio host, and musician from Eau Claire, Wis. His latest novel The Scavengers is in stores now.