Best of What's Next: S. Carey
In 2008, after the release of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Sean Carey certainly wasn’t the only fan to hole himself up in his bedroom for hours on end, playing the album on repeat and committing nearly every second of it to memory. But he was one of a much smaller number of people asked by Justin Vernon himself to join the band on tour not long after. On the road, Carey put his degree in classical percussion from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire to work nightly, lending walloping drums and ethereal backing vocals to Bon Iver’s live incarnation. But in between performing Vernon’s original songs, he began to sculpt his own. The result is All We Grow, out on Jagjaguwar on Aug. 24, a gorgeous, shape-shifting record that skips from ambient soundscapes to slow-burning jams. As he prepared to set off on a criss-cross tour of the U.S. and Canada on his first-ever solo tour, Paste talked with Carey about his time with Bon Iver, setting out on his own and his future musical plans.
Paste: When did you first get the itch to make a solo record, and why?
Sean Carey: I got the itch when we first started touring with Bon Iver because I needed a creative outlet. The first tour was like eight weeks straight, and that’s just a long time to not be creative and doing my own thing. Not that I was writing tons of songs before that, but I was playing a lot of jazz music, and I was constantly being more creative, so going on tour I did kind of feel that need to maybe do my own thing.
Paste: You toured behind For Emma, Forever Ago for two years, but you weren’t a part of its recording. Tell me about the sense of ownership you feel with All We Grow. Does this feel like your first record?
Carey: Oh yeah, absolutely. Justin is always great at including us in so much of the process and really making us feel like we were a band that was separate from just him. I definitely feel like All We Grow is me coming out of my shell and really exposing a lot of myself. When you’re playing with someone else’s band, they have all that pressure and all that weight on them, and it’s definitely a different experience.
Paste: What about your studio, April Base? That’s just a fancy name for a remote cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, right?
Carey: No, it’s not the cabin. (Laughs) Justin and his brother bought a house near Eau Claire, and they’ve just been working on converting that into a studio, so that’s April Base. We did do some of the recording for All We Grow there, and then the rest we did at Jaime Hansen’s house. He’s the engineer that engineered everything, and we did most of it in his bedroom. It was a pretty relaxed process. We started in June of 2008, so very relaxed. I’d just come back in between tours and maybe add some more layers.
Paste: How did your performance degree in classical percussion inform All We Grow?
Carey: Definitely the instruments used but also the sort of repertoire that you are exposed to when you’re a classical percussionist. The most obvious reference would be Steve Reich, who writes a lot for percussion and who’s someone I really look up to and whose music I really connect with. Definitely Steve Reich, minimalism, Phillip Glass, John Cage—all these 20th century composers who wrote a lot for Percussion Ensemble, which is the group I played in when I was in college. And also just the way that composers wrote for percussion in the 20th century and the rhythmic approach and the emphasis on getting different colors out of instruments. From a compositional place, that definitely affected me. Just learning how to play those instruments and crafting my skill as a percussionist allowed me to play vibraphone and learn piano and all that stuff.
Paste: All We Grow seems to have less instrumentation that a Bon Iver release, but perhaps more varied instrumentation.
Carey: Justin’s stuff seems to have more consistency than the kind of songs I was coming up with. I didn’t necessarily mean to do it—it just kind of happened that they were celebrating diversity. I wanted one song to sound one way and then the next song to be totally different, so that affected what instruments were at the core of the song and what instruments were layered on top. I wanted the whole album to have a lot of balance, so that some parts would be pretty sparse, others would have just tons of layers, and you’d go from having a song with piano being the base, and the next one would be guitar, and the next one would be percussion, and the next one would be total ambiance. I really like that.
Paste: What’s going to be the biggest difference between all the Bon Iver shows you’ve played in the past and your September tour?
Carey: The big difference is just that we haven’t played any shows yet, so that’s going to be a journey, for sure. Just growing basically as a band. With Bon Iver, when we started we sounded a lot different than when we ended this last touring cycle. That, and the sound is going to be a little different. I think S. Carey will be a little softer of a band, although there will be some louder parts.
Paste: What sort of support will you have? Is S. Carey you on stage alone?
Carey: Nope. It’s going to be a four-piece. I’ll be playing keyboard and percussion and singing, and then there’ll be a guy playing kick-drum and cymbals and vibes, a guy playing electric guitar, and an upright bass player.
Paste: You’ve got 20-some-odd solo shows slated through the beginning of October. Then what?
Carey: I hope to just kind of see where S. Carey goes. I hope to be busy this fall and maybe some in the spring and then just see what happens with Bon Iver. When that picks up again, that will be my focus, for sure.
Paste: Is a second solo record in the works?
Carey: I have a couple of new songs that are kind of brewing around in my head. So yeah, I hope to do something. I’m not sure when that will be started. I’m still just kind of riding this out. But yeah, that is a goal of mine, and I look forward to it.