Getting to Know... Volcano Choir

Music Features Volcano Choir
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Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has been pretty public about his love for experimental post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees. The band’s music is largely instrumental, frequently epic and, like so much music that can’t lean on vocals as an audience-catcher, depends on building tension based on pacing, volume and orchestration. It could be said that some of their arrangements are reminiscent of Bon Iver songs, but what’s more likely is that Vernon’s instrumental compositions have taken more than a few cues from Collections of Colonies of Bees. The group, which formed in 1998, probably provided much of the inspiration for the unshackled take on traditional modes that has made Bon Iver so remarkable. But rather than limit his affection to reference points in his own work, last fall Vernon teamed up with the five members of Bees (all fellow Wisconsinites) to make something entirely new—a group named Volcano Choir and an album called Unmap (out now).

Volcano Choir sounds like Bon Iver’s glitchier, more experimental cousin, happily mixing electronic trickery with post-rock prowess and traversing considerable sonic territory. From stacked-vocal-driven pieces (“Seeplymouth,” “Youlagy”) to modern spirituals (“Mbira In The Morass”), the album works some kind of haunting magic, one that isn’t afraid of its own strangeness. The baritone a-cappella-group-style backup singing of “Cool Knowledge,” for example, certainly departs from both bands’ charted territories. But these six musicians haven’t just wandered off the map—they’ve attempted to erase songwriting boundaries altogether, and their journey will likely be a long one. Paste recently spoke with Bees guitarist Chris Rosenau about the making of Unmap, writing songs backwards and the future of the new musical project.

Paste: Tell me about the birth of Volcano Choir. You guys have all been friends for a really long time, right?
?Chris Rosenau: Yeah, we met Justin and the guys from his previous band, DeYarmond Edison, in 2005. We had a mutual friend—a guy that’s actually in Collections of Colonies of Bees now, Thomas Wincek, who’s our Rhodes player. They were into a record that we had done and he just put us in touch with them. They asked us to come up to Eau Claire to play a show and we did, and just kind of hit it off. We ended up touring with DeYarmond a bunch throughout the Midwest, and then just obviously ended up staying in contact with all those guys, still. We’re still all really good friends.

The whole Volcano Choir thing came about really gradually and really slowly. Basically, the whole thing started when I had recorded some solo stuff right around that same time—it was a little bit before we actually met Justin. I had just written some stuff as a total experiment with no plans of ever doing anything with it, but I was always interested in the back of my mind in finding a vocalist that could add to it. The whole idea was writing some really stark, minimal-type pieces with no overdubs or anything like that, just an idea for a vocalist to kind of use as scaffolding for something. I had never done anything like that before. So I did those things and Jim Schoenecker from Bees and I were screwing around with them, but there was no plan, so they just kind of sat forever.

And then we met Justin, and at this point DeYarmond had disbanded. I don’t even remember how it came up, but at some point we were like, “Hey, we have all these weird tracks we never did anything with. Let’s send them to Justin and see what he can do with them,” because obviously we were in love with his voice and everything. He ended up doing some vocals on those songs, and sent them back with a note like, “Here’s some really rough stuff. Just see what you think. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.” He was really just playing around with it, and two of the songs actually ended up being on the final record. “Husks and Shells” was one of them, and “Mbira in the Morass” was one of them. Then it was interesting, because all of a sudden this stuff that was just lying around with no plan and no focus ended up being really exciting to everyone involved. We just did the same thing with most of the other songs, by email, adding to them. That was actually right around the time [Justin] was screwing around with really what he wanted to do with For Emma, you know, with the new approach he was taking with the vocal stuff. The earlier stuff for Volcano Choir kind of happened in parallel with all that.

Paste: I think a lot of people have side projects where they might do a track or two with a friend. At what point did you guys realize that you were going to make an LP, that this was something bigger?
Rosenau: We played a show with Bon Iver before he totally blew up, in Milwaukee. It had gone on for a while, and we were super psyched about it, but no one had really gotten together and aggregated anything or taken stock of what actually existed. So we made a plan—that was fall last year—to get together and figure this out. We kind of thought we had what could be a cohesive record, but without really taking stock of it and seeing if it could fit together. We knew we loved all the stuff. Justin invited us up to his place last October or November, so we all went up and we brought all the files and brought instruments. There was no mention of “Volcano Choir” at all up until that point—it was always just a “Bees/Bon Iver collaboration,” or whatever. We didn’t have a name for it. It was really clear that weekend that we all got together and distilled everything down and took a look at everything, that we were super into the idea of doing it as a record and that even though it was clear that it was a Justin/Bees collaboration, it was its own band. Then we needed the name. That’s how the Unmap record solidified into something.

Paste: I wanted to ask about the fact that it’s all of Collections of Colonies of Bees, plus one extra guy. That’s unusual compared to other side projects, I think. Was it easier because so many of you had been playing together for so long? Was that an advantage for you guys or was it just weird to have this extra person there?
Rosenau: It was great. We didn’t really think about it, because we weren’t thinking about it like we had to get it done for something—there was no preconception. The thing with Justin is, and with all of the Bees personnel as well, we’re all really comfortable working with each other. We just kind of trust each other implicitly. You can send a song out that you have no idea what the other person’s going to put on, but you know it’s going to be great. And you know it’s probably not going to be what you were thinking in your head, but you know it’s just going to be fantastic. As far as just having one person, Justin, in the middle of what already was five people working together and making music—again, just because of the whole friends thing, it wasn’t weird at all. It was really interesting because we had never worked with a vocalist at all before, especially in that kind of capacity. [He’s] not just a singer. It’s not like he’s singing over Bees songs or something like that. He approaches constructing rhythm and melody in a similar way that we do. So it’s kind of its own instrument—it just happens to be his voice.

Paste: From the perspective of somebody who writes instrumental music like you do, how does it feel to write something that is going to have a vocal melody with lyrics at the center of a composition? Usually you guys have to provide some of that information instrumentally in your own work.
Rosenau: I feel weird that I keep saying this, but we didn’t even ever consider any of it. [Laughs] Honest to God, we didn’t even think about adding stuff or subtracting stuff to fit Justin in, or approaching something differently. The whole thing was this kind of super-malleable, plastic, reactive journey for everybody. I think that the way [Justin] approaches his vocals on a lot of those songs is really not as much lyrical as it is musical, so it wasn’t really as hard as it might be working with a vocalist or a lyricist who needs parts to settle down so you can hear the words. With Justin, the way he approaches everything, it’s like there’s this extra pattern or polyrhythm or melody or all three at the same time. Obviously, he’s doing a constructed choir kind of thing over more stark kind of stuff, but for the other stuff, he really approached his voice as an instrument, and where there are words on that record, they’re pretty stream-of-consciousness, coincidental kinds of things.

Paste: So I’m interested in what happens when you put a new brain into the mixture. Did these songs evolve in a way that anybody was expecting? Was it something that either group on its own could have made? Were you at all surprised by where it went?
Rosenau: It was 100 percent surprising at every stage of the game. And still is. That’s at the crux of the whole thing—that’s how the whole thing started and why the whole thing started. What we received back from [Justin] over those original compositions was so new and so jarring and shocking and fantastic that we got excited about it. So as this kept going, it was about who could kind of kick the other’s ass more. We’d try really work on something and really flesh it out and figure it out to really blow him away, and he’d do the same with us.

Could either group have done it without the other? For sure, no. And that’s why we decided it was its own kind of band. It’s a total collaboration, but it’s also… the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s funny too, because a good example of that is the song “Seeplymouth,” the second song on the record. I think a lot of people assume that because Justin’s singing and we play music that we just wrote the songs and shipped them to Justin and Justin sang on them. Which is the logical conclusion, but it’s not the way it worked for a lot of the material. That song started with his vocal line. Who writes a freaking song like that? [Laughs] Who starts with the vocal line? That was fantastic—we got this vocal line with pretty fleshed-out vocals, like verse-chorus kind of stuff, and we were like, “What the hell are we supposed to do with this? How do you write a song starting with the vocals?” It was an amazing challenge, but we were so in love with what he was doing with the song that it was a total pleasure. None of this would’ve happened without the other. And obviously Justin wouldn’t be writing the songs that we did send to him—he wouldn’t have approached it the way that we did.

Paste: So you call it a band, then, not just a side project. Is this a band that will tour? Will there be more Volcano Choir records?
Rosenau: We’ve actually been talking a lot lately about playing this stuff live. Logistically, it’s not going to happen until next year at the soonest, because Justin’s schedule is slightly bananas at this point. [Laughs] Even if this were a matter of six dudes writing some songs and then relearning them it would still take a while, but just purely by the nature of how this was done, none of this stuff has been played live together, ever. So we need to figure out how we would even approach doing some of these songs live, which is super exciting, but we also need some time to do it right. As far as a tour, we’re all psyched to do it. When? I have no idea. As far as new stuff, I’d say for sure, like 100 percent. This whole thing has been so fun that there’s no way that it’s not going to keep happening. I’ve actually done some cursory writing for… I don’t want to say for the next Volcano Choir record, but we’ve been screwing around already with some new stuff. I’ve sent Justin some stuff and he’s been working on it a little bit, too. The thing is, it’s just so much fun. We have such a good time together that at some point we’re going to all go up there again and have a crazy weekend and have a bunch more songs. There’s obviously no timeline or pressure or anything like that for it, but it’ll definitely happen.

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