While the city of Lawrence was watching the nail-biting championship game between KU and Memphis (and later celebrating the win), my friends and I took a road trip to see Bon Iver, pronounced “bon ee-VAIR,” (iTunes) perform at Mojo’s in Columbia, Missouri. Justin Vernon, the brilliant singer/songwriter behind Bon Iver, was far from what we expected. With incredible sideburns and a body built for hard labor, it was hard not to be intimidated. It almost seemed fitting if he were to throw on a flannel shirt and wield an axe. Nick and I sat down with him after the sound check to discuss the new album and the story behind it, and he proved our initial impressions wrong—he was sweet, genuine, and more than willing to open up about his experiences.
Megan Do: What was the story behind – what were the intentions behind your move out to the cabin?
Justin Vernon: To get away from stuff; I had no choice but to go somewhere: I had no money, but I didn’t want to make money, you know? I didn’t want to be stuck in the cycle of “Shitty job, shitty house, no insurance.” I wanted to live off the land, my intentions weren’t to make a record.
Nick Lundgren: How did you fill your days before you began to record?
JV: Nothing… being depressed. Just having a good day in the woods, for days I’d just split wood, cut trees, pull trees. There was a tractor there, so I’d take a ride on the tractor. I’d keep busy, or not. Some days I’d just do nothing at all, and that was nice.
NL: Sort of liberating?
MD: And this was your father’s cabin?
JV: Yes, he built it in 1979.
MD: How did your friends and family react to this decision?
JV: They were whatever. I moved to North Carolina for a year and a half; they weren’t worried, they were very supportive, and said “do your own thing.”
MD: Did you bring your equipment with you?
JV: I just had what I had packed from North Carolina, you know I never really unpacked, I spent two weeks unpacked, just cleaning out cobwebs up there.
MD: Was there a moment where it just hit you? Where it just clicked, where you were inspired to begin writing this album?
JV: There was never a “click,” it was a very vague and unmentionable period. There was this three month period of my life that’s very hard to recall; I was just fiddling, I mean there was no magic moment; it never came out in one thought, but it was all a part of the same thought, part of the same mental energy. The whole experience was very normal, only I was separated from people.
NL: Even so, the album is remarkably cohesive; I feel that there’s an underlying attention, and feel free to shoot me down if I’m way off base here, an underlying attention to the pauses in between moments, like a great poem, there’s weight in the dead space. Was this a conscious decision?
JV: No…. It wasn’t conscious. The album’s more sub-conscious for me. Intentions? Those words don’t even enter my mind, it was just me exploring my subconscious; losing my brain and getting into the zone. The mind shuts off and allows the subconscious to free-form. It was all just a result of how I felt.
MD: You said you were separated from people, did you have access to a phone or a TV?
JV: I brought my laptop and a satellite phone, but I never really used it; I didn’t have anything to say to anyone, only to myself.
NL: It’s obviously a very intensely personal album, so I was wondering how it feels to play those personal songs on-stage for other people?
JV: I don’t even know how to answer that question…. I mean I’m very happy about it, but the process pushes you along into touring and finding band members, which is something I’ve always wanted. It gets built up, especially in a record like this, it becomes something different. I’m still learning the songs, I’m still learning about the songs. When you play a personal song you have to be humble enough to let the song cross-over. You never know what the song could mean to someone else, you just have to play hard. Work hard. And make the song sound right.
MD: As Nick said, all of these songs on the record are extremely personal, and I was simply wondering if you had had any fans approach you and had told you how your songs have had an effect on them?
JV: More than I can count. It’s astonishing. The depth of the stories is astonishing; I’m overwhelmed, we’ve just gotten a lot of feedback, and we’re very thankful for that.
NL: This is a more straightforward question than the last few, but what was the intention behind the misspelling of “Hiver?”
JV: It just didn’t look right. I’m not a French speaker, and I know nothing about the French culture, or the French-Canadian culture for that matter, but I heard someone say it in a story, and I didn’t know it was French, I didn’t know it was anything, but I knew that was the name of my band. I went home and looked it up, and the “H” just didn’t look right.
NL: Yeah, even I, as a French speaker, first called the album Bon Eye-ver, which is cool, it’s sort of like a pseudonym you can adopt at will.
JV: We have a lot of people pronounce it Bon Eye-ver, and I’m not going to correct them, I mean, I didn’t even know.
MD: Do people come up to you and say “Hey, Bon!”
JV: Yeah, but I don’t care. We get a LOT of that in emails, but it doesn’t go to my head.
MD: Do you have a favorite song to play live or is there a certain song that means a lot to you? Why?
JV: I have to think about that… It’s… It’s different every night, the songs surprise you. I like playing The Wolves live, because we try to get the crowd to sing, and if they do it right, it sounds really cool. I really love the set, though, I mean, the set is we basically play the album. The album is one entity, I don’t like one song more than another. It’s not that I’m afraid to be pinned down to one song, it’s just that there isn’t one specific song.
NL: This is another semantics question: what is the purpose of the “Re:” in “Re: Stacks?”
JV: It’s “Regarding.” People use it in letters and emails. It’s about pointing towards and idea, to amplify that “This song is about the stacks.” I mean, every song title does that in a way, but I just really wanted to point it out: this song isn’t the stacks, it’s about the stacks.
MD: Some of my friends saw you at SXSW, and they said it was just a breathtaking show, what was that experience like for you, and what did you take away?
JV: It’s a lot like this, but four times a day. We played a few shitty shows, but a few great shows like the NPR day stage and the Pitchfork feature, that was really fun.We had a great time, we saw a lot of friends we hadn’t seen in a while; I mean my friends are all musicians, so even when I’m back in town, they’re out of town, it was like a little family reunion. You don’t leave empty, but you don’t really come away with too much you can understand from SXSW. We’re still trying to figure it out.