Alternating Inspiration

Volcano Choir, and the band’s most famous member, evolve in concert

September 12, 2013
Justin Vernon, far left, splits his time between Volcano Choir (above), Bon Iver and other projects. His work with Volcano Choir informs his direction with Bon Iver.
Justin Vernon, far left, splits his time between Volcano Choir (above), Bon Iver and other projects. His work with Volcano Choir informs his direction with Bon Iver.

Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon has a lot of side projects — a blues-rock trio, a soft-rock group, his collaborations with Kanye West.

Then there’s his band Volcano Choir. Without it, Bon Iver’s Grammy-winning second album might have sounded completely different.

The bombastic, multilayered nature of 2011’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” — versus the folksy, cabin-in-the-woods sound of that band’s 2007 debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago” — is due, in part, to a brief Japanese tour Volcano Choir embarked on in 2010.

Tom Wincek, who plays keys in Volcano Choir and contributed synth work to “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” says the time Volcano Choir spent learning how to perform the oddly structured songs from its 2009 debut, “Unmap,” influenced how Vernon approached Bon Iver.

“That was way before Justin started writing the ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ album,” Wincek says. “A lot of that is super-bombastic, lots of heavy-hitting drums. I gotta think he was influenced by the process we went through. Obviously, the first [Bon Iver] album doesn’t sound like that. There’s a thread there.”

The thread continues on Volcano Choir’s new album, “Repave,” which mines similar sonic territory as “Bon Iver, Bon Iver.”

Volcano Choir dates back to 2005. That’s when guitarist Chris Rosenau, who, like the rest of the band (sans Vernon) is part of Milwaukee experimental group Collections of Colonies of Bees, began working on tracks for Vernon — a fan and friend — to collaborate on.

As Bon Iver blew up, Vernon and Rosenau sent chunks of music back and forth in an email collaboration. By 2009, they had enough material for Volcano Choir’s first album, “Unmap,” a strange, patchwork collection of soundscapes.

“It was an email record,” Rosenau says. “We were barely in the studio at all — except at the end to assemble the whole thing.”

For “Repave,” which Rosenau began working on in late 2010, the six-piece spent extra time in the studio crafting more traditional songs. The sound now echoes that of “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” — expansive, ethereal and epic, but with Vernon mostly ditching his falsetto to sing in a lower register. Another big difference: Unlike the long list of instruments Vernon picked up for that album, the only sounds he makes on “Repave” come from his vocal cords.

As Volcano Choir embarks on its first large-scale U.S. tour, the process of learning songs for the stage has begun anew. And if history is any indication, the live shows could offer a preview of where Bon Iver — or at least Vernon — is headed.

9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., $25; 202-265-0930. (U Street)
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read
Next Story
Marc Silver · September 12, 2013