Justin Vernon was recording vocal tracks for Repave, the new album by Volcano Choir, in his April Base Studios in Wisconsin last winter. Though his bandmates had been working on material for the album for more than two years, they had never before heard Vernon’s melodies or lyrics.
“The first time that we heard vocals for these songs was the first time we heard vocals for these songs,” recalls guitarist Chris Rosenau.
It was also the first time they learned Vernon might be channeling Charles Bukowski. After singing the final verse on “Alaskans,” he held a laptop to the microphone. On it played a YouTube clip from the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This, of Bukowski reading a poem on French television and ruminating on death and dying before breaking down in a tearful, drunken mess.
“It started playing through the microphone, and we’re all just, like, ‘What the fuck?’” says Rosenau. “I remember getting super choked up,” he continues. “Then we realized, ‘Oh, shit. We have a Charles Bukowski sample on our record.’”
“We had to go to Bukowski’s [widow] and ask to use the poem,” says keyboardist Tom Wincek.
In recent interviews, Vernon has said that song “sets the tone” for the album, which, given his often dark and frank lyrics, is true thematically. But given the recording’s rich, multilayered compositional depth, it’s also true in a more functional sense. As with their 2009 debut, Unmap, Volcano Choir — which includes members of Collections of Colonies of Bees, All Tiny Creatures and Vernon’s own group, Bon Iver — began collaborating on material for the album remotely, exchanging song ideas digitally. Unlike that first album, when it was time to track Repave, VC were able to come together and record in the same room, rather than in pieces. According to Rosenau and Wincek, that led to a gleefully unrestrained process of experimentation, of construction and deconstruction — and, one imagines, repaving — and to stunning little moments such as Vernon unexpectedly borrowing Bukowski.
“We’re his best friends,” says Rosenau of Vernon. “But we’re also fans, so to hear him do that was insane.”
Volcano Choir are currently touring behind their new record, including a stop at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington this Monday, September 9. In advance of that show, Seven Days spoke with Rosenau and Wincek in a conference call from Wisconsin.
SEVEN DAYS: In your minds, what are some of the key differences between Unmap and Repave?
CHRIS ROSENAU: The DNA of the two records, I think, is similar. The whole process was … Tom, you answer this fucking question. I’ll pop in when I get this figured out.
TOM WINCEK: [Laughs] The first record, Chris had this idea of doing a record with multiple vocalists. Chris doesn’t work with vocalists very often in his other bands. And it just so happened that Justin was the only person who would send stuff back. And he would send stuff instantly, because he was excited. Then, over a four-year span, we realized we had all these sketches of songs and that it should just be a band instead of a split collaboration sort of thing.
Then, really, the writing process for Repave started almost immediately after that Japanese tour and some U.S. dates [in 2009]. Chris started writing stuff right away and sending out sketches. I started working on stuff. Then, again over four years, we assembled enough to do it again. But this time, I think, was more of an idea of a band, where there wasn’t one before. That informed what we were doing. That was a big difference. We knew what we could do live and what we could do in the studio. And that informed the writing process.
SD: You had never played those songs in the same room together until you went on tour in Japan, right?
TW: No. We had played in each other’s bands and been on tour. But we didn’t really even think of those songs as songs until we started learning them to play them live.
CR: I’m gonna concur with Tom. Good answer, Tom!
SD: [Laughs] How did being in the studio together this time affect how Repave turned out and sounds so different from Unmap?
CR: Well, like Tom was saying, the start for both records was similar. Writing these purposefully noncommittal sketches of things, because the idea was for people to alter them and change them. But for Unmap it was a more singular effort. Us individually reacting and writing by ourselves. But one of the reasons Repave sounds so different is that while most of the songs started the same way, the next step wasn’t to do a file exchange. The next step was subgroups of people getting together and having shit tons of fun and hammering the shit out of these arrangements. And that’s what you’re hearing. You’re hearing friends having fun for a long time.
SD: It must also have been liberating not to work with any real deadline.
CR: The albums are similar to me in a lot of ways. There was never any pressure with this record in terms of deadlines or expectations, just like the first record, which is miraculous. I don’t even know how that happened. But I’m super thankful that it did, because the outcome is that we kept reworking these songs and adding pieces. If you looked at the tracks to these songs, you would get a headache. It’s ridiculous. There’s stuff in [the tracks] that haven’t been in the songs for two years. Stuff we’ve taken out or reworked. So that’s the difference. Instead of friends working creatively,but disconnected, it’s friends sitting in the same room laughing and going crazy over the ideas everyone has.
SD: There must have been moments when it all went off the rails.
TW: Mostly in the mixing process, which was actually really hard. It was hard to not lose it and go down all these different rabbit holes and look at one sound for 20 minutes. But we were always able to rein it back in and not listen to one snare forever.
CR: To frame it another way, yes, mixing was the most challenging aspect of this record. But getting together and writing this way was total bliss. Because no one gave a shit about anything. It was just, like, “Add it! It’s cool! We’ll edit all this shit later, let’s just get all of these insane ideas down.” So what you end up with is songs full of way too many great ideas.
TW: And who could ask for something better than that?
CR: Exactly! It’s the best problem to have. That’s why writing this record was so fun. Because we didn’t have to be, like, “Wait this has gotta be a song,” or something. We didn’t care. We were just having a blast.
Volcano Choir play the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington with Sylvan Esso and Sam Amidon, Monday, September 9, 7:30 p.m. $22/25. AA.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Eruption Process."