THE CROWD AT MILWAUKEE'S RIVERSIDE THEATER is bursting. It's been two years since Bon Iver has performed live—at the very same venue, back in September of 2009—and a feverish anticipation is flooding the sold-out room.
When the lights finally dim and the band files onstage, the place erupts. Bon Iver's founder, songwriter, and leader, Justin Vernon, is playing the part of the reluctant showman, dressed in a tan vest and slacks and flanked by eight musicians. A spectacular display of vertical LED lights bathes the players in electric blue as Vernon begins to weave his guitar through the opening riff of "Perth," the first track on the band's just-released Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the crowd recognizes it immediately. The first voice to ring out isn't Vernon's, but that of longtime sidekick and guitarist Mike Noyce, and a few bars later the entire band comes crashing to life, masterfully fleshing out the intricate layers of the song and effectively stunning the room. Gone are the days of Bon Iver's pin-drop quiet, delicate live shows; the Justin Vernon of 2011 is commanding an unapologetically fierce rock band.
Still, that sense of emotional immediacy remains. Fans clutch their faces in their hands and swallow lumps in their throats, many shaking their heads at one another in disbelief. When Vernon sings, his voice easily stands out above the instruments and the cheers of "I love you!" Even with all the other action happening onstage, every backing musician falls in line behind that voice, which rings out like a rooftop aria and sounds too lofty and lovely to match the scruffy, persistently bed-headed man who is unleashing it on the room. Of all of the things that are enticing about Bon Iver, it's this disparity that is perhaps the most disarming: Justin Vernon, the universally likable, unassailably uncontroversial, Wisconsin-bred bro's bro, isn't afraid to be beautiful. And try as he might to avoid the wildfire success and the limelight, his beauty has caught the attention of everyone from Stephen Colbert to Kanye West and is positioning the college town of Eau Claire squarely at the epicenter of the indie world.
JUSTIN VERNON IS RECLINING in a pink chaise lounge, a splendidly garish piece of furniture that once sat in a hallway at his parents' house in Eau Claire and now resides at his brother Nate's loft in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. Vernon has only a few hours of downtime in the Twin Cities before he heads to New York to perform on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Colbert Report, and he and his brother are taking full advantage of the momentary lull in the promotional furor to chain-smoke cigarettes and joints and crack open bottles of beer between episodes of Party Down.
Though his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, blew up the indie sphere, the band's latest, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is pushing Vernon into the mainstream. Since its release earlier this summer, when it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts right under the new release by Jill Scott, Bon Iver, Bon Iver has caught the ear of critics nationwide and earned lavish praise from outlets like the New York Times, Spin, and Rolling Stone, whose reviewer Will Hermes called Vernon "one of our era's defining singers." Since the launch of the group's tour in Milwaukee, Bon Iver have started looping the U.S. for a journey that will eventually take them overseas to headline the Pitchfork Music Festival Paris in late October—including two back-to-back shows on Tuesday, September 6, and Wednesday, September 7, that find him at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.
When he is asked how he manages to stay centered despite the swirling activity around him, Vernon smiles wryly. "There's vibe patrol on the phone every week," he says.
In addition to hiring his brother and his longtime friend and colleague, Kyle Frenette, as co-managers of Bon Iver, Vernon has surrounded himself with a large circle of friends and trusted professional companions who tour as a pack with him from place to place—think Entourage for the down-home Midwestern set. "They just make you remain who you are and who you were," he says. "By being good friends they hold you accountable, I guess, and they always have. I think it's really easy to see a lot of—and I don't want to be negative about it—but a lot of falsities about how things actually are. Like the whole fame thing, and how there are famous people talking to famous people. There's the industry, even at an indie level, and that can just be not real sometimes, even though it pretends to be. Not in a negative way, it's just not aware of itself. I just feel like by knowing that, you kind of remain far away from some of that and know that you're not a part of something that's weird."
Throughout the interview, Vernon returns to the idea of his pack, especially as a way of keeping him down to earth. "It's just family and friends, actually. They treat you how you're supposed to be treated. I don't know, that's like the only thing," he says. He takes another American Spirit out of a wrinkled pack, and his brother Nate appears out of nowhere to help him light it. "They come and give you lighters when you need one," Vernon says, laughing.
"I feel a big moving coming," he says calmly. "Either a big move to Eau Claire—because I'm just not anywhere right now—deciding where to stay, or going somewhere else. Everybody thinks about moving places. I've been drawn up here a whole bunch of times," he remarks, referring to the Twin Cities. "Nate lives up here, my parents live close to here now, and I'm the only one living in Eau Claire. But I don't know when that's going to happen. I don't have a reason to move right now; I'm just not home all that much."
Vernon says part of what keeps him in his hometown is that it helps him to check back in with himself between jaunts around the globe. The only time he's left for any substantial period was to migrate his first touring band, DeYarmond Edison (a moniker that plays off Vernon's full name, Justin DeYarmond Edison Vernon), to North Carolina to test the waters in a new market back in the mid-aughts. That move ended with Vernon boomeranging homeward in one of the most dramatic moves of his life—a move that found him leaving behind his band, girlfriend, and newfound gambling habit and channeling his loneliness oh-so-poetically into the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago. To this day, Vernon says he can't quite put his finger on what makes Eau Claire so fulfilling to him personally and creatively.
"I think there's this weird working-man feeling about Eau Claire, or something," he offers after a pause. "You go there and it's like, 'Well, just because we don't have art doesn't mean we can't have art.' You can still do it, but it can be a frustrating place if you don't feel like there's enough people as hungry as you are for a specific type of thing. So I think there are people that stay in Eau Claire because they like that absence and hope that it's going to trigger and start something new. People in Minneapolis are just trying to be a part of something immediate, and for good reason."
When asked if he thinks there can be a downside to diving into a big city and thirsting after immediate success, he nods his head in agreement. "That can be dangerous, too. There's more of a friction in Eau Claire for something like that."
WHEN VERNON'S CAREER with Bon Iver is placed in context with his lifelong musical evolution, it's clear that he's been in it for the long haul since the very beginning. It's this workmanlike approach—not to mention his seemingly nonexistent desire for fame—that has allowed him to maintain total control of his art even while achieving widespread success.
"I talked to Ian MacKaye [of Fugazi] on the phone yesterday for this Under the Radar magazine interview thing," he says. "I was asking him a bunch of questions, and long story short, he comes around and says, 'I'm not an expansionist.' I've thought about that word for the past three days, and thought that you can just choose to do what you want, versus what there is this magnetic pull in the industry for you to do. It's not like somebody's fault or some conspiracy. People just fall into knowing they should make money, and they do forget about a bunch of other stuff."
(In a separate interview, Jagjaguwar's Darius Van Arman echoed a similar sentiment. "For him it's really about the body of work," Van Arman said. "He's very careful about those decisions. And sometimes they are very anti-commercial decisions. He makes decisions that leave not only sales and fans but huge amounts of money on the table.")
While Vernon's headstrong insistence on maintaining complete control over his creative output could seem like a Midwestern trait rooted in humility, it also speaks to Vernon's unique position at the forefront of the music industry's "indie" movement. In an era in which Arcade Fire can win a Grammy and major labels are continuing to implode and crumble under their own greed, artists like Bon Iver are able to debut records at No. 2 on the Billboard charts despite being signed to a modest-sized independent label like the Indiana-based Jagjaguwar. Even the fact that Vernon managed to be a blip on someone like Kanye West's radar speaks to just how level the playing field has become.
Vernon barely flinches at the mention of Ye's name. "You learn a lot about people when you play pickup basketball with them," he says, the corner of his lip creeping up into a sideways grin. "If they're cool on the court then they're cool all over the place. They're nice, respectful."
Inspired by the way Vernon was subtly incorporating vocal manipulation into his music, West called him up last winter and flew him out to Hawaii to work on his latest studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As with most things in Vernon's increasingly surreal life, he took the experience in stride and seems to think of it as a learning experience.
"I am just really drawn to how passionate he is," Vernon says of West. There's a childness to his music, and I think that he likes that. And I think that's a good thing. It's free—it's like 'no parents.' It's as simple as that."
Vernon says some of that freedom in the studio has informed his own work, along with the other things he's dabbled in between Bon Iver records. "Deciding to mix that Gayngs project was probably like the dumbest business move I ever made on paper, but it taught me so much about how to mix my new record. Every time I've mixed a project, it's always taught me a lot more about how to hear music. So doing the Gayngs thing and doing the Volcano Choir record, all that stuff equally shared in the current information going into the new record. There's all the influences from before, too, that never had a chance to creep in, you know? Like Ellington, with some saxes on the new record."
The fact that he now tours with a nine-piece band, too, and has called on talented musicians from across the U.S. (including renowned Twin Cities-based saxophonist Mike Lewis), also seems fueled by past experiences. "I had like a nine-piece band in high school, too," he says, thinking back to his Mount Vernon days. "All the dudes from Megafaun [who were also his DeYarmond Edison bandmates], they were in it. We were 16, 17 years old. But I've always been in big bands, and I like jamming with tons of people and horn players and shit." He laughs to himself. "That was like my 23-year-old self answering that question. 'I like jamming with guys with horns and shit. Peace.' I actually had dreadlocks when I was 18," he says, holding a hand to his temple and shaking his head, "like Vanilla Ice dreadlocks shaved up to here."
IT'S TEMPTING TO VIEW Justin Vernon's musical progression as a timeline that begins when he holed up in his storied Magical Cabin in the Woods to record his breakout album, For Emma, Forever Ago, and ends when he emerged, all butterfly-like, as the confident frontman of a brazen and dynamic rock band. But while that story may be terribly romantic, and while it may have helped him attract the attention of publicists, labels, journalists, and hundreds of thousands of fans, it's actually only a small fraction of what amounts to nearly two decades of a musical evolution that started when Vernon was still a middle-schooler in Eau Claire and has brought him to a point where he is collaborating with artists as disparate as celebrity-sized rapper West, obscure folk opera songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, and downtempo electro darling James Blake—not to mention his math-rock-meets-space-rock project Volcano Choir or his contributions to the robo-pop collaboration Gayngs.
Drew Christopherson, a co-founder of Minneapolis's Totally Gross National Product label and an early friend of Vernon's in Eau Claire, remembers some of the Bon Iver mastermind's earliest musical moments vividly. "His bands, Skillet and Big Ed's Gas Farm, would play shows with my band Wondermutt at the middle school gymnasium. Justin was one of the first people that I got really excited to play music with and to start bands around. I think we felt it together. We would make a tape one night, and then the next day go to RadioShack and buy like 30 cassettes and hand-package them and sell them at school for a dollar apiece. It was a fun thing to do when you're 12."
Christopherson says that even at an early age Vernon dabbled in many genres, a relatively controversial decision for a middle school kid. "Justin always teetered on the edge," he remembers. "He got way into grunge and everything back then with us, but he simultaneously dove into Dave Matthews Band and stuff like that." Christopherson trails off, grinning. "I never saw eye to eye on the DMB shit."
"He loves all the early, unacceptable things," says Ryan Olson, who was a few years ahead of Vernon in school in Eau Claire and later recruited him to contribute to and mix his Gayngs record. Olson also remembers one of Vernon's earliest musical projects: "His band Pleeb—which was James Buckley and him and this guy Mark Thompson playing crazy future prog fucking music up in our practice space in Eau Claire. It was insane. They were like 14-year-olds playing the shredding-ist, most amazing shit ever."
Shortly afterward, Vernon joined both marching band and jazz band and started snowballing a collective of willing musical collaborators. By the end of high school, he was fronting the sprawling nine-piece ska-meets-Dave Matthews Band group Mount Vernon with several of his jazz bandmates. "Even in high school, his band had a lot of team spirit to it," Christopherson remembers. "It's very easy for him to get people to feel connected. He played our graduation party in high school, and our whole gymnasium filled with the graduating class was practically up in arms watching him play these songs. Everyone was kind of tearing up."
Vernon's first solo record, too, carries that all-inclusive school-spirit vibe, cultivated by spending his teens as a camp counselor and a member of both his high school basketball and football teams. "I feel I need to sketch, emotionalize, thank and play to the people and places that have shaped me," Vernon wrote in the liner notes for Home Is, which he recorded right out of high school and has a turn-of-the-millennium college-rock feel. Place has long served as both an inspiration and a narrative theme in Vernon's work, but never as bluntly as on that first solo album, when he sang "Feels like home to me/I know just where I want to be."
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Vernon's career since then is that home is still where he wants to be, as he has stubbornly planted himself in Eau Claire. He created such a welcoming home for his friends at his massive recording studio and housing bunker, April Base, that at one point it became so overrun that he took out a second apartment in downtown Eau Claire just so he could claim a quiet moment of his own. On the road, too, Vernon travels in his pack, curating a staff of workers that are hired not only for their professional qualifications but for their ability to fit into his tight-knit family of trusted associates.
"The way Justin views everyone he works with is very heartfelt," says Darius Van Arman, a founder and co-owner of Bon Iver's record label, Jagjaguwar. "He's not uncomfortable with mixing or blurring the lines between friendship and business. That can spell the path to ruin for many artists, but I think Justin's also a very good judge of character. He has very good instincts with who to trust in the people around him. His batting average on that is very high, which is why it's functional."
AT ITS ESSENCE, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a dissertation on the meaning of place. Throughout its 10 tracks, Vernon returns to the idea that place is much more than a pin on a map, that you can be homesick for a person, and that an identity can become intertwined in a specific location and time as much as it can a feeling or a purpose. Longing can be a city. Loss can be a building, burning. And the past blurs together into the mists of memory to make each passing moment feel at once immediate and already happily half-forgotten.
The most honest parts of the record lie in these blurry moments. Lines like "You've added up to what you're from" (on "Towers") and "We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be/Now to know it in my memory" ("Holocene") play with a shifting, cryptic language that depicts place as people, and people as places, sometimes simultaneously.
It makes sense, of course, that two years of heavy touring worldwide would result in an album in which nearly every song title refers to a real or imaginary city, but one gets the sense that Vernon isn't actually singing about Texas, or Ohio, or Wisconsin.
"I've made this weird choice to write songs from this more subconscious place," Vernon says. "It's kind of deciding on basic brain boundaries, to only come up with lyrics that come super weirdly, or just by sound, and I've learned enough by doing that to end up writing songs that mean something in a more elusive or opaque way, that makes it prettier."
It's Vernon's willingness to make his music pretty—both vocally, by singing in a recently discovered falsetto, and with his arrangements, which, despite growing fuller on the new record, also shine in their most delicate moments—that has placed him at the forefront of a movement of rock musicians who yearn for a more intricate, nuanced form of expression. If there was a pendulum swinging in the late '70s and the '80s toward the aggressive chauvinism of cock rock and the rabid, testosterone-driven frustration of punk, it might have finally swung to its other extreme in the late aughts as indie frontrunners like Bon Iver, Feist, Arcade Fire, and Fleet Foxes brought rock music to its most tender, most feminist point. A point where male songwriters and female songwriters no longer need to exist in separate spheres (as they did even a mere decade ago during the female-empowering yet gender-segregating Lilith Fair era), and where a more complex array of emotions that fall outside of the socially defined "masculine" set—sympathy, nostalgia, insecurity, grief, powerlessless—are explored unapologetically. A point where Eddie Vedder has traded his electric guitar for a ukulele and Thurston Moore has ditched his reverb pedal for an acoustic 12-string, where harps and melodicas and horns are being ushered back onstage and melody is reigning supreme.
It seems plausible, actually, that Bon Iver not only came to fruition at the tipping point of this phenomenon of tenderness but that Vernon himself was the tipping point. For Emma, Forever Ago connected with fans because of its emotional immediacy, but a scan at the past and present of Vernon's songwriting career reveals that For Emma wasn't only the most delicate and earnest collection of songs to receive widespread acclaim back in 2008; it was also the softest and most earnest batch of songs Vernon had ever written. Musically, he started moving away from that sparse, willowy cabin vibe immediately following the release of For Emma, expanding the tracks into full-band arrangements that clanged to life onstage.
Now Bon Iver's live show is downright dramatic, with Vernon and his band stitching together a patchwork of influences and styles. These days, it seems clichéd to use the phrase "genre-bending," especially in a place like the Twin Cities where rock, jazz, punk, and hip hop have become cozy bedfellows, but what sets Vernon apart is that he's willing to ply just about any sound, regardless of how fashionable or jarringly unhip it might be.
One of the most frequently employed yet laziest digs against Bon Iver involves lumping their earlier work in with late-'60s and '70s touchy-feely folkies like James Taylor, and comparing the full-band arrangements on the new Bon Iver, Bon Iver with soft-rock purveyors like Bruce Hornsby. But for a songwriter who is equally inspired by Donny Hathaway, Ani DiFranco, Duke Ellington, Bonnie Raitt, his own girlfriend, Kathleen Edwards, and yes, Bruce Hornsby, among so many others, Vernon is simply channeling his lifelong love of music into a sound that is all his own—no apologies. It makes a track like "Beth/Rest," the unrelentingly majestic closing track on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, both a compositional triumph and a brave rebellion against the tastemaking elite who are eager to file everything into the latest buzz-worthy subgenre.
"Everything about what [Vernon] does is really crazy-ass smart, well thought-out with insane nuances, but he taps into this vibe that is despised," says Ryan Olson. "It's amazing."
"Honestly, I don't think Justin really cares about other people's interpretations of it, just because he's going to keep doing it," echoes Drew Christopherson. "I think we've got decades of music to look forward to from him."