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fall preview 2013

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on Inappropriate Wedding Songs, Kanye West, and His Side Project, Volcano Choir

Auto-tuned beardo Justin Vernon might give the appearance of a loafer, but you’d be surprised: In between recent collaborations with Kanye West, Alicia Keys, and songwriter Kathleen Edwards, the Bon Iver front man miraculously found time to reconvene with his other, other side project, Volcano Choir, his group with Wisconsin sound-collagists Collections of Colonies of Bees. The group’s second album, Repave — another gorgeous swirl of droning, falsetto-fueled post-rock — is out on September 3.

You’ve been busy.
I’ve been living in my recording studio, so it’s like, I’d rather not book the recording studio for other people to use. I’d rather use it myself.

You’re in at least five different bands. Is it easy to switch back and forth?
In Bon Iver, it’s just me kind of making every shot, or working with Kanye, it’s just like, “Hey, what does Kanye want?” Or Shouting Matches is, “Oh, let’s drink twenty beers and have fun and play gospel music.” I think it’s really healthy for me to exercise all those different muscles.

What happens if two bands want your attention at the same time?
Well, you just tell ’em, you know? And they’re like, “Oh, okay.”

So it’s not like a girlfriend?
That’s a different answer to that question. But no, they’re very accepting.

Repave sounds a bit more concrete than the first Volcano Choir album.
Yeah. We were in Japan playing our first shows as a band, and just naturally they became a little bit more structured. So we were just sitting around like, “You guys, we could really write, like, catchy music, and it wouldn’t be shitty, because we’re us and we’re coming from where we’re coming from.”

Are you opposed to catchy songs?
I think the goal is to not make a decision based on what you think people will buy, or what’s easy to sell.

Do you cut parts that sound too appealing?
We actually wrote a couple songs that didn’t make this record. When you’re a nerd about records like we all are, you don’t want a song to distract from an overall statement or a flow or a mood. It’s like making a movie, you know? You can’t just throw in like a sex scene or something just because you need to sell tickets.

What does it feel like when people latch on to a song anyway, like with Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love”?
Well, you’re really happy that they get something out of the song. People seem to play that song at their weddings a lot, which is kinda weird. It is a breakup song. I think they just hear the word love and then patience and kindness and all that stuff.

You worked with Kanye again on Yeezus. How did “I’m In It” come together?
I was sitting around working with another band of mine that I can’t talk about yet — I apologize for that — but the power went out in the barn, and we couldn’t work on anything. We’re playing guitar around the campfire, drinking too many beers, and this starfucker thing came to me. So [later] I was sitting around writing for Kanye, and it just sort of popped into my head.

Can you say, “Hey, I have this idea” to Kanye?
The first time that we worked together [on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy], we developed enough of a trust that he knew I was going to go try to kill it as hard as possible on a song. I was only there for a couple of days this time. I probably had ten songs I worked on for Yeezus, and I think I ended up on three.

What happens to the other songs?
That, I cannot comment on. They probably go into some larger pool of who knows what, that can be used for anything later.

You recently Tweeted: "I feel and hope that Kate, the character from Lost, is excited about the new Volcano Choir album." Could you expand?
[Laughs.] For some reason I'm on an island a lot during these Volcano Choir songs, and it was very easy to be way in love with Kate's character from
Lost. And I had this weird moment one morning as we were finishing the album, like, "Man I love this album. It would be so helpful for the people stuck on the island or stuck in purgatory or whatever to hear this album. Maybe it would help them understand themselves or something. " I don't know.

Did you like the ending of Lost?
Nope. I'm still pissed.

This interview originally ran in the September 2, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Courtesy of Volcano Choir