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Volcano Choir Reveals Secret Behind Epic Live Show

Members of Volcano Choir sat down with All Songs Considered's Bob Boilen after a recent show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.
Cameron Wittig
Courtesy of the artist
Hear Volcano Choir Talk About The Band's Live Performances

Volcano Choir got its start in 2005 when Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and members of the band Collections Of Colonies Of Bees decided to make mysterious, multi-layered, adventurous music together. Their first album, 2009's Unmap, was dreamy, frequently abstract, and simply gorgeous.

Volcano Choir's followup, Repave, released in September on Jagjaguwar, is sometimes grand, sometimes delicate and enchanting. Both records are carefully crafted albums that don't easily lend themselves to live performances. But the group took its songs on the road and stopped by Washington, D.C. recently for an unforgettable live performance. You can hear and see the concert here.

After the show I sat with Volcano Choir lead singer Justin Vernon, guitarist Chris Rosenau and keyboardist Tom Wincek to talk about all the amazing and creative ways the band recreates its sonic adventures in a live setting. You can listen to our conversation via the audio link above, or read an edited version of the interview below.

Bob Boilen: Let's introduce everybody.

Tom Wincek: I'm Tom Wincek. I'm doing keys and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Chris Rosenau: Yeah, he's kind of like the technical brain behind how we orchestrate all of these things that we do.

Boilen: I wanna know more about that.

Rosenau: I'm Chris Rosenau, I play guitar.

Justin Vernon: I'm Justin Vernon, and I sing in this band, Volcano Choir.

Boilen: So, tell me what you meant by that, that Tom is the orchestrator.

Rosenau: Yeah, Tom - in order to do this - there's two aspects to this, right? There's the rock aspect, where it's the guitars through the amps and everything, which we obviously need to bring. But in order to...

Boilen: It's a seven-piece band on tour.

This is the most powerful set-up that I've had, and that we've ever worked with.

Rosenau: Yeah, so we have that aspect. But then, we have the aspect of - we really wanted to bring the record into a live situation as accurately as we could. Build on it, you know what I mean? Just kind of resonate with the audience and really get it big. But in order to do all that, I don't even know what Tom does. But he does insane things.

Boilen: Well, let's ask him.

Rosenau: Yeah, break it down.

Wincek: I'm not gonna get too technical.

Boilen: We actually don't mind technical.

Wincek: OK. There's a really nice computer on stage, but we're not using it for backing tracks. Justin's vocals are going into it, and then he has a little controller that he can control harmony effects with.

Boilen: I see. And Justin, you have this lectern.

Vernon: Yes!

Boilen: Which I love the look of this thing.

Vernon: Yeah. I would have never - the type of person that I am - I would have never picked a podium.

Rosenau: The pulpit.

Vernon: The pulpit. It's way too intense and way too on-the-nose for what's going on. But it works out kind of perfectly, because there's a lot of gear that is required. High-end, kind of voltage controllers and everything to make everything sound really, really good [and] to be able to work with what Tom is doing with my voice, what I'm doing to control different layers of my voice with all this internal programming that Tom is doing. And so, it works out, because I need to hide all that stuff, and it needs to be near by me.

Boilen: Right, right. Would it be safe to say that what you have laid out on the computer are different vocal effects, that there's a mixer and a controller of sorts that Justin fools with when he wants to get to a certain sound?

Wincek: Yes. And specifically for harmonies. So, for instance, we're doing "Still," which is our version of [the Bon Iver song] "Woods."

Vernon: Well, "Woods" is my version of the song I sent to Volcano Choir originally.

Wincek: Yeah. When we're doing that, [Justin] has all these scenes, with all these different harmonies. And when I say that, I mean literally, the computer processes and then creates harmonies. So he sings one note, and then there's a sixth below and a third up in octaves. So he goes [sings the line], and a chord of vocals comes out, and we're looping that.

Boilen: Is it [the soft-synth] Reaktor? What program is this?

Wincek: No, we're using Ableton. And then the harmony stuff is all the Antares stuff, the harmony engine.

Vernon: Not to get too nerdy into the technical stuff, but until very recently, I've never been able to do any of that.

Boilen: When you say "not do any of that," you mean in a live situation?

Vernon: Yeah, with that [type of] powerful processing. Apple computers are the closest thing that we have. There needs to be way more, I think, the powerful stuff for what people like [us are] trying to do. And we're not in the industry of making chips or whatever, but this is the most powerful set-up that I've had, and that we've ever worked with.

Wincek: This is the takeaway, I think: All the nerdy stuff is awesome. But the takeaway is that we can literally do whatever we want to do. And there was no thought in recording the album, "Oh, we're never going to be able to recreate this live." So in the live set-up, there should be no thought of, "Oh, well. We can't recreate this." It's like, "Well, no. Let's figure out how to recreate it." And do it without backing tracks, and do it without a click track. I mean, we have to use a click track a couple times, like on "Woods," because there's live looping of Justin's vocals. He's adding layers upon layers.

Boilen: And a click track just gives the drummer something to pace, which paces then the whole band. So he hears a [beat].

Wincek: Right. And we're all playing our instruments and everything.

We got the opportunity to go play Japan, and then we said, 'Wait a minute! How do you play these songs?'

Boilen: Sure you are [laughing]. Come on now, let's be real.

Rosenau: No, I mean, that's a big part.

Wincek: It's a huge part.

Rosenau: The whole tech part of this [is] that what we use facilitates bringing the live performance out. And that's what we want to do.

Wincek: And I've gotten to the point now where I can control the stuff, and still play my piano parts, because everything is [written]. And I can still play my piano parts and rock out and sing back-up.

Boilen: So you guys are talking about recreating what you've done to make the music that you start with, so let's talk about how you, as a band, get together and make songs, so that I understand. We're at the end product here. Product's probably the wrong word. As a listener, we are getting the results. I'll call it the results.

Vernon: I have an amazing perspective on being in this band, because we've been sharing and creating music together now for longer than I've been doing my side project, Bon Iver. [Laughter]

Vernon: And before that, I was a younger man in Eau Claire, just going to college, and had an incredible experience when Tom, who was living in Eau Claire at the time...

Wincek: Also as a young man.

Vernon: Also a young man.

Wincek: We're the same age. [Laughter]

Vernon: He came over to our house, where I lived with [Megafaun's] Brad and Phil Cook, and he played us 2004's Collections of Colonies of Bees' Customer, which is within the top five favorite, most important pieces of music in history to me.

Boilen: And the band that most of the members of Volcano Choir...

Vernon: ...are now comprised of, pretty much. ... But basically I had a rearrange of my life, and how I understood music and what I wanted to do with music, and I didn't know these people. But through Tom, and Tom ended up joining the band later as well, [he] introduced us to Chris Rosenau, and Jon Mueller, these people that are...

Boilen: Jon's the drummer.

Vernon: Jon's the drummer. [These people] who continue to be extremely deep sources of inspiration for me, as a living person, artist, whatever. And so when we come into this band, and we get to spend time together, there's a deep friendship there. There's a deep sense of respect, and there's a deep sense of gratitude to just be able to share the gifts that these guys have to give to the band. So to go back to your original question...

Boilen: Do you remember it? Because I was kind of getting fuzzy on it.

Vernon: No, no, I sort of do. Basically, Chris is my favorite guitar player, and he just makes up all these pieces of music that create the wall of Volcano Choir. And all the people in between, and Dan [Spack, Volcano Choir guitarist] and Matt Skemp on bass, and Tom, create all the middle. Tom and Chris did a lot of the writing, 90 percent of the writing of the album, just the two of them on their own.

Boilen: Is it done in a room together? You [Tom] are shaking your head no. No one heard that, but [I'm doing] play-by-play here.

Rosenau: So the way that we started this record was kind of a natural jumping off point from the way that we had approached the last record, Unmap. That record was started in different places.

Boilen: How do you mean by places?

Rosenau: It was started by me at my house, and it was started by Tom, and it was started in different places. And it was more of a sending-out type of situation, right?

Boilen: Less of a live band in a room.

Rosenau: Totally less. Like, no live band in the room. And so we got the opportunity to go play Japan, because of some of our friends that we've had from other bands. And we were so excited that we just said, "Yep, we're doing that!" And then we said, "Wait a minute! How do you play these songs?" [Laughter] And so then we had this total challenge.

Boilen: Do you feel like your own cover band?

Rosenau: Actually, that's great. I've never heard that before. So we had to figure out how to do that, and so playing those shows gave us this extra knowledge and momentum.

Wincek: Because, I will say, it wasn't just a cover band. It was a cover band that needs to make these songs work in a live situation, that's just this weird studio album. We never thought about how to play this stuff live, even.

Boilen: Yeah.

Wincek: I think when we did that, and we re-interpreted them and saw what worked in a live atmosphere, we took that information into the writing process then, for this album.

Boilen: That's very cool. I like that.

Wincek: So it started the same way, we started with little sketches of sounds and guitar parts, but all the time while, we were building it up and making them into actual songs, we had that knowledge and information from what we did in Japan.

Rosenau: And so [with] that as a springboard, we knew that we wanted to take this further as a group. Now with that information, we started writing these things for Repave together, in subgroups.

Boilen: Again, the together is still in separate places.

Wincek: It started, yes.

Rosenau: So the DNA of this band is always the same. Kind of intentionally ambiguous sketches to leave room for whatever anyone wants to do. The sound of Repave, the reason it sounds different...

Boilen: Sure does, it sounds so different from the first record.

Rosenau: And the reason is that there are people in the same room together, reacting to each other, and having a blast, and just having a great time. And so, all of those little subgroups happened over the course of two and a half, three years, in the same place.

Boilen: Here's my disconnect: the first record is all sort of file-sharing kind of stuff.

Wincek: Correct.

Boilen: And it comes together. And then you learn from that, you go out and you perform that stuff. And then you come and you start making the new record and you learn from the first record, and figure out how to perform that first record that wasn't meant to be a performance record. So now when you go and do this new record, are you at any point in the writing process writing together, or is the writing done and then you're just trying to figure out how to play them? In other words, when you're getting together, are you composing still, or are you just kind of performing someone's idea?

Vernon: I think Chris said it the best.

Boilen: And I missed it.

Vernon: No, no, no, I'll re-frame it.

Boilen: Please.

Vernon: There's an intentional space left for the other people that you want to play music with you in the band. And Chris and Tom did a lot of the structuring. They put a lot of the skeleton together for the music. And then people like Jon [Mueller] and I come in very late. And we'd be listening, and like, "Acetate" is a good example. I remember getting a copy of it with very scratch drums, just at practice, Chris' guitar parts and Matt's playing bass and all this stuff, but it's rough and it's sort of... it is what it is. But I'd drive around in my car for three, four, five months just sort of [singing]. And over time, that thing, when I was like, "Oh, I want to write to Volcano Choir this week." And I got it, and I was able to call Chris and be like, "Oh, dude, this song is feeling like this," and I'd call Tom or call Jon. And it develops over a long period of time because we leave that space in there, and it allows for the music to really unfold in a way that feels permanent.

Boilen: Why did these come out to be much more song-based than the first record?

Wincek: I think, and I'm not going to speak for Chris, because Chris is right here... I just want to say that was an intentional thing for Unmap, to sound ethereal. That was the goal, and we always kept that in mind. That was Chris' original goal when he started writing that stuff.

Boilen: I see.

Wincek: But this time, the goal was different. We saw what we could do as a band. We saw what felt good in a live situation, and what felt good when we played together in the same room, and we wrote to that. So that's the difference.

Boilen: It really works. I mean, I love Repave.

'Repave' is the deconstruction of mind and spirit.

Vernon/Rosenau: Thanks.

Boilen: I love both records, but I truly live with this one more.

Vernon: Thank you.

Boilen: I find more opportunity to want to hear it. Unmap was a record that I needed a special place to want to put it on. Repave is a record that I can drive with.

Wincek: Yep, totally. And that was the idea.

Boilen: And stay on the road.

Wincek: We literally called it Unmap. I mean, the idea [was that it could be] its special, own zone.

Boilen: I want to ask a silly question, which is, I madly loved the [stage] backdrop. And I know there must be a story to it.

Rosenau: Super not silly question.

Wincek: We get to talk about Michael?

Boilen: Please do. Tell me.

Vernon: So Michael Brown is a designer who I've become very dear friends with.

Boilen: Can you describe the backdrop, too?

Vernon: The backdrop is a bunch of recycled materials that we had laying around in my barn.

Boilen: Seriously? It looked like a topographic map of a country I didn't know.

Vernon: Yes, and I'm glad you said that, Bob. That's Unmap.

Boilen: Oh, that's interesting.

Vernon: The deconstruction of geography. And Repave is the deconstruction of mind and spirit. The backdrop Michael Brown designed. He's a guy that was originally in New York forever, he's currently doing The National's lights and design.

Boilen: I know this guy. I think he's done some stuff on stage with Bryce and Aaron [Dessner of The National].

Vernon: Yeah, he does all their stuff in New York and everything. And so he's insanely busy. He's doing his biggest show ever with The National, and he just moved to Minneapolis because I told him to. [Laughter]

Boilen: Of course that's the reason he moved.

Vernon: I was just like, "Dude. Get out of there and come to the Midwest, because you're probably the greatest human in the world."

Wincek: Yep!

Vernon: And so he moved to Minneapolis, and in between tours with The National and Grizzly Bear, he came out to the house and was just listening to the music, and was just like, "How do we do this?" And he basically just created what I think is the cover of Repave, which is an amazing Corey Arnold photograph from the Bering Sea, and [he created it with] nautical rope and painted it.

Boilen: Wow.

Vernon: And it reacts to light so well. Sitting on front of that stuff, while we're doing our art, while we're doing our songs - it's insanely important to translate.

Boilen: It's a giant wall hanging.

Vernon: Yes.

Boilen: It looks like it weighs a ton. It looks like it's made of wool, but you're saying rope.

Vernon: Erosion cloth is what it's called.

Boilen: I don't know what that means.

Vernon: Me neither. [Laughter]

Boilen: Well, I really appreciate this. Thanks so much for the great music.

Vernon/Rosenau/Wincek: Thank you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.