Friday, October 16, 2009

Paste: Getting to Know... Volcano Choir

My interview with Chris Rosenau of Volcano Choir is up on today!

Getting To Know... Volcano Choir

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has been pretty public about his love for experimental post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees. The band’s music is largely instrumental, frequently epic and, like so much music that can’t lean on vocals as an audience-catcher, depends on building tension based on pacing, volume and orchestration. It could be said that some of their arrangements are reminiscent of Bon Iver songs, but what’s more likely is that Vernon’s instrumental compositions have taken more than a few cues from Collections of Colonies of Bees. The group, which formed in 1998, probably provided much of the inspiration for the unshackled take on traditional modes that has made Bon Iver so remarkable. But rather than limit his affection to reference points in his own work, last fall Vernon teamed up with the five members of Bees (all fellow Wisconsinites) to make something entirely new—a group named Volcano Choir and an album called Unmap (out now).

Volcano Choir sounds like Bon Iver’s glitchier, more experimental cousin, happily mixing electronic trickery with post-rock prowess and traversing considerable sonic territory. From stacked-vocal-driven pieces (“Seeplymouth,” “Youlagy”) to modern spirituals (“Mbira In The Morass”), the album works some kind of haunting magic, one that isn’t afraid of its own strangeness. The baritone a-cappella-group-style backup singing of “Cool Knowledge,” for example, certainly departs from both bands’ charted territories. But these six musicians haven’t just wandered off the map—they’ve attempted to erase songwriting boundaries altogether, and their journey will likely be a long one. Paste recently spoke with Bees guitarist Chris Rosenau about the making of Unmap, writing songs backwards and the future of the new musical project.

Paste: Tell me about the birth of Volcano Choir. You guys have all been friends for a really long time, right?
Chris Rosenau: Yeah, we met Justin and the guys from his previous band, DeYarmond Edison, in 2005. We had a mutual friend—a guy that’s actually in Collections of Colonies of Bees now, Thomas Wincek, who’s our Rhodes player. They were into a record that we had done and he just put us in touch with them. They asked us to come up to Eau Claire to play a show and we did, and just kind of hit it off. We ended up touring with DeYarmond a bunch throughout the Midwest, and then just obviously ended up staying in contact with all those guys, still. We’re still all really good friends.

The whole Volcano Choir thing came about really gradually and really slowly. Basically, the whole thing started when I had recorded some solo stuff right around that same time—it was a little bit before we actually met Justin. I had just written some stuff as a total experiment with no plans of ever doing anything with it, but I was always interested in the back of my mind in finding a vocalist that could add to it. The whole idea was writing some really stark, minimal-type pieces with no overdubs or anything like that, just an idea for a vocalist to kind of use as scaffolding for something. I had never done anything like that before. So I did those things and Jim Schoenecker from Bees and I were screwing around with them, but there was no plan, so they just kind of sat forever.

And then we met Justin, and at this point DeYarmond had disbanded. I don’t even remember how it came up, but at some point we were like, “Hey, we have all these weird tracks we never did anything with. Let’s send them to Justin and see what he can do with them,” because obviously we were in love with his voice and everything. He ended up doing some vocals on those songs, and sent them back with a note like, “Here’s some really rough stuff. Just see what you think. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.” He was really just playing around with it, and two of the songs actually ended up being on the final record. “Husks and Shells” was one of them, and “Mbira in the Morass” was one of them. Then it was interesting, because all of a sudden this stuff that was just lying around with no plan and no focus ended up being really exciting to everyone involved. We just did the same thing with most of the other songs, by email, adding to them. That was actually right around the time [Justin] was screwing around with really what he wanted to do with For Emma, you know, with the new approach he was taking with the vocal stuff. The earlier stuff for Volcano Choir kind of happened in parallel with all that...[Read more]

No comments: