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Volcano Choir

Unmapped Territory

Oct 22, 2009 Web Exclusive
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Milwaukee post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees were introduced to Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) in 2005, when he toured with his old group, the Eau Claire-based Americana band DeYarmond Edison. According to Vernon’s “guitarist mentor,” Chris Rosenau and drummer/percussionist John Mueller, Collections of Colonies of Bees and Vernon quickly bonded over their mutual appreciation of “classical songwriting with a straight-up structure” and “informal folk music that’s not as traditional.” When the experimental quintet started posting random snippets of field recordings on a common FTP and through email, the group saw it as a welcome escape from the gigantic soundscapes they were constructing live at the time.

The four-year process resulted in Volcano Choir’s stark, exploratory and haunting Unmap. The busy collective recorded last November at weekend recording sessions in Justin and Nate Vernon’s ad hoc home studio in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Such unconventional recordings are echoed in intricate tracks such as the propulsive single “Island, IS,” the hypnotic “Seeplymouth” and the thumb piano-led haunter “Mbira In the Morass.” As a result, Unmap is a surging, organic mass of a debut. We caught up with two parts of Volcano Choir (Rosenau and Mueller) to talk about the release’s long gestation, the possibility/practicality of live performances and the origins of the band’s namesake.

Kyle Lemmon (Under the Radar): The beginnings of Volcano Choir can be traced back to the summer of 2005. How did you meet up with Justin Vernon?

Chris Rosenau: Yeah, there were a number of serendipitous events that led up to this whole thing. Justin did a self-released record called Hazeltons right after DeYarmond Edison broke up, and he asked us to do a song for that release. The first two songs, “Husks and Shells” and “Mbira in the Morass,” I wrote in the summer of 2005. They weren’t for any side-project at all. I was just experimenting with really stark stuff and the idea was to have some kind of vocal over it. That was before we even met Justin. There were no preconceptions or timeline for anything. Soon afterwards we were introduced to Justin when we played some shows with his old band, DeYarmond Edison. [Collections of Colonies of] Bees and Justin hit it off right off the bat. After getting to know him it was apparent he would be amazing over just about anything. I sent the files to him to see if he was interested. From there he emailed rough stuff back and asked, “is this what you’re looking for,” and we were totally blown away. We also have an FTP site where everyone would post files, and pick and choose what we wanted to work on. That’s how the whole thing started. There was no Volcano Choir at that point.

John Mueller: Once he started sending us vocal tracks we had a little more to work with even if we didn’t have any directions or goals. It was fun for us to work with because from our perspective we’ve never seriously worked with a vocalist before. Justin was also into our music because it was kind of exciting to hear his own vocals in a different setting. It was kind of a neat thing for both of us.

During that initial meeting with Justin what did you all click on musically?

Mueller: We all have an affinity for really good, classical songwriting with a straight-up structure and also have an interest in informal folk music that’s not as traditional. I think we were able to explore both of those things equally. On one hand, there’s stuff on this album that is very outside the music I normally work on but at the same time there’s music that I’m familiar with in my past.

Rosenau: That wasn’t initially the goal but as this project started developing that’s what came out. The interests of the members of this band and Justin are so diverse. It was interesting to see what everyone else would do on the record. Everyone was super confident and the recording was implicit because of that. Nobody ever asked, “well, what are we going to play here.”

You guys are known for your energetic live shows that stack a ton of sonic texture into one song. Like you were saying Chris, this album is a lot more sparse and stark. How did you go from those two poles of thought?

Rosenau: Within the last two or three years Bees have been exactly how you’ve described. When we actually started it was more stark and acoustic-based. Like I said, there were no preconceptions going in, everything was purely reactionary. When we started pitching these ideas back and forth Bees was pretty intense in the live setting. I like to have two things on my plate at the same time; one that is more live-based and intense and one that is something different. We weren’t thinking about that too much at the time. Whatever kind of happened, just happened.

Mueller: I think that comes across on the record too. I think everything fits together well but it’s definitely not the same song over and over. There’s a lot of variation and it’s a good example of what Chris just said: we’re all very interested in a lot of different sounds. Fortunately we came together and made this album without it sounding like a complete mish-mash. We utilized all of our interests efficiently and wisely and didn’t let anything get out of control.

Once you reconvened to actually record in Fall Creek, Wisconsin last November how did that go? Were a lot of the songs already mapped out and the group just had to connect the dots?

Mueller: It was mostly done. We just had to fine-tune some stuff and we laid down a few tracks. We ended up recording one new song live during the weekend. It was pretty far along at that point.

Rosenau: It was pretty much what you both said. We had been together as friends and playing shows the whole time but we hadn’t really gotten together to just work on Volcano Choir stuff. That first weekend was incredible because everyone listened to everything and Justin had all the vocals for “Island, IS.” Like John said, everyone laid down a bunch of other tracks. It was an informal brainstorming kind of hangout.

I guess you did this early on with Bees but Unmap takes the traditional structure of folk or rock and distorts with modern technology. A song such as “Mbira In the Morass” does that well.

Mueller: I don’t know if it was a conscious thing or not but it worked in the context of the whole record. We weren’t just sitting around saying, “hey, let’s do this really odd song.”

Rosenau: That was one of the first two tracks I had worked on and the whole idea stemmed from my wife buying me a thumb piano I was screwing around with it. I didn’t even tune it. I just played around with it for a while and decided to record the sounds. That song started before we even had a name for the group and wasn’t finished until the last weekend we worked on this album up at Justin’s house. There’s a lot of stuff that was laid down for that song that didn’t end up fitting as well. That whole process of assimilating, layering and editing gave us that track. It’s impossible to even describe what that song is because the writing process lasted for four years through six different people. If we had kept working on it the song would have kept changing.

What struck me the most while listening to Unmap was that it was a very organic suite of songs. Were all the mixes and recordings the band did in Fall Creek and Justin’s apartment?

Rosenau: It was literally recorded all over the place. There were parts of songs recorded at Jim Schoenecker’s [analog synth, electronics] old house and there were parts of songs recorded by Thomas Wincek recorded near the woods at his parent’s house. I think Thomas recorded some of his tracks in a bathroom somewhere. Other parts were recorded at John [Mueller]‘s house. I’m not saying this record couldn’t have been recorded at a studio but you certainly wouldn’t have gotten the same result. John’s computer and hard drive had the whole album on it. We all imported and exported files from different environments. The only reason we got together in Fall Creek was to listen to all the songs we had completed thus far in a live setting.

What is Justin and Nate Vernon’s Fall Creek studio like?

Mueller: It’s close to a studio and I think that’s their goal. At the time we were there Justin had just moved into the place and it was sort of primitive. Essentially, what we did there could have been done anywhere. The point of it was get everyone in one room and finish things up.

What were some of those songs that you mentioned were recorded in a bathtub and in the woods?

Rosenau: It was mostly Thomas that did all the field recordings like that but I know John recorded the percussion tracks on “Mbira In the Morass” with tongs and cardboard boxes and wind pipes in a room. The whole thing is in the spirit of a field recording. If you listen closely to the record you can hear people moving around and Justin breathing. We wanted to keep the time and place in the songs unpolished.

This is a question totally separate from the album, but how long have you both lived in Wisconsin? What draws you back to the area after touring and visiting other places?

Mueller: I’ve lived here my whole life except for California for a one year. It’s pretty comfortable here. There’s a lot of stuff going on but it doesn’t have the mess of a larger city. You can also get out of the city pretty easily and be in a rural environment pretty quickly. I also have families and old friends here. If I were to start over somewhere else it would be a lot of work.

Rosenau: I’ve been based in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisonsin my whole life. I feel the exact same way as John. It’s big enough to do the stuff you want to do and small enough to not have the logistical hassle of getting out.

Is Justin working with any of the Collections of Colonies of Bees aside from Volcano Choir?

Rosenau: I think he’s working with our Rhodes organ, piano player and electronics guy, Thomas Wincek. He also plays with All Tiny Creatures and they have a record coming out in early 2010. I’m pretty sure Justin did some guest vocals on that record [Megafaun and Ryan Olcott (12 Rods, Mystery Palace) also guest]. As far as Justin being on a Bees album that’s not out of the question but we’ll see what happens. I guess I’m also working with Justin for live scoring a Charlie Chaplin movie [the Oscar-winning 1925 silent film The Gold Rush] on January 21st for the New York Guitar Festival.

I like how you said, “I guess I’m working with him.” You’ve known Justin for a long time, even before For Emma, Forever Ago was such a buzz album. I’m sure he’s stayed the same in your eyes but I was curious about your comments on that whole experience.

Rosenau: Justin Vernon is the sweetest, humblest and one of the most talented people I know. As far as the friendship, there’s nothing to comment on: it’s a beautiful thing. As far as his recent success: nobody deserves it more. He’s worked his ass off and remembers all of his friends. He hasn’t changed a bit.

The album artwork struck me for Unmap. It has a strange Village vibe just because of the setting and the colors. Who photographed it?

Mueller: The photograph is something Justin had at his house and we saw it a lot while were working there. At the end we thought that would be a really incredible image for the cover. We were constantly in awe of this image. I’m glad it worked out because it represents us being up there that weekend. I’m not sure what it will communicate to people listening to the record but that’s part of the fun.

What was the significance for choosing Volcano Choir for the name of the group?

Rosenau: Actually, John came up with it in an email.

Mueller: It was actually when we were driving home that first weekend.

Rosenau: Oh yeah. Well it was sometime that first weekend when we were hanging out with Justin. Justin had been experimenting with just a cappella choir stuff. One of his pieces actually turned out being “Dote” on the record. This whole choir thing was in the background and we were just joking around and going through names. Something about that resonated with the group.

Mueller: If I can chime in on it, just like the cover art, it references the time we spent working on the album and finishing the songs. Sometimes we can’t even remember how it all came together. We threw a couple ideas around the group and that was the one that stuck.

Are there any plans beyond the album? Is Unmap going to just be a single album without any performances or successive releases attached to it?

Mueller: We’ll probably continue working on things separately but anything further is based on what’s possible

Rosenau: Yeah, we’ve been emailing about when, and, most importantly, if, we can do this live. Everyone wants to do it, but it’s just down to the logistics of whether we can. It’s not like a traditional band. This has been put together over 15 different tunings, with six people, over four years. How do you play that? I know we can but it’s just a matter of what we want to do and when we want to do it. As far as starting another record that will probably happen sooner than later. We all have such insane schedules, especially Justin with Bon Iver. We have families and jobs just like everyone else. On one hand it’s hard to get everyone together but on the other it’s a really nice escape.

(www.myspace.com/volcanochoir / http://www.boniver.org / www.collectionsofcoloniesofbees.net)



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