Volcano Choir breaks down live set


For those attuned to all things Bon Iver, lend me your ears. You need to see Volcano Choir at the Vogue tomorrow. The Justin Vernon-vocaled band is actually a melding of three bands in one: Collections of Colonies of Bees, All Tiny Creatures and, of course, the Grammy-award winning Vernon.  These guys have known each other for years - pre Grammy, pre Emma Forever Ago - and have slowly created two albums worth of intricately layered post rock. Their newest, Repave, was released last week on local label Jagjaguwar. 

For those of you that adore Bon Iver, Repave should be your new obsession. For those of you that just like good music, this is yours, too. I spoke with Chris Rosenau (guitar) and Tom Winchek (keyboard) before the show. 

NUVO: It's your release week! Congratulations.

Chris Rosenau: It is! Thank you.

NUVO: And I just saw the Volcano Choir gelato. I think you've truly made it if they're making ice cream in your image.

Rosenau: It's really exciting. I just kind of realized when we were rehearsing for the last time this weekend that the first show is like, in a week. It's getting real real, real quick.

NUVO: Are you ready for this?

Rosenau: Yes! Unequivocally, for sure.

NUVO: What drew you guys to Jagjaguwar? I know Justin [Vernon] had an existing relationship with them for [Bon Iver releases]. It's a local label, so I like to check in on those guys.

Rosenau: I'll tell you what, those guys are the raddest.

[Tom Winchek joins the call]

Rosenau: We were talking about Jag, and I was about to say that we obviously got hooked up with those guys through Justin's relationship with them. That's how it started, but since then, we've become great friends with everybody there. Tom and I and everybody else have a lot of projects and work with a lot of labels, who are all distributed by SC too -

Winchek: It's not a joke, SC Distribution distributes all the labels we work with.

Rosenau: Everyone at Jag is insanely amazing. Basically the only thing that matters to us is the total creative output and they're so supportive and so helpful in letting us do what we want to do but enabling as many people as possible to be able to witness and experience it. And that's the goal for us. They're awesome.

NUVO: My favorite moment is about a minute and a half into "Comrades," that keyboard part that goes into what I always think of it as the "Monster" voice with Justin. Tell me about putting that track together.

Winchek: That track started with Chris sending me a guitar loop, and I took maybe like five seconds of it, and then chopped it up even further. It's a writing technique that I use a lot. I took tiny fragments of that loop, really microseconds, and would repeat them over and over in different kind of rhythms until something started happening.

So it's a writing technique that I use because I can't write at this time in my life by just sitting at a piano and plunking out chords. My brain just shuts off because it's just not very interesting. It's more interesting to me to have a weird process to go through and have a song appear out of that. And then Chris added a bunch of guitars on top of that.

Rosenau: To dovetail off that, that's the DNA of that song. That's the skeleton of "Comrades." You can imagine this, right. It's micro edits of a guitar line that's probably in a certain key but probably has a lot of open space. It's a blank slate that then everyone else in Volcano Choir gets to add to and subtract from and work and re-work on this kind of thing. Here's the verse and the chorus, here's the chorus chords, let's add on top of that and go from there. Then Justin and John add their thing. This time around, we got to see Justin in the studio when he was doing vocals, which was pretty cool to watch as he was laying stuff down and trying stuff out. You're asking about a favorite moment on the record, and I can't really think of a singular one, but that's a favorite memory of mine in the whole process which was being there in the three or four days when the vocal tracks were being laid. It was very interactive. He was trying stuff and we were bouncing stuff off of one another. It was really cool to watch and be a part of.

NUVO: I'm trying to lay this out - you're three bands combined into one, essentially. You two were in Collections of Colonies of Bees, and now Tom, you're not, but Chris, you still are. Then there's Justin, and the guys from All Tiny Creatures.

Rosenau: That's totally correct. I think the idea of three bands merging into one is the right way to think about it. So Andy and Matt, who play in All Tiny Creatures, Andy has joined us for our live show, because we have so many things and we're trying to replicate what's on the album. He's a great musicians and a guitar player for All Tiny Creatures. So we're really sharing tons of members, which is kind of cool.

NUVO: I read the Pitchfork interview that Justin did and he ended it talking about different live show experiences. He said something like, "I'm thinking about how a show can be something that's not just a whiny guy with a guitar." Could you break down how you're going to do this album live for me?

Winchek: Oh, I can break it down for you. So, a lot of it, we're using a computer but we're not really using backing tracks. We're using eight outputs off the computer for our live show, which is kind of crazy to me. Andy and Matt both play midi controller keyboards, I have keyboards, and we're playing chord sounds but also samples of sounds. Justin is running a computer with vocals, as am I. We're doing a lot of different effects and processing. Justin and I are actually right now working on the final details of the live rig. We're putting a lot into it to make it exactly like the record, which has tons of layers and tons of stuff going on. But we didn't want to resort to using backing tracks.

Rosenau: That's the take home - just so you understand, we don't want to misrepresent this, we've gone through insane amounts of work to not use pre-recorded tracks to do this. Like Tom's saying, there's a computer brain doing some of the heavy lifting -

Winchek: Which is mostly just sounds -

Rosenau: And then vocal processing, which is convenient to have everything in one zone, and then be able to manipulate it with different controllers and stuff like that. There's tons of live guitars blasting out of an amp, and John smashing the shit out of the drums, and stuff like that.

Winchek: I think that's the way to - that's what we tried to achieve and at the end of the day, that's what we did achieve. This really elegant solution to the technical challenge of being able to represent this record in a live scenario. That's one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is that visceral bombast that we all strive for, that's going on simultaneously. Threading these two strings together is what we've been working on so hard, and what's really rewarding. We're up there playing and on one hand, we're hearing guitars blaring out of amps and John destroying a drum kit, and on the other hand, all of this is all synced up and sounds like this record.

Rosenau: Are you familiar with the song, "Island, IS"? So that song, you know that kind of repeated loop sample? [sings a rhythm] There's no way to play that on a natural instrument, so Andy is actually on a keyboard triggering those little tiny samples, playing them on the keyboard -

Winchek: In a live environment, so if he fucks it up, we're all screwed. We've mapped those samples, tiny little bits of sounds, across the keyboard. Then he's playing the pattern, and then we're adding the live instrumentation. So that's our solution, to get out of the whole, "We'll just press play."

NUVO: That is a breakdown.

Winchek: I could go on for hours.

Rosenau: It's a great question and it's something that we've really considered heavily doing this. The easiest route would have been to say, "We have all this shit on computers; let's just make John wear headphones and press play." Then we'll play our guitars and pianos to it. But that's not how we approach the other music that we make, so it wasn't natural [to do that].