Volcano Choir Interview: Wanderers Are Not Always Lost

Volcano Choir, Justin ‘Mr Iver’ Vernon’s new collaboration with fellow Wisconsinites and “favourite band”, Collections of Colonies of Bees earlier this year released Unmap, a brooding debut of experimental sound and vision. Along with guitarist Chris Rosenau, Volcano Choir have unveiled a convulsive and radiating symposium of twists and turns that, for those of us who are willing to wander in parallel to its voyage, offers the most wonderful entanglement.

The Quietus caught up with Chris Rosenau (molecular biologist by day; brooding experimental musician by night) on his lunch break in order to unravel a timeline of events and original songwriting that dates back to the summer of 2005, when a unity was formed and ideas began to gather over the Internet.

So how do you go from your day job to this brooding prog-rock sound that you have been developing through Collection of Colonies of Bees and, now, Volcano Choir?

Chris Rosenau: [laughs] It’s totally in parallel. I’ve been in bands and playing music since high school and college. I went to school to be a molecular biologist, and my hobby has just been music. It’s a little weird though: I don’t meet many other molecular biologists on tour or at music festivals, but you know it’s the same thing as everyone else working during the day and trying to make a go of it with music at night.

So what are your influences in creating this very progressive sound?

CR: I’ve been influenced by a lot of things that kind of inform the way that I play. With all the bands like Pele and Vermont there was a lot of influence from the Chicago post-rock scene, but in particular bands like Don Caballero: Ian Williams was a big influence of mine. Also bands like Gastr Del Soul, Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs, but especially, perhaps even back further than that, people who influenced them like Don Stacy… but I don’t want to pigeonhole it too much.

Recently, the Bees have been trying to screw around with some minimalist composer ideas like Terry Riley and Steve Reich. That’s the new thing that we are trying to explore right now, how to incorporate that kind of compositional minimalism into a total full blown rock band. I think it’s those kinds of things that are evident when you listen to stuff that I’m involved with.

How did you come to first meeting Justin?

We met through a mutual friend, Thomas Wincek [piano, guitar, electronic], who’s in the Bees now but he wasn’t at the time. He lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Justin is from. The other guys from the band that Justin was in, DeYarmond Edison, were really into a Bees album that we had done called Customer and he was like ‘Hey, I know two of these guys, I’ll put you in touch with them and maybe you can play a few shows together.’

So they got in touch with us and we played a gig in Eau Claire and had a blast and hung out all night. From there we kept in touch and played shows around the mid-west in the States and did some tours. It was a case of close proximity; I don’t know if it would have been easy to meet up if we were across coasts or something like that. But we were all in Wisconsin so it was like a four hour drive to meet up and play a show and hang out, and we just ended up hitting it off with those guys over the next couple of years.

There is a lot of crossover between yours and Bon Iver’s music with this very forlorn, spatial sound. Is there something over in the water over there?

(laughs) Yeah, I can see that, but I don’t know. It’s very weird timing for sure.

Your music is very experimental in the way that it is orchestrated, but you’ve never used vocal before. What was the allure of Justin for you?

It was really great for us in the way that Justin approached this record. We are always interested in new things and exploring traditional instrumentation in different ways so this was a great way to do that. When you think of a vocalist you think of this guy standing up in the middle of the stage singing words about something.

Justin is a friend first and foremost, so we started sending ideas back and forth; some stuff was even recorded before we met him, and he just came back with this really interesting vocal approach that everyone is familiar with now. He was sending stuff back and we were really in love with his approach because while it is vocal, it is more focused on the melody and the more percussive aspects of the rhythmic stuff, so it kind of lends itself as another instrument.

Even when there are lyrics and stuff, at least for me, they are not in the foreground; I just really like the way that he approaches his vocals in melding it into the song and changing the song like another instrument would. I just think that we all got off on the way that it all worked from the beginning.

Justin has given you quite the commercial backing in celebrating Collections of Colonies of Bees as his favourite band, and stating that in a perfect world you would be bigger than U2. How does that feel?

I’m kind of happy that someone digs our music [laughs]. It just happens to be that he has this new strange influence at this point. If he digs it and can turn people onto it it’s cool.

One of the things about him recording under the Volcano Choir project is that I like the idea of him being able to turn people onto different things through this safe doorway of his vocals. So I think if people can get exposed to all sorts of different music, I think that is a really positive thing.

There is a great deal of solitude and sense of rumination to the record, backed by a somewhat religious feel – where exactly do the album’s roots stem from?

I think you’ve really hit on it there and I’m glad that you are hearing that in the record because that’s kind of the way that it was made. This record has kind of been this whole construction, deconstruction, addition, and subtraction experiment for the past three or so years. When I hear the record I hear this intent in the musical space, but then all this stuff happening in the non-musical spaces. The record was probably recorded in ten different spaces with all sorts of different people.

Tom Winseck had a guy out recording the sound of a field whilst recording guitar stuff at some point, so the feel is just the culmination of this creative process of editing and adding and everything by everybody.

The project up until last year was a tape-trading project by friends. We had this FTP site and we would put stuff up for Justin to work on, and he would do the same, so that we could work on ideas. So I think that all these songs stem from friends just trying to kick each other’s ass musically. Really, that’s all it was – there was no plan, there was no Volcano Choir while this stuff was being played with.

At the same time it was this kind of safe place for everyone to play around because there was no goal. Everyone just wanted to see what we could do with the other’s stuff. I hope their does sound like there is a lot of time encapsulated into those songs because there was. It’s definitely a travelling timeline.

There is a really great friendship and brotherhood that has come out of the record, so it’s fun to have this new type of thing to have and play around with. I know Justin has the same view and it’s given him this new confidence to go forward from Bon Iver. It’s kind of this free space that we have all grown to love operating in.

Do you think that there is going to be any possibility of Volcano Choir touring? I can imagine it’s going to be hard to replicate what you have put on record.

We’ve been talking about it a lot. The short answer is yes we hope so because we would really love to try and present this stuff live. It gets a little complicated with everyone’s schedules, especially Justin’s. Then to compound that with the way that the record has been made – none of these songs have been played in the same place, by the same people at the exact same time.

We really want to do it right, so if we can get the time and get this ship together so we are happy with it, we’ll be hoping to do some show next year. Like I’ve said, it’s just about hanging out and having fun and that would definitely be a different way for us to experience the record that we made, and I think that it would be really fun for everybody involved.

Will you be taking your ‘Mother’ pillow on tour?

CR: (laughs) This is a great story and Jon Mueller is going to kill me for this: We were playing a show in Grinnell, Iowa, with Pele and I was really done for the evening. It was like four in the morning – one of those kinds of nights – so I headed back to the hotel.

Jon was planning to go out to some place else, so we had to leave him some kind of signal of where we were in the hotel. So whatever state I was in, I took one of the hotel pillows and wrote ‘Mother’ on it and hung it on the door handle. It’s just been like one of these weird things that have travelled with us ever since. Everyone got back home safe and sound in the end so it’s all good – into ‘Mother’s’ arm I should say.

So what does the future hold for you with the Bees and Volcano Choir?

CR: As far as the Bees are concerned, we are half way through recording our new record right now and will be finishing that up in the next six months.

Volcano Choir – I think it is definitely going to continue along the exact same path that it started and we have been working on. I’ve already sent those guys some new ideas for some songs that everyone seems into so it’s kind of like starting over again. Unmap exists so we’re starting over again and seeing what happens.

We all have a really great time working together and really trying to challenge each other, so I see no reason why that would stop. There is no timeline for us, which really worked for all of us so we will probably try and do it all that way again. I have no idea what is going to happen and what everyone is going to be busy with, but we are definitely making it a priority to hang out once in a while and when we do, definitely more music will be being made.

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