This QYDJ interview with Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, took place a couple months ago. In that short period of time, he saw Jagjaguwar reissue the originally self-released For Emma, Forever Ago, received hearty New York Times and NPR praise, and released the video for “The Wolves (Act I & II),” which nails what I loved about Justin’s answers to my questions. More than nails, actually — it’s the “motion picture” accompaniment to the descriptions of his father’s land and the Wisconsin photos he gave me to run with the piece. This was a unique installment, I thought, because Justin was talking about a lifestyle, more than a job, but he managed to use that cabin not only for hunting, but to record For Emma, and now he’s building a studio on the land to record other folks, too. Plus, it’s always nice to talk to a musician who wouldn’t be caught dead in skinny jeans.
Originally Published 1/9/2008
This first proper QYDJ of the year looks at work and life via an angle that’s close to my own background and heart: Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, grew up with the woods, and is currently building a recording studio on his father’s rural property. Connected to the Northwestern Wisconsin landscape in a deep sense, Vernon also talks about hunting, something he sees not as a hobby, but rather tradition and a way of life. The discussion offers an interesting, candid look at a musician’s offstage work, seeing how it overlaps intimately with his life. He butchers his own meat, doesn’t do it for trophies, and is piecing together the studio by himself, to record and mix bands he likes, one board at a time. So maybe not exactly a “day job” — more like an honest life’s work. Justin and I converse after the jump. And then we listen to him sing.
STEREOGUM: You were described to me as an “avid hunter.” Are you mostly hunting on your dad’s land in Wisconsin, or do you travel to hunt elsewehre as well? I noticed you have a bunch of shows coming up in January and March, so you’re likely on the road a lot during different hunting seasons.
JUSTIN VERNON: I am not an avid hunter at all. I hunt for food and for the tradition. I do hunt every year but only during legal seasons. My family is not a hunt-for-sport kind of family. My dad started hunting on his own, in ’79. His dad didn’t hunt with him or anything. He taught himself — him and my godfather, Tom. So, now deer camp is just me, my brother Nate, Dad, and Tom. Sometimes my cousin comes with my uncle. There are antlers on the patio, but there is little to show you that we “collect trophies” or anything. I have never traveled to hunt, but I do hunt during a lot of different seasons throughout the year. I’m waking up to hunt birds with my dog in the morning, actually. I may miss turkey hunting season, but I’m sure my dad will gather a few turkeys for the table. That’s what it’s mostly about: being outside in the quiet, and catching your meat the only true and honest way there is.
Last winter, when I was recording a lot up there, I killed two deer, and they lasted the 3 months I was there, and then some.
STEREOGUM: Have you had any of your kills stuffed?
JUSTIN VERNON: Not much of a stuffed animal kind of family. Dad had a bear stuffed once. Sold it or got rid of it after he realized it was kind of silly and didn’t really represent his hunt or the animal that well.
STEREOGUM: Are you living in the hunting cabin right now?
JUSTIN VERNON: I am not up there right now. I’ll be there in the morning.
STEREOGUM: What’s the landscape like in Northwestern Wisconsin? And the weather this time of year?
JUSTIN VERNON: It’s cold up here right now. It’s been hanging around zero for about a week; there has been lots of snow. The trees look very skeletal, and the sky up there always looks purple after 3:30PM everyday. The trees look mean and wrangly, but they still comfort me somehow. The landscape up there is rolly hills, large, long hills, and open fields jutting up against 80 acre forests. It all makes for cool views from either side of the barb wire or electrical poles.
STEREOGUM: Do you hunt with a rifle or a bow? In the New Jersey Pine Barrens there’s a musket season, I know.
JUSTIN VERNON: Rifle. Winchester 300 mag. Pretty powerful gun. Actually, last year, I had a weird angle and the gun slipped off my shoulder and knocked me off my seat, and out of my ground blind, putting a one inch, DEEP gash in my forehead. There was blood running down my face in a triangular pattern. The scope had come back and hit me because my body was turned too closed. When my eyes focused again, I could taste blood and I had a bad headache, and I knew that I had messed up … but I still made a good shot and the deer died without suffering.
For birds, I like using this Japanese over-under Shotgun that Tom has.
Dad actually has a couple of old musket loaders. There’s a special season for them. I like that. He has like an old Civil War-style .54 caliber, and actually, a brand new one, too; they’re fun — ramming that rod down and packing the powder … makes me feel pretty ancient.
STEREOGUM: Do you only hunt deer? Or have you tried other animals — bears, or whatever?
JUSTIN VERNON: I have never hunted anything larger than deer. But, I will. It takes a while to get used to the idea that you are capable of killing something that large and majestic. So, I plan on taking it slow. I could see going to Alaska to elk hunt; that would be cool. When Dad turned 50, he went and hunted moose on the Iditarod.
STEREOGUM: Do you do your own butchering?
JUSTIN VERNON: We do our own butchering, yes. We do send scrap meat and other things to a sausage place in Milwaukee, WI for fun stuff, like Cajun Brats or Venison bacon, but we do our own cuts. Last year I paid for a guitar repair with a shoulder roast. Gordy was jazzed, said he plucked some mushrooms out the back of his property and had the best meal of the year.
STEREOGUM: Natural imagery shows up in your music. Does hunting work itself into that? I was thinking about it in terms of the closeness/connection to the prey/the land. It’s more than just taking a stroll through the woods.
JUSTIN VERNON: Well, I associate with the woods. I think the woods just represent the larger scale … circle of things, in general.
STEREOGUM: The most popular hunting musician is likely Ted Nugent. Folks in the indie rock realm can be a bit sheltered regarding hunting, farming, and the like. Do you find people respond oddly when they find our about your interests? Ever run into activists?
JUSTIN VERNON: Well, I don’t know. I bet you that 79% of the people who read this may think differently of me, just based on the context of what a “hunter” is. But really, that’s just too simple. People shouldn’t eat meat if they choose not to. But, I think, without getting too specific, that in general, hunting gets misconstrued. I am no savage. There are trophy hunters out there, there are assholes. And, unfortunately, they’re the ones who strap carcasses to their Buick and drive down Hwy 53. That’s who and what people see. I don’t care either way, because there are plenty of things that I don’t understand, I just think it’s ironic. I support animal rights activists. There is a humongous difference between what hunters do and what animal testing facilities do. [Editor’s Note: Remember, he loves cats, too.]
STEREOGUM: You’re building a studio up there. Do you have a background in construction or carpentry? When do you plan to have it done? Will it have a name?
JUSTIN VERNON: My background is my dad and his dad’s background. Grind it out. Measure and screw up and smash the board in there anyways. That’s how my studio will get built. My studio won’t be that kind of studio. it’s going to be for me and a few of my friends. I did make a drawing of a crazy 100 foot tall room that was very small the other day. Maybe I’ll build that. I wont name it. Why would I do that? Why do people do that?
STEREOGUM: How did you learn about sound? What’s your aesthetic? I mean, do you consider yourself more an Albini mic person or someone like David at Tarbox.
JUSTIN VERNON: Oh shit. No. I am not an engineer. I only fiddle with it. I’ve learned enough to get mics set up in front of me. I do get kind of anal about mixing and what not, and I think that I have enough talent to do what I want, but I’m no engineer. I don’t understand the math. I get it, but I don’t GET it. I know how I want my rooms to be, but I don’t know WHY. I don’t even know how a CD works. Do you? Can you really explain the Internet? Damn. I just set up a few mics that I know sound good, like ribbons, and use common sense. If an $80 mic sounds better for what you are doing than the $1,100 mic does, it’s a no-brainer. Get pre(amp)s that sound good to you, not to the forum junkies. That’s my philosophy. Try stuff out; that’s what I do.
STEREOGUM: What bands are you recording right now? In the past?
JUSTIN VERNON: I am mixing and producing the new Land of Talk record right now. I just got back from Ontario doing that. Now, I am back in Wisconsin, I am also mixing a record for a band by the name of The Daredevil Christopher Wright from Eau Claire. And, I’m mixing a side-project, the Shouting Matches. Also, a remix of a Rosebuds song. I have recorded countless local bands and local artists. All of those projects have always been super fun and each one has taught me something new.
STEREOGUM: Once the studio’s done, do you plan to live out there full-time?
JUSTIN VERNON: No. I like to go there. I may live there for a month at a time, but not year round.
STEREOGUM: Would you ever want to live year-round in a city?
JUSTIN VERNON: I just bought a house, here, in Eau Claire. But, this is not a city. It is a really large town. I walk to coffee, I walk to the “Y” to play hoops, I walk to the bar. I eventually will own a house and some land out there in the country, but I couldn’t afford it right now. And, this makes sense right now. But, here in north-western Wisconsin, the country is five minutes by car. I’m only 55 minutes from the hunting cabin.
Every good hunter needs a couple dogs. Please say hello to Justin’s pal Harper. Introductions out of the way, take another listen to “Skinny Love.”
Bon Iver – “Skinny Love” (MP3)
For Emma, Forever Ago was out last year, and now it’s getting its official re-release 2/19 on Jagjaguwar. Get it (again).
[Justin and best friend Keil]
3/13 @ The Parish (NPR Stage)
3/13 @ Mowhawk (Jagjaguwar/Secretly Canadian/Dead Oceans Showcase)
3/14 @ EMO’s (Pitchfork Day Party)