Artist Interviews

Q&A: Volcano Choir

By | Published on Tuesday 10 September 2013

Volcano Choir

Released in 2009, Volcano Choir’s first album ‘Unmap’ started life as a collaboration between members of Collections Of Colonies Of Bees and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. It was pieced together over time, with songs sent back and forth between band members before they’d even realised they were a band.

Following the release of that album, they were invited to tour in Japan, at which point they actually formed into a solid group. And after that plans were quickly made for a follow up record, though again the songwriting took place over a period of years, before finally ‘Repave’ was released earlier this month through Jagjaguwar.

As the band prepare to tour the record, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with guitarist Chris Rosenau to find out more.

AM: Both of your albums have been written over a long period of time. How did the creative process change this time around?
CR: The DNA of both ‘Unmap’ and ‘Repave’ is the same. Purposefully drafty songs started over long periods of time; constructed and deconstructed, added to and subtracted from, arranged and re-arranged, by everyone in the band. The difference is that for most of the writing of ‘Unmap’, Volcano Choir didn’t actually exist; it was just friends exchanging musical ideas and experimenting. ‘Repave’ started the same way as ‘Unmap’, but that evolutionary process of building and tearing down was actively pursued in groups. Together. As a band. That changed things.

AM: What was the starting point for this album? Did you have an idea of what you wanted it to sound like before you started?
CR: The starting point for ‘Repave’ was similar to ‘Unmap’ in most cases. Members sketching intentionally ambiguous, musically non-committal ideas and everyone reacting to them. But, yes, this time, as we were now a band that had experienced the power of playing rock songs together in this specific iteration of friends (many of whom still play together in other projects), there was an idea to try to capture how the live arrangements of ‘Unmap’ songs felt for whatever was next. We actually had this conversation on our first tour in Japan. There were no timelines or specifics; just that as a kind of central idea in the back of everyone’s minds.

AM: How close to what you thought it would (or might) be like is the finished album? How do you feel your sound has developed since the first record?
CR: I think it’s what everyone hoped would happen. We wrote a record as friends, a record for us. A record we love. Everyone geeked-out so much writing and experimenting with things on this record. Some ideas we had started to experiment with on ‘Unmap’, but on Repave they are more fully realised, and some were new ideas. No one ever considered anyone else ever listening to it. That’s a miracle, and I have no idea how that happened, but I am sure glad it did.

AM: How many songs did you write before settling on the eight that make up the new album?
CR: The album sides and general pacing of ‘Repave’ were put together from a total of twelve finished songs.

AM: With such a drawn out writing process, did you ever come back together and decide you just didn’t like what you’d written previously?
CR: In almost every case. That’s why having no timeline again was so crucial to how this record sounds. There are exceptions, but in most cases these songs were written and re-written many, many times. Sometimes because things weren’t “working”, so other things were added to make them work, or things were omitted, or sometimes just because someone came up with another cool idea, so we had to figure out a way to get all of those ideas in there. If you listen on headphones you can hear the vestiges of some of these earlier versions… I love that. There’s a lot in there.

AM: So you were kind of recording it as you went along then, rather than bringing it all together at the end? Would you do it like that next time around?
CR: I would do it exactly the same again, yeah. And yes, we recorded all of the music as we went along. Not in studios, but in living rooms and rehearsal spaces. In places we write all of our music. In familiar places with good friends. We kept Justin in the loop, and reacted to any ideas he had as the writing of the music was happening, but we really approached it as having to stand up on its own without vocals. That seems to be an insane statement after hearing the complete bananas wizardry that Vernon contributed, but really, we approached the music, before vocals, with that level of zeal. I think that helped as well.

There was a lot for J to percolate over as things were being written and re-written, and a lot for him to latch on to in order to develop vocal ideas. Then, we all gathered at J’s place in Northern Wisconsin, Aprilbase, for three or four weekends to track final drums and vocals, and just really solidify everything. The whole process was one of total comfort and friendship. It will inform the way I approach all of my musical endeavours going forward for sure.

AM: How are Jagjaguwar to work with on this project? Did they ever talk about setting deadlines? Did they even know when the new album was coming?
CR: Jag is the best. They really didn’t know we were working on a new record until we were really talking about scheduling some of those finalising weekends. I guess, thinking about it, it’s possible they knew; it’s possible Justin mentioned it – that “something” was happening, but, no, never any deadlines/pressure/bullshit.

Jag is also the best because we really want “things” associated with this band and our music (art, videos, images, shows, etc) to be something we can all live with and be proud of forever. We fully intend to look back on these things in the future and continue to be proud of them. This is an active goal for us. That means a lot more work for them as a record label, as we don’t say “yes” to everything. They are great about understanding that and supporting it, while still working toward a shared goal of getting as many people to experience this band as possible.

AM: Due to how the band came together, and your other projects, it’s obviously often referred to as a side project, but do you see it that way?
CR: Volcano Choir is our main project when we’re working on it, like we are now. When we are working on other things, Volcano Choir is still always there for us.

AM: There’s more of a structure around this release than the first, particularly in terms of touring the record. Do you miss some of the spontaneity of that first record?
CR: We didn’t have a lot of opportunity to share ‘Unmap’ with a lot of people, mostly because it was really a studio record. The only reason we ended up figuring out how to play those songs live was because we had an amazing offer – nothing to do with money; everything to do with fun – to visit our friends in Japan who had brought other bands we are involved with over before. We all unequivocally said “of course”, then we remembered we had no idea how to play any of those songs live.

That experience, figuring them out, and then having the amazing experience of feeling those songs fuelled for a live performance, was the missing link in the evolution of VC v1.0 on ‘Unmap’ and VC v2.0 on ‘Repave’. Things like the tours we are doing are definitely more “planned out”, but it’s a delight. We are really proud of this music, and we want to share it with as many people as we can.

AM: Do you see yourselves working on a third album, and do you think it’ll be done over a similar sort of timeframe? Or are you keen to get something out faster next time?
CR: The writing path that we took to finally arrive at ‘Repave’ was so fun and rewarding that I would expect that everyone would like to feel that again at some point. There was no plan after ‘Unmap’. There is no plan now. But I’d be pretty surprised if, after these tours we are doing, someone didn’t send an email to everyone with the subject “New VC Jam?”

AM: And while you’re waiting for that email, what’s next for the other bands you all play in?
CR: We’re all focusing pretty heavily on VC for the time being, up through early 2014 actually. After that we’ll all have things going on with all sorts of projects that we’re involved in.