Justin Vernon doesn't want to talk about Bon Iver, but he's not closing the door either. However, now's the time to focus on Volcano Choir. Ed Power
What an endearingly awkward figure Justin Vernon cuts. As the fashionably scruffy, pathologically stoic soul behind Bon Iver, he's headlined arenas, squeezed into a recording booth alongside Jay Z and clinked champagne flutes with Kanye (perhaps on a yacht, possibly surrounded by people in white bikinis).
Advocating on behalf of his awesome side project, Volcano Choir, however, his dearest wish is that you gloss over his not-so-secret life as a global rock icon. At home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Vernon (32) is visibly conflicted about his rarefied stature in the alternative rock community. It's a cliche – the oldest cliche in the entertainment business, in fact – but he truly seems to consider fame a burden. Somewhere at the back of his head he probably hears Kurt Cobain tutting.
"I don't want to talk about Bon Iver any more," he says in response to a question about his enormously controversial 2012 gig in Dublin at which he 'pulled a Ziggy Stardust' by appearing to announce he was sending the Bon Iver brand out to permanent pasture.
"Bon Iver exists as a thing that is very self-involved for me," he says. "That is my project. It has nothing to do with where I am at."
Where Vernon is "at" right now is Volcano Choir, a collaboration with alternative group (and fellow Wisconsin natives) Collections of Colonies of Bees. The party line is that Volcano Choir represents a seismic break with his earlier incarnation as tortured yelper. That's true so far as it goes. There are moments on the quintet's second record, Repave, where it sounds like you are listening to a top rank post-rock act, their music a din of shrieking guitars and napalm bursts of percussion.
And yet when Vernon takes the mic and starts to sing, his liquid falsetto is intoxicatingly familiar and suddenly you're someplace else entirely, buffeted by wintry atmospherics and whiskery misery. You are, in other words, back inside a Bon Iver song.
"It [Vernon's background in Bon Iver] might make things complicated for some people," the singer says. "They're not complicated for me. I don't give a shit about that. Bon Iver is my project. It does well or whatever. The truth is that there's a 'fashion' to music I find pretty tiring at times. There's a thick line between different projects for a good reason. Volcano Choir is Volcano Choir. We're a fucking band – you know what I mean?
"We could talk for hours and hours about what Volcano Choir is – how we have, from the depths of our hearts and our souls, delved into this project for years and years now. I get that the public will think 'oh, there's that dude from that other band – and he probably writes all the songs'. I don't know – all we are trying to do is spread the gospel about Volcano Choir."
It's a fair position and Volcano Choir, who formed in 2005, are worth celebrating on their merits. Nonetheless Day & Night feels compelled to bring up Bon Iver's notorious 2012 O2 date at which Vernon asserted it was final curtains for the project (a pronouncement that lit up the internet like a lit match casually tossed on parched scrubland).
"That had nothing to do with anything," is his first response. He falls silent and you worry he's clammed up. Actually, he's choosing his words. He may have suggested Bon Iver was over. But that was then. He's had time to think in the intervening 12 months.
"First of all who doesn't say something that, a month later, is no longer true? What I said [on stage] made no fucking sense to me. You've got a mic, you're supposed to talk to people when you are not playing a guitar. The moment I did that last Bon Iver song, straight away I was on the Volcano Choir train."
After hanging and recording with Jay Z and Kanye West how did it feel to go back to playing with a bunch of regular-dude indie musicians? One imagines rather fewer diamond studded Rolexes and $400 bottles of Grey Goose were knocking about.
"It is absolutely different," says Vernon, before appearing to reconsider. "Well, to be honest, the two are not that far off. Whether I'm in the studio with [Volcano Choir] or Kanye, you are collaborating with someone who is really fucking good at something. You listen to what they say and, if you agree or disagree, you are working to find out what is the best decision for the song. In that way, it's no different."
As Gaga/RiRi/Miley's increasingly tiresome provocations attest, it's hard to shock anyone in music nowadays. In his capacity as Volcano Choir lyricist-in-chief Vernon tries his best. On Repave, he has several straight-up phwoar moments, singing about sensuality – and let's just say it, sex – with squirm-triggering honesty.
Given that alternative rock has traditionally exuded all the raw chemistry of a Lego Millennium Falcon, it's quite a push against convention.
"Indie rock – what is that?" he says, bristling. "To me, it's a description. Strictly speaking it refers to an artist on an independent label. The idea that it is a genre strikes me as ludicrous. Regarding the songs, I don't write because I want others to comment on them. I write for myself."
Day & Night can't let Vernon go without inquiring about his lost teenage summer in Galway. The urban myth is that, as a footloose 19-year-old, he flipped burgers in Supermacs for three months. The story is half true – he actually worked at a Vodafone store around the corner.
"It was an awesome summer, man," he says. "I sold phones right there on Eyre Square. I was one hot salesman. I was at college and on break, all my super-smart friends went to different colleges. Because I couldn't really study abroad I went to Ireland for a semester. I felt very at home. I always do, whenever I go back."
Repave is out now. Volcano Choir play Vicar Street Dublin Saturday November 9