He calls them members of the Bon Iver “community,” not band. Which makes sense when you see the list of 50 or so musicians credited on Justin Vernon’s grandiose new album “i, i.”
It includes some of the Wisconsin singer’s well-known friends, like Bruce Hornsby, James Blake and the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Many Twin Cities compatriots are there, too, from ace sidemen JT Bates and Jeremy Ylvisaker to singers Channy Leaneagh and Jeremy “Velvet Negroni” Nutzman and producers BJ Burton and Psymun.
And then there’s a whole bunch of seemingly left-field entries, including the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Toni Pierce-Sands from St. Paul’s TU Dance (for hand claps), photographer Graham Tolbert (vocals) and even someone or something referred to as Sad Sax of [Bleep] (saxophone).
For members of the Bon Iver live band — the whittled lineup coming Thursday to Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — recreating that sprawling mass of musicianship with just an eight-piece group is a challenge they were ready for and used to.
“It’s a long and fluid process making a Bon Iver album, with a lot of moving parts, but it all comes together in the end,” said Twin Cities music vet Michael Lewis, who plays bass and saxophone on the tour that started a month ago.
Drummer, keyboardist and backup singer Matt McCaughan pointed out that the large list of musicians on the new record isn’t as unusual as we might think.
“A lot more albums than we know have this many people playing on them,” he said. “It’s just that Justin and the team do a very good job keeping track of everyone and giving credit where it’s due.”
Talking by speakerphone two weeks ago before the Bon Iver show in San Francisco, McCaughan and Lewis offered a cheery report from the road, along with insight into the making of “i, i” — pronounced “eye comma eye,” if you don’t want voracious Vernon fans to look down their beard at you.
It’s the band’s biggest outing to date, also including its first-ever arena gigs in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in addition to the Twin Cities.
“The first few shows have had that new-car smell, where everyone is very excited but also getting used to being in front of a live audience,” said Lewis, well-known locally from Happy Apple, Alpha Consumer and numerous other acts. “But then as the tour has gone on, we’ve gotten into the minutiae of things more, and really improved on it, I think.”
Said McCaughan, who’s part of Vernon’s contingent of North Carolina musician pals, “The audience interaction is a big part of how it evolves. We spend so much time working on this stuff in empty rooms, but you can never really perfect it until you take it in front of people.”
‘Hold on loosely’
As the two longtime Bon Iver sidemen described it, the songs on “i, i” went through a long and varied gestation, with some of the tracks being wildly altered by the end.
A far cry from Bon Iver’s 2007 debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” — the solitary folk album that Vernon famously made by himself while holed up in a deer-hunting cabin west of his hometown of Eau Claire — “i, i” is thickly layered with ambient electronics, classical instrumentation, choral vocals and all sorts of other sonic embellishments. Hence all the extra musicians.
Lewis said one the biggest challenges was “not getting attached to a certain part of a song and really think that’s how it should be.”
He added, “Many times it felt like a song was in good shape, and I’d come back a week later and it would be completely different. You have to hold on loosely, keep your heart in it, but try not to get frustrated.”
Much of the musical woodshedding was done once again at Vernon’s studio in the woods, April Base, at his home near Eau Claire in Fall Creek, Wis. The core Bon Iver crew also set up shop at Sonic Ranch outside El Paso, Texas, for more than a month, and recorded at other random spots, too.
“If Justin is traveling through a city with us or [his side group] Big Red Machine or whatever, he might book some studio time and invite some people by,” McCaughan said.
He emphasized that the collaborations were usually done in person and not through Dropbox or other virtual means. “That does happen, but didn’t happen a lot with this particular record,” he said.
Another of the random building blocks behind the album was Bon Iver’s 2018 collaboration with TU Dance, which premiered with four performances at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre ahead of appearances at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and Kennedy Center in New York. Some of the music featured in those shows is on “i, i,” though in different forms, including the sputteringly rhythmic “iMi” and the lushly synthesized radio single “Hey, Ma.”
Said Lewis, “Playing the songs [with TU Dance] illuminated what was working about them.
“From there, we thought about how you sort of turn it up for a Bon Iver live performance — obviously a different context from the dance performances.”
All told, the musicians look back with a bit of wonder and pride at all the work put in.
“There are probably 20 other records within the making of this one record, depending how you divide it all up and remix it,” Lewis said, but then firmly added, “I think we wound up with the best version.”
‘Kind of like camp’
Here’s more of what the Bon Iver band, er, community members said from the road.
On how Bon Iver songs take shape: “Experimentation is a huge, huge part of not just this record but all the records, with the possible exception of the first one,” Lewis said. “Usually it starts with us just getting together, setting up and playing, and then going back and picking out the snippets we really liked. Often we’ll build around those select parts, and gradually the songs take shape. Sometimes Vernon does come in with very specific ideas and structures, too, but a majority of it does come from experimentation and improvising at the outset.”
According to McCaughan, “Rarely is there a case where we go in and he says, ‘OK, this is the chord I want, this is the chorus.’ A lot of times it all comes from just messing around and picking out the things that get stuck in your head, sculpting it from that.”
On how McCaughan shares drum duties with another Twin Cities multi-instrumentalist: “Sean [Carey] plays a lot of piano parts, too, so he might play a piano part with his left hand and a cymbal part with his right, and then I might play a shaker,” McCaughan said. “We break it up more like an orchestral percussion ensemble might do it. Our drum kits sound different, too, so I might play one part or Sean might play one based on the specific sound wanted.”
On working at Vernon’s rural April Base studio: “It’s kind of like camp,” McCaughan said. “It’s just the right amount of distance from town to keep you from wanting to head into town too often, but it’s not so far that if you need to go grab something from the store it’s a big odyssey. It’s easy to stay out there and get things done.”
Added Lewis: “You’re perfectly removed from the distractions of daily life there. It’s too far for us to want to go hang out at [popular Eau Claire watering hole] the Joynt every night.”