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S. Carey talks power of nature, his early days with Bon Iver - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

S. Carey talks power of nature, his early days with Bon Iver

By Shawn Cooke / A&E Editor

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If you know only one thing about Bon Iver, there’s a good chance it has something to do with the log cabin. Over the band’s transformation from quiet Wisconsin folk project to festival headliner and Kanye West-collaborator, its origin story has taken on mythical proportions. 

It’s widely documented that founding member Justin Vernon isolated himself in a log cabin to record their first LP, For Emma, Forever Ago. His drummer, Sean Carey, took a similar approach to try out for the band. Carey was acquainted with Vernon, since they both went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Carey heard Vernon was looking for live bandmates through mutual friends who played with Vernon on the record.

“[Vernon] posted the whole record on MySpace for his friends,” Carey said. “I had access to all the songs, and I just holed up for a couple weeks and learned every drum part and harmony that I could decipher.”

Carey played through some For Emma songs with Vernon in soundcheck at his first show as Bon Iver and was signed on to the band that same night. He’s been with Vernon for the duration of their meteoric rise, but he has also made time for two solo albums and an EP under the moniker “S. Carey.”

Both projects aim for sweeping, detailed and gorgeous soundscapes, with a strong affinity for the outdoors. Carey said he’s always been drawn to chamber music, so the strong presence of violins and woodwinds on Bon Iver’s self-titled 2011 album seems like a natural fit. Carey and Vernon are certainly kindred spirits, but Carey doesn’t necessarily believe that they have the same approach to songcraft.

“There’s just some sort of Wisconsin aesthetic that we’re both going for, but we’re completely different songwriters,” Carey said.

While Bon Iver seems to be on hold for the foreseeable future, Carey will continue to tour in support of his most recent LP, Range of Light, and he plans to release a stripped-down piano EP sometime this fall. On Thursday, he’s set to play Club Cafe as part of a co-headlining tour with Califone.

The Pitt News talked to S. Carey on the phone about the role of nature in his music, some of the more subtle sounds on Light and the profound impact of a documentary he saw in college. Here is a portion of his edited interview.

Q: Were there any songs on Range of Light written or brainstormed outdoors, or was it mostly inside?

A: Oh yeah, totally. Part of my writing process — you know I’ve talked about it really being slow and taking my time  — is I’ll go out for a walk or go fishing or something, and I’ll just have a song swirling around in my head for a while. Or driving. I just drive around and listen to a voice memo of me playing a song and think of lyrics that way.

Q: It seems like there are a lot of detailed field-recorded sounds on this record. What are some of the more subtle ones that might fly over a listener’s head?

A: I can think of the obvious ones. I mean in “Neverending Fountain,” there’s a beat that starts with a boot walking on snow, which I’m sure you can hear. I’m sure there’s probably something I’m forgetting.

Oh, I thought of one of those [subtle field recordings]. It was Ben’s foot — he was tapping his shoe. He was like sitting cross-legged, and he was drumming on his shoe. It created this crazy bass sound on the song “Fleeting Light.” We were all recording these little percussion layers at the same time. It’s really hard to tell, but it almost sounds like an electronic bass drum. It’s like the outro where it dances on this one chord for a few minutes.

Q: Going back to your first record, All We Grow, the song “Mothers” seems to be this sympathetic plea to either a specific group of youth or youth in general. Would you be willing to shed some light on the heartbreaking imagery in this song?

A: I went to the University in Eau Claire, and they were screening a documentary about third-world coffee. It focused on African coffee. Basically seeing how these people live and work to make coffee that we drink — how frugal they get and they are. How hard their lives are, especially when it’s not fair trade. And I’m sure that’s totally changed in the last five or six years since that happened. I don’t even know any of the details really, it was just this feeling I had coming back from watching that. I just started writing those lyrics, and I guess it’s just kind of about people in third-world countries who have it so much harder than we do in the U.S. But really just looking at them as people and kind of trying to show empathy.

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S. Carey talks power of nature, his early days with Bon Iver