Bon Iver invited me to Eau Claire and this is what happened

Bon Iver invited me to Eau Claire and this is what happened

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88Nine Radio Milwaukee
You can now watch the full press conference

I was one of 27 journalists from around the world to go to Eau Claire and listen to Bon Iver’s new album “22 A Million” with him at his new hotel, The Oxbow. This is what happened at The Press Conference.

UPDATE: You can watch full press conference below

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Before the Press Conference

About two weeks ago I got a cryptic email from Bon Iver with the title “An Invitation.” It said I was cordially invited to go to Eau Claire and listen to “22 A Million,” the forthcoming Bon Iver album. It said I was one of a small group that was chosen, and that the invitation was to remain confidential. If I accepted the invitation I was directed to send a specific message to another email address.

After I emailed that person I got a follow up email. It said that to book rooms in this hotel I should say I’m with a certain group, and they would know what to do.

Now, this could very well be pretty standard procedure for a press conference for all I know, but I don’t know, because no musician does press like this.

The Press Conference

The press conference was held at the yet-to-open The Oxbow Hotel in Eau Claire. Justin Vernon is involved with The Oxbow, and it was a pretty cool place, even under construction.

The first thing I did was get a drink. Open bar. Great move JV.

Then I realized that I left my recorder in my hotel room. Thank you voice memos app.

We were also given a press packet which included what I assume will be the insert on the LP, a classic press release with some info, a really fantastic essay written by Justin Vernon’s friend Trevor Hagen that does a fantastic job of explaining the whole album, and finally, a hand written note from Justin Vernon thanking us for coming.

Then we had a short welcome and went straight into the album. Let me tell you, it is great. It’s bold,  intense, heavily and deeply electronic, but still has the warmth and heart of Justin Vernon’s vocal delivery. There are a lot of samples and weird noises. The album is definitely a gigantic step forward. More on that in a bit

Then Michael Perry, Justin Vernon’s friend and neighbor opened up by explaining the concept of the press conference, saying they were thinking of how to do things and thought, “Why not just invite people into our own back yard, invite people to our home town, and share the good news with them?”

And with that 27 people came from around the world, from countries like Japan, Germany, Sweden, Mexico, and England and gathered in Eau Claire, WI to listen to an album.

Then Justin Vernon came out.

Justin Vernon Q & A

Justin Vernon on Eau Claire: Vernon has a lot of pride in his city and it was great to hear him talk about making the city better. At one point he said, “You go around the world and see a bunch of really great places and I just know this place so well. And every place should take care of itself.” No one is taking care of Eau Claire like Justin Vernon. At one point he talked about seeing an Eau Claire sign on his way to the press conference and thinking, “That’s kind of a bad sign, I should talk to someone about that.” Justin Vernon is really a testament to the way that one person can change an entire city. He has put Eau Claire on the map in a big way and he started as a kid just growing up there.

He did talk about the difficult parts of living in Eau Claire as well.

“I don’t think I had a black friend until I was 16.”

“Just because I didn’t meet anyone. That goes to show you there are walls too. Walls that protect you and walls that keep things out.” Vernon is trying to break down those walls while still keeping his community close. He said thatEaux Claires Festival is great to attract new people to Eau Claire. It’s “just nice to have folks from here have other folks come here.”

We kept coming back to the idea to share Eau Claire.

Justin Vernon on the new album 22 A Million

This album is about the power of human connectivity through music.

There is an emphasis on working with others, sampling music, creating, and empathy.

On the sound of the album:

“I felt like it was important for it to sound new.”

“I wanted to bash things apart a little bit and break through some stuff. I needed it to sound a little radical for me to feel good.”

“It’s not embarrassing, but the old albums are of this kinda sad nature. I was healing myself through that stuff. And being sad about something is okay, but wallowing in it and circling the same cycles emotionally just feels boring.”

Collaboration

He talks about working with Kanye. “It was a bunch of people working super hard on making a song.”

THIS IS A HUGE THEME OF THIS ALBUM.

“When you’re with someone and they can show you how to be yourself more.” I really think this is the key to this album’s identity. Justin Vernon has always been tirelessly inward-looking. In “For Emma” he did that alone. In “22 A Million,” he is letting others bring his personality out.

This album might not have been released if it weren’t for his friend Ryan Olsen. Vernon was going to trash the project and Ryan virtually held his hand through the process of finishing the album. “That was my favorite part of the album. That moment. A friend kind of picking his friend up.”

They made an instrument for this album. It’s only possible to play as two people. “It was just us making music as freely as humanly possible.” This just contributes to how important connectivity is on this album.

The album is one long moment.

“In the last few years I can’t really look back and be like, ‘remember all those years and there’s this moment, and this moment, and this moment.’ There are all these moments that add up to one moment.

“This album is taking literally moments and putting them on the album. Like in Portugal, my friend Trevor took his shirt off and played a bunch of free jazz trumpet on all the songs. You know, those are moments. As you grow older and you realize that time, and all these moments are really part of a longer moment.”

On religion:

Religion is a pretty constant theme for Vernon. He majored in Religious Studies at UW-Eau Claire. He was religious and, “was into that idea. I was into the fact that there was a day of the week that I got to sit down and think, ‘What is my soul?’” He says religion is doing a lot of good. On this album there are many religious and anti-religious symbols because he wanted to make a “naughty record.” Religion goes with his concentration on self-reflection and concentration on big themes.

The symbols:

“It’s not supposed to be anything.”

Samples

There is an uncredited Stevie Nicks sample on track two from Vernon’s favorite Youtube video of all time. It’s just her warming up in 1981, getting her hair did, and singing, “Wild Heart.”

Overall the press conference was great. He was warm and personable. He didn’t put on any fronts, and he just seemed like a great guy.

The best part. After the conference.

Okay, so the press conference was open bar. In Wisconsin. Drinking is happening. At first I was saying to myself, “Justin, don’t drink. Write that story tonight.” But he brought 27 people to Eau Claire to listen to an album about the power of human connectivity through music. So I started drinking.

Rooms at The Oxbow are available to walk through, so my buddy Harlan and I walk through. On the way back we see Justin Vernon hanging out back, drinking a beer, chatting with some guy. I turn to Harlan and say, “Should we say hi to Justin?” Because of the press conference format we didn’t get to meet in person. Harlan says, “I’m not, but I support you and you should if you want to.” (Harlan is a great guy.) So I’m thinking, I’m just gonna do it and quickly say “thanks” and keep moving on.

So I go over there. I’m approaching and thinking this is a bad idea. They see me coming but they are in mid-conversation. I just kind of stand there until they are forced to stop talking and pay attention to me. I say “Hi” he says, “Justin, right?” “Yeah” I show him that I have a Wisconsin tattoo as well and then I leave.

It was the wrong move. I immediately regretted it. I forced them to stop talking to pay attention to me. I’m feeling like the worst kind of person.

A couple minutes later I see the guy that Justin was talking to outside. He’s at the bar. I think, “I really should apologize.” So I go over to him and say, “Hey man, sorry for interrupting your conversation back there. It was rude. It was wrong. I’m sorry.” And he looks at me and says, “No. You are the only person that thought twice about that.” It was such a generous thing to say to me. It really made me feel better. So I ask him how he knows Justin.

Turns out his name is Billy. Billy is the husband of Justin Vernon’s cousin. Billy’s wife was on call at the hospital and his 5-month-old son was at their family’s place, so Billy decided to go on a bike ride around Eau Claire. He saw Justin’s van, recognized it, and popped his head in to see what was up. He made eye contact with Justin, who gave him a nod, and he sat at the bar and watched the whole thing. There were only 27 journalists in the world that got access to this. We had to do some Mission Impossible type shit to get in, this thing is super secret, and Billy gets in ’cause he went on a bike ride and poked his head in.

In no time Billy and I were fast friends. If someone were to play Billy in a movie it would be Matthew McConaughey. Billy was playing D-3 football in college, but then went to a Phish concert during spring break and never quite made it back. He didn’t want to name his son until he could figure out his personality, and the dude just looks exactly like McConaughey.

We ask Billy where we should grab a drink. At this point we picked up a friend from Fact Magazine, and a buddy from KEXP. “THE JOYNT!” he yelled. “How do we get there?” I asked “I’ll take you.” Billy answered.

So we walked for 20 minutes to The Joynt. The whole time Billy is riding a 1971 Schwinn with one hand and drinking a tall boy in the other, while going slowly enough to keep our walking pace. We walked in the middle of the street. It was the first weekend students were back, so everyone was out. We crossed some beautiful bridges in Eau Claire.

We get to The Joynt and it’s not exactly what I was expecting. I was expecting a dark, dank, dive bar with like seven townies in it. And it was dark and dank, but it is also right on a row of college bars, so it’s pretty packed. But Billy found a table right at the front where we all fit. Pitchers of good beer were $6.75. We were in a new town, with new people. It was heaven. The five of us told stories, laughed endlessly, played games, howled at the moon, and soon enough it was closing time.

They kicked us out, but we took that party to the streets. We hung out longer, we lost two members in a story that I won’t even go into here, and we started walking back. Once we got far enough, Billy told us he was going to bike back to his place. We hugged it out and walked back to the hotel. It was 4:30 AM.

If the point of Bon Iver’s new album is to show the power of connectivity through music, last night was that point with a bullet. We came from around the world to Eau Claire to listen to music. We made friendships, and we made a moment that is part of our longer moment.

Thanks, Justin.