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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Team Bon Iver: Wisconsin's iconic indie act is a band, not a dude
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Credit:Joseph Schell

Try to imagine all nine members of Bon Iver decked out in Milwaukee Bucks jerseys. Then imagine the hermetic rockers humping it up and down the Bucks' practice floor in a game of 5-on-4.

The center of the band is also the center of his team: the hulking Justin Vernon, pivoting underneath the basket, over-handing an outlet pass, posting it up. "He's got game," says drummer Sean Carey.

It actually happened. It was last summer, a week before the start of the band's ballyhooed world tour showcasing their self-self-titled new record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Milwaukee connections got them into the jerseys and onto the floor.

The episode is a metaphor for what the band is all about. Humble boys from Eau Claire get a shot at playing the big time.

Appreciating Bon Iver is an exercise in imagination. Their fabled trajectory has taken less than three years: from a rural Eau Claire hunting shack, where Vernon emerged from solitude, clutching the songs for the freshman record For Emma, Forever Ago, to appearances on Letterman and sold-out headlining sets at festivals from Perth to Paris.

Not bad for a band whose work is the musical equivalent of a Picasso painting. "Chamber music on crack," says Carey.

And now Bon Iver are coming home to Wisconsin. They play Dec. 10 in a sold-out show at the Orpheum Theatre. Expect fireworks. The show caps off an aggressive European tour that started late last summer and finishes with a couple shows in Canada, a quick stop in Chicago, then Madison.

Of course, the real homecoming happens after Madison. Dec. 12 and 13, Bon Iver return to their beloved Eau Claire for two nights of music in the Zorn Arena at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

It's hard to overstate the influence Wisconsin and Eau Claire have had on Bon Iver's extraordinary flight. Paul Simon sang about New York City, Chuck Berry about Memphis. The Avett Brothers' muse is never far from North Carolina. Bon Iver are fed by a place, too, and it's Wisconsin.

"Justin is a very nostalgic person," says Carey. "He writes like that. And he writes about Wisconsin." Not literally, of course, but the hills and fields of Eau Claire County situate themselves in Vernon's fertile compositions. Dense. Rich. Earthy. The gauze between seasons, a drop in temperature. The down comfort and languid pace of life in the upper Midwest. These things are stirred into the music like brandy and, in turn, stir the listener.

"We come from a place where there are no pretty expectations," says Carey, who grew up in Lake Geneva and moved to Eau Claire for college. "And we were lucky enough to be influenced by our school music programs growing up. Justin and Mikey [guitar player Mike Noyce] went to very strong music programs in high school [Eau Claire Memorial - Noyce actually was a guitar student of Vernon's]. We were exposed to people like Duke Ellington while we were listening to people like Radiohead."

The young men took their school lessons and wove them together into a sound that continues to break new ground. "Being in Eau Claire, and being in small-town Wisconsin, I don't know, there aren't rules, if that makes any sense," says Carey.

Indeed, there are few rules in Bon Iver music. To Vernon (who declined interview requests for this story), a spot of time is a place to fill with musical meditation. The result is the fact that you will never sing a Bon Iver song out loud while you are cleaning the kitchen. Yet the music gathers in and ropes off pop music lovers worldwide. It turns most music critics into babbling first-time fathers.

Paste Magazine picked For Emma, Forever Ago as the number-four release of 2008. Last month Paste placed Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top of the heap for 2011. The new record was nominated last week for a Grammy in the alternative music category.

Being considered alternative in a mainstream award competition speaks to the curious currency of Bon Iver. The irony is, For Emma is far more conventionally Grammy grabby than the new disc. Not that you can sing it in the kitchen. But songs like "Skinny" on For Emma are veritable campfire songs compared to the instinctive, primitive cave calls of Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

Instinct. Harmony. Reverberation. These are the planks that build the new CD, 10 tracks of flannel mysticism regarding emotional impressions of locations around the world. Among them: "Perth," "Michicant," "Calgary," "Minnesota, Wi."

The nine-member ensemble now includes two drummers. "There are different roles we play in each song, and then there are differences in how we play as individuals," says Carey. On stage, he says, he gets "locked in conversation" with fellow beat maker Matt McCaughnan. The conversation can be a light mutter or it can be intense, as in the bass drum barrage in "Perth."

As on the For Emma tour, the new songs soar when performed live. Though the tunes are vigorously composed, in performance they have a way of taking shape right before your eyes. And as if Vernon's soundscapes needed any more quirk, along comes Colin Stetson with a bass saxophone, adding oddness in a most endearing way. What's also odd is that you can't imagine some of these songs without it.

Justin Vernon has always been uncomfortable with the many fans who stubbornly believe that Bon Iver is he, that he is Bon Iver. The new music and, in particular, the live show goes a long way in stamping that out. My daughter, Maggie, was in the crowd at Bon Iver's headline set at October's Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris. Here was her view.

"One of the most impressive aspects of Bon Iver's show was that frontman Justin Vernon's arrangements are set up as if each song or movement has a different frontman. Their live show is proof that Bon Iver are more than just one talented songwriter. It was the sheer amount of talent packed onto one stage and the seamless collaboration between them. They even finished off the show by lining up like a theater company for a bow...a welcome change of pace from the usual frontman-says-thanks-while-band-members-wander-off-stage."

It's probably not a stretch to imagine that Vernon gave the big-band second album the title Bon Iver, Bon Iver in order to drive home the point - the point being that Bon Iver are a band, not a sad-eyed bearded dude.

Bon Iver, the band, create dense music, layered slabs of sound. I asked Carey if he ever wishes the group would just sit down and write a 1-4-5 rock song. "I think that will happen," he says. Then he adds with a laugh, "but I'm actually more inclined to not ever want to have that happen. I don't know. I'm just in love with the heaviness of it, with the weighted creativity of it."

I asked Carey if the worldwide significance of Bon Iver has changed the way he's living. "It's surprising and amazing to have this be our jobs. It's definitely changed a lot of things. I've been able to buy a house! Not that that's that hard in Eau Claire. And I've been able to work on my own music and not have to work in a coffee shop when I'm not touring."

The band seems to keep its spectacular journey going by surrounding itself with as normal and unspectacular a work environment as possible. Vernon's brother Nate and the founder of Eau Claire's Amble Down Record label, 24-year-old Kyle Frennette, co-manage Bon Iver. Band members come in and out of Vernon's Fall Creek farmhouse, where both the studio and the refrigerator door are always open.

Vernon could have picked any label under the sun for the second CD, but he stayed with the tiny label Jagjaguwar, based in Bloomington, Ind. "There's that small-town thing again," says Carey. "The best word for [Jagjaguwar] is 'bros.' They like to hang out. It's about the music and the artists."

The biggest trick with Bon Iver is the fact that their complex music somehow continues to connect to a popular audience. Strip away the soaring dynamics, the intricate instrumentation, and the connection could be due to the fact that at heart, Bon Iver are an a cappella group. The intense, highly reverberated harmonies drive straight through to the tension in life. After the vocals, the rest is a vessel.

There are some who don't buy the aw-shucks, Carhartt persona of Bon Iver. There are others who hear the new record and think every track is the same. Still others see pretension when they look at the tiny, almost unreadable text in the jacket notes.

I admit I've come in and out of those places myself. But I say this now: Bon Iver's humility is real. You can't avoid it. The last time the band played in Madison, at the Barrymore Theatre in 2008, they turned away national rock magazine writers to insure seats at the sold-out show for their friends and family coming down from Eau Claire.

And every track the same? Is every beautiful summer day the same? Really?

There's no getting around one thing, though. Those copious notes in the new CD? Reprinted in teeny-weeny hand-written script? That's pretentious. We'll let 'em off the hook for that one.

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