Rosenau (second from left): "Everyone is super free to explore any musical idea."
Volcano Choir are gaining speed in more ways than one. The sextet have scored a tour bus, which has been pretty exciting for the Madison-area contingent of Matt Skemp, Tom Wincek and Andy Fitzpatrick. A bus may sound like a given for this indie rock band, whose roster also includes Grammy-winning Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon and members of Milwaukee's Collections of Colonies of Bees. But it's not. They had to earn it.
Volcano Choir's 2009 debut, Unmap, reached a respectable number 92 on the Billboard Top 200 in the U.S., and a Japanese tour proved that they're nothing short of a sensation overseas. So when it came time to release their sophomore album, Repave, they needed some extra horsepower. During the band's cross-country trek, which includes a stop at Madison's Orpheum Theater on Friday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m., the new record has ascended even higher than the first. The journey on the charts likely isn't over, either, considering that Repave was released on Sept. 3, to rave reviews from Stereogum and NPR.
Repave shares much DNA with Unmap in terms of sound and personnel. It also reflects Volcano Choir's long history of friendship and music making. The band began in 2005, as a group of friends who wanted to share experimental music. Then they became a studio band, and later a live touring act. But that transition hasn't been easy. They've had to come to terms with some of their weaknesses. In adapting their songs for live shows, the band came away with a more refined idea of what they're capable of and how to draw out each other's strengths.
"I think the big shift happened when one of our friends offered us a couple of Japanese shows," says guitarist and UW alum Chris Rosenau. "Nobody knew how to play any of these songs [live]. So that whole experience of trying to reshape... and rethink all those Unmap songs really changed our approach and opened our eyes to what was possible.... That really informed our writing process for Repave."
The band continue the casual sharing of ideas that marked the days before they were called Volcano Choir.
"Everyone is super free to explore any musical idea," Rosenau says.
Repave reflects this sentiment with expansive, layered songs that feel a little more accessible than those on Unmap.
Yet Volcano Choir didn't have accessibility in mind when making the record.
"We were more focused on taking every [idea] through to the final degree that we could," Rosenau says.
The instrumentalists bounced ideas off Vernon, the vocalist, during the writing process. After that, they took the lead in putting the songs together as Vernon tended to other projects. This approach might not fly with the frontman of another band, but it works just fine for Volcano Choir.
"We know everyone's going to land in the right place just because we've played with each other for so long," Rosenau says.
Recent high-profile gigs, including a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, have assured Volcano Choir that they're on the right track. Though reshaping Repave's songs for live shows has taken a lot of hard work, the labor has paid off in the form of audience enthusiasm.
"Hearing audiences getting super crazy in the super-intense parts but then having them be silent as church mice during the really quiet parts really was rewarding to us," Rosenau says.
The band don't always get to leave the bus and explore the cities they visit, but they're bound to spend some quality time in Madison.
"Everyone [in the band] who doesn't live in Madison lives in Wisconsin and has been to Madison and loves Madison," Rosenau says. "We're honored that we're going to be able to play this music we love in this beautiful place that we've all been. It's humbling, and we're super excited."