THE SEVEN MEMBERS of Volcano Choir are in the middle of a three-day drive to get to their tour's first show in Phoenix. "We don't do a ton of shows, so we're not all totally sick of each other yet," says keyboardist Thomas Wincek. "We still have fun when we get together. If we were together six months out of the year, maybe we wouldn't relish three days of traveling. But at this point in our lives, it's a good time. We're making the most of the trip."
This is the band's first time playing the West Coast, although all of its members have toured prolifically with other projects—most notably Collections of Colonies of Bees, the band that much of Volcano Choir has played in at one time or another. Fellow Wisconsin band All Tiny Creatures also shares members: Wincek, bassist Matthew Skemp, and Volcano Choir's latest addition, multi-instrumentalist Andy Fitzpatrick—"a Swiss army knife of a musician," according to Wincek. (Both All Tiny Creatures and Collections of Colonies of Bees have released material on Portland-based label Hometapes.) And of course, there's singer Justin Vernon's other band, Bon Iver, to add to the pedigree.
It's Vernon's participation that has attracted the bulk of the attention Volcano Choir's garnered since issuing its debut, Unmap, in 2009. But with 2013's splendid follow-up, Repave, it's doubly clear that Volcano Choir is an entity of its own, boasting muscularity and an elemental cragginess to songs like "Byegone" and "Alaskans" that wouldn't be found on those other recordings featuring Vernon's famous falsetto. The woodstove interiority of For Emma, Forever Ago and the pastel hues of Bon Iver, Bon Iver are nowhere to be found.
Volcano Choir didn't coalesce into a live endeavor until the participants decided to play some shows in Japan in 2010, following Unmap's release. "With Unmap, that album is actually a spontaneous sort of thing. Like: 'Let's start with this one weird idea and then see what we can add to it to make it a song,'" Wincek says. "Then when we had to learn them for the live show, we were just like, well, we can't just play what's on the album—it won't make sense. So we turned the songs inside out and restructured them, and in doing that, we figured out the format for Repave, because we were actually thinking about it as a band together. That laid the groundwork for the Repave songs."
Much like Unmap, writing and recording Repave was an extended process of experimentation, but one that was informed with an ear to the live show. "Some of those songs were pretty fully formed from the get-go," says Wincek. "They only got drums and vocals added to them. 'Byegone' is one that Chris [Rosenau] wrote, and he pretty much played almost every instrument that's actually on that song, and then Justin sang on it and we added drums. 'Comrade' was one that I wrote and it was the same sort of situation. It was pretty fleshed out already. The other songs, there was a lot of back and forth, and breaking them down and building them back up because something wasn't working or something. It's actually something we're working on right now: We're trying to work on some new songs and we're going through that same process of breaking things down and building them back up."
The band has a couple of those new songs ready for this tour, further evidence of the growing vitality of Volcano Choir. The band collectively has attempted to shed the shadow of Vernon's other, more famous band, to varying degrees of success. "Frankly, it's pretty fucking annoying, but I mean, it's a fact of life," Wincek says. "It's one of the reasons that anyone's paying attention in the first place, but it definitely gets annoying. You try not to read everything, but you inevitably see things that say, 'Why wasn't this just a new Bon Iver record? It sounds like Bon Iver.' You kind of just want to shout, 'We wrote the songs!' But you can't get upset about it and you can't think too much about it, because at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter at all. And none of that goes into when we're together and when we write stuff. We've known each other for a long time, so we never think about that type of shit—we're all just people, musicians playing music together."