Bon Iver’s Grammy Inquisition: Exclusive Q&A With 2012’s Best New Artist
Justin Vernon (or "Bonny Bear," if you're a confused Twitter user) tells us what he really thinks about Music's Biggest Night
On Sunday night, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a guy who admitted he was uncomfortable with the idea of a Grammy Award, stood up before an audience of 39 million and picked up two of them — enough to throttle Lady Gaga (who won none) and start two Internet memes (“Who’s Bonny Bear?” and “Sweet hookup”). SPIN rode along with the Best New Artist all weekend, and after the ceremony, we spoke with him exclusively about his pre-show anxiety, his Grammy gripes, and the band’s future.
How would you compare the way you feel now with how you felt yesterday morning or a week ago?
I feel like I know now, I know what it’s like. Whatever concerns or discomforts I have about the Grammys don’t matter. Not that I should shut up about them, but just because one group of people is having an awards ceremony that they think is the center of the universe for one night… I know what I know and I feel what I feel, but it just doesn’t matter. For the time I was there, I just enjoyed it. Ed Droste wrote me a note that said, “Hey man, go win one for the indies.” I may not know what he means by “the indies.” We could sit down and make a ten-point definition of what the indies are; we may not agree on every one on of them. But he’s a friend and he’s saying, “We’re with you.” You can’t deny the fact that the Grammys have a historical significance as far as the industry staying above water. But that doesn’t budge some of my personal concerns about it being too self-important. I was happy to win and I was thinking of Ed.
How much do those discomforts feel justified after the fact, though?
I think I had more fun that I thought I would. I think the music was a lot better than I thought it would be. Plenty of things proved my concerns, like people just not playing music. Chris Brown was pure playback. A few other people were just playback. And that’s hard to swallow. There were only ten awards given last night. Overall, it is what it is and I had a good time, and now that’s it over I realize that I got pretty bent out of shape about it. But I was proud to win. I was happy to. But I still think the whole thing is inherently flawed. Getting an award for music? Like I said in the speech, I was uncomfortable.
What do you remember about your speech?
I was fucking with it all day. Five minutes before I went up there, I was looking at it and I said to myself, “I’m not going to say that.” It wasn’t the right place or time, but I cut out the part that said, “It’s hard to accept this award because of all the talent out there, but also because Bon Iver is an entity and something that I gave myself to. A lot of people give themselves to it, so it’s hard to think of Bon Iver as an artist. Bon Iver is not an artist. Bon Iver is an idea.”
Why cut that?
I thought it would be confusing and too self-referential.
Your speech felt like a bit of a balancing act.
I was obliged to be grateful because a bunch of people were supporting me. But it’s both, as they say in Milwaukee: It’s bad and good. I said “sorry” because I kept looking at my notes.
But that said, what do you think separates what you do from what a lot of the people you were seated with represent?
I realized last night, “I’m not the only different one in here.” Everyone is different from each other. Nobody has any idea how different we all are. Clearly people saw the name Bon Iver on the screen last night and will never hear the music. Some people saw the name and made an opinion without having heard the music. You can’t calculate all that shit, so it weirdly puts it in perspective for you: All you really can do is play guitar and write a song. Paul McCartney is up there and the guy has to love what he does and he obviously has to be happy with the other parts of his life, otherwise I don’t think he’d be having half as much fun up there. If he didn’t have harmony, he wouldn’t be up there. He would have been swallowed up by all of this. I think it’s pretty clear by the look on that guy’s face that he didn’t see that room as the center of the universe last night. He’s been around long enough to be comfortable up on that stage, to know that there’s more out there. That was my favorite: a 70-year-old guy, playing guitar. It’s people doing what they were born to do. And you know, if it wasn’t the Grammys, it’d be something else. Can you imagine a Pitchfork Awards? That’d be worse.
Well, it’d be the same kind of problems. It’s not that the Grammys are evil, they’ve just been around the longest.
As a nominee and a winner of an award, you become a serious representative for that world.
I think Pitchfork probably wanted me to go up there and raise hell. Because then they get to look like the entity that helped fuel the fire that changed the industry. But all that is them funneling readers to their website.
That might be true, but it’s also inflammatory.
Yeah, I agree. And that’s why it’s hard to talk about. At the end of the day, the only thing I can really deal with or have any opinion on or make an agent of change is my music. I could get up there and say a bunch of shit and that shit could influence how I write a song or maybe not. That’s the only thing that’s going to stay pure.
But as your profile grows and as more people come to know what Bon Iver is, aren’t you faced with accepting the likelihood that what you say outside of a song’s context has weight? Even if you were or are conflicted about the Grammys, just by being there and accepting that world, it confirms something to someone. How much do you feel as though you’ve crossed that threshold or reached a point where you can’t be as forthcoming as you’d hope to be?
In this last week I’ve realized that, whether I liked it or not, I’ve put up some walls and defenses. I just couldn’t get up there and look all those people in the eye and say, “You suck.” Because I didn’t think that at the time. I don’t think that now. Any of those feelings I had beforehand were probably a combination of those defenses and doubt and skepticism about what all of this means. I also didn’t want to be rude. A bunch of people voted for me. I got myself involved. I said it was okay for the label to submit us for the Grammys. So, ultimately, I don’t think I was ready to get up there and try to take the system down. Because I realized that a) it’s not going anywhere; b) I don’t need the shitstorm to deal with afterwards; because c) it’s just not that important. And because it’s not that important, I was able to enjoy it and understand its relative relevance, while also enjoying all of its irrelevance. Like, LL Cool J had a really cool-sounding speaking voice. Bruno Mars’ drummer was pretty fucking good. It just feels a lot better afterwards because of that, because you can see it for how big it is.
Three-hundred-sixty-four more days until the next one. Every one of those days, I won’t be thinking about it. I think a lot of how I live my live going forward is going to be connected to how I handle press. It’s been the only source of anxiety with this growing process. I want to do what’s best for us and be creative. This has opened my eyes to what it’s going to take to do this band the way I really dream it could be. It’s going to take changing bandmates, changing sounds, changing instruments, changing voices, growing into myself, making tough decisions, taking the time to make tough creative decisions about what songs you play on SNL or what songs you write or how you want to approach press. How do I garner the sort of peace and harmony in my life that I don’t have now. I don’t write songs right now. I’m not worried about it and I’m being patient and I know they’re going to come. But I’d be much happier if they were just around all the time and I was able to breathe and feel a flow of things.
You mentioned bringing that system down. How do you walk that tightrope where you work the way you need to work while also acknowledging the requirements of the whole game?
I think that’s just it: I think calling it a game is, in turn, accepting the fact that it’s something like this can’t be completely changed. Games have rules, games have players, games have boundaries, games have winners and losers that are clearly defined by this whole thing. But we all call it the game and we all use that metaphor, but to think like that means that the script can’t be completely fucking flipped. All of this shit started because people had random ideas.
Maybe what we’re actually talking about, though, is purity. You’ve mentioned before that that’s perhaps what made For Emma so magnetic, that that’s why you’re so protective of it, and that that’s why it’s been so upsetting to be thrust into a the position where you’re trying to communicate things that can’t be said in a song. But can Bon Iver remain pure?
I wonder about that. I wonder if there will be another record, if there can be. One of things that I feel happy about is that I have it within me to make the call, to say the show goes on or the show doesn’t go on. I won’t let Bon Iver fail itself. So far, it’s succeeded, so if we never make another record, it’s okay with me. I’m still going to do something else. But I’m a romantic, I care about what it is. I care that it came from a pure place. Maybe it’s some weird, psychotic brainchild and I’m overly protective. But maybe that’s what’s inspired me about Neil Young. He just did it. He always put music first. If that’s what it’s about, then it should stay that way. If it gets to the point where that purity is so vulnerable, I wouldn’t be afraid of opting out of that world. I don’t want to get it too scraped-up in that scenery.
How easy is it, though, to conflate that sentiment with traditional DIY or indie thinking, and whatever that represents, whether it’s say, the Postal Service or Minutemen?
It’s pretty hard to measure any of this. I don’t know. To be disheartened would be to lose the reason why I care about all of this. But the only time I feel like I can say I’m doing my job is when I’m recording. And the rest of the time I might just be fucking it up myself. By talking about it.
But how does one connect the dots between where Paul McCartney is and the place where you are now? How do you accept the grey area?
I haven’t been very graceful — as graceful as I could be — with all of this stuff. Because it’s so full-on. I’ve spent so many hours of my life now interviewing and talking about it and getting convinced that it’s important, what I’m saying. In a weird way, though, I think I’ve always known that it’s not important, which allows me to be relaxed enough to not hate myself during an interview. But that’s what that scene in “Holocene” is about. In that moment, as you realize your insignificance, you can therefore realize your significance. Whether we were on the Grammys last night or not, not much would change. Not much is different now. I don’t know. Maybe to rewind to five minutes ago, where I said I might not put out another record: Fuck that, I will always do this, no matter what. The toughest part hasn’t been dealing with naysayers, the toughest part has been dealing with people really caring about this band. I’ve spent enough time caring about music that gets little to no recognition. So I know what it’s like. But at the end of the day, you either love to do it or you don’t. And I love it. I will always do it and I always want to do it.
• Award Tour: 21 Times the Grammys Saluted the Underground
• Grammys ’12 FAQ: Everything You Need to Know About Music’s Biggest Night
• Everything You Need To Know About the 54th Grammy Awards Nominations
• Grammys ’12: Who Should Win the Major Categories
• Grammys ’12: Who Should Win the Categories You Actually Care About
• Whitney Houston’s Four-Decade History at the Grammy Awards