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Inside Track: Bon Iver '22, A Million'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Chris Messina & Zach Hanson
Published January 2017
By Paul Tingen

Recording People: Chris Messina (left) and Zach Hanson at April Base Studios.Recording People: Chris Messina (left) and Zach Hanson at April Base Studios.

Electronic, heavily processed and sample-based, 22, A Million was a radical departure for Bon Iver — and from normal recording and mixing practice...

“22, A Million is a new way of telling a story. The best stories are always those that allow you to suspend disbelief as much as possible, and I felt that it was important to make it sound new. There used to be the G chord on the guitar, and it was like, ‘wow, listen to that!’ and then a song came. But the longer I have done that, the more interested I became in other sounds too. This time we just went looking for different sparks, and over the last few years we were putting these moments together to see how they coexist, and how they can make something new. And if they sounded new to me, then that made me excited.”

Thus spoke Justin Vernon during a press conference organised to promote 22, A Million, his third album under the Bon Iver moniker and one that inhabits an alien sonic world, featuring heavily processed massed vocals, saxophones and pianos, as well as tons of samples and other musical instruments, all treated with crunching distortion, sonic break-ups, drop-outs, and other bizarre and often random-sounding sonic artifacts.

The weirdness of 22, A Million extends to its song titles, which include numbers and cryptic symbols, while the credits are deliberately obtuse. Vernon is credited as Maker, which seems clear enough, but this is followed by credits for Chris Messina as Maker’s Maker, BJ Burton as Noble Black Eagle, Ryan Olson as Scream Defence, Brad Cook as Wings, and so on. The producer credit, meanwhile, goes to April Base, which is Vernon’s studio and not a person at all.

About Numbers

The publicity campaign for 22, A Million was suitably odd as well: Vernon gave no interviews and only one press conference at the Oxbow Hotel, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, his place of residence, an hour’s drive east of Minneapolis. (Vernon is one of four investors in the hotel, so the press conference presumably helped with the promotion of that too.) Vernon elaborated on the early origins of the album, which occurred during what his friend Trever Hagan called “a misguided solo trip to an island off the coast of Greece”.

“It was a very bad time,” Vernon confirmed. “I was trying to find myself, but did not! I was incredibly bored and panicking a lot, walking around this town for a week. One day I got back to my room and sang a little improvisation into this little sampler, the [Teenage Engineering] OP-1. When I chopped the sample, it sounded like ‘two’ ‘two’, and 22 is my favourite number, because it always reminds me of paradox, the two sides of a coin, duality in general. I had sung the phrase ‘It Might Be Over Soon’, which could both mean ‘Oh, no, I wanted it to last forever,’ and ‘Thank God, I really don’t want to feel like this any more.’ So that was the beginning. When I figured out that the album was going to be about numbers, with 22 being my thing, it grew from there.

“Many of the moments on the record came from using the OP-1, which samples a bit like the Casio SK-1. It’s like a miniature MPC beat maker. You can sit anywhere and sample the radio, your breathing, whatever, and make a song out of it. Once I had enough of that going on, it wasn’t really obvious any more to pick up an acoustic guitar as often. I just wanted to keep a new language going. It wasn’t as fun or as easy, and took a lot longer than I may have liked. Overall the process of creating the album involved using the OP-1 a lot, doing many improvisations with whomever I wanted to make music with, also sampling parts of these...

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Published January 2017