We look to the second letter of the alphabet for some can’t-miss acts
It’s nearly 4 a.m. in the Milwaukee casino Potawatomi, and the roulette wheel isn’t cooperating.
Justin Vernon, the lead singer of Bon Iver, is in his second stack of chips totaling $200, and this set appears to be going no better than the last. The ball tumbles and pauses just past his chosen numbers, often skipping his splits entirely.
When Vernon asks for a Budweiser, a cocktail waitress says they’re done serving beer for tonight and instead offers him a Pepsi in a paper cup. He doesn’t protest like a celebrity might, or tell her the truth—that, by proclamation of the mayor of Milwaukee, today is Bon Iver Day in the city. That he sold more than 100,000 copies of his second album in only one week last year, that he’s friends with Kanye West, and that (Brett Favre and Scott Walker possibly excepted) he’s probably Wisconsin’s most-recognizable celebrity.
Rather, he just scratches his head and grabs a Pepsi as his stack keeps disappearing.
Vernon’s entire party seems to be down right now. Like Vernon, Darius Van Arman, who founded the record label Jagjaguwar in Virginia 15 years ago, is playing large—and losing large, too. Kevin Duneman, one of Jagjaguwar’s employees, stands behind everyone else, agreeing that roulette seems like a good way to lose a lot of money very quickly.
Vernon hears Duneman’s doubt and, after asking for a few lucky numbers, offers a morsel of encouragement: “You’ve got to keep playing for a while,” he says, “and eventually, something crazy might happen.”
Sure enough, it does: Van Arman is the first to have luck. He lands a series of successes—21, 22, 3 and 14, in particular—and Vernon starts following his lead. The bank rebuilds. Van Arman hands some chips to Duneman, who now obliges the invitation to join at no risk. He soon pays Van Arman back and starts making his own money.
It’s now nearly 4:30 a.m. Everyone is sitting instead of standing. They are finally winning.
About six years ago, Vernon wasn’t winning at all. He was living in Raleigh, N.C., after his college band, DeYarmond Edison, had moved from their hometown of Eau Claire, Wis., to Raleigh in August 2005, looking for a change of pace.
In Raleigh, DeYarmond Edison feverishly evolved, pushing their artistic limits well beyond the earnest folk-rock of Silent Signs, the album they had made just before moving south.
A month later, DeYarmond Edison began a four-show residency at a multimedia space called Bickett Gallery. Their stated goal was to expand the reach and techniques of the band by assigning each member an area of expertise to research. In retrospect, the residency pushed the band to the breaking point, exposing the dichotomies within the members’ respective musical tastes.
“The Bickett residency, ironically, was the most I’ve ever learned about music and simultaneously the reason we started to break apart. We realized there were so many things we’d never explored as musicians,” Vernon said. “I had this intense friendship with all these guys, and it was like we had gotten divorced.”
DeYarmond Edison’s dissolution wasn’t Vernon’s only problem. He suffered from mononucleosis of the liver. He was broke. He wasn’t speaking to his best friends, and he had just broken up with his girlfriend. He wrote songs that were fueled by the breakup, including Bon Iver’s hallmark “Skinny Love.”
Vernon had never really loved North Carolina, and he was ready to go back to Wisconsin. As a press release posted on DeYarmond Edison’s MySpace page said, “Justin will temporarily/indefinitely be heading back west, recording and performing as himself. I am sure there will be new recordings from him in no time.”
Before Vernon could leave, Ivan Howard of The Rosebuds, another Raleigh-based band, introduced himself at the first show by Megafaun, the trio that Brad Cook, Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund formed after DeYarmond Edison broke up.
The Rosebuds’ third album, Night of the Furies, was at a standstill after two producers. They needed help. Vernon spent the next two months in and out of The Rosebuds’ small brick home, helping them to finish the album. Suddenly, he had a new outlet.
The Rosebuds have always been a revolving door of temporary memberships, arrivals and departures, and Vernon joined The Rosebuds just as married-couple Kelly Crisp and Howard finally admitted there was a problem in their relationship.
By the time they recorded their fourth album, Howard and Crisp were separated, but they chose to continue publicly as a “couple’s act,” for fear the change would impact their image. When they finally broached the topic of the divorce by writing more-recent songs, says Crisp, it served as therapy, a release of tension that let them work together well once again. It’s also the best work they’ve done in six years.
In that sense, it’s not unlike For Emma, Forever Ago, a therapeutic project for a self-exiled songwriter—which became Bon Iver’s debut.
“I felt very un-special. So when I made For Emma, Forever Ago, I was very much making a record that I needed to make. It was my last chance,” says Vernon. … “It wasn’t because I thought the record was my chance to be successful; it was because the record actually meant something to me. I felt like I was actually applying myself.”
Throughout his popular ascension, Vernon’s mentality has focused heavily on the aspect of the pack, or the friends who supported him long before any throng at Glastonbury sang along to “Skinny Love” or before Kanye West called him to ask for samples and, eventually, collaborations.
When he made the first promotional appearance for last year’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he asked his old DeYarmond Edison bandmate and musical mentor, Phil Cook, to join on piano for a medley of Bonnie Raitt and Donny Hathaway tunes. Rather than farm out the work to someone he had never met, Vernon engineered and mixed the record with Brian Joseph, his longtime live soundman and the first cousin of the Cooks. As kids, they shared summers on the lakes of northern Wisconsin. The band itself is a motley assemblage of friends Vernon has made over the years.
Back at that Milwaukee casino, shortly after leaving just a few hours before dawn, Vernon logged onto his Twitter account, @blobtower, named for an attraction at the Wisconsin summer camp he attended.
“All good qualities must be sown and cultivated,” he said, quoting the Dalai Lama. “We can’t expect to change overnight from an ordinary person into one with high realizations.”
Musician, DJ, and producer Borgore (born Asaf Borger, 24) is a driven young man. A few years ago, he switched from playing in a death-metal band to a solo career in electronic music. And the move wasn’t because his musical tastes suddenly changed; he simply couldn’t find anyone who could keep up with his relentless drive to record, perform and experiment.
“When you play with a band, you have to deal with other people,” Borgore says. “On your own, when you want to sit down and make music for 12 hours straight, you can do that, but in a band, your bandmates are too busy with work or girlfriends or whatever. You get nowhere.”
Borgore grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel, attending a school for the arts and playing a variety of instruments, from saxophone and piano to drums. After school, he joined his first serious band, Shabira. The rock group had a loyal following, but eventually fizzled out.
“You have big dreams, but your friends are not dreaming the same dream. It fucks you up,” he says of his leap from band work to solo work. “My friends were busy doing what young people do, but I had bigger ideas.”
That’s when Borgore dove into the United Kingdom electronic scene, founding his own label (Buygore Records) and amassing an impressive collection of self-produced tracks.
Borgore’s first releases—Ice Cream Mixtape, Gorestep’s Most Hated, Borgore Ruined Dubstep, and other mini albums and remixes—hit the dubstep scene in 2009. Along the way, he formed a side project with producer Tomba called Alphamale Primates.
One of his recent releases is a four-song romp titled FLEX, featuring a collaboration with Dev (of Far East Movement and David Guetta) titled “Kiss My Lips” and several mixes of the raunchy, hip-hop flavored title track. His current U.S. tour behind FLEX has included performances at last week’s South by Southwest in Texas, the electronic-based Ultra Music Festival in Miami, and, now, Coachella.
“I have the best thing in the world coming to the stages this year,” Borgore says of his multimedia, audience-interactive stage show. “I’m bringing two of the best pole-dancers with me. It’s somewhere between crazy strip club and Cirque du Soleil. A lot of times, they’ll steal the show.”
Sexy dancers with provocative moves might enhance the live performances, but Borgore’s wild antics on stage—from behind the table and from his crowd-surfing fits across the room—propel much of the energy, too. Musically, things are all over the place as well, as he veers away from dubstep renditions to metal, hip-hop and an unpredictable mix of electronic styles.
Borgore delights in the fact that he can’t easily be pegged.
“I’m not afraid of categorization, but I stay out of categories,” he says. “One tune is metal, one tune is hip-hop. … I make it if I like it, you know? You know how going to work every day and doing the same thing can be tiring? That’s how I feel about going to work on my music.”
Luckily, his DIY situation allows plenty of room and opportunity for exploration.
“I just can’t go in and only make dubstep,” he adds. “I have independence and control right now because I’m on my own label. I don’t prefer anything over anything. I just want to keep stuff fun.”
Life in the Black Lips is life without brakes.
Through six records of relentless garage-punk and a dozen years of performances soaked with infamous debauchery (and plenty of bodily fluids), the band hasn’t slowed a step. The Black Lips’ mission statement is honest, blunt and borne of a brutal commitment to never stop playing their own music, their own way.
“Eat, shit, sleep and breathe music,” says guitarist Ian St. Pé. “It’s a lifestyle that might not be for everybody, but it is for us.”
Self-described “flower punks,” the Black Lips began with guitarist Cole Alexander, bassist Jared Swilley and drummer Joe Bradley, teens in suburban Atlanta who built a reputation for wild live shows. Original guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was killed in a vehicle collision in 2002, and St. Pé joined the band two years later, fully confident the band had what it takes to make it.
“That’s why I joined. I really feel that if you give 110 percent, there’s no reason you can’t get it,” St. Pé says. “If you have a fallback plan, you’re gonna fall back. I knew we would make it, because otherwise, we’d be back washing dishes. I don’t want to wash dishes.”
The band’s persistence is paying dividends.
“We went from trash cans to Taco Bell to Red Lobster,” says St. Pé, who bought himself a Cadillac to celebrate a bit of success in the old Sun Records style.
The band’s most-recent album, Arabia Mountain, marks the first time the Black Lips worked with an outside producer, the British songwriter, DJ and producer Mark Ronson. While it’s still at the raw end of the spectrum, Arabia Mountain is refined in comparison to the rest of the Black Lips’ albums.
“It sounds familiar but different,” St. Pé says. “It’s like with kids, you can’t pick a favorite. They all have their own special perks, special things to offer in life. But this kid is gonna be a doctor; the last kid was a garbage man.”
Ronson was on a short list of dream producers for the Black Lips that included Dr. Dre and Danger Mouse.
“We pretty much did the whole record without (a producer) like we always do, but last minute, our label wanted a producer, so we threw out big names. If we’re gonna work with somebody, we’re gonna step it up. We stepped it up big-time, three Grammys up,” St. Pé says. “It’s nice, four of us in the band all writing, and it’s nice to have a fresh set of ears listening in. He did offer some ‘try this’ suggestions, and it ended up being cool.”
The record—16 songs in 42 minutes—is, for the most part, straightforward, sweaty, raw garage music, but there’s a pop tunefulness at its core. Songs like “Family Tree,” “Time,” “Dumpster Dive” and “Bicentennial Man” combine unexpected melodic hooks with the surging guitar fuzz.
Lyrically, there’s enough straightforward content to show that the Black Lips truly write what they know. “Dumpster Dive” is an ode to the band’s beyond-broke days; “Modern Art” is about a drugged-up tour of the Dali Museum; “Mr. Driver” references the band’s wild stage show in the line “I want to bleed on my Squier;” and one song is even called “New Direction.”
Still, don’t expect a new direction and a Grammy-winning producer’s refinements to take the punches out of the Black Lips’ live experience. Even after years of shocking stage antics, the piss, puke and blood are still regular—though not guaranteed—features of the band’s shows. And if the crowd is a morbidly curious bunch out for a glimpse of infamy, so be it.
“Do I think people sometimes come out for the stage antics? Maybe. But we’ve got to get them out there. If that’s their reason for coming, they will be happily entertained by the experience,” St. Pé says. “We’re entertainers. Musicians are the people who sell us guitar strings at the store. If you want music, download that shit for free. If you want to be entertained, come to a Black Lips concert.”
The fact that the Black Lips love what they do means their audience will leave satisfied.
“We’re having an experience together. Y’all are our crew, and we’re gonna have fun,” St. Pé says. “The bottom line is every night is the first night of the rest of your life. Every night is Friday night for us. There’s no reason why the kids 30 days into a tour should experience any less than tonight’s show.”
Versions of these stories originally appeared in the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.), Charleston City Paper and Tucson Weekly.