For a city of its size (just under 100,000 in 2008), Eau Claire, Wisconsin sure produces a lot of talented and successful musicians. Members of Solid Gold, Megafaun, Laarks, and at least a third of the Gayngs lineup have spent their childhood and/or college years in Eau Claire. It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s something special in the water. S. Carey‘s debut album All We Grow, released this week on Jagjaguwar, only adds to the Eau Claire mystique. It’s a gorgeously layered album that evokes the spacious but rich soundscapes produced by bands like Sigur Rós and, of course, Bon Iver, the Eau-Claire-based band Sean Carey is a member of.
Carey is a classically-trained percussionist who has been on the road with Bon Iver for the past couple of years. He recorded this album on tour breaks, inspired by the music he heard on the road. On the eve of his record release I spoke with Carey about the album, his upcoming tour with The Tallest Man On Earth, and his record release show at the Southern Theater this Friday.
Congratulations on the new album coming out tomorrow. Have you been busy rehearsing?
Thanks. Yeah, we’ve been busy with rehearsal. It kind of feels like the album’s out already because it’s been up streaming on the NPR Music site and through Jagjaguwar.
I’m going to be interested to see how you perform the album live, with all its layers. How many people and instruments are going to be onstage?
For the tour it’s going to be four of us. I’ll be on keyboard and percussion with a little guitar too. Nick Ball will be playing electric guitar and doing a lot of the soundscapy stuff. Jeremy Boettcher is playing upright bass, and Zach Hanson is doing percussion and vibes. For the CD release we’ll be doing something a little more special. Mike Noyce of Bon Iver will be playing viola, and my sister is going to sing on a few songs. Even with just the four of us I think we’re going to capture the songs, and be able to convey when they’re sparse and when they’re full. But if I could take 67 people on the road I totally would. [laughs]
Playing with Bon Iver must have helped you learn how to translate a complex album sound to live performance.
Definitely. You have to separate yourself from the record, and think about the character and essence of what’s going on. If people are saying, “Oh, he didn’t play that part,” they’re obviously missing the point of the music.
How did you assemble the band for this tour?
Jeremy played on the record quite a bit, so that was a natural choice. Nick and I grew up together and have been playing music together since third grade, though we were never in a band [together] as adults. He’s a musician who you want in your band, on your side, ’cause he can kind of do anything, and our voices work really well together. I went out on a limb with Zach Hanson, who plays bass with the Laarks and was recommended to me by a couple people. After the first practice it was clear we definitely wanted him in the band.
Is there an instrument or instruments that feel the most natural to you, or that you enjoy playing the most?
Percussion is what I’ve spent the most time on, especially the drum set. I also like the piano, vibes, marimba…I play a little guitar, but all the other guys in the band are probably better guitar players than me. [laughs]
How did this album come about? Was it inspired by what you were playing and listening to on the road with Bon Iver, or did it take root before then?
It was definitely inspired by music I heard on the road. Justin Vernon’s music was inspiring, and we toured and played festivals with a lot of amazing bands: Bowerbirds, Dirty Projectors, Tallest Man On Earth, Grizzly Bear, Wilco. I didn’t go after all those sounds, but those sounds inspired me to create something. I saw them do it, and saw that it was feasible. That was a huge part of it. Once I had that confidence and drive, the songs just kind of happened. Before I started touring with Bon Iver, I had no idea who a lot of those bands were, and then you get in the scene and start learning about all of it. When Justin and Mike and I first went on the road, we listened to all sorts of songs. We all came from different musical places. The iPod would go around and we’d play different things, and I heard a lot of new music that way.
I know you’ve toured with Kristian Mattson—a.k.a. The Tallest Man On Earth—before. He’s an amazing performer, with such an intense stage presence. What’s it like to tour with him, and what do you expect this jaunt on the road to be like?
He’s the most humble, nicest person ever; very soft-spoken. And he gets out on stage and produces such a big sound for how little and humble he is; amazing and so cool. I think our music will complement each other. As you said, he’s really intense. My music is intense in a much different way; really subtle. I think it’s going to be the calm before the storm of Tallest Man On Earth. Our sound will be big with the band, and then he’ll have just as big of a sound even though it’s just him.
What kinds of things do you like to do while you’re on the road?
I like to run and swim. I try to be pretty active on tour.
Exercise? That’s not very rock and roll.
[laughs] No, I guess not. Well, it’s the new wave. I like to go to art museums and see jazz. I saw Paul Motian play in New York. That was really cool because he’s kind of a hero of mine.
I saw something about how you like to go to Fat Kid Wednesdays in the Clown Lounge at the Turf Club. Are the Twin Cities your base now?
No, I live in Eau Claire, but since Bon Iver hasn’t been on tour since October, I’ve had the chance to get to know more of the Twin Cities jazz scene. I play at the Clown Lounge once every couple of months. That’s a really awesome venue. I’ve gotten to know those guys; so inspiring as musicians.
What other places do you like to go to listen to live music in the Twin Cities, and who are some of your favorite local bands to see?
I love the Pines. I think the Pines are amazing. I think the Cedar is really cool, and I like the Varsity. Café Maude is a place I’ve played and been to quite a bit.