Bon Iver's Justin Vernon Launches Label Named After 'Northern Exposure' Character (Q&A)
Says the Grammy winner of Chigliak Records' mission to unearth lost and little-known recording treasures: "It's meant to pay for itself ... But honestly, I don’t care if it doesn’t."
The inspiration behind Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s new label Chigliak Records is a noble one: to bring to the world long lost treasures that never saw commercial release (let alone success) in hopes of exposing these recordings to a new audience. But this righteous mission should really come as no surprise. After all, Vernon hasn’t exactly been shy about condemning the toils of popular music and the industry that supports it. Even as he accepted two Grammy Awards this past February, the Wisconsin-bred Vernon made particular note of thanking the talent that wasn’t recognized by the Recording Academy -- and likely never will be.
But whether making music or trouble, talking about the unappreciated and doing something about it are two realities that rarely collide and what we see now is an inspired man in action. With the May 22 re-release of the Eau Claire, Minneapolis, electronic pop quartet Amateur Love’s It’s All Aquatic, Chigliak is up and running while Vernon and his partner Josh Sundquist have also announced future releases by Minneapolis indie-rockers 12 Rods and the Nashville singer-songwriter Sarah Siskind, whose song “Lovin’s For Fools” is a favorite of Bon Iver’s concert set lists. The label has also announced that they’ll consider requests of other lost musical gems.
“We at Chigliak believe the records we choose to put out are very deeply special and deserve to be in the homes of listeners who may not subscribe to the notion that life changing music is both popular and current,” the label posted when it announced its plans last September.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Vernon about the inspiration behind this latest career turn.
The Hollywood Reporter: You got the label’s name from Ed Chigliak of Northern Exposure, right? What is it about that character that made him title-worthy?
Justin Vernon: Yes, sir. Honestly, before I settled on a name for the Bon Iver project in general, Chigliak was in the running for what I was going to name the band, just because I love him so much. He’s my favorite in the pantheon of characters in the history of the world. So I was, like, ‘Well, that’s the best name for the label.’ He just represents the best of art. In the show, he’s penpals with Martin Scorsese, he’s a big film buff and he’s sort of a representation of what we’re trying to do at the label: like good music that may not be box office-smashing. We want to try to spread some of the music that maybe didn’t get out enough the first time around.
THR: How long have you wanted to start a label like this?
Vernon: Basically as soon as I started working with Jagjaguwar and they said that would be an option, I immediately started thinking of unique record label situations. We’re putting out records where some of the bands are defunct, some of the bands haven’t even played a show in ten years, and I just thought that was an interesting way to look at it: Just take regional records that perhaps hundreds of people were into and you’d think that if those hundreds of people were into that music, hundreds of more people would be into it as well. But it’s sort of a venture in this way of sharing music that hasn’t exactly happened, especially in indie music. Indie music likes to think that it’s all grassroots but it’s really the same as the marketing and everything of major music, just a little bit lighter.
THR: So is there any sort of relief in working with defunct bands, material that’s sort of in postmortem as opposed to it being active and alive at the movement?
Vernon: We’re just doing it to fund itself and there’s a ton of relief, especially with the way records cycle -- interviews and all this stuff that happens for bands, they sometimes ruin this shit. I participate in it, too. I want to do my job well but it takes a little bit of that natural mystery and lets people be not as fixated on the fashion of music, it allows them to just hear it.
THR: Let’s talk about this Amateur Love album. They’re from your hometown, what’s your relationship with the band?
Vernon: It’s a really deep personal history for me. My best friends growing up, with whom I played in a band in for over 10 years, we were going to school in Eau Claire, playing together and being in college, and during that time we met some boys from Rochester who’d come down to Eau Claire and they started a side-band. It was a little tough for me because they ended up becoming the best band in town and I knew it. It was basically the same drummer, bass player and keyboard player in my band as this band. We all lived in the same house, shared a practice space, Josh [Scott] just became better at writing songs and their music was really cool. It was a little tough to swallow but at the same time, they were the best band that I’d ever seen. So that’s my personal history with it. They also broke apart and stopped playing when my band moved to North Carolina. And so there’s this weird, wrapped-up thing that’s impossible for me to ignore. But what’s interesting is that there’s this deep personal connection for me, but every time I play the music for somebody, and I don’t tell them the story, there’s this instant connection that they feel with it.
THR: How many copies did you press of the album?
Vernon: We made 1,000 LPs.
THR: And do you have any sense of what the response has been?
Vernon: We definitely sold a few hundred in the first week, nationwide. And, oh man, it made me so happy. Two hundred people who have never heard that shit, or whatever, it’s pretty exciting.
THR: Is it more gratifying to have a fairly small-scale release sell 200 records than selling tens of thousands, as Bon Iver has?
Vernon: That’s exactly what it is. I mean, I don’t harbor any illusions about Bon Iver selling a million records. It means something to me but at the same time, it doesn’t. There’s only so much that you can hold onto or understand. Like, whether you’re playing a venue of 4,000 people or 6,000, it’s a giant difference right? But my brain doesn’t get in there and understand the difference. And I think these records that Chigliak’s going to put out, they’re made for groups of people. For lack of a better word, cliques -- people who know each other and grow with each other and their friends throughout decades and shit. You know what I mean? Communities.
THR: So you’ve asked people to send in their own hidden treasures, have you received any suggestions that you’re particularly excited about?
Vernon: I have a big pile at home, and I’ve been on tour so I haven’t listened to any. I plan on digging in. We have the next three or four records planned out and it’s not like we’re going to put records out every month. We may do three or four a year.
THR: You’ve said that 12 Rods and Sarah Siskind will be your next releases. Which records of theirs are you planning to release?
Vernon: The last 12 Rods record, Lost Time. And Covered by Sarah Siskind, that’s the plan. There’s no contracts signed yet but we’ve talked to everyone and it seems cool. I know the 12 Rods just because of the Minneapolis connection. Dave King played in that Lost Time record of theirs and he also plays in Happy Apple, which is close to Bon Iver. There’s just a large Minneapolis connection through me to that. Sarah Siskind, I just discovered through music, I’m a huge fan of her songwriting and we ended up meeting Nashville at some point.
THR: And she’s still active, right?
Vernon: She’s definitely still active.
THR: And those will be out this year?
Vernon: Yeah. Well, maybe not this year. We’re trying to get Sarah out by the end of the year but that could be just sometime in the winter.
THR: Who’s working on the label with you? I know Jagjaguar is helping but what do the business operations look like?
Vernon: It’s just Josh [Sundquist] and I -- we run it together. Basically, he’s operations, Jag is distribution and I’m A&R, I guess you could say.
THR: Will the label pursue licensing or other commercial avenues aside from sales?
Vernon: Not as of yet. We would definitely invite them. It would be good for the artists we gave them some sort of new exposure, but we’re not actively looking to do that right now.
THR: Why take on this label head position where you’re having to look at sales and figures? You’re an artist, do you need the stress of working the industry from the business side?
Vernon: Well, this is different. I think if I were starting another label and trying to actually launch new bands and look at numbers and figures, I’d agree with you, in a sense. But Chigliak is meant to pay for itself, if we’re lucky. But honestly, I don’t care if it doesn’t. I want to do it that bad. I just want it to happen. Being in a band like Bon Iver, I’m a small business owner. There are things you have to know and learn about and become better at. But Chigliak’s different. Chigliak’s about just getting the music out there.