Bon Iver Not Performing at Grammys: 'I Don't Think They Wanted Us to Play'

Bon Iver publicity 2011 P
D.L. Anderson

Justin Vernon also talks Bushmills campaign and The Avalanches feud.

NEW YORK --  Bon Iver may be up for four Grammys, and frontman Justin Vernon may even appear (digitally, anyway) in a striking new commercial for this year's ceremony -- but you won't see the indie-folk band performing at next Sunday's ceremony.

Vernon told Billboard on Thursday night that Bon Iver was asked to perform at the awards show, but as part of a performance with another artist. "We wanted to play our music, but were told that we couldn't play. We had to do a collaboration with someone else," said Vernon at a New York event supporting Bushmills whiskey, which the group began endorsing last fall. "And we just felt like it was such a large stage -- we're getting nominated for this record that we made. Me and Brian [Joseph] and a bunch of our fucking friends and we were given accolades for it, and all of a sudden we were being asked to play music that had nothing to do with that. We kind of said 'fuck you' a little bit, and they sort of acted like they wanted us to play, but I don't think they wanted us to play."

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Who exactly did the Grammys want Bon Iver to play with? "Awesome people. People that I would love to play a song with," Vernon said. "But you know what? Fuckin' rock n' roll should not be decided by people that have that job. Rock n' roll should be the fucking people with guitars around their backs." He gestured to Joseph and his co-managers, Kyle Frenette and brother Nate Vernon. "And their friends. And their managers."

Of course, this isn't the first time Vernon has had a few choice words about the Grammys. But despite all the disagreements, Vernon is happy to be featured in the current Grammy campaign from ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day. "We had to deal with all this shit, we wanted to get a promo out of the deal," Vernon said. "Go ahead, pay for our commercial. There's a big misunderstanding -- I don't want to sell music. But if people are going to be selling music, and they want to sell our music without disturbing the medium of what it actually is, we want to fucking do that. I want people to hear the music that we make, I don't want to do it in any shitty way."

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The band takes a similar approach to its ads with Bushmills, whose "Since Way Back" campaign also included Chromeo, Theophilus London and Elijah Wood. "To be honest with you, man, it was more about people working in the field of advertising that weren't assholes," Vernon said of Bushmills, which is owned by Diageo and repped by music marketing agency Cornerstone. "It's interesting, being part of Bon Iver, it's like a band that started out as nothing and became something and in the process seeing how quickly to become that something has merit… And for something like Bushmills, it's been around for 400 years and has traversed centuries of alcohol laws and lobbyists and global corporate whatever."

Yvonne Briese, vp brand marketing for Diageo's whisky brands, said Bushmills has seen an "uptick" in awareness and even sales since the Bon Iver campaign rolled out, noting that the band is much like the whiskey itself. "There's not for everybody's taste profile, they're unique and discerning."

The awareness part of the uptick likely came in December when Australian electronic act The Avalanches sparked a Twitter debate with Vernon over what they termed "endor$ing a product with proven devastating health risks." Vernon insists there's no bad blood. "I would've said the same shit," he said. "That's the only fucking thing pissed me off over that whole thing is that a whole bunch of people tried to make it out to be like it was a thing. But hey, people are just trying to get shit off their breastplate you know what I mean?"