What John Muir and Bon Iver Have in Common
Specifically: Sean Carey, the hypertalented multi-instrumentalist and Bon Iver band member whose new solo album, Range of Light, was inspired by the mountains Muir loved most.
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I caught up with Sean Carey—who performs as S. Carey—on a recent Friday afternoon, not long before he was scheduled to take off on an American tour in support of his new album, Range of Light. Though this is his second full-length record, Carey is probably best known as the drummer and back-up vocalist for Bon Iver, performing on the Grammy-winning Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and touring internationally with the group. We spoke on the phone from Carey’s woodsy Eau Claire, Wisconsin, home.
“We had this crazy storm last night, wasn’t that much snow, but it was super wet and heavy,” he tells me. “My friend had his car parked in our driveway and he moved it, because we had to get a different car out. A half hour later a branch fell where his car was—it was crazy.”
Range of Light reflects Carey’s enthusiasm for the outdoors (even when Ma Nature is throwing down violent weather). Influenced by John Muir’s journals—and especially the Sierra Nevadas—Carey says the album captures the spectrum of emotions people encounter in wild places. The musician went on to dish about the Arizona canyon that inspired him, why Australia is his favorite tour stop, and which Radiohead album best suits an outdoor excursion.
Outside: Congratulations on releasing your second album, Range of Light. It has that intriguing, ethereal quality people have come to love about your solo work and Bon Iver’s music. How do you think the album’s inspiration, John Muir and the Sierra Nevadas, informed its musical style?
Carey: Parts of the songs have an expansive quality that bring to mind being in a wide-open space, or being up on a mountain. I love ambient, ethereal music. I think it’s super beautiful, and it has this pure, blank-canvas feeling where people in different places or different scenarios can have the same feeling with the music.
Lyrically the influences are more obvious. Not all the songs are Muir-influenced, but I like writing lyrics that are pretty simple and succinct. Muir had that quality in his writing. He would describe everything around him, and he would go into detail, but his point was right in front of you. The beauty was in the simplicity.
On “Crown the Pines,” you sing “I am in love with this place / But I fear for its grace.” Would you say Range of Light is more politically environmental or spiritually appreciative?
Definitely both, but with that line it’s more political. That’s about a specific place, one that’s dear to my heart, this canyon in Arizona that I’ve gone to every summer with my family since I was a boy. It’s remote and wild, and just the thought of that place getting destroyed or populated, or even popular, makes me fearful. Any place that’s still ruggedly beautiful and off the map should be protected and cherished.
Can you tell us the name?
I’d rather not, it’s so special. It’s kind of like Voldemort: I know other people know about it, but no one talks about it.
Tell me more about travelling through the Sierra Nevadas as a kid. What took you, a Wisconsin native, there? Did you have formative outdoors experiences in other places?
My dad lives in Arizona. I lived there as a kid too, for about five years—that’s the Arizona connection. I’d go there every summer and visit him, and we’d have family reunions in California. Some years they’d be in Yosemite, sometimes they’d be at this place south of the Sierras, Huntington Lake. We’d camp on the beach down at Dana Point. We’d do that stuff every summer. Being from Wisconsin, you go out to the Sierras and places in Arizona and it’s so different. It was so inspiring as a kid, I loved it. Looking back on those experiences became an inspiration for some of these songs—but that’s not to say I didn’t have similar experiences growing up in Wisconsin, just exploring places around home.
I did a three-day backpacking trip in the Northern California’s Trinity Alps when I was about 19. That was really awesome, and pretty rugged. One of the days we ran into three different bears, which was exciting but also scary.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has also famously taken inspiration from the woods, and he performed on some of Range of Light‘s songs. Do you think your shared interest in the outdoors brought you together?
We both have very different connections to the outdoors, but it’s something that connects us. Justin’s big thing is deer hunting with his dad, and that’s something I’ve been able to do with them the past couple years. That’s really cool, but not something I grew up doing.
Your music combines jazz, classical, and Americana to create something unique. What artists influenced your sound?
Sufjan Stevens was a big influence. And jazz influenced the way I write music—Bill Evans and Paul Motian, they’re jazz artists who created a vibe and a mood in their music that’s not just blowing through chord changes at a hundred miles an hour. Brad Mehladau, too. I’m into the twentieth century classical minimalists. Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cage, and Brian Eno, even though he comes from a rock place. A lot of those minimalists focus on percussion.
How did you incorporate your classical training when making Range of Light? A review of your debut album said your music bucks “folk’s traditional emphasis on spontaneous performance in favor of a much more composerly tack”—is that accurate?
Yeah. I was always a drum set player, but a lot of my training in college [at the University of Wisconsin] was classical, marimba and vibrophone, and exploring different instruments. I like to bring in those instruments, and I also create new ones: wine glasses, wine bottles, we’ve made some things out of wood, like a big homemade wood block. Being exposed to lots of music and composers also shaped my writing.
When my friends and I go into the Sierra Nevadas, we listen to “mountain music”—Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. This record has a similar vibe. How often do you get into the outdoors when on tour—and how do you stay inspired when you’re trapped in urban spaces?
On tour it’s hard, but when we’re in a place for more than one night we’ll do fun stuff. We’ve played in Big Sur a couple times, where we have a cabin we always stay at. That’s the inspiration for one of the songs [on Range of Light], “The Dome.” When we were in Australia and New Zealand, we took day trips. For some reason whenever we go there, we’ll be there for a month and we’ll only play 12 shows—it’s genius, it’s awesome, and I don’t understand why it happens!
We got to explore Rottnest Island, off the Australian coast. I don’t think they have cars there. We just rented bikes, biked around and snorkeled. In New Zealand we did some Lord of the Rings sightseeing. We drove to an amazing place called the Pinnacles. Most of the time it’s hard, though. Sometimes the best thing is just lying in your bunk and reading a John Muir book, or something else that takes you to one of those places.
What stellar outdoor adventures have you been on recently?
When I’m home I’m constantly fly-fishing—the Eau Claire area has quite a few opportunities. It gets me outside, and I’m pretty obsessed. This winter I’ve been snowshoeing and just trying to beat the cold. My family still goes to that Arizona canyon every single summer. I always look forward to that.
You’re preparing for a long drive to the mountains with your friends, and they’ve designated you as the ride’s DJ. What do you throw on?
Probably Sigur Ros’s Talk. That will always get you pumped for some hiking. What else? Radiohead, probably In Rainbows. [laughs] I guess that isn’t that wild. It also depends on the trip—whether it’ll be chill or, “Alright, we’re doing 12 miles.”