“I spend a lot of time in the woods, in the streams, walking, sitting, casting, thinking, observing,” Wisconsin native Sean Carey reflectss on his blog. “It’s a good way to put your life into scope. You never know what you’re going to find.”
Most of Carey’s posts on the site attempt to capture the simple wonders he’s found so far: snapshots of emerald pines and fall’s russet foliage, snow dipped landscapes, pristine creeks and their brown trout. Their captions are short – often a few words – but his affection is clear: Right where I need to be. Can’t complain. I seek out these places.
Occasionally, there’s mention of a tour or a video or a new song, and you’re reminded that Carey is a musician by trade – a classically trained percussionist; a core contributor to Bon Iver; a solo artist turned band leader of the almost eponymous S. Carey. But a clear line between the two passions is all but nonexistent. There’s a dialogue between the two, and Carey’s latest full-length, Range of Light, finds him the closest he’s come to full communion with the outdoors – a lyrical and sonic depiction of seraphic landscapes and the memories cast within them. Its title is borrowed from turn of the century naturalist John Muir, who used the phrase to describe the Sierra Mountains. For Carey, it means that and more. Range of Light is something that exists on a scale both grand and intimate.
The record was made at April Base Studios, the former Fall Creek veterinarian clinic that Justin Vernon refashioned a recording space. Vernon and Carey’s relationship stretches back to 2007, when Carey, recently a college graduate, joined the Bon Iver frontman in translating For Emma, Forever Ago to a live setting. He’s has been a member of Bon Iver since, coloring the band’s arrangements with his percussive acumen and soft tenor, live and in studio. Vernon repaid the favor on Range of Light, contributing background vocals – more texture than anything else – to Carey’s songs. He wasn’t alone in lending a hand: While Carey’s debut, 2010’s We All Grow, was assembled from a patchwork of sessions, Range of Light is the product of a more a concerted band effort, aided by the members of S. Carey’s touring ensemble. It’s something you hear immediately in it’s lush, full – but never overbusy – compositions.
Carey was in Austin when I reached him earlier this week, fresh off fueling up on tacos. He’s traveling with four bandmates and an arsenal of instruments. “We all have a bunch of stuff. It’s on the elaborate side,” he says, laughing. “But one of the most exciting parts is when you’re trying to figure out what everyone is going to play.”
What was your relationship with nature growing up?
It’s always been a huge part of my life. I grew up in a family that went camping a lot. We went hiking and walking and fishing. It’s kind of my favorite thing to do.
With some of the songs [on Range of Light], I just embraced my passion for things like that and started writing about it. I can relate very easily to my environment and things that I find beautiful. I think about them lyrically, and when I’m making soundscapes. It’s something that comes really natural to me. I’m not forcing anything – those are just the themes that I’m choosing to write about right now.
How would you describe the Wisconsin landscape?
Parts of it are like Pennsylvania, but not as hilly – not as dramatic. It has a similar feel in the western part of Wisconsin, where it is hilly and there are valley and streams. In the north is the North Woods, which is more like Maine. The southern part is really flat. Wisconsin has these few different areas.
I think it’s really green. It’s a really lush place. It’s a good mix of agriculture and also a lot of woods still. There are a lot of lakes and streams that are pretty pure.
Has photography been a longstanding interest of yours?
It’s been an interest of mine for quite a while. I’ve never had awesome gear or anything. I got my first digital camera probably ten years ago, and that’s when I started to take it a little bit more seriously. Or at least I started to take my camera with me when I went places and look for things to shoot. It changed things a bunch because you could take as many pictures as you want. [Laughs] Before that, I would always just get disposal cameras, which can be really cool too, but you have to be more frugal with your pictures.
How did you settle on the nod to John Muir with the record’s title?
It happened once the songs started to form together as a bigger thing. I had come across the phrase a while ago and the phrase it been in the back of mind, but I started to think about it as something that encompassed this whole group of songs. There’s this range of light and dark imagery in the songs. Some of the memories are really, really great, and some aren’t that great. I thought that “Range of Light” was a great metaphor that said it all. And I like simple titles. And it fit some of the locations of the song – the ones that take place in California and Arizona.
What sort of memories are those?
Some of the songs are me looking back at things in my childhood that were really amazing and some that were hard. Some of the songs I wrote while thinking about those feelings and looking back on the memories. Some of the songs were more recent, though.
Have you always sang?
Yeah, I’ve always sang, although not really in public all that much. I guess that I was in choir as a little kid, but as soon as I started playing drums, I was like, “I’m not singing anymore! I’m just a drummer!” In high school, I played in a couple of bands and sang, but it was more of a side thing.
But ever since I started playing in Bon Iver, I’ve really been developing my voice and my own sound. I’ve been treating it like an instrument – you have to practice and you have own what you’re doing with it. Justin is definitely a huge influence on me, because he’s amazing with his voice. He uses it tons of different ways – falsetto and super low. His range is three times my range on both ends! [Laughs] It’s pretty inspiring. And his stuff with Volcano Choir is totally different, because he’s using his full voice more and singing loudly. He’s pretty nuts.
I guess that I’m still working on my own voice. I’m still developing things.
What was the experience of recording this album at April Base Studios like?
Going into a studio with your best friends and making music is one of the most fun things that you can do. Much more than the first record, they was pretty involved the whole time, which was rewarding for everyone. And it was really good for me to have some outside ears on the songs. It ended up taking the song to different places.
April Base is kind of like a second home to all of us. We feel very comfortable there. It’s somewhere that we can be very creative. We can be ourselves. It was definitely pretty awesome.
Are there things you’ve taken from your years in Bon Iver that you apply to S. Carey?
I’ve picked up a lot. I’m always sponging different things. I’ve definitely realized how much I’m influenced by Bon Iver and Justin’s writing, and also playing in the live band and seeing so many other bands, especially at the beginning of Bon Iver’s touring, when I was really naïve. That’s when I was exposed to this whole new world. That was a big influence on me musically, and it’s given me confidence to pursue my own thing.
How were you naïve?
I was fresh out of college. My world had been a university in a small town in Wisconsin. I was very into jazz music and classical. To suddenly be on the road was just like, “Whoa, this is a totally different thing.” I saw all of these bands that I had never even heard of. Taking it all in was crazy.
Does your training in percussion inform your approach to song composition?
Absolutely. The composers that I’m drawn to write a lot for percussion. It affects everything. It affects what instruments you can use when you’re composing for percussion, and how you apply them in this folk-rock pop music setting. Incorporating a plethora of percussion instruments is something that I’m always striving to do. It goes as far as our making our own instruments. We’ve made shakers. We made this thing called a Lester Log, which is, like, a big woodblock – my friend Ben Lester designed it. We made this little vibraphonette, which is basically a mini-vibraphone that lets you sub out different bars so that you’re not traveling with a huge vibraphone.
My background definitely effects my writing, and the instruments that I can play, and what sort of sounds that I seek out.
There’s some other unusual textures on the record in addition to what you mentioned – spoons and bottles and what feels like found sound. What is it about alternative percussion that appeals to you?
It makes the music more unique than listening to a rock band that’s just guitar-bass-drums. That type of creativity interest me a lot – using what’s around us to make different textures. When those things combine with real instruments, it’s a cool mixture on the ears.
Are there other bands or acts that you think do this especially well?
Bjork is where we got a lot of our ideas. She works with people who are into really cool, weird stuff. [Laughs] There’s no limit to the creativity of the producers that she works with. Even in her live show, she’s incorporating a bunch of different instruments. It’s just cutting edge stuff.
A lot of new music that’s coming out is exploring that same stuff. People are getting more and more creative with instruments and textures. It’s permeating popular music.