It's nearly 4 a.m. in the Milwaukee casino Potawatomi, and the roulette wheel isn't cooperating. Justin Vernon, the lead singer of the band Bon Iver, is in his second stack of chips totaling $200, and this set, played with smooth teal tokens, appears to be going no better than the last. The ball tumbles and pauses just past his chosen numbers, often skipping his splits entirely.
The dark-headed, uniformed man controlling the table is polite but also diligent. He appears permanently slumped from staring at the wheel and the board day and night, like a Lamarckian cave dweller whose body has bent to its function. When the ball stops, he calls out the winning number, looks at the board and takes the losing bets into his possession.
The slot machines and video games fill the room with a near-psychotropic hum. Cigarette smoke moves in great, unseen clouds. When Vernon asks for a Budweiser, a cocktail waitress says that they're done serving beer for tonight and instead offers him a Pepsi in a paper cup. He doesn't protest like a celebrity might, or tell her the truth—that, by proclamation of the Mayor of Milwaukee, today is Bon Iver Day in the city. That he's just sold out the first show of one of the summer's biggest tours a mile away and that he'll do the same tomorrow night. That he just debuted a nine-piece band as sharp as any outfit in the country, that he sold more than 100,000 records of his second album in only one week last month, that he's friends with Kanye West, and that (Brett Favre and Scott Walker possibly excepted) he's probably Wisconsin's most recognizable celebrity.
Rather, wearing a black Bon Iver shirt, red chino shorts and a dirty blonde beard that juts abruptly from his jawline, Vernon, now 30, looks just like any other post-grad looking for late-night fun. He just scratches his head and grabs a Pepsi as the man with the slumped shoulders calls out another wrong number. Vernon's stack is disappearing.
"Oh, well," he says, leaning heavily against the far end of the table. "I was up $800 the other night."
Vernon's entire party seems to be down right now. Matt McCaughan, one of Bon Iver's two drummers, is playing for small stakes, pulling just $40 from his wallet and steering clear of the cash machine. His chips quickly disappear. Like Vernon, Darius Van Arman, who founded the record label Jagjaguwar in Virginia 15 years ago, is playing large and losing large, too. Kevin Duneman, one of Jagjaguwar's employees, stands behind everyone else, agreeing that roulette seems like a good way to lose a lot of money very quickly.
Vernon hears Duneman's doubt and, after asking for a few lucky numbers, offers a morsel of encouragement: "You've got to keep playing for a while," he says, turning from the wheel to Duneman and back to the wheel, "and eventually something crazy might happen."
Sure enough, it does: Van Arman is the first to have luck with the once-unmerciful wheel. He lands a series of successes—21, 22, 3 and 14, in particular—and Vernon starts following his lead. The bank rebuilds. Every few turns, the man with the slouched shoulders asks his boss to exchange a stack of 50 chips for a $100 piece, so that Van Arman and Vernon's piles don't spill over the sides of the table. Van Arman hands some chips to Duneman, who now obliges the invitation to join at no risk. He soon pays Van Arman back and starts making his own money.
It's now nearly 4:30 a.m. Everyone is sitting instead of standing. But high fives and smiles are abundant; they are finally winning.
Less than five years ago, Vernon wasn't really winning at all. He was living in Raleigh, in a little duplex off Wade Avenue that sat in a wooded lot along Fairall Drive. His college band, DeYarmond Edison, had moved from their hometown of Eau Claire, Wis., to Raleigh in August 2005, looking for a change of pace that would spur their creativity. In Eau Claire, they were hometown heroes, a band of brothers and best friends who played (as Vernon put it the first time I ever interviewed him, in 2005) rock with "a certain kind of tenderness."
They did well in the Midwest, but they wanted to test their songs for new audiences with different expectations. They visited the Triangle once and later found a house on Craigslist. That summer, eight of them—four band members, three girlfriends and an old pal named Keil Jansen—made the move to a big white house at 2209 Everett Ave., across from the city's first shopping center, Cameron Village.
In Raleigh, DeYarmond Edison feverishly evolved. Not only had the band started to cultivate an allegiant local following, but they were also pushing their artistic limits well beyond the earnest folk-rock of Silent Signs, the album they had made just before moving south. Shows suddenly incorporated growling, textured drones and extreme dynamics in volume. During a very quiet passage at an early show at Raleigh's Kings Barcade, a bartender actually turned on the house music, thinking the set had ended; the band asked that he turn it off, and continued playing.
A month later, DeYarmond Edison began a four-show residency at the multimedia space Bickett Gallery. Their stated goal was to expand the reach and techniques of the band by assigning each member an area of expertise to research. They would then develop a repertoire based on what each member had learned. Drummer Joe Westerlund explored free improvisation, while keyboardist Phil Cook mined early American string band music that DeYarmond Edison could reinterpret. His younger brother, Brad Cook, started writing homages to experimental 20th-century composers, while Vernon made a simple request: Everyone in the band should just sing, without reservations. For the first time, he even tried to use a voice that wasn't his comfortable, rustic baritone. In a haunted falsetto that was as uncertain as it was beautiful, he delivered Mahalia Jackson's version of the spiritual "A Satisfied Mind."
In retrospect, the residency pushed the band to the breaking point, exposing the dichotomies within the members' respective musical tastes too much to remain functional. Vernon soon recorded a solo EP, Hazeltons, releasing it by himself in an edition of 100 homemade CD-Rs.
One subsequent Sunday afternoon, the band was rehearsing at Vernon's house on Fairall. He'd been sick—feverish, tired and a little grouchy, symptoms one doctor thought might be Lyme disease. During a group improvisation, Brad Cook, his best friend since they'd met in summer camp as kids, noticed that Vernon didn't seem to care, that he seemed to be checking out. Vernon couldn't deny it.
"The Bickett residency, ironically, was the most I've ever learned about music and simultaneously the reason we started to break apart. We realized there were so many things we'd never explored as musicians," Vernon told me earlier this year. "I had this intense friendship with all these guys, and it was like we had gotten divorced. We made all these life commitments to each other. I couldn't imagine going through something deeper."
But DeYarmond Edison's dissolution wasn't Vernon's only problem in Raleigh. Rather than Lyme disease, he suffered from mononucleosis of the liver. He had given up his job at the restaurant The Rockford, so he was broke, too. He wasn't speaking to his best friends and bandmates of the last decade, and he had just broken up with his girlfriend, Christy Smith, who remained his roommate in the duplex. He wrote songs that were fueled by the break-up, including Bon Iver's hallmark "Skinny Love," and played them for Smith in the duplex. It was, as they both remember, awkward if bittersweet.
Vernon had never really loved North Carolina, something he confessed every time he returned from a DeYarmond Edison tour in the Midwest. But now he had a gambling problem and no money, some songs and no band. He was ready to go back to Wisconsin. As a press release posted on DeYarmond Edison's MySpace page said, "Justin will temporarily/ indefinitely be heading back west, recording and performing as himself. I am sure there will be new recordings from him in no time."
Before Vernon could leave, Ivan Howard of The Rosebuds introduced himself at the first show by Megafaun, the trio that the Cooks and Westerlund formed immediately after DeYarmond Edison broke up. Howard knew that Vernon had recorded bands for years, and he also knew that The Rosebuds' third album, Night of the Furies, was at a standstill after two producers. They needed help. Vernon spent the next two months in and out of The Rosebuds' small brick home across town, helping them to finish the album not just as a producer but as a collaborative band member. Suddenly, he had a new outlet. The Rosebuds' Kelly Crisp remembers it as a sort of artistic live-in, where everyone in the house would do everything together, from eating crepes to watching Freaks and Geeks. When someone had an idea, he or she would just head to the next room.
"It was a really inspiring time for us, and the record we were making felt maybe secondary to how much fun we were having together," she says. "Whatever the spirit of creativity was, it was so strong that I don't think it left him when he left us for Wisconsin. It didn't leave us, at least."
Echoes Howard: "A lot of our music isn't based on theories or chords. It's based on a feeling. I think maybe that rubbed off [on Justin]."
Vernon finally retreated to northern Wisconsin at the start of the winter. He lived alone in his family's cabin in the woods, a tale that's basically become folklore. He worked some on the property, clearing brush and piling lumber, but mostly he just recorded the sound of his spiritual and mental escape. Many of these songs had been written in Raleigh, but the performances were raw, unflinching, urgent examinations from someone who had a lot of reckoning to do.
"re: Stacks" was a reference to his gambling, while the bulk of the songs talked about his breakup with Smith and his old Wisconsin girlfriend, Sara Emma Jensen. DeYarmond Edison had been shifting toward more cerebral territory that, years later, came to the fore on Megafaun's first two albums. But these performances, as Pitchfork scribe Stephen M. Deusner later noted, were all "emotional exorcism," sung in that brittle falsetto he'd first tried at Bickett Gallery.
Within a year of Vernon's departure from Raleigh, The New York Times, Pitchfork and innumerable music blogs had heaped praise on what he eventually called For Emma, Forever Ago. Booking agents, managers, record labels, publishers and lawyers were flying to Eau Claire, sending him contracts, asking for his attention. He kept playing for a while; finally, he looked to be winning.