Back in 2007, after hearing Justin Vernon’s soon-to-be-acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon’s fellow Eau Claire musician Sean Carey hunkered down in his bedroom and learned the entire album, top to bottom. When Carey opened for the newly formed Bon Iver that same year, he approached Vernon and demonstrated his rather unnerving knowledge of his songs. Vernon was impressed, and hired Carey as his drummer on the spot. These days, Sean Carey—under the moniker S. Carey—is busy supporting his own album, the appropriately fragile, hushed, and layered All We Grow. In advance of his appearance at Johnny Brenda's Thursday, June 23 with David Bazan, The A.V. Club spoke to Carey about Eau Claire, Wisconsin; his “academic” approach to getting a steady gig; and the long, not entirely unwelcome, shadow of Bon Iver.
The A.V. Club: Your approach to getting a job with Bon Iver was unique. What made you take that route?
Sean Carey: In college, we had this famous piano player from Eau Claire named Geoff Keezer, and he was telling us about how he got into Ray Brown’s band by doing something similar. He learned all of Ray Brown’s arrangements, all his songs, his whole catalog. We talked about that in the jazz program as something really cool to do—picking your favorite artist and learning all their stuff. I guess it was an academic approach.
The timing just worked out really well with Justin. He had all his songs posted on Myspace, which was kind of weird. [Laughs.] But it worked out really well. I spent two weeks and dissected all the songs—worked on the percussion parts, the singing, the harmonies, the lyrics. At his first show, I was playing in a band that was opening for him, and I told him that I had learned all his stuff. He was kind of taken aback. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have there been any copycats coming up to you, looking for a gig?
SC: [Laughs.] Not to that degree, but there have been a couple of people who have said similar things.
AVC: All We Grow was written over a two-year period. What was the impetus for putting together your own album?
SC: Being on the road a lot, I just needed a creative outlet, and I had some songs that I wanted to record. It didn’t start off as anything planned, but I think I eventually gained the confidence to actually record some stuff. I had done some songwriting before, but I never really had the belief in myself that I could record, do a good job, and possibly put it out.
AVC: Have there been any differences between touring on your own and touring with Bon Iver?
SC: A lot of it was going back to the beginning. There were a lot of memories that were brought back up from our first tour. Recently, with Bon Iver, we were playing really big venues and were treated really well. But now I sort of have to go back to the beginning and start all over. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s also pretty great because there’s this really fresh energy. The crowds have never heard you play live before, so there’s an anticipation and energy that’s really cool.
AVC: Has it been hard to carve out your own niche? Is being known primarily as a sideman something that bothers you?
SC: It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m really proud to have that title, and have that experience. I guess if it’s 20 years from now and it’s still, “The guy who used to play drums for Bon Iver—” [Laughs.] That might get a little old.