On Sunday night, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, a guy who admitted he was uncomfortable with the idea of a Grammy Award, stood up before an audience of 39 million and picked up two of them — enough to throttle Lady Gaga (who won none) and start two Internet memes ("Who's Bonny Bear?" and "Sweet hookup"). SPIN rode along with the Best New Artist all weekend, and after the ceremony, we spoke with him exclusively about his pre-show anxiety, his Grammy gripes, and the band's future.
How would you compare the way you feel now with how you felt yesterday morning or a week ago?
I feel like I know now, I know what it's like. Whatever concerns or discomforts I have about the Grammys don't matter. Not that I should shut up about them, but just because one group of people is having an awards ceremony that they think is the center of the universe for one night… I know what I know and I feel what I feel, but it just doesn't matter. For the time I was there, I just enjoyed it. Ed Droste wrote me a note that said, "Hey man, go win one for the indies." I may not know what he means by "the indies." We could sit down and make a ten-point definition of what the indies are; we may not agree on every one on of them. But he's a friend and he's saying, "We're with you." You can't deny the fact that the Grammys have a historical significance as far as the industry staying above water. But that doesn't budge some of my personal concerns about it being too self-important. I was happy to win and I was thinking of Ed.
How much do those discomforts feel justified after the fact, though?
I think I had more fun that I thought I would. I think the music was a lot better than I thought it would be. Plenty of things proved my concerns, like people just not playing music. Chris Brown was pure playback. A few other people were just playback. And that's hard to swallow. There were only ten awards given last night. Overall, it is what it is and I had a good time, and now that's it over I realize that I got pretty bent out of shape about it. But I was proud to win. I was happy to. But I still think the whole thing is inherently flawed. Getting an award for music? Like I said in the speech, I was uncomfortable.
What do you remember about your speech?
I was fucking with it all day. Five minutes before I went up there, I was looking at it and I said to myself, "I'm not going to say that." It wasn't the right place or time, but I cut out the part that said, "It's hard to accept this award because of all the talent out there, but also because Bon Iver is an entity and something that I gave myself to. A lot of people give themselves to it, so it's hard to think of Bon Iver as an artist. Bon Iver is not an artist. Bon Iver is an idea."
Why cut that?
I thought it would be confusing and too self-referential.
Your speech felt like a bit of a balancing act.
I was obliged to be grateful because a bunch of people were supporting me. But it's both, as they say in Milwaukee: It's bad and good. I said "sorry" because I kept looking at my notes.
But that said, what do you think separates what you do from what a lot of the people you were seated with represent?
I realized last night, "I'm not the only different one in here." Everyone is different from each other. Nobody has any idea how different we all are. Clearly people saw the name Bon Iver on the screen last night and will never hear the music. Some people saw the name and made an opinion without having heard the music. You can't calculate all that shit, so it weirdly puts it in perspective for you: All you really can do is play guitar and write a song. Paul McCartney is up there and the guy has to love what he does and he obviously has to be happy with the other parts of his life, otherwise I don't think he'd be having half as much fun up there. If he didn't have harmony, he wouldn't be up there. He would have been swallowed up by all of this. I think it's pretty clear by the look on that guy's face that he didn't see that room as the center of the universe last night. He's been around long enough to be comfortable up on that stage, to know that there's more out there. That was my favorite: a 70-year-old guy, playing guitar. It's people doing what they were born to do. And you know, if it wasn't the Grammys, it'd be something else. Can you imagine a Pitchfork Awards? That'd be worse.
Well, it'd be the same kind of problems. It's not that the Grammys are evil, they've just been around the longest.
As a nominee and a winner of an award, you become a serious representative for that world.
I think Pitchfork probably wanted me to go up there and raise hell. Because then they get to look like the entity that helped fuel the fire that changed the industry. But all that is them funneling readers to their website.