Drinkin' and Cussin' (from left:) Kyle Frenette, Nate Vernon, Brian Joseph, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver at Bushmills Irish Whiskey's "Since Way Back" event on Feb. 2. (Photo: Diana Levine)
Bon Iver may be up for four Grammys, and frontman Justin Vernon may even appear (digitally, anyway) in a striking new commercial for this year's ceremony - but you won't see the band performing next Sunday.
"We wanted to play our music, but were told that we couldn't play. We had to do a collaboration with someone else," Vernon told Billboard Thursday night at a New York event for Bushmills whiskey, which the band endorsed last fall (more on that later.) "And we just felt like it was such a large stage, we're getting nominated for this record that we made. Me and Brian [Joseph] and a bunch of our fucking friends and we were given accolades for it, and all of a sudden we were being asked to play music that had nothing to do with that. We kind of said 'fuck you' a little bit and they sort of acted like they wanted us to play, but I don't think they wanted us to play."
Who exactly did the Grammys want Bon Iver to play with? "Awesome people. People that I would love to play a song with," Vernon said. "But you know what? Fuckin' rock n' roll should not be decided by people that have that job. Rock n' roll should be the fucking people with guitars around their backs." He gestured to Joseph and his co-managers, Kyle Frenette and brother Nate Vernon. "And their friends. And their managers."
This of course isn't the first time Vernon has had a few choice words about the Grammys. But despite all the disagreements, Vernon is happy to be featured in the current Grammy TV campaign from ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day. "We had to deal with all this shit, we wanted to get a promo out of the deal," Vernon said. "Go ahead, pay for our commercial. There's a big misunderstanding - I don't want to sell music. But if people are going to be selling music, and they want to sell our music without disturbing the medium of what it actually is, we want to fucking do that. I want people to hear the music that we make, I don't want to do it in any shitty way."
The band takes a similar approach to its ads with Bushmills, whose "Since Way Back" campaign also included Chromeo, Theophilus London and Elijah Wood. "To be honest with you, man, it was more about people working in the field of advertising that weren't assholes," Vernon said of Bushmills, which is owned by Diageo and repped by music marketing agency Cornerstone. "It's interesting, being part of Bon Iver. It's like a band that started out as nothing and became something and in the process seeing how quickly to become that something has merit… And for something like Bushmills, it's been around for 400 years and has traversed centuries of alcohol laws and lobbyists and global corporate whatever. The fact of the matter is they've somehow figured out a way to still manage a small get-together in New York City and have it be about what it is about. It's an advertising company, but at least it's advertising something that I tend to believe brings people together."
Yvonne Briese, VP brand marketing for Diageo's whisky brands, said Bushmills has seen an "uptick" in awareness and even sales since the Bon Iver campaign rolled out, noting that the band is much like the whiskey itself. "They're not for everybody's taste profile, they're unique and discerning," she says.
The awareness part of the uptick likely came in December when Australian electronic act The Avalanches sparked a Twitter debate with Vernon over what they termed "endor$ing a product with proven devastating health risks." Vernon insists there's no bad blood. "I would've said the same shit," he said. "That's the only fucking thing that pissed me off over that whole thing -- that a whole bunch of people tried to make it out to be like it was a thing. But hey, people are just trying to get shit off their breastplate. You know what I mean?"