This past New Year’s Eve, Milwaukee-based instrumental trio Pele reunited (after about a decade since their split) as an opening act for one of American Football’s hometown comeback shows. Guitarist Chris Rosenau, drummer Jon Mueller and bassist Matt Tennessen originally released three albums together during Pele’s 1997-2004 run, two of which were released by Polyvinyl at the time.
Often lumped in with wordless post-rock groups like Tortoise or Pan-Am, Pele brought upbeat, often driving musicianship to the table and steered away from ten-minute drones or overt seriousness, managing to appeal to both the art-rock crowd and fans of groups like The Promise Ring, all while slowly building a reputation as some of the best players of their ilk. Interspersed with his time in Pele, Tennessen was also a member of powerhouse quintet Paris, Texas (and prior to Pele, performed in Ezra Pound with members of Rainer Maria), but stayed out of music entirely after the break-up of both bands. Meanwhile, Mueller and Rosenau continued their partnership in Collections of Colonies of Bees, which eventually led to the formation of Volcano Choir with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Mueller has also pioneered Death Blues, a stunning and critically-acclaimed audio and visual project that addresses our communal understanding of mortality.
Their reunion continues with a Record Store Day pressing of 1999’s “Elephant” via Polyvinyl (pictured here, and limited to 1,000 copies) and a performance on the night of RSD at Milwaukee’s Cactus Club. In this second part of a two-part interview, Modern Vinyl discusses the band’s post-Pele projects, each member’s experiences performing on late-night television, and how the reunion and “Elephant” reissue came to be. You can read part one of this interview here.
Modern Vinyl: Chris, can you and Jon discuss a bit about how you got into Volcano Choir?
Chris Rosenau: (Justin) Vernon was in a band with the guys from Megafaun called DeYarmond Edison, who was really famous in Eau Claire, WI. They ended up getting a hold of me and were like, “Come and open up for us in Eau Claire.” We were just like, “Where? With who?” We got some tracks of the DeYarmond record and it was great, but it didn’t make any sense. This is Customer-era Bees. It couldn’t make any less sense.
Jon Mueller: It was kind of Americana, folky stuff.
CR: And also, “Why are we gonna drive six hours to play some shithole in Eau Claire with some strangers we’re probably gonna hate?” Anyway, we got up there and it was at the House of Rock which is maybe 350-400 people. It was a decent-size place, especially for Customer-era Bees. (Laughs)
JM: I had a family wedding, so I couldn’t do it, even. But I remember Chris coming back and being like, “It was fucking amazing!”
CR: It was like a mini-Japan. Like, “How is this happening?”
JM: I fully expected them to come back and say, “You didn’t miss anything.”
CR: So it was me, Minor, (Jim) Schoenecker and (Dan) Didier. So the show was fucking amazing, everyone went bananas. Those guys were outstanding individuals and we hit it off right away.
JM: We went up there two other times, opening for them there, and then we did a tour with them.
CR: So Vernon went to live out east, Megafaun formed and we (Bees) toured with them, but at that same time I had an idea from listening to that David Sylvian Blemish record (Samadhisound, 2003) so much. It’s all I fucking listened to. It was so stark and he did so much shit with different instrumentation. That record’s crazy. I was like, “I want to do this but with people I know.” Not rip it off, but “rip it off.” I wanted to make that record, but with my friends. So Schoenecker and I recorded a bunch of guitar stuff… actually, “Husks & Shells,” the first song on the first Volcano Choir record (Unmap; Jagjaguwar, 2009) was one of the things (we did). We sent it to BJ (Seidel) from Decibully, we sent it to Vernon, maybe a couple other people, I don’t remember. But Vernon was the only one who gave a shit. He emailed back right away with tons of ideas. Jim had an FTP site and we just kept putting ideas and samples there. (Vernon) would sing on stuff we recorded or we would record over stuff that he sang. Bees ended up opening for Bon Iver, the first three-piece around Emma — which was Sean (Carey), Mikey (Noyce) and Vernon — at Mad Planet (in Milwaukee). I remember being there and we were all talking about that FTP site. There’s probably 12 songs on there or something.
JM: (To Chris) Think about Bon Iver playing at Mad Planet. (Laughs)
Matt Tennessen: I remember you guys came to Chicago with Bees… this was probably 2008. And you were just a few blocks from where I was living at the time, and I went to see you at some weird gallery. You played with Mystery Palace. At your merch table, you had a flyer for your show at Park West, which is a weird venue in Chicago, I think. I asked Chris, “Oh, you’re playing this show?” “Yeah, I think that show’s sold out.” And I was like, “Why?” (Laughs) Chris said, “Because this guy (Vernon) is really popular.” “But, what is it? I have no fucking idea what’s been happening since I last saw you. I’m old.”
CR: After that first show in Eau Claire, we just totally hit it off. Those guys still to this fucking day idolize that stupid Customer record. I don’t want to say “stupid,” but it’s so silly. We just ended up being super great friends, and then with all that FTP stuff, we decided to go up to Vernon’s place. He just bought April Base, but it wasn’t April Base yet. We listened to everything to see if we could finish something. So Jagjaguwar had put out Emma, so we thought we’d do a release that was a split Bon Iver/Bees record. That was the idea. Our mouths were watering because we were like, “We’re gonna sell so many fucking records and everyone’s gonna love Customer-era Bees!” (Laughs) Delusional! We were just playing with friends and it was fun. So that weekend, it all just came together. This was a band. We went up there a whole bunch more times, did the record (Unmap), put it out and didn’t play for two years. And then Hideki called and said, “Are you guys gonna do this stuff in Japan?” And we’re just like, “Yep.” It’s the same thing! “We get to go back there? Absolutely.”
JM: “Also, Hideki, we’ve never played before.” (Laughs)
CR: “OK, it’s done, we’re going, but how are we gonna play any of these songs?” That whole Japan tour was literally the seed. The idea for Repave came directly out of sitting around backstage at those shows.
JM: I remember being at that temple (Nagasaka) and Justin came up to me. “Hey. What do you think about the next record being a super pop record?” I was like, “OK.” And he’s like, “Alright, cool” and he walked back to whoever he was with. There was stuff on the first record that we knew could go in that direction, but we were so busy messing everything up that it was all sort of obscured. We knew there was solid stuff we could turn into really strange rock songs, but in our own way. Conceptually, it was us saying “Oh yeah, we can totally do that” without really knowing what that meant. I think all of us thought, “Yeah, like, a whole record of ‘Island, IS.'” Then we actually started working on it and more realistic stuff started happening with different songs, different approaches, but all songs. Not just weird drum freakouts. (Laughs)
MV: Outside of Pele, you’ve all played late-night TV — Matt on Kimmel with Paris, Texas and Chris and Jon with Volcano Choir on Fallon. Can you talk a bit about each of those experiences?
MT: My experience was totally different from theirs. My experience was literally going from spending a day on the Wolf River tubing, everyone piling into the van and driving home to getting a call from my roommate, me having been gone a lot at that time, with a utility issue and me saying “Oh, I paid that” and probably didn’t. So I was looking forward to getting back to my place with no power, and then Nick (Zinkgraf, guitarist) got a call on that same drive home, saying “Somebody saw you guys at South By Southwest,” and we were like “Whatever. That was a total waste of time.” “Well, evidently you guys freaked out enough that she was entertained. They need somebody to play (on Kimmel), and they want to know if you can do it Friday.”
CR: (To Matt) That’s how that happened? No shit!
MT: Nick was like “Do we want to play on Jimmy Kimmel this Friday?,” and that sounded way better then “Matt, there’s no power at your apartment.” So I got home, paid that but then I had to tell Atomic (Records) I couldn’t work this Friday. So Rich (Menning, owner) said “Well, this is a good reason (to fire you).” Actually, for him, I think this was a good reason as opposed to the shitty tours that always had me absent. Then, I almost missed my flight. Literally, I ran to the plane holding my pants up, carrying my shoes, my belt and my bag. Just yelling, “Please don’t leave!” Finally got there, played…
CR: It was good! I remember watching it.
MT: We played some weird Napster-related show, and they put us up at the Roosevelt, where you walk out of the front door there and you don’t have to walk into the street. You just walk out this alley way, go about a block down and load into the back (of the Kimmel studio). We set up, we rehearsed and still thought this didn’t make any sense.
MV: Did you meet anyone who was on the same show that night?
MT: I remember that Luke Perry was one of the guests and they were like, “He got wasted last time so this time, don’t talk to him.” And Super Dave Osborne was there, and I think Graham Norton maybe. Before we played, (Kimmel staffers) were like “We have hair and make-up people, we have all this booze and do you need anything else?” We were like, “What can we get?” “Anything.” “Can we get some back-up singers?” “Sure, we’ll bring them in for the soundcheck.” Meanwhile, Scott (Sherpe, vocalist) was like “Can I get my hair straightened?” And they said, “Sure!” And I’m like, “I’m just gonna drink this, ’cause I’m really nervous.” I just drank to the point where I was like “I think I might have a problem.” But we went on stage, the adrenaline kicked in and I was like, “I’m good.”
MV: From a production stand-point, is there anything they tell you to do or not to do?
JM: Don’t look in the camera. That was one thing, for sure.
CR: For us, it was amazing. We got there early and there’s 5,000 people working and everyone knows what’s going on. Before you know it, your gear’s being set up and you’re just kind of standing there.
JM: There are literally 5,000 union production people running around, setting things up. You’re opening your drum case and they’re just like, “No, no, no, no, no.” They take everything and you’re like “You don’t know what you’re doing” but then it’s all set up and you’re like, “Well, you did it.” (Laughs)
CR: Everyone was so rad. They took crazy care of us and we sort of hung out there all day.
MV: I couldn’t picture wanting to leave.
JM: At one point, Justin was like, “Is there any whiskey?” “Sure, what do you want?” “Redbreast?” “OK.” So we’re thinking they just have this stock of shit somewhere, but she went to the store, and came back with a fucking grocery bag.
CR: I just remember being amazed that at that level, they were so nice. They get you super comfortable, you forget that you even have to do anything, and then someone snaps their fingers and goes “You guys are on.”
JM: It’s literally 20 degrees. It’s freezing.
MV: I have always heard that about Letterman. I didn’t know it was sort of across-the-board cold on late night shows.
JM: Letterman is the worst, supposedly.
MT: I just remember being stoked (about how cold it was). I was happy not to be dripping sweat.
CR: I watch Fallon now, and actresses come out in dresses and I’m like, “Put a fucking coat on! You’re dying!” But they wrangle you out and all of a sudden you’re standing there, all your gear is there and there’s fucking Fallon introducing you. Then, the hindbrain just kicks in and you hope you don’t fuck anything up.
JM: None of it is really happening. It’s like, “This is a weird dream where I’m watching myself.”
CR: It’s cool because with Fallon, and Kimmel too, it’s a show situation. They have a proper PA so the audience can hear. It’s like a rock show.
MT: I remember when we were doing our soundcheck, they had said “Play how you’re normally gonna play.” They did it so they could be like, “This is where this guy is and this is where that guy is… If you’re gonna move, fucking let me know ’cause I’m gonna put this camera in your face and I don’t want you to hit it.”
JM: Also, you know how all those late night shows look like you could run from one end to the other? They’re tiny. The whole place, audience included, is probably about as big as this room.
CR: But yeah, that fucking temperature, dude. We played “Byegone” and I had to play that bean, which is all airplane aluminum and it was fucking freezing. It was like grabbing onto this pole that was in a 35-degree freezer all day. So they asked us the same thing, if we wanted to do hair and make-up. We didn’t have to if we didn’t want to and (Matthew) Skemp and I looked at each other and were like “Sure! We’re here!” So we follow this person down to hair and make-up and fuckin’ (Bob) Odenkirk is sitting there getting his make-up done. You can’t be back there unless you’re part of the show. So we just walk in and he’s like, “Hey, guys. I’m Bob,” and I’m like “I’m aware! You hero! Yeah, I’m Chris.” “Oh, what are you guys doing here?” “We’re the music.” And we talked to him about his sister who lives in Middleton, Wisconsin and talked to him for 10 minutes. Bob fucking Odenkirk. Just a super nice conversation. And (Justin) Timberlake was there that day, too. I didn’t have a great conversation with him or anything, but…
JM: He came in the dressing room and was talking to Justin (Vernon) and then to all the other guys, he’s just like “Hey, I’m Justin.” (Laughs)
MV: So how did the first reunion show with American Football get booked, and how did the Elephant repress for Record Store Day come to be?
JM: We just emailed Polyvinyl and said, “Do you wanna do this,” and they said, “Yep.”
CR: That’s how the record happened, but what happened first? Did we commit to (the reunion performance)?
MT: Chris sends me this email that goes, “American Football is popular for some reason. They’re going to do these shows with bands they had played with, so do you want to play this show?” And I was like, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
CR: The subject of the email was “You’re going to drive to Milwaukee and punch me. You’re gonna just say no right away.” (Laughs)
JM: Chris and I got this email and the subject line was something like “Hey, want to relive your 30s?” (Laughs) Chris and I read it, from the manager for American Football, saying “Hey, they’re gonna do these shows,” and we had already known that Sean Carey had done one in New York with them and it was sold out. We just thought, “If we’re ever gonna do this, this would be the time do it.”
MV: Do you think, at some point, you guys would’ve called each other and try to (play) again if this offer from American Football hadn’t happened?
JM: So Chris and I were like “I’d do it! Would you do it?” “Yeah,” but then he’s like “Tennessen is never gonna do this.” (Laughs)
CR: “Should I email him?” And Jon said, “The worst he can say is ‘No’ and then we just don’t do it.”
MT: Somebody did ask me before (American Football offered), All these other bands are playing shows here and there, would you ever do that? Never gonna happen. Why? Why would it?
JM: Ryan Schleicher asked me if Pele would play some event — I can’t remember what it was but he put on some event at Turner Hall a number of years ago. Maybe it was Die Kreuzen-related thing? I don’t remember what it was, but it was some sort of major thing.
CR: That was the weird surprising thing for me was we had been asked a bunch of times but you (Jon) would always be like “I’m doing this other music now. Why would I do this again?”
JM: It felt wrong. I don’t even know what word to use. I felt like it communicated something I didn’t want to communicate, or something.
MV: What was it then about the American Football possibility that made it more interesting to you?
JM: I think it’s being old. Just speaking personally, and being the age I am, saying “Is that still even possible?” Almost wanting the challenge of being able to do it but then wanting to relive that. Wanting to say “If we can pull it off, there’s a lot of great experiences we had and feelings there, and it would be great to have that again.” Whereas in previous years, (I would say) “I’m still done with that. I’m not interested in reliving anything.”
MV: I could be wrong but it at least sounds like maybe the reason you chose to do it this time was that previously being asked “Does Pele want to reunite and headline this” puts a lot of pressure on you, where as American Football is already a band in your shoes, saying “Oh, we’re doing this again! OK, there are people here!” Maybe it felt more home-y in that respect?
CR: I was dumbfounded when (Jon) emailed and was like “What do you think about this?” “You’re nuts. You can’t say ‘Yes,’ you’ve never said ‘Yes.'”
JM: It just made sense, and there are probably a variety of reasons but it made sense.
CR: It’s certainly not the money, that’s for sure! (Laughs)
JM: (With the American Football show) It wasn’t going to be this random audience, like “Who is this band?”
MV: The die-hard American Football people are die-hard about that catalog. It’s a lot of label loyalty. People who are fans of a couple Polyvinyl releases are fans of the catalog.
MT: Chris was like “We don’t have anything to sell, but there was one Tennessen-era Pele record that didn’t get released on vinyl, so maybe (Polyvinyl) can repress that. Because they do that shit and we can sell it at the show.” So we thought that was a great idea but Jon said “Trust me, there’s no way they can do that. There’s not enough time (between then and the performance).” And Chris was like “Yeah, but I really want that fucking record.” So in my mind, Chris was like, “If I can get a fucking record and possibly a trip to Japan out of this, I’m gonna fucking do it. I’m not gonna tell everybody that’s what I’m doing…” (Laughs) And what am I gonna do? In the last 10 years, I haven’t done shit. I play at home, whereas these guys have done ridiculous things. I’ve watched them on television, I’ve watched you (Chris) play that thing in Barcelona… Ten years ago, I didn’t want to pay for my friends’ records. Now, I do. I only remembered my PayPal password because I was buying records from Jon. So when you guys asked “Do you want to do this?,” I was more like, “You should ask yourselves. You guys are really busy and I have nothing going on.”
JM: I’ll tell you one thing that really stuck in my head. This is maybe also a reason why I was really into (reuniting). I don’t want (Matt) to feel really awkward but this really struck me, and it might be weird telling you this in person, but when Death Blues played in Chicago, you came and we were sitting at the bar and you were asking me a lot of questions like “What’s happening? How are you doing?” And I was having some crisis of some sort. At some point, I said “Matt, I just want you to know it was great to play what we did together and I think back on that a lot. We did some really good stuff and I miss playing with a phenomenal bassist like yourself.” Matt is sort of a rare player. I remember sitting there thinking “I need to let Matt know how important his playing was and still is to me.” I told him, “I think about it often. I still have great memories of playing with you.”
CR: (To Jon) And you were assuming he had just sold all of his (bass gear)…
JM: No, not that, but I just didn’t think it had any presence in his life. And I asked, “What’s your deal? Have you been in bands?” And he’s just like, “No, no. Honestly, I still play, but I just play for myself. I don’t play with any groups or anything. But I play all the time.” And this is what really struck me. He said, “I play more now than I did when I was in groups.” And it seemed back then we were playing constantly. Between us and Paris, Texas, he was always playing somewhere. So when Matt said that to me, I just thought “Matt Tennessen just fucking won.” It was so fucking awesome. This guy doesn’t need anyone to give him permission to do anything. He doesn’t need some band, going (sad voice) “Oh, my band can’t get a break.” He’s playing just because he wants to play. I thought, “Man, that’s so amazing.” I remember telling Chris about it and when this American Football show came up, Chris said “Matt’s never gonna do this,” but I said “He might. This just might be somehow, strangely, the time all of us need. Maybe this just makes sense right now for whatever reason.”