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Saxophonist Colin Stetson Enlists Bon Iver's Justin Vernon for Heavy New Album

Musician's third solo effort, 'New History Warfare Vol. 3,' explores dark forces

April 29, 2013 1:00 PM ET
Colin Stetson
Colin Stetson
Scott Irvine

He's one of the most sought-after saxophonists in indie rock and has several solo albums to his name. So when it came time for Colin Stetson to record his latest album, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, he had a wealth of experiences to draw on.

"Throughout the years, my abilities have changed and my compositions have developed," the Montreal-based musician tells Rolling Stone. "The biggest difference in the material is that it's much, much weightier and physically advanced."

The third in a trilogy, To See More Light is his most ambitious effort to date. Stetson doesn't sing on the album, relying on circular breathing and different room-miking techniques to capture the powerful and avant-garde sounds emitted from his hefty baritone saxophone, without the use of overdubs or loop pedals. The best example of his artistic growth is on the title track, a sprawling 15-minute-long epic that evokes both euphoria and claustrophobia.

Why Bon Iver Had to Relearn Everything He Knows

Stetson says he set out to explore the relationship between death and love from a conceptual standpoint and how human beings "can't consciously conceive of our own ending," though he insists it is not an autobiographical album. "I'm writing songs that have characters and imagery and themes," he says in his careful, controlled tone. "Though they come from me, they're not about me." To help with these narratives, he recruited Bon Iver's Justin Vernon to contribute vocals to four songs, including the appropriately-named "Brute," for which the singer swaps out his usual falsetto for a guttural growl.

"Justin has a very particular process of bringing words and music to a piece," says Stetson, who has toured with Vernon and played several instruments on the Grammy-winning Bon Iver, Bon Iver. "Whether it's me working on Bon Iver tracks for that record or him writing lyrics for one of my songs, you are just trying to support and service the piece of music the best that you can. That's what comes first."

While he's performed and recorded with the likes of Arcade Fire, Feist, LCD Soundsystem, Tom Waits and others, it wasn't until Stetson's 2011 album New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges that people really started paying attention to his solo career. The record was nominated for Canada's Polaris Music Prize (losing to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, which he also played on) and landed on many critics' year-end lists. He also found himself exposed to new audiences and headlining shows such as the All Tomorrow's Parties festival curated by Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum.

"When I was opening for the National or whoever, I'd gear the set towards more rock-oriented material or at least wouldn't be as experimental. Now I'm really lucky; people are there to hear my music so I don't have to adjust it that much, if at all," he says. He already has plans for more solo material and new projects with friends and collaborators, including former Liturgy drummer Greg Fox and Iron and Wine multi-instrumentalist Stuart Bogie.

"Things change as your art develops and you just get older and wiser in your own right," he adds. "I'm just fortunate to have a life that's brought me in touch with other people who have helped me along."

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