May 18 2011 10:25 AM

S. Carey takes a break from Bon Iver for his solo debut

All We Grow sounds sad, but it's not

Drummer Sean Carey graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in December 2007, with a degree in classical percussion. Only a few months later, he left for a national tour with Bon Iver, the indie-folk project of singer-songwriter Justin Vernon.

“It was kind of amazing timing,” Carey says.

It was never part of the plan, but the extensive touring gradually gave him the confidence, the time and space to write music of his own, and, last year, Carey put out his own album.

All We Grow, released in August on Jagjaguwar, the same record label that’s home to Bon Iver, documents the events that contributed to Carey’s evolution as a solo musician.

“It’s kind of dedicated to change and growth, and a lot of that had to do with falling in love and getting married all in that time period of recording,” he says. “A lot of the lyrics are about my wife, but they’re also about bigger ideas at the same time.”

All We Grow is a slow-paced, layered record that lingers long after it’s over. Many of the songs take their time to reach their peak, and all of them are rich with sounds that, combined, are gorgeous. Much like Bon Iver’s sound, Carey’s is subtle, quiet and more than a little melancholy.

“It’s not a sad [record],” he clarifies. “There might be a darker thread in some of the songs, but I think that’s just because I love sad music.”

Carey, who goes by S. Carey for his own music, wasn’t always inspired to write songs. When Vernon asked him to join Bon Iver on tour, he was just looking to play music, not necessarily his own. At that time, Vernon was at the pinnacle of massive buzz surrounding Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, a mournful recounting of a relationship gone awry.

When he heard that Vernon was in need of a drummer for the eight-week tour, Carey—who at that point only knew of Vernon through mutual friends—holed himself up, listened to the album repeatedly on MySpace and taught himself both the drum and vocal parts. His preparation got him the job.

Carey had never really written his own music before, but he felt inspired to write while on tour. Had it been years earlier, he says, he wouldn’t have had the guts to do it.

“I probably would have sat the whole time and not said anything and just played my part,” he says. “I had tried writing a lot throughout high school and college, but I really started to write more kind of around the time that I joined Bon Iver.

“Once I started touring, I started learning a lot from it, just from being around other people and seeing other bands and being around Justin and stuff,” he continues. “That’s what really inspired me and just gave me confidence to start really trying to find my own voice as a writer.”

While on breaks from the lengthy tour, Carey returned home to Wisconsin and recorded bits of material he’d thought up. While some may have been eager to get it all done at once, Carey didn’t mind laying something down, leaving and coming back to it later. At the time, he didn’t give much thought to what his songs would become.

“It wasn’t really frustrating to have to leave all the time because I didn’t really know I was working on an album, at least for the first half of that process,” Carey remembers. “I was just recording some songs.”

S. Carey performs with Other Lives at Soda Bar on Thursday, May 19.