Middleton-based multi-instrumentalist Thomas Wincek is probably best recognized as the production wizard and keyboardist behind Volcano Choir, a side project between Milwaukee experimentalists Collections Of Colonies Of Bees (a band Wincek recently quit) and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. However, Wincek has recently shifted the brunt of his focus into his baby—Madison’s All Tiny Creatures, which sews elements of classical minimalism, electronica, and neo-folk into a cozy blanket of otherworldy avant-pop tunes. Organic cuts of raw tracks from drummer Ben Derickson, wandering basslines from Matt Skemp, and odd-time guitar melodies via Andy Fitzpatrick are snipped up and jammed through Wincek’s IDM lens and blended seamlessly with Steve Reich-esque synth meanderings and soaring vocals. With Creatures’ new album, Harbors, coming out in January on Hometapes, and Wincek’s last Madison show with Bees coming to the Memorial Union on Oct. 9, The A.V. Club thought this would be as good a time as any to sit down with the keyboardist to discuss collaborating with Justin Vernon, quitting Bees, and listening to Flavor Flav ramble.
The A.V. Club: Will your upcoming show on the Terrace be both yours and Jon Mueller’s last show with Collections Of Colonies Of Bees?
Thomas Wincek: Technically, no. Our last show is going to be in Japan. Volcano Choir and Bees are going to Japan in November. Originally, Jon said he was gonna stop after that and I decided that this would be a good point for me to stop, too.
AVC: What influenced your respective decisions?
TW: I think we actually have similar reasons. I don’t want to speak for [Mueller], but his stated reason was that things were kind of ramping up for him at work. He has a full-time job at a publisher and I think he’s taking on more responsibility. Any free time he has, he wants to focus toward his solo stuff. With me, I don’t have tons of free time either. I want to be traveling more with All Tiny Creatures and I really don’t want to be gone for long stretches of time, at all. I’ve kind of put a limit on touring to blocks of two weeks. I don’t want to be gone with Creatures and then come back home [and] have band practice for Bees right away. That kind of happened last time and I wasn’t wanting to practice with Bees, which was kind of a bummer, because that band was always really fun for me. I didn’t want it to be like that.
AVC: What will happen with Volcano Choir? Was that band, more or less, a one-off deal?
TW: At this point, it’s looking like it might be. Actually, who knows? Bon Iver is ramping up again, so Justin [Vernon] doesn’t have a whole lot of time. There’s nothing in the foreseeable future, but I could see us doing something Volcano Choir-related again. If we do it, Mueller and I will be involved.
AVC: How did your role in Bees differ from that of All Tiny Creatures? Did you find one to be more challenging than the other?
TW: Oh, for sure. All Tiny Creatures is kind of my band. The other guys have input, too, but it’s sort of my vision. Whereas, I think Bees is ultimately Chris Rosenau’s band. It was definitely great being in a band with him and he’s probably my favorite guitar player. In the Bees’ live set, we all have stage amps. Nobody has anything in their monitors except [Rosenau], because that’s all anyone needs to hear. With the All Tiny Creatures live show, I’m controlling all the effects, changing sounds and samples, playing the guitar, playing the keyboard, and singing on top of that. So, that’s definitely more intense than just playing keyboard.
AVC: How long did it take to finish Harbors?
TW: A lot of time. It’s hard to say because that album just kind of represents the time since Collections Of Colonies Of Bees’ Birds came out in 2008. Up until a few months ago, we were still working on it, whether we’ve been rehearsing or recording that material. So, it’s been about two years in the making.
AVC: How did the collaboration with Justin Vernon on “An Iris” come about?
TW: I think Volcano Choir was kind of a catalyst because I saw how well those songs were working with vocals. The one that I wrote, the “Islands, IS” song, uses a guitar loop by Rosenau as the basis of the song, which I sort of cut up. The technique that I used—cutting it up and then reassembling it—is exactly how I work with Creatures. So that got me interested. I started thinking about vocals and began asking my friends, who happened to be great vocalists, if they’d be down with recording for the album. Sometimes, I’d give them a little direction and say where I wanted to go with it. Or other times, I’d just let them go off. Justin was one of those people. I asked him the same time that I asked Megafaun, Ryan Olcott [12 Rods], and Roberto Lange.
AVC: So Olcott and Lange will be on the album, too?
TW: Yep. The tape we have out right now has “An Iris,” as well as the track that [Lange] sang on. Originally, when I’d asked them to do vocals, I’d wanted them to do multiple songs, but they only had time to do one. I was like, “Well, what do I do now?” I’m not as good as any of them, but I became inspired by them and decided to do the rest myself.
AVC: Do you ever worry that using “An Iris” as the lead single will make people associate Creatures too closely with Bon Iver?
TW: We’ve actually thought about it a lot. If we would’ve done it just because of the association, that wouldn’t have been the right thing. But this was honestly the song that everyone thought would be the catchiest. It’s one of our favorites—all associations aside. Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that he’s on it, but I don’t really care. Hopefully people will listen to it and not immediately leave the party. We’re going to keep releasing singles from the album, so I guess we’ll just see what people say about that.
AVC: Songs like “An Iris,” “Glass Bubbles,” and “Aviation Class” feature a lot of that chopped-up guitar that you mentioned in relation to “Islands, IS.” How do you and guitarist Andy Fitzpatrick pull it off live?
TW: I have a MIDI pedal board. All of that stuff is cut into micro loops and they keep looping until the next section happens. Live, I can just step on one of the pedals and it starts a micro loop. With Volcano Choir, we really had to think about how to pull that off. In Volcano Choir’s live set, I’m actually playing loops, triggering them on the keyboard. I couldn’t do that in Creatures. I’m still triggering them section-by-section, but I’m doing much more singing and playing guitar.
AVC: Creatures just returned from a North American tour. Would you say it was successful? Do you have ridiculous stories to share?
TW: Yeah, I mean, it was pretty crazy. The reason we did this tour was that we were playing the Hopscotch Music Festival in North Carolina and thought it would be goofy to just fly straight there without doing more shows. Hopscotch was definitely the highlight. I didn’t know what to expect. When we played, the place was pretty full and people were really digging it. It was one of the most fun festivals I’ve ever been to. Some surreal things were like when Panda Bear played. I’m not super-familiar with his work, but he headlined and the headlining stage was right in the middle of the downtown area, which our hotel overlooked. We actually watched half of Panda Bear’s set from our hotel room. We just unscrewed these brackets and opened the hotel room window. A little later, we were walking over to Jon Mueller’s performance and the whole downtown was just filled with Panda Bear’s music, you know? I really dug that because it’s pop music, but it’s still pretty far out. So, to have his music fill out every nook and cranny of the entire major-metropolitan area, that was cool. Also, seeing Public Enemy was a huge highlight.
AVC: Chuck D and Flavor Flav have an amazing amount of energy for being in their fifties.
TW: Yeah, I mean, I’m a huge Public Enemy fan, but I didn’t expect to get that excited about it. When they brought out the S1Ws and started doing the steps like that, I got way pumped. I sort of made my way up to the stage because everyone around me was acting way too cool, like hipster guys were looking at me like, “Who is this fucker?” So I was like, “I need to get closer.” I made it all the way to the front of the stage and just rocked out.
AVC: Did Flavor Flav do any jump-kicks at this one?
TW: No, he didn’t. They had a couple real cool moves, though, like back-to-back B-boy poses. What Flavor did do, was give at least three insane speeches. One was at the very end of the show. I sat through the whole speech because I thought there would be an encore. It was this sort of insane rant about September 11—it was actually really cool.
AVC: What do Creatures have lined up between now and January when Harbors comes out?
TW: We’re gonna tour on a new mix-tape for “Glass Bubbles,” the tune that Olcott sang on. We’ll just do a week of really targeted shows. We wrote the stuff on the first tape live with arpeggiators and stuff like that, where everything is synced to a clock and we were doing it live. We were triggering everything and playing everything live. For this set-up, I want everyone to have a keyboard and for [Derickson] to have a drum machine. It will be more stripped back, but it will also be something different. So, that tour, the video for “An Iris,” and definitely something larger scale when Harbors actually comes out.