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Megafaun continues to reinvent itself

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Phil Cook was breast-feeding when I arrived at his home in Durham—or so the Megafaun member quipped as he answered the door with his 2-month-old son, Ellis, clutched to his chest. Tall and gregarious, with a ready smile and a booming laugh, Cook showed me inside.

Well into their third hour of vocal practice before a European tour, his bandmates sat in a parlor crowded with instrument cases. Bradley Cook, Phil's mustachioed younger brother, lounged in a wingback chair beside the painted globes of a hurricane lamp.

At his left was Joe Westerlund, who'd flown in from California, his long, tawny mane and prophetic beard in tow. And newest member Nick Sanborn, from Milwaukee, perched on a piano bench, his fresh face traced by a five-o'clock shadow. The Catherine Edgerton paintings that adorn the cover of Phil's solo album, Hungry Mother Blues, lined the walls. Fleetwood Mac and The Allman Brothers Band stood in places of honor atop nearby record stacks.

As I watched, Megafaun continued to calibrate the dusky rainbows of harmony that anchor their unique Americana. Phil kept to his feet, cradling Ellis in his arms. Brad strummed open chords on an acoustic guitar. "Start real fast ..." they all sang, lightly stomping, letting the beat pull them along rather than pushing it forward. "Gonna end real slow." The vocal harmonies were a constant negotiation, with each member using his strengths to bolster the others' weaknesses.

Phil took the lead on "Everything We're Headed For." The pitches weren't perfect, thank God—catches in his voice broke the melody open, a cornucopia of fruit bursting forth. "Sorry, son," he muttered to the half-dozing child in his arms after one particularly effusive yawp. He was still trending flat on one part.

"Bail on listening," Brad replied, gently, "and we'll match you."

With practice winding down, Phil and Sanborn joked about making a video for "Get Right" that would feature Westerlund riding a horse, his hair streaming in the wind. Megafaun is a band of family members and close friends, so jokes tend to run wild and fast; the riff developed quickly, until the imaginary video had the baby riding on a Shetland pony beside Westerlund, both wearing diapers.

As the hilarity fitfully subsided, I considered how startling the band's lighthearted demeanor might be to fans of their albums: Megafaun's music incorporates folk, rock, jazz, the blues and even avant-garde classical. They're the kind of band whose calculus you want to decode. As a result, many different agendas have been piled on them in the press. I've done it myself.

"If you ask us what genre we are," Brad explained, "I would say we're confidently indifferent. Whatever anyone feels like relating us to is awesome with us." Sanborn, who still discusses the band in the second person, joined in, "If I try to describe you guys as folk-rock, someone could listen to 'Impressions of the Past' and think I was crazy. But if I say you're experimental and they listen to 'Carolina Days' ..."

The release of Megafaun's new album—their most traditional yet—seemed like the perfect chance to get behind the conceptual encrustation and find out what they really care about. Phil's wife, Heather, took Ellis Bradley Cook into another room. It turns out that Megafaun is, in some ways, a calculating band—just not in the way we have heretofore suspected.

Westerlund and the Cook brothers first played behind Justin Vernon in a big, reggae-and-pop-infused Eau Claire, Wis., combo called Mount Vernon. Around these parts, though, they first made an impression as DeYarmond Edison, the Raleigh-based, alt-country-leaning band also fronted by Vernon. DeYarmond released two official albums and launched an ambitious residency at Raleigh's Bickett Gallery before disbanding in 2006. The breakup was the result of growing tension—more aesthetic than personal—between Vernon's pop visions and the other guys' wilder proclivities.

"Justin was ready to do what he did, and we weren't," Brad says plainly. "The three of us had a different path."

After the split, Vernon decamped to Wisconsin and reinvented himself as an otherworldly art-folkie, his gruff voice replaced by an ethereal quaver. He would soon become what almost passes for a pop star in the 21st century, collaborating with Kanye West and posing for The New Yorker with angel wings over his shoulders.

DeYarmond suffered an oppressive disconnect between presentation and personality. "We were all so silly with each other," notes Phil, "but writing these heavy songs, and Justin was so intense onstage. People didn't know what to make of our stage banter because it was so out of step [with the music], quoting The Goonies and stuff."

As Vernon began to define his pristine, hermetic creations, the Cook brothers and Westerlund stayed together as Megafaun, wallowing in unfettered freedom, terrestrial muck and what Brad called "sincere silliness." It was as if DeYarmond had been riven apart into polar opposites, each of which could now thrive. For their part, Megafaun would soon achieve successes they had only dreamt about: European tours, shared bills with musical heroes and major festival bookings. But all of that would come a little later. If Megafaun Beta was essentially the backing band for Vernon's DeYarmond Edison songs, then Megafaun 1.0 was a crew of musicians' musicians learning to be songwriters, getting control over their chops and ideas and making plenty of instructive errors along the way.

On their debut album, Bury the Square, Megafaun rip-roared through their accumulated ideas with more abandon than prudence. The close traditional/ experimental balance that characterized DeYarmond Edison was stretched to extremes, with raw-boned folk battling against heady textures and tangents. Follow-up Gather, Form & Fly was more refined, but it still bore the marks of what can happen when people who are used to thinking in terms of supplementary texture have to start from scratch.

Phil, for example, wrote a lot of music for Gather on a guitar in an open C tuning. "It turned out that we can't really sing in C," he explains in retrospect. "We'd still barely ever written lyrics, and we shot ourselves in the foot [with] some of the ideas we put forward. I can hear now that we built 'The Process' without ever considering that there would be vocals. Our new songs are our first ones that aren't in the keys of C or D."

In other words, the process got in the way of "The Process."

"We're all recovering jazz cats. The point of getting good technically is to get out of the way of the music. We punished ourselves not to transpose the songs to push our ranges," Brad says with a rueful chuckle. "On some songs, it's meant a lifetime of failure. The more you listen to bands you love, the more you realize that there's a reason some people write songs in certain keys."

In 2010, after dashing off the quick Heretofore EP, Megafaun built the "Sounds of the South" concert for Duke Performances. (Disclosure: I work for Duke Performances as a blog editor.) Over a week of practice and two shows in Durham's Hayti Heritage Center, the band drastically renovated songs from ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax's seminal collection of American folk recordings, with help from jazz combo Fight the Big Bull, Brooklyn singer/ songwriter Sharon Van Etten and their old friend Justin Vernon. The pivotal experience helped Megafaun clear the slate for a new album.

"We didn't anticipate how sacred it was going to be," Phil says of this rich vein of American folk. "It hit us at the end how much we had gone through, how special the room and the whole experience was. It opened us up, so that when we went in to make the new record, we thought we could do anything we wanted."

"Recording right after Sounds of the South was mind-blowingly huge," Brad concurs. "We were able to get a ton of shit out of our system and be open to new ideas, without all of our private fixations to work on. Plus, there were arrangement ideas from Sounds of the South that we directly incorporated into the new record."

For Westerlund, Sounds of the South was the first time he had sung a solo without drumsticks in his hands. "I remember being surprised that it was a big deal for me," he recalls, "because we sang all the time—but we sang together all the time. Sounds of the South helped us [to feel comfortable] singing alone more, freeing us up to use more contours on the new record."

Sounds of the South also reaffirmed Megafaun's bond with Vernon, despite their different paths. (If Bon Iver's rise has been meteoric, Megafaun's has been measured; their audience now fluctuates from zero to 700 on a nightly basis.) Phil played a lot of piano in Sounds of the South, an instrument he'd grown up with and studied in college but then largely abandoned for the banjo. His favorite piano is still the one in Vernon's family home, where they first bonded over music as children.

"It felt really good to have that come full circle," Phil says, "the piano and my relationship with Justin. During rehearsal, Justin and Brad and Joey were standing onstage and we all had this moment where it hit us that we were playing music together. It was heavy, and we were all kind of touching each other, and the main piano line on 'Hope You Know' came to me right then. So I feel like that was our big tribute to Justin."

"It's funny," Brad muses, "that we've just made our most straightforward record at the same time he made his most daring one." (Both records, one notices, were self-titled.) "In a way, we're always chasing each other, throwing high-fives and gestures on every record. There's a lot of shit from us to Justin on this record—'This is something we learned from you that we now understand, and here's the thank-you for it.' At the same time, there's tons of shit in his music like that toward us."

Most of the tracking for Megafaun was done at Vernon's studio in Wisconsin, in a former veterinary clinic with gym floors laid down in the well-equipped studio. It's just a few miles from his childhood home, a little bit further from where the Cooks and Westerlund grew up. The first striking thing about the album is space, both in the music and around the individual voices. The second is the intimacy of the lyrics, which focus heavily on the personal relationships of all three songwriters. They continued their habit of composing while recording, but they say this will be the last record where the melodies and lyrics aren't firmly in place from the start.

"I feel like it was a weird fluke that we were able to anticipate space for the vocals," Brad says in Durham, "as we're still really making the transition to play more like songwriters. We definitely tried to put more sincere and vulnerable stuff out there. I don't think we're the first band to freak out about having written honestly, but as new songwriters, it's weird to go through that when you're 30 rather than 19."

Gather featured several songs about the death of the Cooks' grandfather, but this album represents a more concerted effort to hew intimacy from the band's characteristic abstraction. "That's the thing I have a hard time with, and that's what 'Everything We're Headed For' is about," Phil explains. "When I try to write, my mind goes bigger and bigger, so talking about anything leads to talking about the whole meaning of life. Everything becomes everything. So I had to just write about that."

"Everything" features guest vocals by the Be Good Tanyas' Frazey Ford, a longstanding idol of Phil's. If Ellis had been a girl, her name would have been Frazey. "Brad and Joey had both gone out on a limb in the last few years and emailed someone who was a hero," Phil said, "and got positive responses. Because of Joe, we got to tour with Arnold Dreyblatt, and Brad had formed an email relationship with Patterson Hood." That inspired Phil to reach out to Ford, who recorded her part in Vancouver.

"She sent four takes," Phil remembers, "and on the last one, she totally changed it. She's such a vibe person. She wanted to know if I could play banjo on a tour in Colorado, but I couldn't, and hooked her up with Matt White instead. He said all her directions to the band were like, 'You've just gotta feel the song, ease back, don't play too much.'"

That's a lesson Megafaun needed to learn for itself while making the new record. "We're all recognizing the weight of songwriting," Phil continues. Paradoxically, the way to honor that weight may be a lighter touch than the band has used in the past. "Rehearsing old songs this week, we're breaking up the three-part harmonies, developing the character of our voices. We sing loud live, but Joe would always send us demos where he sang in this soft voice, and I realized, 'Holy shit, Joey has this amazing vibrato with a lot of subtlety.' Brad encouraged Joe to sing softer and use those inner parts of his voice, and those are some of my favorite parts of the records."

"I love how much we've used each other," Brad says, laughing, "singing together because we were all scared to sing alone. On the first record, we came into this giant field with a million ideas and ran all over the place. Now we're learning to use the ideas more. In the tradition of three-songwriter bands like Yo La Tengo, Drive-By Truckers and the Beatles, having multiple points of view is awesome. The lyrical arc of the record is all over the map, but I don't know anyone whose daily narrative is flat. There's varying degrees of hope and defeat."

A tripod can be very stable—but not if it's just a table with one leg missing. As a trio, each Megafaun member had to juggle multiple instruments and harmonies. As a quartet with new bassist Nick Sanborn, the weight is more evenly distributed.

"We weren't honoring the music we created," Brad explains. "With Nick, we already feel the difference. Joey has never played with a bass player in Megafaun, and these two are addressing rhythm issues we've never had to face. But now Joey can sing better because he doesn't have to worry about pushing things along so much."

Megafaun always agreed that if they ever needed to add someone, Sanborn would be perfect. They'd all been friends since college, when Sanborn lived in the same dorm as Westerlund's younger sister, who was Brad's girlfriend at the time. Sanborn was the first person they knew to get a record deal. He played piano with the band Decibully, on Polyvinyl. But for a self-described "vibe-based" band like Megafaun, the real draw of adding Sanborn was that he fit into their close matrix of familial and friendly connections. Megafaun and Sanborn usually only crossed paths on tours, yet it was enough to sustain a deep and lasting kinship. He joined the band without ever playing a lick of music with them, and clicked immediately. He's clearly their biggest fan.

Before I left Phil's house, Brad reflected on what the next iteration of the ever-changing Megafaun might look like. Megafaun ends with a secret track called "Rooster Egg," an exuberant piece of collaged ridiculousness by Westerlund. According to Brad, its sequencing is crucial and deliberate.

"How do we end this huge statement?" he asked rhetorically. "If the last thing you hear on the record is this huge wink, then whatever we do next is up to us again. It was about leaving the door of expectations open, even for ourselves. As weird as it sounds, I feel like not having 'Rooster Egg' on the album would have undermined it in a serious way, because it would banish a silliness that is a huge part of us behind a false solemnity."

It turns out that Megafaun is, in some ways, a calculating band—just not in the way we have heretofore suspected. We thought they were trying to tell us something about music. But all along, they were trying to tell us something about themselves.

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