However inadvertently, Megafaun—the third album by the Durham trio of the same name, released in 2011—began with a warning. Over a measured bass groove and half-psychedelic guitars, Megafaun's members harmonized, "Take your time/Everyone knows/If it starts real fast/It's gonna end real slow."
And so it came to pass: A year after the album's release, the stress of six years of constant activity had understandably worn on the band. They'd moved to North Carolina from their native Wisconsin years before with their previous act. When that band split, brothers Phil and Brad Cook and their longtime friend Joe Westerlund reconvened as Megafaun. They earned quick critical praise and a steady international fanbase. They released four albums, toured the U.S. and Europe 10 times each and added a new member, with most every lull spent collaborating with their peers and idols.
It wasn't sustainable. As 2012's summer faded, Megafaun decided the time for their first extended pause had come.
"Toward the end, right before the break, we just weren't in a good place, individually and as a group," remembers Nick Sanborn, who joined the band to play bass on the road supporting that last album. "It just stopped being fun for a second."
And so with little fanfare, Megafaun published an update to its website on Oct. 1, 2012. "We are gonna take some time off to re-tool the shed, so to speak," it read. "Write some music, hang with family and plan the next record."
Multi-instrumentalist Brad Cook saw it as a necessary respite: He'd gotten married just months before, while Phil had a 2-year-old son at home. Westerlund, who had moved to California with his wife, was trying to establish his life out west. This was a chance to build a family, pursue other interests and, most of all, slow down. "Instead of burning ourselves out like we've seen plenty of bands do," Brad says, "we decided to just switch gears and re-prioritize, like, 'How can we keep playing music together? And how can we do it in a way that's really creative and involves less driving?'"
They might drive less these days, but the members of Megafaun haven't actually slowed down during the break: The so-called hiatus has proven to be more of a psychic placebo, effective in reinvigorating the band's creative spirit. In various configurations, Megafaun's members have made the past year their most productive ever.
"The problem with a band like Megafaun is we never really took time to reflect on anything," Brad says. "We were always getting through the door by the hair on our heads for a lot of cool opportunities, but because we never looked back and said no to stuff, we were one-dimensional in terms of where our outlets were."
Even before the break, the band fought against that mindset, taking on roles as sidemen and fostering major collaborative projects. Sounds of the South, a reinvigoration of Alan Lomax's iconic folk-music field recordings, featured the Virginia brass band Fight the Big Bull and old bandmate Justin Vernon. It debuted at Duke in 2010, and they've since reprised the performance at music festivals in Ohio and Australia. They helped staff Mount Moriah and The Rosebuds, and sat in with Rhys Chatham's guitar orchestra. Phil's first two solo albums were released before the break, while Westerlund began tinkering with his own tunes. And during last year's Hopscotch Music Festival, which can now be seen as Megafaun's de facto farewell tour, the band revisited an earlier relationship with composer Arnold Dreyblatt, leading to this year's Appalachian Excitation. They headlined a sprawling outdoor day party as Megafaun & Friends and debuted Sanborn's new project with his partner, Amelia Meath, the then-unnamed Sylvan Esso. Announced a month later, Megafaun's hiatus gave Sanborn the opportunity to pursue their duo more seriously.
"If anything, it kind of lit a fire under my ass to get back out as much as possible," he says. "In that way, it was a blessing."
This year, Sylvan Esso debuted with the 12-inch single Hey Mami/Play It Right. Meath's nimble songwriting and resonant voice contrast wonderfully with Sanborn's throbbing dance productions, and the duo's quickly started gaining national attention thanks to positive press and a sold-out tour of major theaters with Volcano Choir. They're courting labels for a full-length follow-up next year.
Phil debuted two new groups, too. The Shouting Matches—a blues-rock trio he informally formed back in Wisconsin with Justin Vernon before he was Bon Iver and drummer Brian Moen—emerged from obscurity with a recorded debut, Grownass Man, and a Coachella gig. In May, Phil led a regional supergroup he called the Guitarheels in a loving tribute to Ry Cooder's 1972 album Boomer's Story. He worked with Vernon again as the musical director on the Blind Boys of Alabama's Vernon-produced LP, I'll Find a Way, and now tours part-time with the gospel singers. He also played keys on Hiss Golden Messenger's Haw and contributes to the band's live performances when he's in town.
Indeed, Brad says he's seen his brother only twice in the past few months. During the break, Brad's returned to his first musical love, the bass, and started booking production work as well. By his estimate, he's contributed to 20 different albums, as well as performed with bands including Loamlands and Hiss Golden Messenger.
"I've been leaving town to do recording sessions, kind of opposite of him leaving town to do touring and shows," he says. "We've both been so busy that we're trying to fight to find time to hang out with each other."
They make time for reunions when they can. Both Cook brothers will be performing with Hiss Golden Messenger and Phil's Guitarheels at Haw River Ballroom on Oct. 26. Brad says they have a brief duo set to open the show, too—"just to let people know we're still here and still doing stuff."
Westerlund, meanwhile, toured the country with Mount Moriah and Califone, a band whose early output served as a cornerstone for the start of Megafaun. He drummed on the latter's latest album, Stitches. His solo debut as Grandma Sparrow—a Zappa-style madhouse featuring horns and tone poems and children's choirs—is due out in the spring through Richmond's Spacebomb Records.
All of that seems like only scratching the surface. Most of the band's recent activity probably won't be realized or released until next year. There's a film score comprising 57 individual pieces composed as a band, and session work with Indigo Girl Amy Ray, folk group The Weather Station and bluegrass icon Alice Gerrard. Brad's got a new project to foster with Justin Vernon this winter, and he's been working with Aaron "Gene Ween" Freeman on another.
"It feels like I'm learning a ton right now," Brad says. "I'm back in school and I'm having the time of my life."
Megafaun hasn't given up on large-scale collaborative performances, either. In February, the band put on a Duke-commissioned performance with On Fillmore, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche's duo with bassist Darin Gray, and traveled to New York's Ecstatic Music Festival for a set with Dreyblatt. Sounds of the South made its Australian debut in June at the Sydney Opera House, and more shows—and a release of a recording of one such performance—are slated for next year. Next month, Sanborn will lead his own Duke-commissioned show, titled Lend Me Your Voice, which celebrates the role of sidemen and sidewomen in music. Westerlund and Brad will be among the participants.
"The hiatus is more of a public thing," Brad admits. "It feels, internally, like we've been very busy, even together."
To its members, Megafaun is still a present-tense operation. There are no plans for a tour or a new album, per se, but the band carries on, perhaps even stronger than before.
"I think this time has been incredibly positive for everyone involved," Sanborn says. "There's a real easy way that this could have gone poorly. Someone could be sour about something, or a couple guys could not be talking—any way that people draw away from one another. But it's only been positive and amazing. Everyone is doing their absolute best right now."
Some year off
Given the output Megafaun's members have recently produced, one can be forgiven for not noticing the slowdown of the band itself. These eight albums represent only a fraction of the band's hiatus activity. In other words, Megafaun's catalog is becoming the completist's nightmare.
HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER, HAW (PARADISE OF BACHELORS)
The second Hiss Golden Messenger album to receive wide release, Haw finds M.C. Taylor in fine form, ruminating on faith and family with a cavalcade of simpatico sidemen. Indeed, he's quickly earned his place as one of the region's most exciting songwriters, if not the country's. Haw is helped along with full arrangements thanks to its many contributors. Among the highlights: William Tyler's Telecaster twang, Nathan Bowles' brisk banjo rolls, bassist Scott Hirsch's churning low-end, simmering sax solos from Crowmeat Bob Pence, and the warm swells of piano and organ courtesy of Phil Cook.
THE SHOUTING MATCHES, GROWNASS MAN (MIDDLE WEST)
The product of casual jam sessions among Phil Cook, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and Peter Wolf Crier's Brian Moen, The Shouting Matches debuted nationally this year with a Coachella gig and this 10-track LP. The solid and unfussy blues-rock is a diversion from Megafaun's almost academic approach to musical exploration, and the low, cracked croon Vernon employs here bears little resemblance to the haunted falsetto of his more famous endeavor. There's an easy chemistry here, making this a lighthearted and engaging entry.
SYLVAN ESSO, HEY MAMI/PLAY IT RIGHT (TREKKY)
Two songs is all it took for Sylvan Esso. The duo of Megafaun's Nick Sanborn and Mountain Man singer Amelia Meath played its first show just over a year ago, before the project was even named. Now, the duo's debut single has been hailed by high-profile press outlets like Spin and Stereogum, and the pair has toured with indie headliners Man Man, Volcano Choir and WHY? Meath keeps her folk roots intact, writing with sharp detail and singing with expressive inflections. Sanborn's dance-pop production balances indie sensibility with chart-pop inspiration.
PHIL COOK, THIS SIDE UP (TREKKY)
A brief follow-up to 2011's all-acoustic Hungry Mother Blues, This Side Up opens with "DL's Holler," riding a growling electric guitar riff and understated drums. The tunes reshape Cook's solo outlet into something broader and more charged. Recorded with Nick Sanborn on bass and Bowerbirds drummer Dan Westerlund (Joe's brother), the EP's fuller sound yields a more confident performance from Cook. The newfound vibrancy of This Side Up bodes well for an expected 2014 follow-up.
CALIFONE, STITCHES (DEAD OCEANS)
Califone figurehead Tim Rutili broke a decade-long streak with Stitches, the first Califone album to have been recorded entirely outside Rutili's Chicago hometown. With sessions in Texas, Arizona and Southern California, Stitches does seem to have gleaned something from the panoramic vistas of the Southwest, but, as ever, the focal point is Rutili's dry voice and subtle arrangements. It proved a complementary mix for Joe Westerlund, who contributed punctuation from behind the drumkit and, ultimately, joined the band on tour.
ARNOLD DREYBLATT & MEGAFAUN, APPALACHIAN EXCITATION (NORTHERN SPY)
After performing together at last year's Hopscotch Music Festival, Megafaun and expat composer Arnold Dreyblatt spent a day at the Pinebox Recording Studio in Graham, N.C., putting their collaboration to tape. Recorded live in the studio, with minimal separation or intrusion from engineer Brian Haran, the instrumental collection embraces the steady repetition of Dreyblatt's minimalist composition. The close chemistry of Megafaun's principal trio and their audible respect for Dreyblatt's vision fuels good-humored improvisation and immediate adaptation. This is lively and contemplative, extemporaneous and deliberate.
LOAMLANDS, SOME KIND OF LIGHT (TREKKY)
Spun out of Midtown Dickens' breakup, Loamlands is the duo of Kym Register and Will Hackney. Their debut EP seems inspired not only by their former band's later work but by regional peers like Mount Moriah and Megafaun. It's most obvious on the encouraging and heartfelt opener "Another Reason." Register's songs enjoy the stinging twang of Hackney's lead guitar and the rhythmic dynamic anchored by hired bassist Brad Cook. His steady lines offer a firm foundation for this new country-rock outfit.
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA, I'LL FIND A WAY (SONY MASTERWORKS)
Producer Justin Vernon and musical director Phil Cook leave their fingerprints all over this latest offering from the veteran gospel vocal group. There's overdriven guitars and crisp brass that wouldn't feel out of place in The Shouting Matches. The restless collaborators incorporate all-star cameos, including tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus, My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden and Patty Griffin. The result is a gentle update to the Blind Boys' warm and soulful gospel, respectful to their roots with a strong bid for more contemporary notice.