Following an intensely focused period of touring and recording, the members NC’s Megafaun figured out that the key to longevity lay in multitasking—as their various solo projects and collaborations from Bon Iver to Arnold Dreyblatt to Hiss Golden Messenger testify.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Brad Cook has big plans for his new backyard. He and his wife recently purchased a cozy, brick-bedecked home in Durham, N.C, and there’s a surprising abundance of relaxation space crammed onto its minimal urban parcel. There’s a small patio, a spacious wooden deck, and a fully finished outbuilding. There’s also a head-high wooden fence shielding much of the yard. Cook plans to complete it soon, hoping it will allow him to host occasional house shows.
At least one neighbor won’t mind the noise. The couple found their new home with help from Matt McCaughan. He drums for Bon Iver, the tranquil folk project led by Brad’s Yeezus-endorsed bud Justin Vernon. McCaughan and his wife live just down the street. It’s the first house that Cook has ever owned, a line that’s becoming common in articles about musicians from North Carolina’s increasingly fertile Triangle. Turns out it’s still possible for mostly full-time indie rockers to manage a comfortable living.
In Megafaun’s case, their success has been hard-fought. The trio that Cook formed with his big brother Phil and their lifelong friend Joe Westerlund, released four records between 2007 and 2011. In that time, they moved from charismatic folk elevated by the joyous racket of oddball percussion and noise to rangy rock that boasts as many hooks as experimental flourishes. Until 2012, their longest break from the road was four months. That year, they added bassist Nick Sanborn to the live line-up, solidifying their status as a slick and ambitious touring machine. Megafaun’s journey was rewarding. It was also quite tiring.
“You can get caught up in the cycle, which is very much the appropriate term of how the music industry works,” Brad reasons. “You can run the hamster wheel as long as you want. Sometimes, you break free and get outside and run as far as you can, and sometimes you’re just on the same wheel. We just realized that we don’t know how much we’re built for that. But we learned a shit ton from it.”
Right now, Cook sits on his new back deck, shirt and shorts dotted white. Sturdy stubble rises to meet a healthy mustache, though it still needs a few days to become a full-on beard. He and his wife have been painting their new home for three days. He’s glad for the break. Brad and Nick—dark T-shirt unblemished—kill a few Miller Lights, approaching this interview as an impromptu hang. Cook hopes it will be the first of many.
His new outbuilding is primed to become a home studio and hangout nook. The two rooms are white-walled and wood-floored, and the space is heated and air-conditioned. Cook’s eyes—framed as usual by horn-rimmed frames—sparkle with possibility. He and Sanborn dream of stoned bro-downs and late-night recording sessions. When Cook jokes about the “sketchy records” they might make, Sanborn suggests they release them on a label called “Sketchy Records.” Brad then quips that they’ll “send out the demo” by chucking them out the window. “There’s like two 13-year-olds who are really into our Tumblr page who come here and catch them,” Nick laughs.
Such escalating jokes are par for the Megafaun course. The core trio grew up together in Eau Claire, Wis., and they’ve known Sanborn for most of that time. Their communication is quick and jovial. When they’re all in one room, it can be tough for others to get a word in at all.
But that doesn’t happen much these days. Westerlund relocated to California three years ago, accompanying his wife, who recently finished a graduate program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His visits are mostly limited to tours and recording sessions, but the distance didn’t hamper Megafaun’s productivity—or their ambition. Heretofore, their third LP, arrived in 2010. That record reached for expansive Southern rock without forsaking the band’s typically flavorful effects or their off-the-cuff urgency. 2011’s Megafaun refined things further. It’s a diverse double album that packages the band’s pop and avant-garde tendencies into separate compartments. The found-sound percolations of “These Words” have little in common with the twanging Brit-pop of “Second Friend,” but they’re both strong.
Today, Westerlund isn’t the only one out of town. Phil is in Europe, touring behind This Side Up, a solo EP that transforms the barebones blues instrumentals of his one-man band, Phil Cook & His Feat, into hard-driving roots rock. [See elsewhere on the BLURT site for our interview, “Phil’s Story,” with Phil Cook.] Brad and Nick are also busy. They split bass duties in the new Durham crew Loamlands and play infrequent DJ sets as the Righteous Bros. Brad and Phil perform regularly with Hiss Golden Messenger, one of many outlets that utilizes the elder Cook’s prowess behind the keys. In September, Sanborn hit the road with Sylvan Esso, a duo that leverages the suffocating bass he conjures as Made of Oak to create a danceable thrum behind Amelia Meath’s lulling croon; they’re also a couple. Westerlund hasn’t lightened his load either. This year, he’s played drums for a pair of sterling folk-rock outfits, Califone and Mount Moriah.
Megafaun has been off the road since last September, and their activity has been sporadic since. But this relentless quartet can’t help but keep moving, even when they change direction.
“We’re coming off of about five or six years of making Megafaun our top priority,” Westerlund offers, “in our professional lives, but even at times over our personal lives. It’s a lot of pressure on one thing to try to make it everything—make it pay the bills, make it creatively fulfilling. I think we have been, in the past, trying to fulfill all of our creative desires through that one vehicle. About a year ago, we just decided that it would be healthier to not do that anymore, to not put so much pressure on it. Over that last year, we’ve actually done quite a few things.”
Megafaun’s members each treated their time off a little differently. For six months, Brad broke from his music, working 40-hour weeks to help his friends Sam Ratto and Chris Heavener open their Videri Chocolate Factory in nearby Raleigh. His brother threw himself at various projects, reigniting The Shouting Matches, a joyous rock trio which allows Phil and Justin Vernon, along with Brian Moen of Peter Wolf Crier, to revel in their deep love for bluesy rock—and planning a May tribute to Ry Cooder’s Boomer’s Story with a small horde of talented friends. Westerlund continued to tinker with Grandma Sparrow, a bizarre project that twists tropes from traditional kids’ entertainment into a jarring, psych-beguiled romp. He’s been working on it since Megafaun’s first U.S. tour in 2007. He plans to release it next year.
For five years, they defined themselves by Megafaun’s successes. And while promoting the band is still a priority, they needed time to simply be themselves. The grind was especially hard on Brad. When they started, Megafaun’s shows were explosions of jubilant energy. They threw clappers and noisemakers into the crowd and encouraged elongated sing-a-longs. As their craft grew more rigorous, the sounds became richer, but he often felt the exuberance was lacking. They still loved playing together, but Megafaun needed to rest.
“If you think of us as foodies, we were basically eating at the same restaurant every night,” Brad says. “We care about music insanely. I can’t imagine us playing the same way every single night. I can’t imagine us doing the same thing and only trying to have this same experience every night with how much comes in and out of us musically, just like I can’t imagine being that passionate about food and eating at the same restaurant every night. Eventually, you’re going to want to make food at home. You’re going to want to have grill-outs with your buddies. You’re going to want to go to a fast food chain. You’re going to want to experience all the amazing food in a town like this. That’s how I feel about us and music.”
Diversifying their diet has meant more solitary ventures, but they’ve also spent plenty of time working together. Megafaun recently took Sounds of the South to Australia, performing their large-scale collaboration with the Richmond’s Fight the Big Bull as part of this summer’s Vivid LIVE festival at the Sydney Opera House. First performed in Durham in 2010, the program utilizes the boisterous jazz talents of Fight the Big Bull and vocal contributions from Vernon and others, reviving Alan Lomax’s cherished field recordings as fuel for a large-scale hootenanny, one that highlights the resiliency of Southern culture.
Megafaun also spent three days this summer scoring their first feature film. The filmmaker, born in North Carolina but living in Los Angeles, wanted a Tar Heel band to soundtrack his creation. A chance encounter at one of Megafaun’s shows set things in motion. It was the first time since their touring hiatus began that the core trio had played together by themselves. Regaining their rhythm wasn’t a problem.
“Joe and Brad and I work so good together,” Phil says. “All three of us have our strengths. I’ll sit down and do my thing—‘Phil, go in there and play a Dobro part,’ ‘Phil, go in there and do whatever.’ I do the many trades thing. Joe has these tiny ideas that end up being the most important ideas at the end of the day, so specific and so well thought out. They seem small, but they’re really huge. My brother is just this overarching arranger and producer. Seeing it be that easy when we hadn’t gotten together and played music as ourselves since last September, it was just great. If Megafaun became a film-scoring band, all three of us would just be elated.”
They work well in isolation, but collaboration has long been key to Megafaun’s evolution. Their most important connection might be Arnold Dreyblatt (above, second from left) an American-born composer living in Berlin whose tone-shifted minimalism has long been an influence. In 2008, Megafaun found themselves signed to Table of the Elements, a since shuttered imprint with a taste for the left-of-center and a frequent home for Dreyblatt. Thus linked, they backed him on a North American tour, carving out rustic warmth within his clattering reverberations. They were asked to resurrect their alliance at last year’s Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh. Enthused with the experience, they entered the studio. The resulting Appalachian Excitation breaks two years of studio silence for Megafaun. It also boasts the most vivid textures—and challenging structures—that they have ever produced.
Dreyblatt’s work relies on intricate overtones, played on a bass that he invented and reinforced by a tuning system that favors subtle shifts over sweeping melody. His ensembles conjure noisy tension only to explode with jittery excitement. With Megafaun’s help, Dreyblatt’s techniques become more organic. Take “Home Hat Placement.” The eight-minute stunner moves with a bluegrass rollick, stark mountain strings alternately opposing and supporting the composer’s otherworldly chimes. Sometimes, the pressure builds between them, harsh tones swelling violently below Megafaun’s steady propulsion. But they always find each other, locking into kinetic passages that feel like refrains. It’s every bit as cathartic as Megafaun’s biggest choruses, albeit in a different way.
“If we all land on the same note, it fucks with the pressure in your head,” Brad says of performing with Dreyblatt. “All the sudden, there’s no harmonic tones. There’s just one pure tone, and you just feel like you walked into the weirdest space. If one person changes that, it’s dizzying. That kind of shit, I love with his music. When we all land on something, it’s exciting. We surprise ourselves, and we’re like, ‘Yes! That was a perfect move!’ Or we’d land on something that would keep making it more tense, and you would feel that. That’s how I knew how well we all knew each other: We’d all hit the one and clear the whole air of the room.”
Back on the deck, the conversation soon turns to Megafaun’s most recent performances, a pair of gigs in Carrboro, N.C., on the same day last September—the first at a free outdoor event, the second inside the famed Cat’s Cradle. Megafaun don’t regularly get high before they play, but they did that night. Already set on taking a break, they indulged in a pre-set blaze. Thus lubricated, they stretched and twisted their road-honed creations, recapturing the creative enthusiasm that Brad had been missing. He doesn’t know when or where their next performance will happen, but he’s eager to feel that way again.
“The funniest part is actually figuring out when to play another Megafaun show,” he chuckles. “Even when we stop, we are still busier than we’ve ever been.”(Live Megafaun photo by Jordan Lawrence)