YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION Megafaun

The NC band continues its eclectic journey, in the process
rewriting more than a few books.

 

BY RYAN REED

 

Very few current and
relevant rock bands are able to balance the strange and the sublime quite like
North Carolina’s Megafaun. The trio (multi-instrumentalists Joe Westerlund and
brothers Brad and Phil Cook) have a history that often tends to overwhelm their
press – they used to play in DeYarmond Edison, which featured the talents of
now Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon – and that’s unfortunate. On their first
three releases, dating back to 2008, Megafaun have magically carved out their
own sonic identity, mixing together bluegrass instrumentation, Southern rock
edge, psychedelic studio exploration, and even bits and pieces of full-on free
jazz and musique concréte.

 

Their 2010 warm-up EP, Heretofore,
was the sound of a band refining its strengths as they stretched their legs;
their new self-titled effort is more natural and refined, even as they continue
their eclectic journey. The wonderful instrumental highlight
“Isadora” finds the band voyaging through Frank Zappa-esque color to
a yearning country climax. On the other hand, “Kill the Horns” is
intimate and aching, little more than tear-streaked piano and fingerpicked
acoustic. As always, they cover their trademark stylistic gamut, but something
about this new effort seems more confident and patient: an exciting group of
musicians playing to their strengths, realizing the only critics they need to
impress are themselves. BLURT recently caught up with Phil Cook, and we
discussed the band’s wonderful new album, their newfound acoustic focus, and
the spiritual themes flowing through the lyrics.

 

**

 

BLURT: One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of your songs is that they
feel very free in terms of tempo and structure, as if Megafaun is recording
without a click track – and possibly improvising at times. Is there any truth
to that?

PHIL COOK: Well,
some stuff we did and some we didn’t depending on the song. We follow
spontaneity most of the time while recording. It usually allows for our
favorite moments on the albums.

 

This album sounds less self-conscious and maybe even more
relaxed and easy-going than anything you’ve done to date. Is there a reason for
that?

We
recorded the record in the land that we all grew up in, which is the Chippewa
Valley in northwestern Wisconsin. We were there as fall was ending and winter
was beginning. It was quite cold, and we ate lots of warm and hearty meals. We
ate dinner with our parents almost every night at the studio. We were around
our oldest friends each day. If it sounds relaxed, it’s because we were, in
fact, entirely relaxed.

 

Certain songs have their complexities, but others, like
“Resurrection,” feel almost written subconsciously – as if you were
sort of writing the song in real-time as it was being recorded. Several tracks
only have a handful of chords and sort of a repeating lyrical motif, almost a
mantra. Were any of these songs born out of just a sketch where you just played
a section over and over until something bloomed?

Many
songs just “happened” on the spot, for instance “Real Slow”
and “State/Meant”. Both of those were tracked as we wrote them for
the most part. Joe’s songs tend to be more planned out than ours, but that’s
still relatively loose. We’d take turns starting our each day with one of our
sketches and usually by mid afternoon we’d have it tracked.

 

Talk a little bit about the closer, “Everything.” First
of all, who’s singing with you guys on that track, and how did that
collaboration come about? Those added vocals really give the track a mysterious
edge. Also, tell me a little about the lyrics. I was struck by some of the
spiritual themes on this album, and that track is definitely no exception. The
line “I guess everything came from everything, and it’s everything we’re
headed for” really sounds like a loose spiritual outlook

That’s
one of my songs, and I asked Frazey Ford to sing on it, and she agreed, which
still sends me reeling. I’m a big fan of her music and of her previous band,
The Be Good Tanyas. The lyrics are very personal for me. I have a hard time
writing lyrics. I’ll add a line here and there, but my main contribution is
instrumentally flushing out all the songs. My biggest problem with writing
lyrics is that as soon as I find an idea, it snowballs immediately into the
meaning of life. I had to come up with something for that song. One day, I was
confiding to Brad that I was paralyzed because everything became everything all
the time. Then, the very next day, I was taking a nap and woke up with those
exact words you quoted in my head. I’m a big picture guy, as I said, and one
thing I see in us is that we see what we want to see. We find what we want to
find. If we’re looking for meaning in anything, then we’ll find meaning in
anything.

        At the same time, the world is pretty
overwhelming. I tend, like many suffering artists, to get stuck in my head and
retreat to both the comfort and terror of my own thoughts. The chorus line, to
me, is a shoulder shrug toward that paralyzing tendency. Yeah, so the world’s
going to hell in a hand basket; what else is new? You gonna just sit and watch
it happen or are you gonna go do what you’re meant to do and create a little
happiness for yourself in the meantime?

 

Another track that introduces some more overt spiritual vibes is
“You are the Light,” and the line, “You are the light of the
Lord.” What does religion mean to you guys? For a lot of musicians, even
if they don’t practice the religion themselves, it’s a concept and thought that
sticks with them for the rest of their lives and in their art.

Joe
wrote “You Are The Light.” He grew up in a very religious home. We
all grew up going to church, and our parents still attend church. We stopped
going in our adolescence, but I’m thankful for my experience. The community was
healthy and encouraging. Joe’s wrote the song for his father, who is an amazing
man. I can’t speak fully about the personal weight of it, but they have a close
relationship, and the moment he played the song for his dad was emotional. We
all understand religion though music because they tend operate the same way. We
follow them in similar ways.

 

That hidden track at the end is absolutely terrifying! I was
listening on headphones late at night, and I had just been almost soothed to
sleep by “Everything,” and then this thing comes on and scares the
hell out of me! First off, it reminded me of “Revolution #9” by The
Beatles – a sort of musique concrete thing, and when I thought about it, this
album is sort of like your White Album. It’s really, really all over the place and self-titled. Any
thoughts?

Again,
Joe. Just to be clear, whenever we use tape collage in our music, that’s Joe.
He likely spent about 40 hours carefully placing each and every event in the
hidden track (It’s called “Rooster Egg”), and the voice he cut up is
our friend Graham, who we sat down in front of a mic and let riff for about 15
minutes. The song itself was a one-take stumble where we traded instruments:
Brad on drums, Joe on guitar, and me on fiddle, which I do not play. We were
laughing the whole time. Great memory.

 

I feel as if I didn’t hear a single electric guitar on this
album. Besides the occasional use of electronics, this album sounds completely
acoustic in nature, from the guitars to (the majority of) the keyboards to the
strings and horns that pop up now and again. Were you consciously trying to
make a more acoustic-styled album, or was that something that just happened
naturally when you got together and started writing?

We
still base ourselves in acoustic sound. Technology is dated the second it’s
released or updated. That’s why you can still find bluegrass records from the
’80s that don’t seem like it. While we love to use electronics and synthesis
and embrace their strengths, we balance that with acoustic sound. We still play
all acoustic, un-amplified shows, because let’s be honest; every concert until
a hundred years ago was just that. It resonates so modest and true for everyone
involved. Lots of bands have been getting back into it. It shares roots with
urban farming and the vinyl resurgence.

 

It’s definitely your calling card, but this album definitely
covers so much stylistic ground – from country to bluegrass to free jazz to
psychedelia. You guys also cover a lot of ground from a production/engineering
perspective. Were you conscious of recording things in various ways?

Well,
many of our heroes share a common recording philosophy. Be in service to the
song. Follow it. We try and do that too. Also, it helps that BJ Burton has an
instinct for the vibe of each song. He’s completely amazing.

 

This is a very long album – at 15 tracks and an hour. Did you have
more music left that you didn’t use? Did you ever consider doing a double
album?

We
recorded about 20 tracks and not only cut five, but cut “Get Right” from 15
minutes down to its current 8-minute length. We know it’s a longer record but
we also know that the fans that meet us halfway and trust our trajectory will
have more to digest and keep in the long run.

 

I remember in a press release for Heretofore that you
guys were sort of treating that album like a preview, or warm-up, for this
self-titled release. Was that really the case, and what did you learn from that
album?

We
learned that working in a real studio with good mics and a good sounding room
is ideal. I’m thankful for our “bedroom years,” and they’re not over
with by any stretch, but to work in a studio such as April Base was utterly
inspiring each and every day, and the improvised moments had more depth and the
feeling translated better. We write, by and large, using sketches and building
them up quickly in the studio and sitting with the mixes until we realize what
we can peel away.

 

What’s a live Megafaun show like? Are the audiences generally OK
with you guys playing the weirder, more abstract stuff live? And do you ever
shy away from that more abstract material?

We
change up the songs all the time. Night to night, we work on stretching what
needs stretching and compressing what needs compressing. It’s a process and we
follow it like religion. We’re looser live than we are on record, for sure. A
trio can only pull off so much, so we focused on vibe and feeling more then
arrangement in the last few years. Now, we’ve added a fourth member, Nick
Sanborn on bass, and we have more opportunity to work on other areas.

 

Finally, I wanted to ask you to talk a little about my two
favorite tracks (currently). First off is “These Words.” I absolutely
loved the water sound-effects and the hypnotic atmosphere of this one-the
marimba, that awesome drum pattern.

That,
again, is Joe. Well constructed, thoughtful, and fresh. That’s what you can
expect out of him at all times, and it’s why he’s an amazing bandmate.

 

Also, there’s “Isadora.” It’s like this acoustic bluegrass
symphony or something, with the double-bass, strings, horns. It’s almost like a
country-prog film score. It’s clearly hard to describe.

Joe.
Joe. Joe. He wrote the melody and structure. We recorded it live with guitar,
bass, and drums then added the extra instruments. The Bowerbirds’ Mark Paulson
put down the strings in Raleigh. It was all organic in its growth and nature.
It follows our pattern as a band, I think. Slow and steady. Aware. Natural.

 

[Photo
Credit: Sara Padgett]

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