While the multitasking Tarheel – of Megafaun fame, natch – might chafe at the term “Renaissance man,” considering his new solo album and upswing in outside projects, well… you be the judge, readers.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
This April, Phil Cook found himself wandering around California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The Durham, N.C.-based guitarist, banjoist, pianist and general jack of seemingly every roots music trade, was playing the dual-weekend mega event with The Shouting Matches, a rock ‘n’ roll trio led by his longtime buddy Justin Vernon. When Vernon’s not playing with Phil and reaffirming his love for earnest rock born in the heart of Dixie, he serves as the Kanye West-collaborating leader of the beloved Bon Iver. That kind of fame comes with its perks, among them top-tier festival slots for your labor-of-love side projects.
As Cook explored, colorfully clad crowds buzzed with eager anticipation, thrilled at the prospect of seeing some favorite musician — perhaps with assistance from the holographic specter of another departed icon. But Cook was bummed. He was seeking a sound to latch onto, something that excavated essential roots with forward-thinking concepts. Instead, he found artist after artist that dug no further than Radiohead’s tech-rock landmark OK Computer, ignoring all but the last 16 years of popular music. His frustration curdled into despair.
“This machine of society, it’s just moving faster and faster exponentially all the time,” Cook offers a few months later, chatting via phone as he cruises down curving mountain highways in West Virginia. The route has become familiar to him these past few years. It’s the road back to his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisc., the road that delivered him to the South, connecting him physically with the music that inspires him most.
“The more people are just looking at screens, the more people are just looking to somebody else to tell them what to do, what to listen to, art’s going to fall by the wayside,” he continues. “I honestly believe that. It’s kind of pessimistic. But I think the thing that is unique about America is the music that coincides with our complicated history. The music is an expression of and a beautiful silver lining of all that. It’s so obviously what we have to offer the world that’s so pure and good.”
When it comes to defending folk, blues and other time-tested American forms, Cook can preach with the best of them. And he practices those principles in every project he takes on. Lately, he’s been practicing a lot.
In September, Megafaun — a trio that finds Phil playing with his brother, Brad Cook, and their longtime friends Joe Westerlund and Nick Sanborn — will break two years of studio silence with Appalachian Excitation, a fiercely original collaboration with minimalist mastermind Arnold Dreyblatt. For Megafaun, it’s a return to unbridled experimentation after the skewed Southern rock of their self-titled 2011 collection, adapting Dreyblatt’s unique sense of rhythm to twisted old-time melodies and psych-beguiled folk textures.
But Cook hasn’t taken Megafaun’s relative absence as a vacation. He recently served as musical director for the forthcoming, Vernon-produced LP from the Blind Boys of Alabama, a legendary gospel troupe that dates back to 1939. And somehow, amid his work with The Shouting Matches — who released the spirited Grownass Man in April — and Durham’s Hiss Golden Messenger — who released the spiritually searching Haw two weeks earlier — Phil found time to indulge in solo ventures. In May, he rallied a band of cherished friends to back him for a night as he recreated Boomer’s Story, one of Ry Cooder’s oft-forgotten roots rock classics. He also managed to record five of his own songs, utilizing his stark and stimulating style of solo picking as the basis for swaggering full-band blues. The resulting This Side Up arrives this week (Aug. 13, 2013) on the local Trekky label.
“I just keep saying yes, and the opportunities are cooler,” he laughs, contemplating his cramped calendar. “I probably could exercise a little bit of a ‘no’ gene, which I seem to have lost touch with or never developed in my life. I haven’t figured out how to exercise that muscle yet. So far, it’s worked out, and I’m still hanging on by a bare thread some days. But once every few months, I look down the horizon and feel like I have a grip on it for that evening. As long as I’m not totally lost in space, I’m happy to continue.”
This Side Up shows no signs of fatigue. Powered by the rolling patters of drummer Yan Westerlund — Joe’s younger brother — and Sanborn’s melodic and muscular bass, Cook’s seemingly simple melodies easily bare the weight of full arrangements. The album makes this power easy to recognize; three of the four songs that ended up on the EP are retooled from renditions he first released as Phil Cook and His Feat, the foot-drumming solo act he pursued for about two years before refocusing on his guitar tones and technique.
“I realized that I never practiced with my feet anyway, and my feet don’t have great endurance and can’t keep time super well,” Cook recalls. “So I fired them and just started playing without all the drums and the feet stuff, which I liked a lot. But then I kind of was desiring a little drive behind everything, so after a while it just seemed natural and I called up Yan. It kind of occurred to me, ‘Why don’t I add some low end too? And we’ll see what happens, just make a classic trio.”
Recorded at home during a thunderstorm, the original “D.L.’s Holler” is a sharp and direct slice of acoustic blues, laced with biting tones that cut right to the bone. The version that opens This Side Up is barely recognizable. The probing melody is steeped in spacious distortion, echoing and augmenting itself as Yan matches Cook with his own kinetic clamor. Even better is the new “Frazee, MN,” which fills out a fragile tune from Phil’s 2011 album, Hungry Mother Blues, with robust dobro and flirtatious piano. Thus improved, it becomes a pristine musical space to get lost in for a few hours — though it only lasts for three short minutes.
For Cook, these fresh takes are nothing new. He says he’s always heard his melodies balanced out by bigger arrangements. And he’ll prove it again soon as he plans to begin work on his first solo album to feature words and singing. As with the folk tradition he holds so dear, the only way he could move forward was to look back, to revisit his own work and reshape it to better represent the sounds in his head.
“Any artist that you listen to is a product of so many decades of things that happened in their life and music they listened to,” he says. “Being able to explore the roots of whatever happened, it just gives you so much better perspective on what their trajectory actually is.”