Megafaun: TAS In Session
Megafaun has released three albums since they formed from the ashes of DeYarmond Edison back in 2006 (that band's former frontman is Bon Iver's Justin Vernon). However, it's the Durham, North Carolina/Los Angeles, California, group's quietly confident, self-titled fourth album, released in September on Hometapes, that has earned them not only impressive crticial reviews, but a fresh start as a band.
All three of Megafaun's founding members — brothers Brad and Phil Cook and drummer Joe Westerlund — sing and write lyrics. For the recording of this new album, they paid particular attention to tighter songcraft rather than leaning on the looser jams that characterized their earlier releases, like 2009's Gather, Form and Fly. Proving that band breakups can sometimes be fortuitous — and that the dissolution of DeYarmond Edison might be the healthiest band divorce ever — the album was recorded in Vernon's April Base studios and he even plays guitar on one track, "Get Right." The record was co-produced by The Love Language's B.J. Burton.
Megafaun, a quartet on the road with the addition of bassist Nick Sanborn, are touring the Southeast this month, kicking off their road trip on November 10 in Wilmington, North Carolina, but they dropped by The Alternate Side not long ago, with Phil's 3-month-old baby in tow, to play a mini-set of songs from their much-praised new release, including "State/Meant," "Real Slow" and "Second Friend," a song written by Westerlund for his wife.
You can hear the Megafaun session when it airs on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, November 11 at 11 a.m. ET and streaming on The Alternate Side:
Kara Manning: Do you consider this your third or fourth album?
Brad Cook: Our fourth. We say four because we have four CDs on our merch table.
Kara: “Real Slow” is the first song on the album; was it the first song written?
Phil Cook: No, it was kind of midway through recording the record; we just has one afternoon where I was playing a guitar figure that ended up being the intro for this song and then we slowed that down and did it in a half hour. We laid down the entire track. It was pretty awesome.
Kara: The thing I love about Megafaun is that Brad, Phil and Joe — you all sing, you all write songs. Someone takes the lead on each song and before the session started, we named various other bands that did that like Fleetwood Mac, Drive-By Truckers and the Beatles. But when you started, was that the original intent?
Brad: Absolutely. When we started out, our first practice was in the fall of 2006 and our first tour was booked before we’d written any songs, in November of 2006. We basically forced ourselves to write songs, all three of us contributed one song each and we went on tour and played a half hour set with three songs. We did seven shows. It was pretty fun.
Kara: You were on tour with The Mountain Goats which seemed so appropriate, for Megafaun. Did you have secret names for the tour, like the “Billy Goat” tour?
Phil: John Darnielle, the frontman of Mountain Goats, really was fond of making up these limericks that were really dark and archaic about Megafaun. They were really twisted, it was great.
Kara: People who’d seen you in the past, when you were touring for Gather, Form and Fly or Bury the Square, are used to seeing you with beards. You were a very hairy band who jammed for a very long time. Now there’s less hair and with this new album, you've talked about the need to really tighten the songcraft. Was there a reasoning?
Joe: I think we felt that things were going that way, but we never really discussed it. A lot of the sounds that we came out of the studio with on this record, I think we surprised ourselves just as much. We never really talked about [what we needed to do]. I think we all felt it and did it.
Phil: We actually don’t talk about anything in terms of planning. When we go to make a record, we just all bring in songs.
Brad: This is the first record that we made that we had to cut tunes off of. Every other record we made; the songs that were brought are the record. So it was a new experience. Whatever we bring in ends up becoming a record.
Kara: Didn’t you start with about 30 songs for this record?
Phil: We had 20 tracks that were recorded so we cut five or six.
Joe: We actually had 30 demos.
Brad: It’s really important to us to make the distinction, at least for ourselves, in terms of songwriting too. It still feels like the greatest experiment we could be doing as non-songwriters prior to this band. So I think we thrive off challenge and circumstances that provide us with that challenge. A way that we can work together to solve that in songwriting feels like a really big challenge to us. Improvising and playing free-spirited music. We were really comfortable booking a tour before we’d written a song. I think, actually, recognizing how much power songwriting can have. I’m sure everyone goes through this to some degree, but it’s a really intense process and for guys playing music for a long time, it’s incredibly new to us.
Kara: So the process of getting those 30 demos, was that painstaking or natural?
Joe: Really natural.
Brad: Every day we’d wake up and we wouldn’t talk about anything from the day before. Like the song “Get Right.” We just got into the studio the first day and our engineer was setting up mikes and we started playing it. I almost felt like it was me showing them; it was one last idea I didn’t get to show them and we just started jamming on it. Before we knew it, we recorded the song that day. We even, subconsciously, alternated who decided to show an idea that day. If Phil did one the day before, I do a day and then the next day, Joe.
Kara: I think Joe, you spoke in an interview of the challenge of personal lyric writing. The boundaries of that and how frightening that was, to expose yourself.
Joe: Lyrics have always been difficult for us. I think lyrics provide the most embarrassment of anything you do musically. I think on this one, we had so much more to write about. We’re growing up and turning into real people. We have kids and wives. So many things are going on so there’s so much more to write about. I felt that I should personally tell the people I was writing these things about that I was doing this. This is really putting myself out there, and [them]. It feels very vulnerable in that way.
Kara: With this album, do you see a real rebirth or restart with this band?
Phil: I think that something was happening that felt really right and good. The whole time we recorded, all of our communication issues that anyone in a band has — or in a relationship — we had gotten past. [We were surprised by] how quickly we were working. How much space we’d given each other. As the session grew, and we got really excited by the whole process in general, assembling these songs from such a healthy, awesome place, I think when we got home we began to feel that this was how we should have been operating all along. There’s nothing that we’d rather be doing than this, with each other. We reached our full potential with what we can work. That was awesome.
Phil: “Second Friend” is a song that Joe wrote for his wife. She came on tour with us in Europe so he sang it to her every night which was really cool.
Joe: I’m still singing it to her!
Kara: You used to be in a band called DeYarmond Edison which split up. In one direction went your former lead vocalist, Justin Vernon, who formed a band called Bon Iver and then the three of you formed Megafaun. Not only are you all still great friends, but Justin actually plays on your record, on “Get Right,” and you recorded the album at April Base, his studio in Wisconsin. You’ve coached other bands and couples in how to have a great divorce. You did the right thing for yourself by breaking up.
Brad: I think that’s simply it. Being mature enough to recognize that we’re best friends. Justin, Phil, Joe and I have been best friends for 15 years. Trying to plug that friendship into another outlet might not have been the healthiest thing for us to do, even though we all learned a lot from it, but I think that separating those things, apart from the friendship, just made the friendship stronger and we’re all able to do music in a way that was much more suitable to our own ideas of what it should be and what it should sound like. To me, in hindsight, it was an incredible realization to make at that age. We also want to play music, but playing music together isn’t the best way for us to all play music. But our friendship is what it is and it can be totally separate.
Phil: Something I’ve realized in the last five years is that we started playing music when we were 15 and when you’re 15, you form a band like any other great 15 year old forming a band with all of his 15-year-old friends, you have these visions of how it’s all going to play out. How everyone’s going to make it in the end. But the longer we were a band, it was kind of crazy, because those things kept building and building. We incubated for about 10 years and didn’t pull the trigger on a lot of things that make a band a band. What we did is that we grew a lot, we really grew as friends, and we saw things happening around us. When the band broke up, all those things also bound us in, sheltered us, from the reality of how all of this actually works. All of us fell flat so when we got up off the ground, it was like a new world we were sitting in. We all loved music just as much, loved each other just as much, except we weren’t going to make it as we’d always pictured we’d make it. But we realized we had this opportunity. We had to pick up the pieces and move on. It’s funny that we’ve all achieved success. That dream was kind of broken and we had to face the real world as individuals and musicians. You’re right, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. Sometimes you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.
Kara: Was there a bumpy period? Justin is off in the woods, writing To Emma … Forever Ago — did you maintain communication?
Brad: No, because I think he threw his lap top into the snow, according to the legend (all laugh). It wasn’t healthy for a little while, but when he moved home, it wasn’t under the best of circumstances, to be honest with you. But we focused on our friendship first and foremost and it got a little complicated because we all got a little bit busier. But we made it a priority for all of us to find that again and really build it back up. I feel like in a lot of ways we’re stronger friends now than we ever were. And we were pretty close. We lived together for years. It was bumpy.
Kara: And as far as who would sing, were you a bit like Joy Division, looking about realizing you were now New Order [and needed a frontman] … and who would sing?
Phil: I think DeYarmond Edison broke up and less than ten days later Megafaun had its first practice.
Brad: We played the next day. Our first show was ten days later, but our first practice was the day after our last DeYarmond Edison show.
Kara: Justin is on “Get Right." He played guitar on that. Did he do anything else on the record?
Phil: No, he was there when we recorded, he was around.
Kara: You worked with B.J. Burton of The Love Language. He co-produced.
Brad: Yeah, he was my roommate. And Nick just got done touring with The Love Language. It’s really intertwined down in North Carolina! The Rosebuds had come across B.J. in North Carolina and worked with them and I was recording some basslines for them and I met B.J. He’s a really quirky dude but he’s amazing. Kind of brilliant. He’s like the perfect balance for us because he doesn’t listen or participate in any kind of music like we play! He’s really into a different thing entirely which makes his opinions really insightful with us. Fresh ears.
Joe: We went from him being a little bit more of an engineer on our Heretofore record and this time, he saw the most far-reaching thing we’d done. When we started the new record, I think he was comfortable enough to offer a lot more suggestions. We put him through the wringer … but even though he might not share all of the references that we do in music, he had such valuable input and wasn’t afraid to give it when he felt like we needed it.
Kara: Now “State/Meant” is Brad’s song and I read that this might be the most “classic” Megafaun song on the record. What does that mean?
Brad: This is a great way to explain it. Phil wrote the music and we wrote the lyrics together, but when we recorded the song, it wasn’t going to have any drums and it was just going to be the acoustic part. We thought that maybe it would be a passing idea and we’d all maybe sing over it … or maybe not. That whole song escalated so fast. Phil played the guitar, I heard the synth part and Joey [found the beat] and Phil put the bass down and the next thing we knew … everything was build in one day. So maybe “classic” Megafaun in that it combines a lot of what we do, even if it’s subtle, in a very effortless way.
Kara: The mega-opus on the album is “Get Right.” Where was the impetus for that song and how did you find the architecture of it?
Brad: I think the architecture is fundamentally, to us, more contemporary. It’s more like Yo La Tengo or one of those bands. I like that Yo La Tengo is really good at telling a story and setting up a song. Giving the music time to let the story digest and giving you time to get lost in your imagination of what things could be. I really like that about them. Lyrically, to me, it feels like a modern country song. If you took the choruses of this song, it’s very clear, straightforwad and sentimental. It was originally 13 minutes long. We shaved it four different times (laughs). Does it need to be 13 minutes? Let’s do it for 11 minutes. No, 11 seems long, let’s do it for nine and a half.
Phil: Ten. Ten is perfect.
Brad: And then we realized let’s make it long enough so when we play it live, it doesn’t freak anybody out if we play it for ten to fifteen minutes.
Kara: You must all be so excited about what is ahead for you. But when you look back over what’s gone on over the last six or seven years, what’s the thing that you all learned the most about each other as friends and musicians?
Phil: That question will probably sit with me the whole way on the drive home to North Carolina. But I realize that to get through this life, having people like Joe and Brad next to me is about the greatest feeling in the entire world. I don’t mind spending my entire existence within five feet of them. Especially when it comes down to honesty. Each of us have had times in which we’ve really needed somebody and the other two are there and help pick that person up. I feel really lucky to have it and I hope for other people who don’t have that … they can experience that one day.