Megafaun has been getting extra attention lately because of the North Carolina trio’s connection with Justin Vernon of the superstar indie-folk group Bon Iver. The members of Megafaun—brothers Phil and Brad Cook, and Joe Westerlund—came up with Vernon in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, eventually moving with him to Raleigh, North Carolina as part of the band DeYarmond Edison in the early ’00s. In spite of gaining a cult following, DeYarmond Edison never signed with a record label. When the group broke up in 2006, Vernon returned to Wisconsin to work on the songs that became Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. The rest of the band stayed behind in North Carolina and formed Megafaun, an outfit that has earned a reputation for being one of the most adventurous bands of its kind working today. Megfaun’s 2009 effort, Gather, Form & Fly, fearlessly meshed Grateful Dead-style psych-country with free jazz, gospel, and electronic music influences, resulting in one of the most original folk albums of the new century.
For last year’s Megafaun, the band has scaled back the rangy experimentation of its earlier releases for a more traditional folk-rock sound. It’s the most song-based record of the band’s career, tamping down the sonic edginess of Gather in favor of more focused and frequently gorgeous melodies. Before Megafaun’s show Tuesday, March 27 at Hi-Dive, The A.V. Club spoke with Phil Cook about the record, the band’s love of Top 40 country, and balancing musical demands with family.
The A.V. Club: Megafaun has been gradually building an audience over the past several years. Do you feel like you’re on the verge of something bigger?
Phil Cook: No, it seems to be more a part of our journey. It’s something we are able to grow ourselves. We’ll see how this record pans out. I feel like it’s another step in our songwriting goals and our production goals, and how we put out a vision and how we can focus on what we do. It seems to be translating to people digging us; we’re kind of a word-of-mouth band. I don’t think our avenues are necessarily traditional avenues. I kind of hope that’s how we stay. I really think the only way we can make a career off of this is if we earn a good level of trust from people that come to know us, and come to know our music like they come to know their friends.
AVC: How, specifically, do you feel Megafaun has grown with this latest record?
PC: You know how [when] you see a picture of yourself in high school, you just kind of say, “Oh man, I wish I could have told myself back then what life is like now.” You laugh at the glasses you were wearing, or whatever it is. I think that if you have those feelings, that means you have made a separation from the past and moved on to something else, and I really feel that with all of our records. I see what we’ve learned every tour. This one, our lyrics I’m really proud of. I think we’re starting to find our voices a lot more.
AVC: Megafaun is a lot more straightforward than your other records. Was that a conscious thing, like “We want to make this one a little less weird”? Or did it just come about organically?
PC: I think it was really organic. We just have a mindset that we always want to be progressing towards something, and we always want to be embracing change and kind of helping each other realize new ideas, new forms. Honestly, I feel like when we started this band we were already at a point where we had really been exploring texture and arrangement and sonics for quite a long time. Every record that goes by, I think songwriting is something that we are very interested in growing towards. When you are a really good songwriter, it affects not just your musical growth; it’s also a personal growth thing—you know, how you can express your thoughts—and it’s just basic communication growth.
AVC: What sets Megafaun apart from a lot of bands in your genre is that you’re both reverent of roots music and determined to deconstruct the form. Where does that impulse to experiment with old American music come from?
PC: Our country has music. It’s, like, the one thing we really have to offer the world that has originality to it and has character. We can stand up and say, “Yeah, this is us.” And, if you travel a lot, you sometimes hear the first question, “What do we have?” Every other place seems cooler than our country. But you know, the grass is always greener. Most people don’t realize what you have, what you do have to offer. I think it’s good to be able to let it all in. I love to be with people in Europe; they have a really good understanding of their history and culture and politics, and when I’m able to converse with them I just get so much out of it and I’m open to all of it. I want to do it with music, so therefore it comes up in our music in different ways.
AVC: What’s a musical influence on Megafaun that might surprise people?
PC: Brad [Cook] can sing you the lyrics, off the top of his head, to every single Top 40 country song there is today—anything from Sugarland to Josh Turner to whatever. He can flat-out give it to you; he’s just totally there. We love throwing on early Phish live bootlegs from the ’80s or early ’90s. That shit just totally inspires us. We get into French minimalism and musique concrete; Joe [Westerlund] really knows a lot about that kind of stuff. People don’t understand how inviting a lot of experimental music is.
AVC: You recorded Megafaun at Justin Vernon’s studio in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Why did you decide to make the record there?
PC: It’s actually, like, a world-class recording studio. We really haven’t spent that much time in anything other than very small studios and other sorts of things. So the opportunity to make a record not-in-our-bedroom, for once—we wanted to have a chance to get a little less room sound and get a little richer sonics. So that was the technical desire. Justin was incredibly gracious, and his whole team; they were just super great to us. And it’s our home. We ate there with our parents every night when we were recording. They would come out, bring food, and we’d all just have a family dinner. That was really awesome. It really felt like that helped the record. That helped us find that next level of honesty that we were craving.
AVC: You’re from Wisconsin, but Megafaun has been based in North Carolina for years now. Which place do you consider home?
PC: That’s a really good question. Honestly, you’re catching me the day after I was just in my family’s cabin in Wisconsin. I’m never going to belong solely to one place, but I absolutely love North Carolina and I’ve really planted my roots here. I love going home to Wisconsin, going back to my homeland, but I mean I really can’t wait to get back here, too. So that’s probably the best answer I can give you. [Laughs.] I think both are great.
AVC: Until recently, Eau Claire was a sleepy college town that was fairly isolated in Northwestern Wisconsin. Thanks to Bon Iver and Megafaun, it’s become a lot better known. Do you feel some pride about that?
PC: Hell yeah, man! A total amount of pride! I absolutely am just so excited for Eau Claire. It’s just awesome. Never doubt that a small group of like-minded individuals can change the world. I think that there’s a huge credit to [local publication] Volume One and their entire staff. My folks tell me that they read Volume One more intently than the Leader-Telegram or the Chippewa Herald. They’ve put out all sorts of opportunities for people to enjoy living in Eau Claire. There’s just a lot going on. There needed to be a critical mass of people who knew they were in the same city and had the same desires. I think that’s true of a lot of cities. That’s why I think something like Volume One is a miracle for a city of that size. People just being aware, “Hey, we’re not alone. We all want to live in a cool place. We all want to be proud of where we’re from. ’Cause it’s great.”
AVC: You recently became a dad, and now you’re touring behind a new record. Is it hard to be away from home?
PC: We’re making every effort to make it into a lifestyle that my son will get to share in. I’m sure he’s going to see the struggles. And he’s going to see all of our friends—get to know them all, and see it for what it is. I think that will be a really good slice of reality for him. I think being a musician is one of those things that, for the vast majority of us, we’ll always be kind of scraping by and making a lot of sacrifices, emotionally and financially, to do what we do. The rewards are just not financial, and shouldn’t be, because financial rewards only came into the picture 100 years ago. I really feel like music’s rewards are communal. If that’s the kind of riches you want to get out of music, then you can make the best friends you’ve ever made in your entire life, and see the world and do all this really great experiential stuff that a lot of people don’t count. I’m really happy to say we, as a band, count that among our highest assets, and I want to always hang onto that. I have faith I can raise my son in music. I think I have the right mindset.