North Carolina-by-way-of-Wisconsin trio Megafaun know a thing or two about sonic reinvention. Formed in the wake of the dissolution of DeYarmond Edison, after that group's frontman, Justin Vernon, headed back home to Eau Claire and began his path to eventual worldwide stardom with Bon Iver, the band booked their first tour with just four completed songs to their name. They preferred to take the rest of their nascent songwriting steps on stage rather than from the comforts of home. This fearless embrace of change continues to define the band five years later, with their improvisation-rooted take on Americana sounding decidedly grown up and smoothed out on their just-released self-titled sophomore full-length. They still traffic in unique textures and unconventional arrangements, but have turned down the cacophony and cranked up the melody, resulting in a record that's more American Beauty-era-Jerry Garcia groovy than freak-folk fierce.
A wide-ranging and bold record that weighs in at a hefty 62 minutes, Megafaun showcases a band comfortable in its own melodically molting skin. Multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Brad and Phil Cook and drummer Joe Westerlund sound equally at ease playing the role of sample-heavy headphone-skronk provocateurs (featuring looped field sounds from Westerlund's travels in Bali), proffering a pristinely harmonized romantic piano ballad ("Hope You Know"), or a jaunty horn-centered instrumental ditty (the jubilantly orchestrated "Isadora").
Brad Cook took time out to answer questions for City Pages in advance of the band's big semi-homecoming gig at the Cedar Cultural Center.
City Pages: All albums are informed to a degree by the physical environment in which they're recorded. How did decamping back to Eau Claire and [Justin Vernon's studio] April Base to record Megafaun impact the tone of the final product?
Brad Cook: This record is definitely a product of its environment. Recording it where we grew up and spent years learning how to play together informed a particular type of nostalgia that gave us the confidence to be a bit clearer, immediate on the songwriting front. It was easy to measure growth and change in that environment. It was also very safe and comfortable. We weren't going to a new location to record every day. We were able to really create our own little universe and live in it as well.
CP: The band has repeatedly embraced opportunities to step outside of itself and work in more collaborative projects, from serving as the backing band on tour to acts like Bowerbirds and Arnold Dreyblatt to joining Gayngs. What drives the band to pursue collaborative opportunities at seemingly every turn?
Cook: We are forever students of this craft. Like music, or anything else really, understanding someone's perspective is invaluable. We love to get inside of other people's world and see things from their point of view. Everyone talks about music so differently and has such different standards, motives, and lexicon. We just thrive on that type of education.
CP: Many bands spout clichés like "this band is a family." But in the case of Megafaun that's actually true. Does having blood relatives in the band result in a different creative dynamic?
Cook: Absolutely. Phil and I have been playing together for a long time. Inevitably there are times when our familiarity is frustrating, but we work hard to teach each other new things all the time. We are extremely close, but just like the music, we are always trying to fine-tune our communication as well. Every year we understand each other personally and musically that much more and I wouldn't trade that intimacy and transparency for anything.
CP: While Megafaun is in many respects the band's most conventionally pleasing record and least overtly experimental, you chose to release easily the most "out there" track as the first single at the risk of alienating a growing fan base. Why did you select "These Words" as the first song to share publicly?
Cook: "These Words" was the most obvious choice for a single to me because in a lot of ways, I feel as though this song is one of the most comprehensive Megafaun tunes we have arrived at. It taps into a lot of ideas we have been trying to develop for a long time and Joey has an incredible ear for this type of construct. Then again, I would say a song like "Hope You Know" is far more "out there" for us because it puts us out there in a far more naked way. We are so at home with improvisation and texture that songwriting feels like the most experimental avenue for our band right now. Lyrics are still very new to our band.
CP: Previous Megafaun records felt more defined by unique sound textures or attention-grabbing unconventional arrangements. This album feels more anchored in the songwriting. A fair assessment?
Cook: We love growth. We thrive off of it. Songwriting is a scary thing for a bunch of dudes that spent their whole life as arrangers. It seems logical to us to attack those challenges dead on. If we fail, we fail, but we need to get better and we are comfortable doing it publicly.
CP: Tough question time. Now, five years on from your big move, which feels like home, Wisconsin or North Carolina?
Cook: North Carolina all the way. We really found ourselves here. That is said with 100 percent respect to Wisconsin, which still remains our second favorite place in the USA.
MEGAFAUN play with Doug Paisley on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674
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