The men of Megafaun have arrived. Brothers Phil and Brad Cook along with Joe Westerlund have taken a lifelong friendship and used it to turn out sounds that hypnotize and capture. Their sophomore album “Gather, Form, and Fly” has been championed by audiences and critics alike, with major publications and people throwing glowing praise and page space behind it. And it all makes sense when the unexpected surreal aural landscapes full of deft banjo rolls and bluesy harmonica feedback surrounded by rambling narratives told with ethereal harmony first filter into your ears.
After a while of supporting this album that has been throwing momentum behind the North Carolina trio, new things are happening. A mini-album, “Heretofore” has been slated to be released this summer, and the band’s touring is keeping a steady pace. Joe Westerlund believes that Megafaun is just beginning to take their lifelong musical experiences where they could go. He also admits to hiding things in his beard.
Kathleen Tarrant -Something that immediately pulled me into “Gather, Form, and Fly” as an album is this pattern of taking traditional folk structure with pretty harmonies and straightforward melodies and bringing it into some bizarre noise rock territory. How did that sound come about?
Joe Westerlund - We've always been into music that blended rootsy-er qualities with modern sounds. Once Middle School came around, bands started forming. I played drums with lots of different groups of friends for a while….wanna-be punk bands, metal bands, blues bands, alternative rock bands. Everything fell into place for me when I met Phil and Brad, and we started playing in a 9-piece sort-of-jam-band together. Getting into jam-band music definitely instilled this ideal in us that we shouldn't limit ourselves to one style of music. Though our musical tastes have fluctuated greatly since then, I think this is something that has stayed. Once college hit, and we started considering music as a career more seriously, there seemed to be more pressure put on us to pick a sound/style and stick with it. I guess at that age you start becoming aware of this adult world where it’s important to specialize in something, to be the best at something, in order to market yourself. The three of us definitely wrestled with that idea throughout the last 10 years or so. I think the sound you’re describing is a product of our genuine interest in not only listening to, but performing many different types of music. If we hear something we like, we'll try to incorporate it into our music; send it through our band filter. But we're also careful to make sure we balance the original essence of certain traditions with our own authentic expression.
KT -Do you think once a song is recorded that is the end of its development?
JW -Yes and No. There are two opposing factors in our band that create our relationship between studio recording and live performing: 1) We have access to and proficiency on many different instruments 2) We are only a trio. We feel it’s important to let our studio recordings become their own thing, to exist separately from the live version. Thus, we don't hold back from layering extra instruments in the studio. Doing this frees us to develop a "definitive" version of song, and fully explore its character. It’s important for us to have this recorded reference point when we start arranging the live version. We usually begin by picking the most essential parts (i.e. banjo, guitar, drums, etc.) and work from there. Over time, the instrumentation, or the overall feel of a song may change to fill it out for the live setting. We don't want to just strip our songs down for the live setting, so the songs start to morph as we try new things night to night.
KT -The song Kaufman’s Ballad is rumored to have a story behind it. What is that story?
JW -The lyrics to Kaufman's Ballad were co-written by Brad and our friend Perry Wright. It’s about the unsuccessful burning of Graham Parson's body at the Joshua Tree National Forrest. It’s interesting story…a part of folk/country lore from the 60s. Many of the songs we write are very autobiographical. Brad happens to be a bit more ambitious when it comes to writing lyrics. He had heard this story and became obsessed with it. I think it just sounded to him like a story that would make a good song. It’s the song we've opened with more than any other. It has this sort of conjuring feeling and a power to focus our set and bring listeners in.
KT - Your music seems to have varied traditional roots and inspirations. How much of the traditional do you feel has to be brought into the new? Can the inspiration ever be completely left out of what it inspires?
JW -I really like your last question here: Can the inspiration ever be left out of what it inspires? Hmmmm…..I think that's what every creative individual strives to do whether you're a folk songwriter, an actor, a painter, a basketball player, or a chef. This is a just another way of identifying the term "authentic expression." Your authentic expression is what individualizes you from your peers and your past. However, your peers and your past are what shaped you as an individual in the first place, so it’s virtually impossible to completely separate yourself from your influences. Being comfortable with letting your influences and inspirations remain somewhat visible in your music, I feel, can be a healthy thing. It allows you to grow naturally into finding your own voice. I used to think I'd eventually arrive at a point in my life when everything I write sounds only like myself. Every time we write and record I am always presented with a harsh reminder that I need to constantly struggle in order to express myself authentically, as opposed to regurgitating ideas from my influences. Can we separate the inspiration from what it inspires? I don't think so. Even if, say, I told you the music of Anthony Braxton inspired a song like "Worried Mind", certainly the reference would be obscured. But what ever it was that I originally found in that inspiration, I believe is still there. That's the beauty of being open to writing within a variety of musical languages: the basic intention and expression of creativity becomes the unifier.
KT - You describe yourselves as “bearded brutes” on your website. I’ve never heard a band identified by their facial hair as much as I have Megafaun. Does that mean your beards should be counted as separate members?
JW -Bearded Brutes!??! Really? I don't know about separate members, but the beards do come in handy! We can hold many small objects in our beards, such as pens, pieces of string, fortune cookies, and pocket dictionaries! We all have beards. We like having beards. People know we're a band before they even start talking to us, because we have beards. I personally like having a beard because its hard to maintain a clean-shaven face on the road, or maybe I'm just lazy. My wife loves it, she also made me grow my hair out, and I'm glad she did. If I ever cut it off, I bet I'd have to buy one of those penis enlargers to keep her around!
KT - From “Bury the Square” to “Gather, Form, and Fly” you embraced more structure in your songwriting, and yet a fascinating exploration of songwriting in general. Do you go deeper into that in “Hertofore” or is it a new direction for the band entirely?
JW - I think our song writing skills improved with Gather, Form, and Fly, because we were more focused on that aspect of our band. The instrumental parts of Bury the Square are actually very structured, even though they sound free-form. We spent countless hours editing the end of "Where We Belong," the end of "Drains," and the beginning of "Tired and Troubled." I'd say the same about the end of "Guns," "Coulmns," and the beginning of "Impressions of the Past." In Heretofore, we've gone further in both the instrumental and songwriting directions. This mini-album consists of five relatively concise and straight-forward songs, as well as a twelve minute, unedited, live trio improvisation with two guitars and drums. We re-contextualized it as a composition by reshaping it with overdubs and instrumental contributions from friends. This was the major project of the record, the most collaborative. Its also the thing we all struggled with the most, on many levels. Including this experiment amongst five very polished songs, reaffirmed to me that experimentation is an essential part of this band's existence. We feel this is not only important for ourselves to experience, but for our audience as well. Just as we believe in risking the perfectly executed show for a unique live experience, we also believe in show casing our imaginations in the recording studio. Sometimes it feels like we're reaching for something we don't quite have a grasp on, but keeping these things hidden from our audience would obscure the direct line of communication we desire, and we'd fail to be ourselves.
Gigbot Downlow’ds bring you better-than-backstage access to touring musicians that you can get behind. Knowledgeable interviews, exclusive photos, free tickets, and musical tracks are brought to your browser by Gigbot’s team of music-loving mechanics to help you catch some the great talent that comes to your neighborhood.
Know the shows - and who is gonna go, with Gigbot. It’s about the best thing that has happened to live music since the whammy bar. See More Downlowd’s →