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Megafaun by Sara Padgett

Weavers of heart strings, smooth-handed experimenters and semiotic serenaders, Megafaun are creatures of charming inquisitiveness, sniffing at the air and chasing tantalizing trails only they pick up on. What sets this brave, talented trio apart from many sonic adventurers is a knack for melody and harmony that defuses any scientific-like bellybutton fixation. It’s clear song craft matters to multi-instrumentalists Joe Westerlund and brothers Phil and Brad Cook, who never hamstring their exploratory urges but generally make sure there’s some element that makes one tap their toe, smiling thoughtfully while humming a tune or softly reciting a line that’s taken up residence in one’s head. And Megafaun does tend to settle into a person’s breast and brain, quickly laying down roots and throwing out shoots and flowers.

As “Age of Aquarius” as that may sound, this isn’t hippy-dippy claptrap. Megafaun – particularly as evidenced on their grand, outward-inward reaching 2011 self-titled album [one of DI’s 20 Favorite Albums of 2011] – simply enjoys and excels at handling deeper stuff than the average band. They don’t hesitate for a moment to submerse in thick, darkness-tinged waters, usually emerging with a dolphin-esque leap, some fresh catch in their mouths as a full moon hovers in the sky.

Megafaun - New Expanded Edition

But we digress…endlessly…and hopefully fruitfully as Megafaun, who have honed a special kind of rambling in their five short years together. Their innately humanistic and cosmic leanings share something with the Grateful Dead AND Ornette Coleman (and much else within those wide arms), but always flowing in a way most unmistakably Megafaun way. The combination of styles and interests in this band is simply too singular for anyone to hang a sign on them. But again, it merits noting that what they do glides like anything BUT avant-garde wonkery. Megafaun offers embrace, a hunger for understanding, and sheer, undisguised affection for catchy ditties and voices in resonant unity.

Put plainly, Megafaun is fascinating and loveable, a band worthy of one’s inspection and introspection because what they offer in return is a real gift, namely music that embiggens us and gently shifts how we look at the world.

The Impound snagged Phil and Joe for a handful of inquiries, and here’s what the lads had to say.

So, what the hell is a Megafaun anyway?
Joe: It isn’t necessarily anything in particular, besides our band, which is awesome because everyone can make up their own idea of what it is. My wife wanted us to call the self-titled record “Hairy Beast” because that’s what Megafaun means in her mind. We got the name from “Megafauna,” which you should Google image if you haven’t already. I don’t know if these images represent what we sound like, but they used to represent what we looked like, a little bit. Now, I’m the only hairy man, because I’m hairy genetically. Phil and Brad aren’t naturally as hairy, and decided to shave again. I dislike shaving – I like hair but not in my mouth, just around it. So, I keep my mustache pretty trim, and let everything else build up. Eating ice cream from a cone with a long mustache can humble even the worst cases of machismo.

Phil: A Megafaun is a made-up creature of sorts. A character based almost entirely on the past but for present tenses seems to elude most folks! Our name seems to be a metaphor for people’s guessing at what to call us or how to categorize us.

The word ‘organic’ is overused with music and art in general but it really seems to apply to new album. Self-titled albums tend to be mission statements and the flow, energy and character of this song cycle is just so very Megafaun. Was it your intention to distill the band’s mojo into a coherent statement?
Joe: We’re growing into the flow of our own band as time passes. We unanimously felt a huge leap once we started recording this last record, which is the major reason behind self-titling it. All the things that felt “weird” to us in past contexts were suddenly more integrated without being pushed aside. It takes a long time to integrate disparate musical ideas. You can’t force it, as much as you sometimes want to. We had to make three records before this one in order to reach this point musically. I think we’re entering a period where we can lighten the emphasis on expanding our palette so dramatically and focus more on exploring how we integrate all these elements we have sitting in front of us. Megafaun was basically our chance to look at each other, and everyone who listens, and just reaffirm that these sounds and structures will be our references for records to come.

Phil: Intention is a crucial word when it comes to honest dialogue about records and music. What was the artist’s original intention? What is the perceived intention of said artist? Up until now, we’d all say that our intentions were entirely focused in our process. We believe in the record as an honest document of where you are at in a specific timeline. We also believe wholly in striving to create an environment where honesty can have a chance at thriving. For us, that can simply be a matter of saying “yes” as often as possible to each other and ourselves. We’ve used the studio as a songwriting space and need to try as many ideas as possible so a few might stick. Lots of folks we know write ten times as many songs as what actually gets recorded and released. We all have to filter our art in some way. Our records start in the studio, not before, so our filter comes after all that. If we are successful at saying “yes,” we have allowed all of our influences, past and present to have a seat at the table and join in the conversation.

Our friends influence us a lot. Sharon Van Etten inspires us to find our voices and allow for vulnerability as strength. The War On Drugs guys inspire us to live in search of a vibe and a groove. The Akron/Family has always inspired us to say “fuck it” more often and give the moment our entire being. Doug Paisley reminds us that stepping toward mastery is a worthy lifelong process. Kristian Matsson shows us the power of audience connection. That’s just a few examples, not to mention what we listen to and discover in our van on the road from year to year. It’s all a journey! The best parts involve people and connections and stories. I’m glad we know that in our hearts at this stage in the game.

Trios are an amazing configuration by nature. Tell me a bit about playing with the other guys in Megafaun and how three is a magic number for you guys.
Joe: Well, it’s not anymore…We have a fourth live member now, Nick Sanborn, which has alleviated most of the pressure we put on ourselves to fill space in our shows. Our records are thick because we have a wide instrument arsenal (mostly in the form of Phil), but a live trio has always been a compromise. We’ve relied on our personalities more on stage in the past in order to create a very personal and welcoming vibe. Right now, we’re focusing more so on musicality than on performance practices, or maybe I should say our performance practices are becoming more musical and less theatrical or something. For instance, I now have the luxury of focusing solely on the subtleties of the groove with Nick on a song like “Volunteers,” where as before, I needed to fill much more space when there was only a guitar and banjo to play off of. We play the song much slower as a result, which makes it funkier and much more epic feeling. You miss that bass when it’s not there, and Brad writes beautiful lines that need to be heard. Now we can do that! Brad and Phil do less switching around with their instruments, and I am multitasking less between drums and electronics. I’ve been focusing on singing and playing much more, thinking about things like breath control while I’m dancing with all four limbs. That’s enough for my brain to handle right now.

But to answer your question, yes, in fact, trios are magic. They are the hardest and most difficult to figure out, but can be the most rewarding in many ways. We’re all excited that we can move away from it now that we’ve built our foundation as a trio. Everything seems much more fluid and less rushed these days.

Phil: As Joe stated, we’ve added a touring bassist, Nick Sanborn. He’s amazing and adds a great element to our dynamic, both socially and musically. I will say, however, that three is great because nothing happens without always finding our balance. A triangle is too fragile to fall into complacency. Either there is unanimous agreement or we have a conversation. It’s shown us a whole helluva lot about ourselves.

The self-titled album is lush and intricate and made for big speakers and fat headphones. How is the studio emerging as another player in your music’s development?
Joe: It’s always been essential to our process. As dudes that didn’t really start writing songs until we were 26 or so, we played on lots of peoples’ records but didn’t pay as much attention to making records as we do now. As a result, we’ve used this band to really consider how a record can be used to make a unique musical event that can’t be recreated in a live context. That’s been our M.O. for our four releases. We never held back from filling it out. If we heard something, it was fair game. We had to rework a lot our songs for the live show as a result. As our skills have strengthened in this department, we’ve struggled less with that adaptation. Each record is a chance for us to learn something about the studio. We’re already talking about ideas for our next record, which I won’t reveal yet. We want to find ways to break some of the patterns that have surfaced over the last four records by exploring more specific recording processes. This should be a pretty good indication about how hungry we are to continue having new experiences in the studio.

Phil: Well, back to intention for a second. We all seem to get skeptical of artists to get too hi-fi, especially if they had humble beginnings in bedroom/kitchen lo-fi worlds. Most of the time, artists can’t afford studios in the beginning. This commonly leads to lots of discoveries and affords the artist time to get things right. It’s a whole world to explore. We’ve chosen to invest in instruments and vehicles with any money we’ve made. We still have the same shoebox worth of recording equipment that we started with. Bury The Square and Gather, Form and Fly were life changing times for us. We always heard more sounds than we could achieve on our own. We found a guy named BJ Burton and love his instincts. We’ve become good friends and working partners over the last few years. We really trust his ears and he works incredibly fast, which lets us try so many ideas. We still haven’t done a 100-percent studio recording. There’s always bedroom in there somewhere. We like it that way, but having access to old keyboards, amps and mics was a dream.

For musicians who so love dancing out on a limb, there’s an increasing pop savvy to Megafaun’s sound. How do you balance these aspects of what you do? What challenges does it create to freak the fuck out one minute and then swoon like newborn Pink Floyd the next?
Joe: I think for us, the more we go in one direction, the further we can take the other as well. Maybe these musical elements can’t always exist at the same time, or even in the same song, show, tour or artistic period. The truth of it is we have lots of interests. One of our few disinterests is in limiting our variety of musical options. We’re determined to be honest with our audience in that way. As far as what challenges it creates, there are plenty. The one we’re most sensitive to is when we lose people at shows. We go off on a tangent and people start leaving. We’re becoming increasingly more of the mindset that we have to earn the right to “freak the fuck out” on a show-to-show basis. Right now, we’re reserving the freakier stuff for encores, so we give ourselves time to feel out the crowd with a whole set of mostly pop-ier, concise material. It’s been a good change for us.

That’s sort of been the tried and true way for a lot of bands, even a band like the Dead in the 70s. This is something I think about a lot. I recently saw The Grateful Dead Movie for the first time in a theater on 4/20! It was incredible to see them launch into “Dark Star” for god knows how long and realize how little the energy and attention of the audience had changed…..or at least that’s what the editors intended me to perceive. There are so many reasons why it worked for them that aren’t really applicable to our situation. For starters, we’re not exactly working in the same social climate! Ha ha! We’re gradually addressing the challenges you mention. There is a huge learning curve involved when you’re a band that doesn’t like to be limited to a whole set of three-and-a-half-minute tunes. There are literally millions of ways to approach doing something spontaneous with your music within the context of a concert, and it’s important to us to find the ways that work for everybody, audience and band members all.

Phil: Well, it keeps folks guessing often enough! Ha ha! It all makes perfect sense to us, but we can understand how the push and pull can drive some people away. We hope the ones that stick around come to know and trust our dynamic and the process of how we work. It’s about each other first, and music is one way we express that. I get just as much out of the conversations in the van some days as I do playing “The Fade.” When you’re comfortable going out on a limb, you’re afforded the better view. Best be careful though, because the end of the branch is less stable. Sometimes we long for things solid and reliable. The dynamic of the trio helps us see the balance or lack thereof pretty quickly. Jeff Buckley liked to say that music is like sex. Sometimes you want it tender, slow and passionate. Sometime you want it wild and crazy. You just have to pay attention to yourself to know which will fulfill you at that moment!

Finally, where do you see this all going?
Joe:We’re all expanding right now as artists individually. We’re starting to work on more independent projects with other people, and taking a lot from them. The songs are starting to come out much faster and less laboriously. I’m excited to see how what we’ve all learned from this round of time together on the road and apart at home manifests into our next statement. I think we’re a band that had a late start in a lot of ways, but also a band that’s benefitted a ton from the current industry climate. We’re also growing in our personal lives and starting families. Our band lives and personal lives are very integrated, but we’re not immune from that push-and-pull that happens when you do what we do for a living. Being on the road is rarely easy for people, but we still manage to find plenty of comfort and wonderment in every tour. There’s so much to be thankful for up to this point. We are three fortunate brothers who love making music together just as much as we love eating breakfast in each other’s homes. All I ever hope for is that we have the ability to keep going and that everyone just stays happy. I see this band going anywhere that will have us.

Phil: Life is changing so rapidly these days. We’re currently playing music together in a delicate balance with kids, long distance, and school. We’re touring smarter now, finding the right venues and cities, albeit gradually. We already have lots of ideas for the next five years, including composing for soundtracks and collaborations with friends and heroes. I have a son now, Ellis. He’s five months old. It’s such a relief to know that music will exist in my life and his in a completely separate and individual way outside of my touring life. Sharing that with him doesn’t involve payment. Music became even bigger for me in that way this year. Music has brought us more satisfaction, friends, education and authentic experience than anything else. Why wouldn’t we let that wind take our ship wherever it may?

Megafaun is currently on tour in Europe and returns to the road Stateside in mid-March. Dates and details here.

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