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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Interview with Megafaun's Phil Cook


Durham, N.C., experimental folk band Megafaun seems always to be in motion. After two successful LPs (2008’s Bury The Square and 2009’s Gather, Form and Fly), this summer the trio—multi-instrumentalists Phil Cook, Brad Cook and Joe Westerlund—will put out an EP enigmatically called Heretofore. As if that wasn’t enough, May 11 they’ll see the release of Relayted, an album by Gayngs, a supergroup made up of wide-reaching musicians led by fellow Wisconsonite Ryan Olson. They’ll play The Earl Saturday, May 1, when they pass through on their first national headlining tour. We pinned down Phil Cook to ask about the EP, recording with Gayngs and etching out a place for themselves on the live circuit as a band that's constantly evolving.

Julia Reidy: Would you tell me about writing and recording Heretofore?

Phil Cook: Honestly, it just happened really fast. We were just home between tours and wanted to do some recording, but the mini-album thing ended up being in retrospect. We didn’t have any songs written, so we wrote it, recorded it, and basically did it all within a matter of six weeks. It’s a new pace for us. The recordings are very straightforward in a way. It took us a few weeks after it was done to really process some of the things that we wrote, to actually sit and go, “Whoa. We totally just did this.” We did the whole thing in a studio, well actually not the whole thing, but like Gather, Form and Fly, our last record, was done totally at home, but mixed in the studio. This new one was recorded and mixed in the studio, and we added a few things at home here and there, but the sound of the record is different, in a way.

How do you think it compares to what you’ve released before? Is there a progression that you can hear stylistically or is it very stand-alone?

I think people will hear more confidence in our songwriting. We sort of trust ourselves more as songwriters, and we’re giving each other more platform to kind of stretch out our songwriting individually, too. It’s a nice balance between being supportive of each other but also being able to lead.

So I got something else interesting in the mail the other day—Relayted by Gayngs. I’m told you guys were involved in that project as well.

The only way I can tell you about it is that we all grew up—were born and raised—in the Chippewa Valley of Southern Wisconsin. There’ s kind of a crazy music scene, and there always has been: a lot of music folk and a lot coming out of there. For us right now, it’s interesting to see success after all these years of knowing really talented people; for instance, the very obvious one would be Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] being someone who everyone thought was talented. Now the world knows, too. Another person from the same town, his name is Ryan Olson. He’s always been kind of a producer of sorts. He’s always got these projects and he really sees them through. He’s really quite an artist and a visionary, and this is the first time he’s really had a platform on a national level to show people what he’s capable of doing. Gayngs is this platform. He just involved everyone that he basically knows between Eau Claire and Minneapolis, really utilized those musicians. Honestly, we can’t take any ownership in a big way over the songs because it’s really Ryan’s project. He’s amazing to work with. He really wants you to go off your gut, so there’s a lot of improvising. It’s terrific, because he’s a really great producer.

I was impressed because so many people seemed to be involved. Was a lot of the collaboration long-distance or were you all in the same room a lot?

Same room. The record was primarily recorded at Justin Vernon’s studio in his home. So while we were on tour last year, we found a two-day window between dates, and while we were passing through Eau Claire, we just stayed there and laid down and much as we could with Ivan [Howard] who was on tour with The Rosebuds from Raleigh, N.C. Ivan inevitably became a part of the project too, because he was with us, and all of a sudden he had all these great ideas and he needed to be heard, too.

What does it feel like from your end with the release you just put out and whatever momentum you’ve got at this point?

I think that a lot of artists have to be word-of-mouth bands; you just find where you resonate more in certain cities. Where you have good timing and good shows, people bring back people next time. This tour right now is our first headlining tour of the U.S. Some places we obviously haven’t created as much of an impact, and that’s normal and we’re totally cool. Sometimes we play our best shows in those circumstances, too.

Because there aren’t as many people listening?

Well, yeah! We don’t take our selves that seriously. We don’t show up to these venues hoping…When people really show up, it still blows us away. I’m glad that we’re being honest and playing the music that we want to play, and I know some places that we’re making an impact. I know, for instance, that we do really well in Minneapolis because they play us all the time on The Current. Which is awesome. But as far as a radio market goes, I don’t know where else people are playing us or what songs they’re playing. It just depends. So Toronto for instance, we’ve played there three times. The last two times, there was really no one there for our opening set. Just two nights ago, we had a really good crowd of really enthusiastic people, and I have no idea how these people heard about us. [laughs] What the hell is going on, you know? But when people don’t show up, it creates a really intimate space for you to try some new things. In fact, I think we’re trying a lot of new songs right now when we have those opportunities. It’s like, “Hey, you guys want to hear some new stuff? It’s not quite ready yet, but I think you guys will appreciate it.”

My favorite thing about Gather, Form and Fly was that you guys like to experiment. Obviously you have roots in bluegrass and Americana, but I liked how free you were with it, that you brought your own stuff to it. What do you think about the role of experimentation? How do you balance what is more traditional with what is less traditional?

Brad, Joe and I, we’re lifelong (well, Brad’s my brother) friends who have played music for a really long time. We have things that we share, but there’s definitely a lot of difference between us in how we hear music and approach music, and I think that to be honest, it’s just trust in each other. This band is for us to grow, and I think we teach each other a lot of things. Experimentalism is involved in that, and tradition is involved heavily in that, too. We’re our greatest influences on each other. Experimentalism, for me, has grown into something that is very much how you deliver it, how it comes across, how people receive it and how people are open to it. I think that if you don’t take yourselves too seriously, you can really convince people a lot and really win people over with things.

(Photo by D.L. Anderson)

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