Megafaun’s members combine a host of influences for a rich folk sound

:: Megafaun ::
:: hi-dive :: March 27 ::

By Brian Turk

Six years ago, the band DeYarmond Edison called it quits. They had moved from Eau Claire, Wisc., to Raleigh, N.C. together a few years earlier; but that strong southern sun must have cast a different light on the paths in front of them.

The group’s vocalist and guitarist, Justin Vernon, headed back to the woods of Wisconsin, while brothers Phil and Brad Cook decided to keep pickin’ in the pines along with drummer Joe Westerlund. The Tar Heel trio declared themselves Megafaun, while Justin Vernon went on to form Bon Iver.

Megafaun released their fourth and self-titled album in the fall of 2011, and Bon Iver won the Grammy for best new artist just last month. Both bands have taken separate roads that have led to different definitions of success; and both seem content with their choices.

Megafaun just returned from a European tour last week, and we got to chat with banjo player Phil Cook while the band was in the Bordeaux region of France. During this chat, Cook gave The Marquee his description of Megafaun’s goals and sound. “We view this band as a vehicle to better ourselves in life. Negotiation, humility and courage are probably what our music sounds like. We’ve only ever been interested in the music. Music is what guides us,” said Cook.

Considering that they are being led through their lives by music, it is no surprise just how versed these men are in all periods and types of it. “Well, we all started in jazz, and are influenced by lots of old jazz cats. Bill Evans Trio with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motion. Mingus, always. Miles Davis electric group. Over time, artists who use rock music to improvise and cultivate spontaneity opened doors for us. Bill Frisell. The Slip. John Zorn. Phish. The Grateful Dead. Much later on, Chicago bands like Califone and Wilco were big for us. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot introduced us to Jim O’Rourke which was a big one. From there, it went in a million directions. Producers. Composers. Obscurities.”

One of the largest collections of obscurities the band delved into is the revered Anthology of American Folk Music, which was released in 1952 on Folkways Records and compiled by folk music collector Harry Smith. Comprised solely of recordings made between 1927 and 1932, this American treasure captures some of the most unusual, and hauntingly beautiful, snapshots of days gone by. “Joe has the vinyl box set and I have Volume 4 (released in 2000). We’ve definitely dove into it. There are quite a few folks from North Carolina represented on there. Mainer’s Mountaineers! Clarence Ashley! My favorite player is Garley Foster, who played harmonica with Ashley. Still to this day, as a harp player myself, I have absolutely no idea how he does that warble!” Cook said.

Megafaun currently calls Durham, N.C. home, and the rich musical history of the past is kept alive in a well-formed community of musicians. “You go to a picking party and you’ll find every type of person there; four-year-olds on up to 94-year-olds, with people clanging casserole dishes on the table. I run into folks at these parties that are wailing on a fiddle and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve known that gal for a while and I had no idea she even played an instrument.’ It is surprisingly organic,” said Cook.

That organic feel they experience at their home town picking sessions transferred onto their latest self-titled release. Focusing more on songwriting and a gentler folk sound, Megafaun shows the simplicity of a band that has been known to explore more far-reaching psychedelic and sonic frontiers. Even though this album is more stripped down, you still get the textured and layered warmth that Megafaun has keyed in on; and that warmth really radiates when you listen to Megafaun on vinyl.

Vinyl is a topic that most music aficionados love to discuss, and most have strong thoughts on the subject. Cook himself has taken a pretty solid stance on the media formats he allows to be played in his home. “I had a few turntables before I inherited the coveted ’70s Sony from our dad.  The thing weighs like 10 pounds!  I’ve switched exclusively to LPs at home, CDs are only for the car now. One reason I love LPs is that I have dozens of records from our dad’s collection. Country Joe, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, The Band, you name it. I love the continuation of the artifact. The pops and skips I relish because my dad earned those and now I’m making some of my own,” said Cook.

Cook and the other two members of Megafaun have been playing music together in one form or another since meeting at jazz camp as teenagers. They are all true students of the musical craft, and Cook seems to lie humbly at the feet of this art form. “I pretty much only view myself as a student and a fan, even though I have been playing instruments on stages and in bedrooms hours a day for the last 27 years,” Cook said. “Music is bigger than us and better than us. I live in service of music, probably in a recognizably religious way. Music has brought me to my knees and shown me both the triumphant glories of life as well as the heart crushing realities of life. I’ve met and fostered my closest friends through music.”


:: Megafaun ::

:: hi-dive :: March 27 ::


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