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Published: 2011/09/12
by Mike Greenhaus

Megafaun: The Improvisational Code

Though the members of Megafaun have played in bands together since 1997, they’ve only recently felt confident enough to self-title an album. The product of 15-plus years of musical growth, Megafaun is a stylistically diverse, improv-oriented mix of freak folk, instrumental jazz, traditional Americana and a general post-jam ethos. Recording in the home studio of their childhood friend and former band mate Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon, guitarist/bassist Brad Cook, his banjoist brother Phil and drummer Joe Westerlund hunkered down and created their American Beauty; an album that marries their experimental tendencies with a newfound studio focus.

Shortly before the album’s release, Westerlund opened up about his new songwriting approach, his recent clubhouse recording sessions and how Vernon’s copy of Hoist changed his outlook on music in general.

Megafaun is stylistically diverse, but feels like the most complete statement you have made as a band. Can you start by giving us a little background on when you started putting the album together?

We started recording at April Base—[former band mate] Justin Vernon’s studio—in November. We got there with about 30 different song possibilities, and we had 2 weeks there. We generally don’t record vocals until everything is laid down. I guess it’s probably backwards from the way most bands do it, but we got there and had at least 30 pretty good ideas. We just thought, “Let’s just do all of them—let’s not limit ourselves to picking them now. We’ll just take them in the order that we feel them.”

About five days into that process, we realized that we can’t do all 30 ideas—we were spending a full day tracking only one or two songs, and we still had to go back and fill in some of the old ideas we didn’t finish. So we just realized that we had what felt like 17 really important possibilities, and we just worked on fleshing those ideas out the best we could. We eventually got that number down to around 13 or 14 ideas that we felt really demanded the most attention—they felt like good springboards for the songs that they’ve become. So instead of focusing on so many different things, we learned pretty quickly that we just needed to fine tune our process and put a lot of the work into fewer songs.

When it came time to refine the process, did a certain style or sense of cohesiveness dictate which songs made the album’s final cut?

Really, they were just our favorite songs. For us, thinking about stylistic cohesiveness is a dangerous thing. We appreciate all different types of music and there is a [natural] cohesiveness because we are the ones recording these songs. So some songs on the album are more jazzy or instrumental while others use a lot more synthesized sounds. Then there are songs that sound like Jackson Browne or The Beatles or Drive-By Truckers. They’re all kinds of music that we listen to and all things that we cherish in music—and to leave something out because it feels stylistically a little too “across the board” wouldn’t be sticking true to who are as musicians and music listeners. Phish is a great example of a band that never stuck to one style—so are The Beatles. We just don’t care, I think. [Laughter.]

Did you find that recording at a friend’s studio gave you more room to experiment? If so, how did that freedom shape the record?

We always reserve time to experiment, no matter what. Even when we were not friends—or great friends—with the person who owned the studio we were using, we’ve reserved time to do things like crinkle paper in front of a microphone to add a bed underneath all the instruments. Doings those things might seem ridiculous, but it is important nonetheless. I think Justin’s studio, if anything, made us a little more comfortable in that it was familiar. His home studio is so close to his parents’ house, where we used to practice when we played in the band Mount Vernon together in high school. We used to split practice time between his parents’ basement and my parents’ basement. So it’s almost like we were in his parents’ basement again but it’s a much bigger, awesome-er basement and the upstairs is still ours too at the end of the day when we’re done! [Laughter.] In that way it feels like a clubhouse. And I think that’s the feeling that’s really key and really inspirational to the feeling of this record.

I definitely think the album captures a mood—a sense of season even.

I think that is true, especially on some of the more winter-like tracks like “State/Meant.” Some people think of spring and summer with that song but to me it’s very November—it makes me feel like I am snowed into Justin’s studio. I remember really taking in the cold, November, snowy scenery through the windows of the warm indoors while we were recording it. I got kind of nostalgic over the beauty of Wisconsin winters that we grew up with. I guess that’s one of the reasons why that song is the most classically “Megafaun” sounding song on the record to me. It sort of sounds like something we could have written at any point in our careers making music together.

The thing that’s great about Justin’s studio is that all of his instruments are there for us to use—that might have been a friend deal, though. I am not sure everyone else gets that luxury [Laughter.]. There’s just a much wider palate available to us. So we were really, really able to have an idea and then find the proper sound pretty quickly, as opposed to taking alternate routes like, “Oh, we don’t have that type of guitar so we need to make it sound like that instrument and then figuring out how to do that.” With all these instruments at our beck and call, you can make a record sound the way you want.

You mentioned Mount Vernon, your high school band with Justin Vernon and the Cooks. Can your give us a quick history of how that project turned into DeYarmond Edison and, eventually, split into Megafaun and Bon Iver?

Mount Vernon was our band in high school. It was a big band with horns and was kind of jammy—we’d really go out there. I wouldn’t say we’ve ever been part of a straight-ahead jamband with big guitar solos, but Mount Vernon had a community jammy thing going where everybody was playing all the time. We’d have all these sections in the songs where it would be this big horn/guitar/bass/drum/keyboard build into a totally free-form jammy kind of thing. I didn’t get a chance to see the new Bon Iver big band [this summer] but from the videos I’ve seen on YouTube I definitely feel that there’s some of that from that from our high school band in there. There’s a very similar way of jamming where it’s not about a virtuosic guitar solo—it’s a big build of all these guys interacting. It’s very much of a New Orleans structural band.

DeYarmond Edison came after Mount Vernon, which was Justin and everyone from Megafaun. That was definitely less jammy and the parts that were stretched out a little bit more were definitely in a frame. But everybody was playing—everybody was building it. It’s not just centered around one dude showing off his chops, and Megafaun definitely lives by that improvisational code as well.

We kind of all built off each other as friends and musicians, and we progressed through all these different styles together. I left home and went to college but [Vernon and the Cooks] continued playing all along. After college, we all moved to Raleigh, NC, and we kind of gravitated towards the same types of music. We got more into folk, folk-rock, experimental music and other kinds of jazz. We just never felt like we needed to separate our interests, you know? I think that’s something that has been there since the beginning of our relationship as band mates: we incorporate everything that we listen to. After DeYarmond Edison broke-up, [Vernon started recording as Bon Iver], and the rest of us continued on as Megafaun.

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