w/ Field Report March 22 Cactus Club
Megafaun is on the unglamorous end of one of music’s most romanticized origin stories. In 2006, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon left his band DeYarmond Edison and moved from North Carolina back to his native Wisconsin, where he retreated to the woods to record his first album as Bon Iver in solitude. It’s a poetic story that shaped Vernon’s public image as a sensitive, perhaps tortured soul. But what about the three kind of goofy, decidedly non-tortured, average-dude band mates Vernon left behind? There’s nothing poetic about their story. The creation of Megafaun doesn’t involve any heartbreak, soul searching or vision quests. Instead of disbanding when they lost their frontman, the remaining members of DeYarmond Edison simply decided to carry on as a new group.
To hear the band tell the story, it wasn’t really much of a decision at all. Keyboardist/banjoist Phil Cook, bassist/guitarist Brad Cook and drummer Joe Westerlund had been playing together in some form for nearly a decade, albeit never as a trio. The loss of a singer-songwriter seemed like no reason to quit, despite the inconvenient fact that none of the three had any real background in songwriting.
“We had all grown up playing music, and to us the bands we played with were way more than just bands,” says Phil Cook. “They were marriages and deep friendships, and our time together was always intense bonding sessions. We had all these shared dreams, and one of them was how we were going to make it in the music industry, so when things didn’t turn out the way we pictured them, we realized we had to figure out a new plan. Brad made the bold move of booking us a tour the day we decided that the three of us were going to form Megafaun, before we had even written any songs. So we wrote three songs within a couple of weeks before we left, and we haven’t really looked back since.”
With no primary songwriter directing the band, Megafaun operates as a true democracy, with all three members singing and writing lyrics. Taking on those new responsibilities was a process of trial and error, Cook says. “DeYarmond Edison was a very collaborative band, too, but it’s different when you’re backing a songwriter,” he explains. “When somebody else has all the burden of songwriting, lead singing and recording the albums, you can get really comfortable, because all of that accountability is off your shoulders. When we first took on songwriting, we didn’t even know what we were doing; we just decided to leap forward and have fun with it.”
The band does most of its songwriting on the spot, piecing together arrangements and improvisations while recording. That approach invites false starts—“Sometimes we’ll work on a song, writing the melodies and the lyrics, only to realize that the song isn’t really in a range that any of us can sing in,” Cook says—but just as often it lets Megafaun capture a sense of exploration and spontaneity that’s too often missing from folk-rock records. The band’s first albums, 2008’s Bury the Square and 2009’s Gather, Form & Fly, brim with the excitement of creation, regularly digressing into jazz, noise and psychedelia.
Last year’s self-titled LP reined in that experimentation a bit for a set more solidly grounded in the freewheeling Americana of the Grateful Dead. In a way, its casual, summer-of-’69 breeziness makes it the band’s most daring record. Where many bands that run in indie-rock circles bristle at the term “jam,” Megafaun isn’t ashamed of it.
“There are a lot of bands in the jam world that we really related to,” Cook says. “A band like Medeski, Martin & Wood has a presence in that world, but they also came from this really experimental, jazz place, so we really connected with that, because we were all such die-hard jazz kids. The Slip was another band like that. They were this band made up of two brothers and their best friend, and they were just phenomenal musicians through and through. The three of us saw them play Madison in the late ’90s, and I think that was a really important, formative moment for the three of us to be there together, and probably a foreshadowing moment, because at that point we hadn’t played together as just the three of us. We were really inspired by them.
“We’ve figured out that we’d rather be a band that follows the whims of friendship than one that follows the whims of scene politics,” Cook continues. “I think that emboldened us. Sometimes I feel like we still don’t know what we’re doing, but we just try to follow our guts and our hearts.”
Megafaun plays the Cactus Club on Thursday, March 22, with Field Report at 10 p.m.
For more music coverage, visit expressmilwaukee.com.n