Every band, when it hits its stride, releases a definitive album — Led Zeppelin IV, The Joshua Tree, American Beauty, Songs in the Key of Life and the list goes on. Durham's Megafaun always hesitated and fought the urge to release a self-titled album until it felt comfortable doing so. With the September release of their fourth album, Megafaun, the timing is right for the band to make a statement with its music.
"The more we look back on it, the more we realize that this is who we are," drummer Joe Westerlund says by phone from his Los Angeles home. "We put a lot of heart into this, and it feels like the most unfiltered thing we've made emotionally and lyrically. We felt like all these songs stood on their own really well. They're clear and direct, and we have a good idea on how we want people to receive them."
While the songs are diverse within the context of the album — "Real Slow" borrows from the Dead's "Bird Song," "Isadora" incorporates horns in a Zappa-like fashion and "Second Friend" comes close to a Beatles outtake — the band, which will perform at The Evening Muse on Nov. 17, feels it's been a natural culmination to this point.
"Anyone that hears this record — if it's the first record they hear and they can relate to it in some way — and then goes into our back catalog is really going to see the separate parts a lot clearer," keyboardist Phil Cook, who lives in Durham, says. "All the places where we were ... it feels like all of that is integrated a lot better. To us, it makes perfect sense. Some people will think it's all over the map, but we think it's all together."
The band's approach to Megafaun was different from the three previous efforts in that they were no longer living in the same town and had undergone life changes. Westerlund's wife attends UCLA, so he moved west with her. Phil Cook is a new father — "It's a tornado of awesome," he says — while his guitar-playing brother, Brad, is about to be married. "There's always things that make being in a band hard, but I think it's been a lot easier than people thought it would be," Westerlund says.
Westerlund would demo songs and send them across country to the Cooks, who live close enough to work together. When the three entered the studio, it "became like old times." Westerlund says the cross-country process brought forth a good deal of trust and leadership in the studio.
"Our new record is a really good example of what happens when you start to feel like you're getting things right; when you feel that all the cogs in the machine are working like they're supposed to," Cook says. "It kinda feels like the first three recordings were building this machine and testing it out and seeing where it's at. This one, it feels like it's running and it's working."
The band separates its approach to the studio from its live work. While the band accomplishes whatever they can in the studio and utilizes all of the instruments and opportunities it affords, it sometimes creates a hurdle to how three guys can recreate the studio sound on stage.
A touring band member, Nick Sanborn, who plays bass and sings, helps them fill out the sound. "We're always going to use the stage differently than the recording studio because they fill different spaces in our life," Cook says. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel on stage because we already made the record. We want to live in the songs that we write. It's satisfying when you get to take certain liberties within songs and get to know the parts of them and see where the borders are."
It's interesting to see the path Megafaun has taken toward success when you consider where they started. It wasn't long ago that the three of them were in the band DeYarmond Edison with Jusin Vernon of Bon Iver. It's almost like a supergroup in reverse.
"If you think Megafaun is all over the map, Edison was 10 times more all over the map," Westerlund says. "I think the potential for success quadrupled when that band broke up. I have a hard time imagining what the band would look like now if we were still together. I don't think the Megafaun songs or Bon Iver songs would have been written. Justin had a number of years of writing songs under his belt. The rest of us were just starting. We recognized that pretty quickly when we broke up. Megafaun has been the best songwriting workshop we could be a part of."