Who: These freewheeling North Carolina roots rockers – brothers Brad and Phil Cook (bass/guitar and banjo/keys, respectively) and Joe Westerlund (percussion), all in their early thirties – have been developing their psychedelic Americana fare since their playground days in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. For their fourth album, Megafaun (due September 20 on Hometapes), the trio drops their signature banjo and more experimental diversions in favor of contemplative piano and poppier song structure.
Blood Brothers: Their first band, DeYarmond Edison, featured another member of their childhood posse, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and the group released two gently introspective folk albums before splitting in 2006. The trio reformed as Megafaun without Vernon and released their cult-favorite debut, Bury the Square, in 2008; two more freak-folk records, and tour slots with the Mountain Goats and Akron/Family, followed. Megafaun and Vernon remain close friends and frequent collaborators: in fact, the new album was recorded at Vernon’s home studio in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. So how did they master the art of the amicable band breakup? “We survived [the end of DeYarmond] because our friendship is so intense, and because our friendship wasn’t the issue at hand,” says Brad Cook. “We figured out pretty quick that we needed to stop playing music together as our singular outlet.”
Dead Set: Megafaun reflects the band’s Seventies idols beautifully: “Get Right” builds with the amiable grace of the Band, and “Second Friend” flutters about with poppy strings and Dead-worthy placidity (not to mention ruminations on the rain). “Kill the Horns” is an arrestingly bleak standout, but includes a cheerier behind-the-scenes narrative: Brad and Phil’s father plays accordion on the song. “That was a special thing for him,” says Cook. “He’d always wanted to do that.”
“I think this record’s pretty direct, pretty honest, pretty vulnerable. The element of weirdness is more integrated and more subtle,” explains Cook. “Our banjo player Phil’s main instrument is piano and he wrote a lot more of this record on it. So the songwriting changed, and it felt like an ode to a lot of music we’ve grown up listening to: the Beatles, Jackson Browne, the Dead, Paul McCartney’s solo stuff like Ram. We’re still growing a lot as songwriters, so it feels good to absorb those things in a more direct way.”
Part of the GAYNG: All three men of Megafaun also don Ray-Bans as members of GAYNGS, the cheeky Eighties soft-pop and electro-R&B collective known for spastically silly tours. (Mexican wrestling masks, Sade covers, and stripping are guaranteed in equal measure.) Formed in 2008 by Minnesota singer/songwriter Ryan Olson, GAYNGS also boasts Ivan Howard of the Rosebuds, Bon Iver’s Mike Noyce, Rhymesayers rapper P.O.S., and (of course) Justin Vernon. “With GAYNGS, eight of the 10 touring guys grew up together, which is really funny to me. The vibe of it is amazing—there’s never been an argument in that band,” says Cook. “The tours can get macho in a really fun way, egging each other on to do dumb shit. Touring as Megafaun, it’s more innocent – but the three of us get mocked as the naïve guys in the group, anyway.”
Newest Members: Phil’s wife, Heather, was pregnant during the recording of Megafaun. In early July, she gave birth to the couple’s first son, Ellis Bradley. “He’s the first band baby,” crows Cook, a pleased new uncle. (No word yet on whether he’ll accompany the guys when they head out on tour in September.)