Weeks after Megafaun's inception, brothers Phil and Brad Cook — along with longtime friend and bandmate Joe Westerlund — booked a six-date tour with nothing more than "three loose ideas" for songs. Then they hit the road, improvising the rest night by night.
"I don't think any of those shows were good shows," Brad admits. "But we needed to react pretty hard against what we had been doing and feel like we were really clearing our palettes somehow."
The trio had recently moved to North Carolina from their native Wisconsin and split with longtime collaborator Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, with whom they had performed for years as DeYarmond Edison.
"I think going out there and failing every night and feeling like you're starting fresh in a really public way, it was really important for us," Brad recalls. "That tour is kind of what set the tone for our band, of not second-guessing ourselves and not being afraid to fall down in front of people, just being a band that defines itself on growth. And what better way to do that than book a tour without a song and just let it grow from there."
Five years later, the band has certainly grown. Megafaun has secured a unique place within the indie scene, admired by fans and fellow artists for its willingness to push the limits of a style that melds Appalachian-tinged folk, psychedelic rock, jazz and pop with remarkable ease.
But the band's determination to experiment carries on. Their latest effort, Heretofore, features a 13-minute instrumental track that was pulled, unedited, from a four-hour improv session that initiated the recording. Generally, Megafaun writes entire albums in the studio, making "gut" decisions on the spot and learning the songs after the record is complete.
The band just completed its third full-length, which Brad describes as a very "inviting" collection,. The latest experience was no exception. Over time, he says, the childhood friends have come to trust their instincts and let the songs develop far beyond the recording process.
"With any other band we've ever been in, I think we were much more about documenting our songs," he explains. "With Megafaun, we decided since we had nothing to lose, we'd just immediately start recording our first record and then learn how to play those songs after the fact. So our process has been more about creating than it has been about documenting.
"And in that regard, I think we've gotten really good at trusting our decision making. It helps us not feel overwhelmed by possibilities if we put a bunch of deadlines on ourselves and try to make gut reactions in terms of it being a creation. Then we can spend the whole year we tour on something getting into the identity of those songs and really trying to understand them and explore them more."
On the road, Megafaun nearly always performs on stage with its tour mates, and the band has earned a reputation for its frequent collaborations and highly personal performances. Shows vary widely from night to night, and audiences can always expect a unique experience.
"For us, it's all about having that variable night to night where you can really adjust to the room,” Brad says. “And it's not just tweaking a set list; it's talking to the crowd and trying to figure out who is at these shows, who is here to see your music. I think people have come to appreciate that about us. They can count on us to give them an experience every time that's true to their night."
Don't get the wrong idea though: Megafaun is no jam band. Its albums are pop-friendly and accessible, focused and consistent. All three members earned their chops in high-school jazz ensembles, but Brad says moving to Raleigh had a profound impact on the band's direction. While there is an undeniable spontaneity to the process, Megafaun is also rooted in traditional songwriting. Sort of.
"When we were in Wisconsin, Phil had been playing banjo already, and we had been studying some folk stuff, but I think being around the culture and the energy … you know, where we were living, we weren't exposed to the Avett Brothers, for example," Cook says. "A band like that showed us exactly what it meant to be a contemporary folk band from the South. I think being around a certain energy here has been really influential to us."
— Dane Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Megafaun and Mountain Goats
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, April 10 (9 p.m. $15. thegreyeagle.com)