Since releasing its most recent record in 2011, the predominantly Durham-based, experimental folk-rock band Megafaun has kept busy with two trips to Europe and an extended U.S. tour, all while breaking in new bassist Nick Sanborn. The Thread recently called up Megafaun drummer, vocalist, and songwriter Joe Westerlund, as he and his wife settled into new digs in Pacific Palisades, to see how everything was going. Playing as a quartet had opened up new doors for improvisation, Westerlund said, and altered Megafaun’s direction in a more-than-cosmetic way. After taking the temperature of this steadily evolving band, we found out a bit about Megafaun’s Music in the Gardens performance on July 25. Plus, read to the end for an exciting reveal about Duke Performances’ yet-to-be announced 2012/13 season.
The Thread: How does improvisation feature in your live sets now?
Joe Westerlund: It’s been more of a centerpiece lately. Even when we were opening for the Drive-By Truckers, we were leaving seven to ten minutes for “Real Slow” every night, as our closer. People are responding better than ever. There’s something about having four people, and ditching a lot of the computers, that people just understand. Before, our improvs were based more on tweaking knobs, which is still a really interesting way to make music to me. But I think, for whatever reason, people get more energy off seeing bass, guitar, and drums. That’s exciting for us; it’s new to us. We’re willing to follow that as far as it’s going to go.
Is it accurate to say that Nick Sanborn is filling a space that a computer was filling before, but with a more human intelligence?
Yeah, friends of ours have commented on that too. It’s not that we really ever played live with a click track, but it feels like we’re doing away with the click track—the sterile vibes you get from modern recording. People have commented that it feels like a more organic band. We’re able to just react in the moment so much faster. Things aren’t happening before our brains can catch up to them now, when we’re improvising, and it’s such an exciting feeling.
You mentioned earlier your openness to adding a fifth player. Do you have a certain person or instrument in mind?
We were touring with [guitarist] William Tyler and he sat in with us for like five shows. The first night it was two songs, the next night it was three, and by the end, we were playing maybe two songs without him. Even though Phil and Brad [Cook] play guitar, strangely enough, it didn’t get in the way and added a lot. Guitar was the last instrument we thought we’d ever want to add, but he just showed us that adding a fifth . . . we’re just open, more than ever, to having people sit in, float in and out. It’s a really exciting way to keep a tour unique, for ourselves.
How do you feel about the last record at this point?
It’s funny. When you record a record and tour on it for as long as we have, you start to feel really removed from the record but way closer to the songs themselves. We still have a lot of work and exploring to do on the songs from that record in our live show. With Nick in the band, there’s all these other places they can go—same with older songs from other records. We all still feel proud of the recording. I think when we were recording it, we were hearing it as going in a more specific direction than we ever had. Now I look back and I think it’s just as all over the place, if not more, as the records before it.
Is Megafaun working on a new record?
Phil and Brad are kind of a team when it comes to songwriting at this point, and I’m kind of on my own. We’re “working individually,” in quotation marks. We usually don’t write lyrics until the very end and we’re trying to stop doing that. That was our biggest lesson with the last record: just how much the words you write affect what you play. We’ve let what we play affect the words for so long. There are a lot of things I realized about lyrics through performing the last record. I realized the repetition of performing something can help you write the song. I realized I can simplify things and make them easier to remember night after night, playing for the people who are there that night rather than on tour with us every night. The more I play music, the more I realize that the simpler things are, the better.
When I last talked to you guys for the Indy, you discussed how on Gather, Form & Fly, you didn’t leave any space for the vocals when writing the music, while on the self-titled record, you did leave space for the vocals, but didn’t anticipate the lyrics in advance. So actually writing the lyrics ahead of time for the next album seems to complete a process.
Yeah, exactly. That’s cool—I had totally forgotten we talked about that. It was really gradual but to us it felt like such an epiphany. Of course, we should write lyrics ahead of time. I remember being in Justin [Vernon’s] studio making the last record, and a song like “Get Right”—before we left his house, it was pretty much done. And I remember him hearing that and going, “Wait, you don’t even have a vocal melody; you don’t have words?” We’ve heard that from multiple people at different points, and it’s funny that it took four records for us to go, “Oh, that’s why you do it that way!”
Might we hear any of these new songs at the Music in the Gardens show?
It’s probably too early, but you never know. Another goal of ours is to be playing them here and there, trying them out before we even record them. It’s hard, with me living far away, to be rehearsing more than what’s directly in front of us. But we also have a European tour coming up with Damien Jurado—his last record is huge to us—so we might have some more opportunities to try some new things out. I think whatever we do at Duke Gardens, we’ll probably be trying some things we wouldn’t normally do on tour. Especially since we’ll be home and have access to all of our instruments.
So we can expect to hear some familiar songs from the self-titled record and maybe something a little unusual too.
Yeah, I would say so.
What else do you have coming up this summer?
We have an awesome opportunity to play the Newport Folk Festival. We’re doing a night with Blitzen Trapper and Wilco, which is just super exciting. [Composer and Wilco drummer] Glenn Kotche is a major inspiration to me in particular, but to all of us really.
Which brings us to our exciting announcement, which is that Megafaun will be collaborating with Glenn Kotche’s On Fillmore, a duo with bassist Darin Gray, at Duke Performances in February 2013—alongside a performance by Kotche of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams’ Ilimaq for solo percussion and electronics.
I could put Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on a top-five list of albums that have considerably changed my artistic direction. When I first heard it, I was at a liberal arts college in Vermont, studying with some pretty awesome composers and improvisers who were kind of cornerstones of the New York Downtown free-jazz scene. I put a lot of pressure on myself, that I was moving into that world of extended techniques and open improvisation, of headier instrumental music. When I heard how Glenn was applying a lot of those same things to the song world, it flipped everything I thought I was going to do around. It made me remember that pop music and improvisation were two of the biggest things that first attracted me to music, and there was no reason I shouldn’t be able to explore them in the same space.
After I graduated, I was living in New York for a couple months with my wife. Brad called and said they were moving to North Carolina and wanted me to come with them, and I didn’t even hesitate. It mostly had to do with the fact that I love those guys and respect them as musicians and need to be around them, but it also had to do with what Glenn’s work has shown me: the possibility that I could keep exploring my avant-garde side and put it in a context that is rooted further back in the past. Our band started around the time of excitement around that record, and Megafaun definitely comes out of that time.
It was definitely a commercial landmark in fusing avant-garde language and pop language in an accessible way.
It also brought so much more attention to Jim O’Rourke, who’s a big influence on us too. With Glenn, I just appreciate hearing people who approach the drum set as an open-ended sound-palette rather than a four-piece kit. He’s allowed himself to be a composer, and that’s really important for so many young drummers out there. The drummer is traditionally the Ringo, the guy in the background, who you have to keep out of the way as much as possible. It’s so empowering to have a guy in one of the most popular rock bands in America also performing classically based music he wrote, where the percussion is at the center.
Did you get to see him last year at Duke Performances?
That’s where we met him and first discussed this project. We told [dP Director] Aaron Greenwald that we wanted to talk to Glenn and he put us in touch. Glenn’s such a sweet guy, and seems very typically hardworking in that Midwestern way. We got to the show at the end of his sound check, and he came over and talked to us for awhile, and we told him we had some ideas of things we’d like to do with him here at some point. This went on for like 20 minutes, and then he was like, “This other piece we’re performing tonight is kicking my ass, I’ve got to go practice, I’ll talk to you guys later.” And I totally believe that’s what he was doing, practicing an hour before the show. We’re just really excited for whatever he wants to do. We’ll be on board with it.
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With this glimpse into the future of Duke Performances, The Thread concludes posting for the 2011/12 academic year. We’ll be back in the fall, keeping you abreast of breaking developments and exploring the inside tracks of dP’s soon-to-be-announced 2012/13 season, not to mention sporting some exciting changes. Enjoy the remaining Music in the Gardens offerings this summer, and we’ll see you in a couple months.