Folk Heroes: Meet Brad Cook of Megafaun
Megafaun: Joe Westerlund, Brad Cook, and Phil Cook I Photo by D.L. Anderson
When did you first pick up an instrument?
I was fifteen. I had always been a sports kid up until that point, and then I broke my collarbone downhill skiing. It took me nine months to recover and during that time my older brother convinced me to pick up the bass guitar, so we could start a band. My brother was a star musician in the jazz program at school. I figured what the hell, I can't do anything else, so I learned it over the summer. It's funny. One of my roommates now is in The Rosebuds and the same thing happened to him in college. He was this North Carolina basketball star and then he broke both of his wrists dunking. While he was healing he started writing songs.
How big on an influence was the high school jazz program on your music?
Oh, jazz is huge for us. Sophomore year in high school we all went to jazz band camp in northern Wisconsin. That's where we met Joey (Westerlund), our drummer, and Justin (Vernon). Jazz music was massively important to our development.
So it's not unlikely to expect a jazz album out of you guys some day?
Nope, it's not unlikely at all. Although probably not at this point in time. We still play shows around town as a jazz trio with an upright bass and everything.
I heard that you all grew up in Wisconsin, but formed in Durham. What prompted that move?
It was completely arbitrary. We didn't know anyone or anything. We just went and visited and decided it seemed to be a nice place to live. We just wanted to get out of the cold, but didn't want to go too far west. We had seen pictures of North Carolina and thought it looked like the Wisconsin of the south. (laughs)
Megafaun I Photo by D.L. Anderson
What is your writing process like?
We're music first guys. People usually bring an idea and then we'll work it out together. Someone brings in some sort of direction, but when we create this new song it's all collaborative.
So you have this mini-album, Heretofore, coming out. Where did the name come from?
Well "heretofore" means up until this point and we thought it was a great way to express how we felt about those songs. Plus it's a little enigmatic.
What is the heck is a mini-album? How is that different from an EP?
(laughs) It's a failed EP. It's too long. It's got six tracks instead of five and it's thirty five minutes long, which is actually longer than certain friends of mine's full length LPs.What are you most proud of on the album?
That's a hard one. We've got a twelve minute instrumental track which I am very proud of. It's a fully improvised piece that we layered a string quartet on top of and then added horns from Denmark and then piano and a bunch of other stuff. It really captures improvisation as a concept.
Where was it recorded?
We recorded it at this new studio Flying Tiger Sound in North Carolina. It's run by this 23 year old prodigy B.J. (Burton). He has this amazing understanding about recording. We didn't have a ton of time and he just took care of all of the busy work. He really did an amazing job. We started writing in mid January and it took about five weeks intermittently to work on stuff and experiment and get stuff down.
How did a 23 year old get his own recording studio?
He's got a friend who's a stock broker, who bought the building because he wanted some office space. Apparently he just offered B.J. the rest of the space to build a studio.
Man, I'm super jealous.
How did you end up at HomeTapes?
It was actually through a music writer. He liked our stuff and saw the guys from HomeTapes at the Pitchfork Festival three years ago and told them about us. We were on this little experimental label called Table of the Elements at the time and the guy who ran it was really sweet, but he wasn't really set up to have an active band. He had been putting out archival stuff for fifteen years, and we needed a label that was energetic and adaptive. So we send a record to these guys at HomeTapes and talked to them on the phone and it was like we were instant best friends.
Who is Kaufman in "Kaufman's Ballad"?
That song is named after Phil Kaufman, who was Gram Parsons' manager. Parsons asked Kaufman to bury him if he died at the Joshua Tree National Park, but when he did die Gram's father wanted him to be buried in Lousiana. So Kaufman stole the casket from LAX and drove the body to Joshua Tree where he doused it with gasoline and lit it on fire. Unfortunately only thirty percent of the body actually got burnt by the time the police showed up. You know what they arrested him for? Burning things in a public park without a permit. There was no charges for stealing a dead body from the airport.
Yeah, it was the seventies. You could get away with anything. Anyhow that song is about Kaufman's secret pact with Gram.
Crowd participation is a big part of your shows. How did that developed or was it something that you planned from the beginning?
We didn't do it for the first few shows that we did as a band, but we realized that we had recorded a lot of stuff that we couldn't recreate without a lot of people. So we started getting the crowd to sing and clap. It turns out that if you ask nicely you can tell anyone what to do. It started like that. anyway, but we've developed variations of it, so it doesn't feel like too much of a pattern. We want our audience to feel like each night is a new experience.
What was the worst show you ever did?
We have so many it's unbelievable. (laughs) Oh, once when we just started we were opening for the Mountain Goats. They had a huge crowd, and we had like four songs at the time, so we decided to put these plays into the show. We faked this whole fight on stage. It went on for eight minutes, and it ended with the first line of the next song. Unfortunately nobody got that it was a fake fight. We all thought it was this genius thing, but the crowd just got more and more uncomfortable and alienated. It got really weird. We even asked our friend who were in the audience if they could tell that we were faking and they were like , "No, not at all." That's up there for one of the worst shows. However when that happens you've just got to accept it and celebrate it.
Megafaun I Photo by Michael Schaedler
What is "The Fade"?
That song is about a picture of our grandfather. His photo is actually on the CD leaf. It's a literal explanation of what happened the day after my grandfather died. I was looking at old photos and found this one. It's one of my favorite pictures of him ever. It's a timeless photograph. Even though it's a black and white picture, it's captured exactly how he looked his whole life. The song is about the memory fade that happens immediately after someone dies. You know, how it gets harder and harder to remember their voice and smell?
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. If you could sing with anyone in the world, who would you sing with?
Hands down, Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers. He's my favorite.
Does he know?
Yeah, I think so. They came to our show in Toronto a couple months back. It was incredible. The booker came to us and told us that they wanted to be on the list. I kinda freaked out. I had been a huge fan for so long and had always missed them whenever they came to Durham. So when she said they wanted to come to our show, I went outside and broke down and cried. It was incredible. He stood in the front row the whole set. After the show Hood said he had gotten our last album and were huge fans. Then we went and saw them play the next night.
Did it live up to your expectations?
Oh yeah! It totally lived up to it.
I have to ask about the horses in your PR photo. Can any of you ride?
Nope, not at all. It was one of Derek's hair-brained ideas. We just went along with it. We just showed up at the farm and took pictures. It was a very undignified shoot.
What's the weirdest thing you've seen at a show?
We played in Houston to a very weird crowd. It was a weird magical night. It seemed like there wasn't a single person in that crowd who had ever been to a show before. There was a bachelor party that was there by accident, that ended up loving us and bought our records. We have a video somewhere of one of them thanking us very passionately for introducing him to a whole new genre of music. It was so odd.
If you could change one thing about the music business what would it be?
I think everyone should accept the internet as a good thing. I used to work in a record store and people would whine about the demise of the industry, but Vampire Weekend would have never been possible without the internet. I think the good that has come from it way outweighs the bad. Most independent record labels have embraced it and used it to their advantage. Justin, Bon Iver, should thank the Internet before God or his family for his success. It is the great equalizer. Musicians can still adapt and succeed with it.
What was the best album you heard last month?
Do you know The Love Language?
I do. I love them.
Well we've been listening to their new album which is coming out on Merge. We have it in our band because B.J. recorded it as well. And mark my words this album is going to be huge. I'm so certain of it. I was floored by the ambition of it. It's going to be as big as the first Arcade Fire record.
Well thank you so much for talking with us.