The G-Man Blog recently caught up with Joe Westerlund, one third of the Durham, North Carolina-based band Megafaun for a very informative chat.
In your own words (using as many as you want) what would you say makes Megafaun tick?
Wow! That's a question and a half! Hmmm.....I'd say our friendships. We grew up playing music together. We rely on each other for input for music, and for our daily lives. Our families have a seriously strong network of friends, older, younger, and our same age, consisting of people we can all turn to for support as
individuals and as a band. We are inspired and nourished by this, and
in turn, we give back by doing the thing we love to do most.
Praise for the wonderful use of harmonies seems to go hand-in-hand with reviews of your live performances (with comparisons to last years big new-comers Fleet Foxes) yet Gather Form & Fly also contains far murkier, grittier tracks such as "Solid Ground" which would feel more at home on a blues or even a Rolling Stones album. Do you ever feel you are being unfairly pigeon-holed as a result?
Sure, but who doesn't? Fleet Foxes are a great band (and) they blew me away when I caught the last half of their last song at a small showcase at SXSW in 2008.
I was terribly sick and hopped up on cough syrup (not the whole bottle) just to get through an afternoon set with Akron/Family, and through all my misery, I was able to be thoroughly blown away by how good they sounded! We also get mistaken for them a lot at airports and restaurants. Maybe we just look like them, and so people hear that in the music more; but I can see where there are similarities, definitely. We're not put off too much by the comparison, I just think we go plenty of places that they don't go,
and vice-versa. I wish people would only recognize that we're probably inspired by some of the same music (The Band, CSNY, etc), and we both cultivate impressive beards.
Gather Form & Fly also contains long instrumental segments such as on "Impressions of the Past". The first ever Megafaun tour was booked before a single song was written so obviously you all feel very comfortable just going out there and playing similar to an Irish trad. session. Would you agree? Would you prefer this type of setting to a large show or is it simply different?
Ha! Actually, our first trip to Ireland ended with an all night
traditional jam in a hotel lobby with some locals! We make a point to get out from behind our microphones at least once each show. Sometimes doing this can be inappropriate, but we really want to get people involved in our sets, and this is the quickest way to achieve that. I think we started doing this because we played a
lot of living rooms and DIY spaces on our first few tours. There is something magical and irreplaceable about the contact you have with the audience in that setting. It's so unpretentious and yet, still very assertive. The three of us definitely hope we never lose our ability to bring some of that feeling into our bigger shows.
Any memorable sessions/jams with other bands/artists over the years that you can share with us?
Well, we have a record coming out soon that is really just like one
really bizarre jam session under the moniker, GAYNGS. It is comprised of our friends from Minneapolis, Ivan Rosebud, as well as our old band mate Justin Vernon. It was a fun day-off during a tour with The
Rosebuds! We all played these soft rock songs our friend Ryan had written, and had a blast. At first we really didn't get why he was asking us to do it, but I think we all took something away from it, having rekindled our interest in just playing simple grooves at a very lethargic tempo!
Megafaun made its first appearance in Ireland in 2009 with performances in Cork and Dublin. I was at the Cork gig myself as I was very interested to see how the songs would come across live and I was not disappointed. Were you happy with how the first Irish shows went? Are there more planned?
Oh yeah! Extremely happy about how those shows went! Ireland is a great country for us! The creme de la creme for us was the Other Voices filming in Dingle. Holy shit! Still rubbing my eyes over that one! The whole thing was very dramatic for us because we almost missed our plane there at like 4am that same morning, and there were no other flights that day, so we would have missed the whole show if we missed that flight. We were also at the end of a very overwhelming first European tour that was stimulating to say the least. Meeting all of the community of music lovers surrounding Other Voices, as well as some of the Dingle locals was an unforgettable experience. We didn't sleep for almost 48 hours because we were so busy soaking in
the amazing sites of the coast, the taste of real Guinness, and the great company (with the most beautiful accents). It was beyond words! We can't wait to get back to Ireland!!!
As you have just said you also recorded a session for RTE's Other Voices show in Dingle, Kerry which has just recently aired here in Ireland. What was it like to play the old church? Are there any specific venues that you enjoy playing? Have any
originally strange venues popped up on the Megafaun tours over the years?
The church was beautiful. We love to play venues like that. We had played the Band Room in North York Moors UK before we got to Ireland, which is a venue we will be playing again in August. Places like that don't hold a ton of people, but consist largely of people that travel hours just to see what the venue/promoter they trust in has brought. We find crowds like that to be very welcoming and exciting to play for because they don't usually know our music, but they are ready for an experience, and not to just socialize. You end up getting a very severe reaction from this situation; usually very positive!
We also just played at a theater in Switzerland that had the same type of thing happening: the audience was a regular crowd from the surrounding area of St.Gallen, where the venue was. They had some of the best sound we've ever experienced, and crowd knew it. The sound gal told me after the show that it was common for people in the audience to come over to the sound board in the middle of the show and give her suggestions on what they thought she should be doing differently! Normally a sound technician would take offense to that, but she said that she appreciated the feedback. I think these places produce some of the best Megafaun shows.
According to the "big" Record Labels the music business is falling to pieces but, in my own humble opinon, the last decade has seen the release of some incredible albums. The DIY method also seems to have allowed more Americana/Folk music (which would not be as dependant on big budget recordings) come to the fore with artists such as The Low Anthem, Bowerbirds, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings etc.,who have probably always relied on touring more than album sales anyway, producing some beautiful albums oblivious to the "fall of the machine". Would you agree? Any specific thoughts you would like to share on this?
Yeah. We've never been a part of a music industry where things were good. We were only consumers when things were prosperous, so we don't know the difference. I think to be a musician this day in age (and maybe all days in all ages) you have to be prepared to have nothing and work with next to nothing. I can't tell you how much we think about our budget. We're very lucky to have someone like Brad in our
band because he is the tour budget master, among other things. If it wasn't for him, we could be in some serious credit card debt. We've used his van to tour this whole time, eaten nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for twenty days straight, and borrowed gear from friends, etc. It's not as bleak as it sounds, because we love sharing our music with people, but I think we've made it through (financially) the hardest part of our career because we've always been prepared to make
nothing whatsoever from touring and recording.
In turn, we've spent as little as possible. It's hard to fathom how a band at our level would exist before this whole "downfall" thing started happening. Maybe it was easier for some, but that doesn't really add up to me. I think maybe your right in that Americana, or any other genre for that matter, has an alternative route available. We are able to hear much more music from artists that rely more on their creativity and their love of making music, instead of just a paycheck.
On the flip-side of that Fleet Foxes and, closer to yourselves, Bon Iver managed to break through into the mainstream in the last year or two. This must be very encouraging for artists and reinforces the statement "Play people good music and they will buy good music. Play people shit music and they will buy the best of the shit". What do you make of this? Were you surprised at the success of both bands?
Well yes, of course, it's surreal to see one of your oldest friends all of a sudden rise to the top of the indy heap! It was a wild ride for everyone, Justin included! I don't think we expected this much would happen so fast, but in hindsight, I'm not suprised that For Emma connected with as many people as it did. It's a very emotional record, and I think it makes people feel like there is someone out there that can relate to the darkest and loneliest period of their lives. This is
historically a very powerful thing to achieve through music. I think the lo-fi-ness of the record is what amazes me so much.
I can easily understand how the Fleet Foxes record got big. They're just a really good band with a great sounding record. But Justin's record sounds much more "homemade" to me, which I think heightens the drama of the music. It's just very surprising to hear how popular this shabby recording has gotten! Its actually quite inspiring. The stuff he's
worked on since, as well as the live shows, are the opposite. They're very pristine and high quality, which matches the music. In fact, I'd say Bon Iver is one of the best sounding bands out there right now. They are all very gifted musicians and very tasteful. I can't wait to hear what the next record sounds like!
What artists/bands currently take up the most time on the Megafaun stereo?
PHHHHHHEEEWWW! Sharron Van Etten, Avett Brothers, Drive By Truckers, Califone, Albert Ayler, Breathe Owl Breathe, Tallest Man on Earth, Francois Bayle, Charles Ives, On Fillmore, Hammer No More The Fingers, The Great White Jenkins, and every band we've ever toured with!
If you had to name one artist/band that you feel is particularly "important" for music in 2010 who would it be and why?
It's sort of too early to tell isn't it? I'm not a good judge of these things.... I don't know, Kanye? If I had my druthers it would be Anthony Braxton!
Ever played the animal game before? (Basically you begin with one letter, eg. 'A', and everyone has to name an animal beginning with this letter. The person who cannot name an animal beginning with 'A' loses one life).
The easy animals such as 'Cat' are always taken quite early so can ye give me a rare animal beginning with 'C' that I can use as back up for the next time I play the game myself? A description of the animal would also be helpful as people tend to try and make up names as well as using mythological beasts!
Wow! Sounds like a great way to beat the boredom of the road!
Official Myspace : http://www.myspace.com/megafaun