Rollo & Grady Interview // Joe Westerlund of Megafaun

Rollo & Grady Interview // Joe Westerlund of Megafaun
[L to R: Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund]

Megafaun might be a new name to many but the talented group has an impressive resume. Based in Durham, North Carolina, the band was built by bothers Brad and Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund. The trio, plus Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver) moved from Eau-Claire, Wisconsin to North Carolina when they were known as DeYarmond Edison. The group split in 2006 – Vernon went on to record the magnificent For Emma, Forever Ago, while the other guys formed Megafaun. It was a smooth transition for the new group since they had been playing together since 1997 when they met in jazz camp as teenagers.

I spoke to drummer Joe Westerlund last week while the band was on tour with the Bowerbirds and preparing for the July 21st release of their sophomore album, Gather, Form & Fly.

Rollo & Grady Interview // Joe Westerlund of Megafaun

R&G: How was the show last night?

Joe: It was nice. But we don’t have a super huge draw in New York quite yet. We don’t play a lot of shows on our own. When we play on our own, we usually play in smaller places anyway.

R&G: You guys played at the Bowery Ballroom last night. That’s a pretty big place.

Joe: Yeah, well, that was with the Bowerbirds. We were opening for them.

R&G: Crowd participation is a big part of your live shows – were you able to get the crowd to join in last night?

Joe: Yeah, actually we did. The first time we played there with Akron/Family, we had the crowd singing. We had little parts that they sang and everybody participated beautifully – it was awesome. I think our crowd participation has changed a little bit. We used to have set parts where we taught the crowds to sing along. It’s become a lot more spontaneous, I think, more than anything. Our banter, too: we’re starting to talk a lot more, which I’m not always sure is a good thing, but I think people enjoy it. It’s a chance for us to decompress and take a little break from playing. Since we’re a new band, we get to show people that we’re not these dark, scary, bearded men that play pretty songs and then take them to weird places. We’re funny guys. We try to have comedic moments.

R&G: It seems like the band focused on a more traditional song structure for ‘Gather, Form & Fly’ than the sometimes experimental tracks on your debut album ‘Bury the Square’. Is that a fair assessment?

Joe: Absolutely. I think that’s mostly a product of the fact that when we started this band, we’d always written music, and I guess that’s it right there. We were the arrangers for Justin’s [Vernon - Bon Iver] songs in our band previous to Megafaun, DeYarmond Edison. None of us had much practice writing lyrics or even singing. I guess that’s the natural progression, coming from Bury the Square. We were so focused on learning to record and write songs that we ended up focusing a lot more on the instrumental parts. We’ve just had a lot more time to think about songs and singing – all three of us singing and writing songs together.

R&G: The harmonies on the album are beautiful.

Joe: Thanks. Phil’s [Cook] always been the harmony guy for us. In high school, he led the choir for a while. He was always the guy singing the harmony at our shows with DeYarmond Edison. That’s a natural thing for him and all three of us have been working on singing together in a live setting and recording. I think that’s another major growth point for us with this record – our voices together and apart. I would say song structure and our voices are what we surprised ourselves with on this record.

R&G: You guys all have jazz backgrounds. Does that help you push the boundaries in your music when you improvise or experiment with songs?

Joe: Absolutely. Because of that, we’ve always had one foot in that world and an interest in the academic world. For me, it’s that I went to Bennington College and studied with a drummer named Milford Graves – that’s a direct result of being interested in jazz and music that pushes boundaries. All of us attending jazz camp as teenagers, I’d say there’s definitely a direct line you could draw to that seed being planted early on. That’s something that we’ll never let go of. It’s a vital part for us to be exploring and finding something new in the music we’re creating.

R&G: One of your new singles – “Kaufman’s Ballad” – has an interesting back-story. Can you tell me about it?

Joe: It’s a song about Graham Parsons. His manager [Phil Kauffman] and Parsons’ best friend overheard him saying that when he died he wanted his body to be cremated and his ashes spread in the Joshua Tree National Park. When he died, they stole his body and drove it to the middle of the Joshua Tree forest and burned it, but they were unsuccessful. The body didn’t burn all the way. I guess at that point in time, you couldn’t get arrested for stealing a body. I believe that’s how the folklore goes.

R&G: Joe, is there anything you like to add about the album or tour?

Joe: We’re just really excited man. We’ve never had so much momentum behind a tour. To be on tour with the Bowerbirds who are also releasing an album on this tour… when Bury the Square came out, we were such a new band and so under the radar. It’s really exciting to have people like you calling us and having people to talk to. It seems like our shows are going over really well with people that haven’t seen us before. It’s a really exciting tour for us and we feel really lucky to be going through this right now. It’s great time in our lives.

Gather, Form & Fly is due out July 21st via Hometapes (Pre-Order)

MP3: Megafaun – The Fade
MP3: DeYarmond Edison – Dead Anchor