What was your gateway into the world of improvisation?
Actually, the first time I heard Phish was at Justin’s house in high school. He played Hoist for me. He liked them but he never actually went to a show with us. Before that I was listening to Nirvana, and I had a Germs record. I was either going to go the jazz route or the punk route, and the punk thing didn’t work out for me. After Justin played me Hoist, I bought it and I just couldn’t stop listening to it.
I’ve got this other friend Trevor who was in Mount Vernon as well—he was a trumpet player. He had Junta and Rift and that’s when I was like, “Oh wait, that’s what these guys do.” Hoist was something totally different but you could hear the musicianship even though they were playing really tightly constructed pop songs. You could almost hear them listening to each other and being sensitive to each other. They weren’t just bashing away on their instruments like a lot of the music I was listening to at that point. It was exciting for me to hear somebody blast off. So that was a big shift for me when I heard Hoist —everything else after that just took me deeper and deeper into that whole world. Those guys in Phish were into 20th century classical composition and they were into jazz and bluegrass and all sorts of stuff—it sort of took me on a journey. The first time I saw them was in ‘95, a few days before the Halloween show. That was a fucking revelation.
How did you meet the Cooks?
I met Phil first at a jazz camp that every jazz nerd in Wisconsin went to—it was a week-long camp in the summer, and we played a lot of Frisbee and learned a lot about jazz. There were always some jamband kids that would show up there, and we’d quickly find out who each other were and play together. Phil and I met there in ‘96 and went to go see Phish together, actually, later that summer at Alpine Valley. They played “Reba,” which was one of my favorite songs at that point. I think they might have played “Harry Hood” that night, but that might have been the following summer.
We kept in touch and saw each other every now and then over the year. The next summer Phil didn’t go to jazz camp but Brad did! I became really tight with Brad and it was kind of like, “Oh, I knew both of them.” The three of us went to see Phish at Alpine Valley that summer together, and it started a tradition of seeing Phish at Alpine Valley together for three or four years.
I just remember having some amazing experiences at those Phish shows. I just couldn’t believe that so many people were listening like I was listening. I just couldn’t believe that Phish were doing the things they were doing in front of that many people. I remember thinking, “Holy Shit! Those guys just went somewhere that seems very vulnerable and very off the cuff, and here’s all these people that either don’t know where they are or totally onboard with the whole thing.” It was unbelievable to me. There was this quiet moment during this “Harry Hood” jam, and I could actually hear conversations within 30 people of myself. The fact that this was a rock concert where people got that quiet was an amazing feeling.
We all also went to H.O.R.D.E. fest together in ‘97 and that was a real solidifying experience. We saw Claypool jam with Morphine, and we saw Primus and Beck. Brad actually brushed shoulders with Neil Young, and I remember that being a big deal to him. At that point I wasn’t listening to much Neil Young—that was something my dad listened to [Laughter.]—but Brad was already a huge fan.
We’d just see each other more often during the school year, and we’d go to more concerts—there were some bands around town that we both liked, so we’d make these little dates to go to shows together. When we started driving they joined Justin and I’s band—it was a really instant thing.
It’s funny, when I saw you open for Mountain Goats at Bowery Ballroom, I think you teased a few lines of “Icculus,” including something about the Helping Friendly Book. The Mountain Goats fans didn’t get it, and I actually heard someone ask if that was a Mormon reference.
[Laughter.] We’ve done that a few times and there always ended up being one or two people in the crowd—or maybe some of our friends going, “Oh my god, that was “Icculus.” We covered it for an entire tour once. That’s kind of become almost a tradition for us to throw in a line or something from “Icculus” that only one or two people in an entire audience might get and feel really special for understanding.
We used to get a rap for people thinking that we were a dark band. Maybe it is because we are part of the whole freak-folk thing or maybe it is because we have these experimental tendencies. So we like to have some comic relief in our shows, kind of like when Phish would have Tom Marshall come and sing. That’s especially true as the songs we are writing are getting more and more personal. They are getting kind of heavier lyrically—to us anyway—and I hope that comes across in the record. So it becomes more important for us to have a little bit of comic relief in the show. “Icculus” is a tool that we use for that sometimes.
As I said earlier, Megafaun definitely feels like a more mature statement and a personal album, too.
I think there are two areas where we’ve really worked hard to grow since the band started because they were the two things that we’ve had the least experience doing—one was singing and the other was writing songs. They’re both scary.
I’d say writing lyrics is still the scariest thing to me. I like singing as much as I like playing an instrument right now, but writing lyrics is just this really physical transition for us. But we feel pretty comfortable with it after this record. I can say for myself, at least, that I was afraid to write really personal lyrics about relationships when I started writing songs. I always felt that it was really cliché or cheesy—or at least everything I wrote came out sounding like it was really cheesy. But I feel much more confident after this record. There’s a certain confidence you get when you stand behind a song that makes you feel naked emotionally. That might sound corny but it’s true, and I think that’s something we talked a lot about when we were writing lyrics for this record—just saying what we meant and not hiding behind analogies, flowery wordings or descriptions.
We really wanted the songs on this record to be plain and straightforward—we just felt that it would be a more direct and honest way to approach songwriting. I listen to them now and there’s definitely moments where I’m cringing and going, “Oh god! If people actually knew what that line was about, I’d be really throwing myself out there.” [Laughter.] But at the same time it is exciting that we’ve gotten to this point where we feel confident enough to tell a story in a pretty straightforward way.