When the Durham, NC freak folk trio Megafaun announced a hiatus in late 2012, few fans would have guested that banjo player/keyboardist Phil Cook’s upcoming year would include both a marquee slot at Coachella and a studio collaboration with a Grammy winning gospel group. But during the past nine months, Cook has fulfilled two of his dreams, playing the popular indie rock fest with his long-dormant blues trio The Shouting Matches and serving as musical director on Gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama’s new studio album I’ll Find a Way. Both projects are also collaborations with Justin Vernon, who played with the members of Megafaun for years in the Americana post-jam group DeYarmond Edison before founding Bon Iver. Cook also recently released a solo EP This Side Up and will revisit his jamband youth with both Vernon and the members of Megafaun as part of The National’s upcoming Grateful Dead tribute. While driving around North Carolina with his brother and Megafaun bandmate Brad, Cook explained his role in the Blind Boys’ indie-gospel mash-up and what’s next for his “beer drinking” blues band.
Let’s start by talking about your recent involvement with the Blind Boys of Alabama. You led the house band on their new album of indie-rock collaborations I’ll Find a Way and played with them at two shows in North Carolina last week. How did you first get involved with the legendary gospel group?
You know, I have learned that it really is that you’ve just gotta be in the right place at the right time. This time it worked out for me because the Blind Boys reached out to Justin Vernon about producing their record. They’re collaborators and they love to work with people, and they’re all about the guest spots—they’re just all about that stuff. They saw Justin win a Grammy for Best New Artist and that’s when he came onto their radar because they’re kind of in that Grammy world. They’re five-time Grammy winners. Anyway, so once they reached out to him, Justin called me the next day. He said, “Dude, wanna play on the Blind Boys record?” I’m like “Yup…” Justin gave me the role of musical director for the Blind Boys. He produced the record but put me in charge of arrangements and the “feel” and song structure for all the songs on the record.
The Blind Boys have one of the most unique histories of any band currently touring. Not only have they played together for seven decades, but they have also aged from a traditional gospel group who refused to perform secular music to one of the most broadly embraced veteran acts of the festival scene. When it came time to work with them and arrange their songs, did you go back and listen to any of their previous recordings in particular?
When we would come up with an idea, we’d just say, “You know, I’ve always loved this tune,” say, ‘Un-cloudy Day,’ and I would have to go back to their back-catalog, and I would look it up and cross-reference it. Well, they’ve already recorded that three times in the last fifty years—let’s pick something else. So there was a lot of cross-referencing with a career as long as theirs. They have like 25 greatest hits albums, including vinyl-only ones from the ’70s. They have like six different versions of some songs. It’s just such a vast catalog—its incalculable. I would love to know how many sessions they did.
So we decided to go for a different approach. It was pretty cool. Basically, working with the band was just so quick. We got there a few days before The Blind Boys did and we knocked out so much stuff. It felt very spontaneous—we would sit listening to these tempos and just think about the feel of the songs and what we could do. Oftentimes we would cut only two takes, maybe three at most. And then the Blind Boys would come in and sing. And they’d come in about noon and stay ‘til about seven or eight until supper time and then they’d go home back to a hotel. So when they were there, we weren’t playing. We were just there. They were just singing over the stuff that we had laid down the night before or day before. That’s kind of how it went.
Justin picked the rhythm section out—he had the whole band picked out. And the band is all just top-call Minneapolis musicians and some people that Justin knew and played with from Bon Iver. So Mike Lewis played all the bass parts and the saxophones. And then JT Bates played drums. And Reggie Pace is a trombone player and he did all the horns and all the percussion and all that stuff, too.
How involved were the founding members of the Blind Boys of Alabama in the actual recording of the album? I know Clarence Fountain doesn’t tour with them anymore, but did [co-founder] Jimmy Carter actual record at Justin’s studio?
Clarence Fountain is the founding member of the group but he’s on dialysis and unable to tour. But he added all his parts separately at a studio in Birmingham, Alabama. So that’s pretty cool. Other than that, everything was laid down right there in Justin’s studio outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It was pretty wild.
Last week you also had a chance to play live with the Blind Boys, correct?
Yeah man, for the first initial shows where they were touring on the new record. We used the circumstance in Durham, since it’s my town, to have some players from the record be there and kind of have it be a special occasion. And man, it was real special because remember, I didn’t play with them [while we recording]. We were all making the record at the same time but when we were playing, they weren’t singing. When they were singing, we weren’t playing. The cool part was actually rehearsing for the show and being on stage with them and having the energy be right there. Very cool situation.
They’re just incredible people. I hope I have that much life, energy, response and adaptability when I’m in my late seventies. Good God! Unreal. It’s just great. It’s really inspiring. They’re wonderful people with big hearts and a great sense of humor.
You mentioned that the Blind Boys are world class collaborators. I remember seeing them at the first Bonnaroo in 2002 and how they’d create all these unique gospel and rock mash-ups. They felt just as relevant then as they do today and I am sure as they did in 1939.
Yea, I think that’s kind of a big credit to their management who really had a vision for how much they’ve paid their dues and, you know, how universal that music really is when it comes down to it.. A lot of people…anyone can get something out of watching a Blind Boys show. You know, you just see the actual raw level of what a performance can be at its best. And it’s just a spark in a room. Or it just really brings you into this present moment and transports you somewhere. That’s what live music does. And it’s amazing to see people like this that have been doing it for so long and still have that level of presence in their show. Because you know, we’ve all seen dudes that are pretty blown out and, in a long-term kind of thing, we’ve seen people that get jaded. All that stuff. You see that happen in the music industry and you see how that kind of affects that element of their shows. There are so many people that just show up and go through the motions. And that’s just the opposite of these guys. And I really love that about being able to have the opportunity to play with such a band like that.
There are elements of gospel music in Megafaun’s sound, and you spent your early years playing jazz and blues music. Was gospel an influence on you and the other members of Megafaun growing up?
Oh boy, yeah. That’s the music that I grew up listening to. I’m riding in the car with my brother Brad right now, and Brad can tell you, when I was growing up I really was staying up late all the time. Mostly, I was learning lots of Chicago blues, all kinds of different R&B and blues, and then also learning gospel music. I just love the chord changes. I love the chords in gospel music. They just blend early American, harder chords—it was great, it was like they added the early elements of some jazz that had to be coming in there. But you know, nothing like crazy extensions and you know, crazy stuff. That came later. I love the harmonic movement of gospel music. I truly love that combined with the harmony arrangements for choirs and for singing groups. It just tickles some bone in my body and always has, my whole life, it always has.
So I was familiar with [their music] when they would throw chord changes or they would throw out a new tune at me like last weekend. I knew how it worked. It wasn’t like it was a foreign territory at all to me. I was like, “Oh yeah, I can kind of predict what’s gonna happen next a little bit.” I pulled it off, hopefully.