Quit Your Day Job: Megafaun
Raleigh-via-Eau Clair BTW Megafaun debuted impressively earlier this year with Bury The Square. The trio nip-and-tuck experimental tendencies (tape splicing, white noise colliding with banjo, junkyard-laced spring reverb, screeching feedback at the tail end of a quiet back porch lament) and spacey explorations (see the second half of “Find Your Mark”) into epic barber-shop Americana. It makes perfect sense they’ve toured and collaborated with Akron/Family (check out those three-part harmonies) as much as it makes sense that they’re about to play some shows with the legendary German minimalist composer Arnold Dreyblatt (note the intro transmissions of “Tired And Troubled” before the hoedown starts). Bury came out in February on Table Of The Elements’s Radium imprint. The guys recently signed to Portland’s Hometapes. Expect the new album in Spring 2009.
Megafaun are here today because they also hold down day jobs. Drummer Joe Westerlund works for the coffee roaster Larry’s Beans where he packages beans and does odd jobs. Banjo player Phil Cook works for Center for Inquiry Based learning, a non-profit out of Duke University, where he “assembles hands-on science kits for elementary schools.” He’s used some of these supplies as piano preparations and as instruments for the band’s live shows/recordings. Phil’s brother Brad Cook manages an independent record store, Schoolkids Records. Additionally, he co-owns Burlytime Records with Pitchfork’s Grayson Currin and put out QYDJ alumni Bowerbirds‘ debut, etc. That said, I didn’t bother asking about the label and instead went full-on into a job the three guys do together: Each year they temp for the Ironman of North America triathlon. I’m not kidding.
After our discussion about the state of record stores, coffee, science projects, and people suffering from organ failure during triathlons, take a listen to non-album track “Beloved Binge.”
Joe Westerlund, drums
STEREOGUM: How long have you worked at Larry’s Beans? Where’s it located?
JOE WESTERLUND: I’ve worked at Larry’s Beans for a little over two years now. It’s located in the Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh, right across the street from David Sedaris’s brother’s flooring business.
STEREOGUM: Did you have any prior experience with coffee, besides drinking it?
JOE WESTERLUND: I was actually not too big on coffee before I started working there. I’m very sensitive to caffeine. It wasn’t until I experienced my first cupping at Larry’s that I learned to appreciate the art of roasting, brewing, and tasting coffee. After collaborating with modern dancers in college, I realized that I’m a big sucker for drawing associations between the senses. Something that really excites me is finding word associations that describe the taste of coffee, because it directly relates to how we describe sound or movement. This is what cupping is all about: finding a way to talk about taste.
STEREOGUM: Can you talk about some of your specific duties? The odd jobs?
JOE WESTERLUND: I primarily work in packaging, but I do many other odd jobs, especially since Megafaun started touring so heavily. They kind of fit me in wherever they can, for which I am forever grateful. A big part of Larry’s Beans is their growing interest in sustainability. We make local deliveries with an old school bus that runs on vegetable grease (which means constant trips to a mechanic), maintain a large compost pile and recycle everything we possibly can amongst other things. I help out with these things occasionally. The warehouse is also under construction, so there is always some sort of cleaning or re-organizing that I usually end up getting stuck with!
STEREOGUM: What’s the process you have to follow to properly package the coffee?
JOE WESTERLUND: I sling a full sized garbage can half-filled with roasted coffee over my shoulder and climb up some steps to dump it in a weigh-fill machine. We all puff our chests a little bit over who can carry the most weight, which keeps things from getting too dull! I then use that same machine to fill 5 lbs, 1 lb, or 12 oz. biodegradable bags, which are then heat sealed, boxed, and carted next door to shipping. It’s pretty monotonous, but we have some speakers and a server full of everybody’s music. We basically just rock out and make fun of each other all day; typical warehouse shit. I’ve never really been in a work environment before that allowed me to be myself this much. We all get to let our freak flags fly!
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about the different roasts. Do you have any insight into the difference between an oily French Roast and a more medium or light
blend? Why do people bother with the medium or light blends?
JOE WESTERLUND: Larry’s has a pretty wide range of blends and roasts, but they specialize in a medium roast. I actually prefer medium roasts/blends. I’ve been told that the medium blend is much more common on the east coast, especially in the south east. The west coast has this extreme dark roast thing going on, which has exploded throughout the country with Starbucks. I drink an occasional Starbucks on the road, but I definitely prefer to have a lighter roast than they offer. My palette has been heavily conditioned by my job. I am much more able to process the taste of lighter roasts, and to pick out the subtler characteristics or notes involved. Dark roasts tend to taste burnt and flat to me now, and often become overwhelming after a few sips.
STEREOGUM: What’s Larry’s Beans’ specialty?
JOE WESTERLUND: Honestly, the people. I work with very talented, creative, energetic individuals and everyone is extremely supportive of each other. I couldn’t ask for a better situation in a work environment. My managers, Rick and Neal, have been especially supportive and patient with me as my band schedule gets increasingly busy and unpredictable.
STEREOGUM: In your mind, what’s a perfect cup of coffee?
JOE WESTERLUND: My personal favorite blend right now is a brainchild of our head roaster, Brad. It’s called Woodstock Blend and it includes everything I enjoy in a cup of coffee. My fiancé and I have been using a French Press at home lately. It’s such a different experience than drinking coffee brewed in a basket filter. It doesn’t filter out as many oils or grounds, which I used to dislike, but have since grown fond of.
Phil Cook, banjo
STEREOGUM: How did you get the job at the Center For Inquiry Based Learning?
PHIL COOK: I got back from a long tour and prepared to find yet another job I’d soon quit again to tour. My friend Kavanah told me about a place she’d worked last year where they let you leave and come back at will. Clock your own hours. I called right away and got the job on the spot. So far I’ve been gone as much as I’ve been there and I couldn’t be happier. The staff is mostly ex-school teachers who got tired of the public education system in this country and needed a change. They started this non-profit program through Duke University and Galaxo-Smith-Klein to bring exciting hands-on science programs to students around North Carolina.
STEREOGUM: What’s your background? What did you study in school? I ask because this sounds like a pretty specific job.
PHIL COOK: I’ve played piano since I was three and eventually studied piano at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I’ve also had a great deal of experience as a mentor for youth in both Wisconsin and North Carolina. I’ve been active in AmeriCorps, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Upward Bound, YMCA summer camps, Special Olympics, and various after-school tutoring programs. Aside from playing music, I like helping kids and this job fulfills that in a way.
It sounds like a specific job but it’s not. I essentially work on an assembly line, only I’m responsible for most of the assembly. The kits eventually end up in classrooms and kids experience a really interactive series of games and experiments that drive home a particular scientific concept.
STEREOGUM: Can you discuss exactly what it means to assemble “hands on science kits”?
PHIL COOK: My supervisors are amazing. Really mellow people. They design all the kits and order all of the supplies to our warehouse. I come in each day and get an assignment. This week the kit we’re assembling is Cell Theory Microbiology. It deals with both spreading and containment of germs and disease. For example, all the kids will start with a small cup of water. Two kids unknowingly have “contaminated” water. Kids will cycle through a few exchanges and swish their cups together. Then the teacher goes around the room and drops a pH indicator in each glass and almost half of them will turn red, therefore be “infected.” This scenario can be used to discuss the spread of both the common cold or HIV. I have around 50-70 kits to prepare any given week. Each kit contains the same items packed the same way. Everything is counted, weighed, bagged and labeled. It can get old. Fortunately, I got a couple friends a job there and we all get along super well. Some days the warehouse is a dance party and some days we’re playing practical jokes and rolling on the floor laughing, but even when it’s quiet there’s always good music playing and good conversation happening.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any photos of the piano preparations/etc? How do you make use of these in the live show?
PHIL COOK: I wish I had some pics of the preparations for you. We used them in the track, “Beloved Binge” [Note: See Below] for the recent Radium comp. I gathered the usual washers, bolts, and screws but added earplugs, beans, ping pong balls, bottle caps, broaches, and clothespins. I need to do it more often. I left the preparations in my piano for about two months and explored a lot. The warehouse provides a more direct supply to our live show. We carry thousands of items and I’m always tapping them and shaking them. I’ve built a ton of shakers that we give out during our live show. Since our shows have gotten somewhat theatrical and audience involved, we ask them to take responsibility for parts of it. It’s nice because the shakers are free so we don’t mind if they break.
Brad Cook, guitar
STEREOGUM: How long have you been at Schoolkids?
BRAD COOK: I have been working there for exactly three years.
STEREOGUM: Do you display Megafaun merchandise in a prominent place?
BRAD COOK: I can get pretty uncomfortable when it comes to self promotion, so nothing intentional, but I guess our record is still on the new release rack, even though it was released in February. I haven’t done anything to remove it, although I have been out of the shop touring for four of the last six months. I think my co-workers keep it up there as a sort of a living tribute when we are away. The crew there is unbelievably supportive and awesome.
STEREOGUM: There are three Schoolkids locations. Are you in steady contact with the other stores? Or are you sorta on your own?
BRAD COOK: Technically we are on our own now. Ric, the general manager, and I actually closed down the Chapel Hill location in March. It was kinda sad. The Athens store is run by Ross from the popular Athens band, The Glands … he would kill me for saying that. I don’t know him too well, but i enjoy our periodic phone conversations. He is pleasantly gruff!
STEREOGUM: Do you have any say regarding the in-store performances?
BRAD COOK: It is such a small staff (about five) that we tend to yay/nay things in a pretty democratic way. I think all of us have sympathy for the regionally touring band that needs to fill a date, yet simultaneously, those tend to be the hardest to work through. We have had some excellent ones (Drive-By Truckers, Avett Brothers) and some pretty unpleasant people (Pete Yorn). I think I always sort of appreciate them though.
Actually, good story, we do have a very sweet, very eccentric customer who writes poetry that would make Beefheart seem pretty “IN.” He brings down poems that he writes for the staff and reads them to us while he shops for various Jean-Luc Ponty albums. One day I asked him if he would mind doing a public reading from the stage. He let it rip for about an hour on some back catalog material. It turns out Jolie Holland’s band was shopping in the store at the time and it was all they could talk about from the stage that night. I think it really blew their minds. If I could afford it, I would absolutely try to release a volume of his material. It’s incredibly dense and abstract.
STEREOGUM: Obviously with downloading, etc., record stores are in crisis. Did Record Store Day have any long-term effect on your store? Maybe you could talk about how things are different now from when you started.
BRAD COOK: Record store day was a great idea on a handful of levels. I thought the 7″ were great ideas and most of the in-stores I read about seemed fun. In regards to its long term effects, we haven’t really felt it. I think we have a market that is more dialed into what is happening regionally, as opposed to nationally. We sell a ton of southeast bands. I have been there long enough to see certain negative trends, obviously having to close our Chapel Hill store, but our Raleigh location is still doing well on the whole. We still operate with a profit, which is completely positive and awesome! Our vinyl and websales are up over 200% from the last year. We also carry an extremely deep metal selection and that crowd isn’t moving as rapidly into filesharing/iTunes from a general observation. It turns out that people still really care about the complete package when it comes to bands like Iced Earth, Luca Terreli, etc. Then again, I tend to think that any band unironically putting airbrushed Orks riding eagles with flaming tails on their album cover deserves to be selling their physical product. [Note: Agreed.] I would imagine there was more time put into that design than say, your average Kompakt record.
BRAD COOK: Most importantly, we all work a temp job with Ironman of North America. If you arent familiar, it is the major triathlon race. (2.8 mile swim into 114 mile bike into 26 mile run). Twice a year we fly to Louisville and Clearwater Beach in Florida, build retail tents and sell merchandise to athletes from all over the world. Picture us, semi overweight bearded guys selling embroidered sweatshirts to racers from Brazil from who have all their body hair shaved. All the while UBUweb is streaming from the cash register area. It can be pretty funny.
STEREOGUM: Wow. How did you guys get involved with this? Do you have photos?
BRAD COOK: Oddly, the owner of Schoolkids is a serious triathlete. When things in the music business started to go downhill, he turned his frustrations into triathlons. Throughout the years, he has made a name for himself in the field and was eventually approached by a massive apparel company to head up their event expos. He brought me along to the first one to help set up the retail tents and help with the computers. I then convinced him to bring Phil and Joe to the next event. We don’t have photos per say, although we are probably in Louisville, KY setting up a retail tent as you people read this…
STEREOGUM: Any anecdotes?
BRAD COOK: Well, sure. I certainly think my favorite visual image is the rather large population of Brazilian guys walking around downtown for the few days leading up to race in nothing but cycling shoes, speedos, fannypacks and bike helmets. Certainly an ensemble that is complete uncouth in the real world, but at Ironman it is totally celebrated. I mean, simply put, we are the only men in eyesight for an entire week with body hair and a zero presence of spandex.
On a more serious note, it is physically impossible to watch the last two hours of an Ironman without crying. We all do it. For those unfamiliar with Ironman, racers have 17 hours to finish a 2.8 mile swim into a 114 mile bike ride into a marathon. Completely insane. The pros will finish in 8 hours, but the people that take 16-17 hours are usually racing for some reason entirely bigger than themselves. These are the people crawling and crying and struggling to finish because they told a dying friend they would honor their dream to race an Ironman. Whatever motivator it may be, it is usually powerful (see: the Hoyt family). I love it. We close up shop and head down to watch the last two hours of the finish line. Crying, all of us.
STEREOGUM: Hmm… are any of you ever tempted to partake in the triathlon?
BRAD COOK: Boy, have you seen me? Ha! I mean, I would love to. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the money to prepare. It is a serious training period. Physicality aside, if you don’t eat or hydrate properly, a majority of which are done on the bike portion, you will suffer some pretty serious organ failures. It happens to at least a small fraction of prepared athletes in every race. I am really fascinated by it all. I suppose it did motivate me to start running, though, and I think it was also a motivator in giving up cigarettes about about 15 months ago as well. I kind of realized how unhealthy I was compared to these people
See if you can pick out Phil’s science-kit-supplies-as-instruments here:
And, if lucky, you can see the band live, often with Arnold Dreyblatt.
09/11 – Bennington,VT @ Bennington College
09/12 – Salem, NY @ Salem Art Works- Salem *
09/13 – Detroit, MI @ Bohemian National Home
09/14 – Chicago, IL @ The Empty Bottle (Wire Festival) *
09/16 – Boston, MA @ Middle East Upstairs *
09/21 – New York, NY @ Knitting Factory *
09/25 – Duluth, MN @ Beaners
09/26 – Menominee, WI @ Mabel Tainter Theatre
* w/ Arnold Dreyblatt and his Orchestra of Excited Strings
[L to R: Joe Westerlund, Phil Cook, Brad Cook]