Megafauna, the psych-metal, prog-rock act fronted by Dani Neff, spins magic through stark contrasts.
“Desire,” the lead track on the group’s new album “Welcome Home,” is a slow-building siren song. It opens with Neff’s vocals wafting over a lilting guitar line that gradually grows more ominous as her airy voice betrays hints of menace. When it explodes into a turbulent soundstorm of pounding drums and foreboding bass, Neff leans in, churning out sludge-like guitar riffs that wind into distorted wails.
The rapid vacillation from vulnerable to fierce, soft to hard, is striking. This sound, very aggressive, but also very feminine, is a signature for Megafauna.
They found it organically.
“I just happen to have a soft voice and I happen to want to play gnarly guitar,” Neff says when we meet for breakfast at the North Campus deli Food Heads.
Now 31, Neff grew up in Connecticut. She started playing at 10, when she tagged along to a few guitar lessons with her father, a blues hobbyist. One of the first pieces she learned was the guitar solo on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’”; by the time she was in high school she was sitting in with her guitar teacher’s blues band at biker bars across the state.
But as a teen, her musical preferences leaned toward the grunge rock that raged out of Seattle in the ‘90s. She was attracted to the raw grittiness of the music and also the angst. Kurt Cobain was her hero.
“I was kind of a sad kid, I guess,” she says. “I wrote lyrics about my identity and not knowing who I was. I had an existential crisis at a very young age.”
An early song she wrote included the chorus “What are you looking at? My hair? My piercings?” Neff sings it with a snotty teen affectation and then bursts into laughter on the deck of Food Heads.
For all her punk posturing, she was no dropout. She left high school with honors and went on to graduate from Yale. After college she landed in New York, where she joined a slew of bands and discovered the city’s underground art jazz scene. “I’d go to all these weird free jazz shows in houses in Brooklyn,” she says. “That was pretty cool for expanding in terms of weird time signatures and using strange chord voicings.”
Two years into her NYC stay she was over the city, the crowds and the lack of green space. “People would say, ‘You belong in Austin … all the co-ops, the hippies, the art and music. You would love it,’” she says.
When she was accepted into law school at the University of Texas in 2008, she happily accepted. Not long after relocating to the city, renting a house and taking on a mess of roommates, she formed Megafauna in 2009.
Seven years and four albums later, Neff is certified to practice law, but other than a brief stint in an entertainment practice, helping bands negotiate contracts, jurisprudence has been overshadowed by music in her life.
“Welcome Home,” the new album, was recorded with Neff’s buddies from Bright Light Social Hour. Bright Light front man Curtis Roush was the main producer, and they recorded at the band’s Lake Travis studio where they stock an impressive collection of vintage gear.
“It was the most low-key recording experience that we’ve ever had,” Neff said. “Working with them was awesome because they’re so sweet.”
The album is an artistically expansive platter that moves from fuzzy psych rock and grinding metal into high-concept prog that shifts through the odd time signatures Neff learned at those Brooklyn house parties.
You could call it a breakup record — many of the songs were written after a relationship abruptly ended. The tricky balance of maintaining a healthy romantic partnership while at the dynamic center of a hard touring indie outfit has been an ongoing struggle for Neff.
“It’s hard to find relationships that nurture that creative side. A lot of men say they are cool with it but they’re not cool with it,” she says.
But these aren’t your standard heartbreak tales. Take the title track, which closes the album. It traces the sensation of loss through an epic, eight-minute, interstellar allegory.
“The world’s about to be destroyed by a war and there’s like one seat left to go to another planet and (the narrator’s lover) comes home and he’s like, ‘Sorry, I’m going to go to another planet, Mars,’” she says. “And Mars is habitable. It’s very strange.”
A bit weird, perhaps, but the sound is beginning to resonate with audiences across the country. The band just returned from a three-week tour of the Western U.S. Propelled by several prominent song premieres on national music blogs, turnout was good, Neff says, especially in the Pacific Northwest where the band is always warmly received, “probably because of the grunge vibe up there.”
These days Neff’s musical influences go much deeper than grunge. She kept Black Sabbath in heavy rotation while writing and recording the album, as well as a lot of psych rock, from Dead Meadow and Spiritualized to Tame Impala, but she’s not sure how much her personal soundtrack affected the recording. She meditates and does energy work to ground herself and focus her inner vision, and many of her abstract musical sagas begin with an intense feeling that inspires her to pick up the guitar.
“I don’t know where these songs come from,” she says. “They just kind of mystically combust.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Megafauna
Members: Dani Neff (lead guitar and vocals), Zack Humphrey (drums), Will Krause (bass).
Recordings: “Welcome Home,” 2016; “Maximalist,” 2014; “Surreal Estate” 2012; “Larger Than Human” 2010.
June shows: “Welcome Home” release party with Migrant Kids, Blockhead and more June 11 at Empire Control; Solstice Festival at Pan Am Park on June 18.
Statesman video: Look for a video of Megafauna performing in our studio on austin360.com