Talking after a long day of recording, Megafauna's Dani Neff is upbeat about the progress her band is making on its untitled third album.
Reflective and enthusiastic, Neff touches on the still difficult-to-define Megafauna sound, the new direction her songwriting is taking, and the challenges of keeping one foot rooted in the fertile Austin scene and one foot on the road.
Since releasing debut EP Larger Than Human in 2010, the trio has found fans across the country in the cracks between hard rock and metal, prog and grunge, psychedelic rock and hard-hitting indie.
For Megafauna, the sound — which revolves around Neff's manic and blistering guitar — doesn't necessarily need to carry around a fixed name tag. Happy to let the definitions fluidly merge and evolve, Neff says she likes "psychedelic prog," which she heard at the band's last show.
What excites Neff about Megafauna is the ability for her, bassist Will Krause, and drummer Zack Humphrey to keep pushing musical boundaries and expectations.
"We're so excited to be playing new stuff," Neff says. "I'm very happy with it. Usually, I'm not so happy with the recordings right after we do them, but this time I'm really liking them."
Recording in Austin at the home studio of friends Bright Light Social Hour, Megafauna has at its disposal a carefully curated mix of vintage and state-of-the-art gear. Some of the new songs, five recorded before summer touring and five before the group's latest monthlong trek across the West, have premiered on stage already.
"There's this really, really heavy one with a Mars Volta, Queens of the Stone Age vibe," Neff says. "Another one starts off really soft and then gets really heavy and stoner-metally, slow and sludgy and hard."
On the heels of 2012's Surreal Estate and last year's Maximalist, the new record builds on the band's balanced foundation: impressively complex yet melodically infectious.
"It's funkier overall and groovier but still weird and heavy. It's still weird time signatures but not so fast, fast, fast out the gate," Neff says. "I notice the tempos are a little bit slower on this new album. It's definitely heavy, and sometimes I feel it's better to be heavy at slower tempos because you can really dig in. But maybe I should write a straight-up punk rock rager."
Uniting the songs is an exploration of the philosophy that consciousness is universal in all things.
"There's this overarching theme about psychedelia and the idea that everything has a spirit of some kind, this idea of panpsychism," Neff says. "A lot of the songs are about aloneness and isolation. There's a new song about a person totally isolated on an island, and finding they're communicating with the grass and everything."
Much of that lyrical focus comes from the life of a touring band, feeling a little untethered, even when they're at home.
"Being as nomadic as we are makes it hard sometimes to put down roots in the city you live in," Neff says. "We don't know exactly how much to care about the Austin scene. You can go crazy trying to blow up in Austin. The market is completely saturated and there are so many bands here it feels hard to get noticed. We do have a pretty good following and we're grateful to the clubs that have us, but because we're a bit of a niche band, it works more for us to focus on the whole country and get out to the people who like us and draw them to us."
But the Austin influence does show up in songs, Neff says, at least in terms of the climate and the heat. The myriad examples of heavier bands coming from more extreme climates — either the desert like Queens of the Stone Age or the frozen north of Scandinavian black metal — isn't lost on Neff, either.
"The vibe is different, but a lot of heavier bands come from both sorts of climates," Neff says.
Neff, who's been mentioned among the top local guitarists in the Austin Chronicle's hotly contested music awards, began playing at 10, progressing through guitar lessons and styles, from blues to grunge. Nirvana inspired her to start writing songs at 14. And moving to New York after college, she played in six different bands, from free jazz to heavily technical math rock.
The musician, who formed Megafauna shortly after moving to Austin in 2008, says her songwriting has changed in the city, with the opportunity to form her own band rather than play as a side musician. Out front in Megafauna, Neff pivots between guitar heroics and hypnotic vocals.
"Some of the songs start with a guitar part and I'll start singing [in a] stream of consciousness, and a lot of times I'll keep those lyrics, actually. And sometimes, I'll have a poem that I'll sing over an existing riff," she says. "How a song starts does push it in a direction. The songs that start with a poem are often simpler and more about the vocal melody. The ones that start with a guitar part, the vocal melody will be more stripped down and basic and the song will be more about the instrumentals.
"Sometimes, songs just kind of happen and I don't even know how they happen. They just occur and just kind of flow out of me. I like the concept that the song already exists and you have to find it. It comes from some other dimension and you have to pluck it down. Those are the best, I think, the ones that mystically combust into reality."
As the songs emerge for Megafauna, so, too, do ideas for what can visually accompany the music.
"I have a lot of fun expanding on the songs through videos," Neff says. "I love film and movies, and my major was film studies, so I really like the idea of pairing images to music. It's nice to be able to express more of what's behind the song, to add more layers and dimensions. I can show what I'm getting at, even though the lyrics are really esoteric and mysterious and gently nudge people in that direction."
"Haunted Factory" takes to an abandoned mental hospital for a video centered on the notion of transformation and self-determination. "This Town," co-directed by Neff and Stephanie Chavez, uses body paint to show how much people can let the outside world influence what should be their own decisions, while "Time to Go" gets wild riffing on a '90s energy drink.
In the works to accompany the new record is a video for "Desire," directed by Bobby Weiss. As Neff describes it, "It's a really heavy song that gets really loud and grungy. The video is very David Lynchian. It gets really weird and dark and out there theatrically and ends in a fire."
The September tour that brings Megafauna to Phoenix will find the band moving more fully toward the new material.
"I'm so ready to play new stuff. I love Maximalist, but I'm very ready. The audience can tell that you're just more relaxed when it's older songs," she says. "With new stuff, you don't know it as well so it's more exciting to you. It's a question of 'Can I pull this off?' It's just fun trying something new and people in the audience like it when you're on the edge of your comfort zone."