Powerhouse. Shredder. Ax-grinding. Face-melting. Heaviosity.
The descriptive praise aimed at Megafauna guitarist Dani Neff is piling up in both the Austin, Texas, music scene and beyond. Add in a lengthy tour and a new album set for October release, and the accolades won't stop anytime soon.
Neff, who founded the power trio after moving to Austin in 2008, even topped one Austin Chronicle writer's ballot as best electric guitarist in the paper's hotly competitive music awards.
Starting with guitar lessons as a 10-year-old in Connecticut, Neff progressed through blues to grunge, prog and metal, settling into a style that's both impressively complex and melodically infectious.
"I just play music that I'd like to hear. I get really frustrated by the same old shit over and over again. You go out to a bar and someone's playing '60s garage rock. I don't see the point of playing stuff that's already been played," Neff says.
"I like really innovative music that breaks out of the traditional categories of rock 'n' roll. I like pushing the boundaries with new structures and strange melodies. A huge part of the mission is breaking the mold and getting a little freaky."
Neff began writing songs at 14, a huge Nirvana fan turning out what she calls "little dissonant rock songs." In high school, she'd sit in with her guitar teacher's blues band at biker bars. As a student at Yale, she started the band Common Response, which she took to New York after graduation. After that fell apart, Neff got busy with whatever she could find musically, including what she calls "free-jazz-influenced, super-mathy, out-there rock."
"I joined like six different bands when I was living in New York," she says. "One was this metal satire show. I was a plant in the crowd. I'd raise my hand and then come up and play Sabbath riffs," she says.
Ultimately, nothing was creatively fulfilling until she moved to Austin for law school and started Megafauna, recruiting a bass player and drummer through Craigslist.
"Whenever I'm a side person in a band, it's just not as fulfilling. I write songs and I like to sing and play," she says.
With Will Krause on bass and Cameron Page on drums, Megafauna released their debut EP, Larger Than Human, in 2010 and recorded a follow-up, Surreal Estate, for release last year. "Megafauna's debut sits at the intersection of 1970s rock and 1990s noise, idling in the land of ice and snow and burnt rubber," the Austin Chronicle said about Larger Than Human. "Instrumental complexity is inherent to Megafauna's grungy eclecticism, but every note is in service to the vocally driven songs," the paper said about Surreal Estate. After a lineup change that brought drummer Zack Humphrey and bassist Greg Yancey into the band, Megafauna recorded a third album, set for October release, which Neff says will be the culmination of everything the band has done thus far.
"We'd like to have more of a commercial push behind it. It's a really cohesive mix of songs that are all recorded in a really raw, loud rock vein," Neff says. "My songs are still all over the map, but I think we've found a sound. I think we've found prog-grunge. I think things have congealed."
An electrical engineer, Yancey doesn't have a schedule that allows for touring, so Neff brought in John Musci to play bass on the road.
"I'm a classic case of huge fan turned member," he says. "The second night I was in Austin I saw Megafauna and I was pretty much floored. To really go to see a show and just be beside myself with excitement really stuck with me. After I got word they needed a bass player, I dragged out an old shoddy bass guitar and laid into it about five hours a day.
"What I enjoy about Megafauna is it's just not easy. It's incredibly challenging and incredibly fulfilling. I love every show, whether we're playing for another band or playing for hundreds of people. I just enjoy being a part of the sound I love so much."
Humphrey, who, like Musci, moved to Texas from North Carolina, says that unlike a lot of Austin musicians who keep busy playing in a number of different bands, he's more than content to stick with Megafauna.
"It's nice to have a primary focus and find a band that clicks with you," he says. "The whole reason I play music is so that I can do something I'm passionate about that moves me, and that for me is something that at least is trying to be original. That's why we click so well. We're on the same page in that sense."
The band's intense live show is an easy one to connect with. The songs become hypnotic, with a musical complexity that serves as an enticement rather than a distraction. The time signatures shift, but in service to the songs. And Neff is a double threat, offering blistering guitar solos and soaring vocals.
"People seem to really love Megafauna even though there's a hell of a lot of weird stuff going on," Humphrey says. "The beauty of Megafauna is we're able to take all these various influences from jazz and progressive rock and hard rock and we put it together in a way that's new and fresh and still manages to be accessible. Dani is really good at writing some melodic hooks and there's an underlying groove to it still. If you're pushing the boundaries way too far and playing all this weirdness, no one except musicians are going to be able to appreciate that. We don't want to do something that's so far out you don't really feel it."