Phil Cook has been so busy getting ready for his new solo album to come out, he almost lost track of it. So on a recent weekday morning, he did a bit of a doubletake when presented with a physical copy of "People Are My Drug."
"Oh, so here's what the CD looks like," he said. "Sweet! I haven't even seen it yet, so this is kind of exciting. It's always a cool moment when you can finally go, 'OK, done.' Once you're holding it, the process is over because it's out there. It's a thing to help me move on. 'OK, that's that and it's time to write some new songs.'"
Seated at the living room table of the comfortable bungalow he shares with his young family in North Durham, Cook smiled broadly. A recording of New Orleans pianist James Booker (one of Cook's big idols) played in the background as Amos, one of his sons, watched TV in the next room.
It was a rare moment of downtime for a musician who constantly seems to be on a stage somewhere. Phil Cook and his older brother, Brad Cook, are at the center of an Americana-leaning collective that often seems more like interlocking families than bands, centered in the Triangle but extending well beyond its borders.
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It's a family tree that includes Durham-based Hiss Golden Messenger as well as Sylvan Esso, Ryan Gustafson's Dead Tongues, Mandolin Orange, Hot at Nights, Wisconsin-based Bon Iver, Nashville artists William Tyler and Elise Davis and more. You'll find them all playing with each other in various combinations, but the results are not at all samey from record to record.
Tyler, a Nashville-based guitarist that Brad Cook manages as well as produces, plays instrumental music that sounds like country and Western Europe. And Amelia Meath, singer in the Grammy-nominated electronic duo Sylvan Esso, is one of the most recognizable voices throughout "People Are My Drug" — a roots-rock tour de force that recalls Ry Cooder or The Band's more gospel-centered moments.
"The attitude is that bands share members and also a mentality where the stage is open and you're welcome on that stage," Phil Cook said. "We're all part of each other's art and experiences, which only strengthens everyone's ties. It's a community that transcends cities, identified mostly as people in the same boat. We all took a leap of faith to do this thing and it binds us all together no matter where we are."
Evolution as leap of faith
In the case of the Cook brothers, that initial leap of faith goes back more than a decade. They were part of a wave of musicians, artists and entrepreneurs who moved from Wisconsin to North Carolina starting in 2005, an influx that also included people who went on to form Ponysaurus Brewing and Pie Pushers "Durham-style" pizza.
"The older I get, the more I think that we didn't choose North Carolina, it chose us," Brad Cook said in a separate interview. "We'd never even been here before. But it turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to us."
The Cook brothers came to the Triangle as half of the band DeYarmond Edison, but that group didn't last long. Post-breakup, DeYarmond Edison frontman Justin Vernon went on to win Grammy Awards as Bon Iver.
The rest of DeYarmond Edison stayed together as the equally wonderful Megafaun, an experimental freak-folk trio responsible for some of the greatest albums and performances the Triangle has ever witnessed.
Megafaun's last official work was scoring "The World Made Straight," director Dave Burris' made-in-North-Carolina thriller starring Noah Wyle and Steve Earle. But by the time the film hit theaters in 2015, the band had been disbanded for several years. And yet Megafaun didn't break up so much as metastasize, its individual acts embedded in the DNA of many of the acts mentioned above.
"I wish more bands knew when it was time to evolve into something different, where you're not so tied into group compromise," said Brad Cook. "When you're in just one band, you love the songs and the chemistry of it all. But bands evolve, or at least they should."
'Music that swings'
Since Megafaun ended, Phil Cook has been busy as a sideman for everybody from the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama to Amy Ray of Indigo Girls. But his most prominent support role remains in the soulful country-rock band Hiss Golden Messenger, with frontman Mike Taylor serving as something of a mentor. Cook and Taylor met as they were both becoming parents for the first time.
"That just puts you in this new space that cracks you wide open, makes the world so much bigger and smaller at the same time," Phil Cook said. "I heard Mike's music and felt a depth from his journey. I've learned so much from him about how to be a dad, stand up for what you believe in, run a band. Mike does it all so gracefully, writes so frankly about marriage and love. There's so much courage in the way he puts himself out there so vulnerably.
"And under that," Cook added, "it's music that swings."
Working with his brother Brad as producer, Phil Cook has pursued a similar groove on his two full-length solo albums. 2015's "Southland Mission" was painstakingly constructed in the studio, but "People Are My Drug" is mostly all live takes with minimal overdubs.
"'Southland Mission' was like an arrival," Cook said. "'Here I am.' My level of self-assurance and confidence grew up with that record. Took six months to make, and I probably re-sang everything six or seven times before we had it. 'People Are My Drug' is more documenting my band in a live setting. Like Otis Redding being on the road, booking a day at Stax Studios and going in to make 'Dictionary of Soul.'"
Cook paused to laugh.
"I'll never have the raw gift of someone like Otis Redding," he continued. "But recording that way gives a more accurate picture of my own timeline over the course of a career. Make it quick, from the gut, and you can see a line and an arc of what came out. It's an honest record, nothing auto-tuned or doctored up. Just set the levels and play."
For material, Cook turned to his phone to assemble songs from sonic fragments he keeps there.
"I've always got ideas," Cook said, pulling out his mobile phone to demonstrate. "The 'voice memos' thing on my phone runs deep, a hundred or so little vamps on piano or guitar. Like this."
He showed one called "White tele D position Kalamazoo."
"'Kalamazoo' is the amplifier, and this is just a sound I liked," he continued. "I keep these, and when we're riding around in the touring van, I'll go through and re-label the ones to come back to. If it's something good, I put a 'thumbs-up' on it, too."
So now you know what Cook will be doing the rest of this summer between shows across America and Europe, with his own band as well as with Hiss Golden Messenger.
"People Are My Drug" definitely has a late-night house-party feel of friends coming over to sing, even though some of the subject matter is quite serious — especially "Another Mother's Son." Written in the wake of the 2016 Philando Castile police shooting in Minneapolis, "Another Mother's Son" concludes with a gospel choir pleading, "No more bodies."
Nevertheless, what comes through "People Are My Drug" the most is joy, and love. The album title came to Cook at last year's Hopscotch Music Festival while he played at a day party organized by Kym Register, owner of The Pinhook — a community-focused Durham nightspot. In 2016, Megafaun reunited to play a benefit show for the venue. Cook is also pictured on his album cover wearing a jacket with a Pinhook patch.
Watching Register in action, Cook had the thought, "I get a little high every time I see Kym Register." Then he realized that wasn't quite broad enough.
"People really are my drug," Cook said. "I get asked why I'm so positive all the time, like it's weird. But I wake up every day aware of how deep this community is, how many people here care and are working on something bigger than themselves. It's a beautiful thing. And as I get older, the potential for offstage panic and anxiety gets higher. But thank God I've got this life-raft onstage. That's where I feel most at home."
Who: Phil Cook, Jake Xerxes Fussell
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, June 7
Where: Cat's Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Tickets: $17 in advance, $20 day-of
Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com