Phil Cook first captured my attention in the middle of the woods, preluding the inaugural Eaux Claires festival in 2015. A storm raged all day, gifting me a waterlogged wardrobe and sodden boots. At the first break in the downpour, I opened a beer and sloshed through the mud to the quickly constructed stage. What followed was a performance to set the tone for the rest of the festival, comprised of Cook and his band The Guitarheels playing his solo music for one of the first times. Four years later, the band played mainstage at Eaux Claires in a prime time slot.
Cook’s career began in the days of Deyarmond Edison, led by childhood friend Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Cook also joined Vernon for multiple side projects, including The Shouting Matches and Gayngs, before forming the psyche-folk band Megafaun. Currently, he is also a core member of one of the most enthralling Americana bands of our time, Hiss Golden Messenger.
With his latest release, People Are My Drug, Cook blends his inspirations into an sincere amalgamation of spirit and community. On Friday night of Eaux Claires, Cook played a momentous set, spreading positivity and infectious bliss. The following day, we led an attack on the droves of Northern Wisconsin mosquitoes and conversed over a specially produced Eaux Claires beer ‘IV’.
If I could share a beer with one person, I would love to have a can of Schlitz or a Dixie beer with James Booker at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans.”
Do you have a go-to beer on tour?
Yes, my go-to beer is Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. That beer has been with me for a really long time.
Have you had this one yet?
No, this is the New Belgium plus Eaux Claires plus Brewing Projekt.
It is incredibly hazy.
Yeah, it’s great. The Brewing Projekt is an Eau Claire brewery. The guy who runs that is named Eric Rykal. Eric was one of my campers when I was a camp counselor.
You’re from Eau Claire, but now live in Durham, North Carolina. What’s your favorite brewery there?
Ponysaurus! They have a really nice fig saison. They have a nice rye pale ale that’s good too.
Does the fig add a bit of sweetness?
It’s got a nice sweetness, yeah. It’s a great fall beer. My jams are fall beers. In the fall, when it’s getting a bit colder out, that’s when a good hoppy beer tastes the best.
Who is the coolest person you have shared a beer with?
It would have to be my friend Joel Jensen, who was my dads accordion duo partner. He was the first homebrewer I ever knew. I apprenticed under him and made my own porter when I turned 21. He had a whole system rigged up in his garage, and we’d roast the malt on his stove. That first time when we did it, I remember just going over there and having this beer that I made with him. That was a special moment.
If you could share a beer with one musician, dead or alive, who would it be?
If I could share a beer with one person, I would love to have a can of Schlitz or a Dixie beer with James Booker at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. He would be in a storytelling mood, and I would just listen to him.
Your new album that just came out is titled ‘People Are My Drug.’ Can you speak a bit about that idea?
The meaning of the record is sort of a combination of realizations that I woke up to while thinking about the songs, and thinking about making a record in these times that we’re living in right now. I have to give credit to a good friend of mine named Kym, who owns a bar in Durham called Pinhook. I’ve never been in a place that actually achieves a level of unification in a community as this place has. I watched Kym play a set of music with their band called Loamlands, and just watching them play, realized that everytime I see Kym, I get a little high. It feels safe around them, and I feel safe there. I light up. My body reacts in such a positive way whenever I have a chance to just see this person. I looked around and saw other people in the room from my community, and I started to realize how many other people I had that same thing with—people I’m excited to see. The album title popped into my head right at that moment. I didn’t tell anyone for months. I just kept it.
This album was recorded in both Wisconsin and North Carolina. How was splitting the recording of the album in the two places you’ve called home?
It was great. It was really focused. We hit the ground running. We got it started in Wisconsin. We spent five days there, and then went home and did five straight days of getting friends and overdubs on the mixing. We did the whole thing in ten days. I wouldn’t do it any other way, honestly, now that I’ve done it that way.
On this record, you said you’re honoring your mentors like John Prine and Mavis Staples. How did you manage to encompass the spirit of those influences into this record?
I’m a child of the wintry upper midwest. I grew up in a small city and my access to the outside world was pretty limited. To me, when I look back on my formation of musical identity and my path and journey in music, it all starts with my parents having a piano and my dad having a record collection. Because we were in Wisconsin, the closest big city we had was Chicago and a lot of shit went down there. Pops [Staples] had a vision to take their message—positivity, love and unity—to the broader public and mainstream. My dad had a record player and I was a white kid growing up in Wisconsin who heard a record called Why Am I Treated So Bad.
People write things from their core. Gospel music is special because people believe what they’re singing. Their whole career, I knew they meant it from their hearts. That’s the kinda shit that woke me up as a Northern Wisconsin kid to the struggles that have happened in communities of color that have been struggling for centuries for justice, and seeking salvation in a society that very wrongly fucking included them into our story. For me, writing 'Another Mother’s Son' was quintessentially aligned with my love of the Staples’ singers and asking questions out in the universe. You gotta say out loud where you’re at right now in this country. People need to step up their game. People in the white community absolutely need to step up their game and start speaking out loud.
I think the integration of collaborative spirit is the most important thing that this festival has gotten right.”
'Miles Away' was written with Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso. How did you first meet and what was it like writing a song with her?
My relationship with Amelia started off at a festival in Sweden where Mountain Man was singing backups with Feist, and I was playing with Megafaun. Nick Sanborn [of Sylvan Esso] was playing in Megafaun at the time. We hung out with Amelia all day. After, everyone turned to Nick immediately and was just like ‘You and Amelia need to absolutely be together, because I’ve never seen you be more yourself around another human being.’ It’s sometimes body language—simple as that. Immediately after that, she moved to North Carolina to ‘start making music with Nick,’ because they had been talking about it for a few years and we saw the writing on the wall.
She’s the first person that I played any demos of Southland Mission to. Amelia was just this fresh presence in my life, and I felt so comfortable around her. She’s been there from the beginning for my solo journey so writing a song with her was great. I opened my notebook and shes like, ‘Close your notebook and put it away. Lets just talk.’ We just talked for an hour about the struggles of being married and being on the road. It was a great family conversation about presence and I said ‘I literally feel like I’m miles away’. She just sung that line out. I already had chords written and so she just said it and the song was done in ten minutes. We just needed to get on the same vibration. It was so cool.
What was it like playing the music off Southland Mission for one of the first times at the campground the inaugural year of Eaux Claires, in a place you once called home?
It was amazing for the reasons that you’d expect: Growing up here and looking out in the crowd, I saw generations of friends from my past chapters and family that were there. Looking out and seeing all of these people being like, ‘I can’t believe how many faces are in the crowd that I know.’ That’s a beautiful thing to see. The love was so there.
You’ve been involved in a project that has turned into a bit of a cult favorite, Deyarmond Edison. What are the chances of getting a reunion?
I mean, at some point in time, something will line up. It’s not so hard. I’m definitely open to it. Deyarmond Edison has had funny reunions that are not musical in their nature lately. It’s kind of this beautiful thing, where we realize that we’re all there hanging out together. The family is a deep family; it’s extended. This festival feels like Deyarmond Edison to me, and this festival feels like the beginning.
As a performer playing the festival, how does it differ from every other festival that’s out there?
I think the integration of collaborative spirit is the most important thing that this festival has gotten right. I’m very aware of the industry of music festivals when I tour. They’re such an industry now. As an artist, my experience most of the time is that I feel like cattle. I have these saving graces that I get to visit every year that remind me that it’s not all that way. People are aware of moments here.