About a Girl

Dani Neff shreds Megafauna to Maximalist effect

About a Girl
Photo by Shelley Hiam

Slicing between the two dancers onstage with a fluid high-kick, Megafauna frontwoman Dani Neff reclaims the spotlight. Diving into a frenzied riff, the guitarist lets her hair tumble into her face – Kurt Cobain in a gauzy black dress. The dancers vanish into the wings.

Three-quarters of the way through "Fun at the Apocalypse," Neff kneels down on the North Door stage, churning out another squealing solo, her face screwed up in concentration. The fourpiece at her back isn't the trio seen five months ago when the locals journeyed cross-country. Guitarist John Musci fills out the rhythm section, and Bryan Wright replaces the familiar Greg Yancey on bass.

For the tour kickoff at the Mohawk in April, Megafauna shared the bill with another elite female rocker, Lauren Larson and her Austin trio Ume (revisit "Like a Hurricane," Nov. 18, 2011). Both women come strapped with undeniable grunge appeal, but Neff is far more mathematical. Armed with a thundering quartet, the brunette harnesses even more electricity.

"When I grow up, I would love to be something close to that," says a dreamy woman up front.

Something in the Way

"You want to talk about guitarists?" asks Neff, eagerly.

Midafternoon at Uncorked Wine Bar barks the dog days of summer with overlapping conversations. She twists the stem of her empty wineglass.

"I grew up on blues, but my love is rock," she says. "I love rock. My favorite bands are Nirvana, Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age, Deerhoof, early Black Keys – not to be a jerk."

Six years ago, the Connecticut native migrated to Austin to pursue her side project – law school. At Yale, she was arrested in a kerfuffle outside a New Haven club, and still bristles from the experience. From the Yale Daily News: "Quinn Fitzgerald '05 and Dani Neff '06 were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and interfering with police, New Haven Police spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester said."

"Because I asked, 'What are you doing?' to a police officer, which is apparently a crime," Neff fumed six weeks earlier under a bamboo shade at Blue Dahlia. "I saw how they treat female inmates, and wanted to do prison reform. I wanted to make a difference. This is all still stuff I want to do."

Lawyer, yes, but don't hold it against her. ("You don't have to put that in there," she assures me.) In fact, she settled on entertainment law to help fellow musicians navigate record deals. Now, the briefcase and pantsuits occupy closet space since she focuses on music full time.

Over lunch at Blue Dahlia, Neff exudes refinement, the woman who catches a minimalist classical show in European warehouses. At Uncorked, after a few glasses of wine, the heat of the August day searing the sidewalk outside, the 30-year-old gushes about her favorite shredders.

"Kurt Cobain's jagged, careless style," she says. "Jimi Hendrix's playing: fiery, unrestrained. I love Radiohead. I don't know if it's noticeable, the Radiohead influence, but it's there."

Megafauna bloomed in 2008, when she met bassist Will Krause and drummer Cameron Page. In three-and-a-half years, that lineup produced three albums and toured 12 times while Neff studied law at UT. Then came an abrupt split two years ago.

"Can I plead the fifth on that one?" she laughs nervously several times before confessing the end of her romantic relationship with Krause.

Erika Wennerstrom's early Heartless Bastards trio of the mid-Aughties suffered the same fate: Lead singer/shredder and bassist break up, creative partnership dissolves.

"That was a weird time for me," admits Neff. "I was really depressed when we broke up and Will quit. I think there were some shows where we tried to make it work. Where we tried to play and he just couldn't. I was fine with it. He wasn't."

By South by Southwest 2012, the guitarist recruited drummer Zack Humphrey and Yancey on bass. Unlike the string of trios she played with coming up in the Northeast, Neff couldn't just start from scratch.

"We'd worked so hard on building our name, Megafauna," she says. "I've never been in a project where everyone quit, but I wanted to keep playing the same songs."

Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter

Neff hangs her axe in a quiet neighborhood of old homes at the edge of the UT campus. A spindly tree shades the front of the gray brick porch. She answers the door barefoot, wearing a worn T-shirt and denim shorts.

Across the threshold, Frida Kahlo's eyebrow watches from the poster on the wall. Two wide windows dominate the living room, absorbing the summer sun like a greenhouse. A yoga mat takes up residency on the rocker's bedroom floor. Her abstract drawings pepper the space.

From the door, the bandmates walk a direct line to the dark practice space at the rear of the house. Crisp sunlight filters onto the trio as they set up and begin tinkering with new material for an album they hope to record this spring – once again as a threepiece. Musci, the rhythm guitarist from the North Door, has begged off the band in favor of a day job.

Just past 3pm, one of the songs comes to a screeching halt. The landing of a staircase at the back of the room makes for an ideal spot to watch the action because of the wide, square window filtering crisp light onto the musicians as they struggle. The hummingbird decal on Humphrey's drum set flitters and then falls silent.

"I love the threepiece," says the drummer an hour later, lounging in the open living room after rehearsal. "Whatever iteration happens I'm usually happy, but it's fun to have another person. You can do more, experiment with more sonic textures. When you have a threepiece, you have to be more creative to fill out the sound."

The spring tour promoted April's Maximalist, which pulled gems from Surreal Estate (2012) and 2010's Larger Than Human, then combined them with new songs to "make it into something that could fly commercially." As soon as the words leave her mouth, Neff has second thoughts. Maybe commercial isn't the right word.

"I'm just fine being on the indie fringe," she says. "As long as I can keep doing what I want to do. Just following my heart, and not watering it down. Not trying to fit into any mold. I'm cool with that even if it means we're not going to be huge stars."

The ghoulish choreography at the North Door attempted to merge the bandleader's passions for dance and music, but while the former enhances the dystopian subject matter of Maximalist, its author worries the addition detracts from the latter.

"I don't want to get too grandiose or romantic, but I really believe an artist has a responsibility to dig down deep inwardly and see what's down there," Humphrey muses. "A lot of times it's scary and kind of dark. Everyone has that side to them if they really look into themselves. That side has resonated with me throughout my life – with Dani to a large extent – and the happy nihilist over there."

He points to bassist Bryan Wright. Meanwhile, Neff sings a few bars of Radiohead's "Dollars and Cents."

"Be constructive with your blues," she smiles.

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Megafauna, Dani Neff, Lauren Larsen, Ume, Nirvana, Radiohead, Erika Wennerstrom, Heartless Bastards

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