BISS List Interview with Chris Wood of The Wood Brothers (1.13.15)

By BISS List Contributing Editor, Josh Danson

Chris Wood is a thoughtful guy. He’s also a seriously talented and remarkably versatile standup bass player who has established his reputation as one of the best in the business through his work with two highly acclaimed and incredibly different projects – Medeski, Martin and Wood and The Wood Brothers. The former is an NYC-based, electric, avant-jazz- funk fusion trio, the latter a three-piece, Nashville-based, acoustic Americana outfit that would sound at home in the Catskills of The Basement Tapes, or in the hollows of Appalachia.

I recently spoke with Chris on the phone from his new home base in Nashville, Tennessee, just before he and The Wood Brothers were about to set off on a West Coast swing. In addition to discussing the band’s most recent studio album, The Muse (Southern Grounds, 2013), what it’s like to play in a band with your older brother, and why there are so many acts with banjos these days – I also learned that The Wood Brothers are working on a new album, set for release in late summer or fall of this year.

The Wood Brothers will be performing at The Fillmore in San Francisco on Friday, January 18th. Buy Tickets.

BL: So, you guys are about to head out on a West Coast swing? Just in time, it sounds like, based on the weather reports I’m hearing from back East.

CW: Oh man, can’t wait to get out there into some of that nice Southern California weather!

BL: Yeah, it’s been about 60, 65 and sunny out here in San Francisco so I’m sure it’s even nicer down south.

CW: Cool! Sounds good to me.

BL: You recently relocated to Nashville to record your most recent album, The Muse,” and to be nearer to your brother Oliver. What has that been like and how would you describe the Nashville scene? “Nashville Cats” and all that?

CW: Well, I’m no expert because I’m not here too much. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling, touring, since I moved down here. It’s only been about a year and half so I don’t totally feel like a local yet, but I love the city and I had a lot friends here before I moved down, so I love it. It’s a great place. But like I said, I’m not really intermingling with the local music scene as much as it might seem because I’m really just here to be with my brother and we rehearse and write with each other and then tour. And then of course I’ve been touring with Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW) this past year too. But it’s a great home base though.

BL: So you guys have been recording out of Zak Brown’s Southern Ground Studios if I’m not mistaken. Is that where you recorded your latest album, The Muse?

CW: That’s right, that’s where we recorded The Muse. We’re working on new record now, for which we’re going to be doing some of the recording coming up at Southern Grounds. We already started the record in October – before I went on the road – and we started recording at Easy Eye Studios, which is Dan Auerbach’s place, from the Black Keys.

BL: Right.

CW: Great, great studio. So we’re excited about that and we’re about two-thirds of the way through the record and we’re going to try and finish it up towards the end this month, beginning of next month.

BL: Very cool. So are those both historic, old studios, or are they newer facilities? Or are they old studios that have been refurbished?

CW: Yeah, actually it’s kind of blend. Southern Grounds is an old studio that Zak Brown refurbished, but managed to keep the important parts of the original character that it had. It’s an incredible room. Beautiful tracking room. Beautiful old mixing board. We had a blast working there.

Easy Eye on the other hand is… I think Dan bought a pre-existing building that was not a studio, but then turned it into a studio that feels like an old studio. It feels like you’re walking into some version of Sun Studio in Memphis. And of course he filled it with – he and his engineer Collin Dupuis – have filled it with all kinds of amazing vintage gear, so [laughing] it definitely feels like a time capsule even though it’s not a pre-existing studio from before.

BL: Right on. That sounds very cool and inspirational. So you’ve been working with your older brother Oliver recently. I’m a younger brother too, so I understand – it must be great at times, but potentially challenging at others. What’s that relationship like and what’s working with your brother been like?

CW: We started this band well into our adult lives, and we had both been professional musicians for quite some time. So a lot of the classic brother baggage that you hear about from “brother bands,” well… it doesn’t happen so much with us. Although we feel like maybe it should, because it would probably be good for press. But we get along pretty damn good. And so do our families. And that was one of the reasons we moved down here. We both are married and have kids, so it was so our families could be together, as well as us be together and work on music together. So yeah it’s all good. I gotta’ say, we’re pretty lucky that we’ve worked well together, enjoy writing music together, and enjoy socializing together. So I don’t know how that happened, but it’s working for us!

BL: Well that’s great. Keep it up. So no Ray and Dave Davies style blowouts any time soon?

CW: [Laughs] We’ll see! Maybe we’ll have to manufacture something.

BL: I know you’ve done some videos in support on The Muse, I’ve been checking them out on YouTube, so maybe you could create a choreographed fight between the two of you for one of your next videos or something.

CW: It has crossed out minds.

BL: Hah, cool. On your latest album The Muse, you sing some lead and a lot of high harmony on songs like “Keep me Around,” and it sounds really sweet. Prior to recording with The Wood Brothers, did you have to take a lot of time to consciously work on your vocals, say with a voice coach or anything like that, or did that come pretty naturally?

CW: Yeah… Well, I sang a lot as a kid. Ironically, I was the one as a kid who was singing in school and I had a band and I was singing in choir, you know… madrigal choir, and all these sort of school choirs and music programs. So I was singing but then I got interested in jazz and just went there completely and didn’t look back until I got to get back together with my brother. So I spent my entire adult life not singing until we got back together. And then my brother didn’t really sing as a kid but then when he was touring as a rhythm guitarist for Tinsley Ellis, the blues guitar player, and Tinsley really started convincing him to sing and made him sing lead on one song a night. So that was really the beginning of his singing and it just developed with his own band, King Johnson, and he became this great singer. So when we started The Wood Brothers, yeah, I definitely felt like I had a lot of catching up to in the singing department. And still do. It’s still something I work on all the time. And Jano Ricks, our drummer, is a great singer as well. So the stakes are high and I’m learning all the time.

BL: Well it sounds great. Some really nice harmonies.

CW: Thank you.

BL: Talk about some of the differences – the challenges versus benefits and rewards – of expressing yourself lyrically versus instrumentally. I know you’ve been doing a lot of the writing on The Wood Brothers albums, a totally different songform – the folk idiom – as opposed to really getting out there in the jazz format and just playing and improvising like you do with MMW. What do you think about one versus the other and what parts of you do you get to express through each? Talk a little about that.

CW: Well, ultimately, they go together. But yeah, they are very different disciplines and you can come at this stuff from different angles. Our mother was a poet, a published poet, so we experienced a lot of poetry and literature, and creative writing opportunities growing up. So we were both exposed to that. And then like I said before, I just got involved with jazz and obsessed with that for a long time so I just kind of dropped it. But it was part of my childhood and something that I always liked to do. I liked to write and express myself through words. I just didn’t have the opportunity to do it while I was in an instrumental band. But when we got back together as The Wood Brothers and we started doing this kind of music it was exciting because I thought, well this is great because I love working with words, but I learned all this stuff from working with Medeski, Martin and Wood that I can bring to this kind of music and make it unique, make it our own.

So, it all fits together. I mean, good lyrics are great, but if you don’t have good rhythm, good melody, good harmonies to go with it… so what. You know? It needs to all be there. The whole package needs to be there. So for me that’s the fun challenge. To make it all happen.

BL: Yeah, indeed. That makes me think of the track, “Sing About It,” where it’s a very cool way you guys are playing around with rhythms there and playing around with language and rhythm and…

CW: Yeah, you want to bring the lyrics to life! And good music can do that. It’s very difficult to separate good lyric writing from good execution of a performance or good execution of the music part of the song. People think they can do it, but I don’t believe it. I think it all goes together. And when it all gels, that’s when people say, “That’s a great song!” It has to all be there. And even if it’s just some quirky part of the delivery that a songwriter does that makes it naturally work, it’s because of that that’s making it work. It’s everything, it’s not just the words. So, yeah… music is an infinite game. It never gets tiring because nobody really knows why things are good. [Laughs] You can’t really explain it.

BL: Yeah. Throw something against the wall and hope that it sticks and you’ll know it when you hear it.

CW: Yep.

BL: With the notable exception of “Keep Me Around,” which I think might be my favorite track on the whole album, it seems like your bass is slightly more toned down than on your previous album Smoke Ring Halo and less of a lead instrument. Was that a conscious decision, to take a step back, or was I just imagining that?

CW: I don’t know. It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision. It might be just the style of that recording. We were using the room a lot in that recording. In other words, we had lots of room mikes in this big tracking room that Southern Grounds has, to really capture the sound of the music reverberating through the room. So things don’t have as much of that close-mic’ed, up-in-your-face kind of sound. So maybe that’s what you’re hearing. The instruments are all kind of blended together by the room sound.

BL: Gotcha’. So it sounds you recorded a lot of that live, in the same room there, and it seems like that gives a real immediacy and vibrancy to the songs. I’ve talked to other musicians who really like that approach and say that it brings out something really special. Why do you think more musicians don’t record live? Is it just the sort of fear of being without a net?

CW: I don’t know. I guess it is. You know, the problem with all the new technology is that you can make it perfect. But when you do make it perfect it loses the magic. And then people have gotten very clever at taking the perfection that you can create with computers and then nudging everything around so that it sounds imperfect. But if you just go in there and play it live you’ll get the imperfect perfection right away and you don’t have to do all the work on the back end. It’s just a different style.

BL: Well that brings me perfectly to my next question about influences. The Muse definitely reminds me of The Band on some songs, with piano playing like Richard Manuel on “Wastin’ My Mind…”
CW: Right, right.
BL: …Along with horns that could have been charted by Allen Toussaint. So clearly they were an influence on you.
CW: Absolutely.
BL: But your music with MMW and now with the Wood Brothers covers such a wide swath of the American musical vocabulary, so who else do you count as some of your primary influences?

CW: Well, the surprising thing I think to a lot of people, is that about eighty to ninety percent of the musical influences of The Wood Brothers are exactly the same as the influences of Medeski, Martin and Wood. It’s just that the type of music we’re making just comes out this way. Medeski, Martin and Wood, we’re an instrumental band, New York City roots, totally different scene, and surrounded by different kinds of things happening, but we were still influenced by James Brown and Sly Stone, Bob Dylan, you know just all kinds of… Ray Charles…

BL: …The Meters?

CW: The Meters, exactly – just all kinds of people that my brother and I were influenced by. It’s funny, you can have the exact same influences but if you’re living in a different scene, a different city, the music that you make turns out different. So it’s just like a big cocktail of influences, plus environment, plus the people you’re hanging out with. It all goes together.

BL: You worked with [producer] Buddy Miller on The Muse, and he’s worked with people like Emmy Lou [Harris], Robert Plant and Lucinda Williams – and Mike Poole was the engineer, correct? What was it like working with those guys and what did they bring to the mix?

CW: Well Mike is a great engineer and he took very seriously this idea of capturing the space, capturing the room and its sound because it really was a personality on this record. And that was kind of the idea and he did a great job with that and was just wonderful to work with. Buddy Miller just has that magic producer thing of making you feel good [laughs] and confident. He makes you feel like you can just go ahead do your thing and trust your instincts, but he’ll be a safety net and if you get into any territory that’s just not going to work, or make any bad decisions in the heat of the moment, he’s there to kind of re-direct you and get you back going in the right direction. And he’s like an encyclopedia of music. He knows so much and is such a great player and familiar with so many different styles. Just an amazing sweet guy to work with and we loved it.

BL: I noticed that the same year that he worked with you guys on The Muse, 2013, he also worked with another band that I love, The Devil Makes Three. You ever cross paths with those guys?

CW: Yeah, sure.  Definitely we know them.

BL: Yeah, it just made me think of what a great year for him to get to work with the both of you guys. It kind of bespeaks how highly sought after he is and the types of acts that he gets to work with.

CW: Yeah for sure. And the funny thing about that is that record that he made with The Devil Makes Three was made at Easy Eye, Dan Auerbach’s studio where we’re recording now. So we’ve kind of overlapped in this small little scene here in Nashville.

BL: Why do you think Roots Music, Americana, whatever you want to call it, has experienced such a resurgence in recent years with bands like yourselves, The Avett Brothers, The Devil Makes Three, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, to name just a few experiencing such a great degree of success? And why were you drawn to that style as an alternative means of expressing yourself outside of what you were doing with MMW?

CW: God, I wish I knew the answer to that. I don’t really know why it happens except for that it just seems natural. There’s kind of this ebb and flow of popular music where it goes extreme in one direction and then there’s a reaction to it that usually starts as a super underground scene and then becomes popular when some sort of tipping point happens with the right band. And I know there were bands in the nineties that were in the same vein as what’s going on now and were kind of the beginning and a hint of this, what’s going on now. And of course then a band like Mumford & Sons gets huge. So, I don’t now… now there’s like banjo on everything. So, it’s weird. It just happens. And I don’t know if anybody knows why but it’s bigger than any of us and it’s just nature and it’s going back and forth in just waves of things that happen just to create balance. We get sick of one thing and we start doing something else. I think electronica and stuff gets exciting for people but after a while you get burnt on it and you just want to hear an acoustic instrument. And then you get sick of that and you’re like, “Oh my God, there’s banjos everywhere!” and you want to hear a DJ. So it’s just… we need it all.

BL: Yeah, well what a great thing for you to be able to do both. To be able to express yourself through The Wood Brothers and scratch that itch and tap into that and then go off on jazz explorations like you do with Medeski, Martin and Wood – you’re in a pretty enviable position there, it seems like.

CW: Yeah, it’s great. I love it. I mean, it’s all music to me. I love it.

BL: Alright last question… So The Muse, and I should probably stop asking about The Muse because I know you have another project in the works, but it was your most recent thing and I think everybody should listen to it, so I’m going to ask one more question about it. The Muse marks the first studio album with the addition Jano Ricks on percussion. Was that the first time you’d worked with Jano or had you worked with him before?

CW: Well it was the first studio album with him, but by that time we had already been playing with him for a couple years and there was a couple of live EPs that we put out before that had Jano playing from tours before. So, yeah it was cool because The Muse was in a way our first “band” record because by the time we recorded it, that trio – with Jano – had been together for at least a year and a half, maybe two years.

BL: Yeah, well I love his contributions on harmonium and the “shuitar”. Definitely brings something cool to the mix.

CW: Yeah and he’s a great piano player and keyboard player. He’s actually a very proficient jazz player, but can play all styles. So he’s one of those unique drummers who’s also an incredible piano player and he could have a career based on that, if he wanted.

BL: So that’s him on “Wasting My Mind,” playing the Richard Manuel-sounding piano?

CW: Yeah. All the piano, all the keyboard stuff – “Sweet Maria” – all that stuff.  And then all the melodica on “The Muse” and “Sing About It.” That’s all Jano.

BL: Cool. So when do you hope to release this new album?

CW: Well, we’re shooting for… let’s see. Realistically, it’s probably going to be between mid-summer and fall this year.

BL: 2015? Excellent. Looking forward to it!

CW: We’re definitely going to have it out by the time we tour in the fall.

BL: Alright, well thanks for your time and I look forward to seeing you here in San Francisco at your show this Friday night (01/18) at The Fillmore.

CW: Well thank you. We always enjoy playing in San Francisco and we’re really looking forward to going back to The Fillmore.