Play on Brother: A Conversation with Oliver Wood
It’s a Tuesday night on the western edge of New York’s east village and Chris Wood is about to take the stage at Joe’s Pub, an intimate, basement bar located within the Public Theater. No stranger to Manhattan’s maze of downtown club, Wood first made his mark as one of the acid-jazz scene’s most adventurous bassists well over a decade ago. Yet, tonight, he is venturing into unknown territory, oddly enough, by teaming with his oldest friend and brother, Oliver. It’s a quiet evening—-so quiet in fact that one can hear the gentle rumbling of a subway between songs, amplifying a series of somewhat awkward pauses. Just as it seems that Woods have nothing to say to each other, they dig back into their songs, relying on the comfortable body language characteristic of lifelong bandmates.
Siblings hold a certain voodoo in music history, all too often derailed by rivalry (the Robinsons) and tragedy (the Allmans and the Van Zants). For many years, Chris Wood has been a member of a different type of musical family, Medeski, Martin and Wood. The Wood Brothers’ separation was not caused by spite or sibling rivalry, but rather geography. After leaving his family’s Boulder home, Oliver Wood found himself in Atlanta playing country-inspired blues with King Johnson, a far cry from the Bowery jazz-clubs that served as MMW’s breeding grounds. But, since reuniting at a family gathering a few years ago, Chris and Oliver Wood have built a strong musical friendship out of their childhood memories, pasting a number of reflections into their first studio album, Ways Not to Lose. More than a postcard to their parents, Ways Not to Lose, is an inspired set of largely, acoustic country/blues songs, signaling a new direction for a pair of veteran musicians. It also stands as one of the finest studio works either Wood brother has delivered to date.
MG- After being apart for so many years, why form a band with your brother at this stage of your career?
OW- It started when my band down here in Atlanta, King Johnson, did a show with MMW about 3 or 4 years ago. It sort of started a tradition where I’d sit in with MMW. That was the first time I sat in with them and the first time I played with my brother in about ten years. We just lived so far apart in different worlds. Even though we were both pursuing music, we rarely intersected. Then, about two years ago, we got together at a family gathering and just started jamming. We had a great time and actually wrote the song “Tried and Tempted” in one sitting. Chris brought this really cool National steel guitar which kind of inspired the sound of that song. In fact, it inspired a whole series of songs, which led me to rework a few I had written for King Johnson.
MG- How did a kid from Boulder end up playing music in Georgia?
OW- I was going to school out west and started playing in a band. One of the guys was from Atlanta and we sort of followed him out there. We took the whole operation out to Atlanta and then the band broke up six months later [laughs]. But, I really grew to love it here, there is a real sense of comfort.
MG- In January, the Wood Brothers opened up for MMW in Boulder. What was it like playing for your hometown crowd?
OW- It was great. My folks hadn’t heard us play together yet and I don’t get out to Colorado often so that was real nice too. It was also the first time we played with MMW, which was kind of an experimental concept, to see if Chris could pull a double [note: this summer the Wood Brothers will join MMW on the road for a number of festival dates including Mountain Jam, Bonnaroo and 10, 000 Lakes]. My Dad’s only comment was, “What is that Luckiest Man’ song about.”
MG- Your parents pursued vastly different professions: your mother being a poet and your father being a scientist. Do you look to your parents for creative inspiration?
OW- Yeah. Even though he is a scientist now, my dad was a big time folk musician. By that, I mean he loved folk music, though he was never very commercially successful at it. So, our first exposure to music was really the classic folk my dad would sing. At family gatherings, we would always play records by people like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, as well as the country/blues singers like Lightnin’ Hopkins. Those country/blues singers are what eventually got me into the electric blues I played in King Johnson.
MG- Growing up, did your father support your decision to become a musician?
OW- My Dad was always really supportive of us. He kind of had a career in music, but went in another direction. So, I think he’s always lived kind of vicariously through us.
MG- Who started playing music first, you or Chris?
OW- I started playing a little bit earlier than Chris, but he was always a lot more focused than I was. We both started off taking piano lessons—-it was kind of a parental sentence [laughs]. I started playing bass when I was a teenager, but after about six months I gave up and gave it to my brother, which is how he got started—-little bastard [laughs].
MG- The Wood Brothers is a dramatic stylistic departure from MMW So, why did you decide to use John Medeski as your producer?
OW- For comfort. John and Chris have a real close relationship. We felt real safe with John, he really understood what we were trying to do and he sort of backed us up on our ideas. You can really hear how stripped down the album was, it has a real raw feel. John really supported what we were trying to do with that. Also, of course, I just have a great respect for his musicianship. I just really admire him and Chris does too.
MG- The Wood Brothers has evolved quite naturally, through a series of short tours and rustic, recording sessions. Was your writing process equally as organic?
OW- About half of the songs were written by either me or me and Chris over the past two years. The rest were written for King Johnson about 7 or 8 years ago. King Johnson is a 6 to 8 piece band with percussion, drums and bass, so it was kind of neat to try and rework these songs for a duo. Chris picked the songs he liked out of the King Johnson stuff and totally reworked them, giving them different grooves which kind of made different songs out of them. Songs likes “Glad” and “Where My Baby Might Be” came from the King Johnson catalogue. Chris harms the harmonica on that second song which was actually written by a bandmate of mine for the first King Johnson album over ten years ago. It is nothing like the original, the music is completely different. But, I liked the lyrics so much that I wanted to use them for this project.
MG- In addition to Ways Not to Lose, the Wood Brothers also recently released the Live at Tonic EP, which has a much rawer feel.
OW- In the truest sense. It was recorded at our first gig, before we had a chance to tighten up. We are really winging it which is really cool. It was our first take on the whole thing, which has evolved some. But it was really neat to capture us in that infancy. By just playing a handful of gigs, we’ve become much tighter. After a band plays together for a while, you get more comfortable communicating with each other. Like any group who improvises together, the longer they do it the better is sounds. MMW is really a good example of that, they really listen to each other.
MG- Do you find it easier to communicate with Chris than with other musicians?
OW- Absolutely. It’s definitely built in and we felt that really right from the beginning. There is this innate thing going on which you only get when you’ve been playing with someone for a long time. It’s almost as if we don’t have to talk to communicate with each other.
MG- So far, what has been your favorite Wood Brothers performance?
OW- We were lucky enough to play this Joni Mitchell tribute at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago. I don’t even know if we were playing real tight, but it was a really cool feeling to play there. We played one of her songs, “Black Crow.” Carnegie Hall has such amazing acoustics, you don’t really need any monitors and can truly play acoustic in front of like 3,000 people. It’s a strange and cool feeling.
MG- Have you had any sibling spats since bringing the Wood Brothers on the road?
OW- We actually travel really well together. But, give us a couple of years and I am sure something will come up [laughs]. We were kind of like that as kids, giving nookies to each other. But, we have been apart for so long and, to be honest, haven’t really been that close. So we are just really trying to get to know each other again. We have been having a great time finding each other.