The 315 Interview: Chris Wood of The Wood Brothers

The Wood Brothers play Beak And Skiff Orchards with support from Valerie June on August 13.  For summer and fall tour dates and to find their music follow these links respectively, Wood Brothers, Valerie June.

315 Music recently sat down with Chris Wood of The Wood Brothers in advance of their upcoming Beak & Skiff show.

Sean Nevison: So the Wood Brothers have been together now for how long?

Chris Wood: We began to put the idea into motion in 2005-2006.

SN: You all just did your first post-covid tour and are taking a break until August, correct?  How was that tour?

CW: Yeah, we had that on the books for a while.  We knew it was a definite with the socially distanced pods.  August becomes more like pre-pandemic and then the fall is full capacity indoor shows by September.  It’s weird and I have many feelings.  First of all, playing together is incredible after everything this past year. Seeing our fans and doing shows is so exciting. 

Humans are so affected by the information they take in, but I’m just getting home to BC Canada, where I am currently under a two-week quarantine after crossing the border.  There is a general euphoria in the USA and I got swept up in it doing this tour.  Having the perspective of being back in Canada, though it is hopeful, we are still not out of this yet.  There are still some unknowns and nothing but time will tell us the truth, so it’s interesting to see NYS open up to 100% capacity.  It’s still exhilarating, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also interesting to be back in this other extreme that is Canada while I’m home with my family. Time and science will tell all as this plays out.

SN: Before that you helped to form Medeski, Martin and Wood?  Can you tell us a little about the journey before these amazing bands that brought you here and who influenced and guided you along the way?

CW: MMW still exists though we don’t tour much.  It’s our 30th anniversary this year so we have a few things we might try to celebrate.  Oliver (Wood) and I have many of the same influences though we developed in different scenes.  I was in NYC thinking I’d be a jazz musician for life and I was into the scene at the Knitting Factory.  John Zorn, Mark Rebo all these eclectic influences like James Brown, Sly Stone, the music of New Orleans, Sun Ra, so much. 

MMW was obsessed with field recordings of some guy in a field in Africa playing amazing instruments or the Alan Lomax recording of sounds of the south.  Folk, traditional influences from all over the world formed the vocabulary of the music we played.  Though it was essentially a jazz trio. When my brother and I got together he was so steeped in the blues and soaked up all those old Delta, Chicago, Texas influences and he was buying Muddy Waters vinyl.   It was like what if Charles Mingus and Robert Johnson started a band together and that was the kind of, you know like making a fantasy football team.

THE WOOD BROTHERS (Photo: Alysse Gafkjen)

SN: How do you think the Wood Brothers have evolved as songwriters and bandmates?

CW: You throw together musicians like any band and you grow organically together. Jano Rix (Drummer) has so many talents and it took time to find how he fit and we developed and wanted to keep our sound and evolve.  It’s like Led Zeppelin, who was a blues band essentially, but as they evolved they found their voice and are now are one of the most recognizable bands with their own unique sound.  Bands are these cool, weird musical and social experiments and it’s a one-of-a-kind time and talent that can capture all of that.  So we try to stay together, grow, support and learn from each other’s talents and make the music we love.

SN: How excited are you to be touring again?

CW: It’s very important to tour. It’s such a special environment to be in.  We just did the pod tour, so the energy was different than say a sold out club or theater, but the audience and band still connected and things that excite the audience feed directly back into how you play.  That energy is joyful. 

Playing music period after that break was amazing.  Being on stage, that’s not like the studio, so paying attention to the details brings out the best performance.  It’s like our song “The Muse,” “thinking is the last thing that you want to do.”  It’s such a high when it all gels.  I listen to the other guys more than myself and when it’s all clicking and because we are human beings and we are so social that just elevates everything. Just playing I get that high, but if there is a whole bunch of people watching it elevates that even more. 

When it’s really good two things happen, it’s the ultimate clarity. You pay such attention that everything is clear in the moment. As a musician, you have to trust that you will play the right notes and trust your bandmates. The other thing is you don’t take credit.  Never take credit. If you do, you lose the clarity. Pay attention and trust and enjoy and be in that moment.  It’s so special for us to feed off the energy of the audience and each other.

SN: During the pandemic how did you spend your time?  Did you have any other hobbies that helped you through?  Do you think it helped folks gain perspective, even during such trying times for so many?

CW: Everyone’s experience during the pandemic is completely unique. There are elements we all share, but I really think it is where you are at. What job you had, what support you have.  As somebody who is single vs. a family, or if you have kids and are homeschooling or for like myself the life experiences I was going through made it very challenging.  The break though was nice.  The grind of touring and thinking about the next thing and the next thing…. when we came to a halt suddenly, I realized how much I needed a break mentally and physically. I was feeling burnt out from doing this for such a long time. As we come back it just seems so beautiful and how good that was, to be able to step back and take a breath. Playing again though is so much more of a joy after that pause. I mean the pay still sucks… haha monetarily though, but connecting with my bandmates and being lucky enough to get to do what I love is so worth it.

SN: In a few days it will be the remembrance of Juneteenth.  Have there been any movements and/or causes during the last five very bizarre years of America that you, or you all as a band have championed, supported or become more aware of?

CW: God, there is so much.  We’ve been supporting Thistle Farms, an organization that saves women from the streets that have been involved in sex trafficking and drug addictions.  It gets them housing and working.  The organization finds them jobs and a lot of them make products for women. It has really taken off and we are so happy to see it grow and help so many.  We got behind that the past few years to raise money and awareness and it’s become really successful. 

Message and vibe-wise the band, as a whole, is about connecting people to each other, which is so important to us.  Like the charity, the communities we play in, and anything that can help and empower women is also high on the band’s agenda. 

I am a huge proponent of environmental issues.  The problem is we try to look through our own narrow, human lens and that’s how we got into trouble. We need to gain more perspective and find a new lens and look at the bigger picture.  The oceans are hugely important and my wife is a conservational biologist so I am daily made aware of our impact and the time we have left to do something.  It’s not a country’s border, and it’s confusing who is supposed to be taking care of these waters and it might not be tomorrow, but it’s coming and it is something I think about all the time.  It should be everyone’s job. Nobody’s doing it well enough right now and it’s going to get dramatic one day.

Even if we can solve super important problems like racial and income inequality, the environmental and climate changes are just going to make it worse on those already suffering.  It’s all connected.  It’s a human and community issue to take care of trees, waters and animals.  If we have to look at this through a human lens though, let’s be selfish in that we take care of, what is actually most important for all our survival, which is Mother Earth.  We have to find a balance with all these issues or else it will all go to hell.  It really is all interrelated, and it will help us become a better community worldwide.

SN: How do you balance life/ family/ career in this ever-changing world of music?

CW: That’s a tough question, because the past is already so different. The music business of the last twenty years is a completely different universe.  The internet, anybody creating any kind of content, endless social media. I’m still trying to get used to it as, now I’m one of the older veterans. I mean we came in the old ’90s paradigm of the record companies giving you a good deal and helping you create an album. It’s been a bit of a mess.  Some of it is amazing, but some of it is tragically unfair. Like all my music heroes were mysterious.  It’s really different now, back then you didn’t get like… the daily post.  So you have to do everything for the right reason: because you love it.  There is nothing wrong with projecting an image like Prince was a master at doing or say Miles Davis, so it’s separate from the music.  It’s the same way that you find your voice and now you balance being yourself, being vulnerable and being a performer.  I’m still working on finding the balance every day.

SN: What is advice you would give to younger artists who are trying to break into a musical career?

CW: This answer spans the old and new paradigm.  Just say yes to everything.  Don’t deny yourself any experience.  You learn, and some of it is bullshit, but you learn.  So play with people you respect.  I think I was trying to be too careful because I was too afraid to fall on my face early on, but my advice is don’t be scared to fail and that alone will help you find your voice. 

The Wood Brothers perform The Band’s “Ophelia” during a recording of their show at Woodstock’s Levon Helm Studios in 2017

SN: I believe it was at a Levon Helm barn concert, where you mentioned having spent time playing with him?  Do you have any other connections to Upstate NY? 

CW: I met Levon when I moved to Saugerties, where I lived for 12 years after living in NYC in the nineties.  I became close with his daughter Amy so whenever we could we would play together when we weren’t touring.  Once I discovered The Band, after a friend of mine compared MMW to them, in that we live together and work and travel and do everything together, he said you’re like The Band. 

With the Wood Brothers, I felt even more connected with what we wanted to do, and how The Band, like Led Zeppelin, did with the blues, found their own sound and founded Americana music.  Garth Hudson had that jazz down man and all his experience guided them.  Then you add such a unique voice of Levon who was the heart of The Band. The way he played and the way he drove that whole machine that was fascinating.  Meeting him musically was amazing, but watching someone with that smile, the way he gave to his bandmates and audience was inspiring.  He wanted everyone to feel good and just standing near him you could.

SN: What other influences brings The Wood Brothers together?

CW: Ray Charles I’d say was a huge one.  Man there are so many.  There is a range, Americana is so wide, some people think it’s like bluegrass.  That leaves out all black music though and what the fuck, what about the blues, what about Jimi Hendrix, gospel and then back to Ray Charles. With his jazz and touch, he mastered and created a new RnB sound nobody had ever done. Then there are the songwriters like Dylan and Prine. Our mom was a published poet so we grew up respecting the words. Though we might have taken it for granted when we were young, it really sticks with us now. 

The musical excitement of the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Sly Stone…man there is so much to unpack there.  But so much of it came from black music and that is so important in the history and the hope of our music.  It’s vitally important to understand the roots of it all.

SN: Valerie June is opening for you at Beak And Skiff Orchards, have you played with her before?

CW: She opened for us in the Ryman Theater a few years ago.  Such a beautiful and unique voice and the way she can combine all these elements and filter it into such a sweet sound.  She’s such a great example of that feeling we are all looking for and we are so excited to play with her again.

SN: Now for a couple fun ones:

Where do you get your funky dance moves?

CW:  Haha! It’s just a muscle spasm man.  It’s just moving to the music, feeling it.  Trust, joy, inhibition and it’s all about the rhythm.  If you can get to that point, you’ve got it made.

SN: Well everyone is jealous of that bass you dance with.

I interviewed your brother Oliver a few years ago and I think he said his answer to the final question was a good piece of pie, and I would like to get your  answer: favorite road trip food on tour?

CW: Oh my god, I mean the road is, well it depends on your diet….  I eat some vegan stuff.  The road is so hard so you are just grateful for something home cooked.  I guess I good piece of pie is great.  It kinda has everything like that and can make you feel at home you know. Sometimes a fan sneaks us some food and it’s so appreciated.  Good food makes for good music!

You can support the Thistle Farms here.

For the full Beak And Skiff Orchards Concert Series, check their website here.

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