An Interview with Chris Wood: Searching for Truth

Years ago, a dear friend tipped me off to a band by saying, “I would buy a plane ticket to see them live.” I’ve now seen the Wood Brothers half a dozen times and while I’ve never had to go to that extreme, it would be worth it. They are back with a new album, One Drop of Truth, out on Friday. The album contains many songs that are destined to become the ones that you’ll hope to hear live–both in the band’s hushed moments around one microphone and when they let loose and get the whole room jumping. I got to chat with Chris Wood about their process for this album, taking inspiration where it comes, and the gratitude that comes through making it through adversity.

RLR: You used a new process for recording this album, using different studios and different people for mixing–what did that do for you, to be using different spaces and working with different folks?

CW: I think it freed us up in some ways, it just felt more playful. We self-produced this record, like our last record. A lot of the times, what happens is, you write all of your songs, you get them finished, and then you book a chunk of studio time and you try to record it all at once; and any band will tell you, it can get overwhelming, and that’s the reason a lot of people hire producers, because you get so lost in the process that you need somebody with an outside ear, somebody who can really hear objectively what’s going on.

So when you’re self-producing, it’s really valuable if you can record something and put it aside and forget about it for awhile and listen back with fresh ears. That’s what this process allowed us to do. As we were writing the songs, we’d go into a studio that wasn’t so fancy–Nashville’s filled with great, small, inexpensive studios that you can still get great recordings in–when we recorded some of the songs, we didn’t know if we were there to record the actual version, or if we just needed to record a demo to learn from and see what the song needed, and that kind of took the pressure off of us, to just try things and experiment and have a little more freedom in the studio to do things that maybe if we were under pressure and a time crunch, we wouldn’t have taken chances or had that spontaneous feeling of improvising some ideas in the studio. It helped it feel less like pressure, more fun, more creative, and just gave us space between recording and making decisions, so that we could hopefully make better decisions.

RLR: You also self-produced Paradise–did you approach producing differently this time, other than having time and space between takes and listening?

CW: It just deepened, I think. What was so exciting about Paradise for us, it was the first time we self-produced. When you really think about that, that’s three guys in the band all making decisions about the music together. It’s either going to work or it’s not. Luckily for us, it really worked. We had just the right balance–everybody has different strengths and weaknesses and hears the music in different ways, and fortunately for us, we all complemented each other. Going into this record, we had that confidence knowing that it worked to do it that way. It just helped us deepen the process and customize how we wanted to make the record even more. When you really get to know yourself as a band, you can customize the whole experience so that everyone can shine.

RLR: It sounds like it’s pretty common for you all to bring less than fully formed ideas to the band. It reminds me of some of the stuff I read about The Muse, where you had part of “Neon Tombstone” and were able to pair it with verses that Oliver had. Can you talk through that songwriting process as a band?

CW: It’s pretty much anything goes, so it really depends on song to song. No musician, I think, wants to turn down inspiration, so you search for it everywhere and you don’t want to limit yourself by creating too many rules. So anything goes, really. Sometimes the music comes first, sometimes the lyric comes first; sometimes the first idea comes from one person, but sometimes it comes from us just jamming together, improvising different kinds of feels. Sometimes what we like to do is, there might be a certain piece of music that we love, you know, some classic recording that we’ve all loved, and we’ll play along to that, and then we’ll turn it off and just keep playing and let it become our own thing, but inspired from something that we love. And we’ll record that, and it might inspire us writing a song, or there might be lyrics that Oliver and I have that might fit well; so we’ll create these musical seeds of songs.

Like you mentioned about “Neon Tombstone,” I had this chorus with no verses and Oliver heard it and said, “I got some verses that might work with that,” and they just married together in this interesting way. Sometimes Oliver and I come to the table with a more or less complete song, but then give each other perspective. That’s what’s so great about working with a team–I think when you write by yourself, you’re more likely to go down some rabbit holes that don’t really get you anywhere, but when you’re working with someone, they can immediately give you that perspective: “This part is great, but let’s not put that part in,” and they can save you so much time–as long as you’re willing to listen. There’s gotta be mutual respect and trust and just an openness, because you can come up with something and feel protective of it, but the more you open up, the faster you’ll get to a satisfying, finished product.

RLR: You sing the lead on “Seasick Emotions” and “One Drop of Truth” on this album and they’re really different tunes but they both are good examples of your ability as a band to have deceptively simple lyrics. Most of your songs are relatively spare lyrically and I think that is something that’s sometimes hard to do – how do you think about finding that sweet spot of having enough detail there, but also keeping things simple?

CW: Again, there’s different ways. A lot of songwriters will tell you that some of their best songs just come all of a sudden, out of nowhere. But some great stuff comes from laboring through it. Sometimes you really just have to get the rough idea on paper and recorded, even though you know it’s not good yet, but you know there’s this thing there, this feeling, and you know you can’t articulate it yet but have to capture at least the gesture, the initial feeling. And sometimes it takes a long time; sometimes it takes working on it and forgetting it, and you might find these lyrics two months later, and you see with fresh eyes and know immediately what it needs to do, what’s good about it, and what’s bad about it.

 


 
Sometimes there’s more of a whittling away. We’ll have songs with all these verses, just too much information, and you just trim the fat until you get to the essence. The most powerful songs, books, poems, movies–a perfect example is a movie with a Hollywood ending, where all the loose ends get wrapped up, those movies are always forgettable. Your mind is satisfied with all the answers and everything’s been figured out for you. But it’s those movies with the weird ending where things don’t get explained and there’s loose ends, those are the ones you can’t stop thinking about. Songs are the same way. It’s the ones that have some ambiguity that are the most powerful, because they’re more likely appeal to more people and different kinds of life situations. How you get to that? Sometimes you stumble upon it, sometimes you just have to whittle away at it like a statue, just keep chipping away until you find that inner thing that somehow describes the feeling without over describing it.

RLR: “Strange as it Seems” stands out on this album. It features really interesting tonal layers and dissonance. How did the music for that song come together?

CW: It’s obviously a dream song so that’s the mood of the music. It’s actually a very spare recording, that one. I think just the nature of the room sound–we used a lot room mic on that to give that airy, lush kind of quality to the sounds, so even though there’s very few instruments playing, it sounds big and full.

RLR: I think it’s the only song without percussion and it comes after a series of hard-driving songs. As producers, how did you think about how to order these songs?

CW: It’s always a challenge and it’s never obvious. “Strange As It Seems” seemed to be a natural kind of respite from some of the fuller, harder driving kind of stuff . The choice of what to start with is always a big one. On Paradise, we started with “Singing to Strangers,” which is one of the more hard-driving songs, and we felt we wanted to ease into it on this one a little more with “River Takes The Town.”

 


 
It was very strange to us; that song was written a long time ago, but it just so happened that when we recorded it last fall, it was right when Houston was getting flooded. There’s a lot of images of water and hurricanes on the record and that seemed to be one of the threads, so it just felt right that it would be the first song for us.

RLR: One of the things I find in many of the lyrics to your songs is an exploration of a sense of duality: that without sorrow, there wouldn’t be joy; without darkness, there wouldn’t be light. It shows up on Happiness Jones: “All of my wisdom came from all the toughest days / I never learned a thing being happy,” and also on “Can’t Look Away.” Can you talk about how you see that through line in the work you have done as a band?

CW: In this record, we’re examining that a lot. The older we get, we appreciate that every time we survive something difficult, that’s where people get their character. It reminds me of this great myth–I can’t remember what culture it is, but it’s the story of Baba Yaga, this witch who’s at the doorway of the next world. If you get to her, she eats your scars off your body before you pass on to the next life. If you don’t have any scars, she eats you. These scars we get through life, they’re good. That’s how we become who we are, it’s how we get our wisdom, our perspective, our character. Our gratitude for when times are good comes from knowing what it’s like when times are bad. So it’s important and it’s inevitable. But in the song “One Drop of Truth,” there’s also moments in life when you’re so completely lost in it that you don’t know which end is up, and you’re just searching for truth or anything that rings true, where you don’t know how to listen to your own heart, and you’ve been blindsided by something so much bigger than yourself. And you survive that too, and, god, what you learn is invaluable.

RLR: One thing you do on tour pretty consistently is have your opening act join you for a couple of tunes on stage. Is that an intentional decision you all made as a band?

CW: We have that one part of our show with just the one microphone, which is just a great time to feature some of our opening acts. Otherwise, we’re on in-ear monitors and that makes it more difficult, technically, to have someone jump up on stage, because the monitors are all in our heads, so having that one condenser mic where we can just take those things out of our ears and we can just play acoustically makes it possible to collaborate.

We tend to like our openers and want to play with them. But also we just feel it’s part of the shape of the show. It gets us excited about putting a show together, having variety and the shape. Our openers tend to be great singers, so it’s a good way to feature their voices and offer something different sonically than just the three of us.

As a trio we can go a lot of places sonically: I can play upright bass, I can play electric bass, I can play no bass and just harmonica; Jano is an incredible keyboard player as well as a drummer and singer, but he also plays that shuitar, so if we want to do something really stripped down, but still have rhythm, he can play that. Or, we might not play any percussion, and we have a song that’s more spare, some fingerpicking where he just plays some melodica.

All that sonic variety is what we’d like to hear when we go to a concert. That variety is nice, you get breaks from just rocking music or something more exciting than just constant strumming of a guitar. That’s a big part of how we arrange the songs. What’s been really fun over the years is when we can take old songs and completely reinvent them, with different music, different rhythms, give it a different beat, a different key, do it stripped down or do it really rocking– that’s really fun, and hopefully keeps the audience surprised by newness, and yet it’s familiar too.

 

The Wood Brothers are cruising through the northeast this week and One Drop of Truth comes out this Friday, February 2. They’ll be celebrating the release at the State Theatre in Portland, ME, followed by a show Saturday at the House of Blues in Boston. The Stray Birds are joining them on this leg, so it’ll be fun to see what they cook up around the one mic. Get out there, folks, and get this new album–it’s fantastic.

 

Photo credit: Alysse Gafkjen

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