The Wood Brothers have garnered many dedicated fans with their unique style that fuses gospel, blues, jazz, folk, country and rock all into one encompassing sound. The band consists of Oliver Wood on guitar, younger brother Chris Wood on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, who brings percussion to the band in multiple styles (shuitar, drums, keys). With the release of their 10th album and fourth live album, Live at the Barn, the band is about to embark on an another lengthy tour. Recently The Poke Around’s William Crowell spoke with Oliver about the new release and tour, as well as roots music, the importance of family, and the love of artistic expression.
William Crowell: I just wanted to say that first of all I’m a huge fan, been following you guys a long time. Since Loaded I believe, still one of my top 10 albums. You guys rock it.
Oliver Wood: Awesome, thank you.
So for some of our newer readers, let’s dig into some of the roots you and Chris shared in the arts.
Well yeah, we grew up with our dad being a great folk singer, plays guitar well, and our mom was a published poet, so we were definitely surrounded by, directly by our parents, with the arts. Our dad, certainly a big influence early on, by virtue of being around him while he sang all these songs, and also he had this awesome record collection. So between him singing and listening to his records..
It kind of introduced you to blues music.
In doing some research on you all and seeing your dad was a science professor as well, I came up with this funny thought: what do you get when you put a folk-singing scientist and a poet together? You get The Wood Brothers.
(Laughs) There you go, exactly right.
So you and Chris kind of split ways for a while until your band King Johnson opened for Medeski Martin and Wood (MMW), and it gave you a chance to sit in with the trio. Can you tell me a little about that experience and how it played a roll in reuniting the brothers?
Sure. Well you know Chris and I are four years apart. I’m a little older than Chris so I left the house before he did and I ended up moving to the southeastern U.S., mostly Atlanta. When I reached adulthood, that’s where I ended up. And my brother, on the other hand, went northeast to New York and hooked up with the MMW guys and started that project, so basically we sort of went our separate directions even though we were both following music. We really just became more distant, both physically and mentally.
It really seemed like you dove very deep into these separate projects.
Yeah, we had different circles within the music world and just really grew apart as brothers and friends. Anyway, we were both doing music the whole time though, so that was sort of the one thing we always had in common. Then our two bands got put on the same bill. It just worked out that way, and then I got to sit in with MMW. We had just such a good time, like we had a light bulb go off like “wow, we both love the same things and we’re both getting pretty good at it. Let’s put that in the back pocket.”
Yeah, I found it really interesting how you both went your separate ways in music, yours with blues and Chris with jazz, yet there’s still the same background and same influences.
Exactly, and even the roots of those genres have a lot of common ground. It’s like the blues world and the jazz world are actually coming from the same places. And really all that early American music, whether it’s blues or more Appalachian music, built sort of the bedrock for American music. So the roots are all the same and the artist uses that to form their own branch or combination.
So I have read some quotes from both you and your brother about the connection you shared in that first sit in. Chris has always talked about this sort of telepathy that he shares with Medeski and Martin, and seems like you tapped into it almost instantly.
I think what Chris means, and a lot of people in bands can agree, that when you play with the same guys for years and years you develop that musical telepathy as you get to know each other. And I think with Chris and I, after being apart for so long and then just playing together, we had more of an inherent connection. It was almost immediate, like we didn’t have to practice together for years.
Yeah, like it was almost genetic.
Exactly, and it made us make more of an attempt to play together, like at family gatherings we would make a point to bring our instruments and maybe a recording device, and just make a point to play. Really the beauty of it is really connecting with your brother, no matter what type of music, the music is more of a vehicle to do that.
So I wanted to move into your upcoming tour starting off soon in Philly on February 2nd, and the very recent addition to the Wheels of Soul tour with Hot Tuna and The Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Yeah, we are very excited about that. It’s like a month long at several of the bigger venues that we don’t normally play and we’re playing with our friends. We have been tight with Derek and Susan. I mean, I’ve known Derek and Susan since they were teenagers. Love their music and what they have developed and grown into, and we love them as people, playing shows with them once in a while is a blast.
You guys seem to be on one of those Warren Haynes-esque “never ending tours.” I’ve talked with other artists about the trials and tribulations of tour life and the balancing act they must play during longer tours. How do you as an artist balance tour life, especially now being a family man?
It can be rough. A few weeks is the most we try to stay away. It’s very off and on, but it’s still hard. The adventure side of touring has kind of lost its spark. Now the real driving force is just the music, the love for creating it and sharing it. It’s not even about doing it for a living or making money. It’s not even about being good, because it’s not always going to be. It’s not a measurable thing. One thing I think about more and more, I love how it makes the creator of the art somewhat immortal, something that’s going to last, not in an egotistical way, more like “oh, this is the way I can stick around.” I can leave all these things, these pieces of me, you know, and that feels kind of good, especially when you think about your own mortality.
Beautifully put. These are things that come up in our brains the more we age and mature. Back to the tour, it’s kicking off just after a new live album release, “Live At the Barn.” This recording took place in Woodstock, NY, at Levon Helm’s studio known as the Barn. Tell me a little more about the significance of the Barn.
So it’s Levon Helm’s barn on his land in upstate New York, and more so than a studio, it was a performance space. He wanted to create a space on his own property that people could come watch him play and sort of celebrate the music. Eventually artists from all over came to jam with him and started the Midnight Ramble Sessions. So, knowing the barn was such a special place, and knowing we would have lot of friends and family there, we kind of pre-picked it out to record, because, you know, we don’t normally record our shows. We played a few of those Rambles over the years with Levon and also worked a bunch with Amy Helm, his daughter, and she became a tight friend, so we just feel a kinship to that place.
You guys seem to put out a lot of live albums, and in my opinion, that is the way to see The Wood Brothers. You guys really bring it live, but this most recent album shows the progression of the band, being much more electric both musically and energetically. It stands out to me the most on “Postcards From Hell,” one of your more fan favorite songs released back in 2008. It was always so soft and acoustic, but live you guys turn it into an all-out dance party, trading off solos and bringing out the full drum set.
I think it shows some sort of evolution. That’s kind of the fun thing with the live albums. When we record something in the studio it’s sort of an early version, usually, of whatever it’s meant to become later, and most of those studio songs really develop over the years, sometimes very consciously. We say, “Aww lets do it completely different this time, strip it down or vice versa.” I’ts really fun. Jano is such a good keyboard player as well, so sometimes live we will have him try out keys, and it makes a re-release of a song, a live version of an early song. It’s really cool for us because we can show how we play a song now compared to 10 years ago.
In the new live album I noticed that there weren’t any Paradise (their most recent studio album) tracks on there. Was that just how it played out, or was there more intention to sort of show your roots?
I think there was definitely intention there. We played a few of those songs that night and they’re new enough that they haven’t evolved that much. So sometimes you put out a song that wouldn’t be as interesting. That’s one reason. I think we really like to catch it up, so a lot of the songs that we chose didn’t come from Paradise but spanned all of the albums, all the way back to the first album with “Tried and Tested.”
So now that the whole band lives in Nashville, has there been any talk of another album, or maybe even a Wood Brothers studio? I think that would be a great addition to the Nashville scene.
Oh, that’d be awesome to have our own studio. There are tons of studios, so there is no shortage in Nashville. We have worked in Dan Auerbach’s and Zac Brown’s studios on our last two studio albums, and feel lucky and honored to have been allowed to record in those spaces, plus tons of little ones as well. But yeah, the new album is in the early stages. We are already writing a lot of new music and getting ready to record it, so I feel like the new album might be ready later in the year.
Awesome, can’t wait. Another aspect of your music that really stands out to the fans is some of the covers and collaborations you all have done over the years. You guys seem to have this ability to pull the lyrics out of the song and surround it with this new musical blanket that really shows a new way you can approach a song. For example, on Loaded you cover “Angel” with Amos Lee sharing vocals, and I think I listened to it about 10 times before it hit me that it’s a Hendrix cover.
(Laughs) Well, thank you. Yeah, the cover songs are fun because we most of the time get to pick our favorites, like with “Ophelia” on the new album. But other times they are more random like a Micheal Jackson or a Prince cover. And it comes down to some of what we talked about. All these musics have the same roots, and it’s sort of a recipe for the artist to form into something new. You listen to some of the music from the eighties and it sounds dated or technically dated, but there is a timelessness to music because of these roots. It has soul to it, realness to it, even though it might be stylistically different. Timeless is a good word to describe the music that I am generally drawn to.
Along with your covers, you have had the chance to collaborate with some of music’s best, going back to Susan and Derek who are featured in Paradise, but more recently you worked with Bela Fleck on the “Day of the Dead” album. This collection shows 30+ artists taking on Grateful Dead songs, and you and Bela played “Help on the Way,” showcasing his rapid fire banjo style and your deep, soulful vocals. What can you tell me about this experience and working with such a renowned artist as Bela?
Amazing and a real honor. Its so fun to be able to collaborate, too, because you rarely see these people. You’re always on the road or in different cities, so to be able to get together with people, especially of that caliber, is amazing.
Do you have much of a Grateful Dead influence? Ever see Jerry or any of their side projects?
Nah, I never did. They were never really my thing. I dated a girl once who was a real dead head (laughs), and she sort of got me into it after Jerry passed. So, I could definitely say I have an appreciation but not much of a repertoire of their songs.
Well, before we go I just have to ask a question about your brother. He seems to have developed this stand up bass dancing style that I didn’t see in earlier shows. You see a good example on the “Snake Eyes” live video. Is this something he has always had or did he just start spontaneously jiggin’ like that, because man, it’s pretty groovy.
(Laughs) I just think he just gets moving and has fun doing it, and I think the crowd likes it too, so its more of just a fun outlet he can have.
Upcoming Tour Dates
Feb 2 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
Feb 3 – Albany, NY – Massry Center for the Arts
Feb 4 – Portland, ME – State Theatre
Feb 6 – Burlington, VT – High Ground Ballroom
Feb 8-9 – Somerville, MA – Somerville Theatre
Feb 10 – New York, NY – Webster Hall
Feb 11 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
Feb 12 – Rocky Mount, VA – Harvester Performance Center
Feb 13 – Durham, NC – Carolina Theatre
Feb 14 – Charlotte, NC -Neighborhood Theatre
March 2 – San Diego, CA – The Observatory North Park
March 3-4 – West Hollywood, CA – Troubador
March 5 – Santa Cruz, CA, Rio Theatre
March 7 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
March 8 – Chico, CA – Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
March 9 – Eugene, OR – McDonald Theater
March 10 – Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom
March 11 – Seattle, WA – The Moore Theatre
March 12 – Vancouver, CA – Imperial
April 7 – Charleston, SC – Charleston Music Hall
April 8 – Savannah, GA – Savannah Music Festival
July 1 – Gilford, NH – Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion
July 2 – Essex, VT (Burlington) – Midway Lawn at Champlain Valley Exposition
July 3 – Saratoga, NY – Saratoga Performing Arts Center
July 5 – Vienna, VA (DC) –Wolf Trap *
July 8 – Rochester, NY – Highland Bowl
July 9 – Simsbury, CT – Simsbury Meadows Performing Arts Center
July 12 – Virginia Beach, VA – Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater **
July 14 – Raleigh, NC – Red Hat Amphitheater **
July 15 – Atlanta, GA – Fox Theatre ***
July 16 – Charlotte, NC – Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre **
July 19 – Indianapolis, IN – Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn
July 21 – Cincinnati, OH – PNC Pavilion at Riverbend Music Center
July 22 – Huber Heights, OH (Dayton) – Rose Music Center
July 23 – Rochester, MI (Detroit) – Meadow Brook Amphitheatre
July 25 – Rogers, AR – Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
July 27 – Albuquerque, NM – Sandia Casino
July 29-30 – Morrison, CO – Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Interview by William Crowell