Catching up with The Wood Brothers before Beaver Creek performance
Last Word Features
Twenty years ago, brothers Oliver and Chris Wood got to share a stage when Oliver’s band, King Johnson, opened a show for Chris’ acclaimed jazz-rooted group, Medeski Martin & Wood.
Oliver sat in with Chris that evening and something magical happened. The brothers realized they still had a musical and personal connection and wanted to make music together. Soon The Wood Brothers were formed, beginning a journey that has seen the brothers (along with percussionist/keyboardist Jano Rix, who joined the band in 2010) become one of the most unique and accomplished bands on the roots music scene.
Looking back, guitarist/singer Oliver feels he and his bassist brother crossed musical paths at an opportune time and might have been fortunate that their meeting of the musical minds didn’t happen sooner.
“Chris and I started The Wood Brothers not at the beginning of our careers. We had both been in separate parts of the country and in completely different circles for 12, 13 years ahead of time,” Oliver observed in a mid-February phone interview. “What that did was allow us to create our own musical identities and sort of grow up and maybe shed some baggage, or just get through our 20s, let’s say, and even for me, most of my 30s, before we started The Wood Brothers. But during that time, we grew apart because we were apart. We grew apart as brothers and we were not that close. And the music, when we started The Wood Brothers, the music brought us back together. That was our bridge to becoming close again. That was the biggest part of it, we had this thing that could keep us connected.”
The next chapter in the musical journey of the trio arrives in April, when the eighth full-length studio album of original material from the Wood Brothers, “Heart is the Hero,” will be released.
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As has been the case throughout the band’s career, the new album manages to sound both immediately identifiable as the work of The Wood Brothers and Rix, while finding some new variances in styles and textures along the way.
The approach the band took to “Heart is the Hero,” though, couldn’t have been much more different than how “Kingdom In My Mind” was made.
To create the songs on “Kingdom In My Mind” the three musicians spent hours upon hours improvising, which created a huge body of spontaneously played source material. From that, The Wood Brothers identified magical moments and shaped and edited them down into songs with overdubbed parts and lyrics added to create cohesive finished songs.
“The last album we had the luxury of just hanging out and experimenting and it was a fun process, especially on the front end,” Oliver said. “On ‘Kingdom In My Mind,’ we really experimented and recorded all kinds of weird music and then worked with the music, where the hard part about that was at the end, trying to edit things (into songs). Some of those things were somewhat collage-y and experimental and edited, but from very spontaneous music … I think this process (for “Heart is the Hero”) was much different for a couple of reasons. Number one, we didn’t want to do it the same way. So we approached it completely differently, technically as well. We used 16 tracks of tape only. And we did not use a computer. So we created these limitations, not so much for the audio quality, which is wonderful. Analog is something that at least people who are nerdy about it really love that sound still, as do we. But we did it more for the psychology of the creative process, which was to create these limitations where you don’t get to edit things and you don’t get to do things a million times. We have this expensive tape spinning around and you have to actually have a performance that you like and be somewhat prepared to do that.”
That meant writing and refining songs before going in to record and being rehearsed enough to deliver album-worthy performances, while also remaining open to ideas that emerged during recording that could further elevate the songs.
“We did a lot of our work on the front end, where we wrote some songs and we performed them live in the studio. So it was, I guess, less experimental in that regard,” Oliver said of “Heart is the Hero.” “But also, I have to say from my point of view, I think all of us found the process a lot more fun overall because the studio part was quick and dirty and it was real performances. It was more like playing a show.”
The new album finds The Wood Brothers anchoring the songs in more of an acoustic foundation than on “Kingdom In My Mind.” It wasn’t anything the three musicians planned heading into the project.
“It sort of happened somewhat subconsciously,” Oliver said. “For some reason, I think nine out of 10 times I chose an acoustic guitar. Chris plays some electric bass a little bit, and Jano plays a little bit of organ, but for the most part there’s a lot of acoustic piano on there. A lot of times when people hear the word acoustic, they think mellow. And I don’t think we ever thought that. I don’t equate those two things. I really feel like we wanted to retain our energy on certain things, but it didn’t have to be electric.”
Indeed “Heart is the Hero” is not a mellow album – although there are a couple of ballads. Like previous The Wood Brothers albums, the new songs have an earthy Americana sound that’s hard to categorize, but draws from a wide range of influences that include folk, blues, gospel, jazz, Latin, world beat and rock.
“Pilgrim” opens the album on a decidedly funky note, as popping rhythms underpin a big, melodic chorus that pairs well with some playful piano. The title song mines a steady and soulful vein, while “Worst Pain of All” has a poppier accent thanks to its light beat, comforting vocal melody and bah-bah-bah vocalizing segments. “Someone for Everyone” is an easy-going gem highlighted by an intoxicating organ part that weaves its way through the song, while the barroom piano and tangy guitars on “Mean Man World” give the song a folk-country to complement to the song’s warm vocal about a daughter’s resilience and determination.
The Wood Brothers are starting to introduce songs from “Heart is the Hero” on their current tour, and figure to add more of the new songs to the set once the album is released. But even then, the shows will encompass material from across The Wood Brothers’ catalog.
“We’ve certainly made an effort, especially for our own sanity and just pleasure, we try to mix in stuff from all of the albums,” Oliver said. “Like on this last tour (in 2022), there were a couple of two-nighters where we stayed in one city for two nights and you expect people are going to come to both nights, so you make a special effort to make two completely different shows. That’s such a luxury at this point. It used to be a little stressful. Now it’s like ‘Oh, we’ve got more songs than we could ever get to.’ So it’s kind of fun and it allows us to stretch out. So we’ve got stuff from every era, really.”