Out of the Woods: The Freaky Beautiful World of Woodsist
With his band Woods and his label Woodsist, Jeremy Earl has carved out a shambolic niche in psychedelic pop that is as easy to listen to as it is hard to define.
You can call it bucolic psychedelia. You can make comparisons to the Beach Boys or the Grateful Dead. You can evoke campfires and fireflies and beachside keg parties. But when you’re aiming to describe the hand-made, DIY aesthetic that surrounds the band Woods, the labels Woodsist and Fuckit Tapes and the loose fellowship of fellow travelers that surrounds them, please don’t use the term “lo-fi.”
“It’s not like we ever set out to make records that sounded low quality,” says Jeremy Earl who writes most of the songs for Woods and manages Woodsist and Fuckit Tapes. “To me, At Echo Lake is hi-fi,” he adds. “I never thought I’d ever do anything sounding that hi-fi.”
At Echo Lake is the fifth full-length album for the band Woods, which started as Earl’s bedroom-recorded solo project and has gradually grown into a full-band endeavor. Woods’ core members – Earl, Jarvis Taverniere, Lucas Crane and Kevin Morby – first met at Purchase College in Westchester County in the early aughts. Earl was studying print-making and visual arts. Taverniere was in a music composition program and Lucas was a literature major. The three of them connected there and continued to stay in touch when they graduated and moved to Brooklyn.
Earl was making four-track recordings early on, working mostly alone and for himself. On a whim, and as a long-time fan of Sebadoh, he sent a cassette of demos to the Shrimper label, copying the label’s address from the back of a Sentridoh release. The label head phoned him soon after and made plans to release Earl’s At Rear House in 2007. With the album in stores and getting some attention, Earl put a band together to tour, drawing on his college friends Taverniere, Lucas and Morby. Songs of Shame, the band’s breakout album, followed in 2009, along with the EP Acoustic Family Creeps Play Live in the Woods.
Songs of Shame and the new one, At Echo Lake, came out on Earl’s Woodsist label, which he started in 2005. “I had Fuckit Tapes years before that but it was just cassettes,” Earl remembers. “I found the idea of putting out vinyl really exciting. Especially since I started out doing everything by myself pretty much, silk-screening covers, going to a pressing plant in Brooklyn and picking up the record, being really hands on with it.”
An Indefinable Vibe
No one would have picked the first decade of the 21st century as a good time to start a label, but Woodsist seemed to take off. It became known, early on, for loose-knit, distortion-crusted pop that was a bit more laid-back and countrified than the output of noise-oriented labels like Silt Breeze, a bit less jittery and punk-leaning than LA’s Post Present Medium’s stable of bands.
Yet though Woods and Woodsist occupy a certain space in the contemporary music scene, hardly anyone seems to want to take a crack at defining that space. “I don’t know if Woodsist has a sound,” Earl says. “I don’t think any of the bands really sound alike. But I do think that it’s really a vibe and a feeling, maybe more of a homemade aspect to the music. It’s hard to explain.”
Martin Courtney, whose band, Real Estate, had break-out success with its debut on Woodsist, has similar difficulties categorizing the label’s output. “I think Woodsist has put out a lot of different sounding records,” he says. “I'm not sure if there's an overall sound, though I think the label has been maybe moving in more of a pop direction. If there's an overall aesthetic, it's probably just the DIY thing. Home recordings and homemade artwork, done either by the band or Jeremy himself.”
Glenn Donaldson of the Skygreen Leopards says that he sees at least some similarities between Woods and his new band Art Museums, whose debut Rough Frame came out on Woodsist this spring. “We both love G C F chords, open chords and pop melodies but put together in a slightly damaged way. We've never really talked about artists we both like, but I'd probably put on the short-list, the Byrds, The Clean and Gene Clark,” he observes, adding, “Maybe we're both not afraid to throw in a wimpy ballad now and then.”
As for an overarching Woodsist aesthetic, Donaldson hazards, “It all fits together somehow. I'm sure a lot of these bands cut their teeth on classic indie stuff like K, Majora, Homestead, Rough Trade.” He adds, “Also it's not polished. It has a spontaneous quality, but that quality is cultivated not accidental.”
A Question of Fidelity
All of which leads, inevitably, to the “lo-fi” tag that has dogged the label since its origins. It’s an adjective that those associated with Woods and Woodsist roundly dismiss.
“Sure we record at home,” Donaldson says. “It's how you make music when a label can't give you $5000 to make a record.” Still, in this age of ProTools, when high fidelity recording has never been cheaper or easier, isn’t fuzziness an aesthetic choice rather than an economic necessity?
“I think as an aesthetic term lo-fi is no longer relevant,” says Ripley Johnson, a member of Wooden Shjips, whose other project Moon Duo recently released the EP, Escape on Woodsist. “There's no musical distinction between lo-fi and hi-fi to me. If you're documenting a live sound on a recording, then yes there can be varying levels of fidelity, as far as accurate reproduction. But for something that stands alone as a recorded piece of music, it's irrelevant what equipment was used to get those sounds. What is important is that musicians or artists are making their art with whatever tools they have available to them.”
“We tried to make our record sound as good as we could,” said Courtney of Real Estate. “We didn't have the money to record in a professional studio, so we recorded using what was available to us and chose the best of the results to go on the album. I do like the sort of amateurish sound of the album, and I might like to record the next album in a similar way. But it's not lo-fi for the sake of lo-fi; it's more out of necessity or a desire to feel like we own what we are making entirely.”
“It's more fun not to micro-manage your music, trying to get every sound just right,” he adds. “If Dylan's original basement tapes hadn't already, [Guided By Voices] broke down this barrier with Bee Thousand, which is better than fifty thousand crap studio records. If we can get just a tiny fraction of that, we're onto something.”
Moreover, the recording quality is getting better, Earl says, as his partner Jarvis Taverniere gains experience with equipment. “Jarvis has gotten some really nice tape machines and is sort of figuring out our sound and exactly how to do it. It’s a learning process. I think you could listen to our first record to this record and be able to say, these guys are really getting somewhere with recording.”
The ‘Pop’ Record
Indeed, At Echo Lake represents a significant advance from 2009’s Songs of Shame. PopMatters Zach Corsa called it “Woods’ most enduring document yet.” Earl says that it’s his band’s most polished and structured work. “The first four records came together really fast and were much more improvised and stream of consciousness,” he explains. “Whereas with Echo Lake, we worked on the songwriting more. Instead of using the first version of a song, we re-recorded it and got it to sound exactly how we wanted it to sound. It’s definitely more of a polished, complete record.”
At Echo Lake is named after a place in Warwick, New Jersey, where Earl grew up and now lives (he’s moved out of Brooklyn), a name that suggests to him deep woods, psychedelic mystery and the haunting, echoey quality of his band’s best work. A sense of nature permeated Woods’ songs even when all the band members lived in Brooklyn. Now that Earl has moved back to the country it may be even stronger. “I don’t think you have to live in the country to connect with the woods musically,” says Earl, “but that’s the way I grew up.”
The songs on At Echo Lake blend fragile, delicate melodies with bits of noise and studio freakery, a hallmark of Woods’ sound since the beginning. “The majority of our songs start with a simple song structure and the vocal melodies, then we’ll add on top of that,” says Earl. “We do also sometimes jam out and improvise in the studio, and then mish-mash stuff together. We might decide that this jam would work with this song, and mix them together.”
This process of recording and rerecording material allows Woods to explore all the possibilities in its songs and, just as important, it’s fun. “It’s mostly about trying to get as deep into the song as we can and really make it enjoyable, to see how far beyond we can go,” says Earl. “The recording process is so fun that just to record the songs in a simple manner without adding anything just kind of seems boring. It’s really nice to get in there and flesh it out, make it more of an experience.”
For example “From the Horn,” an all-instrumental cut, started out as an entirely instrumental jam. “Then we took it and recorded it and actually made that jam into a song structure,” Earl says. “When you listen to it, it’s very structured. It’s got two parts, but then really it’s taken over with experimenting in the studio. We really dove into it and got as far out as we could.”
“From the Horn” took shape in the studio, but “Blood Dries Darker,” the lead-off track to At Echo Lake is something of a first for Woods – a song that they worked out live before recording in the studio. Like the rest of At Echo Lake, it incorporates studio experimentation, but integrates it more seamlessly into the texture of the song. “We went a little bit more straightforward with this album, but not intentionally,” Earl says. “We’ve always been inclined to have a more experimental side in recording. Because it’s fun to really get involved and try out some technique in the studio. But this album turned out to be sort of like a straightforward pop record.”
Seeing Sounds, Hearing Colors
Earl created the cover art for At Echo Lake, as he has for all previous Woods albums and a good portion of the records released on the Woodsist label. “To me, the art is almost as important as the music,” he says. “There’s a connection, a pretty magical connection, between Woods’ art and music. It’s sort of like you can’t have one without the other.”
Earl says that he’s influenced by artists including outsider Henry Darger, Cy Twombly and the Bauhaus school, but that his own process is intuitive. “After we recorded At Echo Lake, I did a series of drawings over a couple of weeks… just thinking about those songs, thinking about the order, thinking about everything, and then just letting my pen hit the paper and seeing what happened,” he says. “The final product was the cover.”
At Echo Lake’s cover is a bright yellow drawing with an almost whimsical quality. The cover for Moon Duo’s Escape, also designed by Earl, is, in contrast, starkly black and white. “I love it,” says Ripley Johnson. “Jeremy has such a distinct line in his work. It’s genuine. We had asked Jeremy if he would draw something for the record. We wanted that contribution from him. I felt like that was important, to help bring us into the label.”
Even artists who bring their own cover art to the process respect Earl’s commitment to the visual element of their work. “I love what Jeremy has done with the label and the consistent graphics,” says Donaldson, who had the cover for Rough Frame even before he started writing the songs. “I agree, the band name, graphics and titles are as important as the music for me. I think of visual art before I think of the music.’
Summer Shows in Big Sur, LA and Brooklyn
Woodsist has three big festivals planned for the summer, one at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur amongst the redwoods on June 12, another at LA’s Echo and EchoPlex on June 15 and a third at the Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn on June 25. The venues couldn’t be more different, but the vibe will undoubtedly be similar – good friends playing various strains of damaged, DIY pop, in flavors from straight-up punk (Abe Vigoda in LA) to 1960s psychedelia (Fresh & Onlys in Big Sur) to motorik drone (Moon Duo in Big Sur and Brooklyn).
“Last summer I did a Woodsist festival in Brooklyn and it was a huge success,” says Earl. “It was a really, really great time to do an outdoor festival, all-day, kind of thing. With a lot of friends’ bands, mostly label bands, but also friends from all over the country. And then I was thinking about doing it again and we just kinda thought, you know what, let’s do it on the West Coast. Let’s see what we’ve got going on.”