Chris and Oliver Wood embarked on two distinct musical paths only to unite professionally many years later.
The brothers’ childhood in Pasadena, California, and Boulder, Colorado, was steeped in American roots expression. Their father, a scientist, sang classic songs at family get-togethers while their poetry-quoting mother instilled in them a passion for storytelling and language.
“Oliver got a bass guitar first and he taught me some of my first bass stuff,” says Chris Wood of The Wood Brothers. “Even as kids, he was the blues and I was getting into jazz. He wrote instrumental pieces and as kids we experimented with a drummer and a band.”
“Our father was kind of a folk musician,” says Chris. “Back in the late ’50s he was going to Harvard at Cambridge and he had a radio show, and he did shows with Joan Baez before she was so well known, and he had that same repertoire that can be found on Bob Dylan’s first record full of classic folk songs. Dad had a great record collection of people like Josh White and Lead Belly and he did some actual playing, and I realized early that there is nothing like live music.”
Chris credits the vinyl collections of both his father and his older brother in helping him to establish a deep connection with the fundamentals of American music.
“My brother started tracing back ’60s rock ‘n’ roll music to people like
Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed and the Chicago and Texas blues guys. What struck me about my brother’s collection was the sound of the instruments and the singing and feeling of the music. There was a certain feeling present that I wasn’t getting from listening to the radio. Then I got into jazz, like Charley Mingus, and I had this fantasy of what it would be like if Mingus and Robert Johnson had formed a band.”
It would take many years before Chris Wood could explore his dream, however. Somewhere in their 20s, the brothers split into different social scenes. Oliver traveled to Atlanta, where he played guitar in several cover bands before earning a position inTinsley Ellis’s touring act, later finding his feet as a singer. Oliver then founded King Johnson (named after Freddy King and Robert Johnson), a group that released six albums of blues-infused R&B, funk, and country. Chris, on the other hand, studied jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music, shifted to New York City, and in the early ’90s formed Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW) which over two decades blended modern jazz with more abstract sounds.
“In order to get into jazz you had to go to New York City and become a sideman for a famous jazz musician, and I got there, and I didn’t like the jazz scene in the early ’90s, and the traditional jazz revival of guys like Wynton Marsalis. It was a segregated scene and real cliquish and it didn’t feel very inviting. I opted for the more experimental ‘big band’ feeling and for more of a musical melting pot, where you are blending everything from all kinds of music – classical, punk rock, jazz – and MMW was formed in that atmosphere.”
“MMW just happened organically, you get out there and you just start playing. [John Medeski] and I started doing duo gigs and then week-long sit-ins with people and with [Billy Martin] as a trio. There was a high concentration of great musicians living in the city, and this was during Mayor Giuliani, before people couldn’t afford to live there anymore because of the high rents. In the East Village, the band lived among each other, going to the same restaurants and hangouts, and you had a community and cross-fertilization.
“We did something crazy; we decided to tour the states while most other jazz bands were touring Europe and had record deals and the machine behind them… we were young punks doing something different, playing for the door in New York City and figuring that we could [also do it] in any town. We went through the clubs and cafés in the States, [and] people thought we were crazy.”
Chris and his older brother Oliver developed in parallel professionally for about 15 years until the siblings finally performed together in the mid-2000s at a double-billed show in North Carolina; Oliver sat in with MMW following King Johnson’s opening set.
“All these years later we ended up with a double bill in the same venue,” said Wood. “It felt great, felt natural, and it made us realize that we could do something together.”
“MMW had these fringe and avant-garde influences, but Oliver and I had the same love of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and funk, and we had developed love of all different kinds of music. Oliver added a great layer and a great feel, and it was a natural fit, and for me that blood connection had the right instincts, and the music felt familiar.”
Chris said that he and Oliver formed The Wood Brothers at the perfect point in their personal and professional journeys: they had each performed the same type of job for those 15 years, learning the ropes of the music business. Their egos could slide.
“A connection was instantly felt at that show when [Oliver] sat in with us,” said Chris. “And I recommend that if you work with family, it’s better doing it later in life because we were both grown up a little bit, and that was helpful to avoid bickering and arguing and ego conflict. We also understood the business by then and were humbled by it and how uncertain it could be.”
The Wood Brothers’ music delivers a roots-laden feel that blends Chris and Oliver’s love of blues, folk, and rock music with the talents of singer and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix. Rix’s work on the keyboard and percussion allows the band to play stripped-down acoustic music with a rhythm and beat that rings as uniquely American.
The Wood Brothers’ sixth outing titled One Drop of Truth (Thirty Tigers, 2018) seems to plunge headfirst into a bottomless assortment of styles. Contrasting their previous releases – which generally followed from a kind of conceptual and sonic consistency – Chris notes that this time they treated each song as if it were “its own short film… its own little world.”
“We approached the process so much differently on One Drop of Truth,” said Wood. “People think that you have to write all the material first and then record it in one big overwhelming two-week session. We wanted to stretch out the process and once we finished a song, we decided not to take it too seriously, treating it almost like a demo, so it felt more playful, and that gave us more freedom to take risks and to experiment. We figured that if we didn’t like it, we could go back and record it again. The idea was to record and then forget about it, and it was a luxury to be forgetting about it while touring and then to revisit it later and hear it with fresh ears.”
Chris said that the beauty of One Drop of Truth is that the album was self-produced at several different studios over a range of sessions throughout the year, employing a number of different mixers and engineers – all of whom deliberately endowed each track with its own individual character.
“Sometimes there’s this pressure with a time limit or if the record company wants to hear things that aren’t ready to be heard, and often it feels overwhelming. It can be overwhelming to get into that head space and go record, and to get a piece of music right you need to analyze it and examine it, and that takes a lot of energy. You get conservative and tend to play it safe… Putting down 12 songs in a row in a two-week session, it’s hard to keep your head on straight. I mean, your ears are burnt out and you lose a sense of what’s good or what’s not working.
“The way we did it here, it’s not like having the pressure as if it were your last chance. It was playful, which allowed us to react in different ways as opposed to stressing that we had only one moment to get this right.”
From the mountains of Boulder, Colorado, to the smoky, dimly-lit jazz clubs of New York City to the bars and music venues of the coasts, harbors, and interiors, Chris Wood has devoured the scene and fed his dream. It’s all he has ever done; he has nothing else to compare it to. Each journey still feels as if it’s the first; each impression’s flavor strikes as brand new.
“Sometimes the ‘masters of your own destiny’ thing can be scary,” said Wood. “Here, we are not a cog in the wheel of some big organization, and it only goes well because of the hard work you put into it, and the music gets to be the product of all of this work.”
The Wood Brothers are performing at the Kentucky Theater, Lexington, on Wednesday, 24 October. See here for tour dates.