For a decade and a half, Chris & Oliver Wood had parallel music careers. The Boulder, Colorado natives each were doing different things with Chris being the bassist for the avant-garde jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood while Oliver was playing in blues bands. As with what happens eventually when you’re family, the brothers got together and started the roots rock act The Wood Brothers which highlights both their creative tastes. The past few years have seen them become a must-see act in the Americana circuit and on January 31 they’ll be at The Strand Ballroom & Theatre at 79 Washington Street in Providence. Canadian singer-songwrter Steve Poltz will be opening up the show.
Chris and I had a talk ahead of the gig about him and his brother having similar influences, being in New York City during the ‘90s being a special time, living in various cities and working on a new album.
Rob Duguay: With you coming from a jazz background and Oliver coming from a blues background, how did you both meet in the middle when it came to first writing songs together as The Wood Brothers during the mid-2000s?
Chris Wood: Medeski, Martin & Wood was definitely known for a different kind of music than the band my brother was in, King Johnson, and I think a lot of that has to do with where those bands were. The truth is, as far as influence goes, I’d say 80 or 90% of the music we are influenced by is exactly the same. Medeski, Martin & Wood sort of came together in New York City’s downtown music scene with a little more of an avant-garde spin response to it. We loved the blues, gospel, R&B, hip hop, funk, rock & roll and all kinds of stuff as well as contemporary classical music and weird African field recordings. I’ve always liked singing, songwriting and I was a huge fan of all kinds of bands during my childhood like The Beatles, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and all those acts from the ‘60s.
When my brother and I got together, it was pretty natural. We just started by taking some of the songs Oliver had already written and rearranged them while exploring different ways to make it go. For me, my brother heavily researched and got steeped into blues and one of the archetypes for that music is Robert Johnson and I sort of got deep into jazz and one of my heroes is Charles Mingus so it’s this fantasy of what if Robert Johnson and Charles Mingus started a band together? What would they come up with?
RD: That’s a cool vision to have for it. When it comes to playing bass in an avant-garde jazz style versus a rootsy blues style, do you have to make any major adjustments or is it more of a thing where you just go with the flow of what the other musicians are doing?
CW: I don’t really think of them in terms of styles, it’s just music. Of course the way every player plays their instrument, especially with the rhythm and feel they choose, definitely implies certain stylistic things. All of that is just tools and colors on the palate to play with and they can be intermingled and mashed in different ways, it’s just so infinite. There aren’t any guardrails keeping you in balance with one certain genre or style even though everyone who sells music wants you to believe that while finding a way to market it and put a name on it. In reality, musicians just get together and they react to what’s happening so there might be all kinds of stylistic fender-benders going on.
RD: Are you and Oliver still living in Nashville?
CW: I actually moved out of Tennessee, I live in British Columbia these days.
RD: Wow. How does it compare living out there to living in Nashville, New York City, Boston and Boulder? You’ve lived all over so how do these places compare to each other or how do their differences stand out to each other?
CW: They’re all radically different places in so many ways and they’re each part of a different period of my life. New York City in my 20s was amazing, it was a great time to be in that city as far as my age, as far as the ‘90s and everything that was happening then. That’s when we got together to start Medeski, Martin & Wood and everyone we knew in that scene was making their money touring Europe. In this jazz and new music scene, people didn’t understand how we were going to go out and tour like a rock band in the United States but we did it while playing the weird music that we were doing. Touring opened my eyes to the rest of the country, all the different regions and culturally how things were different everywhere, it was really interesting to get to know the country that way.
When my brother and I decided we should start a band together, the first few years were like this long-distance relationship where he was down in Atlanta and I was in Upstate New York. Then eventually when The Wood Brothers started to take over our careers and Medeski, Martin & Wood was slowing down, we decided to meet in Nashville. We knew a lot of great people there, it obviously has an amazing music infrastructure in terms of business and in terms of studios. Ultimately we were part of that statistic that made Nashville this “it” city, everyone was moving there and it was growing like crazy. It was great for us to both live in the same town, really establish The Wood Brothers as our main focus, write together and all that.
Eventually we made our own studio there which we still have. Then when the pandemic came along, as with so many people’s lives, it created all kinds of unexpected craziness. Somehow I ended up in British Columbia, I married a Canadian and I didn’t really see it coming but it doesn’t change what we do. We’re touring the United States, we’re working on our next record, we’re still writing together and we’re still excited as ever.
RD: It’s good that despite the changes you still have that structure in place. When it comes to cohesion in songwriting, what makes creating music with your brother stand out versus other collaborations you’ve had in your career as a musician?
CW: As far as collaborating, it’s always the same kind of thing where we have to bring in something and yet be open to anything while trusting the process. What’s so great about writing with someone is that it saves you a lot of time from going down some useless rabbit holes. It’s kind of like what a producer does or a co-writer. If you’re all by yourself in a room and write, which is great too and we all do that, and you hammer away at something too long by yourself you might go to some unproductive places. If you have someone to bounce off ideas with they can actually save you time by telling you that your original idea was actually great or maybe go in a different direction.
It’s so useful to have someone that you like to work with and trust in that regard so with my brother it’s great. I trust his instincts, his opinions and vice versa so we get a lot done when we work together like that. Jano Rix has been in the band for around 10 years now and he’s also become a valuable part of the writing and the music itself along with the arranging and the forms. He’s a great producer as well.
RD: You mentioned earlier that The Wood Brothers are working on a new album, so when can we expect it to come out?
CW: We’re actually trying to figure that out. We’ve written a bunch of stuff but we haven’t started recording it yet and we’re still in the throes of this pandemic so everything is a bit crazy and it’s really hard to predict everything. We definitely want to start recording this winter and spring and we’re going to have to see how fast we get it done and how fast it comes together. It’s hard to say right now when the record is actually going to be released but the sooner the better. A lot of unknowns at the moment.
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