By Jenna Lazenby
The Wood Brothers kicked off their winter tour last Thursday in Philadelphia, followed by a sold-out show in New York. The brothers, Oliver and Chris, grew up making music together, influenced heavily by their father (a molecular biologist by day), who had a penchant for folk music, and a mother who is a skilled poet. Yet, their early music careers took them down separate paths, Oliver a blues guitar man, and Chris a standup bass player in the renowned jazz ensemble Medeski, Martin & Wood.
It wasn’t until in 2004 that the two kindred talents began to recognize the harmony that existed in their sounds and The Wood Brothers was formed. Eventually, they added a third member, drummer and percussionist Jano Rix, and the trio have since become central players in the roots rock scene, performing regularly for large crowds across the country.
This Sunday, the tour which includes opening act The T Sisters, stops in Rocky Mount at The Harvester Performance Center. This show also serves as a fundraiser with all proceeds benefiting the Free Clinic of Franklin County, which provides medical care to those in need. Blue Ridge Rocks had the opportunity to speak with the elder brother, Oliver, about the band, their brotherly love, and the recent release of “Live in the Barn,” recorded at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY, home of the legendary Midnight Rambles.
You recently released a new album, “Live at the Barn,” that was recorded live in the same barn where Levon Helm held his Midnight Rambles. What was your connection to Helm and what impact did he have on your music?
The music of The Band has always been an awesome soundtrack and inspiration even before we met Levon. So, it all sort of starts there with that rich history and repertoire of great American music. We played with Levon, not only at the Barn, but we played some shows on tour with him as well as a support act. That was just a thrill for us, and to get to know him and play with him and see him close up, and then sit in his kitchen and have conversations with him, he was just a really sweet guy. He certainly had an interesting life, but he was just a really honest and genuine and gracious person. He’s one of those guys you just learn from, both musically and as a person. It was an honor to know the guy.
The night that you recorded Live at the Barn, what was the experience like?
It was really special because we hadn’t been there since Levon passed, and in the meantime, we had gotten really close with Amy Helm who we had toured with and collaborated with, so we just really like that family. We had such fond memories of playing in there (The Barn), shows with Levon and Amy, so there was a lot of nostalgia. It was really sentimental, but also just kind of spiritual. You get the feeling that there are spirits in there. Not only Levon, but also all his amazing musical friends who have played in there with him. You can just kind of feel it, and just being aware of that history makes it a place of reverence. So, I don’t think we knew we were going to make an album, but we thought we should record the session because it was going to be a special night. It was not just a regular show.
I had the opportunity to catch you guys several times last year at FloydFest. I saw you first on the main stage, but also was there for the singer-songwriter session on the intimate Workshop Porch.
Oliver: “Yeah, that was fun.”
You mentioned during that session that a lot of brother bands tend to see a lot of conflict, but the secret for you and Chris is that you waited until middle age to play together. But I’ve got to ask, why did you wait so long?
It’s not something we did on purpose, but I think we’re four years apart; I’m older than Chris. I just left the house earlier and went in one direction and he went his own way. We just sort of followed our own paths, and I think there was no specific reason, we just did what we did and it didn’t occur to us that that was bad or good, it’s just the way it went. Later, when we did sort of reunite to play music, we also reunited as brothers in a way, because we had been living in different parts of the county and had different groups of friends. So, on several levels, it was cool to reunite. I think we got lucky the way it happened, because we were able to mature and form ourselves before starting an enterprise together, which may have been more challenging otherwise. As developing young people you have more baggage, we sort of shed all of that and discovered who were first which made it something fun.
How has your relationship changed over the past decade that you’ve been working so closely together?
It hasn’t changed a lot. It has just been pretty solid. On the one hand, what has changed is that we moved to the same city. I used to live in Atlanta and my brother lived in Upstate New York. We converged just a few years ago in Nashville. It has now been almost three years since we both brought our families here, so we’ve gotten closer both physically and otherwise.
Do you write most of the songs?
We all contribute to the writing. Starting out, Chris came from an instrumental and jazz background with Medeski, Martin and Wood, and I had already been doing a lot of writing. So, I was primarily doing the writing, especially in the beginning. Now, Chris and I are collaborating more, and Chris is writing a lot of his own songs. Then musically we all work together, all three of us – Jano on drums, keyboards, and singing as well. We like to start things out together as a sort of improvisation, free flowing of ideas where we all sort of play and record our ideas, and then we write songs around those ideas.
That afternoon on the Workshop Porch you also spoke about song writing and how creativity and ideas come on their own time. Talk to me about the inspiration for your songs and how you make space for the magic.
It’s certainly a balance. You can’t force creativity, or you can’t force inspiration, that’s for sure. But you can look for it, and you can be open to it, and you can sort of show up to a place where inspiration might hit you. Sometime that looks like playing a piano for a little time everyday, or sitting with a guitar, or writing in a notebook whatever is on your mind. I wouldn’t say they are methods, but they are ways to show up and be available for inspiration. I think what ends up being the most inspiring for us, and most creative people to write about, is real life experiences. True things, things that actually happen to you or people you know. There are a lot of ways to interpret those things, and you can go completely abstract with them, but even if you do, the inspiration is a real life emotional thing. I think that’s what we’re all trying to capture in art. Writing is an ongoing thing and it certainly comes in waves, but I’m always carrying a notebook and jotting things down, and recording ideas.
It was about five years ago that you added Jano to the mix. He has seemed to very naturally fit with you and Chris. Can you speak to how that transition came to pass.
Chris and I started as a duo and we really enjoyed that. It was a cool way for us to build roots in this group. But at one point we just decided that we wanted to expand the sonic possibilities, and we wanted to be able to make more racquet. So, finding Jano was a real blessing because he already respected the music. He has so many things about his musicianship that compliment us so well, so it was a cool jump to find the right person who let us continue what we were doing, but also add his own thing to it.
You maintain a pretty busy tour schedule, and this summer you’re going to be part of the “Wheels of Soul Tour” with Tedeschi Trucks Band,and Hot Tuna. It’s got to be terribly exciting, but it must also take some toll. How do you balance the challenges of road life with family life?
It’s definitely tricky. We’ve had a lot of practice over the years, and learned how to balance it. We try to keep our tours within reason. That Wheels of Soul tour will be the longest we’ve done in a long time, it’s a little over a month. Usually we just go out for two weeks or less at a time, so our families see us more, and we’re home more than we’re gone. We like to keep it that way. It has worked pretty well over the years. I think it’s a challenge whatever that ratio is, it’s hard to get in the groove at home with family and then have to leave. It’s hard for them, it’s hard for us. But it’s just another way you can do life. It has its plusses and minuses. I love being home and not working for a week at a time, and being able to just be completely involved with family. It’s different than if I had a 9 – 5 job, and then be home every day. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just different, and I try to take it as it comes.
What can the audience expect from The Wood Brother’s show at the Harvester on Sunday?
Fans can look forward to a vast repertoire of Wood Brothers set. We’re going to play a few tunes from the live album and will have it with us for sale. We’re mixing it up to do a hodgepodge of stuff from different albums, and stuff that we really like. We’re also excited to have the T Sisters with us, who were also at FloydFest. We just had the first show of the tour last night, and they jumped up on stage with us and did one song. I think people really like their sound as well. So, expect more of that family harmonizing.
We’re almost done, but I have a question I like to ask at the end of most interviews. Being creative and making music or art is an ongoing path. What piece of advice can you offer other artists who might be at the beginning of it?
Be sure to tap into your actual experience and feelings about that experience. I’m pretty sure as a fan of other music, the songs that move me come from real experiences. Even if they’re weird abstract Dylan songs, or something I feel like you can hear truth in it. I feel like sometimes when you first start writing songs you might not know where to start, and you just try to make cool rhythms. There’s an art to that too, but I think what makes a timeless song is one that has true emotion to it. Follow that, write about stuff you know and make it as colorful or as abstract you want.
Tickets for Sunday’s show and fundraiser are available online through The Harvester. The show starts at 8:00 with opening act The T Sisters.
Check out the video of The Wood Brothers live recording of “Ophelia”