Chris Wood is the bassist for both Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and The Wood Brothers. By phone, he discussed the differences between the two bands, playing with his brother for the first time in 15 years, and what he would be doing if he weren’t making music.
How are the dynamics of The Wood Brothers different than the dynamics of Medeski, Martin, and Wood?
MMW has been together 21 going on 22 years. It’s been long enough that we’ve become family. We know each others’ playing very well. My brother and I…the first time we played together as adults, we had that connection immediately in a lot of ways. That was interesting to play with family. MMW does a lot of improvising. Our composing is done through improvisation. A lot of times we’ll write tunes in a more traditional way, but a lot of our favorite work is done by improvising and tapping into jazz roots, African field recordings, New Orleans music. The Wood Brothers, we compose music together. We write songs. When lyrics are involved, things are very different. At this point, The Wood Brothers is a band that would like to rehearse. MMW is based off of spontaneous composition whereas The Wood Brothers…we’re about composing music and writing songs. That’s more of a craft that needs together time to work things out.
Does it take some adjustment for you to switch between the songs of MMW and The Wood Brothers?
In some ways, yes. Simple technical things like if I haven’t been singing in a while, I have to get my chops back together. I end up singing a lot of the high background parts and I need to practice for that. There are certain chops I have for MMW that aren’t used as much with The Wood Brothers. In some ways, they’ve helped each other. There’s a certain freshness going back and forth between the two bands. Sometimes those first gigs feel great even though I’m rusty in some ways. It’s exciting and new.
You mentioned the night where Oliver’s band opened for Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Take me back to that night and the feeling of playing with your brother for the first time in 15 years.
That night we arranged it so our MMW tour was in Winston-Salem. Oliver’s band King Johnson was opening for us. Then Oliver sat in for our set. It was an amazing experience because we hadn’t played for a long time, yet there was this familiarity. Strangely like looking in a mirror. I recognized his musical gestures as something I would do. There were certain things that became obvious that night that are in our blood. We had these musical similarities and it wasn’t just because we had similar musical influences. It was something deeper than that. It was special.
It seems like you guys picked it up pretty quickly as far as playing together again.
We started talking about doing something. We had no idea what it would be. The direction solidified on a vacation we took together with parents. We rented a cottage in Vermont. Because I can drive to that, I was able to bring my bass, a guitar, and some recording equipment. On that vacation, that’s when we recorded stuff and started writing and arranging the first Wood Brothers material. When we had some time when everyone else was out of the house to work on some new songs. The material ended up on Ways Not To Lose, our first record.
What was the most important thing you learned from playing with Zac Brown?
The most important thing, the most obvious lesson was that our music didn’t translate to huge sheds filled with 15,000 people. Zac’s did. It was very interesting to think about what made his music translate into that setting and how ours didn’t. There’s a lot to it. Some music just doesn’t work in that. It wasn’t that we didn’t want it to translate, but we had to figure out our own path to make it work and still be ourselves and believe in it. Meanwhile, we’ll go back to a club and do great in a more intimate setting. A lot of our stuff is acoustic so it has more subtlety in tone and tempo shifts. When you’re playing in a big arena setting, the music has to be rhythmically very simple. You can’t play too busy. We noticed the songs that worked best were simple backbeat songs that were accessible and obvious musically. We’re still learning.
I’m more of a fan of the intimate shows.
Any music fan will agree with you. People in arenas are there for the party. Music fans are going to want to be closer to the artist. They want to feel that connection to the artist.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
Landscaping, gardening. Something that involves not sitting on my butt which I do way too much because I travel all the time. I’d do something that involves more physical labor. I’d be playing music anyways even if I weren’t out there. I’d be playing it in my house for fun. I’d always be doing that. Years ago I might have had all kinds of different answers. My dad is a scientist and I’ve been interested in astronomy, and biology, and history and all sorts of other academic pursuits. After touring and traveling so much, I don’t take for granted being able every day to do something with your body. Physical labor has this weird romantic thing for me now. You talk to some people and the happiest they’ve ever been, our drummer has talked about this. One of the best jobs he’s had was moving furniture. You work really hard all day and when the day is over, you’re done and you just relax. Your day is so defined. As a musician, your day is never over. Your workday is this nebulus weird thing. There’s always e-mails to answer and things to work on, songs to practice, tours to set up, interviews to do. There’s no definition of work and play. There’s something to working real hard and your day being over and you can kick back and have a beer.
The Wood Brothers play Largo in Los Angeles on Friday 1 February. Seth Walker is also on the bill. Tickets for this show are $20.