Bassist Chris Wood talks new approaches in the band’s distinctive sound on Kingdom In My Mind
The Wood Brothers – Chris on acoustic bass and Oliver on acoustic and electric guitars – grew up in Boulder, Colorado, in a house full of music.
Their father was an amateur folksinger and their mom was a poet, so music and lyrics were always in the background. After leaving home, Oliver went to Atlanta, played in cover bands and started his own group, King Johnson. The well-regarded band combined blues, funk, R&B and country. They cut six albums and toured heavily.
Chris moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. After graduation, he moved to New York City and created Medeski, Martin & Wood, the well-known avant funk/jazz band. One night, Oliver sat in with MMW and something clicked. With their friend, multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, they started performing as The Wood Brothers, playing a progressive brand of Americana that drew on their love of funk, jazz, R&B, blues, Zydeco, gospel and honky-tonk country. Their live shows got rave reviews from the start, but their experimental approach to folk music didn’t take off until their sixth album, The Muse in 2013. Since then, they’ve been riding high, taking home a Best Americana Album Grammy nomination for last year’s One Drop of Truth.
For their latest, Kingdom in My Mind, the Nashville based band took a new approach. They went into the studio without any songs and started jamming. “We worked in spurts for six months,” Chris Wood said. “We improvised freely and were so happy with the results, we built the majority of the album around those sessions.”
The new album includes soon to be classics like the slide guitar driven “Jitterbug Love,” with a lyric that turns the Bible inside out in its praise of the Satanic joys of dancing. “The One I love” a stomping zydeco meets country blues hybrid, and the gospel influenced album closer “Satisfied,” a tune that sings the praises of wine and John Coltrane’s music. Chris Wood shared his thoughts on the album’s creation with The Globe.
Why did you choose Kingdom in My Mind as the album title?
People spend most of their lives grappling with what’s bouncing around their brains. In one way or another, all the songs are about how we navigate the kingdoms we create in our minds and how they affect the way we live. It seemed like a natural fit for the title.
The songs on the album came out of jam sessions. What was the feeling of those sessions?
We recorded improvisations in our studio before writing any songs. It was a joyful experience. We were so happy with how those initial improvisations turned out, that we took our favorite selections from that material and used it to write this record. Over half of the songs use the original improvised recordings as the music for the track. It was fun to surrender to the limitations that come with writing a song over a pre-existing piece of music. You have to work with what you got.
You produced the album as a band. What are the challenges of producing yourselves?
The key for us is knowing when to get away from the material. You can only work on something for so long, before you start to lose perspective. If we felt burnt out, or stuck, we would refocus our energy somewhere else and come back to the unfinished work when it felt fresh again.
Your songs deal with age, family and mortality in a realistic way. How did your lyrical approach develop?
Lyrically speaking, it feels right when there is a balance in the language of the personal and the specific, and something that feels universal. That idea plays heavily into what we’re trying to accomplish and the tightrope we walk with our lyrics.
How will these songs differ from recordings when you play them live? Have you played any of them live yet? How did people react?
Depending on the song, we have different ways of adapting the music, to help it make an impact at a live show. Sometimes we remain true to the album version; sometimes we change the arrangement and the feel. It’s all an experiment and we’re learning all the time. We’ve played the majority of the record on the first few shows of the tour and, so far, people seem to like the new songs.
Why did you leave MMW to play in a more roots rock style?
I didn’t leave the band. It still exists, but we decided to stop touring. I wanted to work with my brother and find a way to bring what I learned with MM&W into great songs.
What’s been your biggest musical challenge?
Integrating all of the things we’re a capable of as musicians, and people, into our own sound, while being true to the songs. Over the years, we’ve learned how to bring our different influences into the music, but there’s still so much more to explore.
Did the Grammy nomination put any pressure on you as you worked on Kingdom?
Not really. It was a nice surprise, but not something we think about. We’re just having fun making music.