Having songs evolve from jam sessions is nothing new for the three members of The Wood Brothers. The way the trio can conjure up tracks from free form improv sessions is impressive, more so when considering that much of its existing music has been created that way.
But for ‘Kingdom in My Mind’, the band’s seventh studio release, they put a fresh twist on that approach. These jams were performed and recorded in the new recording/rehearsal space (dubbed The Studio Nashville) the Wood Brothers band (Oliver and Chris Wood with Jano Rix) recently purchased and moved into. That made an immense difference since they now had “the luxury of experimenting and not watching the clock,” says frontman/guitarist/and primary singer Oliver Wood, who provided inside information on how their new album came about.
In the past they would use the riffs and melodies that emerged from these unrehearsed assemblies and tried to recreate them in a professional studio due to better sonic quality. Wood expounds on that saying, “That’s been effective, cool and fruitful but we always felt frustrated that we couldn’t use the original, first thing that came to our minds and instruments, because it wasn’t recorded well enough. When we started improvising this time, we had our own studio, and the engineer was ready with microphones and a tape machine. So we did what we always used to do but this time we captured it in album quality recording.”
That was a double edged sword because if there was a mistake, they had to leave it in. “But it’s also the charm, as fans of old music know, because it’s those mistakes, those quirks are what make it special. That’s the character and soul of it.”
The result is arguably the band’s finest work.
That’s saying plenty for those familiar with their remarkably successful and consistently idiosyncratic–some might say peculiar—organic combination of soul, blues, folk, gospel and jazz, led by Oliver’s instantly identifiable vocals and words that shift from clear to perplexing, sometimes within the same verse.
In fact, the whole band felt the disc turned out so well, they plan to mirror the process for future recordings. “Oh absolutely,” the older Wood brother replied elatedly. “The excitement of it is very psychological. It’s like capturing dreams, when you’re not thinking. As a musician, when you’re playing a song in a studio and you know you’re recording it for an album, your brain is in a certain thoughtful place. You’re going for accuracy, you’re playing parts, you have a structure, you have something in mind you’re trying to achieve. The exciting part is capturing the process that happens before that, where you aren’t thinking about anything. You’re in the moment…reacting like a jazz musician would.”
But that’s just the first part of this process. The next is key; editing those hours of music down to song lengths with verses, choruses, hooks, etc. And of course writing lyrics. “Some of those jams lasted 20 and 30 minutes. So to pick three to five minutes of that is an art in itself. Like a film editor, we have to trim the fat and find the coolest parts. Chris got really good at that, choosing the energetic moments and putting it together, which was new to us.”
All songs are credited to the three musicians, who also contributed the words. Oliver had been writing lyrics for 15 years (with his previous band King Johnson), while Chris was in the entirely instrumental Medeski Martin & Wood combo, so that task initially naturally was picked up by the former. “But over the years since we started the Wood Brothers, Chris has gotten excited about writing lyrics as well. There are a few songs on the album that he sings, that he spearheaded the lyrics for. But there are some songs that I sing that Chris also spearheaded the lyrics for. When it comes to finishing songs…we try to get everybody involved until we’re all satisfied and happy with it.”
That leads into a discussion on production, something the band has taken the reigns of lately, even though they had worked with high profile producers such as Buddy Miller, Jim Scott, and John Medeski in the past. Oliver feels it’s an important aspect in the creation of the band’s newer music. “Over the years, in learning how to produce our own records, we’ve had to learn to produce each other. The role of the producer is to stand back and be an editor, a more neutral ear, which is really hard when you’re the artist and you’re deep into it. We understand that…it doesn’t mean we have mastered it. We try to remind each other and ourselves that it’s only music, and we’re trying to make it good.”
Having their own recording facility also helps because they can work on a song, go on tour, and return to complete it without worrying about finishing the track due to the cost of studio time. “It’s a more relaxed way rather than, writing 20 songs and in two weeks having to come out with an album. That’s what we used to do when we had a producer,” says Oliver.
Crafting material this new way has yielded not just one of the Wood Brothers’ best sets, but one they enjoyed the process of creating, which is evident in the joyful/vibrant groove of these songs.
Oliver laughs, “We’re having a lot more fun now.”