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In Conversation: The Wood Brothers

April 6, 2023 11:31 am GMT
Last Edited April 20, 2023 10:43 am GMT

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The true definition of a power trio, The Wood Brothers excel at improv and pulling at the heartstrings. Both are executed flawlessly on Heart is the Hero, the band’s eighth studio album, out April 14.

An acoustic record that electrifies, the project explores everything from slowing down in your day-to-day life (‘Pilgrim’) to practicing empathy (‘Worst Pain of All’), extending grace to others (‘Line Those Pockets’) , the power of women (‘Mean Man World’), finding love (‘Someone For Everyone’) and more. It’s arguably the band’s most raw and lyrically honest collection of tunes yet as they re-emerge with their minds set on reclaiming the power of the people to affect positive change everywhere from their local neighborhoods to across the world.

“There’s an old saying — think globally, but act locally,” says Wood. “That’s often framed politically, but you can also think of it in terms of those you can reach and do something for that can lead to a positive epidemic of kindness. We’re lucky as musicians to be able to reach more people than we could by going person to person and shaking hands, so it feels good to put something positive out there.”

Speaking to Holler during a break in the band’s spring tour, Oliver Wood spoke about the themes interwoven throughout Heart is the Hero, how they avoid redundant recording and how meditation has helped to make him more grounded at home and in music.

Was the songwriting for this album more of an individual or collaborative effort?

It’s always been a very collaborative process for us, but there are different ways that the songs come together. A lot of our ideas also come from improvisations backstage, at rehearsals or during a soundcheck. It’s often those uninhibited and relaxed musical conversations that our best grooves, riffs and other ideas come from.

Other times Jano will go into the studio to record a mix of drums and keys, which he’s able to play at the same time, that Chris or I will write lyrics to go with, which is what happened with ‘Line Those Pockets’. I had been working on the lyrics for it for some time and had imagined it as a cheesy, tongue-in-cheek folk song until I heard something Jano had composed and decided to put them together.

Some of our coolest stuff has come when we take each other’s ideas and make them work together, even if they were initially conceived separately. One of our biggest strengths has always been coming up with music, it’s really easy for us. Finding the lyrics to marry with them has always been our biggest challenge.

How did the process of recording this album on 16-track tape further enhance the collaborative nature in the studio?

Even though digital has gotten very close to mimicking analog sound, we chose to record on tape because of how different the process is. In modern recording studios there’s almost always a computer on that you’re dumping files and other material in, even if you are recording analog. We wanted to get those screens out of our faces to limit distractions so we could focus on the music being made.

The other part was the limitations. With digital you can record and fix things as many times as you want, in doing so sucking the soul out of everything. You almost have too many choices, which leads to thinking that you’re making something better when you’re really making it worse. For that reason we reveled in the simplicity and limitations of only having 16 channels to record. Everything was destructive, so when we did something, we had to do it right. At the same time no one take was ever going to be perfect, and that’s the beauty of it.

When you can’t fall back on the technology as much you’re forced to be more in the moment, which is where the best music comes from. It leads to a lot of happy accidents because you begin to lean into your instincts more, trusting your ability to perform and letting it happen.

Is there anything else you try to do as a band to keep the recording experience fresh and exciting with over a dozen albums and counting to your credit?

One thing that keeps it fresh for us is trying things that we haven’t tried before and taking chances. For instance, we set an upright piano next to the drum kit so Jano could play both at the same time. It would be a lot easier to do those things separately, but there’s something magic about the struggle and limitations of being forced to do something in a more inventive way.

It also comes back to what we were talking before - how do we ensure we’re really present? That’s the key: having an almost child-like mentality to relinquish control of things and allow them to come together as they may.

You’ve recently taken up meditation. How has that helped you to become more grounded in both your personal life and The Wood Brothers’ band dynamic?

In a nutshell, being present is what meditation is all about. I need that both in my music and everyday life to function the best and be the happiest I can be. If I’m distracted by future or past events then I can start feeling worried or anxious, which gets in the way of clear thinking, of joy.

Whether you’re playing on a stage, recording in a studio or creating with others, the last thing you need is worries hanging you up. In meditation you learn how to be in your own body through focusing on your breath, a sound you hear or something else involving the senses. We talk about these same concepts playing live because they apply to making music too. We make our best music when we’re listening outside of our own heads, feeling our bodies move and listening to one another. If I get distracted, I might do something as simple as focus on the sensation of my lips touching a microphone when I sing. More musically specific, I’ll tell myself to focus on the hi-hat of the drummer or my brother’s bass.

These are the kind of things that make you present because they take you outside of your own head and back to your senses. You’re actually reacting to things rather than thinking of anxieties and other distractions. It makes for the most joy in life - and music - to be present.

It feels like an integral element of the lyrics throughout this new album as well. Would you say that 'Pilgrim’ is the best example of that?

That’s a good one. ‘Heart is the Hero’ is another one like that. A pilgrim is oftentimes seen as a traveler or a tourist. However, I think there’s a big difference between a tourist and a pilgrim. A pilgrim is typically on a mission to find something, usually spiritual. In the song ‘Pilgrim’ the mission is happiness and joy and finding a pathway to it.

I heard somebody say once that musicians move around so much that they can easily get confused, as our souls can’t travel as fast as our bodies. That idea really stuck in my head because that’s exactly what it does feel like when your soul catches up. A lot of times when we come home from touring and are trying to be with our families, it takes a couple days for us to be present again because we’re still thinking about our lives on tour. It’s like another reality that it takes time for your soul to catch back up from.

Another big element is listening to and having empathy for others. Is that what y’all are singing about on ‘Worst Pain of All’?

That’s another huge theme on this record. ‘Worst Pain of All’ and ‘Line Those Pockets’ are great examples of songs of empathy. In the last few years we’ve had a lot of stuff shoved in our faces that’s very polarizing and raw, which has created a need for more respect and understanding.

There’s one recurring line on this album that appears in two songs and it’s “remember to remember”. As much wisdom as we feel like we gain from growing older about how to live life best, they only work if you remember to use them when the time comes.

That’s not always easy when you’re in a heated exchange, which sucks because I want to feel connected to people. I don’t want to fight them, even if I disagree with them. Of course you have to fight for certain things, but life is short. Empathy and being connected to others is what life is about, they're the most rewarding things.

Heart is the Hero is out April 14 via Honey Jar / Thirty Tigers

Written by Matt Wickstrom
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The Wood Brothers
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