The Wood Brothers—from left to right, Chris Wood, Jano Rix, and Oliver Wood—have created a distinctive style from the raw material of blues, country, folk, gospel, and other roots music forms, buoyed by clever songwriting and close harmonies. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
The Wood Brothers, who are Oliver and Chris Wood on guitar and bass, respectively, along with Jano Rix on drums, are no strangers to serendipity, which was key to the recording of their latest release, Kingdom in My Mind.
The happy accidents started with an opportunity to move into their own studio. “Brook Sutton is our engineer, and we recorded a good part of our previous record with him at his old studio,” Oliver says. That was 2018’s Grammy-nominated One Drop of the Truth. “At some point last year, he lost the lease to his old building. We figured, ‘Why not go in on a place together? We get a little more square footage, help out paying the rent, and he can help us make our next record or records.’ So it is a co-op situation with our favorite engineer, and it works out great. He’s got a fully working studio when we’re not around, but when we’re there, we have the run of the place. It’s also our clubhouse, where we keep all our gear and rehearse.”
The next stroke of good fortune happened when they gave the new place a test drive. “We weren’t thinking about compositions at all,” Chris says. “We were just having fun playing together, improvising, and jamming, but we were so happy with the recordings of those sessions that we decided to make this record starting with them.”
The result is an album that’s uninhibited and somewhat carefree. It’s still the Wood Brothers—an acoustic/electric, gritty take on roots Americana that’s bolstered by stellar musicianship—but it also features unexpected quirks and oozes an unpretentious, laidback feel. Great examples include the unhurried, loosey-goosey opener “Alabaster,” the infectious porch jam “Jitterbug Love,” and the spacey singalong “Little Blue.” But even the album’s raunchier cuts, like “Don’t Think About My Death” and “A Dream’s a Dream,” benefit from their relaxed approach.
“When you write a song and then work on the music, you play very differently,” Chris says. “Whereas if you do it in the order that we did, you’re much more free.”
That freedom is something the brothers know well, and probably starts with their early exposure to music. “Our dad was, and still is, a great folk singer and guitar player,” Oliver says. “In fact, he has a prewar Martin D-18 that’s just to die for. It’s the most amazing guitar I’ve ever played. Our earliest influence is definitely him—his playing folk songs, simple but cool picking, cool runs, and stuff like that.” The brothers also had established careers—Oliver with King Johnson and Chris as a founding member of Medeski Martin & Wood—before joining forces in 2005.
Fifteen years, seven studio albums, and four live releases later, we spoke with Oliver and Chris about their unconventional approach to recording, their new Kingdom in My Mind, their unusual go-to instruments, and Oliver’s fascination with low-budget gear. Plus, we got an insider’s look at their drummer’s shuitar.
How did your approach to recording Kingdom in My Mind differ from past albums?
Chris Wood: The first thing that happened, before we started thinking about recording or making a record, was we finally got our own studio in Nashville. We have an A room and a B room, and one of them’s big. You can fit an orchestra in there. It’s really a big live space—and the other one’s a little smaller and a little dryer. The first thing we wanted to do was get familiar sonically with the space. We set up in different parts of the studio, just to have fun using our own instruments, improvising, and getting a feel for the space, and it happened to go really well.
Oliver Wood: We’ve always done a lot of improvising in the early stages of making an album. We would do it in a rehearsal space, do a fully improvised jam, not worry about form, and just try to make cool sounds—be creative and let your subconscious listen and play stuff. We’ve always done that, but usually we just recorded it on a phone or something, just for reference later. What was different about this record was that we were in our new studio, with really nice microphones, and we recorded these improvisations at album quality. Whether we were going to use them or not, we had the luxury of doing that. The beautiful thing is we captured some magical stuff we never would have played that way if we were actually trying to play a song. There’s all sorts of magic mistakes and drum fills in weird places, and we just love that. It sounded like an old, messy record to us. We used that stuff, chopped it up, and then wrote songs over it. It was a huge luxury to be able to do that, and, of course, just having your own studio is the biggest luxury of all. We could be really experimental on overdubs as well, and never watch the clock, never worry about the budget, or the time in the studio, or affording a producer, because we produced it ourselves … or the record label looking over our shoulder, because we are the record label. It is the ultimate feeling of independence and it is the most liberating experience.
Did any of those source recordings make it onto the album itself?
Oliver: Absolutely. A majority of the songs are exactly that. The first single we put out, “Alabaster,” was completely that. It was one of the first jams on the first day in our new studio, when we were just trying to figure out sounds and see what it felt like to play in different corners of the room or in different rooms.
TIDBIT: The band’s new album grew out of jams recorded at the Nashville studio they recently built with producer and friend Brook Sutton. “It’s also our clubhouse, where we keep all our gear and rehearse,” says Oliver Wood.
Chris: There are a couple where we reworked it, and added some other sections. “Little Bit Sweet,” for example, is from the original jams from the first day we played in the studio, but then we re-performed that one, so we could add some different chord changes. But the first song, “Alabaster,” is completely the original jam. “Jitterbug Love,” “Don’t Think About My Death” … there are a lot that retain the original jams.
How are you set up in the studio? Do you stand in a semicircle so you can see each other? Do you have the amps in the room with you?
Oliver: It varies from song to song. There are some songs where we are in a circle, we’re all in one room, and we like all the bleeding between the tracks, which is another one of those jam things that’s so fun. That’s what a lot of old records sound like. You can hear things bleeding into other channels and it’s not so sterile and isolated sounding. We did a lot of that, but we also like to experiment.
Chris: A lot of our favorite old recordings, that’s what they do. People are set up in the same room, they bleed, and it gives the recording a certain character that sometimes we love. We did some of that, and we also did some things where we did separate—maybe kept the drums in a separate room, had the sounds and instruments more isolated. Sometimes it’s beneficial if I want to get a really good acoustic bass sound. We even did things where we put a microphone on my Hofner bass. It’s an electric bass, but we didn’t plug it in. We just literally miked the instrument itself and gave it a big fat acoustic sound.
It’s loud enough to do that? You didn’t run a direct line as well?
Chris: If you put the mic in the right place and turn it up loud, yeah, it’s a hollow instrument, so it can do that. When we did that, we had the Hofner going through … I believe it was a flip-top Ampeg B-18, but it was in a different room, so if we wanted to hear only the microphone on the bass, it was enough. It sounded huge, actually, when you turned it up. It was a really amazing sound.
Oliver: For acoustic guitar and acoustic bass, we really like just the mics on there. I suppose there might have been a song or two where we also took a DI from the bass or maybe one of the guitars. A lot of the guitars that I recorded with don’t even have pickups in them. Some of the studio guitars, like an old National—or I have an old ’30s Gibson L-00 guitar that’s just beautiful … none of those have pickups. We love the sound of Chris’ bass. His tone that’s in his hands and his old 100-year-old bass sound amazing. Putting a good mic or two on there, you can’t beat it.