Interview by Jon Justice
June 1st, 2011, 8:00pm
20th Century Theatre
3021 Madison Rd, Cincinnati Ohio
8pm, $17 adv, $19 dos
Oliver Wood has under wear in his guitar. A for real deal, honest to goodness pair of tightie-whities. He plays a vintage hollow body Gretsch and if you ever get the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wood, it’s clear that he is full of as much character and truth as the old guitar that he plays. But I’ll let Oliver explain the underwear.
Oliver is half of The Wood Brothers. A duo comprised of he and his brother Chris. A duo who blend all of the best that American music has had to offer over the last century and come out on the other side sounding completely unique and genuine. A duo that can hit you with a heart breaking ballad, or a thick and gooey groove that you can’t help but smile and dance to, on the turn of a dime. The Brothers Wood may quite possibly the best live band that you have never seen, yet. However that is changing daily with a grueling tour schedule, a new label and new trio oriented album that is their best work to date.
Recently the Brothers signed to country superstar Zak Brown’s Southern Ground label. A move that could put them center stage, leading the pack of the contemporary Americana movement. A place that they have earned and truly belong. I recently had a two hour phone conversation with Oliver Wood and the pleasure of picking his brain about the new album, songwriting, his gear, and a few random questions. This is what he had to say:
Cincy Groove: Can you explain why there is a pair of men’s underwear in your guitar?
OW: (Laughs)..I’ve had that guitar for almost twenty years man. When I first got it, it would feedback a lot. Somebody told me that cotton was the best thing to put in it. So somewhere I found this ancient box of clean underwear. I never gave it much thought myself, but you can clearly see the unmistakable waistband and occasionally I have to tuck it back in there. Plus if I ever get in a bind on the road, I’d have clean under wear. Or at least underwear that hasn’t been worn in twenty years.
Cincy Groove: Alright now let’s get serious. On the new album, you end each verse of the title track (Smoke Ring Halo) with the phrase “that’s okay”. When you sing the line, it sounds so honest and genuine. The song seems to be about a passing of a friend that did things their own way. Is the song fact or fiction?
OW: Yeah. It’s definitely based on fact. That song I wrote for a really close friend that passed about a year and a half ago. A guy that I played in a band with. The song is about being blessed and cursed at the same time and the irony of that duality.
Cincy Groove: When and why did you start touring as a trio?
OW: We started touring as a trio about a year ago, maybe even a little more. We toured as a duo for years and made albums as a duo but we would have drummers come in and play on the songs that we wanted drums. But on this album we wanted to get that trio feel and really sound like a band. A group. A small group, but still we didn’t want to just hire someone to come and cut the tracks. Sonically we wanted to have a bigger sound and to be able to free up a little space for ourselves. We also wanted to have another gear. To be able to push it a little harder. Some of the shows we play are very intimate and that works great for a duo but when we play a festival, things sometimes get lost. Compositionally we also wanted to be able to write for a trio. So we decided to add a drummer before we made the album, so that when we finally made it to the studio he was able to do exactly what he wanted and we sounded whole. For the most part, it’s a trio record. We obviously do have a few guest appearances. John Medeski plays organ on three songs. There are horn parts on a few tunes. It was definitely a different experience for us and a great way to make a record.
Cincy Groove: The drummer seems to be the perfect third man. For example the track “Stumbled In”, sounds extremely improvised and dynamic. Almost like Jay Bellerose on Donny McCormick’s set up. How was that tracked?
OW: Wow, that’s a great way to put it. I think the drummer did two takes. The album is primarily cut live, with a few exceptions. On that song, the drummer cut the track with his kit and then went back and set up all this junk. Then he did another take with this crazy modified kit. So yeah, he took the Donny Mac approach on the second take and that’s where it got magical.
Cincy Groove: The sound quality is great. Did you record on tape?
OW: Yeah we cut on tape and mixed with ProTools. The producer had a lot to do with the sound as well. Jim Scott (Derek Trucks, Wilco, Tom Petty, Chili Peppers) produced it.
Cincy Groove: The second cut on the new album, “Shoofly Pie”, is there a sexual reference there?
OW: (Laughs) Ha! Yeah it definitely is. OR it’s a children’s song. It’s whatever you want it to be. I like a little ambiguity. I like that my kids can listen to it and it’s harmless. But I also like that a rowdy crowd on the road may take it another way.
Cincy Groove: You’re new album is on Southern Ground, a label owned by country superstar Zak Brown. I really appreciate that he is putting artists like The Wood Bros and singer/songwriter Sonia Leigh in front of giant, arena sized audiences. How are these commercial Country crowds responding to you?
OW: Well, it’s probably different for specific artists, depending on what they do. Zak is a musician and big music fan and has a lot of respect for all genres of music. I think an artist like Sonia Leigh gets great response and her music is much more accessible to those fans. Whereas our music is a little weird for those audiences. Not to say that our music is weird or edgy, but I don’t think we always connect with a large audience like that. And I’m not sure that it’s the audience as much as the lack of intimacy in a 20,000 seat venue. I think there is so much subtlety that we try to get off on and you just can not do that with that many people. You just can’t be subtle. Having said that, we have had a blast on the road playing big venues. I really appreciate the effort Zak has put into exposing under the radar artists. And that’s the beauty of him and Southern Ground. He’s really on a roll and it’s fantastic to be a part of that and it’s a great situation for us. He really takes care of his people.
Cincy Groove: It seems that you use the whole stage and room to create this exact ambiance. Like Tom Waits without the baby powder. Is it frustrating when the energy cycle isn’t being completed? Or does that even happen to you anymore?
OW: It doesn’t happen much on our tours anymore. However, it’s difficult when you don’t have a captive audience, which can happen on a big tour. If we’re opening for Zak Brown and everybody is waiting to hear the radio hits, they’re not really paying attention to us. Ten thousand people talking to each other is pretty loud. It’s great when people are loud and rowdy and singing a long to your tunes. But I’m sure you’ve played a ton of gigs where people are talking or taking a video of the gig and it seems to always happen during quiet tunes like “Chocolate On My Tongue”. I love that they are having a great time, I do. But subtlety only works if everybody is listening. We get a little snobby about Audiences sometimes (laughs). We enjoy playing theaters the best. When people sit, they tend to listen. When people stand, they tend to talk and drink more. Which is awesome on a Friday night. But when you’re trying to play something quiet and sort of focused, it can zap the energy a bit. If we’re playing a show and our fans are their, it’s going to be a great night every time for us. It’s not like we have to go out and play the hits. We don’t have any( laughs).
Cincy Groove: Do you feel as though you as a person process thoughts differently than most people, or that everyone has unique and interesting ideas and phrases but only songwriters put them to use?
OW: I don’t think that everybody is equally interested in words. Chris and I had a mom who was a poet and really into words so whether we wanted to or not we were pretty sensitive to the whole thing. But I will say that there are all types of loquacious people who use words comically or in story form. I’m sure you have friends like that. We all do. And they aren’t necessarily going to write about it, but they are attracted to words and speak certain ways. There’s an awesome book called “Songwriters on Songwriting” that you have to read. And the best part is that all of the writers in the book, from Dylan to Paul Simon, all have the same issues with writing. None of us really have control over inspiration you know? Either you’re inspired or you’re not. I think that we all have the potential to come up with interesting quirky things but not everybody writes them down because not everybody is necessarily interested in that. A lot of things we write about come from things we hear other people say or do as well. I think I heard my Father-In-Law say “Did somebody make a shoofly pie?”. We were at a cabin up in the mountains and it just stuck with me. There’s an autobiography about Honey Boy Edwards called “World Don’t Owe Me Nothing”, and it really inspired me. Basically it’s him telling all of these life stories in his words. And he had all of these great phrases and I’ve actually used a few in different songs. So we as songwriters just pick stuff up and incorporate it into our world and art. I think the more you write and the more you read and listen to other writers, the more sensitive you become to it too.
Cincy Groove: Songs like the new one “Smoke Ring Halo” and “Loving Arms” are songs that I can literally put on repeat. Is there an instant gratification when you write a tune like these or any songs that you just know people will connect with?
OW: I think there are moments when a writer knows “yeah man, I really tapped into something here”. Again it’s not something that I can take credit for. I was just lucky that the muse found me for a moment. A special little thing that’s captured in a bottle. A real spiritual thrilling thing, without any ego though. Because if someone else had written it, I’d feel the exact same way. But I will say that the songs that you’re talking about and few others, happen to be songs about people that I knew and loved. So they’re very real and from an emotional, vulnerable spot.
Cincy Groove: As a whole on the new album, I hear a lot of yearning and second person narrative. Is this material that you’ve written on the road?
OW: A lot of the songs came together on the road. Chris and I live so far apart and the only time we get to work together is on the road. I guess yeah, it is kind of a road record. Some of them were written write before we went into the studio. Now you got me thinking about the songs man.
Cincy Groove: Do you struggle with lyrics like the rest of us or are you an exception Mr. Wood?
OW: Dude, everyday. I definitely struggle. I don’t have a million songs in my back pocket. I am by no means prolific. I have as many bad songs as good ones and some I wouldn’t want anyone to hear. Good songs are hard to come by. I have quite a few I’ve been working on for a while that I can’t finish, but I will.
Cincy Groove: What kind of kid’s were Chris and yourself?
OW: We moved from the Los Angeles area to Colorado when I was about 10. I’m 4 years older than Chris. Our parents played music. Our dad was a biology teacher but loved music. When you’re a kid and you see someone play live it becomes something that you get used to. We played sports and average kid stuff really. Chris and I were quite a bit different though. I started on bass and eventually gave my bass to Chris when I switched to guitar. I gradually got better. He immediately got better. He got really good really fast. In general I feel like he is much more of a serious instrumentalist than I am. Although I did get serious and practice for a time. Chris is much more disciplined than me.
Cincy Groove: Chris ended up in New York. How did you end up in Atlanta?
OW: I was out in California playing in a band, quit school, and followed a friend of mine here. I started doing some Blues gigs and slowly started returning to my musical roots really. All of the stuff that my father listened to and turned us onto. Lighting Hopkins and Dylan and lots of stuff like that. I really liked it in Atlanta and so I stayed.
Cincy Groove: What’s a day off in the life of Oliver Wood look like?
OW: You know man, being a dad, there is always something to do. I usually mow the lawn, hang out with the kids and my family and if I’m lucky I can work on some music. Once in a while I get to play local gigs in Atlanta with guys that you probably know. I do some production work here and there. Pretty much family life. I don’t really do bars or anything. I like to do the family thing when I’m home and the music thing when I’m on the road.
Cincy Groove: Are there any unreleased tracks of yourself and Sean Costello or fellow Atlanta legend Donnie McCormick floating around?
OW: Wow, yeah man, Sean, Donnie, Charlie Wooten and myself used to have a band called Coupe DeVille and we went into the studio once. There is that stuff and a bunch of YouTube stuff out there. There is a bunch of great Sean and Donnie stuff on YouTube that is worth watching for sure. I have some great tracks of Donnie sitting in with us that always make me smile. None of it’s released on a label or anything. Right after Sean passed I watched a lot of great stuff of him online. It’s so great that all of that has been captured and posted for the world to see.
Cincy Groove: Who was “Post Cards From Hell” written about?
OW: That was completely inspired by Donnie McCormick all the way.
Cincy Groove: What kind of amps are you using on this tour.
OW: Since the beginning I’ve been using these little Kay models. These 4 watt, cheapo amps that people used to order from Sears in the 1950’s and 60’s. They are cheap, plywood tube amps that just do what I need them to do. I really like the lo-fi, cruddy sound.
Cincy Groove: Knowing how hard it is to get good acoustic sounds live, how do you two pull it of so well?
OW: A lot of that is our sound man Kenny. Both the upright and my acoustic guitar have pickups and mics on them. So I have a pickup in the guitar and then a condenser picking up what’s coming from the sound hole. So you’re hearing a blend of the two. We can’t just use the mics because of the drums on stage. Plus good instruments help a lot.
Cincy Groove: For all of the nerds out there (me), are you a tone purist, or do you use effects?
OW: I don’t use any effects and I’m not anti-effects, but I like the simplicity and of doing everything with my hands on the guitar. Put the amp on 10 and work around it. But I will say that I wouldn’t mind having another amp or two with tremolo and a verb tank. There is stuff on records I wish I could do live, but right now our setup is built to be portable and easy. I can take my current amp on the airplane and I always have to fly to start the tour. But I have to say I really do enjoy the sound of the guitar running straight to the amp.
Cincy Groove: How did you end up producing Shemekia Copeland’s last album?
OW: Her manager had become a fan of The Wood Brothers and asked me if I’d like to write some songs for a new album she was doing. Eventually they just asked if I’d like to produce it as well. So it just kind of happened through mutual music connections. Shemekia is a very talented and sweet person and just great to work with. They liked the stripped down stuff I was doing and that’s what they wanted her new stuff to head towards. She wanted to break out and do something other than she had been doing on previous albums. Producing is such an educational thing and I really love doing it.
Cincy Groove: Is there anybody out there that you would like to work with?
OW: I’m a huge fan of David from Los Lobos. Levon Helm of course. I always thought it would be interesting to
have an album produced by T Bone Burnett or Daniel Lanois or anybody of that caliber. Just to see what makes them tick.
Cincy Groove: My son Jonah is a big Sean Costello, Muddy Waters, Stevie Wonder, Wood Bros. fan. Are your kids into anything that has influenced you?
OW: Kids are like little sponges. My older son was really into Bob Marley and Ray Charles for the longest time. Then I’d come back from the road and he’s listening to Tom Petty and They Might Be Giants which he obviously he picked up from his Mom’s collection. So they are definitely influenced and into what I listen to. But they will and have dug their own stuff too and that is the beauty of music. Sometimes though we take for granted how much we are influenced by our peers. Guys like Donnie McCormick and Sean Costello and the guys you play with over the years are just as important as the iconic influences in your life. It’s easy to forget that.
Cincy Groove: I’ve seen a video clip of you and Amos Lee. How’d you two meet and is there any chance of a future collaboration?
OW: We used to be label mates on Blue Note. When we’d play in his hometown of Philly, he’d have us out to sit in and vice versa when he would come to Atlanta. He also sang on our “Loaded” album. So we have collaborated in the past, but who knows? I’d love to do it again sometime.
Cincy Groove: What do you hope fans walk away with after a Wood Bros. show?
OW: The biggest reward is when someone tells us “ you know that song really helped me through a tough time” or anything that means something to them on a personal level. It’s what keeps me going as a writer and reminds me that I’m doing more than just writing for myself. So I hope that by coming to a show people feel something that they need to feel or walk away feeling better about themselves. I honestly don’t do this because I love for people to watch me play music every night. I really do appreciate the human connection and hope that everyone gets to take a little bit of that home.
Cincy Groove: Cincinnati is home to the coolest sibling duo of all time; Catfish and Bootsy Collins. Have either you or Chris ever met them?
OW: I have not. Chris is a fan of Bootsy’s but I’m not sure that they’ve ever met. I am a big fan of King Records and their catalogue though.
Cincy Groove: Top 3 albums in 10 seconds…go?
OW: Great Lady’s Of Gospel, Ray Charles: Birth Of Soul, Junior Parker: Love Aint Nothing But A Business Going On.
Cincy Groove: Ok man, we’ve approached the finish line and 5 random road questions that we’ll wrap up with. As fast as you can, answer the following questions.
Least Favorite Lodging on the Road?
– Red Rood Inn.
Edible fast food?
Best Place to crap on the road?
– (Laughing profusely)…Someone else’s hotel room!
The one thing you can’t hit the road without?
– Definitely my Chapstick.
Strangest compliment or comment from a fan?
– A man in the airport came up to me after seeing my guitar case and asked, “hey brother, are you Derek Trucks?”