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Jam Sessions Become A ‘Kingdom’ - A Conversation With Chris And Oliver Wood

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Ed Rode
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Chris and Oliver Wood

It’s been almost exactly two years since the Wood Brothers released One Drop of Truth, the most recognized album of their fifteen-year career. There have been quite a few landmarks since then, including a Grammy nomination for the album, first-ever headline shows at the Ryman Auditorium and Red Rocks Amphitheatre in their hometown of Denver, and a live disc from San Francisco’s Fillmore. But bassist and singer Chris Wood has a different highlight. 

“I mean the thing that stands out to me is just getting our own studio,” he said in the interview presented here. “That's been a game changer for us in how we made this last record.”

 

That record is Kingdom In My Mind, released last Friday. And the studio is a blocky building near Charlotte Pike, a former printing shop and dance studio that seemed to have music in it. As soon as musicians moved in and started jamming to test the rooms and microphones with longtime drummer and keyboardist Jano Rix, the sounds they caught on tape felt like kernels of songs. 

“All of us enjoy the art of improvising and playing music without thought and without purpose,” guitarist/singer Oliver Wood says of the sessions. “We're not trying to write a song. We're not trying to sound good even. We're just trying to play something new.”

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It’s a longtime practice routine for the band, Oliver said, but this time, because they were shaking down this new recording headquarters, all the experiments were captured in high quality. And they loved what they heard. “It just felt magical and inspired,” Chris said. “So immediately we looked at each other and said maybe this is how we make this record. Do this some more.”

The Woods have also trended toward self-production (as well as self-release) of their recordings, and here Chris took that to a new depth, chopping up and structuring the jams into song forms using audio software. Then the brothers wrote lyrics and sang over that music. It was a new approach. And because the musical substrate was the result of spontaneous flow with even more free playing and virtuosity from Rix, Kingdom marks the closest fusion to date between Chris’s longtime jazz band Medesk, Martin and Wood and the power folk, singer/songwriter music of the Wood Brothers.

“This is the most meshed those worlds have ever been,” Chris said. “And it was definitely a long goal to get to this point. And it's been a long process. Little by little, not only integrating the MMW background with the songwriting, but also Jano is such a talent and can do so many things. When you improvise, all your knowledge, all the music that's inside you, can come out. It's not restricted by a song that's been written already.” 

 

The fusion of surprising sounds and familiar Wood Brothers storytelling pops right out of the speakers at the opening of “Alabaster,” a tale of a woman who’s broken free of some kind of abuser, set to a distorted Rhodes piano. “Little Bit Broken” is a chill reconciliation with imperfection that will scale up to an audience singalong with ease. As usual, Oliver is the lead vocalist on most tracks, but Chris sings two in his piquant voice - “Jitterbug Love” and the musically swarming, Afro-beat “Don’t Think About My Death.” While “Little Blue” is kaleidoscopic and funky with imaginatively stacked vocals. The brothers say it sounds to them like Sesame Street meets Sly Stone. Audaciously, they cling to this outrageous notion that it’s called playing because it’s fun.

The Wood Brothers will play the Ryman Auditorium again on Feb. 14 with Kat Wright opening.