Onward & Upright: Bassist Chris Wood On MMW, The Wood Brothers & More

By Chad Berndtson Feb 2, 2017 12:03 pm PST

Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Joe Russo, Oteil Burbridge, John Medeski, Marc Brownstein, Mihali Savoulidis, Marcus King and many more. (A full archive of more than 40 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)

A funny thing happened to Chris Wood on the way to a quarter century anchoring Medeski, Martin & Wood: he also co-founded and co-built an entirely different band, The Wood Brothers, with an entirely different sound that now has international renown of its own.

Groove-loving acid jazz kingpin and dazzling improviser on one side, it seems, and lover of tenderly tuneful Americana on the other — a split personality? No, just all part of Wood’s complex makeup as one of our scene’s most beloved bassists, his name on the sign of two of its greatest bands.

It’s been more than a decade since Chris and brother Oliver Wood decided to make a go of The Wood Brothers, and about five years since they expanded to a trio, adding drummer and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix to the fold. All the while, Chris has continued to return — although with limited frequency — to MMW, which just played a rescheduled set of shows at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge following a postponement last fall while Wood recovered from an emergency hospitalization in October.

The Wood Brothers have a new live album out, Live At The Barn, recorded at Levon Helm’s fabled studio in Woodstock, New York. The Woods were close to Helm in his final years, and more than a little of the Midnight Ramble spirit comes through on the record, which in addition to top-shelf versions of some of the Woods’ best material includes a rollicking take on The Band’s “Ophelia.”

Here’s Chris Wood on the eve of The Wood Brothers latest batch of tour dates, including what to expect from him and Oliver, a new Brothers studio album in the making, and the prospect of more shows with that other famous trio he’s part of. (The Wood Brothers were also recently announced as part of this summer’s Wheels Of Soul tour with Tedeschi Trucks Band and Hot Tuna.)

JAMBASE: You’ve just come off three nights with Medeski, Martin & Wood at Le Poisson Rouge. Was it as fun as it looked?

CHRIS WOOD: Yeah, it was a great run. It was a big reunion, with so many people and this sort of extended family we have of friends from New York. That’s where we started playing when we first got together — that place was the Village Gate — so to be there again with all those people was great.

JAMBASE: Do you reflect much on 25 years of MMW? Like, “wow, 25 years”?

CW: [laughs] Yeah, sometimes. It’s weird that it’s been that long. It is a wow — a big wow. I can’t believe it. But that’s what’s great about it. We have so much experience when we play music that it always feels fresh and exciting and new when we play, but it also feels familiar. That’s a good feeling because we still have no idea what we’re doing!

JAMBASE: Has the chemistry among you and John [Medeski] and Billy [Martin] changed much over the years?

CW: I don’t know that it’s changed. You all sort of grow up and mature, so it becomes more refined. When you’re young, you’re a little more on edge and insecure and crazy. Your ego hasn’t been beaten down yet. I think in some ways we’ve mellowed, but that doesn’t make the music more mellow. It’s in how we react to each other — there’s a lot more trust in what we do, even though it’s really hard to articulate what we do. What’s been happening is that we’ve done it long enough that if something seems to work, we trust it now and use it, versus when we were younger and questioned it.

JAMBASE: You guys don’t play much together anymore but you and John and Billy in separate interviews have mentioned that that’s healthy — that MMW happens when it makes sense. Is that accurate?

CW: Yeah, I think so. If you look at the arc of our career, we’ve all grown up and been exploring other things in life and music. I think not all of us wanted to be on the road forever and that naturally made us want to slow down. Billy especially felt strongly about slowing down and traveling less, and as a result, I started working more with my brother, and that has kind of taken over my career. It’s natural, though. There’s a time limit to how much you can do. Everyone is happy doing what they want to do that when we get together it feels great.

JAMBASE: I remember the early days of The Wood Brothers about a decade ago, and how it looked like a side project and then sort of all of sudden it felt like it was a main band.

CW: It definitely didn’t feel like all of a sudden — it was a very gradual, long, slow transition. In my mind, it never felt like a side project, but time-wise, I guess it had to be that first, and it looked like that at first. But in terms of how serious I was about it and the energy I put into it – it felt like everything. It was very intense, because I was touring with both bands as much as possible, basically full time. I was out there maybe more than I should have been, but that was the only way to develop it. It took all these little steps along the way, but we matured as a duo, and then added drums. Jano has just kept developing with us. He sounds amazing and is so talented, and he really integrated into the band and became part of our sound.

JAMBASE: Did that take a while for Jano? He was inserting himself to a previous duo situation that was not only chemistry between musicians but also between siblings.

CW: Yeah, it does take a while. He’s so talented and can do so many different things and we knew that immediately, but it does take time. It’s an organic process that you can’t rush, but we knew right away how much potential was there and how much we could learn from each other. Bands, you know … bands are like these weird social experiments. You throw these people into a room, and on a bus, and on a stage, and they have to figure out how to get along, how to make music together, and how to make it sound the best that it can sound. Jano is not only an amazingly talented person but also a great team player. It feels like a band. Since MMW more or less stopped touring, it’s really felt like a band.

JAMBASE: What were the initial conversations you and Oliver had about deciding to add a third member, a drummer?

CW: In the very beginning, on Ways Not to Lose, we had some drums. But we were just starting out in terms of touring. It was a very simple setup: just the two of us together in a minivan, and we had to operate in a streamlined way. I think organically, as the venues got bigger and the music developed and the audiences got bigger, the sound got bigger. The first thing we had to do was add a road manager and a sound man to help us out, make sure we were sounding OK. So when we got to a level that it felt right, we felt ready to add drums. It’s like running a small business — every person you take on is a new set of expenses, and musical decisions and practical decisions. So we worked at how it would all make sense together.

JAMBASE: Did you and Oliver always have a musical rapport? I mean, you grew up together with music around but didn’t play much together professionally — did it take time?

CW: No, actually, it was immediate. We did play together a bit when we were young, before all of us left the house. Before he went off to school, we had a four-track in the room and we messed around with some tunes we’d write. Many years later, we hadn’t really hung out much for like 15 years. I’d been doing MMW that whole time, and he had King Johnson, and we did a double bill [in North Carolina in 2001] and King Johnson opened. Oliver sat-in with us, and I’ll never forget how familiar that felt. The way he played felt like I was looking into a mirror and listening to myself almost. So there was a chemistry and connection immediately, and we both noticed, and that’s how it started that we’d do something together.

JAMBASE: Live at the Barn is a great listen — a nice capture of what The Wood Brothers sound like now. What jumped out about this recording that made you guys want to release it?

CW: Part of it is the location. I used to live very close to Levon’s when I lived in upstate New York, and we got to hang out with Levon a lot, and got to know him and also Amy [Helm], and play with her. So that place is special to us — it’s kind of this cool church of music and it’s an ex-hometown gig. I think the space just sounded good, too. We were doing a small northeast run at the time, but that night out of all of them was clearly the more interesting and fun, just a loose, relaxed, far from slick, far from perfect but just right feel.

JAMBASE: What do you take away from your time with Levon Helm?

CW: He was such an amazing spirit. You never forget the way he looked at you, his smile. His attitude was pretty special. Hanging out with him in his kitchen after a Ramble and just hearing him talk, watching the way he dealt with people … you learn so much watching someone who’s done this for so long and manages to stay graceful, gracious and open. He’s one of those people who managed to keep that in his old age — all this useful energy.

JAMBASE: Were you a fan of The Band when you were young?

CW: I don’t think I even knew about The Band until I was in my 20s. I was pretty ignorant about all of that, and then slowly, the more I got into it, the more I learned. I was with MMW all the time in my early years playing and it wasn’t what I was listening to. But after working with my brother and writing songs with him, I came to really appreciate what they did. And of course I became a fan like most people after watching The Last Waltz.

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JAMBASE: Will The Wood Brothers continue to tour extensively this year?

CW: Yeah, we have a busy year coming up. We’re in the Northeast, then headed to the West Coast after that, and then starting festivals and touring all summer. At the same time, we’re going to be working on a new record. We’re writing new songs and just beginning to look at recording all of that.

JAMBASE: For folks who’ve been hip to The Wood Brothers for a while, how would you describe them?

CW: The brand new material? It’s a little early to say right now. It’s always such a long and interesting process: you come up with ideas, and then when you start rehearsing them, a lot changes. It’s so hard to tell at first where things are going to go, so it’s important that recording happen organically. For [2015’s] Paradise, without consciously doing it, we came up with a narrative that really threaded the whole record together. I think that’ll probably happen again to this one.

JAMBASE: Has the way you and Oliver work on songs together changed much since your first recordings as The Wood Brothers?

CW: It’s just kind of that trust and maturity, like with MMW — the same kind of thing. We work on a lot of stuff separately, but something we know now is that it’s good to work together. Songs can feel so personal, but having someone else to bounce ideas off of can save you an incredible amount of time spent going down rabbit holes. You want someone there who can stop you and say what you have is good, don’t change it. So we have a great, creative working relationship.

Another thing is that the three of us produced the last one together. Producing a record is not an easy thing to do, and a lot of people don’t really understand what goes into it, all the decisions that have to be made. You rely on someone else usually, but all three of us produced it together and it worked well. That was a big shot in the arm for us, to know we could do it.

JAMBASE: Will you do that again?

CW: Oh yeah. We really enjoyed it.

JAMBASE: Speaking of recording, Billy tweeted sometime back that MMW had a new record on the horizon. What’s become of that?

CW: Well, we recorded a record with an orchestra, and I assume that’s what he was referring to. We’re still figuring out how we’re going to release that.

JAMBASE: Will MMW play much this year beyond what’s announced already?

CW: I think there’ll be some stuff, yes, but probably about like last year was.

JAMBASE: I’ll ask you to close out with a sit-in story. What comes to mind from your travels?

CW: Well, with MMW, I remember Marshall Allen and Marc Ribot together, that was a good one. Sun Ra was a big influence and we were lucky to have Marshall. So here’s a good story. During the making of The Dropper we hired Marshall Allen to come in and play saxophone over a tune, and he did. I can’t remember now the reasons why we did, but we decided it should be over a different song. If you’re familiar at all with Marshall Allen, you know something about his playing defies space and time. We took what he played on one tune, flew it over another tune, and it worked perfectly. What he plays fits with anything. What’s interesting is we did something similar on Combustication. We had a spoken word song and he [Steve Cannon] did this rap over a piece of music, and we ended up flying it over “Whatever Happened to Gus.” It worked perfectly.

JAMBASE: Did Marshall know about The Dropper example?

CW: I don’t think so — it happened after he recorded it. It was on the song “Felic.”

JAMBASE: How about a more recent sit-in example?

CW: Well with The Wood Brothers, it was us sitting-in with Levon playing “The Weight.” That was an all time high for us, just looking over and seeing him smile as we played and sang a verse of “The Weight.” That was pretty great.

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