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The Wood Brothers celebrate human condition with 'Heart is the Hero'

Shervin Lainez

Musician Oliver Wood says that risk remains at the heart of the music he makes with The Wood Brothers.

"Heart is the Hero," the latest studio release from The Wood Brothers, was released April 14. The trio's eighth studio album, the new collection of songs finds the group in fine form and thinking very much about savoring each moment life has to offer.

Witness songs such as the opening "Pilgrim," in which Oliver Wood reminds the listener to "slow down" because "a soul can't travel that fast" atop a signature Wood Brothers groove set down by bassist Chris Wood and drummer Jano Rix. "Worst Pain of All" reminds/encourages the audience to get in touch with their inner selves and deal with emotional pain. "Far From Alone" serves us a portrait of broken and downtrodden characters who offer each other solace amid their loneliness.

In short, the best, most endearing and enduring qualities of The Wood Brothers are intact: Expert musicianship, heartfelt songs that celebrate the human condition with gripping, authentic details taken directly from the lives of common people, and fine melodies that are instantly memorable, haunting and uplifting, melancholy and celebratory.

The Wood Brothers perform their only Kansas date Monday, April 17, at Salina's Stiefel Theatre.

Oliver Wood recently spoke with KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin about the making of "Heart is the Hero" (done without the aid of computers), his approach to songwriting and the continued success of a band that has been going strong since 2004.

Interview Highlights

One of the things that's different about this new album is that you worked with tape and avoided using a computer.

It's not the first time we've worked with tape. Most of our albums we've done at least partially to tape. In the past, it's been a choice based more on the way it sounds, [us] hoping to get this classic sound. But, more recently, we've realized that there's something about not having a computer involved and not looking at a screen — taking it completely out of the equation and being as primitive as possible in this case was less about sound and more of a choice about the process and the way that you feel psychologically while you're creating the music.

For instance, even when you're working with tape there's almost always a computer in the control room, and you always transfer things over to the digital realm and then you start looking at it. That is so distracting. I think we take for granted that music is meant to be listened to. For anyone who has ever recorded any kind of music, it's really easy to do digitally now. You end up seeing it in .wav forms on a screen in multiple colors. You have every possible option you could want to manipulate the music and control it, whether that means tuning it or editing it or splicing it together.

It's wonderful that you have that control, but at the same time I think it takes you away from the discovery and excitement and most importantly being really present when you're performing the music. Much like a live concert — you can't redo it, you can't fix it, you can't analyze it. You just have to do it as best as you can. I think, from my experience, having recorded music for 35 years now, I know that feeling if I'm recording digitally — in the back of my head, while I'm performing in the studio — I know that whatever I do, I can do it again. I can do it a million times. And I can fix it or edit it and it'll be fine.

Even subconsciously having that in the back of your head, you're not present for the moment of making this creation. The idea was for the process to be more exciting. We found, in doing this more recently — not only with Wood Brothers but with other projects — that we have so much more fun and we tend to be much more innovative when we don't have all those choices. We even went so far as to only use 16 tracks. Sixteen tracks of analog tape. That made it really challenging. That means that you really have to think about what's important and you have to get creative sometimes. If you're running low on tracks, you have to say, "What can we get rid of or what can we combine?" Or, "We have one track left, but we have two horn players who need to come and play." So they share a track.

That might not mean as much to the non-technical type who just likes music but, for a creator of any kind of art, I think it's the limitations that make you more present and more creative. And it's just more fun. We wanted to be a little more childlike and a little more experimental.

I remember listening to an album with a recording engineer friend of mine and him saying, "I can see all the edits in ProTools when I listen to this!"

[Digital] is an amazing tool and so useful. It's just that when you're creating the music it's like when you're a kid or you're painting and you smudge something just accidentally and it turns into the most beautiful thing. You have to be open to not being in control and trusting that something cool is going to happen based on your years of experience and based on the creativity — both conscious and subconscious. It just feels fun to do that, to discover something as you're creating it rather than being completely in control and shaping things and fixing it to always feel like you're making things better.

Tell me about that physical space that you're working with inside your recording studio. Sometimes having things be a little uncomfortable or when there are little quirks in a room can spark creativity in an unexpected way.

That's exactly true. We have a modest but vibe-y space that we work in and plenty of gear; all of the gear that we need. Maybe not all of it is cutting edge, what the big boys are using, but it's all the stuff that all our favorite records from the '70s and before were made on. I feel like whatever limitations we do have sort of add to something unique that we can come up with.

Any kind of limitation can become a strength. It can make you more innovative and efficient in the long run. Sometimes, if you have too many choices, you just take forever. We don't all live together in the same town anymore. I live in Nashville but my brother moved to British Columbia a few years ago. Even a time restraint [can lead to better concentration]. "Chris is going to be in town for 10 days, we gotta go. We gotta really work." Even something like that, a time restraint, is exactly what you need to motivate you. It's a limitation. It's something that makes you keep your standards in check and work fast and going with the flow. That's really what makes it fun.

You mentioned being in the moment earlier and I'm guessing that that idea also bled into the lyrics on this album — being in the moment is important even if sometimes it's uncomfortable.

Absolutely. As we get a little older — we've been doing this a long time or have just been around a little longer — we start to realize what's important and we start to learn, whether through meditation or spiritual practices, whatever it is, ways to live that are more fulfilling and lend themselves to more joy. That includes just being present and being in the moment as much as possible. Often times the moment sucks. But if you're there with it, you can process it, and then if the moment's wonderful you can actually enjoy it. Certainly part of the thread or the theme of the album has a lot to do with that. I think you can blend that with empathy for yourself and for others and connectedness. All those things require being present.

Do you think you would have arrived at the same place had we not just gone through a pandemic that gave us time to reflect on some of these ideas?

That's a great question. I think the lockdown portion of the pandemic was a great lesson for me and probably a lot of other people. I definitely came to really appreciate being forced to really slow down and basically being given permission to not do anything for a while. When you do that you look around you and see what's in front of you and not what you're stressed out about coming up next week.

Not to say that the pandemic was not a stressful time, but it was also a calm and slow time. That's definitely a lesson that I tried — a lot of people I think tried — to hold on to as we came out of it. That's not easy because the world is constantly moving and it's a rat race and it's stressful by nature. To answer directly: I think the whole pandemic situation absolutely added to my fascination with being present and learning how to get there. What are the tools?

Did any of that impact your writing as a lyricist or instrumentalist? "Maybe I don't need this line here, maybe I don't need this run of notes?"

I'm sure that it did, and I think a lot of the lessons are somewhat subconscious. I can think of certain things that I'm trying to start to live by as a writer and also just as a human, which is just having more trust and surrender as opposed to control. And, as a creator, realizing, "I've been doing this for a long time, it's not sports; I'm not trying to beat anybody. I'm trying to be myself as much as possible. What does that look like?" Oftentimes, as an artist of any kind, you have a lot of voices of judgment in your head, self-doubt and to combat that you have to really start trusting and surrendering and saying, "Those are just stories in my head. I don't need to believe that. I trust that I've been doing this a while and I know what I'm doing. Nobody can be better at being me than anybody else, so I'm just going to going to try to do that." Easier said than done but it's definitely something to practice and start getting used to as the norm.

What role has risk played in the music that you've made to date?

A lot. I think the role of risk is huge as an artist. That's kind of the definition of art. You're trying to create something, which means something new. I think we're often trying to do something that at least we haven't done before. I think we're always trying to defy genre to some degree. I think that makes us happy to not be too pigeonholed and say, "It sounds like the Wood Brothers. It's a combination of all these different ingredients." It's not a completely new genre, but it is a little hard to pin down. I think that's a very conscious decision, but I think that it's become habit. It's a subconscious process now when we create something. We're trying to go down a path that we haven't quite explored yet.

You have a new album that is just out but you've lived with the music for a long time. When a record is released, do you take a look at reviews or what fans are saying or do you leave it alone?

A little of both. You can't help but [but see things]. We have publicists, we have social media. They're all necessary parts of the machine that helps us continue what we love to do. It can be very distracting. But it's also nice to hear that somebody likes that we did. I try to keep it at a minimum in terms of watching reactions and really just get into the music. Honestly, by the time an album comes out, it might be six months to a year since you finished it. As artists, we're in a different stage. We're already writing new songs and thinking about the next album. When the album comes out we're kind of re-discovering it and discovering it with everyone else. It's kind of fun for us to say, "Oh, cool!" We might not have been thinking about the record for a while and we can get excited as fans, not in an egotistical way but in a fun way.

Last night we played some of the new songs for the first time. It was so exciting for us to play those songs live for the first time. Really fun.

Back when you made the first Wood Brothers album, did you see it as something that would continue or was it a matter of, "If we're lucky, we'll get to make a second one?"

That's a good question. I hadn't given it much thought. Once we made that first record, we had jumped into what, at the time, was a new creative endeavor, and also a new business enterprise, kind of like a family business. For Chris and I, we had already spent 10 years in completely different musical situations and different musical scenes. Those were really formative times when we grew up as musicians and as people. We did so separately. We grew apart musically and as brothers. I think we were both excited when we made our first record together and [said], "Oh, this is a cool thing." We started touring and as it built I think we got excited about having a family business … a creative business.

I don't remember ever looking back and thinking, "Are we going to do another album?" It's just been, "When's the next album?" It keeps growing. We always joke that we've had a slow rise to the middle as opposed to the meteoric rise to the top that you hear about. I think that's been a really healthy thing. We've grown a lot since 2006 or whenever we started. We used to travel in a minivan, just the two of us, then we got a bigger van and then we started getting a crew, then we added a drummer. Now we're in a bus and playing larger theaters. None of that happened overnight. It happened very slowly and it just feels like a natural growth and progression, and I don't think we've ever really looked back.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.