BY MEREDITH KLEIBER FOLK FESTIVAL CORRESPONDENT Oliver and Chris Wood, AKA The Wood Brothers, have been playing as a duo since the middle of the last decade, but their musical pedigree extends even further back. Oliver’s soulful, bluesy style lent itself well to the south, where he toured a lot with his band, King Johnson, while Chris’s jazzy bass-playing skills helped to found Medeski, Martin & Wood. But it wasn’t until 2005 that the brothers decided that they had waited long enough to combine efforts professionally and make an album together. Their third full-length original album, Smoke Ring Halo, was released at the beginning of this month and has received a slew of positive reviews. If you have the chance to see them play the Main Stage on Sunday at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, it will only take the first few notes of their set to make you understand why. I had a chance to chat briefly with Oliver on the phone the other night while he was en route to a hotel.
PHAWKER: Since you and Chris are sons of a poet and a molecular biologist, it’s interesting that you both were attracted to the idea of making a career out of music. What were the factors in your childhood that contributed to that, and how old were you guys when you realized that was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
OLIVER WOOD: Well, our father, although he went into molecular biology, he also was and is a really good musician, guitar player, and singer… sort of a folk guy coming from the folk scene in the late 50s– early 60s. So he could have gone into music professionally, but for whatever reason he chose the more academic route. So I think he’s always been very supportive of us playing music and he was also a big influence. When we were kids, he was always playing and singing at family functions; he always sang cool old songs and had a really great record collection, from Lightnin’ Hopkins to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. He was a big music influence early on, and we got introduced to folk music early on from his record collection. That’s a huge part of it. We both got more serious as teenagers, and by the time we were in our late teens to early 20s, we knew that was what we wanted to do.
PHAWKER: So you recently added drums to your duo for Smoke Ring Halo, which obviously adds a whole new dynamic to your sound. Have there been any challenges with incorporating another instrument into the mix, or has it all been positive?
OLIVER WOOD: It’s all really positive. The biggest challenge when you add personnel is just overhead and logistics. We all live in different parts of the country — Chris lives in upstate New York, I live in Atlanta, our sound man lives in Orlando, and our drummer lives in Nashville. The more people in the mix means more plane tickets, space in the vehicle, and hotel rooms. It’s a lot more complicated, but it’s definitely worth it. Musically speaking, it’s been great because our drummer, Jano Rix, is not only a great drummer, but he sings and is a good keyboard player. He’s a huge asset and we’re loving having him. We now have a little more color we can add to whatever we’ve been doing and have another gear we can shift to if we need to rock a little harder.
PHAWKER: So you’re the primary songwriter… you write all of the songs, right?
OLIVER WOOD: No, actually not at all. I think that was sort of the case on our first record, but since then, we’ve really learned to collaborate. I’m the primary vocalist, but we all write the songs together. Chris and I do a lot of collaboration. Even though we live so far apart, we’re always sending things back and forth, and when we’re on tour together, we work on things backstage and on the bus. So it’s very collaborative.
PHAWKER: So are all of your lyrics that you guys write based on experiences that you’ve had, or are there some stories that you make up because you think they would translate well into a song?
OLIVER WOOD: Yeah, I would say 85% of the songs are based on personal experience, but I think on our new record we have a couple songs that are sillier, more fun and light, and sort of tongue-in-cheek. I guess those come from experiences, too, but they’re not quite as deep as some of the other tunes that we’re maybe more known for.
PHAWKER: Like “Shoo-Fly Pie”?
OLIVER WOOD: Yeah, exactly. That’s not the deepest thing we’ve ever done, but it’s really fun to play.
PHAWKER: You’ve been touring a lot recently to promote Smoke Ring Halo. What is the best venue you’ve played to date?
OLIVER WOOD: Best venue? Oh boy… we’ve played so many venues, and so many of them are great, so it’s hard to say. We played the Bonnaroo festival a couple times, and that’s a really great one, because it’s so well run and has a great atmosphere and great sound. I’m sure the Philly Folk Fest will be even better for what we do, because it’s smaller and more intimate. We play a lot of small theaters too, so it’s hard to say… I can’t really narrow it down.
PHAWKER: I’ve heard that you keep a pair of tighty-whities in your guitar, which is pretty hilarious.
OLIVER WOOD: Yeah, I have a little electric guitar that tends to feedback, so I stuffed some nice tighty-whities in there from 1987. It’s definitely function over form. It just so happens that white cotton has the best tone.