Roots Rock: How Woods Became An Indie Institution By Staying DIY
Spend enough time with Woods and eventually the band becomes more than a band. It is that, sure, and Woods’ music is rich — alternately squalling and calming, earthy and cosmic, propelled primarily by Jeremy Earl’s boyish voice, mercurial guitar, and sophisticated songwriting, complemented by multi-instrumentalist/producer Jarvis Taveniere and a rotating cast of musicians. Woods’ ninth album, City Sun Eater In The River of Light, is perhaps their best, distilling their sanguine take on timeless rock ‘n’ roll.
But Woods are also the gateway into a miniature world, an ecosystem of the band’s own devising. Each Woods album is released by Earl’s record label, Woodsist, which has long nurtured musicians of a certain restless bent. In the late ’00s, Woodist was home to Kurt Vile and Thee Oh Sees; more recently, the label released albums by folk-rock troubadour Cian Nugent, Maine-based electro-psych outfit Herbcraft, and Northwest angst-pop trio the Woolen Men. Before he launched Woodsist, Earl’s Fuck It Tapes presaged today’s cassette fetish by more than a decade. Earl, who studied visual art at SUNY Purchase, designs much of Woodsist’s cover art and merch in a rustic, hand-painted style, heavy on all-seeing eyes and impassive skulls and other mystical iconography.
And there’s Woodsist Festival, which all too briefly sets the music and its audience together in a slice of sylvan paradise. It started 2009 as a casual get-together in the backyard of Rear House, the band’s shared home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. A year later, after a memorable gig at the Henry Miller Memorial Library outside Monterey, California, Earl relocated the event, and every summer since, Woodsist Festival has sprouted among Big Sur’s coastal redwoods and rhododendrons for a day or two (and occasionally reappears further south, in Joshua Tree, for a desert-bound incarnation in the fall). The marvelous natural setting colors the ambiance as much as the lineup, which centers on bands from the Woodsist label — Real Estate, White Fence, Kevin Morby, the Fresh and Onlys — and others in their orbit, like Angel Olsen, Foxygen, and Michael Hurley.
It all amounts to the text and the practice of a sort of Woodsist cosmology, a tiny worldview. With a degree of industry and intention rare among post-millennial indie-rock bands, Earl et al have amassed a decade’s worth of shows, tours, festivals, and songs, plus their attendant artwork and artifacts on vinyl, cassette, CD and digital, plus a nexus of comrades, fans and collaborators. Progenitors like Wilco and My Morning Jacket are similarly generative and also corral their fanbases into curated, cultivated environments. The difference with Woods is scope.
Woodsist Fest maxes out at around a half-dozen bands and 300 fans; there is no VIP seating, no green room, no extravagant staging. Fuck It Tapes released cassettes in extremely limited runs before such a thing was even a nano-trend and Woodsist presses limited LPs. Each case demands closeness and contact. Earl conveys his audience into distant realms physical and astral — and he rides shotgun the whole way.
And Woods’ music is as defiantly intimate as Earl’s extra-band endeavors. At the core is Earl’s voice. Working solo on proto-Woods material in the mid-’00s, he used to record two separate vocal parts, singing in a standard register and falsetto. During playback he found himself favoring the falsetto and began elevating it in the mix. After a while he completely turned down the lower part so all that remained was the falsetto. He got used to it. He says now it’s the only way he knows how to sing.
No matter the sprawling range of his compositions, that voice — an exploratory chirp, a brotherly confiding — remains small and close. It’s a surprisingly robust and expressive instrument, and also a tether, a pin dropped onto the map as the musicians wander a widening landscape. Over the years Earl has enlisted a slew of auxiliary players who’ve made their various contributions — including Morby on bass and Lucas Crane, an analog wizard who wrought ambient noise from two cassette machines and sang through headphones strapped over his face. But now as ever, Earl and Taveniere are the band’s consistent core.
Taveniere has recorded Earl’s endeavors from the early days (and has also contributed drums and bass), nudging him from aloof, eerie folk-rock and tempestuous guitar solos and toward a more collective sound. Together they’ve transitioned from their living room in Bushwick for the first few Woods albums to Earl’s house an hour upstate in Warwick, the apple-orchard town he grew up in, for 2012’s Bend Beyond and 2014’s With Light And With Love. Along the way they collected better recording gear and more instruments and gained a clearer understanding of the sound they sought. They expanded their palette as they refined their idea of the band.
Bend Beyond was concise and focused, eschewing the meandering jams that hallmarked earlier Woods albums. It contained the song “It Ain’t Easy,” an acoustic and steel-guitar ballad, possibly the most poignant song Earl had ever penned and possibly a paean to his recently deceased father. With Light And With Love featured Earl’s most clear-eyed songwriting and Tavenier’s most polished production to date. It contained “Moving To The Left,” a mission statement of pensive confidence and Woods’ first would-be hit. These albums were a turning point: After years of hermetic character-building, Woods had exposed their own abilities.
From the beginning, each successive Woods album accreted sonic heft, and City Sun Eater In The River of Light is, for a few reasons, the heftiest of all. It was recorded at Thump Studios in Brooklyn — a favorite of Taveneire’s, he says, for its collection of impeccable vintage gear — and sounds clean and robust in its production. “Sun City Creeps,” the album opener and first single, features a horn section, a first for the band, unleashing a somber, cascading melody over Earl’s syncopated guitar. The song is unabashedly reggae-inflected, Woods via Studio One. When they reappear on “The Take,” the horns feel more Afrobeat.
Earl wrote these songs with horns in mind; they weren’t an extravagance or afterthought but essential to the sound in his head that he wanted on the album. Taveniere says these influences — Jamaican music, African music — have always been latent within Woods’ sound. The jam-band tendencies, too — if you consider the Velvet Underground a jam band. (I’ll allow it.) “Sun City Creeps” and “The Take” clock in at six minutes each; the album’s other eight songs run a comfortable four minutes. It’s like they’ve split the difference of their earliest indulgences and more recent brevity and arrived at conventional moderation.
The album ends with “Hollow Home,” a song of gilded beauty that, in typical Woods fashion, belies a creeping, gentle dread. Backed by soothing woo-oohs, Earl sings,
I think I’d like to go find a home away from it all
You can look right up
But is it cut out for you
Safety and perfection sound appealing, but are ultimately less than human. Maybe you don’t want what you think you want.
When we talked for this story, Taveniere was taking a break from recording a friend’s band at Thump and Earl was at home in Warwick, springtime right outside his front window. Ten years and nine albums in, they two are still seeking, albeit from a more comfortable place than before. But comfort can be dangerous. They’ll be on the road soon enough, touring the world all summer to support the new album.
With City Sun Eater, they were motivated, at least in part, by fear — fear of being one-dimensional, of not living up to their potential. If they’re not exploring all the things they like, Taveniere wonders, what’s the point? Woods, he says, has always been about freedom: “I don’t know if I feel that free in my life. The music is the way I try to deal with that.” And so of course the band must grow — if not in stature, at least in scope. Growing is what living things do.
City Sun Eater In The River Of Light is out today via Woodsist.