Pinning down Woods has proved increasingly elusive over their ten year run. While encapsulating and predicating the twisting currents of folk and rock, they’ve morphed calmly yet sharply from lo-fi to hi-fi. Their newest release, Sun City Sun Eater in the River of Light, represents both a step forward and yet another step to the side. Driven by their own ambition and a healthy, constantly evolving working relationship, the record finds Woods exploring a refined and expansive sound, ambitiously tackling uncharted areas of their nine LP discography.
We recently caught up with Woods’ two founding members, Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere, who spoke with us from each of their homes in New York state.
Aquarium Drunkard: How has the band solidified over the years? The constant has been the two of you, but does this record feel like a continuation, or a new chapter?
Jeremy Earl: The core of it is always going to be me and Jarvis, that’s sort of the constant throughout. This lineup is the phase-three version of Woods, with pretty much the same players as the last record, the same band we’ve been touring with for the last two years, off of that record. It’s just nice that this is the band, and it’s been nice to do a couple of records, and a lot of touring, with everybody.
Jarvis Taveniere: It feels like a new chapter for this band. I don’t think we meant for it to be. We don’t really plan it in advance, record to record. Sometimes the idea is such a relatively drastic shift, where it seems to us like a new phase. Especially once we got Aaron [Neveau, the groups drummer] in the band and became more of a touring band, it became this whole other thing. I don’t really know what phase I think we’re in now but after playing with Aaron for so long, and making the last record as an actual band in a studio, and then touring so much – we’re still anxious people, anxiety riddled in some ways, but the music part just kind of came out. Whereas the last one, With Love and with Light, we rehearsed it, we worked on the song structures, “should we put strings on this part?” – normal band things. This time we maybe wanted to go back to the casualness of the earlier records – while applying all this new shit to it. We’re finally comfortable in a studio – where we can just go, operate it, get the sounds we want, but also just kind of be the three of us just hanging out in a room.
AD: I’m interested in how, over these ten years, there are people who have come in and out of the band and the Woods universe – but the two of you have remained at its core. Do you think there’s something that previous members sought outside the group that you still find satisfaction in within the band?
Jeremy Earl: We gravitate toward and bond with likeminded musicians. It’s a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing. Like with Kevin [Morby, who played bass in Woods for several years], it was clear that this guy wasn’t going to be playing in the band for much longer, that he had his own vision to write his own songs. I love it when that happens. We met Kevin when he was 19, we toured the world with him and watched him sort of grow up and become this incredible songwriter and do his own thing. That to me is all part of the Woods story and the way things work – I feel that sort of thing may always happen to Woods, whereas me and Jarvis will always stay the same and be what Woods is about.
AD: Have you developed a language within this iteration of the band, or a commonality that keeps the creative process consistent?
Jeremy Earl: Just the fact that we’ve been playing together for several years affected this record in the studio, especially since we laid down basic tracks as a live band, with the core being me, Jarvis and Aaron. That’s kind of how we start all recordings. Playing with those guys throughout these years has had a huge impact on the studio sound. Over time we’ve gotten tight.
Jarvis Taveniere: We know when to get involved. We’re around people that we trust. Aaron plays keyboards on some of the songs – it’s a lot of “who is the best person who can do this in the room?” and just letting them go. Of course you can go and edit later, but a big thing we were talking about before doing the record was Can, how they would record live a lot and edit things together. My basslines are always a little Can like, it’s my default, but we would record ten minutes, take four minutes and cut it up, and it was an edited piece. It’d been just the three of us in a room playing live, Aaron on a Casio, Jeremy on a flute – we’d let ourselves be loose to record. And then we’d go back through them, find the parts that sound like a tight group, or at least a technically formed thing.
AD: A lot of people throw around the word “loose” when talking about Woods. I’m interested in a song like “The Take,” which has some beautifully arranged horn parts, followed by some pretty wild guitar playing. So to me there’s a very “loose” but intentional feel to the record – how do you navigate the desire and execution of adding things so composed and decomposed as those parts?
Jeremy Earl: Well, the horn stuff, we thought about that before we even recorded the record, when we were throwing around ideas for those songs. We thought, “it’d be really cool to have a horn part that kinda sounds like…this,” so we’d just plan on that, and then that’s what we did. I came up with some melodies in my head and recorded little demos of those, and had some guys come in and they transposed it and played it – it was awesome. Whereas with older recordings we may have done that process a little bit faster and instead of that part coming out as a horn, we would have done it with guitars or made some weird sound to fill that space – but on this, we felt that it was what that part was asking for so we sought that out and made it happen.
AD: Another word that really gets thrown around a ton is “psych” – and sure there’s a tinge to it in your music, but I’m wondering what that means to you, within and without the context of Woods?
Jeremy Earl: I’m into it. For me it’s just a vibe thing, it’s sort of the little things that make it onto the recording and make it a little different, or make it our own. I like it because it means people are recognizing that we’re not just a straight up, normal band. I guess it’s a nice way to say you’re weird. I kinda take it like that. It fits along with our style of recording – I came from a little bit more of an experimental background, where I was big into cassette culture and a little bit more abstract, free-form rock – from which Woods boiled down into a real band.
Jarvis Taveniere: I think Jeremy and I are confident enough in our ideas, and always have been, that we don’t really care if people want call us “psych.” We’ll play a “psych” show or festival – I don’t feel nervous playing a pop song there. I think what psychedelic means to me is very different from what it means to other people. I see psychedelia in lots of different music. One my favorite experiences was recording the record Sun and Shade. We recorded at Jeremy’s house, I brought kind of a proper set-up, had the monitors up, and at night we’d get stoned. I don’t think I’ve ever recorded stoned. And once, Jeremy played me that Christopher Cross song, “Sailing.” And just hearing it out of the monitors, it blew my mind. It was just so clean, with all this space. Also, the first few Leonard Cohen records, especially his acoustic records, are so psychedelic – they blow you away. They’re so sparse. Psychedelia to me is about more than perception, its exception, and playing with expectations. It doesn’t need to be lyrics that are cartoonish or weird sound effects. Sometimes it’s just mixing something a little off. The first Leonard Cohen record is a great example. At first there’s the tremble of guitars off to the side, a drum set off to the other. They’re probably thought of as just simple additions to the song, but the way they’re placed, with that big voice and guitar upfront, it just defies expectation – that’s, to me, more psychedelic. Maybe it’s just as simple as the sound of the room being incorporated, whatever it is. It’s sometimes nicer than a dry, boring recording: here’s a nice person, singing into a nice microphone, level up. It’s just nice to create the space for more than that.
AD: Many have called your music jammy or at the very least point to the expanded versions of your songs performed live — do you see that, and do you feel that your live performances push the limits of your technical ability?
Jeremy Earl: We will jam out stuff a little bit, but for the most part we play things as recorded. The original recording might have a section that people might look at as a jam, but it was actually written. Live, the last couple of years, we pretty much do it the same every night. So it’s pretty solid, it’s a rehearsed thing. There are elements in a couple of songs that we stretch out on – for us, it’s not really the technical aspect of jamming that say, Phish would do, it’s more of this primitive aggression where, having played a song for while, you break free of the structure that you’ve been doing. It’s fun to do that. I guess it’s jamming, but I think of it more of a caveman stomp – I’m not a great guitar player, but I try to do my own thing where I just bash at it.
AD: Do you feel that your guitar playing is something you’re trying to improve, or have you found something that works and you try to stay within it?
Jeremy Earl: I kinda use what I got. I don’t sit and practice scales, but I feel like I evolved in this style of playing where I use not-knowing to my advantage. I guess that’s personal preference. Somebody might be like, “man, this guy sucks!”
AD: Is there a feeling of obligation to stick to a “Woods” sound?
Jeremy Earl: The “Woods sound” I would say – it’s weird, we’ll be influenced by different genres of music, but we always take little bits of all different kinds of stuff. But when we put it through the… “Woods blender,” the finished product is very much Woods. It’s this thing we’ve been able to do, where we’ll reference something in this way, but more than half the time it doesn’t get picked up on, it’s been morphed into this other thing. That to me is the Woods sound, being able to reference and be influenced by something, but ultimately changing it into something our own in the end.
Jarvis Taveniere: I don’t feel that pressure, and that’s what I like about Woods. There’s maybe three or four songs on the new record that I can say are “like a Woods song that we do,” – we’re not gonna stop doing that, but sixty percent of this record wouldn’t make sense on any of our other records, to me they don’t even sound like the same band. It’s always just Jeremy’s voice that keeps it together, he just has such an awesome, weird voice that creates a universe around it that you forget its genre-hopping, it all fits under the same umbrella. Or if there’s something referencing some Ethiopian jazz, or The Stooges or Leonard Cohen, it’s all grounded by the voice so I don’t feel an obligation. With the earlier records it could be a ten-minute jam, followed by a beautiful song by Jeremy acoustically with one other instrument, so I’ve always felt this band has had total freedom to do whatever we wanted. And the “except for” is just anything we haven’t wanted to do. I think we embraced that more on this record than the last one.
AD: In what ways?
Jarvis Taveniere: I remember a car ride with Jeremy, and just… just all of the music we’ve listened to…when we made With Light and With Love – how do we make another record? We did everything I wanted to do. Six or seven months later we’re listening to Motown or Jackson 5 – that’s some of my favorite music, “How come we don’t have a song where this thing happens? A song with a really cool horn part? Oh! We’ve never done horns.” We don’t have to be one thing, even if there were a few months at a time where we said we had to be really good at this thing. It’s always refreshing to remind yourself: we’re Woods, we can do whatever we want.
AD: These last few records are different from a production point of view, so does the work you’ve done before feel distant to you, something you wouldn’t go back to?
Jeremy Earl: I’m not opposed to going back to that, and recording at home was a big part of the Woods equation, but since doing the last record, we’ve really gotten bitten by the bug of being in the studio, it’s amazing. It’s like this new thing to be excited about. This record was completely recorded in the studio, the first one to be 100% in a proper studio. Even on the last one there were outside elements we brought in, or I’d bring in demos. For future records, I’m excited to go back into the studio, it was so much fun. It’s nice to change things up – it felt good.
Jarvis Taveniere: Whenever a band has a record out and says, “We went back to our roots for this one,” it just sounds sad. I’m not interested. Like The Ramones, on their last record, “Oh, we did it all live in the studio.” Like, okay. Does it sound that different from the record before? You can’t play how you used to play, you can’t play as sloppy or as irreverent as before. You’ve had experiences, people have listened to you now. It’s a key thing to recognize that you’re not those people anymore and that’s cool. I was asked once, “What about the people who don’t like the new stuff, who like the old stuff?” That’s awesome. That’s cool – I used to like the old stuff, maybe that version of me wouldn’t like the new stuff either. But there’s plenty of them’s, plenty of me’s. It all worked out. A friend and I were talking about Van Morrison, and people will be like, “Oh I like this, but not that. I like Astral Weeks but not Moondance.” His theory was you won’t like any Van Morrison record until you’re the age Van Morrison was when he made it. You’ll get it when you’re his age, and I kind of like that. I can’t get behind that totally, but for enough of it, sure.
AD: Jarvis, because you’ve now worked with other bands in studios and expanded your recording ability, do you feel that those skills are something you need to dial back or work differently within the context of Woods?
Jarvis Taveniere: I guess what I do in the studio is look for whatever is lacking. On this record especially, Jeremy had a lot of ideas, a lot of good ideas, so I just kind of chilled out, and made sure everything sounded good. I didn’t worry about playing as much – with Jeremy the floodgates were open and ideas were coming out. So I was helping to structure and tighten things. In Woods in particular, I’ve become the cleanup person and Jeremy has a million ideas. He’s not a perfectionist, he wants things to sound good, he knows what he wants, but I think I’m more of a perfectionist. There’s just tedious shit you have to do in the studio sometimes. If you want a vocal to be big and loud and sound good, you may have to manually lower all the S noises a voice makes – it’s like, let’s make this happen. There are some projects where that’s not something I have to do and some where it is. In producing, to know when that’s my job… there’s other times where maybe the band is running out of ideas, and then I ditch the small maintenance stuff and become the person in the room trying to inspire something to happen. In Woods, there’s plenty of inspiration between us where I don’t have to that as much.
AD: Is that something that’s changed or grown over the years? To allow Jeremy to open those floodgates, or have these new tools allowed you to explore that in a new way?
Jarvis Taveniere: I think it’s always been consistent. I think when we first started playing together, there’s was a little more collaboration, but maybe a little less focus. We were going for the warmth of collaboration, the comfort of it, and I let go of that a little bit because Jeremy has really good, strange ideas that I would never think of. After a while, I started to realize that to nurture those, and encourage those, would produce a better sound than me always getting involved. “The Take” is one of my favorite songs on the record – I don’t play a note on it. Even though I had a lot of ideas for the mixing and the structure… I don’t feel bad about that. I was on tour with Martin [Courtney] from Real Estate, playing bass with him, and I played the record for them and said, “This one’s my favorite.” They were like, “Me too! What do you play on it?” “Nothing!” But I don’t say that with any regret, or wish I’d snuck my way on it. It was my job on that song, to step out of the way and just capture it.
AD: Jeremy, with you as the songwriter, but the band being a bit of everyone’s input – where do you find commonality in creativity? Is it built over the years, a kind of didactic process that could be called the “Woods blender,” or was it there from the start?
Jeremy Earl: I feel it’s been something throughout the years. Jarvis and I have been playing together for ten years, recording the whole time. The difference is now we’re in a proper studio, having moved from our homes. It’s the way that we bounce ideas off each other and how we’ve evolved as musicians has shaped everything, from the way that we write songs to the way that we record. It’s evolved, together, over time.
AD: Do you see Woods as your outlet? Would you consider other avenues for your expression?
Jeremy Earl: Woods is very much my outlet. I mean, I’ve thought about doing a record under my name that might have a different vibe, but it’s not something I have the full picture of. It would need to be completely separated from Woods. It’s difficult because so much of me is in Woods. It’s also a time thing. I’d love to have another outlet, I write a lot of songs and not all of them get used for Woods.
AD: How would you describe recording with Jarvis, both now and over the last ten years.
Jeremy Earl: It’s been interesting to grow together, as musicians, as well as watching him in the studio, becoming an engineer and producer. He’s great now. If we weren’t evolving and getting better as we went, I’m sure at some point we would have hired someone to record and produce the record. But his production is as much an instrument as my guitar parts, it’s the sound of Woods. It’s essential.
AD: Jarvis, is there anything beyond just the march of time that made more comfortable in this producing role for the band?
Jarvis Taveniere: When I first started recording bands outside of Woods, there were one or two records that I felt sounded sonically better than Woods and I found myself in a very confident role where I was suggesting ideas, or just pushing a band to get a tighter take, to rearrange the bass and kick and drum patterns – I started gaining confidence in different areas. That just came natural to me. I remember doing the first Widowspeak record, then the recent Quilt record, and ended up going back to Woods with this confidence that the role suited me – I helped make a better record because of that. When I applied it, Woods records started getting better. I remember specifically with “Cali In a Cup” [from Bend Beyond], that was one of the first we did for that record, and after working with other people, we had two mics on the drums and the drums sounded horrible. The group was like, “That’s it, we got the take” and that was the first time I said no, we gotta tune these drums, we gotta get a new drum set, make this sound good. That was the first time I was like, “This is what I do, this is how I fit into this.”
AD: How do you take that approach, which seems almost freeing, versus playing bass with Real Estate on tour where you’re slotting into a role? Is it a big departure?
Jarvis Taveniere: No, I feel like the bass playing, rhythm section role, you’re already wearing that hat a little bit. You’re already in the role of trying to hold things down, make them more cohesive. I feel more like it went hand in hand. I could make recorded section sound better by arranging the rhythm section, or making it a unit, working together and not against each other. With the exact same equipment you can make a better sounding record. And I feel the same way live. I’m still annoying to sound guys on tour, or annoying to the drummer, “The kick sounds like shit!” The sound guy doesn’t care, he wants us off stage so he can eat dinner.
AD: I want to ask about New York, and how it played into this record and the foundations of the band. You’re now separated geographically, with Jeremy living upstate, and Jarvis in Brooklyn – is New York City still the home of the band?
Jeremy Earl: New York is the home of the band, both the city and upstate where I live. It doesn’t really matter… well, maybe it does matter. That’s very much the vibe of Woods, being a little bit of the city and little bit of the rural life. Being influenced by both is very much a part of our story. It’s weird, about five years ago I moved upstate and was only in the city once a week or so and got into this quieter, rural, small-town life. I feel like that affected the records a lot. This record, I went back to the city and have been in Brooklyn for a majority of the time for two years, only coming upstate about two days a week. I kinda flipped it. So the entire record was written in Brooklyn, as opposed to the last three or four that were entirely written upstate or a combination of the two. I see this record as very much a city record – I feel it has the vibe and energy, and anxieties, of city life and the city experience.
AD: How might that feel different from early on? A common, early reaction to Woods was “this comes from New York City?” And certainly at that time it wasn’t what the scene there was all about. Has the city, or your relation to it, evolved over these ten years?
Jeremy Earl: I feel like it affected me coming back to the city after living upstate and being away from it. Your senses change. I notice the traffic driving around, horns, all these things get to me – stuff I never noticed living in Brooklyn for many years. It’s almost like this weird, sensory shock. And then I started noticing, coming upstate, how quiet it was. I think that it had a big affect on the record.
AD: Do you feel the band could have started in inverse, outside of New York City?
Jeremy Earl: It was born of the city, but also borne of my relationship with Jarvis and our other group of friends, who met at college and all moved to the city and into the same house. That was Rearhouse, which was our home and studio and became the label office until I moved upstate. It was really borne out of that house.
AD: Jarvis, has Jeremy’s departure upstate had an effect on you or the group?
Jarvis Taveniere: It has, in two ways. One is very practical; we did a lot of recording upstate for a couple of records and that was really peaceful. For Bend Beyond I set up a studio in his house, I brought up so much gear, spent a day or two setting it up, and then for two weeks we’d just put on coffee and start recording. And that’s just how we made that record. It was just practical – I was upstate everyday. We’d go for hikes, we’d swim, and now it’s fun cause it’s on my turf. Second, being in the city, and especially the anxiety of the city, had an effect on the record, lyrically and thematically, I just feel it. I don’t know if being in two places really affects it, I think it’s more of a personality thing that put us in two different locations, where I’m the hyperactive, overly social person and he hibernates, goes and does his thing. I think sometimes, when he’s around me and especially live, we just rage. It’s funny because of how mellow we are – I’ll be at his place working on an acoustic song and then a few months later, maybe in Europe, we’re on stage chugging beers, breaking strings – I don’t know where that comes from.
AD: Is that different than it was ten years ago?
Jarvis Taveniere: It’s always been our thing playing live. We got our start playing in hardcore bands together, separately and together, and still had that energy. It’s something we channel, as tastefully as we can in “what Woods should be like.”
AD: As you take this record out on the road, are you thinking about elements that you aren’t going to be able to take with you? Earlier in your career, maybe you could do that kind find something to fill space, to express that sound or feeling differently, but as you add these layers it changes the dynamic of what can be filled in.
Jeremy Earl: Totally. We thought about that before hand – and we’re trying to do everything we can to have a horn section there for bigger cities. We actually got a new keyboard player, Kyle Forester. Our keyboard player who played on the last few records, John Andrews, he’s also in Quilt and they just put out a new record. He was trying to juggle it back and forth but ultimately decided that he couldn’t do both, so he’s just gone with Quilt for this year. So we got Kyle, and the bonus there is that he also plays saxophone. So we’re gonna at least have some sort of horn element for the entire tour.
Jarvis Taveniere: Part of going into the studio was to capture the energy that we have live. Coming off tour, doing a ten-minute version of a song, people raging loud, and we’d come back and do an acoustic version of it. Or we’d come off stage and someone wants to buy a record – I’d feel bad, “these are all the acoustic versions.” I wanted to get off stage and say this is what you just heard. I was getting frustrated that we couldn’t do that. I don’t want to have to explain things. I want it to speak for itself.
AD: You mention, and your latest band bio mentions in particular, Ethiopian jazz as an influence, and I’m wondering what other, non-contemporary influences went into the record, both sonically and philosophically?
Jeremy Earl: A lot of it is a subconscious influence. I have been listening to a lot of jazz lately, or the last couple of years; Ethiopian jazz, but also Don Cherry and lots of spiritual jazz, and High-Life music amongst much more. It’s never a direct rip-off, like “let’s make a song sound like this.” I’ll just start playing something with a little bit of a rhythm, different from what I’m used to, that may be reminiscent of some kind of jazz. That’s the Woods blender, or meat grinder, where it gets mashed up because I’m not a trained guitar player. It’s all self-taught. So when I hear something and try to play it, it comes out as something totally different – something that sounds more like Woods, but may have been influenced by some weird Don Cherry.
AD: Is that something that you’d bring to Jarvis – sharing something you’ve been really into, and your own interpretation of it?
Jeremy Earl: We talk about stuff, we listen to things on tour. We’ll say we should try something like this and it will come out completely different. Just talking about it a little bit is where it starts to form. We’d meet after I started having a nice batch of songs to record, we’d jam on them, and get them into shape. We had a couple of sessions like that where we’d work things out and talked about the way that we wanted them to sound.
AD: Jeremy, you’ve been talking about Woods as an open-ended project, but do you have a vision already of where you want this band next year, or in five or ten years? Or do you feel a bit more like you’re living record to record and maybe making some plans you might catch up to down the road?
Jeremy Earl: I take it as it comes. We make long terms plans, but long term for us is a year. Lately we’ve been booking tours and making plans a year ahead of time – it blows my mind sometimes thinking about it. As far as new records come, sure, it’d be nice to say we’ll have another new record out in two years, but I let it come naturally. That’s my approach to songwriting, I only write when I’m truly inspired and it pours out, not saying “alright, I’ve got a deadline, I gotta write this record by next year.” If I got into that, it might start to affect things, but now it’s been just letting it happen as it comes to us, and I feel the songs will be better if I stick to it that way. words / b kramer