Musician brothers who achieve success usually do so early in life and in the same band: Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Ray and Dave Davies (the Kinks), Angus and Malcolm Young (AC/DC), Noel and Liam Gallagher (Oasis), and the Beach Boys’ Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson. But it took bassist extraordinaire Chris Wood and his virtuoso-guitarist brother Oliver nearly 15 years before they finally joined musical forces, and not until they had carved out separate but equally estimable careers for themselves: Chris as a wildly inventive third of the avant-jazz-funk jam trio Medeski Martin & Wood, and Oliver as the hotshot frontman for the alt-rock group King Johnson. The two had never even discussed playing together until one night in 2004, when Oliver sat in with MMW at a North Carolina gig. At once, they felt a powerful and undeniable gravitational pull—and soon after, the Wood Brothers were born.
“MMW was kind of winding down, so the timing for Oliver and me was right on the nose,” says Chris. “I’m actually glad that it took us a while to get together. We went off and did our own things, had success, and got humbled. By the time we started the Wood Brothers, we knew who we were as musicians. I could have done more of a jazz thing after MMW, but I liked the idea of doing a singer–songwriter-type deal with Oliver. I felt like I could take all that I had learned in MMW and incorporate that into interesting and meaningful songs.”
Having honed his jazz chops at the New England Conservatory, Chris’ approach to the bass in MMW sometimes recalled that of a daredevil. Whether playing upright or electric, he made unorthodox use of a bow, whammed his strings with drumsticks, scraped and rode open strings, explored the outer limits of dissonance, and even came up with a “bass snare” sound by placing paper underneath his strings. In the more traditional roots-music-based Wood Brothers, Chris has toned down the theatrics, but he hasn’t lost his flair for experimentation. He does that in almost deceptively simple ways—laying down sparse yet creative and hook-filled grooves—on the band’s seventh studio effort, One Drop of Truth, for which he, Oliver, and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix offer new entries into the Great American Songbook. There’s Big Pink-style folk-rock (“This Is It,” “Sky High”), lighthearted funk (“Happiness Jones”), deliciously off-kilter blues-pop (“Laughin’ or Crying”), and laid-back, swampy shuffles (“River Takes the Town”). It’s a wide palette of music, and Chris bases his sonic approach to suit each individual song’s needs. “On this record, the sound is all about feel and texture. I switched basses a lot to set a mood. I might have tried a version of a song on electric bass, but then I’d switch to the upright and completely change the vibe. I’m not a big effects guy; I prefer simple, classic methods. Instead of pedals, I’ll try to record in a different room, or I’ll experiment with mics. I’ll play hard or soft—whatever conveys a tune’s message.” Back in his MMW days, Chris would look out at the audience and see swarms of tie-dyed twirlers along with open-mouthed musos studying his every bass run. With his shift toward more commercial fare in the Wood Brothers, the demographics of the crowds have changed—and he’s not sweating it. “We’re a couples’ band now,” he says happily. “I have guys come up to me and say, ‘Your band plays the only music my wife and I can agree upon.’ We’ve even had marriage proposals to our songs.” He lets out a laugh and says, “C’mon, that’s big!”
Growing up, what made you gravitate to the bass?
That goes back to my family. Our father was actually a guitar player—not by profession, but he could have been. We grew up hearing him play guitar and sing, and that was our first live music. Oliver got interested in the guitar, but for some reason he decided to try the electric bass. For Christmas one year, he got one of those Gibson SG electric basses. He played it awhile, but then he decided that the guitar was what he was really into, so the bass was there lying around. I picked it up and began playing some blues riffs. That’s how I got started. It felt very natural.
Who were your early bass heroes?
I played along to records—Zeppelin, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Who. Eventually, I started to wonder, “Who were these guys into?” I quickly traced them back to the great Chicago and Delta blues musicians. We had some Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed records, so I listened to them. I didn’t even know who the bass players were on those records, but the sounds they got were remarkable. Rhythmically, everything was so powerful. Eventually, I got into jazz, and I was exploring everybody from Jaco Pastorius to Michael Henderson. R&B guys, too—Larry Graham just astounded me. I took it all in.
What was your first really good electric bass?
Early on, my music teacher helped me find a Music Man. I think it was from the ’70s. I still have it. I used to play it with MMW in the early days.
When did you start on the upright?
When I was around 15. I was lucky enough to have this great bass teacher, Rob Kassinger. He could play anything—electric, upright, jazz, classical, rock, R&B—and he convinced me to take on the upright. I was apprehensive at first, but he eased me into it. I was so fortunate to have him as a teacher. It’s important to have mentors like that when you’re young.
You didn’t ditch pick playing on the electric.
Oh, no. I love playing with a pick, especially on my Hofner. On the new record, the song “Happiness Jones” is all pick, although that’s on a Fender. The pick offers me a different approach to playing and getting sounds, so I’d never ditch it. You use your bridge pickup and play with a pick—it sounds like a baritone guitar.
Because you play both electric and upright, do you ever have to reacquaint your hands to each instrument?
At least for the way I want to play it, the upright is definitely a more high-maintenance, technically demanding thing. Your intonation has to be right on, and you have to have that high action to get a great tone. All of that takes commitment. Going to the electric feels easy after playing the upright, but it’s its own instrument in subtle ways. I set up my action high on the electric—that comes from playing the upright. The way I punch at it translates well to the amp. The lower the action is, the more limited your expression is.
Your penchant for using tricks to get sounds, putting paper under your strings and stuff—when did that start?
I think that started when I was involved with the downtown New York scene. Everybody was searching for new ways to get sounds from their instruments. In MMW, we loved to experiment and look for new sounds, and we got obsessed with all these field recordings from Africa. They had such incredibly exotic and beautiful sounds. “How are they doing that?” In our own ways, we tried to imitate that on our instruments.
On the upright I would weave paper between the strings to give me a distorted sound that I heard on a record from West Africa. Or I’d put alligator clips on the strings to get these weird overtones. I’d use a drumstick on one of the strings, and then I’d use a bow to create an “acoustic Theremin” sound. It was all very innocent and childlike, not ruling anything out to make music with. Music is sound and rhythm—those are two foundations.
In the ’90s, MMW collaborated a few times with John Scofield. Did he ever give you directions for what he wanted bass-wise?
Oh, no, nothing like that. He let us do whatever we wanted. When he hired us to do the A Go Go record, he was taking on this three-headed monster—Medeski Martin & Wood—so it wasn’t like he got some sidemen. He hired a band that had its own complicated dynamics, and he knew that. We brought us to the table there, along with all the experimentation that went with us.
On the new record, on “River Takes the Town,” you and Oliver are playing very sparse parts, but they’re perfectly laid on top of each other. They’re two voices that form one conversation.
Exactly. One thing I learned in MMW was that we had to have an awareness of rhythmic counterpoint. Rhythmic parts fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and they create an overall sound—like you said, a conversation. You complement and support, and you have to be aware of space. If Oliver has a certain guitar part, I look at my choices, and I try to fill in the cracks. Or vice versa. But you can’t get too busy, or else it’ll be a big mess.
Your bass line on “Happiness Jones” does get a little busy at times, yet you never get in the way of the vocal.
That’s true. I don’t know what exactly to compare it to … maybe James Jamerson. He could play creative, busy parts. You heard them; they were hooky, but the vocal always stood out. I think it also comes from listening to Sly Stone and James Brown records. And Stevie Wonder. All those great R&B records—that was kind of my approach.
“This Is It” has an Americana rock vibe that recalls The Band. Even your slippery bass lines sound a little Rick Danko-like.
Oh, I love The Band—we all do. We were lucky enough to live close to Levon Helm for a while during his last years, we got to be a part of his life, and we played his legendary midnight rambles. The Band is a big influence, for sure. They were the first Americana band, I’d say.
It’s funny: For a lot of people, when they think about Americana, they focus on the Appalachian side of roots music, but for us we consider any American music to be Americana. So that includes the blues—Chicago, Delta blues, and Texas blues—and all the incredible gospel music. It’s all fair game.
What was it like working with Iggy Pop on his record Avenue B?
Iggy’s one of those guys where his image onstage is a hell of a lot different than how he is in person. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a sweet, intelligent, kind, and warm human being. That record came out of the blue. Don Was produced, and I guess one day he was driving and he heard some MMW on the radio. He called us up and said, “I want to put your band on Iggy’s new record.” It was just … easy. Iggy was such a fun and open guy to play with. I had a blast with him.
What are the main electric and upright basses you’re using these days?
The upright is the 1920s G.A. Pfretzschner that I’ve always had. A few years ago, one of the airlines did a number on it, and I had to have a new neck carved for it. That actually kind of improved it, though. The body is original. Electric-wise, on “Happiness Jones” I used my ’73 Fender Jazz Bass, but for the most part, after a long hiatus, my primary bass is my early-’70s Hofner 500/1. I used that on a lot of MMW stuff and with Scofield. It’s my favorite, really; I feel like I created my own little universe with that one. I can use a pick on it, or I can play with a slide. I can treat it kind of like a baritone guitar, or it just sounds great as a bass. I was such a big Beatles fan, and McCartney’s sound with a Hofner is classic. He set the tone for the rest of us.
The Wood Brothers, One Drop of Truth [2018, Honey Jar], Paradise [2015, Honey Jar], Up Above My Head (covers EP) [2009, Indirecto]
Basses 1920s Pfretzschner upright, early-’70s Hofner 500/1, 1973 Fender Jazz Bass
Amps Ashdown ABM 600 EVO IV, Ampeg vintage B-15, Ashdown ABM-410H cabinet
Effects None (“The Wood Brothers have zero effects”)
Strings Pirastro gut strings (upright), Fender Nickel-Plated Roundwound (.045–.100)