The unconventional doubler discusses the new Wood Brothers album, his experiments with tone, and the thrill of improvisation
Percussive, guttural, aggressive, dynamic, decisive, melodic, and rhythmically entrancing. When Chris Wood steps up to his double bass, he does it with all the authority of a man who has spent his life on countless stages diving into the unknown in the realm of improvisation and coming out on the other side. His physicality on the upright gives him a towering appearance, despite his modest stature. Getting every bit of sound from each note, Wood is a master of resonance, and more important, dynamics. His lines come to life with earthy tones that feed off of string buzz and reverberation, while his pocket and groove never waver under the command of his adept fingers. When he straps on his vintage Hofner bass guitar, Wood is equally impactful. Chasing every tonal possibility via forceful plucking, rhythmic picking, precisely stroked low notes, muted thumbing, and even a steel-guitar slide, he makes the listener wonder what exactly they’re hearing.
Those two instruments have been the 53-year-old doubler’s preferred vehicles of expression for over three decades with his avant-groove jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, and for almost two decades with his folky Americana outfit, the Wood Brothers. The latest from TWB, Heart Is the Hero, is a fine sample of Wood’s playing. From his upbeat grooves on “Pilgrim” and his syncopated backbeat on “Line Those Pockets,” to his lead riff and lead vocal on “Mean Man World” and his melodic depth on “Rollin’ On,” Chris is obviously at home in the music that he creates with his brother, guitarist/vocalist Oliver Wood, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix. The three recorded the album to analog tape, intentionally limiting their options. The result is a record that’s both complex and full of depth, while remaining joyful and easy to listen to. On the bottom, Wood digs into his toolbox to issue tones and note choices that keep us guessing throughout, which is exactly his intention.
Congratulations on the release of Heart Is the Hero. How does it feel to have it out to the world?
It’s always interesting putting new stuff out there and seeing how people react. Creating music like this is always a bit of a rollercoaster ride. I think you get excited about it, and then you think, Oh, maybe it’s not as great as I think it is, and then, No, maybe it is — but wait, maybe it isn’t. What’s been nice about this record is the way we created it, because it made for less anxiety. The rollercoaster ride was not as crazy as it usually can be. I attribute that partly to the process of recording it, which was completely analog, meaning fewer choices. We only had 16 tracks to work with for each song. We basically had to work fast and go with our gut feelings, and then it was what it was. It felt honest and immediate.
It’s certainly a stripped-down album. Was that your motivation to simplify and go analog?
We’re old enough to have one foot in the old-school way of doing things, before computers took over recording directly to tape, so we decided to take that route for this album. We got an MCI two-inch tape machine with 16-track heads on it for our studio in Nashville, and that was it. I think the biggest takeaway was — and I can’t overstate how profound it is — we’re so used to our technology these days, it has infiltrated our lives so completely that we forget sometimes how infused it is. Even when recording albums, most people have only ever known using computer screens and watching waveforms go by. Now, watching music is very different from just listening with no visual; we can watch these waveforms on the screen and think, Oh, fix that, do this, here comes the drums, even though I don’t hear them yet. That’s not how we use our ears in the real world. We don’t listen with our eyes. It leads to a lot of overthinking, overworking, and over-massaging music until you get rid of all its quirks, all of its soul, all the mistakes that make it human. Something about doing this record to tape, with no screens ever turned on, made us use our instincts and made for quick decisions. The result is more organic, it’s warmer, and it’s human.
It sounds like the process became part of the inspiration behind this music.
It definitely helped. I believe that the best music is made from a place of stillness, where you’re just reacting to your environment. You’re not actually doing anything; you’re simply a receiver of information. It’s so instantaneous that if you’re still and open in receiving it, you trust that your body will react immediately and appropriately. That’s where music should come from. In his new book [The Creative Act: A Way of Being, 2023, Penguin], Rick Rubin has this great quote that sums it up beautifully: “Self-expression is not about you.” And that’s exactly what I’m talking about — it’s your environment. You’re not doing it. We want to be good at music and we want to get credit for music and get attention for music. It fosters the state of mind where we’re doing it. So how do you get to that point? That’s our journey all the time.
You get some nice string noise and reverberation on the album. Was it a conscious decision to keep that on the tracks?
Yes — I’ve never understood why you would want to get rid of that. All of those noises are part of the instrument. I’m a big fan of Charles Mingus, and he never tried to hide that stuff. He would go as far as pulling the strings over the side of the neck and getting all kinds of crazy percussive, buzzy sounds. I love that; it’s beautiful. There’s something about distortion in any form that is appealing to the human ear if it’s done right.
The album kicks off with the feel-good groove of “Pilgrim.” Did that song start with the bass line?
The overall groove was actually influenced by a Pointer Sisters song that we liked. A couple records ago, we had a song called “Happiness Jones,” and we recorded two versions of it: one with the “Pilgrim” groove, and one with a groove that ended up on that album [One Drop of Truth, 2018]. We always loved that bass line, and we finally ended up writing a new song around it. So it had been floating around for a while, and I’m glad we found a vehicle for it.
“Line Those Pockets” has a lot of syncopated interplay.
It’s heavily influenced by a couple of heroes of mine — Cachao [López] and his nephew Cachaito [Orlando López], from the band Buena Vista Social Club. They are amazing Cuban bassists who have impacted my playing in a major way. Jano [Rix] came up with this interesting drum and keyboard part, and the song already existed as this folky kind of piece. We rearranged it all and figured out how the pieces should fall together, and that was the result.
You handle lead vocals on “Mean Man World.” Was that something you brought to the table?
Yeah, that song was written in a stock music vein, sort of a fingerpicking-guitar kind of thing. As I kept playing it, I experimented with strumming my Hofner bass. The main strumming instrument you’re hearing is not a guitar; it’s the bass.
I thought it was a baritone guitar.
Nope, it’s all bass, which gives it a huge, fat sound. Something we discovered on the previous record is that the Hofner bass sounds amazing when you just mic it and it’s not plugged in. If you put the right kind of mic in the right spot, it sounds enormous — woody, fat, transparent, and beautiful. That was a fun discovery. I’ve never heard anything quite like my “Mean Man World” part, where the bass is strumming full chords, or arpeggiating full chords, in the way a guitar player would. It allowed for Oliver to play higher accompaniment on the guitar and the piano. And then I’m kind of holding down the rhythm with the bass, as well, which allowed Jano to focus on his piano parts. It creates an orchestral type of sound.
The Hofner has been your go-to electric bass for a while now. What do you like about it?
Back in the ’90s when MMW was on tour, we’d always explore used-instrument shops. I remember seeing it and picking it up, and hitting a few notes without plugging it in. I was like, I’m getting this! I bought it on the spot because of the acoustic sound. I’ve always been a Beatles fan; the tones that Paul McCartney got are extraordinary. I also like the Hofner’s scale length and neck. Ultimately, the instrument’s versatility is what does it for me. I can do so many things that are unique, and a big part is because it’s an acoustic instrument. You don’t even have to plug it in and it sounds good.
You like to play the bass unconventionally at times, even using a slide with your Hofner on “Jitterbug Love,” from 2020’s Kingdom in My Mind. What inspires you to search for unorthodox ways to play?
It’s all just music. We think of these instruments like they exist in some kind of box, but in actuality they’re simply noisemakers, and you can make any kind of sound you want on them. If it sounds good to you, then it’s probably useful. I’ve played a lot of things in the past that people think are guitar, but it happened to be my bass. On the Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood record [Out Louder, 2006, Indirecto Records], I played the whole intro to a song [“Tequila & Chocolate”] on the Hofner with a pick. At the time, people would tell Scofield they dug the weird, low intro he played, and ask what it was. And he’d say, “It wasn’t me — it was Chris!”
Your note choices keep the listener guessing. How much of that is your jazz background sneaking in?
I don’t know; I think it’s partly second nature, but you’re right, it has something to do with my jazz background. Particularly, if I had to name one source, there’s a record that sort of became an adjective for Medeski Martin & Wood. It was a Duke Ellington Trio record called Money Jungle[1963, United Artists], with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. I don’t know how much of it is true, but the story is that Mingus had brought in a bunch of songs for the session. Mingus idolized Duke Ellington, from what I understand, and you can hear it in his compositions. Mingus came into the session with his tunes, and Duke was like, No, no, no, we’re only gonna do my songs. Mingus got angry and stormed out, and Duke had to chase after him. The way it sounds to me on that record is that Mingus is pissed off. On some of the songs it almost sounds like he’s trying to mess up Duke and Max. He’s doing some very angry-sounding yet beautiful gestures that are not traditional playing by any means — the choices he makes. It creates an incredible amount of personality and results in a special record. We would use that all the time in Medeski Martin & Wood: We’d be working on something, and then one of us would say, “Hey, do that Money Jungle thing!” And we all knew what it meant. It meant you had to mess it up in the right way to create something that was different, special, or interesting.
How does your brain switch mentalities from stepping onstage with MMW vs. the Wood Brothers?
Once you get to the part where you’re actually performing, it’s surprisingly similar. But everything leading up to that moment is very different. With the Wood Brothers, we have songs that we work on, we have warmups, we sing together, and we have a whole routine. With Medeski Martin & Wood, we talk very little about the music — we just do it. We’re inspired by other things, like a great meal before the show. The way we prepare for shows is quite different, but the ultimate goal is exactly the same: to step onstage and be relaxed, in the moment, and open. It’s a truly joyful thing. Another difference is I was much younger for most of my career with Medeski Martin & Wood, and I was grappling with a lot of insecurities. As a kid or as a younger musician, it would baffle me when I saw great, seasoned musicians onstage who would make a mistake and laugh. I was so confused by that. Like, how do you do that? If I made a mistake, I couldn’t stop beating myself up for the rest of the show, and I would probably lose some sleep that night. It took me many years to learn that those mistakes can be windows into the best part of the show. It’s a window of vulnerability that allows the audience in.
What do you love about improvisation in music?
Even if it’s a song you’ve played a thousand times, it feels entirely new if you’re improvising something you’ve never played before. That’s the state you want to be in. There’s a certain danger in improvisation that keeps you present. It’s like driving a car at 150 miles per hour — you get a high because if you flinch, you die; you have to focus entirely to survive. It can be a song you’ve played a million times, but you can still feel that same sense of danger. A beautiful danger, you know? The presence and the joy of the sonic and rhythmic things that are happening, it’s all there. When you’re in that space, there’s no memory anymore, there’s no future. It’s just you, and you’re enjoying what’s happening in the moment. –BM
Hear Him On
The Wood Brothers, Heart Is the Hero 
Bass Pfretzschner upright, Vintage Hofner 500/1
Rig Ashdown amps
Strings Electric, Thomastik Flat Round; upright, Eva Pirazzi
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