Woods: A Brief Escape Into the Dreamlike Atmosphere
photo credit: Alex Bleeker
Following an extended studio hiatus and the tragic passing of their hero and creative partner David Berman, Woods blast back with a blurry-eyed classic unintentionally tied to the COVID-19 era.
Jarvis Taveniere, Woods’ multi-instrumentalist and in-house producer, has grown into one of the indie world’s most trusted studio hands in recent years. But, he’s still not afraid to go back to basics when the situation calls for it.
“It sounds corny to be like, ‘We went in a synthy direction,’” he says, describing the unexpected left turn Woods took on their 11th studio album, Strange to Explain, while calling from outside his studio in Los Angeles.
“We’d use anything that made a noise or melody that sounded cool. A lot of times, it was just an old, shitty Casio that we plugged into a distortion pedal.” “We used the mellotron a lot, and we purposely wanted to sit back with some guitars, where we might usually mix in some extra layers or solos,” adds vocalist/guitarist/ songwriter Jeremy Earl, who is quarantining at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. “We held back and let the keys do the speaking in order to have a different vibe—a different texture. But it also added to the dreamlike atmosphere that we were going for in the subject matter of the songs and the vibe of the record in general.”
While the keyboard emphasis certainly adds a new flavor to Woods’ already eclectic palette, in many ways, Strange to Explain is really a return to the group’s halcyon days. The band recorded the album in a remote California studio in Marin County, which Taveniere felt added to its “roomier” sound. “The last records have been a little more claustrophobic and tight, and I wanted to get back to the earlier, sort of open [sound]—like we were recording in a house with mics everywhere and they were just on, capturing the vibe,” he explains, nodding to the group’s years woodshedding at their Rear House studio in Brooklyn and Earl’s Warwick, N.Y. abode. “The whole process was a little more like our old Woods records.”
That marriage of progress and tradition has been one of Woods’ hallmarks since the begining. The seminal psych-folk collective has always drawn on an extensive set of influences, from the lofi noise-folk of 2009’s Songs of Shame to the Ethiopian jazz and rhythm of 2016’s City Sun Eater in the River of Light. At the same time, despite their varied reference points, each record has still, somehow, always sounded like Woods.
“All of our albums are continuing in our model but growing at the same time,” clarifies Earl. “I’m always most excited and most proud of our newest records—the longer we do it, the more confident we are in the studio, and the more confident we are with the songwriting, the decisions we make and the sounds we want to use.”
Yet, Strange to Explain captures the members of Woods during one of the most transitional periods of their decade-plus career. The three years between the record and 2017’s Love Is Love marks the longest stretch between Woods albums since the band’s inception in 2005. During that time, Earl and Taveniere both experienced profound personal changes. The latter moved from his longtime New York homebase to Los Angeles to produce and mix a variety of bands, a parallel career that’s always excited him. (These days though, especially during quarantine, Taveniere is itching to perform live again. “Getting to play live or be on tour breaks up the monotony of just being in the studio day after day,” he laments.)
Meanwhile, Earl left Brooklyn, fully relocating out of the city to the skyscraper-free Hudson Valley. The move coincided with the arrival of Earl’s newborn daughter, Sierra, as well as a significant break from songwriting. “My break was intentional,” Earl explains. “My wife and I moved upstate and had a baby, and I wanted to just devote time to that new life and figuring out how to be a new parent while still being a working musician.” He also acknowledges that the break was crucial in re-sparking his creativity. “It was also necessary for me mentally. I needed to recharge, refresh and let the life experiences build up. Then, when I sat down and picked up a guitar, it just started coming out.”
The learning curve that comes with being a new parent was central to Strange to Explain’s inspiration, right down to the way the tracks were organically written. “A lot of it is spontaneous— listening to a James Brown song and being like, ‘Man, that song is so good. Let’s try to incorporate a groove like that.’ And then boom—a song is born, just from a drumbeat.” But this time, songwriting grew into a way for Earl to work through his experiences as a new father. And that mindset, inevitably, spilled over into the new record’s lyrics.
“A lot of Strange to Explain was based on being a new father, getting used to not sleeping and our lives evolving around our newborn. So, that was where my head was—just trying to escape from our everyday realities,” elaborates Earl. “And, when I got back to songwriting—I took a little break after my daughter was born—I’d slip off after she was in bed and everybody was settled and slowly start writing.”
His thoughts on the passage of time and escapism came to a head on Strange to Explain’s marquee track, “Where Do You Go When You Dream?” The song’s opening lyrics serve as the LP’s unofficial mission statement: “Preoccupied with life itself/ Absorbed all the attention you need/ Return to the state you were born/ An old friend you left to die/ A flower that your daughter holds/ A new light you left inside/ Can’t help but watch the garden grow/ So slow as it takes its time.”
“‘Where Do You Go When You Dream?’ was the first song that was written for the album,” recalls Earl. “It was the first idea that Jarvis and I worked on together for this record, but it was one of the last that we recorded. After we started tracking that song, it just solidified exactly what I was going for with the record.”
The number, and the album as a whole, emphasizes Woods’ studio evolution. But, Earl, Taveniere and drummer Aaron Neveu, who took part in the sessions, were also eager to maintain certain elements of Woods’ DIY recording approach. “We’ve graduated to proper studios and have really learned how to use the studio to our advantage,” Earl says. “But we are still always thinking about our early bedroom approach—how we used to do it in the past—in the back of our heads. We want to keep that loose ramshackle vibe.”
The origins of Woods can be traced back to the late 1990s and early 2000s at Harrison, N.Y.’s Purchase College, where Earl and Taveniere were first introduced. Earl remembers meeting his future partner at a gig. “I must’ve been a freshman at college, and I saw a band that Taveniere was playing in—he was the lead singer,” he recalls. “I bought a seven-inch from a suitcase he had onstage with him. That blew me away. I was like, ‘Whoa, this band has a record out.’ And then, maybe a year later, I ended up replacing the drummer in that band. And that’s how I started playing in bands more seriously and playing with Jarvis.”
Taveniere and Earl immediately bonded over their eclectic musical tastes. In fact, it was through his friendship with Earl that Taveniere realized that the indie, punk and jamband scenes were really part of the same world.
“After we met through music, we started talking about different stuff that we liked,” Taveniere recalls. “At that point, even though it wasn’t true for me, I thought that the punks with mohawks only liked punk, the hardcore kids only liked hardcore and the kids with sweaters only liked Belle and Sebastian. When I scratched the surface I realized, ‘Oh, everyone kind of likes everything.’ That opened up a world of excitement. Jeremy was definitely the first person I met who played in a hardcore band while wearing a Grateful Dead shirt. I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ I just didn’t realize that that was a thing—even though my musical tastes were all over the place.”
However, the new friends still had differing musical aspirations at the time. Taveniere had known that he wanted to be a professional musician since he was a young child. “I arrived at that when I bought a Mötley Crüe cassette when I was eight years old. That never really changed.” While the music industry seemed daunting at first, Taveniere found his way in through the punk and indie scenes. “When I was younger, looking at huge stadium bands and all that stuff, it was like, ‘Well, I don’t know how you penetrate that world.’ Punk and indie definitely made it seem more tangible—‘Get a four-track [recorder and] just do it.’”
Earl admits that he “never thought [he] was going to be a professional musician.” In fact, when he arrived at Purchase, the future frontman had plans to work in the fine arts and actually majored in printmaking. But all the while, he continued to play in bands. “As soon as I learned to play an instrument, I immediately found people to start bands with,” he says. “And, it just went from there and continued into college. Being in a band was just a side thing that we did, but it eventually took over.”
While in college, Earl and Taveniere also met fellow early Woods members G. Lucas Crane and Christian DeRoeck, but the band didn’t truly crystalize for some time. In 2002, Earl moved to New York City, where he eventually performed in the punky indie act Meneguar with DeRoeck and Taveniere. He also began creating music on his own. It was those bedroom sketches that served as Woods’ foundation.
“[Earl] was doing these records at home—the first two records I wasn’t involved in,” recalls Taveniere. “With the third one, he almost had it finished but asked me if I wanted to add some guitar and some bass to it. And that got the ball rolling. It was just me and him recording music in the house we shared. We’d have these barbecues—we’d have people come over and record a jam with us. And then Jeremy would take the jam, edit it, add a vocal and turn it into a song.”
Though Meneguar was still active, Woods slowly came into focus, first as a studio project, then as a live act. (They parted ways with DeRoeck, a primary songwriter early on, after a few years; the musician recently released “Rear House,” a tune looking back on that era, with his Little Gold project.) Lacking a full touring lineup, the band would often experiment with inventive live setups; tapes player/keyboardist Crane would often sing through a pair of headphones and Taveniere would sometimes play bass and drums simultaneously. “I had this bass that had two strings on it, and I tuned them both to the same note, an octave apart,” he explains. “I would use a capo so the open strings would be in the key of whatever song we were playing. And I would ride that, like it was the high hat.”
Taveniere believes that this experimental spirit helped Woods gain a loyal following, at least initially. “We were always trying to fill out the sound and make the live show better, but we were so fragmented,” he continues. “We were rewarded more when we just weren’t thinking straight, making these home recordings and having me play bass with a drumstick. More people were into what we were doing when we indulged that, so I felt like we kept getting pushed down that avenue.”
Eventually though, as their tours got bigger, Woods’ first well-known live configuration—Earl, Taveniere, Crane and new-recruit Kevin Morby—solidified in the late-‘00s. “We put out Songs of Shame in 2009 and started going on bigger tours and stuff, so we got Kevin to play bass, kind of randomly,” remembers Earl. “We had a free room in our house, and he was a friend of a friend and moved in. And, we said, ‘Who could play bass? I think Kevin plays! He could probably do it.’”
Staying true to their bedroom approach, Earl and Taveniere remained prolific, releasing 10 albums between 2007 and 2017. Taveniere is particularly proud of their consistent output: “I always love when artists do that—when they hit a stride in their career and start releasing music quickly and it’s all pretty good.” While Woods began to carve out their niche in the indie-rock scene, Earl and Taveniere started to leave their creative mark in other ways as well; Taveniere continued to produce and work with a mix of other acts, and Earl focused on his label, Woodsist, which served as the launching pad for such artists as Real Estate and Kurt Vile, as well as Morby’s solo work. (Morby amicably left the band in 2013 to pursue other projects and Crane stepped away to focus on a mix of endeavors.) As Woods gained traction in the scene, Earl had to balance the needs of the label and the band. “It definitely keeps me busy and, whenever I was in the middle of a Woods year, I would have to scale back the label,” he notes. “Before Woods really got going, I was doing something like 10 releases a year, and I’ve had to inch that back as Woods has grown to make it all work.”
After a decade of consistent album creation, it isn’t surprising that Earl and Taveniere felt they needed a creative break—or that the album that resulted from Woods’ pause would address the growth in their non-musical lives.
Since the songs for Strange to Explain were written, the LP’s escapism themes have also been retrofitted to echo multiple changes in the world at large. Before it was completely finished, the two men had to reckon with the loss of The Silver Jews’ David Berman, who tragically took his own life in August 2019. Earl and Taveniere had recently finished working with him on a new project, Purple Mountains, which released an eponymous record a month before Berman’s passing. The indie-rock icon originally reached out to Earl via a late-night email; with fatherhood approaching, at first the Woods singer was hesitant to sign on, but Taveniere quickly talked him into it. Taveniere was getting ready to tour with Berman in support of the heralded album—as part of a band comprised of members of the Woods family—when he found Berman’s body in Brooklyn.
While Strange to Explain was already nearly done, completing the album was still colored by Berman’s death. “A lot of that experience definitely seeped in there,” says Earl. “It was a heavy time, a heavy experience. But, it felt good for us to get back in the studio, get things going, release another record and try to just keep positive.”
They eventually dropped Strange to Explain a few months into the current global pandemic, which, unsurprisingly, affected the tone of the album’s release. The band had to cancel a slew of dates and their promo cycle has been, understandably, limited. However, it speaks to Earl’s power as a songwriter and Taveniere’s intuition as a producer and instrumentalist that the album is still able to capture the moment, even though it was recorded without knowledge of the current global crisis. Ultimately, Earl believes, the timing of the release was perfect.
“I’m glad the record came out when it did—I didn’t want to delay it,” he says. “When it was released, everybody was deep in quarantine, just sitting at home. The record, to me, took on this escapist narrative and—looking at it now after what happened with the coronavirus—it has taken on a new meaning. It could offer some release—a brief escape.”