Chris Wood of The Wood Brothers shares insight into entirely analog process of ‘The Heart is the Hero’

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MARIETTA, Ohio (WOUB) – Oliver and Chris Wood have been playing music together as The Wood Brothers for about 20 years. Each brother has their own personal musical history.

For many years Oliver was in King Johnson – an Atlanta-based blues/rock group he formed that toured hard and often throughout the ‘90s. Around that same time, Chris Wood co-founded Medeski Martin & Wood – a NYC-based jazz fusion group with a strong hip-hop influence.

Even so many years on, those seemingly disparate musical histories are still blending and reflecting off of each other in new ways, as evidenced on their latest full-length, The Heart is the Hero. The album was recorded entirely analog to 16-track tape, giving the record a kind of warmness that’s difficult to describe but easy to recognize, when you hear it.

The Wood Brothers play the Peoples Bank Theatre (222 Putnam St.) October 18. In advance of that performance Chris Wood spoke to WOUB’s Emily Votaw. Find an edited and condensed transcript of that conversation below. 

A press photo of The Wood Brothers. They are against a white background.
The Wood Brothers [Photo by Sherrin Lainez]
Emily Votaw:
Could you talk about the decision to completely forgo digital recording on The Heart is the Hero?

Chris Wood:
Well, obviously in the past have used digital a lot, and in fact, on the previous record, Kingdom In My Mind, we relied on it heavily – because we started that album without any songs, really. We had just acquired a building in Nashville that we were going to turn into our studio. And as we were getting things set up, we decided to just start improvising and recording, and our engineer set up the digital recording unit and we really just captured improvisations – which, when using digital, you can really edit and sculpt – you can turn one thing into something else. That’s the incredible thing about digital – you kind of can do anything you want.

It’s kind of the audio equivalent of green screens and computer animation in the film industry. You can really do just about anything with digital, and that’s what makes it an amazing tool. It’s almost too much of a good thing. It can be dangerous, in a sense. I think what we love about records from the ‘70s, for example, or the ‘60s and ‘50s, is that pre-digital, people had to approach recording and mixing records more like a live performance. And because of that, sometimes strange things happened – all kinds of things happened which weren’t done on purpose, but because it was in a pre-digital world and the audio was not easy to “fix” – those things just had to be left in.

And, over time, those quirky things that weren’t done on purpose become what gives a recording personality. Those are the parts that become your favorite part of the song. I think that’s what we love about analog. For us, all the records from the pre-digital era that were done on analog have a kind of magical humanness, this human imperfection – because the beauty of the imperfection never got cleaned up. Once people could start using computers, then they could just keep tweaking mixes constantly. They could listen to it over and over – and every little change is saved in a computer, right? That process tends to lead to people “perfecting” something so much that it loses its personality – its humanity.

What was fun for us was to really take it back to that extreme of not only recording to two inch tape, but recording on a 16 track as opposed to 24. So you have physically more tape for every track, which sounds amazing. And then we literally never turned on a screen. It sort of sounds silly, but that had an actually incredibly profound impact on making the record. Because I think in this modern area, we get used to seeing everything before it even happens – even sounds! We see sounds on a screen, we see them going by, we see the sound that just happened, and then we see the sound that’s about to happen. And when you’re doing that, your brain is in a different place. Whereas if you’re just sitting in a room with speakers and there’s no screen, the vibrations just hit your body and you react instantaneously. You don’t know what’s coming because you can’t see it. So you only experience it when it actually happens to your body. I always think that that’s the same way we dance to music. You let the vibrations hit your body and you react to it.

So, when you make a record that way, the decision-making process is just less agonizing. You spend your time just listening and reacting quickly and making big decisions quickly. Figuring out when one take feels better than another one.  And you don’t think about it too much, you can’t see it, you can’t analyze the waveforms. It’s just you trust your gut feelings about it. And so really you tend to get a lot more done, a lot quicker, and the end result is definitely more organic –  and there’s some rough edges, but in the end, that’s what we love about it.

Emily Votaw:
Could you point to any moments on the record where any of those types of analog quirks come through – or maybe any instances where those kinds of quirks did become your favorite parts of a song?

Chris Wood:
I dunno. So I mean, those quirks almost become the medium at that point because we were basically performing the songs live for the most part. And then there’s minimal overdubs. But for the most part, it’s a live performance. So even a song that you’ve written and you’ve rehearsed a little bit, if you haven’t rehearsed it too much, there’s always parts of the song that you know, but you really don’t know what you’re going to do until it gets to that part of the song. So in a sense, there’s some improvising going on, and those are the things that if they’re good enough – that it feels good to you – you’re not really going to go back and change it because it would be difficult to do that. Where I think in the digital realm, it’s so easy to change that – sometimes you don’t literally even need to go back and replay anything. You can ask the engineer to just grab this digital note from over here and paste it over here. So it’s kind of everywhere throughout the tracks.

Emily Votaw:
I know we are talking about the technological process of recording music right now, but I’m really curious: did you find that the analog approach you took to making this record impacted any other parts of your life?

Chris Wood:
I mean, you definitely feel different at the end of the day. I feel like we were more energized. I think staring at computers all day, and especially when it involves agonizing over minutiae, that in the end – in your heart, in the back of your mind – you know that this minutiae that everyone is agonizing over, nobody else is ever going to notice. If you compare the digital recording process to another kind of art, like painting – you end up operating in a super detailed way – like [Georges] Seurat.

But with analog, it’s about making bigger, bolder strokes. You take bigger swings, you have to get rid of your fear about something not being good enough –  you just go and perform it again instead of constantly trying to fix things, which in the digital realm, you always seem to get into this thing of like, ‘well, that wasn’t that good, but we can fix it.’ But in the analog realm, it’s like, ‘that wasn’t that good. Let’s go play it again.’ So there’s more action, there’s more actual playing. And I think by the end of a day like that, you feel better. You feel more energized, you feel more in touch with the music – instead of sitting on a couch for four hours while the engineer shapes a waveform on a computer screen. There’s nothing creative or musical about that. It’s just becomes technical minutia. So I think that’s what we loved about it.

Emily Votaw:
Do you think you will stick with strictly analog recording in the future?

Chris Wood:
It’s always going to be a part of what we do in the future, I think. But there may be things that we think of that for whatever reason, if there is something that’s maybe less fully formed an idea – in that case, digital is such a useful tool. It’s not like, ‘oh, I’m never going to use that again. But I think more than ever, we have an awareness of the pros and the cons of usinf digital. And so it’s not that we’re always going to favor one over the other 100 percent, but I think we have a much more nuanced appreciation of what each approach is good for, what each medium is good for.

Then it just depends on what song you come up with and what you think your end result is going to be. But the medium of analog is something we love. So it’s almost like if you choose that, we’re already going to love it, even if the song isn’t perfect or isn’t the best thing we’ve ever done – it’s about the medium of it – in the same way that in painting, the medium of oil paint just looks interesting. And even if it’s not the greatest painting in the world, it’s just that medium itself has a quality that you might love. As long as you use that, you’re already doing something that’s interesting.