Rob Pollard v Woods: "We make money on the road and that’s just the way it is now"

A man, a band, a record label. Rob Pollard talks to Woods' Jeremy Earl.

Woods, Brooklyn’s finest lo-fi folk-rock act, are one of the busiest and hardworking bands around. Jeremy Earl, the singer and guitarist, not only writes and records Woods records, but also runs the Woodsist label, releasing work from a disparate set of artists, and curates an annual Californian music festival. Rather than relying on an increasingly out-dated and unfair music industry, Woods have taken care of themselves, carving out a career and back-catalogue to be admired.

Since their formation in 2005, Woods have released seven studio albums, with their last one, Bend Beyond, catapulting them to new heights. Earl’s vocal is distinctive, setting Woods apart from their contemporaries. 

They recently played Primavera Sound, a festival in Barcelona that carefully puts together a stella line-up refusing to cater for the masses, instead focussing on a particular niche. The New Statesman spoke to Earl, the catalyst behind all things Woods, about the direction of the music industry and the future for his band. 

I saw your performance recently at Primavera and it was wonderful - the weather was beautiful and there was a brilliant atmosphere. How did you find it? 

Primavera was great; it was a really good experience. It’s just a beautiful place to play and Spain in general is a wonderful country to go to, and they treat the artists really well there. The crowd are really welcoming and excited about what you’re doing, so it’s fun. 

I think Primavera is a really important music festival. The line up caters for a particular kind of listener that can often be ignored.

To me, it’s really refreshing. I think it’s very varied - there’s all sorts of stuff, so I think we fit in that way, adding to the eclectic feel of the fest. 

Who else did you see whilst you were there?

We saw a couple of the other acts. We saw Kurt Vile, who’s a friend of ours. It’s always good to see a friend play in front of thousands of people.

He was fantastic, wasn’t he?

Yeah, he was really good! We also saw a bit of Animal Collective.

It’s interesting that you run your own record label which is where all Woods’ material is released from, as well as many other acts. What benefits does having your own label bring?

It definitely gives you more creative control. You just completely skip that label step because you are the label, so there’s really no answering to anybody, you can basically do whatever you want. You can take as much time, or as little time. It’s been our way for a while and it’s worked out. The band and the label have grown together, and we’re still able to do it, so it’s going okay for now. 

Do you have to be really business-minded to run your own label, or was it something you just fell into?

Just completely fell into it, and then over the years just picked up on different things of the business aspect of it. There’s still a lot I’m sure I’m doing wrong, but it seems to work for us right now. But, no, I don’t come from a business background or anything, I come from an art background, I’m just an artist and that’s what I do, so I’m kinda just winging it, and it’s working. 

You’ve released material from some great artists, like Kurt Vile, Real Estate and Crystal Stilts. Are those all acts that you rate particularly highly?

Yeah, it was a great experience to work with those guys early on, and it’s great to see bands move on to bigger things, and none of us knew where those three bands would be. Like, Real Estate are way beyond the capacity of what my label could actually do for them because it’s just me sitting in my house. But now they have a team and it’s working really well for them. 

Is there any new Woods material in the pipeline?

We’re in the studio right now, actually. We’ve been recording and we’re going back in next week, and then we’re doing some more touring. We’ll be back over in the UK in August and then we’re planning to record more after that trip, so right now I’d say we’re a little more than halfway done recording the record. We’re thinking we’ll have something new out in early spring. 

What’s your favourite Woods record so far?

So far, I’d say the newest one, Bend Beyond, but the experience of recording this past week has gotten me super excited, so I can definitely say this new record is gonna be by far our best and my favourite. 

What about your influences then. Who’s your all-time favourite artist?

That’s a hard one. I love The Rolling Stones, and George Harrison. Neil Young, of course, and The Grateful Dead. They’re all bands I will never get sick of and could listen to every single day. 

You can hear Neil Young’s influence in your work. He played a few UK dates recently, including a big night at the O2 Arena. How do you feel about him still touring because some people feel these things are often better left alone rather than stretching them out into the later years of life?

I’m all for it, why not. I hope that when I’m older I can be doing it, it sounds wonderful! I saw Neil on his last tour in the States when they came to New York and it was great - it sounded amazing. I guess on the other side of the spectrum you have The Rolling Stones. I haven’t seen them, but maybe their bodies aren’t quite able to do it anymore but they still seem to do it. 

I’m all for it as long as you can do it physically. Neil’s playing is still amazing, and his voice sounds perfect, so once things like the voice go, and you can’t get the right notes, then I would say maybe think about giving it a rest.

How difficult is it for musicians outside the mainstream to make money from music these days? I often ask bands about Spotify, in particular, because it seems these newer platforms aren’t very fair to artists, with a lot of the money now pushed away from the bands.

Yeah, for something like Spotify it’s basically non-existent for us - it’s a fraction of a cent. For the number of plays we’re actually getting, I don’t think it amounts to anything, really, but we’ll make more money on the road and that’s just the way it is now. The records sell well - no complaints there - but the real way we make any kind of money is whenever we go on any kind of extended tour. 

How do you think artists can wrestle back some of the power?

A lot of people just starting to do everything themselves: being the record label, recording your own records - these things eliminate a step and save money. If you can’t do it just as well then don’t compromise, but if you can do it as well a big record label or fancy recording studio you might as well do it. 

So taking control of your own destiny?

Absolutely, and I feel a lot of bands are starting to do that. They’re getting out of their record contracts and saying ‘we’re gonna release this record on our own’, and then they strike up some kind of distribution deal with someone, and then that’s it. It depends on the band but it makes sense. 

There was a lot of energy and excitement during your Primavera set and it looked like the band were really enjoying themselves. Is touring the best part of being in Woods?

I kinda like recording, especially this next record because it’s a different style for us, in a proper studio. It’s been a really enlightening experience, and great just to try something new. I’ll always love playing live but there’s something about the studio that’s really exciting. 

Do you notice a difference between the audience at your US gigs to those here in the UK?

I think there is a difference. I feel like in the UK and Europe - I don’t know if it’s because we don’t come over as much - there’s always more excitement and energy. It’s different than in the US. We don’t play a ton in the US but we play enough where we’re hitting cities maybe a couple of times a year, and it’s always good but there is a general excitement that feels good for us in the UK. 

I remember seeing Woods at the Deaf Institute in Manchester and everyone really enjoyed that night.

Yeah, I remember, I love that place. That was our more stripped down, acoustic tour, whereas now it’s more of a full rock band, so it’s a much different sound now. 

As well as your label, you also organise your own festival, don’t you?

Yeah, usually once a year in California. I love it. I get it a lot of help from this guy at folkYEAH, a California show promoter, and he takes care of that end of stuff. I curate and deal with the artists. It’s great, and Big Sur is the place where everything comes together and it’s always a magical couple of days. It’s such a beautiful environment, and we look forward to doing it every year. 

There's more about Woods on their site and on Twitter.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder