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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis