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

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era