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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage