The Shred Yr Face tour begins its third, folksiest incarnation to date this weekend, with all three participants playing instores at London's Puregroove on Sunday, prior to a medium extensive jaunt around the country. The bands, in case you've missed them, are Espers, The Cave Singers and oddball Brooklynites Woods, who DiS's New York man Nick Neyland caught up with recently.
Woods aren’t just a band, they’re a thriving industry. Singer Jeremy Earl runs the semi-legendary Woodsist (Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts, Wavves) and Fuck It Tapes labels. Guitarist Jarvis Taveniere has played with Wooden Wand, and tape manipulator G. Lucas Crane indulges in a side project named Nonhorse (“It’s like being swallowed by a vortex,” he says). Woodsist recently joined forces with the Captured Tracks label to present a celebratory two-day festival in Brooklyn, which featured performances from bands who have appeared on both labels.
Somewhere among all this activity is Woods. The somber psych-folk of their most recent album, Songs of Shame, is propelled by Earl’s yearning falsetto, which is perfectly matched by some beautifully brittle production values. It’s easily one of the best albums of 2009. The Woods live experience substantially builds on their recorded output. Earl and Taveniere sing into crackling Green Bullet mics, while Crane slams multicoloured cassettes into a tape deck and howls into a contraption strapped to his face. We met up with Earl and Taveniere in Brooklyn, while Mike Sniper from Blank Dogs/Captured Tracks silently eavesdropped on the conversation. Crane also chipped in with some e-mail observations.
DiS: How did Woods begin?
Jeremy Earl: I guess it basically started as a bedroom project. I kind of started recording the songs by myself and then eventually I compiled enough to release a cassette. That was the first tape, a double cassette that I did on my Fuck It Tapes label. From that it grew into more of an actual band, where more people took an interest in it and we all began to perform and put our time into it. And right now it’s just a full-on band.
Jarvis Taveniere: It was a pretty slow process though. It wasn’t until the third full-length record where I got involved, and only a little bit at that point.
JE: Yeah, the beginning was like, 2005. So it stayed a bedroom project until 2007 or 2008.
DiS: What are your earliest memories of playing together?
JE: The first actual Woods show was pretty thrown together. It was at Glasslands [notorious loft/performance space in Brooklyn].
JT: I wasn’t in it then.
JE: When we first started playing live, we weren’t even ready for it. It was so much of a bedroom vibe that we had. The live aspect wasn’t that thought out yet.
JT: I think Jeremy knew he wasn’t just going to play a bunch of songs acoustically. So it took a while to figure out how to present the full spectrum of what the records are in a live setting.
G. Lucas Crane: The Glasslands stage was literally made of garbage and I remember something poking me in the back while I played. I remember it being good, or having a good time. Except someone in the other opening band made a rape joke on stage, and everyone got pissed off. Weird. I remember hanging out after the show on the sidewalk and someone drove past blasting the Woods tape they just bought. It was a shadow of things to come.
Video: Woods: 'Rain On'
DiS: What is Lucas’s role in the band?
LC: I record samples onto cassette tapes and manipulate them live using a crossfader DJ mixer to gate the sound. I use delay mostly as an effect. I spend a lot of time on the samples themselves. I’m always recording and cutting tape. It’s kind of like my sonic diary. From this archive I get the ‘Woodsiest’ one to mix into our live sets.
DiS: What does that add to the overall sound?
LC: I’m literally there to set the mood. Technically, I’m cooking up a constant bed of freeform found sound tape collage that retracts around, covers, and saturates the songs. I feel like we want it all as a band, even live, and when people describe the albums as ‘creaky’ or ‘lo-fi’ or ‘drenched in hiss’, I’m there to represent that quadrant of human aural experience. I also sing backup vocals as the ghost in the band. Whereas we all sing with a particular vocal setup, I’m on the super-effected end of the spectrum. I’m the fuzzy vortex accompaniment to the bright shining pop songs.
DiS: Why the obsession with tapes?
LC: Tapes are wonderfully physical objects. Speaking practically, taped samples come cheap and can be instantly worked into our sets. I can record a vocal line in the van and instantly slam it into the decks at the show, manipulating it for maximum spook effect. The obsession part of it comes from my attraction to the pallet of sound that comes from this technology. It’s old, it has character, it changes with time, like fine wine or the flavor from an old barbecue. Live music these days is very effects and sample heavy, and I want a way to make that part of the music more physical, personal, and more intuitive. It’s the warmth of analogue that people are always talking about. Technology can give artists and musicians any sound they want, so using obsolete equipment is a pure aesthetic choice. If you can stand untangling wires all the time, it’s a beautiful thing. How does the Woods songwriting process work?
JE: I’ll decide I feel like recording a song, sit down to a four-track, and start recording it. That was early on. More recently, me and Jarvis will basically do the same thing together. We’ll sit down and either record a drum part first and then build upon it, or one of us has an idea for a song and we’ll do it that way and just build it up into a song. And then we’ll learn to play it live.
LC: When Jeremy writes a song, very often it comes from a sketch, a little minute long melody or line he’ll record very quickly. These then get worked out with the band in a jam at practice. We keep working until the song sounds ready for the live set. When we practice, I usually have a box of the sample tapes I’ve been working on lately [that are] hot off the presses. I’ll try different tapes out with different songs, or I’ll make notes on which songs might need something specific. Most of the time I’m trying to stay sensitive and alert for that certain magic moment when a song just gels, and that becomes the tapes that wind up being used on that song. The cool thing about this process is that while the tape, the sample, might be the same, it can be played in infinitely different ways after that, and that keeps the improvisation alive and breathing in a live show.
DiS: Jeremy, when did you discover your singing voice? Have you always sung that way?
JE: No, I actually haven’t. I guess my lower register, I never was comfortable enough with it. All the songs I wrote like that, I never wanted to play for anybody. I don’t know how it happened, but I started recording songs doing both a low vocal and a high vocal. And then the high vocal just took as the catchier vocal, and I did it from there. Right now, I started it and I can’t stop. If I started singing low, it wouldn’t be a Woods song.
DiS: What made you choose to cover Graham Nash’s ‘Military Madness’ on Songs of Shame?
JE: Friends of mine in the band Blues Control burned me a copy of Graham Nash’s album, Songs for Beginners. And the first time I heard that song, I just knew that I had to sing it. There was an instant connection with his voice and the way he sang. I knew it was something I wanted to play. It was almost immediate. I heard it and then I learned it.
DiS: It obviously has a strong political message. Was that something you felt was pertinent to this era?
JE: I definitely thought it was relevant to the times. But, besides that, it was more of a sonic decision.
DiS: How did the collaboration with Pete Nolan from Magik Markers (on ‘September with Pete’) come about?
JT: We’ve been friends with him for years, and we’ve played music with him for years too. It’s the kind of thing where we’re going through some old tapes—we’re always finding old tapes of things—and this song sounded great, and we thought we should add something to it. And that was just one of those things. This recording with Pete was awesome, and we’d totally forgotten about it. We just stumbled across it.
JE: Around the time we were recording the record, Pete was over at our house almost once a week and we just jammed. It was never with the intention to use it, it just happened. Some of the stuff, we just listened back to it and it was great.
Video: Woods: 'Blood Dries Darker'
DiS: How did the Woodsist label start? What do you look for in a potential signing?
JE: I guess it just started after being on tour and seeing good bands live and asking them to do records. The majority of it is friends’ bands, actually—some sort of connection, where I’ve met them on the road or knew them. I’m not really looking for anything. It’s more just music that moves me, you know? I can tell within the first couple of seconds of a song if I’m going to dig it or not.
DiS: Do you wish you’d been able to keep artists like Kurt Vile and Crystal Stilts on the label?
JE: I’m really excited for bands that were on the label to sign to bigger labels. I love every band that I’ve put out. They’re all amazing and deserve the attention of a bigger label. Some bands need a label that’s going to offer them more than mine at this point. I’d love to have them stay, but if it’s me or Matador, I’m not going to say, "I can’t believe you didn’t stay on Woodsist" [laughs]. Go for Matador, man. When Kurt [Vile] told me, I thought it was awesome.
DiS: You opened for former Woodsist band Wavves recently. How was that?
JE: It was cool. It went over well. He broke his hand, or his wrist. But he still played the show and it went well. He sounded good, people were crowd surfing. It was packed, a sold out show. He’s got a totally different audience. This whole group of younger people showed up and were psyched on it, which is really cool to see.
DiS: What did you make of his meltdown at the Primavera Sound Festival?
JE: I think it’s a combination of him definitely overextending himself and going on tours that were too long, too soon. Who knows? I don’t know.
DiS: What did you think of the reporting of the incident?
JE: It’s really weird. It seems like he can’t do anything without it being reported on the Internet, you know? Which is a really weird position to be in. I definitely wouldn’t want to be in that position.
DiS: How do you think blogs and the online world have changed being in a band?
JT: I don’t think it’s really changed being in a band at all. I could see certain personality types being affected by it. I mean, blogs, it’s just ridiculous. A teenager in Illinois who has a blog… who cares?
DiS: But do you think blogs are a good way of getting your music out there?
JT: I think it’s a good thing, because it’s more information going around. It’s cool that someone in Illinois has got a blog with all this cool music on and he’s telling his friends about it. That’s great. But just because someone says something negative, it’s not really the end of the world. It’s going to be okay.
DiS: You mean comments sections? Why do you think they are so negative?
JT: They’re probably just negative [people] to begin with, and they finally found an outlet for it. That’s what I would assume.
DiS: It would be fascinating to meet the commenters in person.
JT: Oh I know. There’s a convention and they all have nametags, and they all say ‘anonymous’ [laughs]. They’d be the nicest people. The blogs are brutal about the Vivian Girls, regardless of the music. It’s horrible.
JE: Yeah, it’s really horrible. I can’t believe some people. I don’t know what would possess someone to totally trash somebody for no reason. It’s not even about their band. They’re just trashing them.
DiS: Do you think that’s because the Vivian Girls are female, young…
JT: Definitely. Whatever harsh things people say about guy bands, they’re never that far outside of the music. It’s ‘that song sucks’ or ‘the band is over-hyped’. It’s never, ‘Nathan from Wavves looks fat in that picture’.
DiS: Finally, what happened after Lucas’s recent appearance in Time Out as part of their ‘Date These Music Lovers’ feature?
LC: Oh my god. It’s wild, first of all. I did that basically as a practical joke on my friends in New York. Not that I’d be averse to making a new friend or anything, but when you grow up here, it sticks in your soul, this city. I figure people I went to high school with would see it and be like, ‘what the hell...?’. I was just trying to have a little fun with the media. That being said, you'd be surprised how many Christians like noise music and think I’m hot. That’s what I get for talking about the end of the world.
The Shred Yr Face 3 tour calls at:
8 London Pure Groove
9 The Farmhouse, Canterbury
10 Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
11 Crawdaddy, Dublin
12 Speakeasy (Radar Club), Belfast
13 Stereo, Glasgow
14 Electric Circus, Edinburgh
15 The Cluny, Newcastle
16 The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
17 Academy 3, Manchester
18 Freebutt, Brighton
19 Fleece, Bristol
20 ULU, London