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Getting Out of Your Own Way:

An Interview with Medeski, Martin & Wood bassist Chris Wood

Austin R. Pick
Radio Free Chicago

Chris WoodLive at Rothbury Festival 2008 photo by Mathew Wenthe 

Nov. 2009 Together now for nearly two decades, experimental jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood continue to push the boundaries of their collective sound in surprising new directions. Renowned for their improvisational dexterity and expansive musical vocabulary, the band's exploratory live performances have always been central to their creative process. For their latest project, The Radiolarian Series, the band reversed the usual recording cycle, challenging themselves to compose and develop three albums of new material through a series of tours before entering the studio. Released throughout 2008 and '09, the resulting Radiolarians albums are infused with the energies and influences of the trio's long experience traveling and creating music together.

The extended compositions of the three Radiolarians albums reference a wide range of musical styles, creating an innovative sound that, like all of MMW's music, defies easy classification. Self-produced and released on their own Indirecto label, the Series offers a refreshingly intimate glimpse into the band's unique chemistry, and is now being released as a comprehensive Box Set. In addition to the three albums and bonus tracks, the Box Set includes a Live Disc, Remix Disc, double vinyl LP set, and a DVD documentary feature film about the band. I recently interviewed bassist Chris Wood for Radio Free Chicago, and talked with him about the Radiolarians project, the band's diverse influences, and the experience of playing and creating music live.


MMW set out to compose, tour, and record three albums of new material in about a year's time. That's pretty ambitious. What kinds of challenges did this present for you? Were you surprised at all by any of the music that came out of this project?

For us it was just a creative shot in the arm, because it forced us to write a whole bunch of new material and explore some new sounds, and there were definitely some new directions that came out of it – some, for lack of a better term, more indie-rock sounds. But then some of it was coming from west-African origins and influences that we have, to jazz and all kinds of stuff... For us this collection of material was about developing our sound as a group to the next level, and it was like a full-immersion writing workshop, you know? Whenever you do that you discover new things, find new sounds, and then we try to make it our own.

Radiolarians marks a shift in the band's sound from the refined electronic grooves of End of the World Party to something that's more organic and elemental, and the new albums often have this stripped down, almost acoustic intimacy. Was this a conscious choice on the band's part? How did the project's style emerge?

Well, End of the World Party is drastically different for a number of reasons. For that record we used this producer, John King of the Dust Brothers, and it was the first time we used a producer in that sense: someone that we'd never met before we started the project, who was coming in and re-interpreting our music. So therefore it was more studio-produced, with him editing what we did and then us adding to it and collaborating in that kind of way.

These records are totally different. The material was pre-written and then performed on the road before we went into the studio, and there were a lot of loose ends even by the time we got to the studio, a lot of things we were still interpreting and figuring out. So it was essentially like a jazz record, where we're performing live in the studio, doing a couple of takes, and going with the best one. Overdubbing and that kind of stuff was fairly minimal.

Throughout the series there are several tracks propelled by heavy, driving bass lines – "Reliquary" on R1 and "Flat Tires" on R2, for instance. How has your approach evolved through this project, and where is that sound coming from? Has it been shaped at all by the music you play with your brother Oliver [as The Wood Brothers]?

No, not necessarily. I've always had strong rock n' roll influences. Just because MMW is instrumental and we're sold in the jazz section –primarily because we're instrumental [laughs]– doesn't really mean anything, you know? I play upright bass and I'm definitely heavily influenced by jazz, but I also grew up on rock n' roll, and I love listening to indie-rock bands like Wilco and PJ Harvey, so things like that have been an influence. A song like "Flat Tires" is definitely reminiscent of that.

"Reliquary," on the other hand, is very different. It's actually influenced by a west-African field recording that Billy had, where one of the instruments was playing a similar kind of rhythm. The appeal for us was that you have this repeating rhythm that on the one hand is grooving, but on the other hand is very organic and flanging against the melodies and everything else that's happening. All the parts aren't necessarily locked in together, you know, so it's a very floating, river-like groove piece. There's a lot of amazing west-African music like that, and between the three of us we collect and get inspired by those field recordings.

During the Radiolarians tours, when you were developing and refining the new songs each night, how much influence did the crowd's reaction have? Did you guys listen to the tapes the next day and discuss changes, or simply allow the process to happen on stage?

Well, a little of both. We didn't really have a setup where we could listen to stuff the next day, but it became clear as the days went by what worked, what didn't work. Certain tunes, you know, some come easy and some don't [laughs]. Some really just clicked right away, and with others we were still working out kinks in the studio. "Junkyard" was a challenge. We loved the feeling, the mood of it, but we weren't quite feeling the form, and how the shape of the piece should be. Some tunes we felt were a challenge on the road, but when we went back and listened we actually loved how they turned out. Sometimes when you don't know what a piece should be, it's more open, and more exciting things happen. As soon as you codify it, it sort of becomes predictable and boring.

MMW is celebrated as a dynamic improvisational live band, and when you guys speak about your music you often focus on the experience of playing and creating live, yet the Live CD included in the new Box Set is only the second or third live album the band has ever released. Why is that?

I don't know... It's almost a logistical thing more than anything. It's hard to get a good live recording, you know [laughs]. We're sticklers when it comes to the sound of our instruments, and it's tough to get a really good recording of certain instruments. It's something we'd like to do, but it takes a lot of organizing, and we're a pretty small operation, so it's definitely a challenge. We do want to release more live stuff, and we actually have some recorded, it's just a matter of getting it together.

A number of bands also known for their live shows have begun to utilize new media and digital downloads to release concert recordings. I've also heard there's been talk of MMW releasing studio outtakes and raw material online for fan enjoyment and feedback. Are you guys considering any of those avenues?

Yeah, we'd like to do more of that, definitely. Things move fast these days – it's hard to keep up, you know, and we're all busy doing other projects too, but we're trying to set up our infrastructure so that we can have more of a flow of material. Now that we're releasing things ourselves with our own record company, we have the freedom to do it, and it's just a matter of getting everything in place.

MMW live in Jacksonville, FLMMW live in Jacksonville, Florida, 05.20.2006 Flickr photo by SectorFunk

Let's talk about Explorarians, the new live disc. The title seems so appropriate, because MMW's music is relentlessly exploratory and continually being reinvented. How were the tracks selected?

Well, we didn't have a lot to choose from, to be honest. We basically had three nights of music that we'd recorded, and we had to go with what was available to us. We tried as best we could to represent from the three different albums, but we were a little limited.

"Chasen vs. Suribachi," a track from R2, is prominently featured throughout the Box Set, and a fantastic, wiggy version opens the Live Disc. How did this song develop, and where does the title come from?

It's us basically being influenced by the way a DJ puts together and collages music, and creating it as a live trio, I guess. And the title... You know, we love Japanese food and Japanese things. A chasen is a bamboo wisk that's used in the tea ceremony to whisk up macha, which is the ceremonial green tea, and it's a very delicate thing, intricately made from fine hairs of bamboo. A suribachi is a clay or ceramic bowl that has grooves in it, and they're used like a mortar and pestle, the Japanese version. It's a play on the words and images of this delicate whisk against the grinding harsh surface of the suribachi... And what can I say, things get pretty abstract with us when it comes to titles [laughs].

The last track on the Live Disc, titled "10 Minutes of Our Lives," flows buoyantly through a whole range grooves and moods, and sounds largely improvisational. Can you tell me about this track?

It was the encore for a show in Covington, Kentucky, and it was a completely improvised ten minutes, hence the name...

It's a remarkable ten minutes, and I think it's definitely one of the Box Set's highlights. It must take a certain quality of non-attachment to allow music to arise and pass away in the moment like that, always changing. Is there a way in which you relate to making music as meditation?

Oh it's definitely a meditation, absolutely. I think that's why it's so interesting – it never gets boring because it's always a mystery what exactly makes a good piece of music. I don't think anyone really knows why something's good, why something's bad, you just know if it's good or bad. And to get into that space, to let it happen, to get out of your own way... every time you think you have it figured out, it slips through your fingers, and then you have figure it out again.

Quite honestly, as a group, and I've said this before –it sounds funny– but it seems like the best way for us to get into that headspace –and this is what we did that night, which is why it comes to mind– we cooked a really amazing meal backstage together, and had some good wine and some really good food, and that always helps... [laughs]

The previews for the new DVD film about the band show several scenes of the three of you digging on the outdoors, exploring beaches and forests. How does relating with the natural world influence the music you make?

Well, you know, ultimately everything is an influence, and being in powerful places, whether it's the redwoods or an amazing beach in Brazil or Rio... in a way it gives us the same kind of feeling, the same kind of headspace that we get into after we have a really good meal, because it opens you up, and it's humbling, you know? There's something about it, about getting your ego a little bit out of the way and getting to what's important, the essence of the music. It doesn't work every time, but I don't think we never stop searching for that feeling...

That's one of the things I love about MMW: when you guys get on stage there's a willingness to experiment, and there's almost a willingness to fail on a certain level too. You guys take a lot of risks.

Yeah, and it can be a little scary, you know. Some nights you're feeling it and some nights you're not, so it's definitely a little bit of a risk.

On some tours you guys seem to focus more on structured songs, and other times there's more emphasis on experimental improvising and spontaneous composing. Do you guys make conscious decisions about what's going to happen, or does it really just depend on how you're feeling, and how it's flowing?

It depends a lot on that. And we go thru phases, like for example when we were doing the actual Radiolarians tours, I know for a least one of those we made a set of music, and then did it every single night, but of course the music was being developed as we went, so even though it was the same set, it was always really different. And it was basically the same order of tunes that ended up on the record, so we were forming the record as the whole, but starting it as really rough sketch. Sometimes we have fun making a set, and sometimes we go out there with no idea, and do some improvising, and then weave in and out of songs, and make up our minds on stage.

In the mid-90's you guys often played a lovely song called "Pakalolo," but it hasn't been heard in years. What's the story there?

God, I don't know. Actually it came up fairly recently in conversation, like yeah, we should play that again. But it's been so long ago, and we've been working on all this new stuff, so it was mostly forgotten about. We need to remember the song – [laughs] – or at least remember the essence of it, and maybe we can bring that one back.

For a long time MMW was renowned for playing wild Halloween shows every year in NYC. Something about your music seems particularly suited to Halloween, to the vibe of fall. Is that something you guys feel?

Yeah, I agree in a lot of ways. It's hard to put into words, but there's a certain descent into a sort of otherworldly feeling, and a certain mysteriousness that you get when you feel the days getting shorter and winter coming on, and I love that feeling. I know a lot of people dread winter coming on, but actually there's something about it for me, and it's a creative time.

It becomes a more introspective time too, which is interesting.

Absolutely, yeah.

Any idea what's next for Medeski, Martin and Wood?

There's a record we'd like to make that we're hoping to get back to work on next year. We have this idea of doing a record of music based on riddims from Billy's book. We want to film the entire making of it and do a DVD, and its going to have an educational side to it – we've been doing these annual music camps, so we'd like to do something that documents how we develop the music, something we can use to teach up-and-coming musicians. The producer we want to use is a friend and great musician, Danny Blume. We have a lot of fun working with him.

And there is live stuff that we want to put out, it's just a matter of us sifting through it all and getting it mixed and getting it out there. I think people can expect that eventually. One of the reasons it's such a slow process for us is that it's hard to do it until a lot of time goes by. For some of these recordings I'm sensing enough time has gone by that we'll be able to go back and really hear it for what it is, and make the right choices.

Wikipedia: The Radiolarian Series


Special thanks to Jim Walsh of Big Hassle Media and Hyun-Joo Park of Emcee Artist Management.
Thanks also to Scott Shannon, Tom Luhrs, and everyone at The Shack Project.

Download MP3's:

Medeski, Martin & Wood - Undone
(Radiolarians 3, Track 4)

Medeski, Martin & Wood - Trinity Workshop Improv
(Live at Trinity College, 02.21.2005)

First published as an excerpted version at Radio Free Chicago, November 16, 2009.

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