By Philip Runco
For Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl, the good ideas often come at night.
“In the daytime, it feels like you’re at work,” says Taveniere. “And then the sun sets, and you try some weirder stuff.”
As the core duo behind Woods, Taveniere and Earl have been blurring the line between warm, drifting folk rock and a variety of “weirder stuff” for over a decade.
For its first seven albums – released, somewhat remarkably, in seven consecutive years – the two recorded within the confines of various homes in Brooklyn and upstate New York. These were the kind of environments where the band was free to jam at whatever time of day or night it wished.
“It wasn’t about being lo-fi or anything like that,” shares Taveniere, talking from Nashville earlier this week. “It was more about the vibe – a looseness. A lot of ideas don’t stick, but it takes you out the box a little bit.”
But a few years ago, the band made the jump to working in a proper studio. The decision wasn’t driven by the quality of the recordings but rather the physical limitations of the medium. Woods had been performing a number of songs that would end up on With Light and With Love (2014), and Taveniere – the band’s producer and engineer – wanted to capture them live.
“You can just have a lot more musicians playing at the same time in a studio,” he says. “When we record in homes or wherever, even though we have good equipment and our recording skills have improved, we can’t set up a four-piece band at full volume and capture it the way we want to. I knew that we needed to capture the vibe of the musicians in the same room, looking at each other, playing off each other. When you record one instrument at a time, you’re not faking dynamics but you’re achieving dynamics with overdubs. When you play live in a room, you play off each other and pull things back a little bit and get louder. It’s more of a natural human flow.”
Recorded in Brooklyn’s Thump Studios, the recently released City Sun Eater in the River of Light marks the second time Woods has made a record in a more formal environment. And with the experience of recording With Light and With Love under its belt, the band felt freer to experiment – and to let Taveniere engineer the sessions himself.
“It really comes down to us being comfortable in the studio,” shares Taveniere, who speaks with a dialed-in intensity. “The last record, we had an engineer; I wasn’t engineering it. So, there was a little bit of compromise, which I think was for the best. This record, we knew we’d be able to bring that looseness right off the bat.”
That loosness has translated into a record that’s a little harrier than its polished predecessor, incorporating elements of reggae, African jazz, and psych rock. And while With Light and With Love could feel like a collection of genre riffs, City Sun Eater in the River of Light ties its influences into a more cohesive whole.
After all these years, Woods is still finding ways to surprise listeners.
How much is City Sun Eater in the River of Light a reaction to With Light and With Love?
With the last record, we had just become a good live band. I almost look at With Light and With Love as a “Best Of.” It was like, “Let’s go into a nice studio. We’re not intimidated by those anymore. We can be ourselves in there.” We had gotten good at a few things, so it was like, “What can we touch on, what have we done before, that we can do better?” We had improved in so many ways, and we just wanted to document that.
With this record, it was kind of a reaction to that. I never thought of the last record as being stylistically one-dimensional, but when it was done, I did see that a little bit. I just wanted to try some different stuff. We listen to so much different music, and when we would recorded at home, we were a little bit looser with letting the different styles bleed into each other. We wanted to achieve that in the studio. That’s why we didn’t work with an outside engineer or anybody. We wanted to bring the looseness and some of the improvising back to the recording process.
With a lot of the songs, we did what we do when we recorded at home: We used to write a song, learn it, run through it once, and then hit record. That’s exactly what we did this time – we just did it in the studio. Maybe we spent a little more time getting the sounds that we like.
“I See in the Dark” was just an improvised jam. I went upstairs and hit record on the tape machine, ran downstairs and picked up the bass, and then we just started playing. We played for like fifteen minutes, and then cut it up and tried to make a song out of it. That kind of songwriting – or whatever it is – is what we wanted to capture.
When you’ve discussed the dynamics within Woods over the years, you’ve said your role has essentially changed to channeling and executing Jeremy’s ideas.
Totally. 100%. That’s always how it’s been, but I guess I’ve been growing more confident in my role.
Did you feel any insecurity about stepping back from the songwriting side? Do you two always see eye to eye, or is there push and pull?
There’s push and pull, but in a healthy way. At the end of the day, we both want the same thing. It’s to the point where I’m almost surprised, because we’re often coming at it from different places. Even when we were doing home recordings, I was always surprised that when a record was done, we always wanted the same thing in terms of the selection of songs that didn’t make it.
But I don’t feel any security from stepping back from playing on songs. I mean, I’ve never really written songs in this band. It was maybe a little more collaborative, but that came at the expense of the recording quality. I wasn’t there to do what I think I’m really good at, which is engineering and maybe refining his ideas. When I was more of a musician too, nobody was refining my ideas. I still love those records, because that’s what they were about: two people sitting in a room, creating stuff.
Starting with Bend Beyond is when I stepped back from that role so I could focus ideas a little more. I wanted the impact of each song to be a little bit harder. Instead of having 30 ramshackle, first-take songs that we recorded very quickly, I could be the person on the outside saying, “You know what? I think we could a little better.”
You and Jeremy have both said that making City Sun Eater in the River of Light in Brooklyn bled into the tone of the songs. You’ve said it reflects the anxiety of the city. How would you describe that anxiety?
I think we’re both people who suffer from anxiety – overthinking and all of that stuff. When we’re out of the city, creatively we’re a little freer and looser. We let things come to us. We let things happen. When we’re in the city, we’re a little more focused. There are benefits to both. Neither one is good or bad.
Jeremy wasn’t living in the city for a few years, and when he came back, I could feel this darker and claustrophobic vibe in his music. That’s how I would describe this record, and also Songs of Shame, an older record. I can hear what the city does to Jeremy in his songwriting. It makes it more tense. It makes the whole process more tense. It’s just the pace of the city.
Walking around the city with headphones in is a really wonderful experience – when you’re just walking by yourself with no destination, and you find certain music that fits the beat of the city. I remember a time that I was walking down the street, listening to Richard Hell’s Blank Generation, and I’ve always loved that record, but it was the moment that I really clicked with it, and I realized how it fits as a New York record. City Sun is the first time I could hear that in Woods, too.
I know Jeremy handles the artwork, but from your perspective, what’s behind the recurring skulls in the Woods iconography?
That’s probably more of a question for Jeremy. I don’t know. I love it.
Through all of our stuff, we’ve always had this push and pull of light and dark, good and evil. We noticed that with the album Sun and Shade. There’s just a duality to Woods. We’ll never give ourselves over to going too far in one direction – like, being too much of an easy, breezy folk band. It’s not in our nature.
We’ll write some songs that are easy, breezy folk songs, but then they’re followed by a nine minute darker song with darker lyrics, like on With Light and With Love. Neither one is forced; they’re not reactions to each other. It’s more just the music that comes out of us, because we like a lit of different types of music and moods.
Because of that, we end up putting these songs that are a little bit stylistically different on a record, and then we try to find a way to bridge them. I think that the same thing goes with the artwork.
Sun City doesn’t have a nine-minute curveball. It doesn’t have one of those extended, intense, heavily instrumental jams. At the same time, a number of the songs on this record seem to incorporate that spirit without stretching for so long.
That’s the thing that we’ve always been working towards. We’ve always felt like, “We have this nice song, and then we do this instrumental song that’s a little different. It’s nice that we’re covering so much ground, and it’s all coming from a similar place, but how do we make songs that incorporate both? How do we have a song that’s on the longer side and jams but is also a song – not some cool riff for two minutes in between songs?”
We’ve done a bunch of those, and I like them all, but at some point you wonder, “Are we just coming up with filler? I want this to be something that we play live. I want it to have a little bit more substance to it.” We were trying to bridge that gap.
With “Sun City Creeps” and “The Take” and a couple of songs from this record, we kind of just hit record on tape, and we’d run through the song a couple of times, and then we kind of went for it. “The Other Side” is another example of that. We haven’t been playing it live, so I always forget that song exists, but that was an eleven-minute thing. We just faded it out at four minutes or whatever. “The Take” was pretty long, too. “I See in the Dark” was at fifteen minutes.
We just try to cut these things down and make them into songs – to capture the spirit of what happens when the tapes are rolling and we’re just playing and our eyes are closed, but then edit it down and make a song out of it. Like, edit that actual take of it – not try to dumb it down and rerecord it.
Do you have a particular ethos when it comes to producing? Or is it all song to song?
I do think that it’s still song to song, and band to band. Different people need different things. Some bands need you to stay out of the way and just capture what’s happening. Sometimes a band needs someone to step in and be part of the creative process. I enjoy both.
I’ve definitely been there with bands when they want help. They’ll be like, “Can you help us restructure these songs?” And it’s like, “No, you guys are a good live band. You got this. Just go in there and play with each other.”
And then other times, you can just hear that it’s not coming together and you just have to get involved and try to motivate them and push them in a direction.
Is there a record you’ve produced or engineered that you feel especially proud of?
One of the first ones that I thought I did a good job with was the first Widowspeak record. And I recorded that in a house I was living in with barely any equipment. But it was the first time that a band came in and maybe they weren’t 100% fully formed, and I was finally at a place where I was confident enough of to help them achieve what they were going for without putting my fingerprints on it too much.
That was a big one for me, because after we made that, I made the Woods record Bend Beyond, which I feel like was the beginning of where we’re at now creatively. It took the confidence from that Widowspeak record to realize what my role or strength could be. Going back to the Woods, I had these new chops that I developed working with this band for a while. It was about seeing what works, and seeing things that don’t work, and being comfortable throwing out ideas or pushing things in a direction and knowing when to lay off.
More recently, the new Quilt record is one that I’m pretty proud of.