Rags Music: Hello?
Kris Wood: Hey, is this Blake? (echo-y and distant) How’s it going?
RM: Pretty good, man. How about you?
KW: I’m good, I’m good. I’m just actually, I was just having a birthday party.
RM: Sweet! Who’s birthday is it?
KW: It’s mine.
RM: Wow! Happy Birthday! Where abouts are you right now?
KW: Thanks man. I’m just at home in Vancouver.
RM: I gotta say, all I know about Blackberry Wood is that I really like Strong Man vs. Russian Bears and your set at last year’s Ska Fest was my favourite. Those are the only two things I really know so I’m a little nervous coming in, you’re kind of mysterious.
KW: That’s good. I always like being in that place. Like to try to make it part of our show. <laughs>
RM: Let’s try to shed some light. What is the beginning of the ‘Wood?
KW: Me and my girlfriend…a friend of ours asked us to play a New Years’ show in Uclulet, on the Island right near Tofino, four days before New Years’ and I said, “Okay.” So we put together a set. We were both in different bands at the time and we went and played the show and it was fantastic. It was all surfers and loggers, really just a crazy bunch of people. It was just fantastic times. Then our next gig was the next New Years’. So we didn’t play for a year. We had called the band Blackberry Wood at that point. After those New Years’ show we decided to get some more people together, so we started getting players together. Over the next year and a half it grew to nine people. Since then though, it’s tapered off because we’ve been working so much and touring so much that, you know not a lot of people can sustain the amount of touring we do and everything.
RM: What is it with all the touring? Even for an independent band you guys are damned road warriors.
KW: Aww, we just like to play. We like going to all these places and stuff. We just got back from a huge tour all the way up to Dawson City and back. I’m sure it was at least 7,000 Km all together. That’s near the top of Canada. Going up those highways we saw 59 buffalo, 25 black bears, 1 grizzly, 1 wolf, a bunch of foxes. You know, it’s an adventure for us. We go lots of different places. The response has been great, it’s really fun getting to go on all these adventures.
RM: An old friend of mine was at one of the Dawson shows and said she had a great time.
KW: No way?! This last one?! The Saturday night was the best. It took a few. Thursday was okay. Friday, like half the town was there at the end and then the word spread and Saturday night was just jam packed. Something that never happens happened – Everybody, there was not a single person went to this tradition. There’s this tradition of going to the Pit Pub for last call. So everybody basically leaves the show no matter what band is playing or anything like that, everyone leaves the show and goes to the pub. No one was there. No one left the gig. Everybody stayed for our show.
RM: Wow! That’s awesome. How did you guys get lumped in ska music and the Ska Fest? Is it just the horns or something?
KW: Yeah, it’s weird. The first time we went to England, we’ve been there four or five times so far, we just sort of got pinned as a ska band a little bit, for some odd reason. I have no idea why. We played for this guy for Gav, who has the longest running ska night in London. His band is called the Trojans, a little bit famous, and he’s also sat in with the Skatalites…
(At this point Kris’ phone goes dead and I call back to get his voicemail. Shortly thereafter…)
KW: I think I was in the middle of telling a big long story about Gav. We got booked at Gav’s ska night. Gav’s band is called the Trojans, they’re pretty well-known in the ska scene and known worldwide and stuff. He’s toured with the Skatalites and bunch of other bands. So it was just all in all kind of strange that we were pinned a bit as a ska band. Then there were a couple other gigs in the UK where we just got put with Ska bands and stuff. We learned a few ska tunes and we did our own versions of them. I’m really happy with our versions, they’re totally unique. I don’t know why. I’ve never tried to write ska music or anything like that. It’s just something that people have said that we sound like, feel like.
RM: It must be the horns. Because when I saw you guys at Ska Fest last year I felt like I had wandered into another world…and that’s great.
KW: As far as some of the other music I’ve been influenced by, it’s been big long journey but I finally found a lot of music between 1910 and 1930 that I’m really inspired by and I have this whole reason why and that.
RM: How did you get into that sort of music? I mean, I love it, it’s great, but it is pretty obscure in a way.
KW: Yeah, it’s strange. It’s a strange little journey. I played in a lot of bands. The first band when I was a kid won all these contests. We won the Vancouver Battle of the Bands, then we got to compete in the Canadian Battle of the Bands and we won that. So we got to go on this world-wide Battle of the Bands in Japan. They wanted us to play this one song which was our sort of pop-rock song and we said, “No way! We’re not going to play that!” We played our weirdest song and of course we didn’t win anything. But we had a great time anyway. After that band split up I started my own band -where that one was everyone together- and that was a sort of Jazz-Punk kind of thing…like Dr.Bungle or something like that. We did really well. All kinds of different music, one to the other and that sort of stuff. It was really fun. Toured across Canada, went to Europe. Then that band broke up. I think I must have been mad at the drummer or something because then I started getting into samplers. I went to samples and started getting into hip-hop. I put out two hip-hop albums for Christ’s sake.
RM: Did you?! What?! Wow!
KW: <laughs> Yeah, I did. Then from that, this music started coming out, this little tiny sub-genre called “hick-hop.”
RM: Ah yeah. I think of Ridley Bent when I hear that.
KW: Yeah, Mr. Ridley Bent, the Devil’s song there. (I believe he’s referring to “The Devil and Coltrane Henry” from Bent’s album Blam!) A bunch of other people too. I got really into that and I started writing more. I just started exploring more and more country, combining beats with country, working with the samplers still. That sort of got me more and more into that old music. I also have schooling in jazz and stuff. All that started to come into play. I just really started to get interested in the old styles of music and everything. Then this other style, sub-genre came out, Electro-swing. That’s sort of having an influence on me. We were actually booked…electro-swing is really weird because it was actually started and pushed by kind of one guy. We were booked at Glastonbury the first time we played there in 2009 by that guy, his name’s Chris Tofu. He really almost created electro-swing in the world. It’s interesting to watch a sub-genre like that spread across the world through one group of people. It’s really pretty neat. But I mean, for me, one of the most important things about the recordings that we have from that era of music is that they’re archive recordings. They’re archive recordings of people who were live musicians. There was the blues guitar player who was the life of the house party, the country band that was the hall/dance part and there was the jazz piano player who was the one entertained people at the brothels. All these people were live musicians. I think something happened to the recording industry after that time, well actually, the recording industry was invented. I think that really changed music and I think it’s turned around a bit with the power being taken away from the recording industry by the internet and I’m really stoked about that. One reason I’m really stoked is because we put on a really good live show and that’s the only thing you can’t get on the internet. <laughs> It all comes back to those archival recordings which are people that all they were about was the live show and entertaining people one on one and being in front of people, making a party happen.
RM: It’s interesting to think of technology going so far forward that it starts to bring something back. That’s kind of cool. How do you go about building a record for a band like Blackberry Wood where the live performance is so intense?
KW: It’s funny because you kinda almost have to, we’ve learned, you kind of have to treat to the two as different. Our first record, Traveling Horse Opry, is more of a studio effort with all kinds of different musicians and everything and a lot of studio time, a lot of studio overdubs and stuff. It’s all the same music we play live it was just a different way of doing it. The second record, Strong Man vs. Russian Bears, we went for a really live sound. Looking back, I would sort of temper the two, go between the two more. Listening to a record is a different experience than a live show and I think it should be geared towards that. It should be directed to that time when you’re hanging out by yourself or hanging out with a few people, it’s just a different setting than a live show. I think next time we would not go for the straight up trying to capture the live show. We did that with Strong Man… and it came out pretty damned good but I think as far as listening, if we had taken some of the songs and maybe slowed them down just a touch and just set the whole recording for a different place and purpose. I think we’ll take that into consideration more on the next record. Plus, it’s fun. A live show there’s certain things you do, lots of visual stuff you do that’s different and when you’re in the studio there’s lots of studio stuff to do that’s magic, you know? It’s good to take advantage of some of that and make magic in a different way.
RM: Is it easier in the studio without those visual elements? Is it easier when you can just focus on the music entirely and not worry about the theatrical nature of the show.
KW: It pretty much comes naturally. <laughs> I don’t know. We just do those things. It’s not like we’re really working on them.
RM: How much maintenance does that mustache take? It’s a pretty sweet ‘stache.
KW: <laughs> I just discovered mustache wax in the last three months or so and it’s crazy stuff! It’s not like any hairspray or gel or anything like that, it’s solid. It works really well. So that’s the secret, mustache wax. It works really well.
RM: I’m a beard guy not a mustache guy so I don’t know much about them. Mine is like a bonsai, just give it a little trim here and there. There’s not a terrible amount of maintenance.
KW: Yeah, just keep it trimmed. I’m letting the sides grow out. I’d really like to let the top grow so it grows long and grows down, so it’ll be from the top-down. Right now I have kind of shorter on the top and longer on the bottom sort of thing, it’s in transition.
RM: Going between facial hair configurations, that transition period is always bad, going any way. You gotta just suck it up and brave it through and you’ll get by. I’ve always wondered…with covering a major song like “I Walk the Line” is there any reluctance to put that onto a record and have that out there forever? Is it a big decision to put something like that?
KW: Yeah. Sometimes it is. It’s a strange thing. The recording turned out really well, first of all, so we were really happy with it. That was the decision maker, basically. It’s a cool tune. I really like all the horn parts.
RM: I really love the cover and I’m not trying to criticize in any way, it’s just that this is Johnny Cash. This is “I Walk the Line”…
KW: Yeah. I know. I think it’s original enough. I think I’m really happy with the horn lines. That’s the main thing as far as something that’s added to the song, that other people might not think about, a direction that nobody else may have thought about it. I was really happy with the horn lines that popped into my head and everything.
RM: It definitely stays true to the spirit of the song. It’s unique for sure but it’s definitely respectful to the song at the same time. I like it.
KW: Yeah. He was quite the inspiration for me because I have a lower voice. It was nice to see someone out there in the music world who could belt out a tune with a lower voice and sort of still have that energy, charisma and everything. I was quite intrigued.
RM: It doesn’t get much better than Johnny. People love to label music, a lot, more than I would like. Do you find people trying to label you? Do you have a label that you prefer?
KW: We have a little phrase that we use most of the time, depends on who we’re talking to, but for most people we just use this little phrase and for some reason people seem to understand it and it seems to conjure the right picture in their minds and everything. That phrase is alt-country-gypsy-circus. For some people we just say we’re gypsy-punk band. Gogol Bordello, a lot of people say that, we remind them of Gogol Bordello a little bit.
RM: That’s crossed my mind too. I was wondering if that comes up.
KW: Even though we have the country element.
RM: Much more rootsy thing.
KW: Then again, Gogol Bordello is from Eastern Europe and we’re from Western Canada. <laughs>
RM: Very different.
KW: That’s why we follow those roots, I guess. I don’t know.
RM: You guys do a ton of festivals. Is it just a matter of playing to more people or is it just the whole festival experience you like?
KW: Festivals are always fun. One of my favourite festivals is Art Wells. It’s way up just under Prince George. It’s an amazing festival because it just brings together so many touring Western Canadian bands. There’s all-night jams but the best thing is just hanging out with a bunch of friends. Well, now they’re friends. When I first went to Art Wells it was meeting all these people that are doing the same thing we’re doing – going out on the road, trying to eke out a living.
RM: That’s awesome, man. You got any words of wisdom you can pass on?
KW: Always try…ah, it’s the worst life lesson ever. It’s the same in everything. Always just try to find the best out of any situation you can possibly find. See, kind of boring, isn’t it?
RM: You know what? I’ve interviewed a lot of people and I’ve asked everyone that question and no one has said that. So there you go. It’s usually something like “Do something that makes you happy everyday” or something like that. But just to simply find the best in every situation, I have not had that said to me in response to that question. It’s not lame and boring!KW:Awww, thanks. I mean, it works. You really have to dig hard. Some situations seem like they’re probably the worst situations but then you figure out, “Aww this happened and that happened. Okay, let’s work on that.”