Woods may have been born in a Brooklyn bedroom, but more often than not they're mistaken for having California roots. And for good reason: the band's music, especially from their last two albums Bend Beyond and With Light With Love, leans toward sunny, shimmering, psych-folk rock that could have been birthed in Topanga Canyon, circa 1968.
"I grew up on the East Coast and I've never lived in California, but I've always been drawn to it, and feel a sort of spiritual connection which I think comes out in our music," says Jeremy Earl, the 35-year-old songwriter who began Woods as a solo, lo-fi bedroom recording project in 2006. (He grew up in rural Warwick, New York, a place, appropriately, made up of woods and farmland.)
In fact, Earl counts the Byrds, a band which epitomizes the folk-rock sound that bloomed out of Los Angeles in the late sixties, among his favorites. When I confess that listening to Woods evokes a sense of nostalgia for me, how it brings up memories of listening over and over to my dad's faded and crumbling vinyl copy of The Byrds Greatest Hits, specifically "Eight Miles High," in my Southern California living room, Earl says: "That song most definitely makes my list of top ten songs of all time."
"I got really deep into that kind of music years ago," he explains. "Stemming off the Byrds, to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Dead. Maybe a combination of all that is where the California connection comes from."
Early Woods recordings are the dictionary definition of lo-fi: stark, simple folk dirges that stand out mainly for Earl's distinctive high-pitched singing voice, like Neil Young might sound if he'd just walked 20 miles through a pounding rainstorm. A sound described by Pitchfork as "spooky campfire rock" with "deceptively sturdy melodies."
By their fourth album, 2009's Songs of Shame, Woods had developed a (slightly) fuller style, especially on moments of lovely, compulsively listenable ramshackle pop like "Rain On." Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jarvis Taveniere had taken on a larger role in the group, which began to embrace the nine-minute long jams that would find a place on the next few albums.
Bend Beyond and With Light and With Love solidify this new version of Woods, now a full-fledged five-piece. The current touring lineup, along with Earl and Taveniere, includes Aaron Neveu, John Andrews, and Chuck Van Dyck. With the additional musicians, Woods has left behind the weirdo, off-kilter campfire sound for a lusher, pop-folk infused with that aforementioned Golden State glow.
Earl says the move away from scratchy sound collages and muffled dirges was all very organic; they simply got better at what they do. "If you listen to our catalog, you can see that we've figured out whatever it is, certain aspects of recording," he adds. "We've been stirring the pot for a while and cooking it down."
They've also seen an increase in invitations to play festivals and bigger shows. This year, they'll hit Sasquatch and Bonnaroo. But before festival madness descends, Woods arrives in the Bay Area for the annual Woodsist Festival in Big Sur, along with shows at the Chapel on May 15 and at Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in Sonoma on May 19.
The Woodist Festival, sponsored by Earl's record label by the same name, has become known for cultivating a kind of mini-Woodstock atmosphere for 21st-century flower children. The seeds for the event were planted seven years ago, Woods played an intimate show presented by Folk Yeah at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. Mesmerized by the redwood trees and proximity to the ocean, along with the mellow atmosphere, Earl decided it was his "ideal place on earth."
"Everything about the experience blew my mind," he says. The Woodsist Festival, featuring acts like Real Estate, Simon Joyner, and Little Wings, has now been going strong for six years, and Woods always make a point of scheduling their West Coast tours around the festival.
"Big Sur is very peaceful," says Earl. "It takes us out of the normal show-and-festival environment. It makes the whole thing more about hanging out with the locals, and like-minded people, having a good time and relaxing."
Spoken like a true Californian - by way of Brooklyn, of course.