Jeremy Earl is one of indie rock’s true renaissance figures. Frontman of Brooklyn’s shapeshifting psyche-folk outfit Woods, he also runs the influential Woodsist Records as well as its own annual music festivals in such Cali-dreamy destinations as Joshua Tree and Big Sur. The kind of blissed out, old school arts jamborees that you were sure were all but forgotten, the last of which broken up by a Topanga brush fire circa 1969. Did I mention he does the art for the band and label too?
Following Kerouac’s own Big Sur epiphany—“only in the woods you get that nostalgia for cities”—City Sun Eater in the River of Light finds Woods having ventured out of their eponymous environs, thrust back into the anxious chaos of the city. It’s a hypnotic and urgent album, full of trippy, off-kilter horns and jagged guitar. At times, it sounds like the soundtrack to an imaginary 70s spy movie shot in Addis Abba. But despite its reinventions, City Sun Eater is definitive Woods: lucid, biotic, full of epiphanic insight, with melodies that may break your heart, before they make a place in your head forever.
I recently caught up with Jeremy to talk about the new album, finding beauty in the darkness of the world today, and the enduring good vibes of the one, the only, Grateful Dead.
The Rumpus: You guys have covered huge stylistic ground in the past, from early Pavement-y noise jams, to driving psychedelic krautrock on 2011’s Sun and Shade, to Gram Parsons-like cosmic country rock, to Ethiopian jazz on your latest album. Yet you always sound like Woods. How are you able to keep this cohesion, while allowing so much room for sonic exploration?
Jeremy Earl: It’s become the Woods way, to take influences of whatever it might be. What we’re listening to lately. Or just how we’re feeling. I take pride in the band where, you know, it’s not like we blatantly set out to rip off a certain style or band, but we can pull from different influences and yet it all does sound like Woods in the end. That’s, in a way, the Woods sound. These subtle influences seeping in to our own formula. So in the beginning we might even say, okay, let’s do a kind of cosmic country tune, but in the end it ends up sounding like a Woods song.
Rumpus: A sense of “place” seems to be central in your songs, from Echo Lake, to Sun City, to the “Cali” of “Cali in a Cup,” to the fact that you’ve set your Woodsist music festivals in such locations as Big Sur and Joshua Tree—places that really tap into the mythos of California. To what effect does location or place influence your writing?
Earl: It is a big influence. I’ve always been drawn to California, and the vibe of it fits with Woods. Though I am very influenced by New York, and the difference between upstate New York and the city, where I split my time throughout the week. The Echo Lake that I was referencing is actually in New Jersey on the border of Warwick, New York where I grew up.
Rumpus: A few years ago you moved from Brooklyn back to Warwick. Has life in Warwick changed how you go about making music? Or how you view songwriting?
Earl: It did, but more on our previous records. This new record I kind of flipped it, and have spent most of the last two years almost primarily in Brooklyn. City Sun Eater is very much a city record. It’s the first in a while that was entirely written and recorded in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Rumpus: What I love about Woods and Woodsist is the community built around the music. Being a Woods fan is a very interactive experience. To certain people I’ve met, the world of Woodsist is not just a label but a lifestyle, or a family. Was this always the intent, or did it happen organically over time?
Earl: I guess it did happen organically and it’s sort of to the point now where I kind of see Woods and Woodsist and the festival and other bands on the label, and, you know, friends’ bands, as this big collective. This one force of like-minded artists and seekers. But yeah, it’s cool. I enjoy thinking of it all as one bigger piece as opposed to separate entities.
Rumpus: Do you think social media has helped labels like yours thrive? What an interesting time it is that you can follow your favorite musicians on Twitter and Instagram and get such an inside peek into their lives.
Earl: Yeah, definitely. Social media has a very big part in that. Maybe more than I wish that it did. [Laughs] It gives a band and a label like Woodsist—it gives us a chance to get out there in a very easy, everyday kind of way. We’ve definitely embraced it, and use it as a means of sharing with the world.
Rumpus: Which songwriters do you find yourself coming back to over and over again? Or is it a process of constant evolution?
Earl: I would say it changes over time, but there’s a couple of big ones I will never get sick of listening to or being inspired by, you know, like Townes Van Zandt is a huge one, where I can constantly listen to him all the time. I’m just kind of blown away by his lyrics. And everything, really. His vibe. Yeah, so I would say Townes is a big one. The Dead are definitely a big one too. Less so on the songwriting—more of like a vibe. Like a full picture. I just love how the band, through this following, based on the shows and the live experience, have this really open fan base where you would go to a show and people would just kind of let loose and do whatever they wanted. Dress however they wanted. Dance however they wanted. And not be judged by anybody. It’s this great experience that everyone is sharing together with the band and having a good time.
Rumpus: A lot of your influences musically seem to be rooted in the past, but I see Woods as a very forward-looking band. How do you bridge the gap between old and new? Is there even a gap at all?
Earl: It’s hard to say. I don’t really listen to much modern music, except for the bands in my atmosphere. But I am influenced by a lot of friends and people around me motivating each other. You know, people like Kurt Vile. And Kevin Morby now, who’s in a band and doing his own great things.
Rumpus: City Sun Eater feels like your most accessible and polished album to date, in all the best ways. The hooks are as strong as ever. And it’s punchier and tighter, even at its most chaotic—I’m thinking of the mind-bending soul breakdown midway through “The Take.”
Earl: A lot of it has to do with the fact that we recorded the whole thing in a studio, as opposed to home studios. Or a little bit of both. In the past, we took that approach. But I think it also has to do with playing together and recording for so long. Just ourselves getting tighter at the craft, and our instruments, and getting better sounds. We’re still recording it ourselves, but we’re in a proper studio with a lot more equipment at hand. The tighter sound—it’s easier to get there. And, you know, it’s years of playing live. It’s made the recorded experience a lot tighter, which I really like. On this tour, songs that we play from the new album live are going to be very close to the recorded versions, which, in the past, sometimes we couldn’t do since the recording was a little bit more wild, loose, or spontaneous. Now it’s a pretty polished thing.
Rumpus: You can definitely feel that. It’s interesting that you guys release records almost every year or two. It reminds me of some of those bands of the late 60s, like Dylan, or The Byrds, or the Grateful Dead, who’d release album after album without ever looking back. Do you find a certain freedom to this approach?
Earl: For me, it’s kind of all we know and what we do. We let it happen naturally. Lately it’s been an every two year kind of thing as opposed to in the past it was an every year kind of thing. I feel like now it’s just that we’re doing a bit more touring off of each record. It kind of naturally comes together by then. We’re not setting a deadline or working it out like we have to do it. It’s our natural pace.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll ever find yourself taking three or four years of tinkering with an album before putting it out?
Earl: We take it as it comes. If that’s how long it takes than that’s how long it takes. But right now, I couldn’t imagine it being like that just ‘cause, you know, I tend to get inspired a lot and write a lot. It seems like there will always be songs there. But who knows? We’re getting older.
Rumpus: I sense a certain unease in many of the new songs. “Sun City Creeps” contains lines like, “please don’t take it away,” and in “Politics of Free” you sing, “in a world of shit, let’s tune out tonight.” Without getting too much into the craziness of the current state of American politics, do you think this unease is a reaction to what’s going on in the news? I’ve never thought of Woods as an overtly political band, but there’s definitely something defiant about the place you’ve created for yourselves in modern music.
Earl: I always kind of take inspiration from the outside world. I never try to be too political, but I take it as it comes. With this one, especially with “Politics of Free,” that is a direct influence on the state of the world today. The crazy, dark place that it’s become. I wrote “Politics of Free” right after one of the many school shootings that we’ve had. And it just seems like it’s a time where something’s happening every week and I can’t believe what’s happening, you know? It’s hard not to let that influence come in. But ideally, I’m trying to make something positive of it all. Trying to look on the bright side of things. See the beauty out there through the darkness.
Rumpus: “Politics of Free” startled me when I first heard it, because it’s so direct and urgent. It seems like a departure in some ways from some of the stuff you’ve done in the past. Do you see City Sun Eater as a protest album?
Earl: Well, definitely that song would be. Like I said before, it’s all so highly influenced by New York City, and the anxiety of the city, and of the world. I think the world is quickly becoming a more and more anxious place. People are just more anxious, you know? And that’s the vibe that the record is really about. It’s not so much a protest album, but more about the state of anxiety in the world today.
Rumpus: “Light,” “sun,” and “sight”—these seem to be constant motifs in your music and art. What keeps bringing you back to these elements? Is there a kind of timelessness to them?
Earl: They’ve always been symbols that I’ve used throughout my life and songwriting, and a lot of it is looking for hope and looking to see through the darkness. I wouldn’t say that it’s religious, but maybe more of a spiritual search.
Rumpus: That’s interesting, because there is this sort of spiritual searching in your music. The lyrics can be quite dark, even though the music is outwardly sunny. I think some of the best songs that you’ve written have this push and pull of light and dark, and this central conflict within them. Do you think that’s true of the best songs in general, or songs that you find yourself drawn to?
Earl: Exactly. I’m drawn to that kind of push and pull. That’s a very big, key element to a Woods song—elements of both the light and the dark. It might sound tacky, but it’s actually talking about some pretty depressing stuff. In lyrics and songwriting, I tend to gravitate toward the sad song a little bit more. I take more inspiration from life events that have happened to me, and that sort of effects the outlook. But it’s a thing that I love to do in a Woods song, where you can talk about darker stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the music needs to be dark. I like that contrast.
Rumpus: Your lyrics are often poetic and filled with vivid imagery. You’ve also set several Woodsist festivals at the Henry Miller Library. Do you ever find yourself reaching outside music, to poetry and fiction for inspiration? Do you have any literary go-to’s?
Earl: Oh yeah, definitely. I’m a big Ginsberg fan. I guess I read more poetry, but it definitely is an influence on my writing. Though I work a little bit differently where I usually come up with a melody or a specific rhythm or phrasing first. And then put words to it. So, I’m kind of guided by the melody that first comes into my head. And then work around that. But yeah, I think there’s all sorts of different subconscious influences from the literary world. The big one would be Ginsberg. I was sort of raised on the Beats.
Rumpus: So cool then that you are able to set your festival in Big Sur.
Earl: [Laughs] I know! I think that’s part of the draw, you know? Coming at it from all its history.