Recently I conducted an interview with one of New Jersey’s most interesting and entertaining musical acts. I met Will Wood, the singing pianist at the helm of Will Wood and the Tapeworms, at his studio rehearsal space in Rockaway. For some time I've been aware of his music through others, though I've never seen him smash his head into his keyboard. Yet, after all I've seen of his performances online and in person, I found myself unable to recognize the man. Pieces of the interview will be tied into this piece, which unsuccessfully will begin the question, “Who is the real Will Wood?”
Of course Wood, like any human is attempting to find the answer. Perhaps taking the search to another level with a solo live album/ concert film entitled “The Real Will Wood.” The performance, which is set to take place on March 18 at the same studio the interview was conducted, has already sold out.
The performance hopes to showcase Wood’s ability as a musician, a performer, and an artist. Though his feeling towards his artform, music, seems to be a conflicted affair, Wood’s feeling towards music can be summed up in one word: hate. Though he of course loves to write and perform his own music, and likely appreciates some other artists. Ultimately, however, he said, “You know, if you hate 99.9% of something you really just hate that thing and I hate most music.”
Yet, Wood is human and he is above all the various challenges one is presented as an artist to a degree. Specifically, I am reminded of how Wood dealt with a tapestry he attempted to hang numerous times during the interview. Altogether, it was a rather generic looking tapestry; a generic hippie rag, my favorite. Yet, what made it beautiful was to see Wood physically grapple with art. When asked about the tapestry, he underplayed it like an artist.
Cleary, he is still a working human making a living with one of the most classical instruments in existence; however, Wood did not initially take to the piano. On the contrary, the piano seemed to take to him.
When asked how he started with the piano, Wood responded, “I really didn't have much of a choice. You see, my grandmother, she performed for the Metropolitan Opera. She was an opera singer and a pianist.” After his grandmother passed and left her piano, Wood’s mother “insisted that somebody in her family become a pianist.” Around the time Wood turned 5, he began taking classical lessons; however, he also noted that these lessons did not drive him towards an interest in music. More specifically, he put the spotlight on the fact that he “never really learned how to read music.”
Wood focused on how to make it look like he could read music, solely to avoid getting hit with a ruler by his old Russian teacher. Eventually, he “did end up falling in love with the instrument.” It was only after he ended his classical lessons and started to write his own music that Wood truly became attached to the piano and music. Looking back on his experience, he said, “I'm glad I ended up having that experience in my childhood. I mean after all it gave me my bread and butter to this day.”
Yet, Wood is no simple piano man like Billy Joel, Elton John, or Tom Waits (whom Wood “adores.”) The shows that he puts on are not catered affairs of a set of beer-drenched cover songs. In Wood’s eyes, “Since I get to go up on stage and play a little rock and roll and get kind of f****** weird with it, I think people are taken a little off guard.”
Upon further thought, Wood noted how the piano is perhaps the best instrument for him. “The piano is such a huge and dramatic instrument,” he said before elaborating, “It's kind of
over the top just in sound; it can do a lot of things...you wouldn't expect it to do sometimes. Nothing is more indicative of drama than the sound of a piano.”
Wood also credits the addition of saxophone in defining his sound, going as far as saying that he wouldn't be able to play his songs without a saxophone. “The saxophone is one of my favorite instruments; the great thing about the saxophone is that it can be a lot of different things. It can be a clarinet, it can be a trumpet, it can play the role of a lot of orchestral instruments. Really, what people seem to forget is that saxophone is actually a classical rock instrument….I don't think I could ever be in a band without a saxophone.”
Wood also noted how the saxophone, like the piano, works on a visual level. Moving forward, I intently examined the drum set up in the rehearsal space, specifically the bass drum branded with the band’s name. Upon questioning why the band was named the Tapeworms, Wood phoned through several brief jab answers before answering, “Really, when it came down to it, somebody basically just asked me what do you want to call your band, and I just said….uh, the Tapeworms, and that was about it and I think kind of reflects what I'm going for here. I don't like the idea of insisting on spinning some grand ideology or metaphor through the title of what I do; I don't want to do that. You know I could do that in a song, I can do that on an album, but I don't want to f****** do that for the whole project.”
With that as a springboard, Wood launched into how he inadvertently saw the Lumineers at Madison Square Garden sometime prior. Though Wood went with pure intentions of seeing Andrew Bird perform a brief opening set, he ended up enduring the main set by “Mumford and Nephews” as he so lovingly referred to the band. “What I think is interesting about the name of the Lumineers is that it has such an inherently hopeful sound to it; it basically says we are the engineers of light. You know we are illuminating and we are engineers, and that is just….that's a bit of a statement, don't you think? It's a little bit limiting; now I suppose the name the Tapeworms could be a little bit limiting. You call ourselves the Tapeworms, people are going to assume you're going to sing spooky weird a** music about, I don't know, Tapeworms.”
Then, as if Camus himself was making a point in double time, Wood said, “I'm not married to it, I think that the….I'm married to the name the Tapeworms obviously at this point.”
Wood hopes to keep his music from being a one genre affair, taking aim at bands that establish a genre before ever once playing; however, as a musician - and even just as a creative person - he noted experimentation through genre work as key. “I like to play with genre; I like to write songs in different genres. I like to kind of mess around with iterations or reiterating or experimentation based on aesthetic standards of long standing genres, but I don't….what I don't like is ever….well I'm happy being the Tapeworms and happy conjuring whatever image that is, and I'm happy making spooky, jukey music, but if I want to write a song...if I want to write a love song in the key of A flat major with all the bells and whistles of valentine's day imagery, all banalities of all that...if I feel I want to do that, and that's what speaks to me at the moment where I'm writing that song, I'm going to write that f****** song. I'm going to put it on the f****** record.”
Wood is an artist and, like any artist, he refuses to be bored by self-imposed limitations of genre. “I don't want to bore myself, I don't want to bore anyone else, but more importantly I don't want to f****** bore myself….the point of being creative is to create, not to reiterate, not to repeat, not to get redundant. I wouldn't want to be a musician if I had to stick to one genre forever.”
There is an energy to Wood’s movement that is exaggerated greatly by his height. His voice answers the questions with speed, though his body sometimes lingers in the interim between questions. One particular question broke that cycle more than the others. When asked about contentious relationships with the audience Wood said, “I don't have any
desire to intentionally alienate anybody, but I do recognize that you can't do anything in this life without it pissing somebody off. Where is it that’s just the way the world works, it's the lay of the land, it's just how human beings are. No matter what you do, no matter what you say. No matter how carefully constructed or thought out your artistic expression, your poetry, your lyrics, your onstage banter, your costume, whatever it is, somebody's not gonna like it. Somebody's gonna find it offensive, somebody's gonna find it boring, somebody's gonna think you're a hack, somebody’s gonna to call you a sellout, there's nothing you can do. There's always going to be somebody who doesn't like what you're doing. So to a certain extent...I have no desire to develop any sort of contentious relationship with any members of my audience, but I accept it's something that is going to happen. It happens to every artist ever, every artist loses fans and while I never want to do that and I always want to make sure that I am, you know, listening to my fans and that I'm delivering them something they want to hear. I can't let that stop me from being honest to myself as an artist because that's the kind of way I'm gonna establish the strongest fan connections anyway. There's no reason for me to pander, if you're pandering it's because what you're doing isn't good or what you're doing isn't connecting with people. If I'm left to my own devices to express and to write and compose in whatever way strikes me as the most moving to my own senses, and the most inspiring to me, and the most fulfilling to me, then I'm going to connect with people who understand it better. I'm going to connect with different types of people, who are going to be better fans, who are going to enjoy it more. That's just life, you know…..to answer your question no it's not good to have a contentious relationship with your audience, but if you don't have it sometimes you're probably not making very good art.”
As had happened numerous times before, the fabled tapestry fell once more. Though this particular time came at the almost exact point that Wood finished answering the question, leading to Wood uttering a stream of colorful, expletive filled language, as he dealt with the rug once more. To alleviate the mood I entered into frame to deliver an anecdote about trucker speed, “Black Beauties,” and in true American fashion, Adderall. The remark appeared to make Wood laugh, justifying to me to go down a rabbit hole of drug related questions.
Branching from the previous notions of being pigeon holed and the former question of drugs, Wood’s relationship with psychedelic music and drugs was then explored. From anecdote to conversation to question, the topic fumbled a bit until Wood said the following, “ My relationship with psychedelics is long and complex. I would never consider myself, well I couldn't consider myself a psychedelic user now. I don't do that s*** anymore.”
On the importance of psychedelics to his life, “ I mean I can definitely say that psychedelics had an enormous influence on who I am as an artist, but they've had an enormous influence on who I am as a human being music or otherwise and I think you find a lot of the music I write doesn't tend to….use a lot of the classic psychedelic musical language…..It's not all soundscapes and sitars.”
Despite that, Wood did mention how the band worked with a sitar player for his second album, “Self-Ish.” Although the work did not make it onto the finished album, it remains hard not to appreciate the psychedelic the visual side of Wood’s music on occasion. One only has to watch the video for “Chemical Overreaction/Compound Fracture” to get some understanding that this Will Wood creature is woke. People even seem to speak about him in psychedelic language, articles about Wood and his music that infer life changing experiences. Of course, there are his fans who paint enlarged third eyes on their faces.
“My music doesn't tend to follow aesthetic conventions of psychedelic music, but I do have a deep appreciation for psychedelic culture and psychedelic history simply because I used
to be really, really into drugs. So to answer your question, I don't think…...I'm not aware of anyone trying to pigeonhole me into being a drug person, but I've certainly tried to do it to myself in the past.”
To me, this answer implied a sense of vulnerability often found in musicians, particularly those considered to be “local” or “indie” acts. So the natural follow up was to ask about his relation with the press, does he read reviews of his shows? Does he pull a Ryan Adams from time to time? “I do read the press, I do read everything that I find and the reason why is partially because to be perfectly honest it's very validating, it makes me feel like I'm doing a good thing. I think a lot of people shy away from being willing to admit that they gain validation from their own art. I got no reason to hide that, I gain emotional validation by connecting with people through art and I definitely gain emotional validation by people writing articles about how wonderful they think I am, I mean geez, who wouldn't like that. It can be a little bit overwhelming, I don't always know how to react.”
Wood then used the time to complement Adam McGuire, who wrote a piece on him for njracket.com, then continued his answer with, “ I read the press partially because I have to, ‘cause I have to compile press quotes in order to continue selling myself and the other reason why is goddammit it's great. You know, I wanted to be a musician my whole life. You know since the first time I ever wrote a song, which by the way I would never recommend, ‘cause once you do it once you can't stop doing it. It's worse than cigarettes, you can not, once you start writing songs even if it sucks you're just going to keep doing because you're going to go, “Oh this is something I can do I'm going to be this guy now,” and you're stuck, you're f*****. That's how it starts, just one man….don't do art kids.”
This remark led the conversation to devolve once again and Wood to lose track of the question. After being brought back to date he continued, “It tends to escalate, you need more and more to feel the same thing, much like validation from the press. It's career validation, it's not like I'm just sitting here going, “I love reading the press ‘cause it makes me feel good about myself.” I read the press cause I want to know, I want to know if it's working and I like hearing that it is working when people say that it's working. When people say that it's not working, I don't like hearing it, but I'm glad I read it anyway…...I've yet to get my first scathing review.”
We then exchanged a few brief words on politics, though it was nothing of worth. A fake news here, a very fake news there, and so it goes. But there was still a question burning inside me, that demanded to be asked. With each question it seemed Wood and I in turn had danced around the subject of identity in it's purest form. “See I (was) born with an undersized hippocampus, an undersized amygdala, that apparently is significantly overactive, there's brain slices and s***, you know what can I say? I believe I was born without the part of the brain that gives you a singular cohesive identity, no sense of feng shui, no coherence, no arrangement, no design, no clear, obvious, singular guy…..it's like there's no glue there, you know people are an amalgamation of their memories, and their feelings, and their thoughts, and their experiences and things they identify with and things they refuse to identify with whether they are conscious or unconscious pieces of themselves. People are collections of things and I believe most people have this glue, this adhesive that keeps the different parts of somebody together. You know you're a different person talking to your parents than you are teachers, you're a different talking to your teachers than you are to your boss, than you are to your boss or your brother than you are to your girlfriend than to your dog most of the time hopefully. But there's glue, those different people you become in the presence of different contexts have some kind of cohesiveness at the end of the day they have that kind of glue and I don't have that glue. So, do I believe that identity is important? I believe there's a reason why human beings
evolved to have such strong and personally important feelings about their identity, I believe it can be important that to each individual for the most part most people identify with their identity. They care about their identity, they have feelings about their identities, they're attached to who they are and I have moments where I am, attached to who I am, but then in the next moment I could be attached to a different person who I am. I'm not talking about any sort of Dissociative Identity Disorder sort of thing, but rather that I'm missing the glue and so for me, I think to a certain extent it's one of my strongest features, that my lack of a singular, cohesive glued together identity is what allows me to take on different forms of self expression because they're such different forms of self to express. I think it's my greatest asset and in many ways my greatest weakness, it makes s*** very, very difficult to keep s*** straight. It's hard to hold down a job, hard to hold down a relationship, hard to feel the same way about somebody one day as you do the next. It's not easy it's exhausting, to be too many people at too many different times and not have much control over who comes out when, but I think it allows me to appreciate the benefits of writing punk rock and then writing ragtime. So it's important to have an identity as an artist, of course. If you're not expressing yourself then who are you expressing? Maybe that calls into question the necessity of expressing one’s self in art, I might be getting too lofty here. I'm sorry if I'm getting over the top here, but I guess what I'm saying is that identity can get in the way and identity can inspire. Identity can pigeonhole and identity can also sometimes do the opposite depending on your relationship with yourself. So for me, my identity….I can't identity with anything other than the music that I create. The music that I write that's my identity man, that's all I am. The art that I make is more me than I am because I am nobody, if that's an alright answer.”
The next question that was posed of Wood was if he felt that there is too much of himself to take in by an audience. Or how he framed it, is there a line for him and his audience? “...Where do I draw the line between the stage version of myself and the regular life version of myself?”
Wood indicated there is a line, but noted, “ There’s no rules as to where I draw it. I draw it when I feel like drawing it, where I feel like drawing it and sometimes it's a dotted line, sometimes it's a transparent line, sometimes it's a swiggly line, a jagged line, or no line at all. Especially since the person I am on stage, from one stage to another can be kind of different too. So to say….I can't draw the line between who I am on stage and who I am in regular life because well I just don't know where it is. So I guess I kind of pick and choose, I guess that's what I mean when I say that I don't have the glue.”
Now, we return to the central question: Who is the real Will Wood? As much as each of these questions has hoped to find the answer, perhaps - as Wood suggests - there is no real Will Wood. “My very intention of asking ‘Who is the real Will Wood?’ is to say ‘ha ha ha, f*** you.’ Not that I necessarily want people to think that there is no Will Wood or that there is no honest version of me or that there is no straight forward off stage real personality, but rather that…..I guess what I'm saying is when, to a certain extent I'm saying there is no Will Wood and to another extent I'm saying there is only the real Will Wood...that there is no fake Will Wood, that there is no dishonesty, that there is no character, there's no theater or dramatization or hyperbole behind the person I am on stage. I suppose to a certain extent my intention is to, God this is going to sound so f****** pretentious, but to explore the dichotomy between real and unreal in terms of identity and in terms of individuality. That to explore...God you know the way I'm talking right now makes it seem like this whole show is going to be a f****** nightmare, makes it sound like I'm describing some f****** postmodern...it just sounds like I'm trying to describe some avant garde, high concept, high brow drama when it's as far from that as possible.”
The following is something I said for no reason other than my own amusement as a failing music journalist. “One man, one piano, one stage. Forever and for all time,” and hopefully the man on the stage is neither John Cage or Billy Joel, but Will Wood in whatever permutation he's decided to embody. The Will Wood with whom I spoke followed my comment with this, “No, we must subvert the stage, we must subvert the man, we must subvert the piano.”
Yet as much as Wood is willing to avoid the avant garde label, he is game to consider “The Real Will Wood Project” an experiment. “I'm excited about it, I have a lot of big plans….there will be confetti, there will be noise,there will be yelling, there will be screaming, there will be laughing, there will be crying, there will be my daughter, there will be bald face lies….there will be bald face lies mixed in with brutally honest self expression to the point of self masturbation, to the point of baring my soul for everybody. But I'll also be you know, filling them with bald face lies so like good luck trying to figure out which one's which.”
However, Wood did not confirm if there will be cake. In a mild attempt at humour, I accused the man of emotionally mugging me. Following this came yet another lull, although this one was filled with conversation and questions.
Still there are unresolved issues of integrity, creativity, and social responsibility. What does Will Wood owe the world, if anything at all? Does he have a duty to speak on a variety cultural issues or it is solely to art? Here's what Wood had to say, “Yes and no…..I don't think that I have a choice. I don't think I have a responsibility to comment on society, but I don't think I can not comment on society because if you're commenting on yourself you're going to be commenting on a facet of society. Nothing exists in a vacuum, you can't comment on anything without commenting on its context. I can't comment on myself without also singing about everything that has made me. Art is always I believe, a reflection of the culture that it was born of…… I believe I do feel that I have some kind of responsibility to comment on it, but I also believe that that responsibility is often fulfilled by simply being honest. I don't believe that art has any inherent responsibility, I don't believe that just because you have a platform you need to be making a powerful, positive statement. I think you have a responsibility to not make a powerful negative statement, but I think that you can be an artist and be a good artist and just be there for fun. But it's hard to be an artist or a good artist and not make a statement, at least by accident. When I'm writing a song, I don't sit down to think how am I going to express this feeling. How am I going to capture this issue that I see, or how I'm going to inspire somebody, how am I going to relate to somebody, how am I going to speak the masses about this injustice in the world or about this pain that we go through or about the way of the American life. I just write I just write what I feel, I write whatever comes to my mind, I just...whatever comes out is what comes out and I think in one of my better songs pieces of those will still come out. Pieces of my feelings about society and about culture and about my ideology and you know pieces of commentary do fall out, but it's never intentional. I never plan to write a protest song, I never plan to write an anti this or pro this song, it's just that I think you can kind of absorb that through osmosis when you listen to any music or you view any form of art. You are going to absorb that. So, do I have a responsibility? No I don't think I have that responsibility. My responsibility is to entertain and my responsibility is to try and make people happy, so yes and no. I guess it depends on the individual listener. I think some people will say, Will Wood has the responsibility as a gay person to sing about, you know gay rights or to preach in favor of the advancement of gay rights. And some people might say, Will Wood as somebody who has done a lot of drugs has the responsibility to speak out in favor of marijuana legalization or whatever, people are going to assume, they're going to assign
whatever responsibilities they think I have. The only responsibility I know I can fulfill is writing honestly for myself and hope that by doing that I am fulfilling my responsibilities whatever they may be to the right kinds of people because I think each artist finds what their responsibility is, what their calling is, what their cause is, what their message is by simply being honest and allowing that connection to be made.”
Will Wood has a number of shows with the Tapeworms coming up. More information can be found on Wood's website, where you can also buy Wood’s 2 studio albums, which is something I highly recommend you do.
Will Wood is prime example of why local music doesn't have to be boring. Simply put, Wood’s music transcends out of the realm of the ordinary. Of course, also buy and watch the concert film “The Real Will Wood” to have a good time and avoid boredom. To experience Wood in even the most subdued of situations is to see a thrilling performance. I've only even seen him play once, at Pineapple Festival last year doing a solo set. Though I didn't see his whole set, one thing stands out in my mind. I remember walking up the hallway of a church crowded with people leading to a spaciously small room stuffed with people either on the floor or sitting in chairs. At the piano, sat Will Wood in high heels and a dress, singing a song that he says is currently untitled, though if I had to name it I'd call it, “I Wish I Was A Girl.” Of course anyone could of done it, even learning to play the piano is not an inherently special talent. What stands out of this is Wood’s comments after the song, the humour and most of all the humanity. So, as this dirge of an article finally dies, I hope that who he is as a person is remembered. Truly no other artist in New Jersey is as inspiring or exhilarating as Will Wood.