INTERVIEW | Wooden Wisdom
With a vinyl set at Bang Bang on the books and our curiosity piqued, we jumped at the opportunity to get on a phone call with Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie to discuss their project together otherwise known as Wooden Wisdom. Having joined forces one fateful night four years ago during Fashion Week, the pair bonded over their mutual love of the classics and a penchant for collecting vinyl. Lucky for us, the two spilled all we could ask for in regards to their record selecting process, the atmosphere of DJing together, and much, much more.
How did the two of you link up?
Elijah: Zach and I first met at a Rodarte after party, after one of their shows during fashion week. Zach curated some music for their fashion shows and is very good friends with them, as am I. He was djing their after party, and I was talking to Kate or Laura and one of them said “You should put your iPod on.” “But your friend is DJing I don’t know if that would be cool?” They were like, yeah he wont mind. So I went up and was like hi I’m Elijah, Kate said it was ok if I plug in my iPod, do you mind? And the notable thing about it prior to actually meeting Zach was that whole evening I was in this space listening to music that I would’ve chosen. There were so many parallels musically with the kind of music that I love, and the wide variety of music that I love, that it was kind of astonishing. Then we ended up DJing together that night for the first time; although Zach doesn’t remember. I plugged in my iPod and he played vinyl records. We were kind of going one for one and that’s how we initially met. After that I did a sort of advertising campaign for Bushmills and when there came to be time for a launch party for this campaign, I actually put Zach’s name in the hat and said, Oh you should get Zach Cowie to DJ he would be great. They said “oh he’s already actually been hired for the job.” I think we DJed together that night too.
Zach: We did, yeah. So I was brought into that one through a totally separate person it was another happenstance, and should be noted that Rodarte show was 4 years ago; we have been DJing together since then with some consistency ever since.
Zach has a solo project called Turqoise Wisdom – what led you to combine names when you joined forces versus creating a new moniker altogether?
Zach: I guess the two names just sounded right together when we were kind of rifting for a name. Also we DJ together a lot but we do stuff independently a lot, and it just kind of made sense to be like when we’re together its both of us; it’s not like doing something radically different together that’s exclusive to the combination.
Elijah: I feel like the Wooden Wisdom was kind of, I could be wrong about this, came about as sort of a functional thing where we were being I think it was the first time we were maybe being built together. I think you were like “oh this sounds good,” I felt like it was almost out of function and then we realized it sounded good together.
Zach: Totally we kind of made it up because someone needed something for a flier and we haven’t corrected it since.
Elijah: Precisely; yes.
Since hauling crates of vinyl isn’t the easiest thing to do (particularly overseas), how do you go about selecting records to bring along for gigs?
Elijah: I think it’s a combo of two things: I think it is a combo what it is that the two of us are vibing on at any given time which mutates and changes as times goes on. That can be inspired by records we’ve both independently or bought together; or just sort of a change in direction. But it’s also more often than not is determined by the kind gig that we’re playing. Sometimes we’ll have something that feels like this particular gig is demanding this kind of sound, so we will pull to that kind of sound. Or if it’s something internationally we will try to pull some records of the international destination that we are going to. Does this all sound about right Cowie?
Zach: That’s perfect. I like our confirmations at the end of each run. It usually starts with the quickest little phone call or text message to be like, “hey what’re you feeling this weekend?” and we’ll be like, “oh a little bit of disco some boogie, were going to be in turkey so lets be sure to pack a bunch of Turkish records.” It really changes we don’t have the deepest discussions over specifics. It’s really funny more often than not have 20% overlap where we’ve brought the same thing. Just fitting into some of our biggest inspirations like Larry Levan and David Mancuso. We kind of believe in showing up with a loose plan, and reading the room, and reading the night; kind of making it up as we go along. It’s a little intense I think when DJ’s focus too much on a set list because you never know what’s going to unfold in front of you. I have always felt that being a vinyl DJ that’s how you get through the night, that’s how you stay excited; watching everything mutate and then thinking fast enough to keep up with it.
Elijah: And having enough at your disposal that you can actually answer some of those changes. In some ways, if you come too prepared there might be deviations that you would like to be able to respond to that you wont be able to if you only brought x x things. I also think that’s interesting too, and this happens a lot where sometimes a bag of records can be determined by two purchases. We are constantly buying records so if there is something that we buy that really gets us excited, that actually might set a tone for the records you end up pulling as well.
Zach: Definitely, I’m DJing tonight and I just now did what you are saying. I got something new in the mail today and its the first thing I put in my bag and everything else I’ve put in the bag since is just building up to that moment.
Elijah: That’s so great. That’s the best. I love it.
While Wooden Wisdom is currently based solely on DJing, do you ever consider venturing into the realm of music production?
Elijah: Well that’s something that you do Zach, so you can play into that can’t you?
Zach: Well I really don’t know how to do anything. I don’t know how to play anything as of right now the focus is just DJing. I do a little production stuff but since I don’t have all of the abilities, I usually require a very talented engineer to work with me to translate my ideas, and we certainly never discussed doing anything like that together. We haven’t ruled it out, but for now, DJing and buying lots and lots of records.
How would you compare the vibe when you DJ together with when you DJ solo?
Zach: It’s a lot more fun to have somebody up there with you. DJing is very funny; there’s not much to look at. Its just a guy standing up there playing some records. I love having another person up there to kind of keep me entertained and to keep me thinking sharp. Sometimes when I’ve done big marathons DJ sets for 4-5 hours without someone up there to keep me in check I start to wander weird places. It’s so nice to have somebody right there with you to either confirm or deny your instincts.
Elijah: Yeah, DJing by itself is also so focused. There’s also something really beautiful about that. About kind of getting completely in your head, and almost that sort of barrier between you and the crowd, at that point almost an interior space between the music you’re playing, and I like that feeling. But there’s also that thing that Zach said, there’s a bunch of people looking at you, and there’s not a lot to look at. There’s not a lot to look at. That’s okay we focus on each other a lot. It gives freedom to move and dance without feeling like you’re a single person standing on stage dancing by yourself. A lot of the inhibitions go away. It takes a lot of the pressure off. I just love the kind of call and response. I enjoy the fun and the challenge of that. You don’t have that when playing by yourself. When Cowie puts a record on that immediately sets the tone for what I’m going to do next and I have to answer to that. So he’s sending the call and I have to respond to that. I really like that, its really fun. It’s a fun challenge; he throws something on and I’m like, “fuck you just did that – oh fuck what am I going to do now?!” I really love where things can go based on the decision the two of us are making together – this sort of malleable thing expanding throughout the evening.
Zach: It keeps the whole thing very, very exciting. You really have to be on point and aware of everything that’s going on around you. It’s really exhilarating trying to keep up with each other.
Does crowd vibe better when you two play together?
Elijah: I think so. I would like to think they can see us enjoying ourselves. You do to a certain degree have a direct connection to the people you’re playing to. I know that when I see people having a good time in a band or any other performance, I am in turn having a good time. So I would like to think that it translates.
Zach: Definitely. Like you said earlier the inhibitions go away a little bit when you’re not just up there alone. I think I’m more inclined to show how much fun I’m having when I’m not alone.
Elijah: Yeah you get on the mic every now and again too! It’s funny because in the capacity of the two of us playing together he has more of an proclivity to jump on the mic than I do.
Between Simian Records [Elijah’s label] and Zach’s past experience working with labels, both of you have had direct involvement with the backend of music. How much success for an artist or album is dependent on the label?
Elijah: Wow. There are so many factors to that.
Zach: I can safely say that I was at four labels, about ten years between all of them. It’s been 5 years since I’ve worked with new artists. I just do new reissues now. And I can say that I can even answer that question. Things are moving so fast. I don’t know what the hell people do right now to get noticed. It’s really great to have a label behind you but there are so many people now that have figured out how to circumvent it. Labels are excellent to keep a momentum sustained, but to generate an initial momentum, I don’t know how necessary it is anymore. I think if you make the right thing you’ll get noticed right now. When you’ve got a label that’s less work on your shoulders. What it comes down to is being honest and making the music you should be making – then you will get noticed.
Elijah: I don’t know if I can add much to that. I think you’re 100% correct. I think one thing that is notable that when this happens, and it doesn’t happen a lot, it’s more likely to happen in a smaller independent label that a major long-term investment in an artist means that the label is truly supporting the artist. The way that things are moving now, the way that things are being distributed I don’t even know if there’s a right way or wrong way to go about promoting an artist or getting an artist heard.
Zach: Totally, I think it’s a great time to learn how to DJ.
Elijah: I won’t say that I still believe in the notion of a label as a home. I think that’s starting to diminish ever so slightly, or quite a lot really because there are so many artists that are self distributing and having equal success. I still kind of have a soft spot in my heart a place of support that supports the artist on their roster, but maybe I’m thinking of 20 years ago.
Zach: I think the key word that you threw out in regards to that is the long term game, which is totally necessary because it is important to recognize that there are a lot of bands have been selling 10,000 of everything they’ve done for the past 15 years. I totally agree with you that’s a label situation. Like someone who can see growth, opportunity, and development. That doesn’t happen so much now a days with people who come out the gates with some big pitchforky thing. I think music in that regard is almost like gossip. It works for a few months then it sort of disappears, so I still have a lot of faith in labels for long-term life.
Elijah: Yeah I agree. I think in that particular relationship from the label to an artist, which is almost the same as a studio to a film in a certain degree and the notion of a long-term investment, and I think the measure of what is successful has changed drastically over the last 30 years. Now the idea of being successful means that it has to be successful immediately or it’s a failure. I see that with a small movie too. If they really play the long game for that release and push it over months to get people seeing the film, and by word of mouth going. Craft that film in terms of people’s eyes then it’ll have the success that it deserves. I think the same goes for music as well. It’s across the board. Success now a days across all artistic platforms have been turned into this immediacy, and this immediacy doesn’t fucking work. It works for some, but in terms of artists who are successful immediately, we are talking about artists who come out with those singles that we do forget about. They will be completely irrelevant in 5 months.
How do you feel about music being so widely available to digitally pirate today?
Zach: It’s a good day to ask me that question because my new Macintosh tube amplifier showed up. I only really care about vinyl. With that being said the more digital things that are widely available for me to test out to see if it’s worth owning on vinyl the better. I want it all for free. If it’s good enough ill buy a copy and put it on my shelf.
Elijah: I feel exactly the same way. I also think that you know that there is no question that financial harm was done to the music industry as a business by way of mass pirating, starting in the mid 90s. I’ve personally felt like all those barriers broke down and the flood gates literally opening has made it so that people across the world were listening to music that they never would have had access to. That’s the part of the conversation that no one really talks about. It use to be you would have to listen tot the radio to listen to the music, and the radio stuff being truly viable a long time ago – and you certainly weren’t exposed to music from Africa or different parts of the world or for artists that were on labels in your small town. You didn’t have access to hearing those things. In a lot of ways regardless of the financial consequences, it exposed the world to artists that they never would have heard and I think there is a lasting legacy about that.
Zach: Totally man. And I truly believe if its good enough people will buy it.
Elijah: 100 percent; I totally agree.
Zach: I remember my first CD, Grateful Dead – In the Dark.
Elijah: I think my first CD – because I had a couple CDs that my mom bought me prior – so I felt like as a thinking individual that I chose the CDs the thing that I wanted to purchase was Prince – Batman soundtrack. And the very first thing I remember owning as a child was a cassette tape The Best of The Monkeys when I was six years old.
Zach: I think my first cassette that I really clung onto was Led Zeppelin IV – probably how I ended up in California. Listening to Going to California over and over again as a kid.
If your house was on fire and you could only grab three records, which would they be?
Zach: Elijah and I both have a lot of records. I get asked that question every once in a while, if all my stuff was going to go, I would take the insurance money and go to medical school or something. Because I want all of this or none of it. I don’t know how I could feel with three.
Elijah: I kind of agree. I mean there could be any three. There have been so many records that Cowie have and that I have that were hard to get expensive rare, but I think that the depression of only having three left of the mountain that went up in flames makes if kind of irrelevant. I think I would collect on insurance. Just a depressing notion.
Any albums in heavy rotation at the moment?
Zach: I’ll go over to my new arrivals.
Elijah: I’m actually looking at the same thing.
Zach: Elijah you don’t know this yet but I got a Dizzy K record from France, do you remember Dizzy K?
Elijah: Dizzy K? No.
Zach: Yeah Fitz taught us about him. He’s a really killer African boogie dude, I got a record called Sweet Music from 1984 that’s so good and pretty bonkers too. And I’ve been listening to Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock all day today because I got their album. I think the engineering on those records has never been topped to this day. What do you got?
Elijah: Let’s see I got an original EP of the Francis Bebey – New Track album?
Zach: Dude I saw those online they came from his widow.
Elijah: You’re kidding me.
Zach: See these are the conversations we have that lead to what we end up DJing.
We’re excited to have you play at Bang Bang this week. What can we expect from your set?
Zach: We haven’t had that phone call yet.
Elijah: I suspect that there will be a fair amount of international edits and disco and boogie tracks.
Zach: Definitely, probably a lot of 12 inches, not a lot of 45s if we’re talking about what we’ve been doing lately. Just good party music. Probably focus on late 70s early 80s.
Elijah: Perfectly articulated.
Zach: Thank you.