Back to the Roots: Kris Wood of Blackberry Wood on Live Performance and the Festival Experience

Blackberry Wood

Blackberry Wood

Kris Wood is an entertainer first. As the main force behind the “crazy vaudevillian-jazz-gypsy-circus music” and non-stop party that is Blackberry Wood, people having fun is his top priority. For Wood, music is an experience, rather than a recorded product: it is an event in which the listener is meant to actively participate and interact. Given the band’s history as three-time veterans of “the world’s largest greenfield festival” at Glastonbury, UK, and its scheduled appearance at the fifth anniversary of Vancouver’s NerdFest tomorrow. we were compelled to ask Kris Wood a few questions about live music and festival culture.

Factory Worker Media: What do you think makes [this style of music] so special for audiences?

Kris Wood: It’s definitely dance-oriented. I think it’s because a lot of the music I listen to is a lot older, I listen to music from around the 1940s – a lot!

So you’re probably a Squirrel Nut Zippers fan?

Oh yeah. Part of that, the music that I listen to when I’m listening to that period, is musicians whose job is to perform live: you have the blues guitarist at the house party, the country band at the dance at the hall, the pianist playing at the brothel. Basically a whole bunch of people whose only job is to connect with people and make music. A lot of that changed when people started making and selling recordings. Somehow it comes back to that. My personal inspiration comes from musicians who are there to play for the audience.

It’s a very connected, engaged form of music – the Gypsy stuff is not commercial music – and yet it’s immediately engaging.

That’s the purpose of the music’s that I’m listening to and inspired by, and everything like that.

There is something inherently nerdy about this style of music – but that doesn’t diminish its coolness at all – if anything that adds to it! Meanwhile, the popular music that we hear on the radio, including songs that are considered dance music, Lady Gaga and that sort of thing; rarely is it as much fun as this – but, generally speaking, where did the fun go?

This kind of relates: We’ve been to England six times, and one of the reasons I like going there is that everybody goes out, and they come to the show, and they’re there for one reason – they want to know where the fun is…and then they want to do that thing. They don’t want to sit around and look good, unless that’s what the fun is. Like most people, they work really hard and when they go out they just want to find that thing that’s fun and do it. Whereas I find sometimes, in Vancouver especially, people go out and they’re there for a different purpose rather than just the fun.

That does seem to be the case – there’s a detachment; but from what I’ve heard about your shows, it sounds like you’ve managed to break through that somehow.

It’s just something I’ve been doing for a long time, since I was 18 or something, it’s just caring for the audience and paying attention to everybody, trying to find that little place where you can wedge fun into it.

Blackberry Wood (live)

Blackberry Wood (live)

With current pop music being what it is, do you think it would ever have the same longevity as Vaudeville; are we going to be hearing Britney Spears 100 years from now?

Well, we still are hearing Madonna! It’s a tough time to tell what music is going to do because the industry is going through massive changes, or the recording industry is collapsing, basically. It’s tough to tell what the future of music is, but for me the only thing you can’t get on the Internet is a live show, so, for me it’s all about the live show – hopefully that is more of the future of music.

In terms of the scale of productions for a lot of geek culture, it’s now being produced by major studios – so rather than being localized to a small group of performers, like a traveling troupe or a band, now it’s the result of massive TV or film productions, and is part of pop culture consumption on a mass scale. But if you take that away – let’s look at this in a post zombie-apocalypse or Mad Max scenario where we no longer have access to cable TV, etc. – would today’s geeks would still be able to relate to each other? Would the geek culture that we have persist?

I’m sure it would, in smaller pockets. And there would be differences in tribes, geek tribes and such.

What’s interesting about the state of music now is the resurgence of more traditional approaches, reaching fans directly; you mentioned the change at the beginning of recorded music, when they used to have pubs and cafés with regular house bands and musicians were able to make a living doing music. Do you think that could happen again?

Yeah, I think that’s turning around partially because of the Internet, it’s taken power away from the major labels, and put it back on people’s own opinions. You can exercise your own choice as far as what you want listen to. If you’re interested you can research a lot and look into a certain style, it’s easy to find all kinds of things; before, that was all manipulated and put in front of you, as far as the pop music situation goes.

Going a little bit off track with this next question, but I’m really curious: how do you feel about cover songs? Because what you often see is a debate about whether bands should be playing them, because it takes away stage time from musicians who are performing originals, but it’s also a good way for bands to cut their teeth and figure out what works when they’re onstage, and to give audiences what they want. It’s a bit of a give and take; but if you are having an AC/DC night, does that take away from the potential to build up local music culture?

Pretty bluntly, I’m not so keen on a band whose purpose is to be a cover band. I’m not so keen on that. I mean, I’m just about original music, that’s all I’m about. If I’m going to hear a cover, I don’t want to hear it the same way as AC/DC does it – I want to hear a cover that’s done in a creative way.

How that musician would interpret it themselves, personally.

Yeah exactly, that’s the exciting part, not to hear that song exactly as so and so would have played it.

Now, as a veteran act – you performed at several iterations of Glastonbury – in your opinion, what makes for a successful festival event?

One thing that I like about festivals is that they are looking for original things. Things that are unique, and to surprise their audience and such. Especially festivals like Glastonbury. We are usually playing in the stranger areas of Glastonbury anyway, and it’s surprises that everyone is looking for in those places. I was thinking about that just a little while ago – that’s one of the reasons that we play festivals – is that we’re something that they can bring in and have something unique for everybody to experience.

Glastonbury last year I believe they sold something like 120,000 tickets. And it’s a four-day weekend, so that’s 30,000 people per day – that’s almost the entire population of Port Moody on site, every day.

Well, actually those people are there from beginning to end so it’s not different every day, they camp there. And it usually gets to around 170,000!

So it’s a city, basically.

Yeah. It takes about an hour to walk from one end to the other, and there’s about 100 stages.

For an event on that scale, when you look at the model of how they are putting this together, it’s sort of like travelling-circus-as-temporary-tent-city. But does the circus atmosphere hold up on that scale?

They do a fantastic job, they’ve been working on it forever. It’s split into different areas, so depending on what kind of experience you want to have there’s definitely different places you can go. One place is called the Green Fields, where everybody’s into organic and everything is pedal-powered, solar-powered. There’s a huge circus area where there’s actual huge circus tents and a trapeze outside, and then there’s like sort of a dystopia with giant fire-breathing dragon statues and zombie apartment buildings and stuff like that. So you can have a completely different experience anywhere you want to go.

Blackberry Wood (band photo)

Blackberry Wood (band photo)

It’s very much like a city in that sense, with different neighborhoods. Following that model seems to be working very well for Glastonbury; do you think it would hold up over a longer period? For instance, a two-week or one-month event – would they still be able to maintain that kind of atmosphere?

Well, I’m not sure if anyone has done that; even Burning Man is still four days or whatever, maybe a week for most people because everyone shows up early.

It’s likely the people who are there the longest are the musicians.

Well, the interesting thing is everyone who goes there is supposed to be a performer, supposed to set up their own performance. That’s part of the whole thing, they don’t pay anybody to come in and perform, everybody’s supposed to be their own thing, that’s the tradition.

Festivals are geared towards the way that our culture works: at best, we are going to have a long weekend available to be able to go to an event like that – but if, say, you wanted to go traveling to something like Disneyland for adults, to be able to go to a place where festival culture lives 24/7, it hasn’t been done – but could it happen? Having seen how the festival atmosphere works, do you think something like that could fly, or do people need the time away from that, to go back to their routine or their day job after a four-day weekend, in order to be able to really enjoy the festival atmosphere when it happens?

I don’t know; but I’m going to look into that and see if there are any longer festival-type things.

The closest thing I can think to compare is a traveling tour over the course of the summer or whatever, but that’s not the same as a stationary event.

Well, there’s always the Grateful Dead!

***

Blackberry Wood (Official Site)

Blackberry Wood (Facebook)

NerdFest V event poster

NerdFest V (event poster)

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