Enigmatic Electro-Acoustic Duo Woo Dig Through Their Archives for New Album
"Awaawaa" gathers unreleased material from 1976-1982.
All photos courtesy of Woo
Woo is a band that is unknown to many and cultishly followed by a few. They hit upon all the the qualifiers that make record collectors gush—obscure, undefinable, mystifying—and yet once you hear Woo record you can almost immediately identify their sound thereafter. Brighton-based brothers Mark and Clive Ives were among the first to marry synthesizers and drum machines with acoustic instruments to achieve a type of neo "healing music" inspired by meditation, shiatsu massage, and yoga. This description might sound like new age music, but instead of the odyssic compositions of Vangelis and Enya, Woo's music has been likened to Cluster, Brian Eno, Durutti Column, Sun Araw, Robert Ashley, and early Animal Collective. Where Woo differs from them—differs from just about everyone really—is in methodology.
Since the mid-1970s, the brothers have put every jam session to tape and laboriously pulled from thousands of recordings to assemble their albums. They don't record in studios and, other than jamming at their local pub, they don't play live. Their first album Whichever Way You Are Going, You Are Going Wrong was released in 1982 to an industry dominated by punk and New Wave. The collection of raw 4-track recordings garnered critical acclaim by the likes of Melody Maker and NME, but with the latter pondering: "How strange that in a year so packed with rhythmic punches of one kind or another, the most enduring noise should come from quarters neither funk nor punk, but from a pair of brothers seemingly time-locked into the spirit of '67. It could well be a fortuitous bad timing that sees the first Woo album now rather than then, at a time when there is literally nothing to compare it with."
And so Woo languished in obscurity releasing brilliantly sui generis records known only to a small number of enthusiasts, including some influential ones. Step in Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn, the owners of Chicago-based label, Drag City, who reissued Woo's brilliant second record It's Cosy Inside (1989) in 2012. Whichever Way You Are Going, You Are Going Wrong was reissued a year later, and Into the Heart of Love (1990) a year after that, both by the label Emotional Rescue. Suddenly Woo had been given the rediscovery treatment: vinyl repressing, and wide distribution, and critical attention. In a Pitchfork review for the reissue of It's Cosy Inside, Mike Powell wrote: "delicate, cosmic and witty, yet quintessentially British instrumental music seemingly tailor made to be rediscovered many years later by a handful of record obsessives." But even Powell couldn't avoid slipping in a hint of long-term fandom: "Woo's records are instantly recognizable. If you know them, you can't help but love them."
The newfound attention has prompted the Ives brothers to revisit their vast archive. Consequently, Woo's newest album Awaawaa is also their oldest: a collection of unreleased material predating their 1982 debut back to 1976. For Awaawaa the Ives brothers worked with Palto Flats label owner Jacob Gorchov to sift through hours of recordings to assemble not just highlights from those early years, but tracks that sounded complimentary. The result is perhaps Woo's most "electronic album" one that places emphasis on synthesizer patches and acoustic instruments plugged into sequencers. The result is a soft-jazz record as if composed by robots. Palto Flats released the record late last week after spending almost two years of working on it. We spoke to Woo's Clive Ives about how Awaawaa finally saw the light of day:
THUMP: You've had a spate of reissues in the past few years, and you also put out one album of previously unreleased material prior to Awaawaa. Did the resurgence in interest in your work prompt the idea of revisiting your archive or was that something you and your brother were already interested in doing?
Clive Ives: After twenty years of obscurity, it has been wonderfully affirming to receive the amazing reviews for what we created. The reissues in the past three years have inspired us to compile new albums by re-exploring our archives, which contains over 1000 tracks. With three record companies supporting us and our bandcamp site, we are very happy to release some of our unheard material. We have about half a dozen albums in the pipeline of our older recordings, and Mark and I are also creating new music.
The tracks on Awaawaa span an early part of your career, and seem more focused on electronics than the acoustic work you would feature on your debut. How did you come to select these specific tracks for this album?
Clive: Jacob Gorchov from Palto Flats contacted me a couple of years ago and suggested that he would like to release an album of our more experimental tracks. We sent him about 200 track to choose from, and then we entered into an 18-month long process of creation with Jacob, selecting tracks, creating a running order, cleaning up the old DAT files and re-mastering etc. It was a new experience for us to have someone else being so closely involved in this process. Because of the way most of the tracks were recorded, and their short duration, we decided to merge the tracks so the end result is a continuous flow. We then did overdubs at some of the transition points to enhance the continuity. The tracks do sound more focused on synthesizers, but a lot of what you hear is in fact Mark playing guitars through my sequencers, so he is often creating the chord structures, but the end result sounds more like it is electronic, like a lot of the tracks on It's Cosy Inside.
Do you usually pull from an archive individual tracks to make an album or do you envision albums as entire bodies of work?
Clive: A lot of these tracks were jams sessions. The initial track would be Mark playing guitars, through sequencers, creating the rhythm and the chords, with me synthesizing and phrasing what he played with my keyboard. Then we would multitrack, with percussion, Korg System 100 synthesizer, clarinet and guitars etc.
We were mainly working at home, originally on reel-to-reel tape decks, then as the technology changed, Tascam 8-track cassette recorders, Adat, Atari computer... Now I have a Mac with two monitors, sublime samplers, cool controllers, and a touch sensitive piano keyboard. It's audio heaven! All our albums, with the exception of Live from Venus, are compilations from our archives. For example Whichever Way was compiled from our first five years of recording. Then the process of track selection and order becomes something incredibly creative and unexpected. With so much material to choose from, we are now breaking down our archives into subsections, so each of our next releases will each have a more distinct character. Creating the order of tunes with cassettes was laborious! It's quick and easy to try new orders these days with a computer.
How has Woo evolved in its almost 40 year existence? Are the kinds of compositions on this early material similar to what you are making now?
Clive: Good question! On reflection, how we approach what we are doing now is still very similar to how we began. I would like to think there is more artistry and polish, but in essence, the same sensibility, motivation, inspiration and passion are driving the process. But I am still optimistic that the best is yet to come. A lot of our more ambitious musical ideas were never realised. Our early years of recording were 4-tracks, now it could be 400! We are still recording music with our first Korg sequencer, even though the sliders crackle much more. Mark still use the same B-flat clarinet, but a few years ago got an A clarinet, so jamming is easier in different keys. He also has new guitars and Hofner semi acoustic bass. But we both have a deep love for what we have created in the past, and because we now have an audience, there is more of a sense of our new recordings being as worthwhile as our older ones. Recording on computers obviously enhances the possibilities of compositions. There are incredible control and the ability to structure a song. But there is still also the freedom to jam within this structure, or jam to form the structure. I am having a love affair with the sounds that are now at my fingertips.
Do the older compositions sound foreign to you?
Clive: No... they're old friends. And like our hero Todd Rundgren would say "When the machine gains control, and mangles your tape!" we now have the equipment to de-noise, de-hum, de-click, and generally make our faded old friends sound bright and clean.
Your music is influenced by new age, ambient music, and instrumental music, and you are also big advocates of yoga, meditation, and shiatsu. Can you talk how meditative states and relaxation continue to influence your work?
Clive: For the past thirty years I have worked as a Shiatsu practitioner, giving one to one sessions, and as a teacher. In the nineties we produced several albums for use during bodywork sessions. The music used during a massage can inform and hold a space in which healing can naturally occur. At best it's not imposing, but guiding. On one Woo CD, Forever Healing, we created long slow orchestral samples, and used loops to create a subtle and soft ambient background which has been used by various therapists for bodywork, yoga, hypnosis, during birth, and to help people go to sleep.
Video by Diego Cohen
What's the origin of the title Awaawaa?
Clive: The track "AWAAWAA" got its name because at 45 seconds before the end, Mark sings a few vocal lines, somewhere between words and "ooh ahhs", part of which sounds like "awaawaa." When we had finally compiled the 15 tracks, and were looking for a title for the album, the obvious choice is to use the name of one of the track titles. Because this is an entirely instrumental album, and quite abstract in its sounds and construction, "Awaawaa" seemed the obvious title. It's not a word, it's a sound. We also liked that the letters reflected the band name, with the 'W' followed by two vowels. Our band name actually comes from the sound of a wood saw blade being played with a violin bow by our incredible great uncle Fred when Mark and I were 9 and 6 years old. We loved the sound "WOOooooo"....
You recently scored music for Waxwings, an opera for kids with special needs. Can you talk a bit about that?
Clive: In 2014 the English Touring Opera commissioned us to write the music for an Opera for children with special needs. It is a sweet story about a boy who doesn't want to go to school, so to escape he gets the children in the audience to help him make wings, and in the final scene he learns to fly. We recorded the music, and three opera singers and a cello player toured England and Luxembourg, staging approximately 50 performances. We created a light, gentle and humorous melodic soundtrack, using mainly celesta, harp, vocoder, bass guitars and clarinets and drums. It was a great challenge to be given a libretto.
Thump: Any hopes for a Woo appearance in the US anytime soon?
Clive: We were recently part of a group that played Kooks and Starman at a David Bowie tribute night, but we have no plans to come to the US.