The Wood Brother’s percussionist on his dad, songwriting, and the pandemic
By Julie Wenger Watson
The Wood Brothers return to Cain’s Ballroom Monday, September 20, and the trio’s drummer, Jonathon Starbuck Rix (think whale, not coffee), or “Jano” as he’s been known for most of his life, will be there with his kit, his shuitar and assorted percussive instruments.
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
The band – brothers Oliver (formerly of Atlanta-based funky blues-rock outfit, King Johnson) and Chris Wood (one third of avant-jazz-funk trio, Medeski Martin & Wood) along with Rix – released their seventh studio album, Kingdom In My Mind, January of 2020. Described as their most spontaneous and experimental collection yet, it was recorded over a series of improvised sessions. True to form, the songs draw from the members’ diverse musical backgrounds, combining thoughtful lyrics with beautiful harmonies and skillful arrangements.
Your father is drummer Luther Rix. What was his influence on you?
A big one. He’s still a professional drummer and percussionist. I learned most of what I do on the drums from him. I sat behind him on gigs growing up. Everything from in the pit of Broadway shows to rock shows and little country dive bars, I’d be sitting right behind the drum set, so I learned everything from him.
Kind of destiny, really?
When I look back, I really wasn’t going to do anything else. Of course, I enjoyed the positive feedback from my parents, especially when I would want to do something in the art world, whether it was visual arts or music. They obviously appreciated that a lot. It became my identity pretty early on.
Tell me how you ended up with the Wood Brothers
In a way, it was round about, but in a way, I don’t know, it’s kind of fate. I can say they were my favorite living band that was doing the thing I loved in the present moment, so I was kind of obsessed with the Wood Brothers. Then, I got a chance to be on the same opening bill. I was playing with a guy named Casey Driessen, and we both ended up opening for the Zac Brown Band at a giant arena. I got a chance to talk to Oliver for a few minutes after the show. I was kind of starstruck. It wasn’t like he was a huge star at the time, but just hearing the voice that I had listened to on the record so much emanate from an actual human. Then, I got a call from him a couple of weeks later, and he said, “Would you ever want to play with the Wood Brothers?” They were looking for a drummer. They had made their first record with a drummer, and then they wanted to make it a trio. Two guys in the Zac Brown band both recommended me, so it was just everything working together.
What is the songwriting process like for the band?
Well, it seems to change each record. On their first record, before I was involved, Oliver came to the band with a lot of songs that he had already written, and then they started collaborating. Each record becomes more of a collaboration. This last record, Kingdom, we started that just improvising together, and we recorded about five days of improvisations, split up over months between tours. We actually ended up just chopping up the improvisations and writing lyrics over it, and then sometimes re-performing it, sometimes not. It’s kind of all over the map.
Do you feel like you’re contributing more to the writing as the band grows?
I do. With each record, it becomes more of a process. I think we all love that because we all bring something different to the table. It’s just richer that way.
How is it to be the non-sibling of the trio?
I’ve known them so long now that it feels kind of like we know everything about each other – all the good parts and all the bad parts. For the first few years, though, I would have answered that question differently. I would have said that they had this kind of unspoken magical thing. I really had to kind of jump into the river. Otherwise, it just didn’t work because they could speed up and slow down and just go places with the pitch and their singing. Everything was right that they did together, you know what I mean? It took me a minute to find that. I think that’s something they just had from being brothers and having the same influences for so long and growing up together. I don’t even mean playing together because they actually hadn’t played together that much for that many years. But it feels pretty good. People don’t call me the new guy anymore.
To me, there’s so much that’s “visual” about this band. Is that something intentional?
That’s so interesting because I always think of visual bands as more in the pop world. I will say some of it’s intentional in that I play a bunch of different instruments, so we do think about that when we write sets. When you’re an audience member watching anything, when anything is static for too long, it becomes like the refrigerator buzzing. You just stop really noticing it. So we try to contour our sets where I’ll come up front, and I’ll play the shuitar, or we’ll change positions or get around one mic. It keeps us engaged as much as the audience to have that variety, just a little bit of novelty, and to do it a little differently every night. So yes, we think about it a little bit. But I’m excited to hear that it’s fun to watch because I often think, “Oh, I’m just the guy sitting here, and usually sitting down back here. It’s not that interesting.”
Do you have any thoughts or comments about how the pandemic affected you personally, or as a band?
I’m sure I went through what so many people went through with different stages of fear, and then figuring something out. I did some landscaping work for a little while, and then some depression. All the things, right? And I learned a lot from that. You know, it was hard on my marriage. We had to deal with some stuff that really needed dealing with. In the end, I’m thankful for those aspects of it. We’re starting our third tour with the Wood Brothers, and I am so beyond thankful to be going out and playing. Yesterday, we rehearsed, and I mean, we were just grinning ear to ear. Really, it was amazing, just really appreciating playing with other humans and just being with other humans, so that’s great. That part is good. It was also a moment to step back and take stock and see what we wanted to do differently and how we want to be thinking differently.