“When you tour in a band for as long and as frequently as Mipso has the past few years, some ideas are bound to be tabled for later,” bassist Wood Robinson tells encore. He’s referring to songs he wrote over the years. “I showed a couple to my friend Chris Wimberley, who owns a studio at which I work called Nightsound Studios. He was excited about helping me work them up.”
So began Wood Robinson’s New Formal and the release of his self-titled album in December 2016. He says the side project is a welcoming challenge. “[It] entertains me and gets me the chance to play with some other world-class musicians,” Robinson describes.
Robinson continues to work happily with the popular North Carolina indie-Americana quartet he helped start in Chapel Hill back in 2010. They have since released four albums of progressive sounds, blended with surrounding traditional bluegrass influences. In fact, Jacob Sharp (mandolin, vocals), Joseph Terrell (guitar, vocals), Libby Rodenbough (fiddle, vocals), and Robinson most recently celebrated the release of “Coming Down The Mountain” (April 2017).
“Now I get the fortunate circumstance of knowing when I will and will not be touring with Mipso,” Robinson continues, “and can thus plan short New Formal runs.”
Robinson has a stopover with his New Formal band at ILM’s Bourgie Nights on January 13, along with opener Anne Claire. encore caught up with him to chat about this latest side project and how it branches away from his Mipso roots.
encore (e): Why dub it “Wood Robinson’s New Formal”?
Wood Robinson (WR): I was thinking about how there was a time when Mipso was so new and untested I wanted to dress up for every show. I wore some variation on a suit [during] every performance. At the time I didn’t realize I looked as if I’d just stepped out of a courtroom. I also didn’t know it would become such an everyday occurrence that the stage no longer felt something on which I needed to be dressed up.
I expected the new project to feel the way Mipso had originally; that I would want to dress up again. Thus “New Formal.”
e: What soundscapes or different approaches do you get to explore as a solo artist here versus what you may not have the opportunity to do with Mipso?
WR: The neat thing has been to have more of an introspective musical journey. I learned what music and what about music most appealed to me. I learned what tones and textures most made me jump, and I was able to craft my songwriting to try to meet that. Thereafter I put together an awesome band I think best represents that. The coolest thing about the band, too, is they are all such cool, groovy, tasteful players that I don’t have to tell them almost anything about direction. They already know what will make the song sound its best.
e: What immediately stands out are more jazz sounds versus ‘grass. Is this what you had in mind from the start, or did it evolve through the process?
WR: Initially, the only thing I had in mind was to use songs I had in back catalog. In production, the instrumentation certainly lends itself to a more jazz sensibility than bluegrass. But it’s been fun to test where the two intersect. I think the goal for any music is to be honest and be rhythmically compelling. So I think the record sounds like it does because it’s the most . . . compelling version of those songs I could do at the time. I certainly wanted to add a touch of jazz, as that’s more my musical upbringing and taste, so you can see it in some of the instrumental harmony and arrangement.
e: Nevertheless, folk-style storytelling is at the forefront. Could you tell us about some of these various stories/inspirations behind a couple of songs?
WR: A lot of my focus was on an apparent urban-rural divide seen in traveling the country. I was trying to show the similar struggles between the two in songs. For example, the song “Tunnels” tells of the people you see on a New York City subway and how they seem so tragically stuck in it, despite being in constant transit. They’re in total perpetual motion while being stuck in routine. The same is true of the character in “Nowhere Bound”: He’s staying in the Oklahoma sands because he can’t imagine a life outside of it.
e: I really like “Nowhere Bound.” Though a bit on the dark side, it seems lighthearted or an open-ended way to wrap up the album. What was your perspective here?
WR: “Nowhere Bound” is about Muley Graves, a secondary character in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” When the Joads are leaving Oklahoma, he decides to stay and roam the farms that are left “like an old graveyard ghost.” While he seems a coward, I found his character to be tragically heroic. He felt so attached to his home turf, he needed to stay and care for what his neighbors left. Yes, he was scared and averse to even the most necessary of changes, but it was certain destitution he walked into rather than complete uncertainty. There’s courage in that.
Interestingly, it was the first song I started recording for the record. It went through a lot of changes over the course of its life. You’ll hear a pretty different version of it on Saturday.
e: Is “Desdemona” based on William Shakespeare’s character in “Othello”?
WR: Not specifically, but I think the character in it represents a lot of the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Desdemona. That song is about one of the more sad conversations I had while on an early tour with Mipso. We were playing the late-night set at a shitty bar in Tulsa—a scene that doesn’t exactly go with our vibe. There were about five people in the bar, and I got to speaking to an older lady who seemed like she had been planning to leave for 20 years. Cheery stuff, I know…
e: What was it like working with new musicians versus your Mipso family?
WR: Guitarist Mario Arnez, keyboardist Charles Cleaver, drummer Yan Westerlund, and I make up New Formal. They’re badasses. I’ve had the opportunity to play with some world-class musicians. The record shows some incredible performances by really talented cats in the Carrboro area. They helped me learn so much, particularly the producer Chris Wimberley, in how to run ship on a recording session.
What was different about working with them versus Mipso was in the production dynamic. Mipso is a four-parts-equal institution—each member’s voice is equal and each member has a different role to play. With the New Formal recording, I inhabited each role and the forward moment of the day was almost entirely left to me. That’s stressful, and if truth be told, I now know I prefer having a band, rather than hiring session musicians.
e: Can we expect to see them all with you at Bourgie Nights on January 13?
WR: You sure will.
e: You’ve said in recent interviews folks can expect more from Wood Robinson’s New Formal. Is it too soon to ask what that might look like and when?
WR: I’m not totally sure. I’m writing more songs; hopefully, some more short tours. I have the luxury of only touring when it makes sense for this. I make my living with Mipso and know in advance when Mipso will be on tour. That lets this project be executed when it makes sense and we have time. We don’t have to do long grueling tours for it to be an enjoyable and fulfilling thing. We only play when inspiration hits.
e: Is there anything you’d like to add about your solo work, Mipso or upcoming performance at Bourgie Nights?
WR: We’ve got new songs to play, so you’ll hear some new directions for New Formal! We’re also going to be joined by two amazing bands that evening: Our dear friend Anne Claire, a Durham native, will be playing songs from her upcoming record, about which I’m very excited; and local badasses Mechanical Boulevard will be heating up the stage. It’s gonna be a pretty rad Saturday night.