text and interview by Scout MacEachron
At first nobody noticed when Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie began playing music. In those moments the duo had everything they wanted; anonymity, influence and unmediated feeling. Wooden Wisdom, the Wood Cowie DJ duo, was playing the Art Basel party Illuminate the Night at the unfinished Brickell City Center in Miami.
Then people did notice; women in ball gowns, 20-somethings in dresses a mother wouldn’t approve of, Miami types, men in whatever men wear to these things. The DJ booth was surrounded. The crowd gathered it does on a major subway line during rush hour: relentlessly, unpleasantly and pathetically.
It didn’t seem to matter that they were interrupted every minute so some partygoer could take a picture with Elijah Wood. It didn’t matter that the police put up a metal barricade half way through the set because people wouldn’t stop taking goddam selfies with Elijah Wood. It didn’t matter that most weren’t there to listen to music. What mattered to the two men was what they were playing music. And they were good, artfully leaping between disco, rock, house, jazz, funk and more. Wooden Wisdom’s style isn’t assault (like the DJs at MDMA fueled festivals) so much as warm suggestion. Wood and Cowie play what they want to play and it’s up to the listener to take it from there.
The duo met at a party in 2011. Wood spontaneously joined Cowie for a set and they’ve been spinning side by side almost ever since. Their first official tour was in January of 2015. Wood began mixing during long stretches on set in New Zealand; he was bored and had a lot of CDs. Cowie has been in the music business since anyone can remember, first as a record label guy then as a DJ. They share an obsession with the hunt for new music, old music, really any music they haven’t heard and Vinyl. They get each other and when on stage communicate without saying anything (a gift only the strongest artistic partnerships possess). They know that they get attention because of Wood’s fame but they don’t really think about that. For them it’s about the flow and selection that is DJ’ing, not image. Their passion is intrinsic. So much so that in a room of 400 flash-hungry Basel attendees if you listened closely, really closely, all you could hear is the music. In the following interview, Autre chats with the duo about their musical obsessions.
AUTRE: We’ll start with a boring question. How did you guys end up here, at Basel?
ELIJAH WOOD: We played a gig almost a year ago here at Bardot and I believe it was through that promoter. He kind of put us up for this. Is that right?
ZACH COWIE: I think that’s right.
AUTRE: So music and DJ’ing are clearly both art forms. For you two, as a team, what do you see as the specific artistry in DJ’ing? In mixing songs, in being up there, in selecting songs, in interacting with the crowd…
WOOD: It’s selection I think and mixing. But really it’s selection. I think that’s what sets any DJ apart from anyone else at its core.
AUTRE: The songs that you select?
WOOD & COWIE simultaneously: Yep, yeah.
AUTRE: So how do you two select?
WOOD: Prior to any gig, or if we’re going on the road for a small portion of time we’ll often just have a conversation about what we want to put in our bag. What we’re kind of feeling and that will sort of set the tone. Then we’ll pull based on those ideas. Then we’ve got kind of a basic very broad statement that we can kind of work within.
COWIE: Read the crowd, work around with it.
AUTRE: So do you plan out what you’re going to play?
WOOD: No. We bring enough records that we don’t have to. We can kind of play it very organically.
COWIE: Yeah, and I think the beginning of the record pull is just the stuff we really want to hear today. Personally that’s how I pull all my bags and records. I start with the empty bag and I put in like 3 things that I really want to hear right now and I try and compliment those things with other stuff in our collection. And our tastes are so similar that they usually come pretty close. In fact we generally will be bringing a lot of the same records accidentally. [Both laugh]
AUTRE: When you say bag, do you mean an actual bag?
COWIE: Yeah, yeah we just play records so we don’t use the…
AUTRE: Right you guys just play records?
WOOD: Yeah, yeah. So they’re just like these travel bags…
COWIE: Flight cases.
AUTRE: So I know you’ve been asked this before but why just vinyl?
WOOD: [Zach] started with vinyl. I didn’t actually. I started with CDs and then ultimately iPod for a long time. So for me the difference is it’s active. It’s tactile, it’s physical.
COWIE: And a lot can go wrong.
WOOD: Yeah. And there are so many variables that can get fucked up over the course of an evening playing with records that it causes, it causes you to be fully active at all times and that’s something… you’re engaged, you’re constantly engaged. It’s a far more enjoyable experience from a technical standpoint. And it also sounds really good. It’s real, it’s physical.
AUTRE: So how do you deal with those mess-ups or accidents or whatever goes wrong?
WOOD: Pull another record.
COWIE: Pull another record. It’s stuff like that that makes everybody know they’re alive which, I think that’s… that’s where it’s at for me.
WOOD: The imperfections.
COWIE: The imperfections are the important part. If you’re listening to somebody on CDJs or something it’s like somebody is just tapping you on the shoulder at a steady beat for an entire night.
WOOD: And I also think that for me coming from having played with CDJs for a long time just for fun…. My problem with digital and the reason I moved away from it is that there are too many choices. I like having a finite amount of choices. When we pull records for a gig or for a two-week thing we’re pulling a finite amount of music that’s really specific. It’s broad but it’s specific.
"At a certain point when there’s a sweet spot. I feel like I’m in the music. I’m not really in the crowd I’m in the music. When it’s going really well that’s the universe I’m in and that is a really incredible feeling."
AUTRE: Finite in sense of the time?
WOOD: No, finite in terms of the physical space of the bag. So with a laptop or USB stick you have an infinite amount of choice and I think that that’s not necessarily a good thing. I love having parameters and working within those parameters. See what I mean?
COWIE: There’s a DJ that I, that we both, love named Theo Parrish. I watched a documentary where he said that he’s never been comfortable trading artistry for convenience. That’s my favorite quote about that. We love records. That’s why we do all of this is to go out and find records, play records. It’s like, if it’s not in my hands I don’t feel like it’s a real thing.
AUTRE: Do you spend a lot of time… do you go to record shops and dig?
COWIE: All the time. All day, every day.
WOOD: Between record shops and Discogs and…
COWIE: I was buying stuff online on the ride over here. [Both laugh]
AUTRE: How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re on stage and holding a crowd in your hands?
WOOD: Some of the greatest moments…
COWIE: It’s super fun but I also don’t really think about it.
AUTRE: Really? You just get in to it and don’t…
WOOD: Yeah, I think when you’re actually in the zone you’re not thinking about the audience. You’re kind of thinking about… for us, I don’t know maybe I’m speaking for myself. At a certain point when there’s a sweet spot. I feel like I’m in the music. I’m not really in the crowd I’m in the music. When it’s going really well that’s the universe I’m in and that is a really incredible feeling.
AUTRE: Kind of like Malcom Gladwell’s concept of flow.
COWIE: It is a flow state. It’s 100% flow. I know the day that I hit 10,000, it’s weird. It’s a real thing.
AUTRE: You just had a sense or you actually counted?
COWIE: No I just… there was a day when I stopped having to think about all the technicalities and only think about music. Like a guitar player doesn’t have to look at the neck of his guitar anymore. It was a cool moment. [Laughs]
AUTRE: How does feeling out the crowd and feeling their mood change what you play? Do you just feel it? Is there a zone?
COWIE: Yeah. You can tell when something’s bombing. There’s just a vibe. And on the other hand you can tell when something’s really working. We try and act fast to compliment the stuff that’s working.
AUTRE: How do you guys work together or communicate when you’re on stage?
COWIE: Well we’re standing right next to each other so…
AUTRE: But I mean do you both control what’s playing? Do you look at each other before switching songs?
WOOD: No, there’s not a lot of conversation.
COWIE: We’ll we can’t hear each other because it’s so loud.
AUTRE: Do you wear headphones?
WOOD: We do wear headphones, yeah.
COWIE: We’ll just be like holding stuff up at each other and being like…
WOOD: Well if he’s got a good idea yeah he’ll throw something out and be like, “Do you wanna do this next.” But oftentimes we’re not even sharing what we’re going to do next except for the occasional glance over. It’s happening as it’s happening and there’s not a whole lot of conversation except for ‘that was awesome.’ [Both laugh]
COWIE: [Laughing] ‘That one’s really good, where did you buy that?’
WOOD: Or ‘can I take a photo of your record.’
COWIE: [Laughing] Exactly.
AUTRE: Last question. What do you want people to feel or experience while listening to you DJ and watching you on stage?
COWIE: I just want everybody to love music and to be inspired to go out and find records that they love. That’s all you know? It’s all music. I don’t want them to pay attention to us.
WOOD: Not at all.
COWIE: I just want them to love the music.
WOOD: I think we’d be really happy if we were in a box.
COWIE: Behind a brick wall.
WOOD: Honestly we don’t really like… sometimes we get put on stage and there’s lights focused on us and we don’t really love that because it becomes about something else. We’d be way happier tucked away and if it’s just about the notion of people focusing on the music. But I mean for people the takeaway… if people hear something that we’ve played and it inspires them to seek it out and they’ve heard something they’ve never heard before, that’s a really wonderful thing to try and impart on people.