When Nathan Tarr starts writing a new set of songs, he stokes his imagination by envisioning a setting. For Electric Alone, the new four-song EP from his rustic rock project Wood Ear, Tarr imagined what's known as a "wildland-urban interface"—the physical nexus between the human world and untamed earth.
"I had a landscape in mind—a brushy, damp, miserable place full of tangles, with some furry, mammalian, wet creature living on the fringes," he explains. He pauses and laughs. "That sounds totally ridiculous."
The technical term comes from Tarr's work making maps of where certain wildlife species live for N.C. State University. While the music on Electric Alone is neither swampy nor brushy, you can sense the isolation that such an environment might entail. There's also the dogged growl of persistence, appropriate to the dire locale of Tarr's mind and to the slow and often-fraught development of Wood Ear as a band.
Tarr debuted as Wood Ear in 2006 with The Hard Way, a six-song collection that was so limited it almost went unreleased. The material owes its existence partly to Tarr's serendipitous discovery of analog tapes. "I just recorded it for myself," he admits. "Made 100 copies for friends, that's it. I had no plans for it."
But Tarr was also serving as a sideman in the cosmic pop group Overhead Projectors. Guitarist Nathan Golub heard those songs and liked them; Golub's enthusiasm helped motivate him to get a band together and play the songs live. Tarr had found a drummer, Nick Brown, and Golub brought along bassist Frank Andolina.
"I know a lot of people who need to be pushed to do stuff, because it's hard to have confidence," Golub remembers. "To me it seemed very organic—he was a cool guy who made really good rock 'n' roll songs. Having the resources to have a band put together was the biggest push."
The proper introduction to Wood Ear, a seven-song set called Steeple Vultures, arrived in 2012. Getting there was a tumultuous process: While recording, Tarr's wife and the band's keyboardist, Krystal Black, was diagnosed with cancer. It's tempting to assume that the dark themes of the record somehow connected to Black's illness.
"It's definitely not a cancer album," asserts Tarr. "Most of the stuff had been recorded before that happened. I haven't written about it; it hasn't felt like something I really want to do. I'd have to relive it."
Asked when he first met Black, Tarr responds with an acuity endemic to the smitten: "19 years ago—yesterday, the 22nd."
They met during high school in Charlotte, where they attended different schools but had mutual friends. She was a musician, too. They first became bandmates in Greensboro in the early '00s, playing in a semi-joke act that covered Springsteen songs. "It was her first band. It was just fun," he says. "We're definitely not one of those couples who sits around jamming together."
Still, the experience led them to start writing their own songs and eventually form a non-joke band, The Dirty Version. By the time the couple moved to Pittsburgh in 2002, Tarr, then in his late 20s, had grown weary of fulfilling the role of guitar-riff maker for other people's songs. He wanted to write and play his own songs.
"It wasn't, 'I'm born to be a songwriter. This is who I am. This is what I do forever,' initially," says Tarr, now 35. "It was more, I wonder if I could do it. You get older, and playing with other people becomes more difficult. Schedules, maintaining commitments and relationships kind of fall apart around bands. A lot of people are faced with that dilemma of wanting to do it, but relying on other people. I realized I had to take the initiative."
So while working part-time, Tarr would use one day a week to work on writing tunes and honing the less-than-intuitive act of playing guitar while singing. When they moved back to N.C., Tarr continued playing in other bands, a crucial choice that led him to the players who eventually became Wood Ear. But making it, in the sense of turning music into livelihood, was never the issue. Steeple Vultures, for instance, almost didn't get released, either. Golub played pedal steel on the songs, but he understood that Tarr had no plans to issue it unless someone asked. Writing the songs and recording them was enough.
"He's not interested in putting a band together, going out, playing, getting every gig that comes his way," Golub explains. "He's genuinely interested in making really great rock songs and recording them really well, to the point where, it kind of seems like he could take or leave putting them out."
But for the new Electric Alone, he already had a label. The songs concern the feelings of alienation that independence brings; sonically, the record eschews some of the more rootsy elements of its predecessor. Andolina was excited that Tarr was up for doing a more rocking record. They both grew up on punk and hardcore, allowing them to connect on material with tempos much more driving than their alt-country-sounding predecessors.
Throughout Wood Ear's existence, personnel changes have been the norm. Electric Alone features a combination of old and new players. The rhythm section is the same as on Steeple Vultures, but Golub's pealing lap steel is gone. More conspicuously, Andy Shull has replaced Black on organ.
"She just decided not to spend her time playing in a band," says Tarr. "We're a band that doesn't really do much, as far as touring or playing out a lot. But I'm sometimes surprised there are periods where it's a lot of work for a couple weeks. It can be a real drag. It's just something that I'm compelled to do; I have a hard time not doing it."
Music means just as much to Black, but she's not satisfied with simply being a sidewoman in a band. Though she hasn't written new material since her diagnosis, she has songs of her own; five years ago, she even released a four-song EP under her own name. She hopes to record more material, too, but she's not rushing her return.
"The break has ended up being a little longer than I anticipated, but I still feel pretty good about the decision," she says. "I might could potentially handle it now. It's also fun to be a fan."
Tarr understands that Black's illness is, as he puts it, "a flag for people's interest." He sometimes wonders if the attention they've gotten in the past stemmed, to some extent, from that. But he knows he can't control that.
"Her prognosis is the best that you could ask for given the situation. She's healthy, happy. It's totally amazing," he says. "I know a lot of people might see that she was in the band and quit and think it had something to with that. It had nothing to do with that. It's maybe a bit of the opposite: You go through that and you reassess what you spend your time on, what your priorities are."
As that experience continues to recede from their lives, Tarr understands his own priorities, too. "I have every intention of continuing to make music," he says. For instance, he hopes Wood Ear is soon able to overcome the limitations of EPs (three in a row now) and finally make a full-length. What matters more, though, is just making the songs themselves.
"I'll do everything I can to keep on playing music," he offers, "aside from risking everything else I have."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Past the brambles"