Anyone who’s spent enough time at clubs or industry parties is familiar with the phenomenon of the celebrity DJ, where famous people are paid a lot of money to basically play songs off their phone and pose for Instagram photos. Elijah Wood is certainly a celebrity, but with his project Wooden Wisdom, a partnership with former indie label guy Zach Cowie (a.k.a. Turquoise Wisdom), he proves he’s a legit disc jockey—they spin vinyl, navigate a broad range of sounds from acid rock to African funk, and can actually get a crowd energized for reasons other than sharing a room with a famous person.
Recently Wood and Cowie took their records on the road for a full-on Wooden Wisdom tour. Before their gig at Brooklyn Bowl, they sat down with EW to talk about their vinyl fetishes and what’s so great about the possibility of totally screwing up a set.
EW: Tell me how you guys got together.
ZACH COWIE: So we met through these designers, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, that have a line called Rodarte, and I work on their runway music and DJ their afterparties. I was DJing one of their parties about four years ago, and they’re old friends with Elijah, and they were like, “You should go up and meet Zach and play some songs with him.” I was playing records, and Elijah came up with his iPod and we did it, and we ended up going like song for song for the whole party. It’s kind of, I’d say notorious at this point, to mention that I don’t remember this part.
ELIJAH WOOD: He actually doesn’t. We were at this bar in LA, and we were just chatting, and I was like, “Do you remember that night when we first met, and when we DJed together, and I brought my iPod?” and he’s like, he literally looked at me and he’s like, “We did?”
COWIE: I’d like to point out that I haven’t had a drink in four years. [Laughs]
Elijah, how did you start DJing in the first place?
WOOD: It actually started back in New Zealand. I was working there for a long time—I was there for like over a year and a half—and I brought CDs with me, because it was pre-iPod days, so I carried like two giant CaseLogics with me. All of the per diem that I was getting from the movie was just going to the local record store. So I had this crazy CD collection, and I just remember at one point, myself and Dominic Monaghan, we were exposed to like a CD-J, basically. And it was like, the notion of it was so simple, like, “Oh shit, we can play music that we love and just crossfade between these songs.” And we did it at a friend’s bar, because we were there long enough that we kind of knew local people. So that was my first experience with it, and I f–ing loved it. Just the idea of music that you love, being able to share that with other people, made so much sense. It was a great way to not be… not having to talk to people, but I could just stand behind this thing and play really good music. I just did it for fun, amongst friends, and at friends’ bars and stuff when I got home. And then when iPods came out, I ended up switching to that, just because it was easier, and I would have more music at my disposal. I just literally did it for fun, for years. It really wasn’t until about five or six years ago that I kind of started thinking about it from a serious perspective.
And so you guys are doing all vinyl?
COWIE: Yeah, we only do vinyl. Elijah was part of a campaign for Bushmills, and there was an LA launch party for the campaign. So we decided that we should just play together, and sort of just worked on some DJ stuff. He had accumulated a really good amount of records at that point, but like, from that night, once he nailed it, it was just like records from there on out.
WOOD: There was actually an event in New York after that event, and he was like, “Dude, just bring records. Don’t bring your iPod. You can do it!” And I was like, “I just don’t know!” Because the thing with me was that our tastes are really similar, but they’re also really varied, so the thing about an iPod is that I could go anywhere in a night and not have to be stuck with a certain kind of genre, I could kind of go multiple places, and I was used to that freedom. And he was like, “No, just bring records.” And I did, and I was petrified. It was great, and I never looked back. It totally changed my life. [laughs] It did! It was a serious apex, life-changing moment.
COWIE: The sound quality’s a big thing, but the, kind of the life that comes with accumulating the records makes the DJ experience so much more fulfilling, like you have to go out and find this stuff. And the fact that you have to take 60 of them out of your wall of records to take on a tour with you forces you to kind of show up and say something, rather than just cater to whatever’s happening.
On the flipside, as it were, records are really heavy.
COWIE: They are heavy!
Tell me about your record collections at home. Elijah, what’s yours? How much space does it take up?
WOOD: It takes up a lot, and increasingly more space. It’s horribly disorganized right now ‘cause I’ve got one of those IKEA sort of…
WOOD: Exactly. So I’ve got one of those, but it’s all filled. So I’ve got sort of a surplus of records. It’s a bit of a mess at the moment. It’s not as organized as his situation. He’s got two of them…
COWIE: I have far less going on than you, though. I have plenty of time to put records up on the wall. But he’ll be on a film shoot and just buying stuff online the whole time, and it’s amazing, ‘cause he’ll come home to a stack of records, just like boxes and boxes.
WOOD: Yeah, I’m on Discogs all the time.
COWIE: Yeah, I’ve got more time to listen to it, file it. My stuff’s pretty organized, but I have a lot a lot a lot a lot of records. I’d say probably like, 5,000 LPs and a couple thousand 45’s?
Are you guys into the sort of tactile “record as artifact” thing?
WOOD: Putting a needle on a record is almost like you’re making a commitment to listening to something. And because everything else digitally is so scattershot, and we listen to things in playlists, or we don’t even listen to things in full, there’s something so meaningful about taking us back to actually focusing again on listening to music, and it not being this kind of negligible, kind of throwaway thing. So that’s a huge part of it. But also the physical media is… there’s something tangible and beautiful about it. There’s all these elements to it that make it really human, and there’s something, I think, beautiful about that. And as a DJ, the thing I love about it is that it’s an active process, so you’re constantly having to work, physically. Looking through records that you want to play next, putting another record on, you know, cycling through it to find out where you want to queue. You know, it’s a physical process. And that’s a really gratifying thing, because you can actually f– that up, do you know what I mean? And honestly, the fact that you can f– it up, the fact that there is margin for error, makes it more exciting to where, when you can mix something really beautifully, and it’s a trial and error thing, if that works, it’s so much more satisfying.
You guys will go from like, you know, psych rock to like Bollywood stuff, but it feels like something’s tying it together. What do you think that is?
WOOD: I think about that. I think about that very thing. I think some of it’s beat oriented. I think production oriented. It’s a certain era, where production had a certain sound that kind of all fits. Beat has a lot to do with it. Things that are kind of driving, I’m just naturally drawn to that, so that can exist in any form of music. I’m also a firm believer, too, that things that are genuinely good, that give you that feeling that quickly, most people will have the same response to it. And so a lot of the stuff that we play is the stuff that kind of had that immediate reaction, and nine times out of ten, if people aren’t there jonesing to hear something that they want to hear that’s whatever, and they’re not open to hearing new things, most people are. And they connect to it. It’s pretty simple.
Elijah, I’m sure you’ve probably run into the problem of being perceived as a “celebrity DJ.”
WOOD: You know what’s funny is I honestly don’t ever really think about it. But I’m not that self-aware, so maybe that’s part of why. But I don’t really think about it until somebody sort of mentions it. Like, “Man, like it’s crazy, I was skeptical about what you were gonna bring!” I hear that a lot. But I don’t ever walk into a scenario in which we’re gonna DJ with like a defense of like, “Ooh, people are going to be weird,” or “People are gonna have expectations.” I don’t think about it because I know that we just love it, and I think we play killer records, and that’s all that I care about. I think that we as a people, as a culture, it’s often hard for us to accept when one leaves a vocation and moves to another. It happens all the time. So again, objectively, I get it. But at the same time, I know that what we’re doing is pure, and my interest is pure. So I guess that’s why I’ve never personally worried about it, ‘cause it’s something that’s so a part of who I am, and it was a part of who I am before I even started DJing. Music is inherently part of my identity. And when they hear the records, they can judge for themselves.