In the culinary world, the term “wood ear” refers to two different varieties of edible fungus commonly available in Asian markets and used in certain types of cuisine. At first blush, it has little to do with the Durham, N.C. band that shares its name. In existence for a little more than eight years, Wood Ear is a band that revolves around the songwriting of Nate Tarr, whose dark but redemptive odes are wrapped up in daydream-y distorted folk rock. It’s the kind of thing that feels distinctly modern—and also distinctly American.
But Wood Ear and its namesake do have one thing in common—obscurity. And in at least one of their cases, the lack of notoriety may soon go by the wayside.
Tarr began writing the songs that would kick start Wood Ear in 2002 while spending a year in Pittsburgh. He had left his college home of Greensboro after six years of playing in political punk bands to accompany his wife as she attended grad school in the city. They were both looking forward to the change of pace, but Tarr found himself working all the time and bereft of musicians to collaborate with. The songs he wrote in this period reflect his frustration and isolation, and they form the bulk of Wood Ear’s bitter, but beautiful debut EP, The Hard Way.
He landed in Carrboro in 2003 and started playing in a couple of short-lived bands, Vireo and The Killing Frost. On his own time, he kept writing and tracked his EP, which he released on CD-R. The pace suited his songwriting process, a gradual process filled with different drafts and revisions.
“I’m always trying to figure out what the best way to finish something is, the same process never seems to work twice for me” Tarr says. “I’m definitely a perfectionist with it, so it is a matter of getting something down and then going back to it a bunch. I always feel best when I can play a song a bunch by myself before I even play it for the band.”
His songs, bruised and battered anthems that fall somewhere between Springsteen’s E Street freeways and the gritty Pavement of ‘90s indie, soon attracted the help of area musicians, and a full-band incarnation was born. Still, the pace never really picked up. The band would play a gig once every three or four months, chip away at new songs, but life had a habit of getting in the way.
“A lot of it too was just we’re all adults,” Tarr says. “I don’t think any of us had delusions of being able to make it big and quit our jobs to do this. That’s not really what it’s ever been about.. So when somebody had some sort of limiting thing happen, we didn’t really push them to play shows or anything. I think it’s sort of been a low key thing. The progress depended on what people had time to do.”
The biggest road block cropped up in early 2011. Just as the band was learning new songs in preparation for a new record, they found out that Krystal, their keyboard player and Nate’s wife, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The intervening months didn’t leave much time for music as they focused on her condition. She’s doing better now, and Wood Ear has finished Steeple Vultures, Wood Ear’s first record in five years.
“With my personal life, there’s just a lot that feels totally different now,” Tarr says of approaching material that preceded his wife’s illness. “It felt strange to revisit the unfinished songs, but recording the songs in a studio felt like tying up loose ends so that I can move on. It feels great to have back some of the momentum that was building before her diagnosis”