I’m struggling to find a place to start. Genre? Live performance? The carefully crafted responses I got via an email correspondence that felt like an extension of the Who is the Real Will Wood? “character” rather than a straightforward interview.
I think you will only learn as much about Will as he wants you to know. I found that I gathered the same type of information through his answers that I did when listening to his music. Rather than allowing me to see the gears working inside the clock, I just stared at the outside and watched it tick.
The story of how Will Wood came to be is pretty hard to find.
The deeper into a cursory Google search you go, the more straightforward Will’s answers to interview questions are. I know, for instance, from a 2015 interview that he grew up in Glen Rock, New Jersey. I know that he has cited the Beatles and Billy Joel as musical influences, that he wrote songs prolifically from the age of 13, but that he considers most of them “bad.”
When I asked about his childhood influences, he told me, “Maybe I absorbed showtunes, parental squabbles, and the sounds of car accidents when I was still in the womb. Maybe my great-grandfather’s work at the circus is in my genes.” This sort of evasive theatricality prefaced something more telling: “I grew up on a steady diet of psychedelic and classical music but always gravitated towards the kind of avant-garde stuff you don’t listen to unless you’re in art school or there’s something wrong with you. I like bad music. Probably because I hate music.”
Funny, right? But also, like, yeah, okay.
When I asked if he grew up in a musical family, he said that “Every day I suspect more and more I may have been adopted. I picked up keyboard by convincing my parents to shove an organ I found on the side of the road into their minivan when I was five or six.”
True? Probably not. Entertaining? Yeah.
And that’s the point.
Responses like the ones I received further paint Will Wood as a caricature, and there is something cathartic about watching someone scream on stage in face paint with acrobats, creating some sort of Tim Burton-esque origin story in your head where he gets an organ from the side of the road and puts it in the back of his parent’s Honda Odyssey and just calls it a day. Probably a lot more fun than nitpicking at the how and the why and technicalities.
Any attempt to categorize Will’s genre in an interview leads to the same sort of response— “Well, yeah, if people want to call me that, let them.” I know this but ask the same question in vain, about his music in relation to cabaret. “I’ve never been to a cabaret show, never even seen the show called Cabaret. I know nothing of cabaret, except one beautiful cabaret club still stands in Jersey – Roxy & Dukes, where we’ll be performing and recording THE REAL WWATT. If I’m cabaret, which everyone tells me I am, then I am cabaret by nature, not inspiration.”
Oh yeah, THE REAL WWATT.
Maybe you’re wondering what that is. In Will’s words, it’s “A psilocybin lysergide surrealist headtrip shot in beautiful 4KHD and recorded in Hi-Fi by the best in the area. This is a high-budget big-band car crash where Hollywood twists around Broadway and shards of broken glass kiss your guts goodbye… The biggest event in New Jersey’s independent music history. Narcissistic of me to say? Sure, why not. But you’ll buy a ticket anyway. Better hurry on that.”
In mine: It was on August 11, Will Wood and the Tapeworms was heading to perform at Roxy and the Dukes in Dunellen, NJ. It’s probably the biggest show the band played at the time, and the cirque aerial troupe Vertical Fixation joined to perform choreographed moves to WWATT songs. It was clearly going to be a production. “This [was] not a concert; this [was] be a show. The corporeal realization of a daydream/nightmare hate-baby drenched in colored lights and shrieking with sounds unlike anything you’ve heard before.”
I regret that I haven’t seen Will perform, and can’t attest to any likeness in his performance style to a “daydream/nightmare hate-baby,” but I have listened to his music. And it is unique, sometimes bombastic, sometimes abrasive, always layered. It is often honest in way that I’ve come to understand that Will Wood is, as you could expect from someone who writes and writes and writes, who decides to take the whole music thing seriously. He gave me some insight into his writing process on his last album, Self-ish.
“I didn’t approach it. It approached me. With a butterfly knife. I had no choice but to fork it all over, you never know what kind of things concepts are capable of. So I gave it what I had and it did what it wanted with it.” About the process of recording the album: “I hated it. Every last second of it. Hopefully you can hear that when you listen.” Arguably, it does sound like “circus music,” like “cabaret,” if that means maybe there was a calliope in the studio, or at least a synth made to sound like one. But the album has a range of sounds, and it might better be described as baroque pop or just alternative, if you’re being lazy. It wouldn’t exist without vaudeville. The lyrics are consistently theatrical; songs have three part titles.
About his recent press recognition, he described his feelings: “It’s not real life, it’s false death: it’s making believe you’re watching them remember you when you’re dead. And it’s strange when you realize you’re in the public domain. Other people are reading it too. This is no longer your daydream, it’s a reality you have to share.”
It’s something J. Tillman might say if Father John Misty was My Chemical Romance. Local fans now crowd WWATT shows, in what Wood calls a sort of “collective brainwashing.” Each performance is a production, and they are fewer and farther between than the shows of other local bands trying to make it big. While their rarity makes them special, Will Wood’s attempt to sell them as life-changing makes them enticing, if only because you want to say, “Prove it!”: “The live show is what it’s all about. Bringing a boatload of like-minded people together in a celebration of the psychotic episode consciousness is. Confuse them all. Let them binge and purge the energy all at once. Doesn’t matter what’s in the mystery box. What matters is that you don’t know.”
Will Wood and the Tapeworms march forward, fully committed, hoping that others will follow. On his fans, he wrote, “All things are defined by their consumption and the context they create for themselves. I feed off the energy of the face-painted weirdos who send me fan art and shove money down my throat, and they feed off the energy of my big fat ego trip.”
If nothing else, I can say this with confidence, as any outsider with access to the internet could: Will Wood and the Tapeworms put in the work. The creation of a character, of a space, of music that feels new and forms a sort of pocket in the local scene, where it feels like the circus may be alive and well, is no small feat. And fans are receptive, as they usually are when they can tell that a performer gives a shit. It’s a valuable tool, caring. And not even the irreverent tone of Will’s interview responses can hide it.