Locals Only: : Wojo Working

Locals mix surplus of influences and strong songwriting skills for unique sound

Mar 19, 2003 at 2:06 pm

When you ask songwriter/guitarist/singer Justin Lynch about the current line-up of his band, Wojo — Mike Fair (lead guitar), Aaron Zlatkin (bass, backing vocals) and drummer Matt Retherford — he makes it sound like destiny: "This is the ensemble I always dreamed playing my songs."

Lynch and Zlatkin met at 13, then reconnected at the end of high school and began playing unabashedly R.E.M.-influenced "College Rock" as a duo and with various rhythm sections ("Wojo is actually an ancient Japanese word meaning 'sounds like R.E.M.,' " jokes Zlatkin). More recently, they have hooked up with Fair, a local music vet who plays with the groups MC Blue and The Flock, and drummer Retherford, who was recommended by a mutual friend.

Drawing from a variety of influences, Wojo has come to a sound that straddles classic forms (Folk, Celtic, Blues and beyond) but also retains a modern feel. Last year, Lynch released a low-key but nonetheless grabbing solo effort, The Skywriters Penmanship Trials, the first Wojo-related product to hit shelves since the promising full-length debut, Exist On Cool, back in 1999.

The self-effacing, "conclusionally challenged" (as Zlatkin puts it) band is poised to get on a more prolific schedule with the release this summer of the new, How To Try Without Succeeding.

CityBeat: Wojo has a unique versatility and you seemed to have parlayed that into gig versatility as well — playing Jack Quinn's one weekend and the Southgate House the next. Is this a conscious thing or just how the music comes out?

Justin Lynch: Now that you mention it, I guess our repertoire is kinda like free-form FM radio from the late '60s.

Aaron Zlatkin: Well, Justin and I began playing music while entrenched in New Wave and college radio and Punk, Mike is a Blues man at heart, and J. Matt is solidly in the indie scene, and we all have many other influences besides. And because our influences are all over the place, the songs we end up with are all over the map.

So we have to work with that, and you end up with a bluesy song here, a "Y'alternative" track over here, and some good solid Indie Pop hiding in the corner, wondering why all the beer's gone. We all bring something to it.

CB: Tell me about your non-Rock influences.

Mike Fair: I got disenchanted with popular music in the '70s, and was really poor too. I discovered that the library had all this cool music — Blues, Zydeco, Calypso, Celtic, Italian Baroque. This was ahead of the World music boom. I felt like I had stumbled on a treasure that nobody else knew about. It all creeps in when you play your own songs.

CB: Justin, you write a lot on your own. What is your process and what does the band bring to a song once you bring it to them?

JL: We are never happier than when we are learning new material. I've let myself relax a little now on the tune-side. I used to be very dictatorial, coming to rehearsal with everything set in stone. I've learned to trust the other guys' ears. Lyrically it's still a very personal process. It still feels like, when I'm writing, sorta like transmissions from the mother ship. It's a lucid and satisfying phenomenon that I'm lucky to be afflicted with. Over 14 years of songwriting it comes less frequently, but with more clarity.

CB: Are you actively pursuing things like record deals, fame and fortune, or are you content to just be creative and make music locally?

AZ: We're actually starting to play a little out of town. Record labels are a raw deal. The more I hear stories the less I like the large-scale industry of it. I think you can make a decent living as a band with just a lot of hard work, an agent, a product to sell and a van with an engine in it.

WOJO performs Friday at the Southgate House with Django Haskins and Danielle Howell. For more on the band, check worldwidewojo.com.