Inside the Songs with The Woodpile: 'Damn Near'

The Woodpile are a six-piece indie folk band based in Laramie. The band is made up of lead singer and guitarist Evan Gwin, bassist Nolan Leibee, drummer/multi-instrumentalist Brendan Ruwart, lead guitarist Jesse Twitchell and cellists Molly DeLau and Jessie Salas. At the time of these interviews, the lead guitarist was Caleb Childress who has since parted ways with the band and the cellists were not yet in The Woodpile. These interviews cover the band’s debut EP “Hunting Hearts” which was released October 20, 2017. The EP was produced by Will Flagg. Ruwart, Gwin and Leibee dive deeper into the writing and recording process of their release and reflect on the past two years as a band.

The Lyrics:

Driving on the road again, there is a fork, 
Where do I want to go? 
The weather isn't looking good, 
There might be rain, there might be sleet or snow. 

Well some may find that giving up is where they want to end. 
But I have found that I'll give in when I am cold and dead. 

Our boots are wet, our coats are hung. 
I'll step inside, breathe warm air in my lungs. 
The weather starts to settle in, 
The frost creeps in and rests on rusted rungs. 

Well some may find that giving up is where they want to end. 
But I have found that I'll give in when I am cold and dead. 

It's cold. 

No more fun. Drop one-by-one. 
Three cans of food, our rations running low. 
The smell creeps in, our stomachs hurt. 
I'll leave the warmth and venture through the snow. 

Well some may find that giving up is where they want to end. 
But I have found that I'll give in when I am cold and dead.

The Process:

“This is another song that I started writing when I was a freshman in college, one of my early songs,” Gwin said. “I came up with the opening theme just by screwing around with a C chord going up the neck [on the guitar]. I really liked how it sounded, it had a nice, fun, driving folk sound to it and I loved that. I started spit balling lyrics, those chords, the first verse just felt super generic to me. ‘Driving on the road again there is a fork where do I want to go,’ just popped into my head and I was like, ‘okay, okay,’ then I put ‘the weather isn’t looking good, there might be rain there might be sleet or snow,’ which is very simple, sets up a little tension, a little ominous-ness. Then I didn’t write anything else for awhile and then I thought, ‘well, I don’t like how meaningless and generic these lyrics are’ because I just pulled them out of my ass, essentially. I just thought they sounded good.”

“So, I was thinking about how I could make the song more interesting and I thought the most interesting thing to do is turn the story around,” Gwin said. “So it has this very hopeful first verse, the second verse is: ‘our boots are wet, our coats are hung, I’ll step inside, breath warm air in my lungs. Weather starts to settle in, the frost creeps in and rests on rusted rungs.’ I like that part. But, I had this story in my head that a bunch of friends are looking for a nice weekend getaway during the winter time. I wrote it in the winter time in Casper, so I was thinking about snow and so I imagine these people go up to a cabin in the woods somewhere for a good time and then I thought, ‘what if the weather creeps in and snows them in and then they get stuck in this cabin?’”

“So then the final verse is where it’s kind of a joke to me because it’s so morbid, I think it’s hilarious, but after the instrumental break it says, ‘no more fun, drop one by one, three cans of food, our rations running low, the smell creeps in, our stomachs hurt, I’ll leave the warmth and venture through the snow,’” Gwin said. “When I talk about the smell creeping in, I mean the smell of death and decay, our stomachs hurt because we are hungry, then it implies that there’s at least one survivor that makes it out of the cabin into the wilderness and I guess it’s up to the listener to decide what happens.”

“So with the chorus, I’m singing in a higher range and it has a feeling of overcoming, but at the very final chorus, I lowered it an octave so it has a more desperate, quiet feel to it,” Gwin said. “I wanted it to come through because it’s about survival. Then the very last words, ‘when I am cold and dead,’ I wanted to cut it there so the music stops and the last word you hear is ‘dead’ and to me, that just implies that the character dies in the song. That’s ‘Damn Near.’ It’s called ‘Damn Near’ because it took me damn near a year to write it and then I finally finished it with some friends. My friend Jesse Twitchell and Megan Apolloni helped me finish that song before an open mic night once and also, the characters in the story damn near survive.”

“With this song, Evan was like, ‘we should do banjo,’ so we looked at the chords and kind of figured out what we were going to do and then Evan came up with this roll that I could barely play when we first played it on banjo,” Ruwart said. “I was having a hard time with it, [getting it] up to speed, so I had to practice it for a bit and then I kind of tweaked it and made it my own. I’m just doing a simple roll. That’s basically the banjo part, the roll that goes throughout is just a roll that a bunch of old artists do; it’s a three-finger roll. I did that and then Evan said he used to have harmonies on it so I was going to learn them. I learned them, at first tried to sing them high, but was having a hard time with it, so I decided to sing it an octave lower and I was like, ‘why not just do the harmonies on ‘some may find’ and ‘I have found’ and that was cool.”

“Evan talked with Caleb about doing a guitar part because Caleb was doing a bunch of random weird shit and Evan was like ‘I don’t want any chromaticism, I don’t want any crazy riff, I just need this guitar part to be simple,’” Ruwart said.

“I wanted it to be simple, but I wanted it to serve the song,” Gwin said. “During the instrumental part, I want it to feel cold or snow blowing in, something like that. He ended up writing this wonderful little part, this cool little solo, I honestly love it, it has so much character.”

“The bridge where we slow it down, the banjo part changes, I kind of stole that from Mumford and Sons,” Ruwart laughs. "'Ghosts that we Knew,’ I was trying to learn that on the banjo and we talked about covering it. There’s a part in that song where they do a roll similar to that, so I kind of just stole it and made it my own.”

“As far as Nolan’s bass part, this was another one like ‘You Can’t Force These Things,’ where he had this really driving bass part, but then it needed to be a little less driven. He does little bass fills that are cool. The bass drum is driving the whole time. At the end, when Evan goes low, Caleb and I have this little harmonizing banjo, guitar part but it’s slightly different with rhythmic tones. At first we were trying to do it all exactly the same but then one time Caleb had played something slightly different and we were like, ‘yeah, that’s cool, let’s keep that. At the bridge it’s supposed to sound really desperate with the ‘it’s cold’ lyrics.”

“This is the only song I’ve written that is completely fictional,” Gwin said. “The only thing I drew from real life was the fact that I have existed in a snowy place my whole life. Other than that everything else is fictional, I don’t know anybody who died in a cabin. One time in a show, I said, ‘this song is fictional for me but if it’s not fictional for you, I’m really sorry.’”