|Sons Of Bill | James Wilson|
Sons of Bill is a straight-up down-home band made up of three brothers and a couple of their mates. In the words of leadsinger James Wilson, the band just wants to “write heartfelt songs and play kick ass shows”, and while there’s certainly no lack of bands wanting to do that south of the Mason-Dixon Line, few have proved themselves quite as capable as Sons of Bill. Mixing the Southern grit of the Drive-By Truckers with the hard rock sensibilites of Lucero and the melodies of R.E.M, Sons of Bill might just be the best thing to come out of Virginia since Steve Earle, and in this exclusive interview, we speak to James about their latest album One Town Away, their new ep Life In Shambles and why keyboards are destroying music. And in case you were wondering, yes, their dad’s name is Bill…
Interview by Soren McGuire
Hi James. Thanks for doing this. Please tell me about One Town Away. What were your thoughts going into the making of this record?
Well, One Town Away is a really different record from our first record, A Far Cry From Freedom. When we made that album, we had been a band for two years, and the coherence of working as a band had really developed at that point. The songwriting had changed, but we didn't really set out with any idea of mind at how One Town Away should work as a whole. But through the process, and mostly through Jim Scott's way of looking at the record, it really came out as a coherent whole from top to bottom, thematically and sonically. We just wanted to make a natural sounding live record with heart-felt songs, the kind of record that would last. We're not the kind of band that's gonna have a big splash and all of a sudden explode, we're trying to build a career and make a bunch of records that will last. And that's something that Jim Scott's records will do – they're as relevant today as they were ten years ago.
I spoke to Kathleen Edwards a couple of years ago, and she had also enlisted the services of Jim Scott. What she said back then, was that Jim has an ability to make the musician believe in the value of a first take. How did he influence One Town Away?
Jim is really the last of a dying breed in the recording industry, a guy who's still most comfortable working with tape as opposed to working with ProTools. He even had to hire an engineer to use ProTools for him, he had no idea how to use it himself! A lot of produceres will let you perform however and then just edit it afterwards, but Jim is an old school guy, who still mixes from the board. His goal was really to catch some magic and emotion and bag everything live, and that kind of set the base for the entire record.
…AND he produced the Footlose soundtrack!
Yeah. He also produced Slayer's Divine Intervention, which is one of my all time favorite metal records. He really is the last of a dying breed.
You're from Virginia, and as you once said in an interview, the band, like the state of Virginia, doesn't really know if it's Southern or not. Doesn't that give you a lot of artistic freedom?
It really does. It's nice being from Virginia, the cultural and musical diversity of this place is really big. We get compared a lot to the Drive-By Truckers and Lucero, you know, these deep Southern bands, and we're really tied into their place. But we don't have that Dirty South thing going on on One Town Away, it's kind of a different thing, and there's a lot of freedom that comes with that. We're still a roots band, we were all raised on country music, and that's still the backbone of how I write a song.
The song Texas from your first album shows you somewhat disenamoured with the Lone Star State, and how it never really seemed to welcome you. What happened down there?
I lived in Texas for a year right after high school. I went down there and worked on a farm, and I really ended up falling in love with a lot of the songwriters down there. Steve Earle's Exit 0 and Townes Van Zandt's Flyin' Shoes I got from the farm manager at the place, so I fell in love with the music, but a lot of the arrogant attitude of Texans… I wanted to write a song to take them down a notch. It's a great state and there's a lot of great songwriters there, but the Texans just needs to be taken down a bit!
I know you're good friends with Wrinkle Neck Mules, another great band from Virginia who's working hard to take country music to new directions. Do you see a lot of younger bands doing today what Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver were doing 30-40 years ago, rebelling against the set boundaries of country? Are you the new Outlaws?
I'm really good friends with Andy (Stepanian) from Wrinkle Neck Mules, and I really admire his sound and his writing. But I think, if anything, the younger generation is really trying to figure out a way in which you can make roots music still be relevant. It's becoming increasingly difficult to write roots music when your culture doesn't provide you the materials to fall back on common traditional symbols that were there for Hank Williams or the Stanley Brothers or The Louvin Brothers. There's a really unique challenge in that, and I think it's the stuff that a band like the Drive-By Truckers manages to pull off amazingly, and it's what we're trying to do with songs like Joey's Arm and The Rain. To speak to the present moment while still being tied to the past and the musical tradition we grew up with.
You mention Joey's Arm, a song about this guy, Joey, who has two tattoos – the Stars and Bars and “Born to lose”. To me, it sounds like an anthem for a generation of disillusioned young Southern men, perhaps like yourself?
Last summer, touring wasn't going so profitably, so I took a job as a janitor. Joey was the other janitor with me, and he had that tattoo. It just stuck with me, and I guess that's just how it happens sometime – you see or hear something and you're not really sure what it means. It just sticks with you. But he had had a rough life, in and out of methadone clinics, trying to get clean. He'd been through divorces and that stuff, you know. I think a lot of young Southeners certainly want to cling to a sort of Southern identity, but it's hard to know what that really means when there's Walmarts everywhere and families are breaking up – especially in the more poverty-stricken areas of the real rural South. So it's hard trying to figure out what it means to be Southern these days.
I can't help but think that this record sounds much darker than A Far Cry From Freedom. The one that really does it for me is Never Saw It Coming, which is about violence in high schools among other places. Do you see your songs or your mindset getting somewhat darker as you go along?
It is a much darker record, not only lyrically, but also just sonically-- the way Jim decided to track the record. This wasn't a conscious decision on the part of the band, but we definitely noticed a thematic similarity with all of the songs and it ended up being a darker record then we initially set out to make. I wrote a bulk of the songs on Far Cry when I was in high-school, and needless to say, we were all in very different place when we were writing the songs for One Town Away and in a certain way started to take song-writing more seriously. As far as whether or not the records will continue to get darker is hard to say. William Faulkner describes the self-delusion"-- its just a question of whether or not you find hope or despair as you grow up, and lift off the veils of self-delusion. But I guess I really think that all good songs by there very nature are hopeful to a certain extent, even the dark ones. Why else would you write it? Why else would you listen to it? The blues is happymusic, as Townes says.
On a lighter note, there's a great song on the Life In Shambles ep called Lost Love And Indie Rockers, where you seem to lash out at all the indie rockers and how image is everything these days. Needless to say, the indie rocker steals your girlfriend, who used to love Hank Williams, but now only listens to Sonic Youth. There's a lot of truth in that song. Where did it come from?
I wrote that song after a show we did in Washington D.C. We shared a co-bill with this band from New York, and this guy from the band had an electric piano from the 20's which he had to assemble on stage. It took him like two hours just to build the thing, and they had a bunch of old Moogs and synthezeisers, and it just seemed like a ridiculous production just to play in front of 25 guys in a bar in D.C. You know, we try not to take ourselves too seriously in the band, and if you look at someone like Townes Van Zandt, who's one of the best songwriters of our generation – most of his songs were really funny. He's got his Flyin' Shoe, but he's also got his Fraternity Blues. So that's where the song comes from. But I do think that there are too many bands out there who take themselves too seriously and work too much on their outfits instead of going out there and play their songs for the people.
But with country music and roots music becoming increasingly hipper, the next thing we know, kids will be wearing flannel shirts and chewing tobacco and listening to country music purely on the grounds that it's hip?
You know, it's also just a response. We know that the pop stuff is bad, everybody knows that. The stuff coming out of Nashville is bad, we all know that. But it's also hard, cos there is increasingly less room. If Tom Petty came out today, where would he fit in? Would they make him an Americana band? What about Creedence? Would they call it cajun music? It's hard that music that is made for the people, but at the same time takes itself seriously, has less and less of a place. You either have to do this super hip indie tiny keyboard music or you have to have this dyed-hair 80's rock band for the fiddle that calls itself country music. There's increasingly less room for bands like us or The Wrinkle Neck Mules who just want to write from the heart and play kick ass shows.
You've namechecked quite a few songwriters in your lyrics, from Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle to Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen. Is this the kind of music you grew up listening to?
My dad…Bill….didn't have a big record collection. It was really small, but he was a player, and he played all the time, every morning before we would go to school. So we kind of got accustumed to all these songs that he would play but we didn't really get turned onto any artists, cos we didn't know who they were at the time. From a very young age we got introduced to what it means to write a good songs. In our minds, they were just our dad's songs. The one that really affected me from a very young age, was Merle Haggard's Mama's Hungry Eyes. I just felt like I got a song like that from a really young age, and what made it a great song, while most of my friends were not attuned to that kind of music at all. All of my brothers and myself got into heavy metal and hard rock in high school, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and that kinda stuff, but eventually, when we all moved back home, we wanted to get in touch with our roots and the songs we grew up playing. We rediscovered our common ground, and that's what Sons of Bill is.
I remember someone telling me that the reason roots music is becoming increasingly more popular, is because most of us feel the need to return to something secure and well-known in these post 9/11 times. Would you agree?
I think that the search for your roots, not just musically, but in general, is really big right now. It's hard to live in a world if you feel like you don't belong in it in some meaningful kind of way, and I think that's the unspoken thing that's going on right now. I see that with music. Eight years ago, the big bluegrass-craze really went on, especially here in Virginia, and Virginia had been trying to divorce itself from all that for so long. Now everybody turns around and starts listening to Ralph Stanley again. So I think it's a sign of something deeper. My dad is a great picker and I played in a bluegrass band in high school, and we always talk about doing an acoustic tour at some point, do the bluegrass thing, but you know, the whole goal is just to say something profound in a very simple way. Regardless of whether you play bluegrass or heavy metal, if that spirit guides you when you're writing or on stage, you've got a good thing.
Going back to Life In Shambles, there's a great line in the title song where you mention how "the stickers usually stick around longer than the bands that put them there." Do you have sort of a business plan for Sons of Bill, a set plan for world domination?
I wish I could say we did, but commercial success has to do with so many different factors that I don't entirely understand. Trying to predict the next big band is like trying to read the entrails of sheep. Who knows? Its certainly difficult. Everyone told us it would be hard, and low and behold, they were right. Its hard as shit. But what can you do? Try to write great songs, try to play great shows, play from your heart, and work your ass off when your not playing. Lets hope it works out.
Sons of Bill's amazing One Town Away is out now Gray Fox Records. For more on this fantastic band, go to Sonsofbill.com and Myspace.com/sonsofbill