Interview with James Wilson -Sons Of Bill

Sons of Bill’s fifth studio album OH GOD MA’AM, might never have seen the light of day. A series of setbacks including marriage breakdowns, addictions and James Wilson suffering a dreadful hand injury when falling on broken glass, could have resulted in the project being abandoned. Fortunately, these stumbling blocks were conquered and perversely contributed to the recording of their most mature album to date (see our Music Review section). The band from Charlottesville Virginia – which includes brothers James, Abe and Sam together with Joe Dickey on bass and Todd Wellons on drums – took advantage of the additional time available to them to experiment beyond their trademark luscious guitar and harmony driven tones. The venture has resulted in their most impressive and perfected work to date. Lonesome Highway caught up with James Wilson while on tour in the U.K. to discuss the album, which was released by Loose on 29th June. 

The recording of your recently released album OH GOD MA’AM was delayed for a number of reasons, not least the horrific hand injury you suffered. What effect did the delay have on the finished product?

I’m not sure other than the fact it took much longer than expected. But it also gave us a chance to live with the music midway through the process like we’ve never been able to before. We knew we weren’t going to hit print on this album until we knew it was our best. 

They say that tragedy inspires creativity, but just how difficult was your period of recuperation and did you consider walking away from the project and band at that time?

It was certainly a time of hardship, in a time when the music industry is just as precarious. No one makes it through life without crippling tragedies, but ours just seemed to hit each of us all at once.  I knew I wanted to finish this album, but we all sort of made the unspoken decision that if the album was going to be finished, we were going to have to grow and make something different. It couldn’t be just another record of rock and roll innocence.     

Much of the writing is understandably dark, with unanswered questions, reflecting both personal and worldly issues. Given that the song writing duties are shared, how was it co-ordinated given that the writers had different issues to deal with at the time?

We live in strangely superficial, and unreflective times - which I think is reflected in both our art and politics. It doesn’t feel like there is a lot of room for art to articulate our internal lives very much, since so much of our lives are lived on the surface. We tried to make a record that was comfortable in its introversion, and hopefully it reaches people there. If you dig deep inside yourself, and strike oil, people think you’ve tapped their phone lines. That’s what you shoot for anyway. 

Was it intended to be a concept album, to be listened to in its entirety rather than a collection of unconnected songs?

Not at all. But I do think its best listened straight through. I feel like this one really works as a whole, as a single piece.

The title of the album is interesting, can you tell me what inspired it?

It’s just a band inside joke. Todd our drummer was accosted by a prostitute in Tampa one tour and that’s what he shouted.  Since then we haven’t stopped saying it. The title to me falls somewhere between intrigue and terror, but also formal, it just felt right for this record.

Do you feel it’s more difficult or smoother working with siblings and does the "big brother knows best" attitude prevail?

Not at all, you have to trust your band mates artistically and at the end of the day the music has to win. Trust your goosebumps and follow the music.

You recorded in both Nashville and Seattle, working with both Sean Sullivan and Phil Eek as producers. Were there specific reasons to engage two producers?

Not really, the album was just a longer process given all of our personal setbacks. It was always a dream of mine to work with Phil Eek, and he’s an incredible artist and engineer. He was hard on us in all of the right ways. 

The album heads in different directions than much of your previous work with a more electro indie sound. Abe (Wilson) brings much of the material to other places with his synthesizer playing. Did employing Peter Katis to mix the album heavily influence this?

We were just bored with our knee jerk way of doing things and took time to find a sonic palette that fit these songs. We had more time than ever to make this record so we got the chance to really experiment in a way we never had the luxury to before.

Is the album an exercise in collectively "shaking off demons" or an indication of a change in musical direction going forward?

I think it’s a more mature record. I think there is an adult humility too it, and I don’t see us regaining the innocence of youth any time soon.  But as I said before you’ve got chase down what gives you goosebumps, and that changes throughout your life. If you’re not doing that you’re not making art you’re just engaging in product assembly.  

Molly Pardon makes an appearance on the album, adding vocals on Easier. Given that you guys harmonise so well what was the impetus to invite her to perform?

Molly is the best singer in Nashville in a town full of singers.  She has this amazing ability to be both perfect, while still transmitting emotionally and lyrically.  I would have let her sing the whole album if I could!

What tracks in particular are the ones that you’re particularly proud of?

Gosh, really the record as a whole I would say.  But Sweeter, Sadder, Farther Away has a tragic simplicity too it that I’m proud of.  

The sound brings to mind 1980’s UK bands such as New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen, together with more current bands War On Drugs and The National. Were they conscious influences on you when recording the album?

They were certainly big influences on us growing up along with their more ragged American counterparts REM and the Replacements. We just searched for the sounds to fit the songs and settled somewhere pretty awesome, I think.

In fact, many industry insiders together with punters would feel your profile should be up there with both War On Drugs and The National. How frustrating has it been in not reaching much larger audiences given the calibre of your back catalogue

Art is one thing and commerce is another separate thing. Commercial success has to do with a million factors that are outside of your control. I can stand by the music we’ve made, and I won’t be ashamed to play it for my grandkids. At the end of the day that’s all you can really hang your hat on, and it’s the only thing you should never compromise.

Has material from the album been challenging to recreate live given the complex arrangements?

It has, but we just fall back on our experience as a touring band. We make eye contact, count to four, and rock like murder, as Paul Westerberg says. 

Five albums in and having navigated so many obstacles and hurdles over the past twelve years, do you feel stronger as a band for the experiences and where do you see yourselves twelve years down the road?

Rock and roll is about survival in the 2000’s. We’ll continue to survive and make music god willing.  I plan on making music until they throw dirt on me.

Interview by Declan Culliton