It was midway through the recording of Sons of Bill’s fifth record that the shards of ill fortune came for James Wilson.
One night, in a scenario equal parts tragic and darkly comic, the singer-songwriter fell on – of all things – a champagne glass, and its broken glass severed five tendons and the median nerve in his right hand. Just like that, Wilson couldn’t move his fingers. In fact, all feeling in his dominant hand was lost in the moment. A doctor would tell him that he may never be able to play guitar again.
Thankfully, Wilson would beat that prognosis. And Sons of Bill would finish the record – its forthcoming Oh God Ma’am, out June 29 (and available for pre-order). But Wilson isn’t yet out of the woods.
“My hand injury was painful and challenging, and it’s still not 100% there – but I play guitar every day,” the Nashville-based Virginia native shares with me via e-mail. “I just play more intentionally, and less overall than I used to. Who knows, I might even sound better.”
If “Believer / Pretender” is any proof, that statement might arguably apply to Sons of Bill on the whole. The lead single from Oh God Ma’am is an absolute stunner, a sweeping piece of ‘80s-tinged guitar rock that recalls the sounds of New Order, The War on Drugs, and R.E.M., while still being unmistakably Sons of Bill, particularly in its rousing climax of fraternal harmonies. BYT is proud to debut the song below.
Wilson and his brothers Sam and Abe recorded Oh God Ma’am in Seattle and Nashville with the esteemed Phil Ek (producer of classics from Fleet Foxes, The Shins, and Father John Misty) and Sean Sullivan (an engineer on Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth), respectfully. The LP’s pedigree was further buffed by mixer Peter Katis, the man behind the boards for Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights and every album by The National.
Of the ten songs found on Oh God Ma’am, “Believer / Pretender” was the last to be finished. Its opening line – “Pull all your secrets under your skin” – came to Wilson in a Nashville coffee shop, just after he had surgery on his hand, as he stood across the counter from a barista/musician with arms covered in sleeve tattoos. At first he was bemused by the sight; then Wilson realized that he and the stranger were probably more alike than he’d like to admit.
“It was this sad feeling looking across the counter – that neither of us have any depth, any meaningful internal life, nothing real to say to each other, but maybe another tattoo will convince the world that we have something to say, which is sadly maybe all we wanted in the first place,” Wilson writes in a track-by-track discussion of the song. “The rest of the words came really quickly without much forethought.”
Wilson and the rest of Sons of Bill plan to take “Believer / Pretender” and the rest of Oh God Ma’am on the road this summer with shows across the U.S. and Europe.
“We haven’t toured in two years,” he tells me, “so I’m excited to play with my brothers again.”
After years of living in Nashville, you’ve produced… a song without a whiff of twang. How did you arrive on this palette of wistful, 80s-tinged guitar rock?
Honestly, man, this band with my brothers has always been about clearing the slate and making whatever sort of music we wanted to make – whatever gave us goosebumps, and felt honest and alive. It’s got to move you first, or it won’t move anyone else, and worrying too much about genre will always restrict that instinct.
We all grew up with traditional music, and those influences are always going to be there – but you’ve got to chase down what’s inspiring you in the moment, and there’s all sorts of influences we’re pulling from in this band. That’s what our favorite rock bands always did, and I’ve always hoped we could shoot for the same high-water mark. It changes from song to song – and I think it makes for a more interesting and honest listen as a whole record.
There’s just not a lot of “roots” music that feels very inspired right now. It can feel more like a brand rather than part of a vital and meaningful tradition of music. I think real “roots” are about pulling from the various musical traditions that feel alive and inspiring, and trying to make something your own – not about playing dress up and copying what someone else did.
The ‘80s influence mostly comes from “Crocodile Dundee” and our childhood babysitter named Missy. That lady turned us onto some great music.
You once told me that Love & Logic was about letting go – letting go of what you thought the industry needed to hear, letting go of defined roles within the band, letting go of Sons of Bill fans’ expectations. This feels like a continuation of that.
Totally, and we’ve definitely continued on in that vein with this record. The best part about growing up and making music in 2018 is that freedom to really just let go of expectations and make something you really love – you may never make a killing but you have to hope it will find its listeners.
What inspired you to write “Believer / Pretender”? What does that dichotomy mean to you?
It was actually a melodic hook that Sam wrote years ago, and I always loved it, and so we just took our time waited for the song to come together in its own time. When it came time to track vocals, we didn’t have anything prepared, and it just came together really quickly in the vocal booth. That’s totally different from how we normally write as a band, as we’re usually enormously critical of each other’s lyrics.
You never really know what a song is about when you write it, you’re just following your goosebumps, but in hindsight I think the song is sort of a meditation on continuing to make music in adult life, especially in a cultural and economic climate that continues to devalue the arts. There is this mental Chinese finger trap you can get yourself into where you’re never quite sure which part of you is still genuine and which part of you has learned to fake it – which part of you plays music just for the love of it, and which part of you just desperately wants to be loved.
But I think it’s true for all of us, and not just musicians. You have these weird reflective moments where you’re addressing yourself – talking to yourself – where you’re not quite sure which part of you is real and which part of you is acting. I think part of growing up is realizing that none of us ever fully escapes this tension–we all have roles we play and deep illusions that are part of us. I think a lot of the record sort of circles around those questions.
In what ways does this song set the scene for what’s to come on Oh God Ma’am?
It’s a diverse album – but I’d like to think it all works as whole. We stretched it all out, but it still sounds like us.
Our friend Joe Dickey from Roanoke Virginia, joined us on bass for this record, and he definitely had a huge influence on the overall sound. He has such a melodic sense of bass playing, and it really got all of us to focus in on intentional parts and hooks rather than just going through the predictable rock and roll motions. He and Todd [Wellons] created a great framework together to build a sound from.
Lyrically, we’re all just up to our usual shenanigans – some of it serious, and some of it not so serious. We live in strange times – politically, obviously, but also spiritually. I think we tried to address some of those questions. If we didn’t shed light on any answers, music at least might help make them all more endurable.
Revisit our 2014 interview with James Wilson and Sons of Bill’s Not-So-Definitive Guide to Music in Charlottesville.