James Wilson is an early riser.
Whether home in Virginia or touring the country, he’s up with the sun. “I can’t stop. I can’t help it,” the Sons of Bill singer tells me on an early Thursday morning. “It definitely bothers the guys on the road.”
The Charlottesville singer has never been one to stay down for long. The same goes for his band.
Over the past decade, Sons of Bill has tirelessly toured. It has amassed an intensely devoted base of followers. And, not coincidentally, it has made better and better records. Its latest, Love and Logic, feels like a culmination of those ten years of experience. It is a nuanced and patient record – one that doesn’t swing for the fences on every single pitch, but instead waits for the right moment, and when it connects, the results are jaw-dropping. Starry-eyed opener “Big Unknown” is one of the finest songs you’ll hear all year, and it sets the stage what’s to follow. “Hold on tight,” indeed.
“We’re all really proud of this one,” Wilson says, and Love and Logic was truly a team effort. He and his brothers Abe and Sam are still the band’s principal songwriters, and while each brings his own songs to the table, the distinction between the three melts in the warmth of Love and Logic‘s harmonies and joined voices. Genre demarcations are also fading: Sons of Bill may play with an unmistakable twang and get covered in “Rolling Stone Country”, but the record harkens back to mid/late ’90s heyday of alt-country, when bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks were pushing the boundaries of their sound well past their country origins. Fittingly, then, it was Wilco’s original drummer, Ken Coomer, who produced Love and Logic at his Nashville studio.
When we connect, James is on the way to see his sister, driving through downtown Charlottesville and lamenting its “terrible, terrible” drivers. Wilson’s hometown is more congested than ever these days. “Oh man, it is a bougie town now,” he jokes. “But it has really, really changed. I’ve been out-priced by own town.”
He gives fair warning that he’s liable to space out during the commute. I offer to reschedule.
“No, we can hang,” he assures me. “We can talk.”
Sons of Bill plays DC’s The Hamilton tonight, NYC’s Mercury Lounge tomorrow, and the rest of the country between now and Thanksgiving. Love and Logic is out now.
What’s the story of Love and Logic? Walk me through the genesis of this record and the process of making it.
Some of the songs are old songs. “Fishing Song” didn’t make One Town Away. That’s probably a six-year-old song that we brought back. These songs weren’t written in a short timeframe.
We were in a weird place. We had just ended our management situation. We had left our booking situation. Things kind of fell apart during the making of Sirens. We were lone gunmen. We were trying to figure out if we could afford to make another record. But I heard Abe playing “Brand New Paradigm” on piano and loved it. That’s what’s always driven us to forge on and make another record: The feeling that we have songs that need to get out there. The feeling that we have to give them lives. That’s always been the impetus.
Ken [Coomer] had heard our vinyl version of “Bad Dancer” and gotten in touch with me. Obviously, I’ve been a Wilco fan since high school, so it was a real honor for me. He said, “Come down to Nashville. Let’s just do two songs. Let’s take a long weekend and see how it goes.” This was probably the beginning of last summer. So we tracked “Brand New Paradigm”, and it just felt great. There was something very different about tracking with Ken. From there, we started forging ahead and tracked the record.
We took a long time with it. We didn’t do pre-production. We just spent the time in the studio, which I feel like we needed to do as a band. We had tried to self-produce this record. We thought that we could save money that way. All of us are capable of doing it. I’ve produced records. Sam’s produced records. We thought, “Why can’t we produce our own records? I feel like we can do this.” We tried to do it in Richmond at Sound of Music, but we just kept hitting walls. We recorded for two weeks, and at the end, it was like, “Fuck, we don’t have anything. I don’t know if this is good.” We knew that the songs were different and needed to get to a new place, but the three brothers were just really butting heads. We couldn’t figure out a way to move forward.
When we got into the studio with Ken, we had someone that we could talk to. Wilco was this band that went through these kind of growing pains. Jeff [Tweedy] and Jay Bennett and Ken fought constantly about their records, but they worked through going from A.M. to Being There to Summer Teeth to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He had seen the band dynamic before. He was able to become a band member of ours for those two months of time and see it through. He even played drums on a few songs.
We took songs one at a time. We didn’t track all of drums and then track all of the bass, which was the way that we had made Sirens. We took each song from drums to basically mix before we moved on, which is more time consuming, but it’s what we needed to do to get to place that we wanted to be.
How did you know that these songs were different?
The main thing is obvious: Abe has stepped up to the plate as really the main writer on this record, rather than me. I co-wrote some songs with him, and I’ve got my own songs on there too, but in a lot ways this record was just a big letting go. It was letting go of what we thought the industry needed to hear. It was letting go of what we thought our roles in the band were. It was letting go of what we thought our fans wanted to hear. It was letting go of ideas like, “Oh, we can’t have a five-minute dirge with no chorus.” We just let all of that go.
It was also me letting go of the band. When we made Sirens, I had a tyrannical death grip over the band. I thought that the whole world was out to destroy my unravished bride of quietude. And I ended up making the record worse, because I couldn’t let go. This time, Ken made me let go of the production thing. I let Sam and Abe step up as vocalists and writers and show what great artists they are. And we’re a better band for it. We made a better record for it. It was fun for me to become a band member in that way.
It’s a grower record. It’s not a first listen record. There’s so much fear in the music industry – especially in this Spotify/Twitter/YouTube world – about making substantive records that might take a little bit longer. If I hear the phrase “make it pop” one more time, I’m going to drive into oncoming traffic. I’m not into music to “make it pop,” you know?
When we went into the studio, Ken was like, “We’re not going to think about radio. We’re not going to think about your old records. We’re just going to look at each of these songs one by one. We’re going to try to go in there and make something that we all love.” There was no label breathing down our neck at that point. There was no manager breathing down our neck. It was very different.
It’s a grower record, but you gotta have the faith that it’ll reach the people that it needs to reach.
I’d imagine that a song starts with one of you, but at some point does something stop belonging to a particular person and become just a band song? What’s the songwriting dialogue like?
When we co-write, it’s not like we’re sitting in a room and saying, “Let’s write a song about dogs.” It’s usually that someone has a demo, and he tracks it on Garage Band, and e-mails it around. Some people in the band may like it off the bat; some may say, “I don’t think this is anything.” And then we just kind of sit with it and let it marinate. From there, we either start the writing process or start coming up with parts. We’ll usually get together at Seth’s rehearsal space and really hash it out.
The co-writing process usually takes place over months of time, with each of us sitting with the demos and thinking about it. My brothers are the only people that I co-write with, because there’s a lot of trust. They get it when there’s something there.
Sometimes it happens really fast. We wrote “Arms of a Landslide” in, like, one day. But it happens in different ways. It’s all about recognizing when it’s done and trusting the band members’ feedback and input.
Do you feel a sense of pride in not having any outside musicians play on the record?
It might seem that way, but it wasn’t really a point of pride. We’ve had Greg Leisz play on past records, because he’s probably the best pedal steel player in the universe. This was really a prideless record. We were all really musically focused. I know that might sound cheesy. But Abe let me sing some of his songs. Sam played piano on songs. Abe played guitar on songs. There was a lot of switching of instruments. So much of this record was trying to find our sound. That’s taken time. I feel like our records keep getting better, because we’re constantly honing in.
We didn’t want to get a bunch of outside help, especially in Nashville, because those guys are trained in the sound of the moment, be it in the indie or country worlds. They go in there, and they do their thing, and they do it really quickly. We didn’t want to have that sound on the record. I’d rather have Sam – who’s kind of a neophyte on piano, but he uses it for composing – go in there and play with a ton of heart, even if it’s not be the most technically correct thing. Abe isn’t the best banjo player in the world, but he gets it. It was important for the five of us to be in there and doing it that way, rather than doing the fearful thing, which is thinking, “Oh, this is our big record, we gotta get all of these Nashville badasses in here to track.” That would have been the wrong mentality.
What were you impressions of Nashville and the atmosphere surrounding country music there?
Nashville’s a great town. I actually spent the summer in Nashville, just because we weren’t touring or doing something new. I do think that Nashville is going through some growing pains. A lot of people are leaving L.A. and New York and coming to Nashville – from the rock world and the pop world and the independent world. It seems like Nashville is being primed to be the next New York. With that comes all of the posturing g of a New York or L.A. – the who’s who of the whole industry buzz. I don’t think that Nashville has quite grown in that yet.
It was nice to be in Nashville with that level of professionalism, but we’re still a Virginia band. We’ll always be based out of here. It’s a very different musical mentality. The other thing is that Nashville has a bit of a strength in numbers mentality when it comes to writing and making records – you know, if you write a song a day, it’s going to be better. Or: “Let’s get ten people together to write a song! We’ll write fifty songs this week!” It just wears off the edges of everything. You start to distrust your instincts. It’s a great town and there’s so much talent there, but it’s been good for us to keep some distance.
What songs did you bring to the group? What can you share about them?
“Brand New Paradigm” was the first song that brought us together as a band. It was the hinge song of the record. Abe wrote that one though. He’s much more influenced by British guys than I am. We let that stretch out on the record. We didn’t shy away from the Beatles or Pink Floyd influences. That was such a part of his upbringing and what he loves about music. The same goes for the new wave music that I love. We wanted to let that stuff breathe into the music. We weren’t afraid to let that be expressed on a Sons of Bill record.
The first song that I wrote was “Bad Dancer”. I wrote it really quickly. It’s a three-minute pop song that I wrote for Elizabeth Shue. That’s all I have to say about that one. [Laughs]
Abe doesn’t talk about his songs, so I don’t even know what a lot of them are about sometimes. He’s one of my favorite writers right now, just in general. I have some distance from it. I admire him as a writer, even though he’s in my band. It’s always hard to tell who the speaker is in his songs – if it’s character driven or if it’s him. “Lost in the Cosmos” is kinda Abe, but he also wrote it for Chriss Bell of Big Star, so its kinda from his perspective. You never really know who’s talking. It always keeps you guessing, whereas I wear my heart on my sleeve more. It’s always me talking about my feelings. [Laughs]
“Big Unknown” is one that we struggled with. We struggled to get it right. Finally, Ken just pulled the plug and was like, “We’re forgetting all of this crap. Abe, go in there with an acoustic. James, get in here and stop talking. Let’s start with that.” That’s why it starts with Abe strumming an acoustic. And then I got in there and sang it with him, and Todd picked a time to come in. We were trying not to think too much. We just went in there and found it. Abe’s line “Still walking that narrow line between seeing God and wasting your time” is one of those simple phrases that cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s a song that means a lot to me, and it certainly meant a lot for us when we were recording the record. That’s why we wanted to open the record with it. It all felt very relevant to where we were: proceeding in the face of all these questions and yet still being hopeful for the future.
The record is really nicely sequenced.
That was a process. Because we looked at each song individually, it’s hard to make “Hymn Song” and “Bad Dancer” at home on the same record. In our mind, it’s a coherent whole.
What have the past few years been like for you personally?
I think all of us feel like this our most mature record, but that’s really because we’ve grown up a little bit. We spent the past few years being scared kids. There’s so much fear and self-doubt in being a musician. You vacillate from thinking that you’re on top of the world to thinking that you’re terrible. It’s a terrible place to be. You think you either gotta be Tom Waits and the real thing or you’re a total phony. It’s a place where I think a lot of young people in bands are.
The last two years have been a lot of financial worries and artistic worries – all those things. We’re trying to make relationships work. Two of the guys are married now.
We think this is our best record, and even though you never know how something’s going to do commercially, there’s a real sense of calm and confidence with the whole band. We can stand by what we’ve done. We’re ready to do it: We’re touring the whole country over the next two-and-a-half months, and then we’re going home for Christmas, and then we’re off to Europe.
The same five guys have lasted this long. That’s a special thing in its own right. We’ve come to place where we’re comfortable in our own skin, and it’s a great place to be.