James Wilson would prefer not to talk about fried fowl.
Trading communications with the Sons of Bill singer-guitarist a few weeks ago, I had floated the idea of his assembling a personal guide to the “real” Nashville, the city he has called home for the last four years.
The Charlottesville native politely passed.
“I’m not the most Nashville savvy guy,” he admitted, “and I think hot chicken is silly.”
Wilson’s mixed feelings about the country music capital of the world run deeper than poultry.
On one hand, Nashville attracts some of the country’s most gifted musicians, and the collective level of professionalism has inspired him and his band – who are split between Tennessee and Virginia – to quite simply try harder.
“The best player from each small town all over the world is there,” says Wilson, fresh from a soundcheck in Richmond last night. “These aren’t musicians who go get drunk at Coupe’s and play covers. The amount of raw talent and drive is incredible, and it makes you want to be on that next level.”
But then there’s everything else that comes along with Nashvegas: the industry rat race, the Instagram celebrities, the “silly outfits.”
“It’s a hard place to make art,” he says. “People build careers behind their phones as much as their instruments. It’s difficult to remain focused. If you don’t go into making a record with a firm design to shut that out, it will take what’s good about what you do and destroy it.”
When Sons of Bill set about making its fifth full-length, it hoped to tune that noise out by decamping to Seattle and recording with Phil Ek, the producer and engineer who shaped Pacific Northwest indie rock classics like Built to Spill’s Keep it Like a Secret and The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow, along with every Fleet Foxes record. Unfortunately, as Wilson describes below, the band brought its own baggage with it, and the sessions were ultimately cut short.
This was one of several setbacks the band suffered on the way to completing the recently released Oh God Ma’am. As Wilson told me in April, he would sever five tendons and the median nerve in his right hand on a piece of glass one night, preventing him from being able to play guitar for a spell. (He still hasn’t regained full feeling in his fingers.) Members fought alcoholism and one went through a divorce. With everything befalling them, the band contemplated walking away from the record altogether.
Eventually, though, Wilson, his brothers Abe and Sam, drummer Todd Wellons, and new bassist Joe Dickey would pull together to finish Oh God Ma’am in Nashville.
It would be probably be a waste of time to wonder what would have happened had Sons of Bill completed a record in Seattle, if Wilson had never injured himself, if the band hadn’t gotten on the straight and narrow. All we have is Oh God Ma’am, and all I know is that it’s the band’s best record to date: an airtight collection of ten timeless songs, rich in atmosphere and vocal harmonies, alternately earnest (“Signal Fade”) and winking (“Before the Fall”), packed with both soaring choruses (“Believer / Pretender”, “Firebird ’85”) and moments of tender intimacy (“Easier”).
What have the last few years been like for Sons of Bill?
We toured really hard on Love & Logic. We had some exciting things happen, especially overseas, and started drawing bigger crowds. And we put so much into that we kind of found ourselves pushing. I probably pushed all of the guys too hard.
We toured three times overseas; we did two full nationwide tours. And it was just, like, rock club touring. It was hard ticket, late night, rock club stuff – in a van. It was probably too much. And I was still struggling to pay all of the guys – nobody had other jobs. It’s hard to pay five salaries playing rock clubs, you know?
[Original bassist] Seth [Green] needed a break; he wanted to have a family, and he couldn’t be touring. We all wanted to take a longer break. Then, in the midst of that, we came up for air. There were some serious drinking issues in the band. It contributed to my brother’s divorce. There was some alcoholism that you don’t really realize until you get off the road and you try to function in normal life. We all had issues with that.
We just knew we had to take an extended break, but the break kept getting longer, just because of the personal things we were all dealing with. Looking back on it, other than my injury – a freak random accident – it was all the necessary suffering that comes with adult life. It just hit us all. We weren’t kids anymore, and all of a sudden life really kicked us in the ass.
When did you start working on Oh God Ma’am?
We did half a record out in Seattle with Phil Ek. He was great and really helped us focus in on the sound of the album as a whole. I do think it’s our most focused record. But he also basically called the session midway. He was like, “There are some personal things you all need to deal with.”
There was the drinking, and my singing and anxiety were off. Phil just kind of called it on account of rain with a half-done record, like, “Everyone just needs go home and figure some things out before you can make a great record.”
That’s basically what we did, and then I hurt my hand, which pushed us back another year. Honestly, there was a lot of thinking, “Should we just not finish this record?”
I think all of us knew that if we were going to finish it, it couldn’t just be a youthful rock record anymore. It was going to have to be something different. That’s what the record amounts to: It’s a more mature record. At the risk of being cliche, it’s where we are right now.
How do you make a record when the dream of rock ‘n’ roll isn’t there anymore? It’s a different thing.
When you say half the record was done, do you mean half the songs or half the components of the entire album?
We tracked five songs out there. We ended up redoing some things back in Nashville and Virginia, but Phil was great. You know, we’re living in Nashville right now, and a lot of the Nashville recording process is just about good vibes and high-fiving and cheering each other on, which is a great way to make a record, but there are other guys who are hardcore, and they’re not going to hit print until they want to put their name on it.
So, he really kicked our ass, especially me. He told me straight-up: “You need vocal lessons.” Because my first time doing a vocal take, I had a burrito and I took a big drink and I sounded like dog shit. So, he really kicked our ass.
But I think the proof is in the pudding: We really rose to the occasion, and we made our best record. Phil is just a super old school, punk rock guy who is absolutely dead sure of what he wants and what he’s going to accept. And he expects his bands to take it that seriously, too.
It was probably the best learning experience I’ve ever had in the studio, and I’ve had a lot of them. It made us also work. It made us get sober. It made us approach it all differently. I mean, he was so hard on Todd. At one point, Todd flipped out and chucked his sticks across the room after doing the 25th take of a song.
It was just that kind of thing. It was very hardcore. It was about more than just hitting print on mediocre shit, which happens every day in Nashville.
In the moment, did that pushback make you question yourself or the band?
It was so, so hard at the time. I had people in the van whose hands were shaking unless they were drinking, and so they couldn’t play music unless they had been drinking. I mean, that’s a horrible place to be. And in a moment when I need to be a friend and compassionate, I’m being hard on them to execute while we’re out there, and they can’t execute because they’re not healthy.
It was a really tough experience. But with a little bit of distance, you realize that this happens in life. Nobody does anything great without a big fall. If you don’t get knocked on your ass, you’re not in the game yet.
It made us realize that we weren’t going to half ass it if we were going to finish this record. That’s why it took so long.
If the injury forced you to step further away from these songs, did that extra distance give you any greater clarity when your returned to the material?
It was humility and love as much as clarity. I just realized that it wasn’t guaranteed that you get to do this. It’s not guaranteed that you get to do it forever.
I still can’t feel my fingers. It’s the new normal. It’s the shit that happens in life.
Approaching music with a lot more humility and clarity is a good thing. Sometimes it takes things like that happening.
But things just kept getting pushed back, because it was one thing after another. It was drinking, and then divorces, and then we all had to get other jobs, and then jobs got in the way. Half the band is in Virginia and half the band is in Nashville.
I just didn’t want to put any pressure on it. I thought, “We’ll get it done if it gets done, and we won’t be done unless we think it’s great.” That was our mentality.
When we talked about “Believer / Pretender” and its sonic palate, you told me that Sons of Bill just makes the music it wants to make, which is something you’ve essentially always said. Nevertheless, did you feel as if there was a broader swath of your record collection that you could draw inspiration from this time around?
At the end of the day, we finished this record ourselves – it was self-produced – and we kind of had the opportunity to throw the rules out. So, we definitely allowed certain sounds and influences to come in. But that’s also continuing down the vein of Love & Logic.
One of the beauties of being a small band is that you’ve got nothing to lose. You can just do your own thing. You know, I grew up a little goth middle schooler, and I let all that shit fly. I grew up listening to Disintegration, and I still love that record. I love the Replacements when they get a little prettier.
Whenever you’re making a record, you’re just chasing your goosebumps. What makes you feel that way changes throughout your life, but it’s the only measure you have to tell if you’re hitting something real. So, you go down that road, and you find the sounds and the songs that do it, and once you get them, you try to capture it. Making a record is like trying to get lighting in a bottle.
Some of the songs are Abe’s. I kind of had the task of taking some of his quirkier songs and turning them into something different. Like, the demo for “Firebird ‘85” sounds nothing like what we ended up doing as a band. Abe wrote that like sort of a waltzy piano song.
I think the combination of all the band members’ influences made a really cool sound. I don’t think there are many bands that sound like us right now. That’s a special thing for me to achieve personally as an artist – to avoid a situation where people are saying, “Oh they sound like this.”
In the most literal sense, how do you pull from three primary songwriters to make something varied but cohesive?
The way it works – and the reason that we’re still a band that makes records together – is that this is the most egoless band that I’ve witnessed. Everybody is really focused on just making the best music that we can as five guys. It doesn’t matter who’s writing and who’s singing, it’s all about who brings the best songs to the table. Everybody lets that ego go, because all trust each other to know what’s good.
Sometimes it’s my songs, but a lot of the time, I really love Abe’s songs more than what I’m writing, so that’s what we end up recording. And Abe likes the way that I sing them, so I sing them. It’s a special thing.
I think about the Greenwood brothers – not to compare ourselves to Radiohead – but they’re both such amazing musicians, but they both play such egoless parts. They’re just serving the song in a really special way. That should be what you’re shooting for.
That’s how it works. We all love music. We all trust each other’s taste. So, we get into a room, and we try to make something awesome.
Reading some of your commentary about this album and then revisiting a previous conversation of ours about Love & Logic, it seems like the band’s songs have a tendency to germinate in various forms for years and years before making a record. Are there always unfinished Sons of Bills songs floating in the ether? How do you know when one is finished?
We’re always writing, and then all of sudden there’s just something that gives you goosebumps and you don’t know why.
It’s like the hook on “Believer/Pretender”: That was around for years. I just loved it, so we held onto it. You just can’t just rush something before it’s a song, before it realizes itself. You don’t want to glue it together. You’ve got to find the wholeness of the thing, and sometimes that takes a while. I’m glad we didn’t put “Believer/Pretender” on Love & Logic as some half-baked thing. We just waited.
There were a bunch of songs like that on this record. There were parts of things that were really old that still resonated with us. We’d listen to something sometimes eight years after we wrote it and think, “There’s still something special here.” So, you rewrite it, you take what’s good, you try to expand on it as a more mature band.
I think a lot of bands do that. Maybe they’re not as open about it. But it’s how we always been.
As individual songwriters, how do you think you and your brothers have grown?
I think we’ve influenced each other a lot over the years. I just love and respect my brothers a lot.
I think Abe is a real poet. I just love the way he uses language. The sound of words guide him into meaning. It’s very different from how I write. Abe has a very cloaked, British way of writing songs, which I’m really jealous of. I’m the overly earnest, anthemic brother. And Sam has really made me work on my guitar playing and singing.
You hope you’re doing better. The moment I don’t think I am, I’m not going to do this anymore. Oh God Ma’am might not be everybody’s favorite record, but it’s the one that I’m most proud of.