I first heard James Wilson on a CD-R that had traveled from California’s High Desert to the rolling hills of Virginia. It was a collection of cheaply recorded acoustic tunes that James had written and laid to tape while at Deep Springs, a liberal-arts college that doubles as cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. He had sent the disc from the middle of nowhere to an old high school friend in Charlottesville, and for a few months it rarely left the stereo of her beige Toyota Camry. Listening to his music through those rickety car speakers in 2004, I was struck by two things: 1) this was exactly the sort of lonesome, twangy stuff that should always be being made somewhere on a rural cattle ranch, and 2) James sure knew how to write a country song.
He eventually returned to Charlottesville and sought to turn those songs into a proper record. Wilson recruited his big brothers, Sam and Abe, and joined by bassist Seth Green and drummer Todd Wellons, they started Sons of Bill. A dedicated following came shortly thereafter. In fact, every time I dropped in on a live show, the stage had gotten a little bigger. Over the course of just a few years, it went from a Battle of the Bands and Rapture’s dinky music hall to the downtown Pavilion and sold-out shows at the renovated Jefferson Theater. Other successes followed. They inked a deal with Charlottesville impresario Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management. They toured with Robert Earl Keen, the Robert Randolph Band, and Jason Isbell. They worked with esteemed producer Jim Scott, the man behind the boards of records for Tom Petty, Whiskeytown, and Wilco.
But Sons of Bill’s biggest achievement will come next week with the release of its third LP, the accomplished Sirens. The album is a labor of love, recorded painstakingly over an extended period with producer Dave Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) at Sound of Music Studios in Richmond, and finished off in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. When the band ran out of funding, it turned to Kickstarter in hopes of raising an additional $20,000. A month later, it had raised $43,302. And you hear every penny put into this record: it’s warm and welcoming, lathered in organ, piano, and multi-tracked harmonies. (For the record, the ryhtm section is on point too.)
Like its predecessor, One Town Away, the record features songs written and performed by Sam and Abe, in addition to James. The result is three distinct voices – steeped in the same tradition but carrying different perspectives and tastes – coming together with one vision. It’s a country rock album of many moods, alternately pensive (“Angry Eyes”) and uplifting (“Santa Ana Winds”), raucous (“Life in Shambles”) and solemn (“Find My Way Back Home”). It’s an LP that will probably introduce Sons of Bill to a much larger audience.
With the band playing Iota tonight as part of its free Virginia Calling tour, BYT decided to call James to talk Sirens and the road that led to it.
“Those songs that I recorded in Deep Springs were really part of my plan to form a country band. Then it became a band, kind of after the fact,” James said as he and his bandmates were crossing Tennessee on the way to Austin. “The last four years has been figuring out what that band is. And I feel like Sirens is an arrival point after that searching and figuring things out and fighting and challenging each other.”
BYT: Sirens feels very focused. Going into the studio, did you have a strong sense of what kind of record you wanted to make?
James Wilson: Honestly, not conceptually. With One Town Away, we thought much more conceptually about the kind of record we wanted to make. With this one, we just felt like we’d all kind of arrived at the same spot, and when we sat down just to do the demos, it all felt really natural. We’d also gotten our original drummer Todd Wellons back, which was a big part of the chemistry being right. Even though it is more focused, it came about naturally.
BYT: Was there anything you wanted to do differently this time around?
JW: More than anything, we wanted to capture what we do live. Everybody’s always said how different our shows are from our records, and we’d felt that too, so we really wanted to take the time to capture that feeling, and make sure we had the right take and energy and all of that. Part of that is that not conceptualizing too much about the kind of record we wanted to make.
BYT: How did you hook up with Dave Lowery?
JW: We met Dave Lowery when Sound of Music was having an in-studio [performance] with the Hold Steady, when they played the National. We were there and he was there and we just started talking. He’s produced records before, and we’re all big Cracker fans, especially of those first few records. We wanted to do this record in Virginia, and he’s done some good records with Bruce Guthro and Counting Crows. It just seemed to make sense. We love that early 90s era of rock and roll, and the early 80s, when he was with Camper [Van Beethoven]. We knew that was the sort of rock record we were going to end up making. And getting to do it in Virginia was really, really nice.
BYT: How would you describe Dave’s contributions to or influence on the record?
JW: You know, he’s a smart guy. He’s made a lot of great records. It’s just nice to have someone that the band can trust in a studio situation. We’re all writing – we’re a democratic band, so there often isn’t that authority, and it’s nice to have it. He’d made records in an era that we really idealized for the way records sounded. There are so many great sounding rock records from, like, ’88 to ’94 – the kind of rock record that they really don’t know how to make anymore. You listen to modern rock records or those in the indie realm, and to me, they just don’t sound that good.
BYT: What is about the sound of older records that you like?
JW: Your readers might not appreciate all the sonic dorkery that I’m about to unleash. [Laughs] No, it’s just that pop rock is way too compressed. Because it’s made for radio, they smash everything together so that it just screams from the speakers, but in an unlistenable way. Bands like Nickleback or all those butt rock bands. Or the records are so lo-fi, they don’t even point the microphone at the amp anymore. You know what I’m saying? A lot of the indie bands – they’re not particularly fun to listen to either. But I love the sound of those [early 90s] records, and that’s the kind of record we made: Sam’s guitar is on the left, my guitar is on the right, you try to get great sounds, and then you mix it well. We knew Dave would be on a similar page as that.
BYT: You mentioned recording in Virginia being important. You guys rep your home state pretty hard – where does that pride come from?
JW: We’re multi-generation Virginians, and there is a state pride thing. But there was also logistics – we were able to record and live at home. We knew we could go in and record, and come back and listen to it, and then go back and record more, which we’ve never had the luxury of doing. We did One Town Away in Los Angeles in just 10 days: just go in, make it, and we were done. We knew we didn’t want to do that again.
But a lot of bands, especially in the alt-country world, can try to be generically Southern. I think there is a unique Southerness that’s particularly Virginian that we relate to, and we wanted to express that on this record in some way. I’m not going to try to pretend that we grew up in a tarpaper shack with an alcoholic father.
BYT: Who do you view as your peers? Which bands make you think, “They’re hitting on what we’re trying to hit on”?
JW: Honestly, I don’t mean to compare ourselves to the great bands of the past, but I don’t really relate to many bands making rock records right now. When we were making this record, I didn’t listen to anything that had came out in the last ten years. I guess there are some bands – my favorite band right now is probably Dawes. I gotta give it to them. They are a great band. But most the bands that we kind of look to for inspiration are older. We’ve been listening to a lot of Darkness on the Edge of Town lately, a lot of 80s R.E.M. – those bands that were always willing to grow and change and try to be great. Those are the bands that inspire us. I’m not comparing us to R.E.M. or Springsteen or Tom Petty, or saying they’re our peers, but that’s the kind of band we want to be. We want to push ourselves to try to make a better and better record, and grow and go from the heart every time. I’m always looking, but I don’t see too many bands that are trying that right now in rock and roll. Maybe at South by Southwest in a couple of days I’ll see one.
BYT: I think it’s difficult to find alt-country bands that aren’t doing a very derivative thing. There aren’t a lot of bands who are pushing country rock like Wilco, Son Volt and the Jayhawks were in the late 90s.
JW: I think a lot of that has to do with the “alt-country” thing, and generally that label during the No Depression era. I mean, if you look to the past, the great American bands are always taking from the American tradition and trying to make something that’s relevant and timeless at the same time. You know, like Credence [Clearwater Revival]. If Credence came out today, they’d probably call them an “alt-country Cajun” band or something, but Credence is one of the great American rock and roll bands. I think it has something to do with that too.
BYT: Sons of Bill receives an overwhelming amount of support from the Charlottesville community. How would you describe your relationship with the city?
JW: We all grew up there. My dad teaches theology at UVA. He went to UVA. My granddad is from there. We all grew up going to see shows at Trax. Sam’s been in a bunch of bands. Abe and Seth and Todd have all played in various bands. We’ve been pat of the music scene since we were kids. And we’re proud to be the hometown band. It’s a great city; I’m really proud to call it home, and I don’t think that’s going to change for a while.
BYT: The band has played big venues and festivals, and opened for some legends. As Sons of Bill continues to try reach a larger audience, what’s your definition of success?
JW: Gosh, that’s a tough one. Financially or artistically?
BYT: Let’s take a shot at both.
JW: You know, you kind of just have to go for broke not knowing what the horizon holds. That’s the kind of mentality you have to have. You gotta give it everything and see where you land. That’s kind of the only way to do it in today’s world. We would all love to be able to do this and eventually make it a life – be able to have families and things like that. That’s a definite goal: to make music that we believe in and make it a life, not just a dream. But on the artistic front, if we can tour the country and feel like we have something real and meaningful to say, then that’s artistic success. We really don’t want to – and I don’t think we will – become a band that tours playing things they wrote ten years ago. We want to keep growing and try to make better records and more relevant records and always push us to that level.
BYT: Were there heightened expectations for Sirens? Is there a feeling of this being is make or break record?
JW: Yeah, and we knew that going into it. We all had this feeling going into the studio that we had something really great to make, and the rest of the world didn’t know that. Our management didn’t know that. We all felt that it was time to rise to the challenge of what we were capable of making. Not that our first two records were failures, but when you brought the fish back to shore, it wasn’t what you thought it would be, as Hemingway would put it. I can listen to this one and not hate it. I love it. I’m proud of it. So, there was that pressure, but it was more self-imposed than anything else.
BYT: Any favorites on there right now?
JW: Personally, I really love Abe’s songs. The way Abe is writing right now, he’s my favorite songwriter. And I’m not just saying that because he’s driving and he has to buy me the next Subway sandwich that we’re going to eat. [Laughs] No, I love “Turn it Up” – lyrically, it’s a really brilliant song from Abe. Of what I wrote, the songs that mean the most to me are “Sirens” and “Virginia Calling”. Sam’s stuff on there is really beautiful too. I just feel like it’s a diverse record. There’s big, epic rock moments, but we really tried to be earnest and sincere.
BYT: How would you compare the three of you as songwriters?
JW: I love huge, epic pop and rock and roll. I’ve got that part of me. That’s what I think my songs represent on the record. I feel like with Abe’s songs and Abe’s writing that there’s almost a little bit of a caricature aspect to the way he writes, where it might seem a little tongue and cheek on the surface, but there’s a real earnestness going on underneath it. Whereas my hero would be Bruce Springsteen, Abe’s are more like John Prine and Gary Newman. That’s who he listens to a lot. And Sam’s the musical master of the band. I barely play, but he’s the trained musician, so his writing always has a very different flavor from what I write. It’s great being in a band with your brothers – we’re all different and grew up listening to different music, but we kind of know where each other is coming from.
BYT: You don’t fall in the long tradition of combustible brotherly bands?
JW: No, man, not at all. We’re all so nauseatingly well-behaved now. We went through our phases of thinking we were going to die young, but then we didn’t die young, so now we gotta figure out how to do this. We work pretty well together.
BYT: You’ve proven that with a fairly exhaustive tour schedule. What have you learned from life on the road? Where any acts you played with that proved particularly helpful or insightful?
JW: You get to tour with some of your heroes and bands you really looked up to, but some of them turn out to be people you don’t really want to end up like in the long term. That’s one thing we learned about the kind of band we want to be. We want to be the kind of band that we’re not going to be embarrassed about when we’re forty. You want to make music that lasts, and live in such a way that you age gracefully and be the kind of man you want to be.
BYT: What’s the motivation behind the Virginia Calling tour?
JW: We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to make the record. We didn’t have enough money in the bank to make the kind of record we wanted to make. Our fans were just incredibly generous with the campaign and providing the money we needed to make the record. And now that we’ve made it – and it took us a long time to make it – we thought it would be a really cool way to give back to the home state, as a thank you. We just want to have six parties, all across the state, the week the record comes out. It’ll be a great start to what is going to be a long year of touring and pushing the new record.
BYT: The plan is to keep hitting the road?
JW: Yeah, dude. We’re taking Easter week off, but that’s it from here to August.