James Wilson, one of the three brothers in Charlottesville’s Sons of Bill, thinks the band’s fourth disc, “Love and Logic,” marks their arrival as a group. Wilson, along with brothers Sam and Abe, hooked up with former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer in Nashville as producer for the effort, which is one of the best deep listens of the year, an album that moves easily from acoustic Americana to ’80’s alt rock.
After a decade together, the band, which comes to The Parlor on Granby Street on Dec. 11, has matured and found its footing by being willing to take chances and follow their instincts. While they cross genres, the new record has the feeling of the original alt country bands of the 1990s who were steeped in a roosty foundation, but not constrained by boundaries. As Wilson says, it’s ok to like Merle Haggard and The Cure, John Prine and Pink Floyd. They owe those deep country roots to their father and the band’s namesake, Bill Wilson, a longtime associate professor of philosophical theology at the University of Virginia, who played music in town at clubs and even a local pizza parlor. James Wilson, one of his three oldest sons who formed the band about a decade ago, recently took time to discuss the album and the group’s trajectory.
This is your fourth record. Was the process different for this one?
It was different. I think when we made (the third record) “Sirens” we were kind of in a weird personal and professional situation. There was just a lot of self-imposed pressure and nervous energy. I’m still proud of the record, but I think you can hear that — or, at least, I can. It sounds like a band a little bit unsure of itself.
The record came out and we parted ways with management and our agency. We were just kind of lone gunmen. We weren’t really sure how we were going to make a record really, whether we were going to be able to do it, who was going to do it.
Ken (Coomer of Wilco) heard a song on a 45 on vinyl we put out for Record Store Day. He just said come down for a weekend and let’s make a record, let’s see how it feels. We knew the songs were different and we knew we wanted to get do a different place so working with him — you know, Wilco one of these bands that changes a lot record to record, always honing in, trying to explore new influences. We knew we wanted to do that with this record and he really helped us find our path.
How did he come across the 45?
We were talking with folks in Nashville about management and labels. We were free agents with nobody behind us and one of his friends thought he would like it.
We went down and we cut “Brand New Paradigm” from top to bottom on a Saturday. It was a song we’d struggled with. We’d tried to produce it on our own (at a studio) in Richmond, but we kept kind of running into these walls. Band disagreements. We could not get to where we wanted to go. We knew there was one coherent sound. We just needed to start being musical again, to play music again like when nobody ‘s watching, what makes you want to play music in the first place. You always reach the most people when you do it for yourself. Not trying so hard. Not worrying about radio. Not worrying about labels. All that bullshit. We just sat down and made something. We had the songs. We made a record the six of us can be proud of.
What did he bring to the process that was different or new?
The main thing was just the mentality. He’s like don’t worry about your previous records. We have an amazing dedicated fan base, but he was like don’t even think about what they expect from you. When you hit these walls, these exciting walls, it’s a big unknown where this is going so let’s not think about radio, not think about fan bases or labels or the contemporary sound. Let’s get back to the basics. Why do you all want to be in a band in the first place? Let’s get back to that. That’s what we did in Wilco when we did “Summerteeth.” We weren’t think about anything else.
I was thinking that album is analogous to your album in its diversity.
It was definitely that kind of mentality. It’s, ok, you like Merle Haggard and The Cure. Or Pink Floyd and John Prine. Let’s let all these things have life on this record. Let’s just make something beautiful that we love.
Also on a technical level (with Coomer) we got into an old studio and tracked to tape, but we also went from mic to mix on each song before moving on. On “Sirens” we did the more traditional. We tracked all the drums, then we tracked all the bass, then all the guitars which can kind of lead to a more monotonous sound. Whereas on this one we said we’re going to spend the next three days on this song and we’re not going to move on until the song is done which makes you think more creatively. Do you need drums on this song? Can Sam play guitar? Can Sam play piano? Sam played piano on a lot of the record. Abe played guitar on a lot of the record.
You’re worried, then, is the record going to hang together. I think it does. It’s very honestly us the whole way through. There’s bigger productions like “Brand New Paradigm” and then there’s songs like “Fishing Song,” for which Abe and I went into a room, sat across from each other, and sang. That’s one take.
Ken had the mentality that you guys are a career band. You’re kind of misfits in the Americana world and that’s ok. You don’t need to sound like The Avett Bros. You don’t need to sound like fucking Lumineers. So be true to yourself record after record and it’s going to work out. What he’s saying proved to be true the last three months. The record is reaching people it needs to reach.
How does the writing work? Do you each write and bring songs to the band?
On this record, we did more co-writing than ever. In the past, the records were predominantly my songs, but this one is all over the place. The brothers share writing pretty much equally. We just trusted each other to write together, just taking the songs and seeing where we could go with it, taking a lot of time with the writing. We sat on “Brand New Paradigm” and “Lost in the Cosmos” for a long time. We really paid a lot of attention to the lyrics. It felt like by far the most cohesive.
Which is why we didn’t want other players. We were in Nashville. We could have brought in other players. It was like, no, I’d rather have Sam play the piano and pedal steel and Abe play guitar.
It’s a rock and roll cliché, but it (“Love and Logic”) really does feel like an arrival point. It really does. As one writer put it: with “Sirens” we were saying here we are, look at us. With “Love and Logic” it’s quietly saying this is really what we want to say.
Three brothers in a band that’s been going on for a while now. Any sibling rivalries?
My brothers are my best friends. I’m in a band with them because I respect them so much musically.
When bands are getting ripped apart, brother bands, that only happens when the music isn’t your primary focus, when other things start to matter more. If it’s more about partying or money. We just want it to sound great at the end of the day. Abe wrote “Lost in the Cosmos” and he let met sing it because he cared about the music being as good as it can be. That’s something that takes a lot of trust and you have to have guys on the same page.
It’s also me saying maybe I’m not just the front man in the band and me letting my brothers take more of a role and seeing how great they are at it. I’m proud to be in a band like that. I wouldn’t want it to change. We do get along remarkably well, considering the potential for some kind of Credence Clearwater experience.
What about Nashville vs. Charlottesville?
I’m splitting time there. I like it that way. Nashville is a great city, but it’s also a very industry-focused city. It’s good to have an escape valve in both ways. I love my hometown. I love Charlottesville. We’re a Virginia band. You can hear it. You can see it. We always will be. But it’s also good to spend time in Nashville. And bring in a new sound. We’re not writing songs the way they’re writing songs in Nashville, certainly not in the country world or the rock and indie worlds as well. We have our own sound. I like being a Virginian in Nashville.
Tell me about some of the songs on the album: “Brand New Paradigm.”
Abe wrote it. I really admire Abe as a writer. Half the time I don’t know what he’s talking about so I don’t ask him. His songs really affect me emotionally. I think he’s a real poet. That is a song he wrote on piano. It kind of has a Bealtes-y/Pink Floyd piano ballad feel. I just thought it was beautiful. Abe is always one of those guys who operates on instinct. I think the song is about letting go in some broad way, letting yourself go to the forces at work in the universe instead of spending every breath fighting the tide. It is a song that might not make sense on a previous Sons of Bill record, but I think it makes sense on this record. It’s certainly one of my favorite songs on the album. When I asked him what it was about, he said it was about drugs and I said ok.
“Bad Dancer” opens with a banjo line and then becomes a rock song.
That was Ken just going crazy. He was like, man, you guys are from Virginia. Anyone play the banjo? Let’s put a banjo on this song. We love bluegrass and we love New Wave. Why not? It’s a song. It was that kind of mentality that we did the whole record with.
“Lost in the Cosmos” makes a reference to a Chris Bell solo disc from way back.
Big Star, one of those bands from the South. We kind of discovered them through the back end, through REM and The Replacements. Abe and I were just really struck by Chris Bell’s story. As much as the song is about Chris Bell, I think it could really be about any artist that is struggling to find his place in the world or any artist who is maybe too sensitive to handle reality.
What Abe always says is Alex Chilton got his song (The Replacement’s “Alex Chilton”). Why not write a song for Chris Bell? “Number One Record,” that first Big Star record, is really Chris Bell’s record.
Some of those songs on the Eye of the Cosmos record are beautiful. “Better Save Yourself” is horrifying beautiful. It sounds like southern Alice in Chains. Where is this guy coming from? It’s so haunting, the chord changes, the melody. It’s a beautiful album that not enough people know. But obviously the fire burned too hot.
We were all in different bands in different parts of the country. We’d never been in a band together. We grew up singing in church. My dad played bluegrass and country and we took classical piano lessons. Sam was playing jazz in New York. I was out West doing my country folkie writing. Abe was outside of D.C. in a couple of rock bands, but also working on an architecture degree.
We all found ourselves coming back to Virginia. Sam and I were both kind of disillusioned with the groups we were in and the music we were playing. We kind of got back to what made us want to make music in the first place. There’s so much posturing in rock and roll, especially now in this Spotify world where the industry is scared. It’s a broken model. It’s such an easy time to give in to those trends and the posturing. This band has always been about not losing what made us want to do it when we were kids. That’s the story behind the name. It felt right. It’s grown and changed but that was the original impetus.
Your dad played bluegrass and country. Was there a lot of music played in the house?
We all got into rock and roll very early. A lot of bands were influenced by the rock their parents had. That wasn’t the case with us. My dad had like two boxed CDs, a Gregorian chant CD and then he played the country music he loved. We were introduced to songs through my dad more than anything. I didn’t know who wrote “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” (by Merle Haggard), but I knew all the words to it in fourth grade. It was what my dad thought was beautiful and tragic and worth singing. Those are the kinds of songs worth building on. “Hobo’s Lullaby” or “Long Black Veil.” My brothers and I are very different. We like a lot of very different music. But my dad sort of showed us what makes a song timeless and worth singing and standing alone as a beautiful American artifact, something that’s stuck with us.”
You have a new agent and the album is on a new label, Thirty Tigers.
We’ve got a new manager now and people who really believe in this record. It’s all part of the family now. We’re touring Europe. The record comes out there. That looks like it’s going to be great. It’s been really good. We’re just finally comfortable in our own skin, professionally and artistically. We don’t need to be any other band or what anybody else or what radio wants to play. It just feels so good to be ourselves. We’re nerdy guys from the South who love rock and roll. That’s ok. It doesn’t need to make any marketable sense. I’d rather be in that band than try to be somebody else, no matter what happens.
Life isn’t going to work out. It’s going to end one way. So how you spend your life and what you have to say while you’re here — you’ve got to be honest with yourself and the people you’re singing for instead of chasing some white whale and ending up at the fucking bottom of the ocean.
Sons of Bill with the Will Overman Band at The Parlor on Granby, Thursday, Dec. 11. Tickets are $10 in advance. http://www.theparlorongranby.com/