Interview: Sons of Bill

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Photo by Anna Webber

“My dad was a musician and a songwriter. He was also a professor. He was a shy, introverted man who was blessed, and cursed, with six kids. He didn’t get all that necessary alone time that I knew he needed. He would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning while everybody still sleeping to read his books and play guitar. We all realized at a really early age that music was important. My dad my dad just loved tragic, beautiful songs,” says James Wilson, frontman of Virginia-bred band of brothers Sons Of Bill. “That’s something that still speaks to me.”

Though Wilson has traversed many planes in his musical journey so far—from his teenage goth years (makeup-free, however, as his father would not have approved), to punk and metal, and to his current lane of introspective Americana—his father’s teaching, influence, and love of those tragic, beautiful songs, can be heard in Wilson’s work. “I love great music–I can listen to bluegrass and metal and jazz and classical and it can all speak to me,” he says. “You just gotta follow your goosebumps. The whole point of this band with my brothers is I trust and I love them and I love to make music with them. And we’re willing to chase our goosebumps on each record no matter where it leads us,” he adds. “There’s no one I’d rather make music with.”

In June, the group released Oh God Ma’am, their latest album, a ten-song collection of ruminations and revelations about coming of age, taking stock or what’s important, and following the path set before you. “The record feels like it was kind of made in that stage of adult life when you’re trying to figure out what innocence of your youth is worth holding on to and what parts are worth letting go,” Wilson recalls. “Youth has its own illusions and adult life has its own illusions. That was the space I was coming from when writing–what does music mean to you in your adult life? I think each of us was kind of in that moment in our own ways. We just knew we needed to make a different kind of record. We knew we had hit a point where if we were going to keep making music in a time when it’s really hard to make original music–it’s a tough time in the digital age to make original music–we knew if we were going to it was going to have to be a different kind of record, maybe a risky record.” Towards that goal, the band started recording in Seattle with Phil Ek (Fleet Foxes) for a change of scenery, hoping to dive into a new space creatively that still felt like “them.”

“I didn’t need this record to do anything for us professionally, I just needed it to be for us,” he continues. “Faulkner had a great line — ‘you don’t hit home runs looking at the grandstand.’ You don’t do anything good when you’re thinking about what other people are going to think. Rock n’ roll sort of thrives on the innocent grandiosity of youth. There’s always an illusion to it, and that’s okay. Part of it is like, ‘you believe in the dream hard enough, but it’s still a dream.’ Guys like Tom Petty never stopped believing in the dream, he was still living it right until the end,” he says. “It becomes harder and harder to hold onto, and as you get older you just forget why you started in the first place, You have to work harder and try harder to keep searching for that innocent place to make music from because it gets harder to find it.”

“We knew we wanted to take as long as we needed, and we knew these songs were different and wanted to find the right world for them to live in,” he says of the decision to record in Seattle. “It was really freeing. When you make records in Nashville a lot of times there’s a lot of smiling and high-fiving and hitting print on things that aren’t good enough. That wasn’t at all the case here,” he reveals. “Phil was really hard on us in a way that was great, like a football coach, he demanded the best out of us and wasn’t going to settle until we got there. It was really refreshing. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of what you’re familiar with and get a really fresh perspective.”

In the midst of recording, the band hit some personal bumps in the road that caused them to pause the process.We had to take a long break after that starting point to get healthy,” Wilson relays. “There was some depression and alcoholism and all those things that kind of sneak up on you in adult life, you don’t expect that kind of darkness to get you, but it did. Not to be cliché, but I think the record is better for it, us going through all those things.” Sons Of Bill regrouped and moved the process to Nashville to finish the record with Sean Sullivan (Sturgill Simpson). “We were grateful to be making music, to be there with people that you love trying to make something special,” he recalls of the bi-coastal recording process. “Honestly, maybe for the first time, I’m really just going to sit back and enjoy this. I’m not worried about what’s gonna happen next year, We’re just going to put this record out and try to reach as many people as we can with it,” he adds. “We’re really proud of it.”

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Susan Hubbard

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