The most obviously striking thing about the Charlottesville band Sons Of Bill is the way that they so literally live up to their name. Bothers Sam, Abe and James Wilson are the sons of William ‘Bill’ Wilson, but more than that, the patriarch has more than his DNA invested, with nurture taking its pace alongside nature in forging this unique band. Now on their fourth album, Love And Logic also suggests a band really hitting its stride. While the last album, Sirens, provided the break-though, the new work is a subtle but marked realignment of their artistic axis, with a ratcheting up of their obvious lyrical gifts, its dark and complex work, but buoyed by their equal gift for great melody, making it one of the most compelling records around at the moment.
We’ve met in a Bermondsey pub as the band pass through the UK on their way for a few European dates, before swinging back for the UK leg, which has just now kicked off.
James picks up the family history recalling, “Growing up, our father was a musician. I mean professionally he was a professor, but he played and wrote songs and would sing all of the time. Individually we all studied classical piano and as we got older started up various bands as we all got into rock, although we were all into very different things. I think those early foundations gave us all an important lesson in what made a song work.”
Abe admits, “I think we all rebelled against the piano lessons, most kids do. I think there are very few children who really enjoy that kind of discipline.” Sam agrees but adds, “It was great for developing an ear for music. I hated trying to read music and learn musical theory, but I could play a record over and over and by listening to it repeatedly, work out how to play it.”
James turns the conversation back to Bill. “He loved classical music, but also played all of these country and bluegrass songs. You could tell that they were important to him and he had a big emotional investment in the songs that he played. When he started to teach us to play guitar, it was that obvious feeling that he had that drove me to learn.” Sam adds, “He never really pushed us, but allowed us to find it for ourselves.”
[pullquote]…it’s like we’ve finally got back to what got us into music in the first place and that’s the power of the song.[/pullquote]James then turns his attention to their individual beginnings and tells me, “We all had separate things going. Sam formed a metal band at school, I was more into country and bluegrass and Abe had an indie rock band. Sam then went on to study classical guitar and was playing in a rock band in New York, while also playing jazz on the side. All of these different experiences and tastes feed into Sons Of Bill, it’s like we’ve finally got back to what got us into music in the first place and that’s the power of the song.” Sam confirms, “All of us just love great songs and there was no other concept or purpose to getting the band together than to share that.”
It’ already clear that James is going to do the majority of the talking, but Abe and Sam seem happy for that, with the odd nod or aside to suggest they agree with their brother. They can also readily make each other laugh and there are a few in jokes that suggest they might be quite a handful under the right circumstances. James, however, can also claim the lead in bringing the bothers together musically. He’d been in California at college and come up with a bunch of songs that he felt proud of and headed for New York with then. The original intention was to persuade Sam to produce a solo album, but when they met, something else happened. As James explains, “Something connected, something special. We’d never really played together because there was enough of an age difference to stop that, but something just clicked.”
Heading home, partly because Sam had grown tired of big City life, they coaxed Abe out of his architecture course in Maryland and completed the line up by recruiting bassist Seth Green and drummer Todd Wellons, who they had known since childhood. Sons Of Bill were up and running and James provided the majority of the fuel to make it so. As he explains, “The first couple of records were mostly my songs, but then the majority on the new record are Abe’s. It really doesn’t matter, because we’re all committed to the same idea of chasing down great songs, whoever writes or sings them. It’s not one persons vision, but a shared desire to get better at it.”
I mention the number of co-write credits on the new record and Abe explains, “In some ways that’s a newer thing. I mean, we’ve always been open to letting each other change things a riff here or a line or two there, so we’d all help out, but there was always the sense that it was someone’s pure idea at the heart of it. As we’ve gone on we’ve learnt that there is more than one way to skin a cat and the process has been changing or evolving. So now we have ended up taking an old song of Sam’s, with James reworking the chorus melody and me completely rewriting the lyrics. There are no limits, as long as the end result is a great song.”
James quickly adds, “You realise that you can’t do that with just anyone, but we have a level of trust and understanding and our shared history. When you write, there’s an instinctive level that you tap into when you’re onto something. You might not even know what it really is, but you have to follow it. When you write together you have to be prepared to believe that the person you’re with will see the same signs and signals as you do and be prepared to go down the same road.” Sam embellishes the point revealing, “You have to let your guard down as well and there’s a fine balance to be struck between the point of view that it’s my music and my heart’s in this, and a willingness to accept someone wanting to share in that with you. I’ve come to really appreciate their input, whether they want to completely Frankenstein a song or just change a lyrical or musical phrase.”
We talk about some of the individual songs and I mention a couple of lines such as in the Big Unknown, which includes, “You’re still walking that narrow line between seeing God and wasting your time.” And Abe explains, “That line just fell out of the sky and sounded good. Writing is a situation where your instinct has to be…if it feels good it probably is good, even if you don’t really know what it means.” James adds, “To some extent your best songs remain a mystery to you.”
I drop in my pet theory, actually suggested by a previous interviewee, that once a song is out there it belongs to the listener anyway and not the singer. Sam agrees, “Sometimes great art is just about what connects with you and the meaning that you, therefore, put on it. David Lynch hates talking about his movies because he wants you to experience them for yourselves without some running commentary or tour guide.” James concurs, “There’s no such thing as a bad interpretation,” before slyly adding, “Well almost no such thing,” – touché – to fits of giggles all round.
I ask about being a Southern rock band and James takes up the point. “Well we all grew up in Virginia and whether we mean it or not that comes out in our music. Partly it’s just a natural thing but also it’s about us grappling with what that means in the modern world. The region has a complex history, some good some bad, but in some ways, the Southern identity has been reduced to a brand that you put on things like whiskey. The best artists to come out of the American South are those who wrestle with their identity and what it means, rather than simply championing it like some sort of sentimental marketing.”
[pullquote]It’s out of the contradictions that you ask the big questions or to paraphrase Faulkner, the thing that makes great art is the human heart in conflict with itself[/pullquote]We talk more about some of the individual songs, but then there’s also that title that plucks a phrase from the album’s closer Hymn Song. James considers, “There’s a lot of post rationalisation that goes on, but Abe wrote that line and it just sounded good. Two poles of life that seemingly don’t fit together yet we need them to sit side by side. It’s out of the contradictions that you ask the big questions or to paraphrase Faulkner, the thing that makes great art is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Abe adds, “Those last lines, ‘Until our spirits cease their raging in the silence of the light, we will look for love and logic in the dying of the light,’ borrow from Dylan Thomas. What are we raging against? It’s about acceptance and letting things happen.” James interjects, “Either accepting divine providence or the completely arbitrary nature of the universe.” Abe retorts, “Yes I guess theologians and psychiatrists would read that differently,” to more giggles.
They don’t want to get too bogged down with the seriousness of it all but as James explains, “Fishing song is something I wrote years ago about suicide, but now that I’m older it’s more a song about fishing. This record is about growing up, how to find a little of that peace and make the world your home in some sort of way. I think the three of us are definitely on the same page as far as that goes.”
Finally they want to add credit to the album’s producer Ken Coomer, the former Wilco drummer. Sam explains, “After the recording of Sirens, we had all of these songs with a real desire to produce ourselves. In particular, I love studios and we’ve learnt a lot about our own sound and the vision for that band along the way. So we went back to the same place that we recorded that last album, but everything we did ended up more like pre-production and we really couldn’t find our footing.”
Meanwhile Ken had been introduced to the band and contacted them with a view to working together. As Sam explains, it clicked. “He got us to put away the fear and just play what we had. He had this great ability to highlight something and tell us to just go for that. In the first session, we did two songs and by the end of it we were friends, he was able to push us without any of it seeming self conscious.”
James picks up the point, “Ken challenged us so that Sam played a lot more piano, Abe played guitar and also emerged as the de-facto lead singer, although I sang lead on his songs and vice-versa. He made us forget about the baggage we carried with us about our prescribed roles in the band. At the same time he was really good at keeping everything outside the band at bay. Not worrying about radio, record companies and so on, so not trying to fit in with anything except ourselves.”
Of course it helps to have great material to work with, but if Sirens was the break-through, Love and Logic realigns the Southern-rock cosmos and puts the Sons Of Bill at the North Star point, a way marker and a beacon for that conflicted heart and sibling harmony. To perhaps capture just a little of their mystery, I’ll offer you this from Faulkner, “If a story is in you, it has to come out.” Amen to that.
Interview by: Simon Holland
UK Tour Dates
Feb 16 – The Tunnels, Bristol
Feb 17 – Hare and Hounds, Birmingham
Feb 18 – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Feb 19 – Stereo, Glasgow
Feb 20 – The Cluny, Newcastle
Feb 21 – The Maze, Nottingham
Feb 22 – Rough Trade West In-Store (FREE), London
Feb 23 – Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, London
Love & Logic is Out Now