James Wilson of alt-country group Sons of Bill talks about the release of their new album, Oh God Ma’am.
After the 2014 release of Sons of Bill’s highly acclaimed Love & Logic, Rolling Stone described the album as “a classic roots-rock record for the modern age” and the band as “the sort of family band whose sheer energy makes everyone want to be part of the clan.”
Now they’re back, channeling more contagious liveliness into their upcoming album, Oh God Ma’am, available June 29.
Founded in Charlottesville, Virginia — and led by Sam, Abe, and James Wilson, whose father is the Bill from the band name — Sons of Bill deliver the new record after an accident nearly cost James the ability to play guitar and led to a three-year hiatus.
Along with bassist Seth Green and drummer Rodd Wellons, the brothers are grooving again on Oh God Ma’am.
C&I talked with Wilson about the new record, his hand injury, and a book he’s writing on “artistic forefather” William Faulkner.
Cowboys & Indians: What do you hope your fans will get from your new record?
James Wilson: I hope it either makes life more pleasurable or if life isn’t pleasurable, it’s to make it more endurable. So I guess maybe that’s all anybody can hope for.
C&I: What are some memorable stories along the way of getting your album from concept to actual release?
Wilson: It’s been a hard season for us, for sure. As a band, it’s been three years since we’ve put out a record. I injured my hand really badly. I fell on a champagne glass and severed five tendons in my hand, so I couldn’t play, didn’t think I was going to be able to play guitar again. We all took a big break, had some real personal struggles in the band, but we all grew from that and I think we made a good record and maybe a better record because of it.
C&I: Were there things that you could and couldn’t do that you had to work around?
Wilson: You know, I mean I wasn’t able to play guitar for about a year, which was certainly a struggle. I worked at it every day. I’ve been, for about a year, in therapy and I’m back to playing, so I think it’s good.
C&I: What was the writing and recording process like?
Wilson: We did half of it out in Seattle with a producer, Phil Ek, and that was great. And then we just took our time and really self-produced it here in Nashville. So just a real long process with my family.
C&I: You’re currently writing a book on Faulkner. What’s that like?
Wilson: It’s just an ongoing passion of mine. He’s been sort of my line in the past, just artistically and as a man, so it’s just been a process. … I always kind of consider him my artistic forefather, maybe even more than any musician.
C&I: Did you get inspiration from Faulkner for Oh God Ma’am?
Wilson: In the deepest way. I mean, not in any ways you’re going to be able to tell from the lyrics, but I think it would be just driving artistic forces. You certainly latch on to any art that you love, whether it’s books or music, you try to reach for the same thing.
C&I: Have you gone to visit his home in Oxford?
Wilson: I have. I’ve taken a couple of pilgrimages to [his home] Rowan Oak and walked about, you know, at the time of the evening wind, as he said.
C&I: Besides Faulkner, are there any other specific writers or singers or songwriters that have inspired your creative development?
Wilson: There’s so many. There’s just too many to list. I consider myself a fan first and foremost, so everything from traditional music to metal has been a big inspiration for me. Anything that gives you goosebumps — the thing that only art can do. And so that’s what you’ve got to be chasing, when you’re listening to it, when you’re making it. That’s all that matters.
C&I: I got a chance to listen to your latest track, “Firebird 85,” — it’s awesome.
Wilson: Thank you. You know, that one was written by my brother, Abe. His songs are always a little more difficult to tell exactly what’s going on, so I usually don’t make him talk about it, but I think the main driving point of the song is that there’s this ordinary guy living out some sort of mundane existence. Maybe he’s dead, I’m not sure, and he’s kind of lost in some grand cinematic drama inside his own head, so trying to play off both of those things. He’s living this very ordinary life and yet in his own mind he’s the main character in a grand drama. We just try to sort of capture that feeling in the song. More of a feel-good song than anything else on the record.
C&I: About the lead single, “Believer/Pretender” — what made you choose that one as the lead-off song?
Wilson: There was just something captivating about it. It captured something special that we thought encapsulated the record, and so we thought it would be a good way to kick things off.
C&I: Oh God Ma’am is a follow-up to Love & Logic. How do you feel like your music has evolved?
Wilson: You’re always trying to grow and you’re always trying to keep it real, so we’re just where we are right now. I don’t think it’s all that different from where we were at the beginning or at the end, you know, as far as our mentality towards how to make music.
C&I: Half of Oh God Ma’am was recorded in Seattle. What was that experience like?
Wilson: It was awesome, and it was really hard. It’s a very different mentality in Seattle from Nashville, for sure. The band was going through personal struggles at that time, but it kind of created the core of the record, and then we came back to Nashville and made it.
C&I: What was it like working with Phil Ek of the Shins and Fleetwood Foxes and having it mixed by Peter Katis? Did you learn anything from them through the process?
Wilson: Sure did. Every record, you work with different people that have made masterpieces. You learn so much from them and they teach you about the art of making records, so hopefully each record gets better. It’s a whole learning process. Someone who’s dedicated their lives to the art of making records for decades — they all have an interesting take on what matters and what doesn’t matter, and you kind of lean on them to help you see that.
C&I: Are there any tracks that didn’t make it onto the album that we can expect later on?
Wilson: Oh, sure. I’m going to make music till they throw dirt on me, so I’m sure that there will be more music to come.
C&I: And what can we expect in terms of touring?
Wilson: We’re kicking off touring in a few select shows in the States this summer and then we’re heading to Europe in August. Then we’re going to be continuing to do more in the States in the fall, and then we’ll just see what happens.
C&I: Are there any places that you’re particularly looking forward to playing?
Wilson: Always. I love playing in Scotland; we’re in the ancestral homeland, so getting to go there and play music is a dream for me. I live in Nashville now and I love getting the chance to go back home and play Charlottesville. But each city has its own character and we have friends in every city we go to now, so they’re all exciting in their own way.
C&I: What’s something that fans might not know about you?
Wilson: A fun fact: My first band was an Iron Maiden cover band. … I’ve played all kinds of music throughout my life.
For more information on Sons of Bill and to preorder Oh God Ma’am, visit their website.