Sons of Bill bring equal parts jangle and twang to their no-nonsense rock. Based around three brothers, Sons of Bill released their second album, One Town Away, on June 23. "Joey's Arm," a slow-building country rock ballad for the down-and-out, opens the album. The song offers hope for the destitute, delivered with a drawl.
Lead singer and guitarist James Wilson spoke about "Joey's Arm" the day after Sons of Bill threw its CD release party. James lay back at his home in Charlottesville, easing his way through a celebratory hangover, remembering the previous night.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Sons of Bill is you (voice, guitar), your brothers, Sam (guitar, voice) and Abe (keys, vox), and your friends Brian Caputo (drums) and Seth Green (bass). How did the band get its start?
JAMES WILSON: We're a really musical family, but we all went in very separate musical directions. My Dad plays country and bluegrass—he was in a bluegrass band when he was our age—so that's what we were raised on. But Sam, my oldest brother, moved up to New York, and he was really pursuing jazz guitar. He was a classical guitar major in college. Abe was off studying architecture in D.C. And I was out west in Nevada with a little school on a cattle ranch. But when I was moving home, I just started getting back into country songwriting, and I just talked to my brothers. I was like, "I'd like to get together and put these down—cut a record." Sam was like, "Okay, I'll play guitar on it and get the band together." But after a couple of practices—I got my brother in to play keys—it wasn't fabricated at all. The chemistry between us all playing was really pretty awesome. So we did one show, and it was just huge.
What's it like playing with your brothers?
Making great music together isn't just about getting a bunch of great players together. Chemistry's so much more important, I think, in forming a band. When you start a band with your brothers, there's so much chemistry, so much history. It's just kind of all out on the table. The best part about it is: the one thing that hurts bands is egos, and it's hard to get a big rock 'n' roll head when you're playing with your brothers. It's awesome. I love being in a band with my family.
So how does the songwriting go?
We've been doing more collaboration, but I do the bulk of the songwriting. Everybody writes on our new record. Everybody's got a song. Sam's got a couple. Abe's got one, Seth's got one, and I've got eight songs. I'm just kind of a strumming guitar player, so I just kind of come with the bones of a song, and then Sam and Abe just come in and it's like, "OK. Let's see how we can make this work as a band." They're the real orchestrators and really have the vision of how things work as a band.
"Joey's Arm" is the lead track to your latest, and second, album, One Town Away. How is it different from your first record?
The first one was just such a whirlwind. I had some of those written since I was a sophomore in high school, and we recorded after only doing two shows together. Our second show was a Battle of the Bands. We won two free days of recording at this studio. We bought two more and just cut a record. A lot of bands don't do it that way. A lot of bands, it's years before they make an EP, and they make another EP, and they're just sitting around waiting to get signed. That's never been our attitude. We just like making records. So we made that first one really fast on such a low budget. We didn't even know what we were doing as a band. It was kind of, "These are the songs we know. Let's put them down." I'm proud of the first record. We did it for $900, and we sold 8,000 copies of it. But at the same time, it's not as mature an album. And it doesn't really represent where we are now that we've really become a band and done a lot of growing up. I'm 25 now. I wrote most of those songs when I was a teenager. You do a lot of growing up. So I think that's honestly the biggest change. It's just a more mature record. And we got to work with Jim Scott.
And how was that?
It was great, man. It was awesome. I've been a fan of his for a long time. So many of my favorite records, he's behind. I just kept seeing his name again and again. With Wilco, and with Tom Petty's Wildflowers, Stranger's Almanac [Whiskeytown]. He even did Divine Intervention by Slayer. I'm a huge metalhead, so that was pretty awesome. But he's just a really old school guy. He doesn't even know how to use ProTools. He's like a dying breed. Everybody just ProTools the hell out of every record right now, but he didn't even know how to use it. He had to hire a guy to do ProTools for him.
So when you have that attitude of going in to making a record like you're doing it to analog, there's just a lot more pressure on capturing live magic. If you can't edit it, no one wants to sit there and splice tape. He was just like, "Look, I'm not going to fix your shit. You're going to go in there, and you're going to nail it. James, go for keeper vocals. I know we're tracking drums, but let's just get the whole record tracked right now."
So that pressure on each take really makes you—he pulls of the click track, pulls of the metronome—he's like, "Let's just make music. Let's try to capture some chemistry, and I'm going to make it sound good." We wanted to work with him because we're releasing the record independently. We got some label interest, but nothing seemed to make sense for what we were doing. So we're going to be working this record for the rest of our career. You make a catalogue, you work hard, you tour hard. So we wanted to make a timeless sounding record. It's not going to be a flash-in-the-pan kind of record. That's one thing that all his albums have done. He might not have the hits behind him that other producers have, but Stranger's Almanac was recorded 11 years ago and it speaks today like it did then. It's just a really classic sounding album.
That's the one thing he told us. He said, "You'll never regret having made a record with me." That's why we wanted to work with him.
Did he help capture the band's sound as it is, or did he help cultivate it into what's represented on the album?
He's not a big song guy, you know? He's not going to be like, "This needs a bridge." He's not that kind of producer. He had collected all this really great old gear. It's a much darker sounding record than our first one, just tonally. Sam was playing a '59 Gibson Junior, Gibson Les Paul Junior, which sounded like a million bucks. We didn't use any pedals on the whole thing. We plugged straight into a '70s black-faced Fender Bassman. That guitar tone kind of defined the whole record. This straight-in, over-driven, old-gear. I'm playing out of a '45 Martin, an old '50s Ludwig kit, and he'' got a board from the '70s. That was the biggest defining part of the sound: us getting to dork out with all this old gear.
"Joey's Arm" paints a great portrait in the two opening lines: "Joey's arm has two tattoos/ the Stars and Bars and Born to Lose." Where did the character of Joey come from?
Joey's a real dude. All last year, I was working as a janitor in Savannah County when we weren't on the road, and he was a janitor with me. That's his actual tattoo on his arm. It's actually not the Stars and Bars—all the Civil War dorks are going to get on me—it's actually the Battleflag, but the Stars and Bars work better. I know you got a bunch of Civil War dorks down there in Raleigh. He was just (without saying too much about him because he was a real guy, and I don't want to give him a hard time) a guy who the modern world had just—he had a really rough go of it, you know? When I saw his tattoo, I just held on to that. Because it was on the one hand an image of this guy, but also a real image of the New South and the way that I've seen it, at least here. I think he's had a sad life, but I think it's ultimately a hopeful song for the New South. I saw with Joey a microcosm of what I thought was going on, so I just wanted to write that song. It's not totally about Joey. He's from Cumberland, Va., so that's where that comes from.
And where does "the dirt underneath the methadone and concrete" in the chorus come from?
I guess I didn't think about it too much when I wrote it. I guess just what the South used to be. What it was and what it is now. Is it just "dust and bones"? Is it all getting paved over? Is all that's left the methadone—trying to get over it? That's what it's about.
Speaking of methadone, there are a fair number of drug references in the song. Is "Joey's Arm" about drug users or the down-and-out in general?
I don't know. I wanted to write my ode to the New South. I feel like it's just got a bad rap in some ways. I think you either get the pop-country sheen which is just like a bunch of good ole boys in trucks, like a bunch of back-slapping, and that's obviously false. But then there's the other extrem, which, talk about ignorance and red necks, and that's false as well. So it's just like, "Won't someone turn on AM radio?"The South's not going to rise again, but we're kind of nominally holding out for Jesus. It's like hoping in some distant future when in reality the rural South is going to shit. "Won't someone turn on AM radio?" That's all I'm getting at.
"When you drive through Cumberland in the dark/ you watch the woods and you see the sparks." When you drive through these rural towns, the guys in the woods that are selling meth, they'll flash lighters at you. That line's been misinterpreted, so I was just clearing that up. They flash lighters at you, and that's a sign that they're selling meth. When you're driving by in the dark, you see that.
Did you grow up or do you live in that sort of environment now?
No, I didn't grow up with it as far as my own personal upbringing. My Dad teaches theology at University of Virginia. I grew up outside of Charlottesville, but you grow up around it. All my jobs—I work on farms for my day pay, I worked as a janitor—you just spend a lot of time. And I used to be a Civil War dork myself, so that's where my interest in the South comes from.
Playing an ode to the New South with a lot of Southern references, do you consider Sons of Bill to be Southern rock?
You know, man, it's so hard. What's Southern rock? And what's country? And what's alt.country? And it's not cool to be alt.country anymore, so it might as just well be a rock band. Jason Isbell is like, "I'm a soul musician," and Drive-By Truckers are trying to be indie rockers. Who knows anymore? We covered Blind Willie Johnson and Metallica last night. We're all over the place. It's country, country-rock, I guess.
"Joey's Arm" starts with an organ droning, giving it an heir of solemnity and sound layers on top throughout the song. You create a really fat sound, but stay a rock band and never add strings, horns, banjo, or whatever else you can on a recording. Why did you decide to keep the sound relatively simple?
We talked with Jim. We'd worked with other local guys for mixing and engineering. We were proud of the tracks, and we'd send it in to get mixed. Then we'd get it back, and it just doesn't even sound like a band anymore. It sounds like this music is getting shot out of a digital projector. It's so compressed, and there's so many layerings. We told him, "We want to sound like a band in a room on a good day." That's why everything is hard-panned. My guitar is on one side. Sam's guitar is on the other. It's real hard-panning. Almost all of it is tracked live. Most of those vocals were tracked live. We just wanted to make an honest record. No frills, no posturing: This is just us in a room.
So is there a difference, then, between the recording and you guys live?
Yeah, there is. The album is a pretty solemn album. It's been a tough couple years. It's hard making the decision to become a full-time band. So that really affects the record, but our live show is not that solemn. We're a rolled-out, raucous live band. We love to have fun, so that's what I think is the biggest difference. And Sam does a lot of two-handed tapping. We're all total metalheads, so that comes through in our live shows even though it's still these songs. Sam's like, "I don't do it ironically. I love this shit."
You mentioned going through some tough times. How much do the difficulties and underlying hope in your New South mirror the difficulties and underlying hope of being in a band?
Probably not hope just with being a band. Have you ever read Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech? Faulkner's my favorite writer, and he always says the only reason to create any art is to lift man up and remind him of the hope and pity and compassion of what man was and what he could be. And even in the face of the modern world, that's what any artist, any writer, or painter should do: Be honest about what man is and, even as bad as it gets, lift his heart and remind him of what it is. That's what he does in a book like The Sound and the Fury, our modern, total masterpiece. Take man down to the darkest parts of human life and still, even out of that, remind him of what he is and lift his heart and give him hope. Man will not merely endure. He will prevail. That's an ode to live by. So without the pretense of even comparing myself to a guy like Faulkner, when I read that, that's why I wanted to make music. And I think that's what every writer and songwriter should strive to do.
Sons of Bill play The Berkeley Cafe Friday, June 26 with The Shucks. The show starts at 9 p.m. and costs $10.