As Sons Of Bill arrive in Oxford, singer and guitarist James Wilson tells Tim Hughes how family bonds and rock & roll influence their sound
Almost 20 years ago, three brothers in the Appalachians got together and formed a band.
Raised in a musical household in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and inspired by their music-loving father Bill Wilson, the trio of James, Sam and Abe shared a love of rock, folk and country.
Initially going it alone, they eventually gravitated to each other – and called themselves Sons Of Bill, because, well, that’s what they are.
“Bill is our father,” says singer and guitarist James. “He’s a professor of theology and Southern literature at the University of Virginia, and is probably more recognisable around our hometown than we are.
“I know it’s not very rock & roll to love your father, but we all still do. He managed to be pretty austere and tough on us growing up, but still all the while encouraging us to be seekers.
“So much of the music we make comes back to the things he instilled in us growing up. It just made sense when we started the band. If you met him you’d understand.”
James, who admits he was into metal before discovering Americana, enlisted fellow guitarist and singer Sam, pianist, singer and banjo player Abe, with Seth Green on bass and Todd Wellons on drums. They rapidly made waves with a distilled hooch of 70s country-rock, 90s guitar-rock, alt country and songs telling stories of small town life and characters.
“We all started off taking classical piano lessons, but quickly started pursuing our own ventures separately,” says James, talking to me before a show in Holland earlier this week.
“We sang as children, at home and at church, and learned how to sing harmony. There wasn’t a whole lot of rock and pop music in the house when we were growing up.
“I think more than any specific genre or specific artists, it was songs and songwriting that was instilled in the three of us at a young age. This is what stuck.”
And, while they were each content to pursue independent careers in music, the sibling bonds evidently proved too strong to resist.
“We’ve all spent a lot of time playing and studying different styles of music, from classical, jazz, metal, bluegrass, and obviously rock and pop music,” says James. “We all grew up with traditional music, folk and country.”
He continues: “The band, I guess, unofficially started when I visited Sam in New York in 2005. We were both sort of disillusioned with the bands we were playing in at the time, and just started playing some of the songs we grew up with. Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, Louvin Brothers. It was such a breath of fresh air to play these songs again with my brother. We decided we’d start something together when we got back to Virginia.
“It’s grown and changed with each album since then, and continues to grow, but I have something special with my brothers that was there from the beginning.”
Three albums followed: debut A Far Cry From Freedom, follow-up One Town Away and, now, Sirens, recorded, close to home, at Lowery’s Sound Of Music in Richmond – the former stomping ground of Sparklehorse, Trailer Bride, Clem Snide, Kingsbury Manx, Lucero, Magnolia Electric Co., Hotel Lights and Cracker.
Tomorrow the tour arrives in Oxford, for a show at the Art Bar – the Cowley Road venue formerly known as The Bullingdon.
“Our music continues to grow and change with each record,” says James. “I guess in many ways it’s a cliche American story of kids from the country falling in love with British rock & roll, but I feel like we’ve arrived at a sound that’s uniquely ours through the years. I guess its Americana... or just rock & roll.” And what makes the band so good at what it does? “Gosh!” he exclaims. “I guess we’ve become one of those bands I always dreamed of being in, where it’s not just one or two people’s visions, but something special that happens with these five guys.
“All of us write. I think about a band like REM, where I wouldn’t necessarily be that interested in a Peter Buck or Michael Stipe or Mike Mills solo record, but something truly unique happens when they all join forces.
“I always wanted to be in one of those bands, and I feel like on this upcoming record, we hit on something pretty special without trying too hard.”
And what’s their greatest strength? “Maybe our earnestness?” he answers, uncertainly. “Maybe it’s a strength and a weakness. I never had much patience for irony, which, while it does have a long and illustrious place in rock & roll, I don’t think any of us are very good at it.
“Most musicians our age grew up to some degree with classic rock & roll through their parents’ record collections, but we didn’t. “My dad, for better or worse, thought most rock & roll was pretty silly. He’d go: ‘you’ve got the whole world listening, and that’s all you have to say?’. Obviously we’ve grown to appreciate great rock & roll music apart from lyricism but, when we were growing up, thoughtful lyrics and poetry were what music was about. If not, then he thought you should just listen to Bach or Brahms. That’s something that’s hard to shake, for better or for worse.”
And have the Wilson bonds survived the stresses and strains of touring and recording? “There’s a reason why so many great bands are composed of family,” says James. “There’s no replacing that history together, on and off the stage. There’s nobody I’d rather sing with or write with than my brothers. They are some of the best songwriters I know. I guess off the stage, we’ve cut out all of the egomania and passive aggressiveness that is toxic to most bands.
“It’s hard to have an ego around your brothers. They know you too well to put up with any rock & roll posturing.”
Sons Of Bill play The Art Bar, Cowley Road, Oxford, tomorrow.
Tickets are £10 in advance from wegot tickets.com or £12
on the door.