I caught up with the guys from Detroit’s Wilson, backstage at Heavy Montreal. Despite driving through the night from Michigan, they were in a great mood, and the first thing they wanted to say was how good they were being treated at the festival. I was soon the recipient of their sense of humour as I started the recording, and told them not to worry about being great quotes since Rampage is a print media. “So we can say fuck?” As soon as I answered that not only could they say it, but I could print it, I was greeted by a generous stream of “fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck” by each of the guys. I guess I walked right into that one.
Wilson was formed six years ago by guitarist Jason Spencer while he was going to college in Lansing, Michigan, and was soon joined by vocalist Chad Nicefield. “I was living in Detroit,” Chad recalls, “and members started to change due to other obligations in their lives. We started to take this more seriously and Jason moved out to Detroit and we started gathering the motley crew of people you see here. We’ve been playing for six years, but collectively, this group has been together for three.”
I asked the guys what the story was behind the band’s name, and they all started laughing. Drummer Puhy gave Jason a knowing look and said, “We’re going to have to come up with a better story someday.” “The band was started as a joke, for free beer,” Jason explains. “A neighbour heard through the grapevine that we had some songs, and he was putting on a show for this Christmas festival. He said, “Hey, do you guys wanna play?” We had three songs so I thought we could pull it off, so I said yes and he asked me for a name. I said ‘Wilson.’ It was the first thing that came through my head; it wasn’t anything specific, but it stuck ever since.”
When I asked him if he wished, in hindsight, that he’d spent five seconds to think about it, his bandmates were quick to cut him off with a witty repartee, “No, because then the band would be called “uuuhhhh, Wilson!” (laughs)
“The beauty of it,” adds Nicefield, “is that it’s so hard to find on the Internet, that every little like, every follower, you know they had to fucking find you through all the Wilson Philips, Brian Wilson, Gretchen Wilson pages! Now if we had a name like ‘Fart on my Dick’ then it’d be really easy to find, but we cherish everyone that makes its way to us.”
The widely publicized economic downturn in Detroit had a huge influence on the guys. “Musically, when we’re crafting things, the energy comes from your environment; you’re a product of where you came from and how you learned to be a human being. And that speaks through our music as well,” says Nicefield.
Their latest album, “Right to Rise”, takes its inspiration from the grassroots efforts of the population of Detroit to restore in some way their city that was once a beacon of American success. And you can tell how important this is to them by how excited they are to talk about it. “Lyrically, it’s about overcoming the things that you have to as human beings. Our city has a story that paints its own picture but the people inside the walls of the city are what we’re really talking about. That’s where the common denominator that ties the whole city together comes in. From the lowest of the low to the highest of the high, there’s a pride of what you have been able to accomplish and what you have learned to do in your own way, cause no one’s going to give it to you there. I think it speaks to many places in the world, but our city has a deeper plight because it’s been publicly personified as a terrible place. We wrote a record to tell you that it’s not such a bad place, that there’s a lot of beauty within those walls. And that’s the right to rise aspect of the record.”
The younger crop of rockers really have to work so much harder at any success they achieve since no label will hand it to them anymore. But bands like Wilson have a much more communal view of rock ‘n roll than their elders, who like to proclaim that rock is dead. “They’re dead!” laughs drummer Puhy. “That’s their vision of it. But to us, no: we exist. It’s feeling pretty good and alive.”
Jason Spencer picks it up from his bandmate, “They’ve been saying that rock’s dead for a while. They said that when the 80’s set. 90’s came along they said it was dead again. Some people kinda use that as a pigeon hole.”
“The larger crowds have mostly migrated to music like EDM and electronic, in most areas of this country at least. But there’s still many rock festival like Heavy Montreal here, and it’s a true testament to the fact that rock is not dead.”
Maybe it’s not rock that’s dead, but the rock star? ” Yeah. We don’t really care about that,” says Spencer. “Everyone has their own set of values and their own egos,” adds Nicefield, “But at the end of the day, we’re not going ‘You know, I think the point of this song should be about my huge cock’ or whatever it is. There’s more to it than that.”
“In a climate that’s saturated with bands looking to make a quick YouTube buck or whatever,” says Nicefield. “It’s been easy to throw aside the rock ‘n roll lifestyle because at one point it became all about the bands and not about the music. It wasn’t “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” anymore, it was “look at these douchers that are on stage.” I’m supposed to be praising them instead of the overall vibe that’s being created in a platform that rock ‘n roll music gives everybody. I hope that our generation sees it like that. We see a lot more camaraderie between bands and the fans and the musicians and what’s going on.”
“The line has been broken,” he continues. “Dance music kind of does that. We’re not fans of it per se, but it brings that atmosphere that rock ‘n roll music used to have. There’s no face to it; it’s just an atmosphere. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
And the band feels that music festivals like Heavy Montreal are the perfect example of this communion between artists and fans. “When you’re under a blanket, no person is bigger than that cloth. When you’re under a festival like this, I mean, there are huge headliners playing at one o’clock! It’s not about the person, it’s about the atmosphere. Each has a time to shine. But with that being said, I think there’s definitely a turn of the wheel. It keeps turning, and I think it keeps on turning (Puhy starts singing Journey’s Wheels in the Sky) its ugly head in the past few years.”
One thing I loved about the “Right to Rise” album was that it walks a line between hard rock and metal, sometimes straying to one side or the other. With the different personalities in the band, I wondered how it all came together to create their music.
“Typically Jason brings demos to the table and we kind of dissect them and reformulate them,” chimes in guitarist Kyle Landry. “That’s our typical process. We’ll jam it and figure out what works. And then there are times where we sit the five of us together and practice the old school way and we just write off the cuff. And then sometimes a lyric or melody will spring a guitar melody. At the end of the day everybody gets to have a little bit in there.”
“We realized it works well for us to go to a different environment. We tried that a couple of times. We’ll rent a cabin up in the woods for a week. Waking up and being able to jam with each other, as opposed to being at home where everyone has to go to work all day and get together at night to jam for a few hours. Those types of distractions are gone.”
“All five of us, for the most part, have different influences. Jason and I are big metalheads, we have always been; we both started playing music in heavy metal bands. Puhy, I don’t know, you don’t even listen to music, do you? ‘I just listen to Kenny G. Nothing but Kenny G., all day everyday.’”
“We all meet in the middle in the ’90s. We all generally agree on everything. I like heavy metal but I only like it if it scares the shit out of me. Mostly that’s from the vocalist, for me, that’s what I do so if I don’t believe THAT guy (or girl), then I’m not going to attach myself to the music. I think we all meet in the middle with bands like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, The Toadies. All that stuff that shaped us in our early childhood. It’s that stuff that felt it was ours, as opposed to what came before. I like the old stuff too, Thin Lizzy, Nazareth, AC/DC, Van Halen, the classics.”
Wilson’s album “Right to Rise” is available now. Check out our review of it here.