Nate Wilson Unbound
Few people in the jamband world elicit the type of admiration garnered by Nate Wilson. With Color in Bloom, Wilson and his longtime group Percy Hill made not just what may be the greatest jamband album but a legitimately great album from any genre, confounding those who had written off jambands as noodlers playing only to drugged out college kids in bars in college towns. And he wasn’t done there. After departing Percy Hill, Nate hooked up with Strangefolk alum Reid Genauer in Assembly of Dust and played a major role in coloring that group’s sound.
But with the formation of the Nate Wilson Group and the release of Unbound, Nate Wilson is finally taking the helm of his own group and steering the ship in an unexpected direction; towards a type of psychedelic rock untouched by any of his previous endeavors. They have a few dates on the books already and will be adding more, including an extended stint in the US Virgin Islands. I had a chance to speak with Nate to discuss the origins of NWG and his decision to offer up free downloads of the group’s debut studio release, Radiohead-style.
Dan Greenhaus: Let’s start with the origins of the band that now bears your name. I know you guys first got together to play some gigs at the Stone Church, so let’s start there and then talk about how this became your primary musical outlet.
Nate Wilson: Well, we started doing it originally when the Stone Church re-opened under new management and ownership a few years back. I had grown up playing in that club since I was a teenager, so I was really happy to get a regular gig there to celebrate the opening. The band was more or less just a thrown together thing at that point. We had different guests each week, and it was definitely had more of a jam session/side project feel. We played a lot of songs I had written for Percy Hill and AOD over the years and also a lot of cover material. I think the real beginnings of the band as a serious entity started in the studio a little less than two years ago. There was a pretty big change in the way I was writing at that time. I really wanted to take things in a drastically different direction and so I headed into a friend’s basement studio with Adam Terrell and Tom Arey and we worked on developing the new sound of the group. That’s when we recorded the first few songs for Unbound- we released a three song EP in March of 07.
DG: I’m pleased to hear Tom Arey is in the band. I’m a fan of his from back in the Uncle Sammy days and his drumming was a major reason I enjoyed that band as much as I did. Was that a band you were aware of or did he come to your attention otherwise?
NW: Well, Percy Hill and Uncle Sammy played a lot of shows together in the past, and I knew some of the guys in the band but I have to admit I didn’t know Tom’s playing well from that setting. I actually got acquainted with Tom when we were both on a Sam Kinninger gig. I remembered liking his drumming a lot, it reminded me of Mike Clark and David Garibaldi from TOP [Tower of Power], but I wasn’t sure how he’d sound in different settings. I needed a drummer for a run of shows we did with Steve Kimock so I kind of cold-called Tom. He came into the first rehearsal and just counted the tunes off and he knew all of them, all this old Percy Hill stuff. He had really done his homework. Tom’s one of the most versatile players I’ve ever worked with, he can play any bag. He kills the straight ahead stuff. He’s also just an amazing rock drummer in the vein of John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell etc. We’ve really built the sound of the band around his foundation and sound.
DG: That said, you recently announced that you would be departing from AOD on an essentially permanent basis. Was the formation of the Nate Wilson Group the impetus for your departure from the Assembly of Dust or was there something else going on, perhaps creatively, that led you to form your own band?
NW: Yeah, it really came about from what developed with my own group and not out of any sort of drama or ego clashing within AOD. Working with Adam and Tom and later Nate Edgar and most recently Tom Lada really has helped me solidify my voice as a songwriter and singer in my own right. I had always written songs with the groups I’ve been in but have never quite had the same degree of creative control and clarity of vision. AOD is essentially Reid’s situation. I was something between a collaborator and a hired gun in that band, which I didn’t have a problem with at all. But when I started to develop my own vision more, it became harder and harder to do both things effectively. The long and short of it is that life is too short to skimp on the things you’re really passionate about, especially in music where the financial rewards rarely justify making big compromises.
DG: Turning to the music, are there any additional pressures you feel personally and/or creatively now that rather being part of a band, you are the de-facto front man?
NW: There’s definitely pressure to supply a lot of the energy, whether it’s musical or non-musical. I’m writing more now than I ever have mostly because I feel the need to keep moving the band forward creatively. As the sole songwriter in the band, I have to keep stoking the fires so to speak. It requires a lot of time but that’s not the part that feels like work. The more difficult thing for me is honestly supplying so much of the effort on the non-musical front. It seems like somehow in this new era of the music business, being a musician somehow became a “desk job.” Some people are comfortable embracing that reality and they’re finding ways to flourish. I’ve always had my head buried in the notes, so changing my approach has been a big adjustment over the last few years.
DG: You mention that you are the sole songwriter in the band. What has been the song writing process, specifically are you walking into rehearsal with finished tunes or have you found the process to be more collaborative from a musical standpoint?
NW: So far the tunes have been relatively finished products when I bring them into rehearsals. I record demo versions on my computer at home and usually try to get across at least a rough version of what I’m thinking for all the instruments. That’s not to say that we play them exactly like the demos but for the most part they’re relatively complete ahead of time. I think as the band develops and we’re able to devote more time we’ll definitely write together more.
DG: Do you carry yourself any differently in that rehearsal setting? Specifically, do you feel a personal responsibility to the music that you didn’t feel before?
NW: There may be a little added pressure knowing that our music ultimately bares my name but in the end it’s always a group effort. I’ve always taken a pretty strong leadership role in any group I’ve been in, but I also pride myself on keeping a good rapport with the people I work with, making sure that they’re invested in the product. Even though, up to this point, I’ve written all the material for this band, I definitely don’t have all the answers when it comes to treating these songs in the most effective way so I’m always utilizing the group collective as reference point. With this band what’s really nice is that everyone’s playing ability is at such a high level that it’s really easy to get material together. It’s also helpful that everyone in the group is really committed to the common vision. We don’t have a drummer who wishes he was playing hip-hop, and a guitarist who really wants to be in a blues band, etc. At this place in time, this is exactly the kind of music we all want to be making and that has a certain momentum which is rare I’ve found.
DG: The band you are most identified with, Percy Hill, had a remarkably laid back, jazzy feel to its music. This current band relies more to on a heavier sound, harkening back to psychedelic rock from the 60’s more than anything. Was that a conscious decision on your part or did that evolve organically out of jam sessions with this lineup?
NW: The music is drastically different for sure, especially for people who were expecting Percy Hill version 2.0. One thing I’ve figured out over the years is that I’m someone who goes through phases. I’ll get really turned on about a certain sound for a while and then a few years later I’ll find myself trying to do the complete opposite thing. I can’t always explain why it happens, maybe it’s a little schizophrenic. Part of what fueled the fire for this band is that I started trying to teach myself how to play guitar, and subsequently as an exercise, I started writing almost exclusively this way. I’m still a really terrible guitarist, but it’s been great because it has gotten me out of a certain bag I was falling into when I’d try to write at the piano.
DG: Are there any songs on the album that came from a specific guitar riff you had come up with?
NW: I’d say most of the tunes started out that way, maybe with the exception of “Justify” which I wrote on the piano. But yeah, the main riffs and hooks were things that I played on guitar and recorded. Then I would go back and flesh out the rest of the song around that.
DG: Let’s talk a bit about the songwriting on the album. How has this process compared to previous bands you’ve been in and can you talk a bit about the album’s evolution? Typically, does the music come first or the lyrics?
NW: Well with AOD there was a lot of collaboration between Reid and myself. I would write a lot of music and send it off to him and he would write lyrics. Percy Hill was a lot less collaborative in that sense, because the songs I wrote for the band were written alone. This band is similar in that the collaborative part happens in rehearsals, mostly arranging the tune and punching it up but the basic song is usually there already.
Lately, like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of writing on my laptop, which is kind of new for me because I never used to record demos of tunes, I’d just go into rehearsals and teach them to everyone. But now I’m recording everything as I go along, and it’s helped me really flesh out the songs. They’re coming out a lot more complete and it saves a ton of rehearsal time.
DG: Which is your favorite song on the album?
NW: Probably “Scatterbrain” but mostly because it was written the most recently and feels the freshest to me.
DG: And how did that song come about?
NW: It’s kind of a break-up song in a weird sort of way, more or less about the point you reach in a relationship with someone when you realize how much each of your psychological dysfunctions get magnified and weigh each other down. Good times, you know.
DG: I see on the album that the band currently has six dates set up in support of the album and none outside of what might be called your home turf? Are there plans for additional tour dates both outside and within the North east?
NW: Yeah, we’re continuing to add dates but I’d say for the most part, we’re really focusing on building a following here in the Northeast first before we branch out too far. We were able to play a few shows out in San Francisco earlier this fall, and we’d love to try to make it back out there sometime soon. But for now we’re really focused on New England and New York.
DG: Is touring a priority for you?
NW: It is. And I think eventually we will build up to longer and longer stints out on the road. Touring is a double edged sword though. It’s absolutely the best way to get your music out there but I’ve also seen lots of bands get into bad situations with debt and burnout because they were over zealous about touring. It’s the kind of thing that needs to develop over time or it can be a real killer.
DG: I only ask because prior to the breakup, Percy Hill really didn’t tour all that frequently and with so few tour dates for this bandHave you thought about hooking up with another band and doing some dates together or is it still too premature to speculate on plans like that?
NW: Yeah, there were a lot of reasons why we didn’t tour as much later on but I think most of it could be attributed again to burnout and also personal frictions within the band. We hit the road really hard for about three years with no breaks and the way that we went about it really took a toll. In the spirit of trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past, I’m trying to take a more sensible approach with this group and build it up gradually to the point where it can be a full time endeavor while not coming at the cost of everyone’s sanity. That being said, we’re playing with this band now more than ever, maybe more than I’ve played out live since the Percy Hill days. We have close to twenty dates on the books right now and we’re continuing to add more. As far as touring with other acts, it’s something we’d love to do. There are so many circumstances that have to come together all at once to make something like that happen but we’ve got some things in the works on that front.
DG: Upon completing the album, you allowed fans to download it for free from your website for a brief period of time. What was the thought process behind that and in a larger sense, where do you see the record industry going? Were you influenced by Radiohead’s decision regarding In Rainbows?
NW: The thinking was that we just needed the exposure. We felt that if we released the record in the traditional way, we’d sell a limited amount but if we released it for free the exposure would outweigh the money we’d lose from sales. And so far it’s worked very well. We gave away close to 1200 copies of the download and there’s no telling how far it’s spread from there. As far as the industry goes, it’s a tough situation these days. One friend of mine described his new CD as a “really expensive poster,” which I think is kind of accurate. CD sales are going to continue to drop off, it’s just a fact. And so musicians will have to get creative about how they use their recorded music. Ultimately, the power is in the hands of the fans now. The record is a way to spread the word and rope people in. Hopefully your music is good enough to inspire people to come and see you live, maybe help support you by buying merch and spreading the word to friends and other fans.