Jim Wilson Talks the Occupation of Rock and Roll
By Guest Contributor, Daniel Corey
Jim Wilson is one of the most skilled and versatile musicians operating in today’s L.A. music scene.
The Delaware native has spent the past two decades working full-time in music and is not only a great bass player but a top-rate vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and musicologist.
Jim currently has several working gigs, including the California country rock and roll band PEARL (a collaboration with namesake singer, Pearl Aday), hard rock quintet Motor Sister (a lineup that includes Anthrax’s Scott Ian and The Cult’s John Tempesta), and Heavy Sun, which is led by multi-Grammy-winning producer/musician Daniel Lanois.
Additionally, Jim has a thriving solo career, which has most recently yielded an album titled Now Playing, a collaboration with drummer Phil Jones. He also has his own radio show, The Vinyl Shelf, and Rothco Press will soon be releasing his book Occupation: Rock & Roll, in which Jim recounts stories from 30 years in the L.A. music scene.
I had a chance to ask Daniel Lanois a few questions about the day-in routine of working with Jim, who serves as bassist and vocalist in Lanois’ Heavy Sun band, which recently wrapped a well-attended weekly residence at Zebulon Café Concert in the Atwater Village area of Los Angeles. The intent of the successful tenure was to prep for a Heavy Sun West Coast tour, which kicks off May 5th in Sacramento and concludes May 14th at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.
Lanois is well-known as the producer of albums such as U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby (in collaboration with Brian Eno), Peter Gabriel’s So and Us, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball. In 2019, Lanois released the lauded and award-winning video game soundtrack The Music of Red Dead Redemption 2, a project that Wilson participated in as bassist.
“Well, he’s an all-around great musician,” Lanois said of Wilson. “When we first worked together, he played guitar. And then there was an opportunity that came up for him to play some bass. I think I was the first one to ask him to play bass. He’s just got a great feel all around, whether he’s on the bass or otherwise. He’s a mastermind, you know. He’s a musicologist. I just really appreciate his commitment, his honesty and devotion to what it is that I do. So, he’s just got the touch. And he’s always on time.”
After a busy few weeks of gigging with Heavy Sun and PEARL, I had a chance to chat with Jim about his musical life.
DC: Jim, you’ve been a working musician in L.A. for a number of years now. One of your many current gigs is playing bass for Daniel Lanois’ band, Heavy Sun. Give me some of the details on that venture: how you met Daniel and came to work with him, and the various incarnations his band/your role has taken over the years.
JW: Daniel came to see Rollins Band play at the Troubadour in 2002, and we met him backstage. I was playing guitar for Henry Rollins at the time and my band, Mother Superior, was active, as well, and making lots of records.
After the show, I ran into Daniel in the parking lot as he was getting on his motorcycle to leave. He told me I made him want to go home and practice! We exchanged numbers, and he invited us over the next week to play some music together. By the beginning of 2003, all three members of Mother Superior were traveling and doing shows with Daniel. After Mother Superior disbanded, Daniel wanted to tour as a trio and asked me if I was interested in playing bass with him. I never really played much bass, but I’m so glad that I’ve had the opportunity to become a prominent bass player. Our voices blend really well together, too. Anyway, 2020 makes 18 years of sharing music with Daniel Lanois. Wow!
DC: I had a chance to ask Daniel a few questions about you. I started by asking him about that night at the Troubadour, what it was he saw in your performance with Rollins. He said, “The band was really tight. They were providing a really good backing for Henry, and I was really touched by their commitment to Henry’s music. And they were really rock-solid and just bang-on, well-rehearsed. Just very, very tight performers. I was very impressed.”
Could you tell me a bit about working with Henry Rollins?
JW: It was kind of a dream come true. Henry used to shop at a record store I was working at in the mid-’90s called Aron’s Records. I gave him a demo CD by Mother Superior called Right in a Row that I recorded on my four-track, reel-to-reel tape recorder. I knew Henry loved Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath, so I thought he would dig our music. I LOVED Black Flag and knew all the music.
He left a message on my answering machine the same night I gave him the CD, and he said he was totally digging it and to let him know if there’s anything he could do for us. He wrote liner notes for our first official release, The Heavy Soul Experience of Mother Superior, in 1996, and by 1998, he produced our third record, Deep. He liked how fast we worked and how much we rehearsed and loved to play. Originally, he asked if we’d help write songs for a solo album he was going to do, but we came up with so much material, we became the second incarnation of Rollins Band and immediately started touring the world together. We recorded about 100 songs in our five-year tenure.
In 2002, we got to record the Rise Above album to benefit the West Memphis Three. It was a collection of Black Flag songs with an all-star cast of vocalists like Iggy Pop, Lemmy, Exene, Keith Morris, Hank III, Chuck D, Corey Taylor, Ice T, Mike Patton and more. I played all the guitar. Again, dream come true. Henry’s still in my corner, and we talk all the time. He plays stuff from my solo albums on his KCRW radio show from time to time.
DC: One might say that Henry and Daniel create vastly different styles of music. Daniel must have seen a versatility and adaptability in you and your bandmates. What do you think about that? What did you do musically with Henry that translated over to working with Daniel?
JW: I take every gig seriously and always want to make sure it gets to those magical musical moments. And although the music was super-heavy, you could find James Brown references here and there. We were still a power trio playing behind Rollins, so each member had a lot of space to fill. Not to mention, with Rollins as the ringleader, we knew we had to be 200 percent. Daniel is a worker and loves people that want to work. That’s probably another thing he saw. Like he said, commitment. But, yes, it was a trip at the time, because Henry was wanting to focus on acting and spoken word and was winding down on the music, and we had the great chance immediately to start working with Daniel. Two different worlds, and I love them both!
DC: I’ve seen you play with Daniel many times in the past year. The Heavy Sun live shows have been concentrating on selections from the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack, and you’re also playing a lot of traditional gospel tunes. What do you feel is the soul, or mission, of Heavy Sun?
JW: The reaction that we’ve been getting from our mostly vocal-based music has been exciting for all of us. The band consists of me, Daniel, Rocco DeLuca and the great Johnny Shepherd, who is from Shreveport, Louisiana. Johnny sang on Red Dead Redemption 2 and did shows with us, and we all realized his massive talent. He has a lot of experience playing with gospel bands in the church, and he’s a master at arranging harmonies. We started singing together around his organ at Daniel’s house, and it was clear that we had a different sound. It’s to the point now where we can just start singing together, and our voices fall into place automatically. The gospel influence is for sure there, but we do it in our own funky way.
DC: I asked Daniel about what he does to “bring you in” on a song. In the process of answering that question, he revealed a dark secret from your past.
Here’s exactly what Daniel said: “He usually gets in on the recording. We rehearse in the recording studio, so if we hit on something that sounds good, then we record. So, he’s always there, every step of the way. He responds very well to my spontaneous nature. When something seems to be happening, we’ll strike while the iron’s hot. He’s really good at keeping track of lyrics. He’s a master organizer, he’s a great typist. He was a master typist as a kid in school, so he’s really good with just the fundamentals of the language. He’s a linguist of sorts. He was the fastest typist in his school.”
JW: Ha-ha! You can’t hide from the truth! Yeah, I don’t know what it was, but I took to the typewriter like I did to playing guitar. It just came naturally. And I’m a good speller. I’m definitely the bookkeeper for Heavy Sun! I can’t believe anyone would prefer my handwriting on anything.
DC: Tell me a little about forming a song in the studio with Heavy Sun. Also, more importantly, how many words a minute can you type? Was there ever an award involved?
JW: Ha-ha, yes, two consecutive years of winning “best typist” and having to walk onstage to collect that beautiful certificate. I can’t remember how many words I could type at my peak, but it was fast, and I didn’t have to look.
Some of the Heavy Sun songs come out of just getting together every day and playing. We’ll get a groove going and maybe a melody to sing over top of it, and then we go outside and work on the lyrical concept and start developing the words. I write out everything we have on large pads of paper, and we tape ’em up and keep running the song. The next day may see a completely different set of words, and I have to keep it current until we start laying down the tracks.
We’ve been recording the vocals together at the mixing board instead of tracking each vocal separately. We go for the vocal blend right from the start. It sounds silly to say, but Daniel knows when it’s a magic take. And Johnny Shepherd arranges our vocal parts because he’s had so much experience in gospel choir singing. Oh, yeah, and I’m in charge of the set lists.
DC: Daniel also commented on your vocal prowess, saying, “He’s a great singer, and he’s really good at remembering parts. We both have a good background in harmony singing; I’ve been helping people do vocal arrangements all my life in the studio. So, he’s really good at remembering parts, and I rely on him to keep the vocal arrangements together.”
JW: Because of my role of keeping the arrangements straight, all eyes are on me when there’s a question. “How many choruses do we do here?” “What key did we decide on?” I love the music so much, it’s always on my mind, anyway, so it’s exciting to have such an important role in this band. And I get to come up with funky bass lines!
DC: Tell me a little about that process, the creation and maintaining of Heavy Sun’s vocal arrangements.
JW: We pretty much fall into our roles as soon as we start singing together. Rocco’s always on the top because he has such a beautiful high voice. Dan’s at the bottom because he has that richness in his voice. I’m usually in the middle, sometimes taking the lead melody on the choruses. Johnny’s the main lead singer, so he’s either improvising over top of our blend or singing lines in between our group harmony. Singing four-part harmony is something that I’ve never gotten to do before, so it’s incredibly fun to know what the four of us can do when we’re singing in a room together.
DC: At the Heavy Sun gigs, I’ve seen you play a very excellent-looking Epiphone hollow-body bass. Tell me a little about that instrument and the setup that you use.
JW: Daniel has a 1967 Epiphone Rivoli bass that we’ve traveled the world with a few times. It has a smooth, deep tone, and it sounds great on recordings. A few months ago, when we were about to do some Heavy Sun recording in Los Angeles, we realized the bass was still in storage in Toronto since the last performance we did in Canada. Daniel asked me to go to the Guitar Center in Hollywood and see if they had a similar bass that we could keep in L.A. The new one I’ve been playing with Heavy Sun is a similar 1968 Epiphone, and we’re very pleased with the purchase. When you work with Daniel, he loves it when you use the instruments that he already has at his studio. There are so many beautiful instruments to choose from, and they’ve all appeared on his recordings. I plug straight into an Ampeg, and that’s all I need.
DC: How would you describe your personal style as a bass player? Who are some of your favorite bassists?
JW: I just try to feel it. And make it funky with a groove. I would usually say I really pay attention to what the drummer’s doing, but, of course, Heavy Sun doesn’t have a drummer! I love Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman and all the bass from the great records of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
DC: I had a chance to ask Daniel if Heavy Sun was planning to record a gospel record, and he seemed pretty affirmative about that, but mentioned that he thought of it more as a “spirit record.” Are you able to comment on whether Heavy Sun will be putting out a spirit record sometime soon?
JW: Yes, there is lots of Heavy Sun music coming out this year. We’ve recorded more than an album’s worth. Daniel uses “spirit record” because although the music definitely has gospel roots, we don’t reference Jesus or religion. And Daniel’s stamp is all over the arranging and production. To get that feeling in the music is important, along with a positive message in the lyrics.
DC: Heavy Sun has a tour coming up. Will the band be focusing primarily on the Red Dead Redemption and spirit tunes? Will there be anything else in the mix?
JW: We’re going to do a big mix of new stuff from the upcoming record, Red Dead 2 stuff, Daniel’s classics from the past and some of Rocco’s songs that we like to play, too.
DC: In addition to Heavy Sun, you have a thriving solo career and several other band collaborations. Besides being a bassist, you are a songwriter, guitarist and vocalist. Tell me about some of your other projects.
JW: I have a killer rock band called Motor Sister, and we’re recording our second album in March for Metal Blade Records. We’re not metal, we’re just good old rock & roll with loud guitars and great players. I write the songs and sing and play lead guitar. Scott Ian from Anthrax is also on guitar, John Tempesta from The Cult is our drummer and Joey Vera from Armored Saint is the bassist. Pearl Aday sings with us, too, and she makes her own records, as well, that I co-write songs and play on. We’re like a family, and it’s quite a sound when we play together. The new album rocks! I’ve been lucky to get to make solo albums, too, because they’re most like my actual musical taste — all over the place! I’ve done two full albums and an EP, and the new one’s on the way. I feel very lucky to have all these musical outlets.
DC: When you’re gigging as a guitarist, what gear do you prefer?
JW: I just use a Les Paul or a Strat and a Marshall.
DC: How would you describe your style as a guitarist, and who are your influences?
JW: Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix. Mick Taylor and Ace Frehley show up in every solo I do.
DC: I had a chance to listen to your latest solo record, Now Playing, a collaboration with drummer-percussionist Phil Jones. What a great album; I absolutely love it. Let the readers know who Phil is, how the collaboration started, and the mission of that record.
JW: I was a big fan of Phil Jones before I had ever met him. He played drums on Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (that’s him on Free Fallin’) and he also plays on Roy Orbison’s You Got It. He had seen me play with Daniel and Emmylou Harris and invited me to his studio. I brought four songs, and we recorded all four of them that first day. It’s so much fun bringing songs to Phil’s studio. As a producer, Phil understands where the music’s all coming from, and he gets amazing sounds. He’s brought a lot of great players in, like Mike Campbell from The Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac and Marc Ford from The Black Crowes, guys I would happily give up the guitar spotlight to! I can’t believe it sometimes. Phil knows what the song needs, and he makes it happen. He’s got a studio in his garage, and the drums are always set up and ready to record. We’re finishing up the next album now, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear the new songs.
DC: What are some of the daily obstacles you face working as a musician in Los Angeles? How has the landscape changed in recent years?
JW: It’s really the same as it’s always been, except the gigs might be a little nicer and more people show up. But the music business has always been about survival, and I really think one of the reasons I keep writing and playing so much is thanks to never really getting a “big break.” I’m still hungry and feel I still have lots to say. It’s never easy. But the more people listen, the more music I want to make. You have to pay your rent, and that makes a musician hustle. You make it work. But the music knows when you’re being true to it, when it’s real and when it’s not. There’s got to be soul in the music.
DC: You have your own radio show, The Vinyl Shelf. Tell me more about that, and where people can find it.
JW: Yes! It’s on Saturday and Sunday at midnight PST on KONG Monsterrock.net (rdsn.net/kong/; you can listen on your phone with the TuneIn Radio App). A few years ago, I was on the air with a different station, and one of the guys at Kong wanted me to start it up again, and I couldn’t say no. It’s fun picking out two hours of vinyl records to share with listeners. I’ve collected records my whole life and have over 10,000 LPs now. I’ve been in love with music my whole life, and I’m fascinated with vinyl. Mostly ’50s to ’80s, but as long as it’s groovin’, I’m in. On The Vinyl Shelf, I play a variety of stuff. Anything goes. I also play a lot of rare radio show broadcast LPs with original commercials. My show is based on listening to the radio growing up and how free it was. And there’s always humor on it, too, because I love Stan Freberg, Peter Sellers, Kenny Everett and all the old radio greats.
DC: Finally, I’m curious about what your dream job is. Is there a particular artist collaboration on your bucket list?
JW: I had a dream last night that I finally met Paul McCartney. I’m not saying I’ll ever get the pleasure to play music with him, but I’m still looking forward to meeting a Beatle, or any of the Stones. I’ve been writing and jamming with Bernard Fowler, who sings background vocals with the Stones, and we hope to do some shows together in the future. Bernard has been supporting my music for a few years now, and we have a duet called Hott on my Rockers Delight EP. I would LOVE to get to do something/anything with Todd Rundgren, Elton, Cheap Trick, Barry Gibb…but those are all extreme wishes.
DC: Let the readers know where to find you online, and tell us about any upcoming live shows.
JW: I have a new website we’re about to launch, which is jimwilsonrocks.com. In the meantime, you can get news and buy vinyl at jimwilsonmusic.blogspot.com.
Lots of shows coming up from Heavy Sun and Motor Sister this year, so stay tuned. Thanks!
Daniel Corey is a writer and comic book creator based in Los Angeles, CA. His graphic novels have been distributed worldwide, and he has been recognized as a noted influencer in VR and new media. Daniel is also a singer/songwriter, has worked in broadcast news, serves on the Creative Writing Program Advisory Committee at Full Sail University, and speaks at pop culture conventions around the country.
Learn more about Daniel’s work and contact him through his homepage, DangerKatt.com.