As both a music critic and fan, there are few things as exciting as seeing an artist you have long admired step out of the shadows and develop their own voice. That's what has happened with keyboard wiz Nate Wilson. Since the early '90s Wilson has been a seminal part of the jamband scene, first as a founding member and the driving force behind Percy Hill, and later as a member of Assembly of Dust. Though he co-wrote for both bands and his incendiary playing is what gave Percy Hill its identity, it was not until the formation of his Nate Wilson Group that he established his own identity. The group, made up of Wilson along with guitarist Adam Terrell, drummer Tom Arey and bassist Tommy Lada, shatters any preconceived expectations one might have of a band fronted by someone who has made his name as a lush and layered keyboard player.
The smooth sounds of Percy Hill and the earthiness of AOD are nowhere to be found in the Nate Wilson Group. They have been replaced with a grittiness that fuels big guitar hooks that are not afraid to dig deep, bite and, most importantly, rock and rock hard. Though in many ways a throwback to classic rock acts of the '60s, the way the band attacks their music gives a real freshness to their sound. You hear it from the get-go on their new album, Unbound. It starts with the sounds of fuzz as if the amps have just been turned on. Then the drum counts down before the band launches into the big opening hook of "Hear the Echos" with its chunky guitar rifts and thumping drums. It has a real immediacy, like you are in the room with a really good garage band. Then it happens; that voice kicks in. Wilson sings in a strong, smooth yet almost psychedelic voice. Upon hearing it for the first time, my initial reaction was, Wow. This was followed by the question: How could he have kept this under wraps for so long?
The band strikes an amazing balance throughout, managing to be smooth yet rough at the same time. You get the sense of unbridled enjoyment found in the best garage bands, but it's delivered by a quartet of tight and skillful musicians. The songs sting one moment then will go off on vast sonic journeys that incorporate anything blues Pink Floyd style to freeform fusion jazz. It does this while covering dark themes stemming from breakups both personal and professional. It's a heck of a debut, one that is clearly overdue.
I spoke Wilson about his transformation and what led him to step to the forefront.
Why do you feel the time was right to step to the forefront and start your own band?
That's a good question. I was in grad school at New England Conservatory of Music studying jazz and I had gotten away from writing my own songs for a while. At one point I just got really overwhelmed with school and decided to start writing rock tunes. I wrote about ten songs in the span of a couple of months. Between that and some of the material I had with Percy Hill‚ I wanted to get it out and do my own thing. The idea at first was to do just a short run of shows over the course of the summer‚ and just through that process and playing with some of the guys‚ one thing led to another. And here we are.
I always really enjoyed Percy Hill‚ and Assembly of Dust‚ but with AOD I always thought your abilities on the keys were a bit held back. I thought I was never getting the real Nate Wilson.
Yeah‚ well it did to varying degrees. But with AOD we were trying to break out of the jam band mold to some extent with taking a more song-oriented approach. I was co-writing a lot of the material for the group‚ but a lot of people didn't realize that because I wasn't singing the songs. People tend to associate the person singing the song as the person who wrote it.
In some regard‚ I see what you're saying. In AOD‚ I was playing more of a supporting role‚ because it was a fun band and a fun group of people. And at that point I didn't have anything else that I'd rather be doing. I think it took me a little while to get my confidence to the point where I could go out and sing my own songs and do my own thing.
What amazes me about it‚ is that you've sort of reinvented yourself -- definitely your sound. I was expecting a keyboard driven album -- not a jammy album‚ but something that focused more on your playing. Unbound‚ refreshingly‚ is not that. Was this something that you were looking to explore for a while‚ or did it come about after you put the band together? How did this harder sound come about?
It all came together at once. As I was putting the band together‚ I was sort of hearing things in a different way. I was revisiting a lot of classic rock stuff that I grew up on‚ that I sort of got away from. Like everybody‚ I go through different phases -- there was a time when I didn't listen to any rock music. I went through a phase listening to a lot of jazz for a while and classical music for a while. For some reason‚ I just started to go back to listening to a lot of rock music that I was into in my teens. And I also decided to start teaching myself how to play guitar‚ and I basically did that to try to get myself to start writing differently. I got used to being in a certain kind of bag when I was writing on the keyboards. So‚ on the guitar‚ it was uncharted territory and was forcing my way around the instrument. The music that's on the record came out of that.
That's interesting. Can you tell me how the band came together? Adam [Terrell]‚ obviously‚ you've worked with for a long time.
Yeah‚ Adam is someone I've worked with for a long time. Tom‚ we got thrown together randomly on a Sam Kininger gig one night. I really enjoyed the way he played‚ so I got his number. When I was putting the band together for that summer run‚ I called him up and he came to the first rehearsal and he knew all the material inside and out. It was easy. Tommy Lada‚ the bassist‚ is the newest member of the band. He was recommended by Tom. They know each other from the Boston music scene. He came on board in August‚ and it has worked out fantastically.
Going from Percy Hill‚ where on the outside there didn't seem to be a leader per se‚ and the then moving to AOD‚ where Reid plays the bandleader role‚ how did those two experiences mold you and influence you as a bandleader?
When you're in a band that has strong personalities and there's not really a clear leader‚ you have to be able to communicate and understand how to work together‚ and you can't let ego bash each other around. And that was successful with Percy Hill at times and unsuccessful at others. [laughs] But you have to develop a rapport with people‚ and I think I learned a lot about that from that experience.
With AOD‚ Reid was the singer and obviously the frontman‚ but I think everyone made their contributions. I was definitely doing a lot with the writing and guiding the direction of the sound. That was more of supporting role.
I think overall what you learn is that that songs are the most important thing and that you have to do what's right for the music and not force things because you think they should be a certain way.