Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sparks (Guitarist) Project: Jim Wilson!

It was special every day for me, just being in London for a month, and the only thing to do was to play Sparks every night.

Jim Wilson had the opportunity to live every music fan’s dream. Jim is a huge fan of Sparks going back to the 1980s – like me, he was an early member of their international fan club – and back then, he never dreamed that one day he would be performing with them on a semi-regular basis. Jim has done a number of shows over the past decade with Sparks, but most significantly, Jim played lead guitar for Sparks’ 2008 “21X21” London spectacular at the Carling Academy Islington, where they played every one of their 21 albums over the course of 21 days.

This only touches on the breadth and depth of Jim’s career though. He played guitar in the acclaimed rock band Mother Superior for years, he has recorded with numerous musical icons, and along with drummer (and fellow 21X21 alum) Steve Nistor and Daniel Lanois, he is currently supporting Emmylou Harris on her Wrecking Ball tour.

He’s also an affable and down to earth guy, may I add, and most generous with his time in speaking with me about the revival of Mother Superior, some of his other projects, and of course, the 21X21 spectacular – an event that would not have been the same without one Jim Wilson.

Discovering Sparks

Monte: You were an appropriate choice for the 21X21 event, given your long history as a fan of the band. How did that come about?

Jim: The first record that I got into (as a fan) was Angst In My Pants. That was when I saw them on TV and “discovered” them, on Saturday Night Live. It was I Predict that I saw, and then heard on the radio in Philadelphia (where I was living). I was still in High School, and heard it and just loved it, and went out and bought the album. There was a record shop in Wilmington, Delaware. I went there and immediately got Kimono My House and Introducing Sparks – and those were the days when you had to go out and actually find these things, especially the out of print ones.

I found Indiscreet as a cutout for $2.99, in some little record shop that had one copy. I took it home and it had a little crack right at the beginning – it would kind of skip into Hospitality On Parade, a second was missing. I took it back to the record shop and they said “oh, it’s a cutout, it’s the only one we have, you can exchange it” and I said “no, I’ll keep it!”

I saw them live, they opened for Rick Springfield. Somehow I talked the sound guy into getting their autographs for me, and I was in the fan club!

Monte: Me too. Still am!


Monte: how did you (and former Mother Superior band-mate Marcus Blake) end up supporting Sparks at the 21x21?

Jim: We had done a song called Four Walls in 2003 and Tony Visconti, who produced Indiscreet and all the guys like T. Rex and David Bowie, did a string arrangement for the song. We got in touch with him through Henry Rollins, who we were also working with at the time. We met Tony and I told him I was a huge Sparks fan.  He had a birthday dinner, and invited the band to the dinner. I had a feeling that Ron and Russell would be there and of course, I had to sit next to Russell at the dinner. I acted like I didn't know too much about Sparks and we talked.

Ten months later I ran into Russell at a Mexican restaurant. I had his Email and I had some original artwork from a comic book this guy did – a history of rock and roll, he had done a Sparks page. His name was Stan Drake, he had done comic books in the 1950s and I got the artwork at a convention or something. I told Russell “you guys should have it” and he was reluctant at first but they’re into all that stuff, collecting memorabilia and the like, and I sent him the artwork.

After Lil’ Beethoven came out I emailed him. (That album) blew me away, completely unexpected.  We talked by email and he mentioned that they were just invited by Morrissey to do the Kimono My House album in London at his Meltdown Festival, and do the new album at the same time. He mentioned that they needed a bass player.

I was talking to my girlfriend, and said “I should just throw it out there - I know the album, one of my favorite albums." He wrote back and said “well we have Steve McDonald from Red Cross but we are looking for someone who can play guitar solos and the rest,” and I told him well, that’s what I do!

At the time Dean Menta was playing guitar for Sparks but there’s a lot of overdubbed guitars on Kimono My House so two guitars was what they were looking for. So, I did that show in 2004. I just played on Kimono My House and Tammy and Dean played on the Lil’ Beethoven set. I got to watch that from the audience.

I did a few more shows here and there.  Tammy couldn't do some shows and that’s how Steve Nistor got involved.  Steve’s always excited when we play together. He played on my solo album. He is such a great guy, an incredible drummer.

I got the call from Russell saying, “this sounds crazy but we’re thinking of doing every album, every song.” It sounded crazy but just as a fan I knew the songs. I can’t say that I knew every note of every song but I had listened intensely (over the years) to every album.

It was incredible. I’m finally getting to the point where I can listen to the albums again without thinking about the chord changes. It was intense. We were going to their house every day working everything out, and time was running out. We finally got to London and we’d do one album, and then wake up the next day and think about the next album!

The Performances

Monte: I was lucky enough to see the first five shows.

Jim: Those were good ones to see!

Monte: I would have loved to have seen all of them, because each album brings back a certain time and place, and has a certain meaning.  To see how they were played live would be wonderful, even some not considered among their best.

Jim: Yeah! Introducing Sparks was really good. Number One In Heaven we did a couple times after that as well. I wasn't even playing, just singing background vocals, but it was a major party. Angst In My Pants, Sparks In Outer Space, Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat – it was so interesting to play those songs. I’m proud of some of the things we did vocally like Propaganda or on Introducing Sparks, where we got to do some of that cool Beach Boys kind of stuff.

Monte: What I saw the first night, it was great, though there seemed to be a little of, “let’s see how this goes,” but by the second night that was gone.

Jim: I completely agree with you! The first night was kind of tentative, it was like “holy crap, here it is!” but it was accepted, and we felt like “oh, we can do this.” It was kind of like being in the living room at Russell’s studio; we could go there and play through the album. (But) there was no second chance.

(For example), in the middle of Indiscreet, I was so excited, that when they did Under The Table With Her I actually went out in the crowd and watched. Then I went back on to the stage and I was like, maybe I shouldn't have done that.

It got to me. It was so emotional just watching and then I got back on stage, I was so discombobulated! I saw at least a part of that side. And we knew people were singing every word….which says everything about their amazing lyrics. They are still so great.

And people accepted me too. It had been a long time since someone was revisiting guitar solos and the like with Sparks so I felt super lucky to be the one to step into those shoes and try to do my best to imitate (all those guitarists).

Every night, Ron and Russell felt it as well. We’d go backstage and sit in the room there, and we just felt it was incredible. They really felt it and really felt how the fans responded. As guys, as friends, they really are the nicest guys.

There was one night when Russell forgot the part of one of the songs and he went to one part and the band went to another place – I’m not blaming Russell though!

Monte: Was that Tearing the Place Apart?

Jim: Oh right, where we started over – no I think it was a time when we fell apart in the middle of the song but we kind of got it back together. And I was eyeballing everyone (to get us back on track) – we should go here, or here – and we woke up the next day and there was a review of the show, and it said “Jim Wilson screwed up a song and they had to pull it together.” We were laughing, because I was totally the one helping us get out of the thing but someone saw it the other way around!

Monte: Steve described 21X21 as easily the most challenging thing he’s ever done musically.

Jim: For sure, and he and I talk about it. There were a few we didn't play – I Wanna Hold Your Hand we never did, a few movie things, but there were some movie things and unreleased things, and it all equaled out.

Monte: Which of the guitarists did you really come to respect through this process?

Jim: (Original Sparks guitarist) Earle Mankey for sure, was the most challenging one. Maybe because with Kimono My House and Propaganda, they’re closer to my style that I play on guitar, a little Eric Clapton rock over Sparks music…and with Bob Haag in the Atlantic period, I kind of knew those records more by heart, and there aren't as many solos, it’s more power chords and things. But when it came to the Earle Mankey guitar stuff, I was literally listening to those records and saying to myself, “now what the hell is he doing?” He was completely doing his own thing. Big Bands was challenging, even No More Mr. Nice Guys was challenging, trying to get those sounds. The Louvre…there was never anything straight.

Even Girl From Germany, it sounds so easy but when it’s your task to make it sound like that…and Ron was always the one who’d say, “you don’t have to sound exactly like what’s on the record…” and then he’s asking me for chord changes! I’d say, “you wrote it!”

Monte: I understand that Marcus Blake’s role expanded over time?

Jim: Steve (McDonald) couldn't make it a few of the nights. He was there at the beginning and then he left and came back at the end. I think the only night Marcus didn't do was the first night. He was doing a lot of rhythm guitar, but he was doing a lot of vocal harmony with us too. He was only supposed to play the nights that Steve couldn't play, but he ended up basically playing the whole thing, switching back and forth between guitar and bass as well.

Monte: Was it a challenge doing the encore to Exotic Creatures Of The Deep in London (where the fans voted on the songs to be performed, some of which were fairly obscure)?

Jim: It was super fun but it was also kind of nerve wracking because we were trying to get the Exotic Creatures show together all day in rehearsal, so there was no time for going over any of the encore. I remember Mustache was there and we hadn't played that since the Angst show, two weeks before that. So we weren't as prepared. We didn't know what the songs were going to be.  We took a dinner break after rehearsing Exotic Creatures all day and I remember thinking, “wait a minute, we’re not going to run through any of these songs??” But it worked out fine. We definitely had a bit of free fall that night!

Monte: I assume you guys could communicate pretty well on stage by that point.

Jim: That’s true. All it takes is a look, and everyone gets back in.

Monte: I had always thought they might do something like that in LA, maybe a series of 5 or 6 shows there.

Jim: There was talk about maybe doing the 21X21 performance one more time, maybe in Japan, but the cost alone of keeping everyone in one place for a month…it was work.

I think once they did it, they got right into (their next project), The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and just kept going from there.

It was special every day for me, just being in London for a month, and staying in a house with a band like the Monkees or something…and the only thing to do was to play Sparks every night. 

Monte: Are you involved with any of their current projects?

Jim: No. I need to get in touch with them. I had coffee with Russell a couple months ago. I’ll be checking in with them.

Monte: Tell them I said hello and ask them if they've read the drummer interviews!

Jim: I will! It’s such a great angle, and stuff I didn't know about. And the drums are so important!

Monte: Well, I’m a drummer myself, and it was just an idea I had. It shows the good side of social media, because these people are pretty accessible! Like you!

Royce Hall

Monte: I wanted to ask you about the Royce Hall show – you guys played for about three hours. You did the entire Exotic Creatures album, Kimono, and that 45 minute encore.  It was one of the best shows I've ever seen by anyone.

Jim: In the previous performance of Exotic Creatures in England, at the end of the 21 nights, they had a group of dancers for She Got Me Pregnant, This is The Renaissance, and a couple others. So when it came time to do the show in LA, they needed to get new girls. This one girl, Carolina, she works with Daniel Lanois a lot, she’s a dancer. I said, “I might know someone!” and she was in charge of that, it actually worked.

I know they filmed that night too.

Monte: Why don’t they ever release any of this stuff?

Jim: I don’t know! There was so much talk about the 21 nights too – maybe a “best of,” or something…but they’re always looking ahead.

Monte: I know…that’s a recurring theme in these interviews. It’s the key to their success I suppose.

Jim: Right, they’re never an oldies act. They are always just as current as they are classic.

Mother Superior Lives!

Monte: Now I understand that Mother Superior is reforming? 

Jim: Scott Ian from Anthrax, he’s a big fan of Mother Superior and wanted to have a jam on his birthday.  We got together in January at his house with me playing guitar, and him playing guitar, his friend John Tempesta from the Cult on drums and Joey Vera, from a band called Armored Saint, on bass. They were fans of the music too, so we had this party and word got to  Metal Blade records and they gave us a record deal. It’s coming out October 14th. We just finished recording my vocals and it’s going to be mixed in the next few months. Mother Superior Lives! is the name of the album.

(With respect to the original Mother Superior), the music was always good but we made almost ten albums, and it just became less like friends like it was when we first started playing. This time everybody was really into it. Scott picked out his favorite songs to play at the party, and that’s basically the album. They gave us an option for a second album as well, if this one does well, and we’ll write some new songs for that.
We’re going to do a lot of shows for that too, when it comes out.

Other Activities

Jim: I’m always recording. I wrote a whole album for Meat Loaf’s daughter, her name is Pearl, and we just (about) finished recording that album.  She wants to get that out as soon as possible…it’s good harmonies, Eagles-ish…I like all kinds of music so I’m always writing different kinds of songs. It’s a nice outlet for me. She’s a really good singer.
My solo album came out in 2012. I've started working on a new one but the Mother Superior project is (my current priority). It’s got Ron and Russell on one track, Cry Now (Pay Later). I went to their studios and recorded the track and then I went on a tour somewhere. Ron said he wanted to play around with it and I said “do whatever you want” and I came back and Ron had completely orchestrated it in his style. So that’s something else I’m super grateful for.

Here's one of the (few!) videos from the 21X21 shows I could track down featuring some good shots of Jim in action - enjoy!

And just for fun, here's Jim and the boys performing in London - the great opening to the show, Good Morning: 

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