Children of the ’80s may remember The Fabulous Thunderbirds as “stuff our dads listened to when they wanted to look cool.” The Thunderbirds doctored up raucous blues rock with hooks so catchy that songs like “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up” found their way into heavy rotation on Top 40 radio and MTV.
But that was then, and Kim Wilson is all about now. He and the latest incarnation of the T-Birds have created a fresh-yet-familiar record with On The Verge, mixing funk, rock, blues, soul, and even pop elements into the new songs. They have a reputation as a stellar live band, and with their intense touring schedule there’s a good chance they’re playing at your favorite hometown venue tonight.
In addition to a successful solo career as a blues singer and harmonica slinger, Kim records and performs with dozens of rock and blues legends—when he’s not carrying the torch for the Thunderbirds, that is. The jovial Wilson chatted up a storm about the making of On The Verge, his affection for vinyl, and a passion for music that keeps him going 40 years after he began.
It’s been six years since the last Fabulous Thunderbirds album. On the Verge is said to be kind of a departure from the expected blues rock-y stuff you’re known for; I hear R&B and even funk. How would you best describe the sound of the new album?
I think it’s a very diverse record. I think there’s a lot of bluesy stuff, but there is a lot of soul-y kind of R&B. It’s really more Americana. I’m not really a dyed-in-the-wool soul singer, but people seem to think I am on this one. I am just singing along with the tracks and doing it in my own way.
As far as it being a departure, I am not sure that there’s [all] that many expectations, you know, at this stage. I think people are really just wondering what the next one is going to be. That’s just the way it is. You have to be creative in this business to keep it fresh for as long as I have been playing—especially contemporary music. I can play straight blues the rest of my life you know, but that’s not what I desire to do all the time.
I feel like this band has something to say and we have something to say now—in modern times. I think if people take a close listen to it, they’ll hear really great sonic things going on. You won’t hear a lot of guitar soloing, no, that’s not what it’s about. Maybe that’s why people… all I am seeing are great [reviews]. I am seeing it’s a slight departure, but I am also seeing that it’s an evolution. And you don’t really know what the next one is going to be like—it could be totally different. Who knows? We just did the ten best songs we could do and that’s how it came out.
Was there a reason for the length of time between the last two albums? I know you guys tour pretty relentlessly.
Well, we had another record—well, it was really this record, but it was a different version of it—there was some different material on it, but we never released it because I just didn’t feel like it was ready. And thank God I didn’t do it because then we got with David Earl [of Severn Records] and he pointed me and the rest of the band in a great direction and it was a really great session to be involved with; the band was great, of course, and the people involved like Kevin Anker and Steve Gomes and David Earl and myself, we got a lot of stuff done in preparation for this session
I always tell people, you leave a record and down the line you play it a lot, you play the live songs that you played on the record, and all of a sudden those songs start sounding better. I really don’t have this feeling on this record. I don’t have the feeling that I would like to have some of it back. And that’s the best feeling to have.
And the new label (Severn Records) is more attuned to what you were saying about your sound—that you think of it more as Americana—their focus is more on “roots music.” Why do you feel like that’s so important to stay in touch with that sort of element of your music?
Well, that’s the way it’s always been it’s just now we’re actually progressing—because we’ve always been about Americana. I mean, we were doing soul songs back on Tuff Enuff when we did “Wrap it Up,” and we were doing “How Do You Spell Love” before that. You know what I mean?
But I think that there’s a lot of hard work that has come to fruition in these times. I think this is a very good beginning at the very least, for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, hence the title [On The Verge]. I actually titled this one—I can’t believe I titled an album! I’ve never really done title that work. [Laughs]
I think that we’ve always been trying to keep in touch with that whole thing—the mixture of blues, of course, rock and roll, soul—all that different stuff that comes into the Americana category, I suppose. “Americana” is actually a pretty good word for [our sound]; I don’t mind it. “Roots” is also a very good word for it. And you know, there’s some actual kind of pop-y stuff on here though, too, because I have a little bit of that in me too [Laughs] and I’ve been exposed to that music in my past and that’s just the way it came out.
Going back to all the positive reviews you have been getting on this album, a lot of what I have been reading—and from what I’ve heard, too—is that people are saying this is the best they have ever heard you sing. At this point in your life, what does hearing that mean to you?
You know, um…it’s great! [Laughs] Well, I mean, it takes a long time to become a real singer—especially because I have only basically sung black music—African American music, if you will. And as you get older, you’re not supposed to get worse. [Laughs]
They spent a lot of time with me on this record; they got all the preamps right, they didn’t bury the voice in the mix, which is something that was once trendy at one point—probably because they didn’t want to hear it. I’ve always had moments singing, but I think this is a very, very consistent record and it just sounds right. You can thank the whole atmosphere. David Earl really created a great atmosphere for this session; he’s a great guy, it’s a really kind of family label feel. I couldn’t have asked for anything better than hooking up with the guy… I mean, I’ve known him for a while! But a little over a year ago he took me over to Annapolis to look at his studio which was in construction at that time and as we were driving back over to the hotel, I said, “Well, why don’t you just sign me?” [Laughs] and he said, “Okay!” and that was it. There wasn’t a lot of campaigning that needed to be done—the whole thing has been very stress-free. It’s just really good for the artist.
That seems like kind of an aberration in the music industry, to have it be stress-free!
Yeah, it’s something that just doesn’t happen.
Let me ask you this: I was looking to see if On The Verge was going to be released digitally and I didn’t see that it is. [Since this interview, On The Verge is available for download— Ed.] I know it’s being released on CD and it got me to thinking… You know we’re all about vinyl at TVD. Do you feel that the physical format is still important even though digital is the now the norm? Do you feel like there is still a place for and that it is still important to have a tangible album, something you can hold?
Of course! That’s where I come from and I think they plan on putting out a couple of vinyl things, actually. I am not sure about the whole record, but they might put out maybe a couple of singles in vinyl. I can’t remember what the flip sides are going to be. The first one is going to be “I Want To Believe,” and the second one is going to be “Lovin’ Time,” and I think “Too Much Water” is going to be the b-side of one of them. I’m not sure about the other one.
But yeah, I love the sound of analog. When I do my blues records, I usually go straight to analog; lots of times, analog mono. At the very least, I will mix it to mono because that is really the way that kind of music sounds great. This is a little different story and it is a more modern recording; it’s out there to compete with the other modern recordings. There is a lot of room on every instrument in here, so that’s a good thing—it’s not like it was done by machines. But, yeah, I’ll be happy when digital recordings sound more and more analog, obviously. And I think this one actually kind of accomplishes that. It is a pretty natural-sounding record.
The thing about digital is, of course, it’s a whole different configuration sonically than analog, as far as the whole stairstep deal than the way the curves go. I think they are getting better and better and they are using a lot of vintage gear when they are recording to digital, so that helps. And this was actually mastered to analog—recorded digitally and then mastered to analog. So, that’s why it sounds as good as it does. That’s why it has that punch to it.
David Earl is very hip to all this stuff. He’s a very hardworking guy. In fact, I had to tell him to slow down a little bit on this thing because he was so excited about it and he would just stay in the studio for many hours doing all these different things. Once he gets something in his mind, he’s one of those guys. And he is very hip to all of the analog stuff that came out in the past, of course, and he is a musician himself, so it just all kind of blends into one cool thing.
That’s awesome. I mean, how neat to have that kind of an experience. And it sounds to me like you probably still have a record collection.
Oh yeah! I’ve got probably 50,000 songs in my computer.
I am bringing this iPad with me out [on the road] now. I’ve got thirty gigs in that! I keep myself surrounded with almost all analog music—that’s what I listen to, I don’t really listen to too much modern. Obviously, I got exposed to [analog music] a lot more before the radio went crazy… I mean you can’t just turn on the radio and hear something you want to hear. You just can’t do it anymore. But now of course, all the internet stations and Bill Wax over there at Sirius—he’s a good friend of mine—even though they have to play some of the more modern music there, they will play [other stuff]. I keep trying to tell him to hire me over there so I can give him a complete low-down, all-analog show over at Sirius Radio and not be obligated to play something modern.
Didn’t they try that on XM’s Deep Tracks—where they tried to hand mix the vinyl for a while?
I don’t know. I’d be playing blues though. Blues and soul. And then some rock and roll. I’d be pretty specialized in what I did; I wouldn’t be just playing vinyl of anything. But I will tell you, if you listen to some of the stuff that was done by Led Zeppelin back in the day or The Beatles, The Rolling Stones—that stuff really stands up sonically. It is really beautiful-sounding, as far as contemporary music goes. Although, I go way further in the past than that. I go back to the scratchy stuff.
Back to 78s?
Yeah, but I don’t own any 78s. But I’ll tell you what—I own a lot of albums and I don’t get to listen to them as much as I want because I am always on the road and out doing something. I like to stay busy and active. That is one beautiful thing about the digital format is you can carry it in your pockets. I used to carry a case of I don’t know how many cassette tapes, like a big giant bag of cassette tapes wherever I went. And that was a real hassle. Then I started taking CDs with me. But I knew the day was going to come when you could get it all on a little tiny thing and play movies on it too [Laughs]. And play games!
I’m like a kid in a candy store when it comes to some of the digital technology, but as far as digital sound goes, you’ve really got to watch it. And I see people are taking more time to get the analog sound out of digital recording these days. And like I said, we did master this [album] through analog; I think it was one-inch tape. I wasn’t really there when [David] mastered it, but he showed me what he was going to do. And that’s really cool.
I’ve done a lot of my blues recordings straight to analog and I did a blues session quite a while ago straight to mono, and that was a very cool thing. No mixing at all. Zero. Just like the old days. But you’ve got to be able to play a song all the way through. [Laughs]
Yeah, that is a challenge a lot of people don’t think about.
It’s a challenge that everybody could to do quite a while ago, but not very many people can do it now! As far as playing real music. Well, I’m not going to get into that. [Laughs]
All I can tell you is I am still having a great time with it and I’m just moving on day after day, with each project trying to make things better. My whole object is to be one of the guys that I worshiped and played with my whole life, people like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, BB King, Buddy Guy, James Cotton—who I was just on the road with, actually— and all these great people I’ve worked with before and they’ve been like my family. That’s what I want to be in my own mind at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter what they say about me now. They could say I’m already there. I don’t believe that’s true, although I do believe I’ve made a lot of progress and I’ve made some great records over the years, but I’ve really just started getting it recently and especially when it comes to this contemporary stuff.
That was always a challenge for me and I was kind of challenged by the world to go in that direction as far as whether I could do it or not. I was always a blues guy and still am, really, but I’m able to throw all the juice of that old music into what I do in a contemporary fashion and that’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to be…
True to yourself?
Well, it wasn’t easy to be true to yourself not too long ago, I mean, when you are on a major label and they are telling you to do all this stuff. Tuff Enuff was kind of a one-time thing and then all of a sudden you have to keep doing that. And I’m going, “I don’t do that! That’s not what I do! I don’t do that ever. I do a different record every time. I do a different style of music every time. I don’t know what is going to come out.”
And that is why I love to play music because I like to get creative with it and push the envelope a little bit. Even when I am playing traditional music I like to do that. So, in this day in age, you can say, “Well, the majors aren’t really doing what they used to do…” But we are way more in control of our own destiny and way more in control of our own creativity. Not everybody could be on the level that Michael Jackson and people like that were… they were able to be very, very creative; even though it was still pop music, it was still pretty cool. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles… a bunch of people back in the ‘60s were [making cool pop music as well].
And it’s amazing how young they were when they were doing it, too. Robert Plant was, I think, 19 when Led Zeppelin got started.
Yeah. And he just got better and better. Like I say, you are not supposed to get worse as you get older. The traditional idea of pop music is that when you’re 30 you’re done—or even younger! And if you’re not really playing something, not really playing an instrument, you’re not really a genuine musician, it’s gonna happen—you are gonna be done. By the time you get to be 25, you’d better know how to play.
It is a very satisfying thing, I gotta tell ya. [Laughs] I see kids out there experimenting with a lot of stuff and I’m not really hearing much on the radio—I don’t really know that many of the young players, but I hear instances of kids getting out there and at least trying to push it, trying to do things differently. This whole acoustic guitar and violin and stuff like that, you know, modern music—that’s a step in the right direction. I think that maybe the “era of the player” will come back.
Let me ask you this Kim—there were a lot of questions I was meaning to ask, but you actually already answered a bunch of them because of your enthusiasm and the way that you…
Because I’m just rambling on? [Laughs]
No, no, no! I did not mean that! [Laughs] What I mean is, you’ve talked about how you constantly want to be creating and constantly want to be doing new things and you want every record to sound different. You keep moving and growing and I think the tendency is to maybe ask questions like, “Well, what’s the best thing that you think you have done musically?” But I would like to know, since you definitely seem to be of this mind, what is the biggest adventure that you have not yet undertaken that you want to undertake?
Well, if I knew that, I could tell ya! [Laughs] That’s just out there somewhere for me to grab onto when the time comes. I have no idea what that is. I am a very spontaneous person. Everything I do is improvised; my whole life is improvised. And it’s not boring, which is really cool.
I can’t really tell you what the next project is going to be, I mean Mark Knopfler called me this last year just out of the blue and we made some great music together with a great, great, great bunch of musicians over there in England. He brought me over there to record with him and I was really thrilled with that session. I mean, I’ve been on hundreds of records and so it is hard to figure out… I would REALLY like to work with Raphael Saadiq in a serious studio. I did a little bit with him on Austin City Limits within this last year.
I’ve played with Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, Kid Rock, Paul Simon… I mean, I’ve been on a bunch of records and so there’s really not very much else that I could think of. I really just want become musically free.
I think David Earl and these guys in the Thunderbirds have enabled me to do that. I also have my other thing that I do which we call the “Kim Wilson Blues All-Stars,” for lack of anything better to call it. I think it should just be the “Kim Wilson Blues Band” at this point. But that is a whole other great thing. That bunch is actually signed with David Earl as well, so we’ll be doing something like that as soon as we see this T-Bird thing through. I usually work that in during the wintertime when the T-Birds aren’t working. And that is a really cool thing, I mean, that is the last place where you hear that kind of music for real in that way. I’m looking forward to doing something with them as well.
But life is short and you have to do things now. You can’t wait. I made the mistake of waiting in the past on several things that I should have just gone for and done what I wanted to do. But I think that now I have a free hand to do just about anything that I want to do and that is going to be interesting.
You are imminently quotable and not only that, on a personal note, that was a really timely thing to hear. This is cool and I have enjoyed getting to explore your new music. From I have heard so far, I can say it was not what I expected.
It is pushing the envelope all the time—that’s what you do. It is exciting to get better at what you do and keep getting better as you get older. I’ve been trying to improve myself for a long, long time. There was a time in the past when I kind of stagnated so I went straight to the blues thing and started doing that and that really creatively brought me through those times. Now, as Junior Watson would say, “Let the dogs run!” [Laughs]
I’m very excited about the music, and that’s the whole thing. Because I have all the best players. See, people don’t understand—I am very lucky in that. I’ve had all these great players come through this band over the years; most of the time it didn’t work out because even if they are world-class players, sometimes they just don’t gel with each other or they change and they want to do something else. So be it, that’s fine. What I am now interested in are guys who are interested in changing with me and I’m changing with them. That’s what I’m all about. And that is a very important thing.
Yeah, that’s life right there.
And there is no egotism going on here—maybe except for me. [Laughs] Having an ego is kind of just… you can have it, but you have to learn how to play, I suppose. And if you really want to get great at playing music, it kind of has to go away otherwise you are not going to have the longevity; otherwise you are not going to keep improving. If you are so full of yourself that you think you’ve already got it, that’s when it’s over. I learned that a long, long time ago.