Tucked away in many cellars the globe over, with yet countless more to discover and many lost in time or destroyed by fire, the bedroom artists march onward with their undiluted visions of music. Not swayed by a producers hand, not partial to an edit here or there, focused solely on what they want to achieve, they lay in wait and hope that one day the world notices what they have accomplished. Sometimes the efforts are swept under a rug and never see the light of day, other times a more commercially accepted artist gets wind of the music and champions its cause, propelling it to the forefront of popular entertainments promotive possibilities.
Here in that sea of chaos the purity of the music is once again undiminished. These are not songs recorded by the worlds greatest producers, using mics and equipment worth millions, listened to through someone else’s biased considerations and taken apart molecule by molecule. The songs of Gary Wilson were cut in his basement, as a teenager, using trial and error and the greatest of restraint. He knew his sound, he understood his genre and he created one of the best albums of the 70s in the critically acclaimed (much later on) “You Think You Really Know Me”. With a slow rediscovery of his music in the early 2000’s Gary has begun playing live again, limiting his time in Europe due to a dislike of flying, and Bad Sounds caught up with him just after returning home to the States after a European Tour.
The craze with so-called “bedroom artists” has hit it’s boiling point in recent years, but the truth of the matter is that people like yourself, and R. Stevie Moore, etc were creating songs in basements or bedrooms back in the 60s and 70s. How difficult was the process of learning to record, setting up instruments, drum-machines, mixing etc.
GW: I started recording in my basement when I was 12 years old (1966). My older brother had a successful paper route and bought a mono reel to reel Wollensak Tape recorder. I started making demos and tape loops. I would often borrow my friend’s Ampex stereo tape recorder to do sound on sound transfers to increase my track ability. I was playing in a band at the time (Lourde Fuzz) so I had a few instruments to work with. I made many tapes and demos during that time with limited equipment. I was always striving for good quality and considered my self an ‘amateur” audiovile. I would hang out at the stereo stores and talk audio with the sales clerks. Macintosh Audio is in Binghamton, NY. About 10 miles from where I grew up. A lot of my friends had Macintosh equipment.
Did you have any help or just figured it all out by trial and error?
GW: I had to figure it out by myself. As i mentioned, I started recording when I was 12 years old. As I grew up, I learned more and more about recording and audio. I always preferred working by myself.
What did you use to record your first album?
GW: If you are talking about “You Think You Really Know Me” (1977) I used a Teac 2340 four channel reel to reel, a Tapco mono mixer (with reverb), two microphones (Shure SM-57 and an Electro Voice RE-10) and a Teac 2300 reel to reel for mix-down. I had a Ludwig drum set, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Fender Jazz Bass, a Farfisa Combo Compact, a Fender 1958 Music-master electric guitar, a Roland and an Arp mono synthesiser. My parents cellar had the worst acoustic conditions to record in. I tried my best to work with what I had.
Which artists or bands of the New York avant-garde inspired you to start making music yourself?
GW: My first inspiration was Dion and the Belmonts (I was 10 years old). The Beatles came to America when I was 11 years old. They had a major impact on the youth. During that time (the mid 1960s) there were young garage bands all over, some working some not. At 13 years (1966-1968) old I was playing Farfisa organ with a working rock band called Lourde Fuzz. I was also playing string bass and cello in our school chamber orchestra. I started to listen to modern classical composers like John Cage, Earl Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolf. This led me to composing experimental music for our school chamber orchestra. At 15 years old, I was able to get some of my music to John Cage. Mr. Cage invited me to his house to go over my music scores. I spent three days with John Cage at his house. Each day my mother would drive me from Endicott, NY to John Cage’s house in Haverstraw, NY. The first day my mother and I became lost in the wooded area that surrounds Haverstraw. I called John Cage from the local grocery store and Mr. Cage drove his car to where my mother and I were, and drove me to his house. It was interesting making small talk with John Cage as he drove me to his house. I also would go to NYC to see people like Don Cherry, Keith Jarrett, Roland Kirk, Pharaoh Sanders, Herbie Hancock, The NY Dolls, The Fugs, The Mothers, Captain Beefheart. I remember seeing Iggy and The Stooges at Max’s Kansas City (NYC) around 1972. I also was into avant-garde art and theatre.
Moving to the west coast, was that a case of pack-up your things, get in your car and drive down there with open possibilities? Tell us why you decided to relocate?
GW: I didn’t intend on staying in California. I made some contacts with some A&R people in Los Angeles so I thought I would try to get them interested in releasing “You Think You really Know Me”. I made the rounds in New York with no results so I decided to give LA a try. This was in 1978. Some of the Blind Dates (my backup band) had previously moved from Endicott, New York to San Diego, California and had a practice house all set up. They booked some gigs in San Diego so I moved on down to San Diego from Los Angeles. I like to say I’ve been on an extended vacation.
Tell us a little about your early live shows, they sounded pretty theatrical with fake blood and flour. Did the venue reps used to cut the power to try and force you off stage?
GW: Yes, that happened quite a bit in the early years. It was either the club owners hated my band and/or the audience wanted to kill us. We had to have a few police escorts out of the venues because the audience wanted to beat us up. It’s funny, I recently did a show with Ariel Pink and Tame Impala at the Echo in Los Angeles. My show turned wild with the band rolling around on the stage and throwing flour and paint on me. As I laid on the floor I could hear someone yelling at me. It was the sound man screaming “cut it, Cut it”. This in turn made my band (The Blind Dates) even more wild and the club pulled the plug on us. Brought back fond memories.
You’ve had shout-outs from such popular artists as Beck, and in the early days received support from The Residents. Did you ever collaborate with these artists? Did those recommendations help spur you on despite facing tough resistance in your early career?
GW: It’s funny. Motel Records told me about the Gary Wilson shout out in “Where It’s At” in 2002. Five years after Beck’s release of “Where It’s At” on Odelay. I didn’t know my name was in that song. Sure, it helps when others talk about my music. I do not collaborate with other people that much. I like to work alone most of the time.
“You Think You Really Know Me” is now considered a cult album by many, but what was the impact of it when the album was actually released? How did you deal with the seemingly inexplicable lack of appreciation for it?
GW: I self released the album in 1977 after working on it for about 6 months. I sent the album out to ‘underground’ radio stations and magazines. I had an agent in New York (Seth Greenky) who was pitching the album to the labels. The A&R people all seemed to like the album but didn’t know how to market it. I couldn’t figure that out. I enclosed a large poster of me in the cellar along with the album. The poster ended up hanging on the wall of the CEO of one of the largest record labels in New York. Strange, they liked the album but didn’t know how to market it. Releasing the album in 1977 I decided to get some gigs in New York. One day in 1977 I waited for hours for Hilly Kristal (owner of CBGB’s) to show up at CBGB’s so that I could give him a copy of my album. He looked at it and said he would give it a listen. I called him back a few weeks later and he proceeded to book me into the club. My last show at CBGB’s was in 1979. Some of the hard cord punk bands would yell at me when my band would drag out a Fender Rhodes electric piano.
On “You Think You Really Know Me”, some of the songs were cut in a studio but you were not content with the outcome. Were all the songs re-recorded for the album?
GW: In 1976 I sent some home made demos of “You Think You Really Know Me” to a music publisher in Woodstock, NY. He then turned the demos on to singer songwriter Robbie Dupree (“Let’s Slip Away”) and Bearsville Studios engineer Tom Mark. Robbie and Tom decided they would produce “You Think You Really Know Me” and record it at Bearsville Studios. I borrowed my parents car and drove from Endicott, NY to Woodstock, NY. We spent three days in the studios recording “6.4=Make-out”, “Lose Control”, “Chromium Bitch” and “Groovy Girls”. I went back home and we were going to resume recording the album but Robbie Dupree’s career took off and we never finished the project. I decided I would record the whole album in my home studio since I already recorded the demos. I spent many long hours working on that album. Yes, I recorded the whole album in my home studio. Never used the Woodstock tapes.
Beck, Sub Pop and Motel Records all had a hand in your resurgence as an artist. Could you tell us a little about how all those elements combined to bring you back from your hibernation?
GW: I still remember seeing the end of the 1997 MTV Video Music awards while getting ready to catch the bus to my midnight shift job at the video store. I was feeling a little depressed at the time. Beck won a lot of awards that night for his album “Odelay”. As he was departing the award ceremony he was interviewed outside the venue. Next thing Beck’s quoting my song “6.4=Make-out” and “I Wanna Lose Control”. It was surreal. Next thing some people who owned some radio stations in Olympia and Seattle came down to San Diego. They had been to a Beck concert and he was playing “6.4=Make-out”. They thought it was a good idea to reissue my album “YTYRKM”. Nothing came of it till 2001 when I was contacted (at the video store) by Motel Records in New York. They wanted to reissue “You Think You Really Know Me”. Thinking nothing would come of this after so many years of rejection I agreed to the reissue. Motel re-released the record in 2002. Neil Strauss from the NY Times flew to San Diego and interviewed me for a feature story in the NY Times. Everything exploded at that time. Next thing I had reporters from all the major papers coming to my small apartment in San Diego and interviewing me for feature stories. A film maker and screen writer (Michael Wolk) jumped on the bandwagon and decided he was going to make a Gary Wilson documentary. Mostly the story was how I was discovered 25 years after self releasing my album. It was a magical time.
How has it been to return to the live stage after so many years in exile?
GW: It’s quite exciting. After so many years of clubs pulling the plug on us and rejection from the audience it’s refreshing to see the turnaround. I am very happy things have worked out the way they have.
What have been some of your fondest memories after returning to actively pursue music?
GW: There have been many including my first return gig at Joe’s Pub in NY back in 2002. One moment stands out. The Michael Wolk documentary “You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story” premiered in New York at Lincoln Centre. I was invited to the showing. The place was sold out and I watched my life unfold on a state of the art movie screen and sound system. It brought a few tears to my eyes as I hid in the back of the theatre, watching my life story unfold on the silver screen.
Are extensive tours a feature to come or do you intent to stay rather grounded and record and release albums without having to travel the world touring them?
GW: I just returned from a European tour (May, 2013) where I played in eight different countries. One night in Gent, Belgium I had a room across the street from a 1,000 year old church. I’m not crazy about flying so I perform here and there. I will continue working in my home studio.
Do you have any new music in the works?
GW: I am finishing up a new album tentatively called “Alone With Gary Wilson”.
Thank you so much for your time!
GW: It’s been good talking to you.