Thirty-seven years into his career as the only original member left standing in The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kim Wilson and his band have put out On The Verge, a soul/R&B CD that is about as far away from the Texas blues of Tuff Enuff as you can get. He has no partners in the band. The rest of the members are “employees,” and he keeps them on their toes by calling out songs on stage that they’ve never played before.
Kim also refuses to call what he does a career. “I have a job,” he says. “A career is just a lie, okay? You’re trying to make yourself larger than life. When you have a job, your talent is what makes you larger than life.”
He founded the Thunderbirds in Austin in 1976 with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother Jimmie. They broke into the mainstream in 1986 with the crossover hits “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up.”
His current band consists of Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller on guitars, bass player Randy Bermudes and drummer Jason Moeller. In March the band released On The Verge, their first for Severn Records, the label that positions itself as “roots music for the 21st century” and includes on its roster some of my personal favorites like The Nighthawks, Nora Jean Bruso and Darrell Nulisch. The CD in general sounds more like a Malaco deep southern soul group than a band of blues guys from Austin. The standout feature remains Kim’s writing, harp playing and rough hewn vocals.
Widely known as a great touring band regardless of the many personnel changes, the new band is perhaps the most solid yet. Certainly, they’re a great showcase for Kim’s vocals and harp playing.
Don Wilcock: This is a decided new direction for you. I wondered how that evolved and what kind of thought process you went through to do this album.
Kim Wilson: Well, it’s not that new a direction actually. I mean I’ve been messing with this kind of stuff my whole life really. The thing is I finally got the people who could do it for me including (co-producer and label executive) David Earl over there at Severn.
I’ve always had world class people in my band of course, but it’s how they work together, and it’s how predictable they become. You don’t know a person until you live with them, and I wanted to be able to go in a different direction. Obviously more contemporary or what I felt was contemporary these days, you know?
Who knows what that is, but I felt like these guys, this whole team of people could get me there, and they were able to do it. Lots of times you get people who are really good blues players, but they can’t go on the other side or vice versa. And it’s a problem to find someone who can do it all. These guys really can. I’ve been very, very impressed with them.
We’ve been together now about five years, and they’ve been really creative. They have their own voices. They’re not knocking other things off. That’s something at this stage in my life that I have to have. You have to have your own voice with whatever music that you play. I think it’s very important and the creativity part, you know? It’s very, very important.
So I’ve got these four guys over here at Severn, not the band, who I worked a lot of things with before the band actually got to the studio. Kevin Anker on the organ, Steve Gomes and David Earl and myself, and we got a lot of arrangemental (sic.) things happening. We’ve got several songs written, and it was a cool thing and all they had to worry about was just playing their part.
You didn’t have to worry about the arrangements. That was a key in this, I think, the key to keep it very stress free for me, but it’s really just part of what I am, though I don’t know what you call it really. People call it soul r&b. I don’t really think that’s – it’s kinda my own version of that I guess, and I’ve – it was really stress free for me to do in that studio. So it’s a good start, a very good start.
Did the signing of the Nighthawks by Severn influence you to go there?
No! No, no, I had no idea they were there. I knew that Tad Robison and Lou Pride. God, he was great, too, but and then we had those guys, and then we had Darrell Nulisch, and then we had Sugar Ray (Norcia). But really it was my relationship with David, and I really wasn’t that concerned about who else was on the label. I was just concerned about being able to facilitate what I needed to be done, and he’s just a workaholic and he really believed in the band. He believed in the concept, and we’d already kinda taken a step toward that. So what better guy to do it than him?
Is there significance to the title On The Verge?
A lot of people ask me that, and yes, there is. It’s just something I believe. I believe this band is on the verge of doing something bigger. I think we have a lot of potential here. I’m just learning how to do it.
Oh, yeah. It seems you always say that. I’ve interviewed you over 40 years, and you’re always in that spot. What changed that has you saying that right now than where you were in say 1999 or when you had “Tuff Enuff” on the charts?
Well, Tuff Enuff I really didn’t know anything. I made a few of those bluesy kind of records on Chrysalis, right, and Takoma, and then we had the big hit record, but I just don’t feel I had myself totally together at that time. Of course in ’88 I stopped drinking. Now, that really helped me get on this thing where I really started learning stuff.
Luckily up until that time I’ve been on the bandstand so much that I kinda had chops, but I really hadn’t taken it to the next level, and it’s taken me a long time as far as my singing, as far as my harmonica playing, as far as my writing. It’s taken me a long time to really define it and really get it right and really be comfortable in my own skin. This kind of music is not something for kids. It’s not. The music is for kids, but the ability is something that you learn over the years, and it takes a long, long, long time, especially for a guy like me, you know.
On so many of those songs you have two up to four different people as co-writers and you’re listed usually as the last one. What was your contribution on these vs. the obvious when you’re writing the whole song yourself?
That’s just because it was in alphabetical order. That’s the only reason I’m the last one.
Some of them we did write on the spot. Some of them I came in with a lot of the lyrics, and some of them we buffed out where it’s part of what I had. If someone comes in with a really cool, pivotal arrangemental thing, I’m gonna give ’em some publishing.
If someone comes in with something I can’t live without on a song, a melodic thing, whatever it is and we did it from the ground floor, the problem with this record is there were songs that I’d come in with already, and it was up to me to play it the way I wanted to play it as far as the business end of it. And the only way to do it and have a good working relationship with people is to spread it around a little bit, and that’s all I’ve got. How much money do you make on songwriting these days? Well, if it goes commercial, great. If you sell 50 to 100,000 copies, there’s not that much money to be made on that, but –
Wait a minute. In this day and age, are you telling me you’re selling 50 to 100,000 albums?
No, not yet. [hearty laugh] I’m saying if that happens, you know? But you know in fact I don’t even know what the sales are at this point, but if you did sell 50 to 100,000 copies, you still wouldn’t be making very much money on that is what I’m saying, and I think it’s really not about making money anyway. It’s about getting the songs out there as good as you can get ’em, and if you can’t do that, you’re not gonna make money anyway.
So, when the guys come in and I have a song let’s say and they’re like, “Well, we’re not really crazy about this approach. Let’s bag that and do this,” or “I like this. I want to interject this version there as opposed to what you have or whatever is going to buff it out to where we’re all happy with it.” They’re not happy with it. You’re gonna get credit for that. They’re not gonna just – oh, he wrote one version. He’s got that one cool change in there, or you think you wrote something that really you changed the melody of it or whatever. So you’re gonna give credit where credit is due.
What’s happened to you in your career that’s led you to that way of thinking because most veterans I’ve talked to have been fucked so many times that they’re ready to fuck back.
Well, yeah, I’ve never been fucked as far as songwriting goes. I’ve always been pretty much the curator of that museum, but I think where you get fucked is, you know, is signing the contract in the first place as far as what you’re going to get out of it royalty-wise.
You sign with a major label. You’re brand new artists. It’s a deal breaker if you don’t do it the way they tell you to do it. So you do it, but as far as songwriting goes, when I signed with CBS, I told them I’ve already got a deal so you can’t do that one to me, but I write a song that I think that’s a hit, I know from experience now you’re gonna have to give up half of the original track if they use the original tracks. So I just rerecord it, and that takes the record company out that completely. I rerecord it exactly like the old one if I’m gonna sell it. I have these ready so I don’t have to pay a lot of money back to the label. There’s certain tricks you learn as you get older.
That’s a good one. Give me another one.
I’ve got to think about it. As far as working with people, you’ve got to realize something here that it’s so difficult to find people that can work with you. You just keep going until you gotta be a little bit brutal about it. I used to have a conscience as far as people went, and I still do ’cause I had a few people way longer than I should have had ’em, but ’cause they had families or whatever I knew they had no place to go.
Once again, once you get older, it really becomes more and more and more about you. How much longer do I have to do this? I’ve still got a lot to say here. I can just say it the way I need to say it, and it really becomes you, you, you because you’re working with all these younger people. The older people are not gonna get it for ya. I can do that in the blues band, yeah. I can’t do it when I want to create contemporary music and variations of Americana that this band and only this band does.
Are you saying that you’re better able to stay young than the people you hire for your band, and if so what makes you so much better than they are at staying contemporary?
Well, as far as older people?
Well, people get set in their ways. They change musically. They get hard headed. That’s one reason you can’t have partners anymore. You really have to have employees, and you just can’t have partners. You can’t bounce things off people that have (stilted) musical tastes, have egos involved in it. There’s a lot of different factors that come into play, and I think that –
So do you employ the members of the T-Birds?
I do. I have for a long time. I have for a long time. It’s been that way for over 20 years.
Maybe like 25 years, yeah. But it’s not like these guys don’t get to say anything, or they don’t have my number or anything. I hang out with them, but I’m the responsible party, and there’s very little that I have to tell them at all.
Some of these guys have done pretty well, too. I look at your list: Jimmie Vaughan, Duke Robillard, Duke “Kid” Bangham, Kid Ramos, Kirk Fletcher, Rich Curran. You’re almost the John Mayall of American blues music.
Well, I don’t know about that, and I don’t even know how well they’re doing, but however –
Let’s put it this way. They’re high enough profile in the blues community that they have a career.
Right. Right. And they’re all great players.
But like I say, how they work with each other and what their career desires are and all that stuff? See, I don’t have a career anymore. I have a job. This is a job for me, okay? But it’s a job that I love. A career is just a lie, okay? As you’re pumping yourself up to be – somebody’s trying to make you larger than life. You’re trying to make yourself larger than life.
When you have a job, your talent is what makes you larger than life. A career is just a lie, okay? As you’re pumping yourself up to be – somebody’s trying to make you larger than life. You’re trying to make yourself larger than life. When you have a job, your talent is what makes you larger than life. That’s why I’m just learning things now. Do you see what I mean? I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m comfortable in my own skin, and I’m still a work in progress.
I empathize with that. I feel that way as a journalist, too.
Sure. Any kind of – that takes skill. You can love to do it. It’s still a job, okay? A career is a lie. A career is your lying to your employer about what you’ve done, where you think you should go. Everything is really throwing a glitz over the job part of it.
You like it. I like what I do so much I don’t have to do that. And I think it’s a cool thing to have a job that you love of course.
So, do you think at all about the fact that you do better live than you do on record and are you trying to change that?
I don’t know. I think this record has changed that although you’re always gonna be better live.
You are more successful monetarily with live touring than you are with record sales.
Yeah, I would say especially from the ’90s on of course. I don’t know anybody else who wouldn’t say that. Record sales are a thing of the past.
You can sell 50 to 100,000 records. A hundred thousand records is like a platinum record now –
I know. I hear ya.
KW: And 50,000 is gold probably.
If not 25, but I can’t recall the question you just asked me, but, no, I’m not saying I do better selling records. No, I don’t. Recordings have always been a promotional tool, okay? If you’re looking to sell some, great, but it really kinda keeps you going. You gotta create a buzz with a record at least. That’s what it’s all about, now, creating a buzz as opposed to selling anything. You’re not gonna make any money off a record unless one of the songs gets on a commercial or a series of commercials or whatever or it gets on a bunch of movies. Or a lot of things happen to a song or two or three in a year or within five years. That’s just the way it is these days.
I don’t even know what happens in real pop music. That doesn’t even equate to my lifestyle. Know what I mean? I mean hopefully, I can get in between there somewhere. I’m talking about the really major, major record selling people who a lot of them are just children, but I think that if you can get a large – of course I want to sell to as many people as I can sell to obviously, but if you can end up realistically with a large almost like a clique, a club of people maybe even in the millions.
Who know? But that’s all you’re really looking for. You can do 25 to 50, 100,000, whatever it is. I’m not putting a ceiling on it at all because I think this record here could do a lot of records. I really do. I think it’s that good. I think it’s the best record that this band has ever put out hands down, especially sonically.
When you say this band, do you mean this lineup?
No, the band, period.
How does this band here compare with your past efforts live? You’re pretty good at describing –
They’re great. A lot of energy. It’s – they’re great. They’re a great band, a great band, and I’m really, really happy.
So, you said there were a couple songs you couldn’t do off of some of the albums. Do you do a lot of classic stuff?
Well, I have to do some classic stuff because we get complaints if we don’t. I’d rather not do any of it really, but you’re gonna get “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up” in there. You’re gonna get stuff off the Takoma record as well, but you’re also gonna get a lot of the new stuff, too, and every set is just called off. I don’t have a list. I just call it off, but a lot of stuff off the new record. Some classic stuff. You probably gonna get one or two that these guys haven’t even heard before. I’m just gonna start playin’ ’em ‘cause that’s what I like to do. I like that kind of spontaneity, you know.
You’re actually going to call off a song that your band hasn’t played before?
Sure. I do it pretty often.
Wow, you like to dance without a net, huh?
It’s not like you’re pushed and you’re down the expert slope and you’re just starting and you’re gonna kill yourself. Listen, if there’s any blues out there that – there’s not a blues out there that you can’t call – that people shouldn’t know some semblance of, you know what I mean? But a lot of times I’ll just start it because I don’t even want them to get in a pre-concept of what the original version of the song was ’cause that’s not where I go either. So I think you gotta make it interesting for yourself, right? No one knows I’m doing that.
Well, now they’re going to ’cause I’m gonna write about it.
That’s alright, You can write about it, but it’s good. People are finally realizing, “Oh, you didn’t do that the last time you came here.”
I think that’s one of the cool things about getting old is that after a while you just don’t worry about that anymore. You just have fun. You just enjoy.
KW: Yeah, it’s all about being comfortable in your own skin. It’s all about also just making it exciting. It’s not gonna be exciting if you know where you’re going, and you know where you’ve been. If I knew what I did after I did it, I probably wouldn’t be playing anymore ’cause everything I do is just an improvise. (sic.) Even melodically on a hit song I’m not gonna do it exactly like the record, I’m not gonna do it exactly like the night before.
You know because that’s how a musician lives. A musician is someone who keeps learning as he goes constantly. A musician is someone who just lets it fly as opposed to knowing every little note, knowing every little thing that you do. That means you know every little thing you did after you did it. How frustrating is that? That’s not happening, man. You can compare it to jazz. That’s not what it is. Blues is the same way as soul. I don’t know any soul singer who sang it exactly alike. Sure, melodically they might have come out with the key melody line of the hook, maybe, but everything else is totally improvised. They’re just winging it, and that’s second nature. It’s gotta be second nature.