Beck and Earl Sweatshirt Both Adore Gary Wilson. So When's This Guy Gonna Get His Due?
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In 1977, Gary Wilson recorded a strange lo-fi classic album in the basement of his home in Endicott, New York. You Think You Really Know Me used bizarre synthesizers and sound effects; it was electro-funk new wave before new wave existed.
Over the years, the album achieved cult status, and even Beck referenced Wilson in the lyrics to his 1996 single, “Where It's At.” But, for a while there, mainstream adulation mostly evaded Wilson.
Only in 2003, as Wilson worked a minimum wage job in San Diego, was his seminal album finally reissued. The following year, Stones Throw Records released his Peanut Butter Wolf-produced Mary Had Brown Hair. And now, following the release of his seventh album in September and an EP of old material that came the following month, Wilson will play his first ever Dallas show.
In advance of that Double Wide gig slated for on Saturday, December 12, we caught up with Wilson to take about his career path. The story is typically that Wilson released an album in 1977, disappeared and then resurfaced decades later.
But there's much more to it.
You perform on stage with a group of mannequins who have assumed the personalities of your former girlfriends. How many mannequins do you have at this point?
Well, you go through some and you don't go through some. I've been using heads recently. I had about six of those, but there's only one or two left. You grab what's available, maybe a mattress. Some days before our shows, we go out garbage-picking and pick up old TV sets and bales of hay.
Is your sound and lyrical content completely sincere or is it tongue-in-cheek in any way?
Most of my stories involve my first girlfriends — some were long-term and others were a day or a night. So, yeah, it's about how I grew up and what was around me.
You just released an EP of early recordings, Music for Piano.
I made that probably when I was 18. I had just got out of high school and John Cage was my hero growing up. One of my favorite piano players was David Tudor, and he would tackle the most avant-garde stuff. He was a big influence in some ways. There were certain compositions I would listen to in the shower in high school and junior high. He would do the music of composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman. I was in the school orchestra, wrote music and had a chamber group of musicians I recorded with. You can actually hear us demolishing a piano.
How did you meet John Cage?
I found his phone number in the New York City telephone book, strangely enough. I wrote him and he asked me to send him some of my music. I followed up with a phone call and he invited me to his house. I was 14. My mom had to drive me and we got lost. I had to call Mr. Cage from a tiny general store and he came and picked me up. I was in the car with John Cage, making small talk. Then we went to his house and went over my music. He had this community of avant-garde people.
Did you visit John Cage more than once?
Yes. His place was very sparse. I remember there was a fly, and he didn’t want to kill it. He was into Buddhism. He was a mushroom man, too. A very respected mushroom hunter. When I met David Tudor, he was working in a community garden. They were doing music with Merce Cunningham. I actually got to see a show with John Cage when he was working with David Tudor and Merce Cunningham.
Alone With Gary Wilson is your new album. Is that your focus for this tour?
My normal concert uses You Think You Really Know Me as the foundation of the show. Then I throw in newer songs within that, and it becomes a full-blown modern production. You’ll hear my greatest hits. [Laughs.]
Another big influence on your music is obviously The Beatles. What do you remember about seeing them at Shea Stadium?
I was in third or fourth grade. I was into Dion, Fabian and Bobby Rydell. Teen idols had a big influence on me in grammar school. Then the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan when I was in sixth grade. Then, in seventh grade, I got to see them. There was an excursion to New York City that went to the World's Fair along with a Beatles ticket. It was insane, deafening; sixty or seventy thousand people screaming and the lights popping. I could hardly see them. I tried to take pictures of them. After that, all these garage bands popped up.
You played in a garage band growing up, I know. You also performed at CBGB's. What do you remember about that?
I first played there in 1977, when You Think You Really Know Me came out. I got my first review in Variety. The last show I played there was in 1979. We were shopping the album around and my manager was Screamin' Jay Hawkins' manager. It took me some time to find out who Gary Wilson was. I have that part, and then I have another part. When I got out of high school, I started playing with Peggy Lee's piano player. It's a good balance and I still do that. Nobody knows about the other side of Gary Wilson. I sing Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole.
Wait, are you talking about a regular gig?
Well, yeah. We had about a 12-year gig at one restaurant doing the standards. That’s another side of me. My dad did that. He worked in a lounge for like 20 years, working three or four nights a week playing stand-up bass.
That explains a lot about how your sound came together, what with the influences of your father's lounge music, John Cage, those teen singers and the Beatles.
And then you add the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. I got to meet Captain Beefheart and gave him a demo. This was before You Think You Really Know Me. It was in Ithaca. I asked him for a reed from his soprano saxophone. He didn't tour much and I was fortunate to see him in his early days when he was still doing Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
Why did you move to California?
I went to Los Angeles. I made a few contacts with Warner Bros. and Elektra. I thought I could sell You Think You Really Know Me to these guys. I tried to pitch it to them and I went to Frank Zappa's Bizarre Records. But nobody took it. I stayed at the Tropicana Hotel there for a month or two. I ended up moving to San Diego for what I call an extended vacation.
How were your shows there?
We were kind of the rejects of San Diego in a sense. The press gave more consideration to other bands who didn’t like us because we were from Endicott, New York. I ended up joining blues bands, and that was out of nowhere. But they had some gigs.
You played blues, too?!?!
Roy Brown had a slew of hit songs in the '40s; Elvis covered him and I consider him one of the originators of rock 'n” roll. When he was trying to make a comeback, I was fortunate enough to play bass with him for a while. I had a real blues lesson, ended up playing with Percy Mayfield, Charles Brown and Big Jay McNeely. I was also a painter and got into some pretty good art shows.
Was it truly the Beck song that brought interest back to your album all those years later?
I had a few other fragments. I had such a limited number of copies that ended up being distributed for a while by Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association, which had albums where they would put an orchestra with avant-garde people like Ornette Coleman. I was kind of their first rock act. They sent it to radio stations, and a few of them started playing my songs in places like Massachusetts and Olympia, Washington. What's funny about Beck is that, when he put that album out, I didn't realize it was even in “Where It's At” until 2001 or 2000. In 1997, when he won those awards, I was working a minimum wage midnight to eight in the morning job somewhere. It was about eleven o'clock, and the awards show had just ended. Beck came out and he had just won all these awards. All the sudden he started quoting “6.4 = Makeout” and “I Want to Lose Control.” [Editor's Note: Beck referenced Wilson's songs during a post-show interview for the MTV's 1997 Video Music Awards.] I had hardly any money, my shoes were wrapped in duct tape, but it still didn't kick in.
Some people came down from Olympia and Seattle. They said Beck had been covering “6.4” and they were going to reissue my album. This was 1997, but it didn't take. Here I am, working the midnight shift, feeling depressed a little bit. I figured that was about it. My resurrection didn’t really happen until 2002. I got a call from Motel Records in New York, who wanted to release my record. I didn't figure much would come of it. And then the whole thing exploded. The New York Times did a big article on me. The L.A. Times came over here. Then the Boston Globe. It was surreal.
How did you get involved with Stones Throw?
Peanut Butter Wolf told me he was going to reissue You Think You Really Know Me in 2001 and ended up missing the boat. I was reading a magazine article with Peanut Butter Wolf and he was talking about me, so I wrote him. He was interested in releasing anything I had at the time, and that's where Mary Had Brown Hair came from. He's been a good friend of mine, a real good supporter of my music. I appreciate Stones Throw because they introduced me to a different world — Madlib and all those people. I played for Peanut Butter's wedding, the ceremony.
You haven't met Beck, though, right? But you did play with one of his musicians?
You remember the movie, Airplane!?
You remember when they were in that cockpit with that basketball player and Peter Graves, and there's a kid there?
That kid ended up playing with Beck! He's actually the guy who gave Beck my tape. He's played with me a few times.
I wanna say how crazy that is, but is just seems to fit in with everything else you're saying. So this is your first Dallas show, but you have people in your band from Austin, right?
Yes, they have a Gary Wilson tribute band in Austin. That's how we hooked up, originally. I was doing that Southwest by Southwest or whatever it's called and they were my backup band. But we ended up together, went to Europe twice. They played New York with me. They know my music really well.
You almost collaborated with Earl Sweatshirt, right? And then he sampled your song?
The Odd Future kids, a couple years ago, their manager contacted me. He said they were big fans and wanted to meet me. I really wasn't that familiar with them at the time. We've been talking about collaborating, and it still may happen. So, Earl Sweatshirt sampled me and then all of the sudden it turned into he was going to be on Jimmy Kimmel and invited me to come up with him. I met him the day before, rehearsed, and hung out with him for a while. That was a fun time, actually, on Jimmy Kimmel.
Can you tell me about a particularly extreme reaction people have to one of your live performances?
Well, I had the power turned off on me three years ago in Los Angeles. We were playing with Ariel Pink, Tame Impala and a couple other bands. The sound guy was yelling at us. The bass player was pouring red paint and flour on me. The music was screeching, and the tapes were going. I was on the floor and I couldn't see because I had tape all over me. He was yelling in my ear, “Shut it off!” We get more invigorated with that sort of input so then we were really going, and they pulled the plug on us. But that used to happen more frequently when I was younger, when we would play weird stuff in the wrong place. I remember one time we were playing for the American Legion and they were expecting a polka band.
I just want to take a shot in the dark here. You haven't said what “6.4 = Makeout” is about. But you've said maybe you would acknowledge it eventually. Six-point-four inches is the world average penis size. Does that have something to do with it?
Maybe subconsciously it does. I've heard some people say that's the percentage of alcohol in some beers. You hit it on the nail, actually, in some ways. I keep that kind of secret on that song. That could be it, but I'm not going to say for sure. I usually don't answer that. But it sounds good, too! Things come out of me and I surprise myself sometimes!
Cover photo of Gary Wilson by Ashley Montoya. Gary Wilson & The Blind Dates perform Saturday, December 12, at The Double Wide. Head here for tickets and more information.