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Van Wilks

VAN WILKS

The Interview by Patrice Villastrigo

November 9, 2015                                                Guitarland, Austin

 

Hi Van! First of all, congratulations for the abundance of accolades and recognition you’ve received around the world. Obviously, you and your music are well respected and much appreciated!

How would you describe yourself? Who is Van Wilks? “Very simply just a working musician….It’s what I have always done and always will do. An accolade here and there is very nice.  But, mainly I just have something I have passion for and is all I know how to do. I don’t really have a choice and don’t want a choice. My choice is music! I am fortunate to be able to play around the world and take this as far as I can take it. No gold records on the wall, but, still I like what I do.”

Highs and Lows of Childhood?

My parents were always real supportive of this quest, from high school on and I will always be eternally blessed for that. I would have to say I had it made. I mean I worked , the cemetery in the summers, mowed their lawn and covered graves. I worked for everything. But, my parents were real supportive and I’ll forever be blessed for that! “

Is that the only time you had jobs away from playing? “Oh no, I worked at a music store in the early ’70s in Austin. A musician usually has a side job. I like to have a nice life, so if I have to do something on the side to supplement the income that a musician can pull in, I’ll do it. Anything to perpetuate the myth, I call it, and keep doing what I love to do, I’ll do what ever it takes to do that. For quite a few years I’ve taught guitar lessons….I love doing that. Giving back some of the things I’ve learned over the years. And anytime one can do what they love every day, that’s a true blessing. I have a guitar in my hands all day, if I want to, when I teach and when I play gigs.”

What name were you born with? “Vandal Austin Wilks.”

What do you have in mind when considering the future?  My new record, ’21st Century Blues’ and promoting it…distribution, agents and such.”  

And what disappoints you about today?   Nothing, life is good.”

What role does humor play in your life? “Life can throw you a lot of curves, need humor to get through the night…and the day. Have self deprecating sense of humor….Try not to take things too serious. Humor helps in songwriting and helps keep an even perspective on this thing called ‘music’!”

When you compose, is it more from a singular perspective, telling your story, or do you write to teach a lesson to the listener? “I have no preconceived notion that I am a teacher. I just make up stories, and my songs are guitar driven, and the lyrics are not secondary but have to fit the music and the mood, and I hope they do.”

What is the inspiration for your songs, your music? “There is not one singular thing. How could…well, I guess a raunchy blues song has some inspiration. I am not a philosopher songwriter. I am just a bar band, I guess. I don’t analyze myself so don’t know how to talk about myself.”

Does “God” or religion play a role in your life, music?Nope. I don’t get into all that…it’s too personal. I have my God, I am very spiritual but it doesn’t play into my songs, that I know of.”

Are you a cultural chronicler or just a commentator?Neither, …..that’s too pretentious for my music.”

I noticed you impressively use all of your fingers to not only strum but also to pick. Did you see someone else play this way or is this all Van? “As with any musician, your playing evolves over time… hopefully to a better place. I’ve always been a finger picker, and try to incorporate it to electric too, not just acoustic. The right hand is for fretting too, not just finger picking, I like to stay tasteful and not just play any random rolls, not just playing scales and such, but from the heart.”

How has the music industry changed from the creation of your first CD, ‘Bombay Tears’, to the latest, released in 2015, ’21st Century Blues’? “My first project was 8 track and vinyl in 1980. The landscape of the record business is another planet now compared to then. Computers, downloading, You Tube and streaming has changed the whole business. Can we get it back? A lot of artists were big at one time and have had to reinvent themselves for today’s business. On the other hand, …there is no excuse for anyone not to make a record if they want to. It is as easy or hard as you want to to be. Depends on your endgame. Which for me is selling records world wide and touring.”

Your published recordings to date include Running From Ghosts, Live & Loud From Austin Texas, The Austin Christmas Collection, Texas Jukin’, Soul of a Man, Boystown, Koko’s Hideaway , Bombay Tears, and most recently, 21st Century Blues. Have you considered offering a boxed set of your discography?Yes and perhaps will.”

Favorite places to tour in USA, Europe, the world, and why? “As far as touring goes, it is very expensive, not like the old days where you jump in a van and go. Things need to be calculated and figured out. Europe is different! I like it because they are very appreciative of Texas Blues Rock…and I love the food and scenery. “

What draws you to France? It is the first place I played in Europe. Paris, the whole country, I like. We have a small but loyal following in France, as well as in Germany and Switzerland. It’s always cool when a band over there plays one of your songs. Texans have a mystique for them. The country scene is big over there, then blues and rock.”

If you tour Europe again, who would you take? “My band hopefully, but, musicians over there are good, but communication issues are a problem. You can’t take a left turn with them in the middle of a song like you can your own band.

“I opened for ZZ Top in France, 2006. Then, in 2013, at the Montreux Jazz Festival played with them on stage. Montreux is the most prestigious and longest lasting of the festivals. It was a magical music moment because I went to see friends and was not planning on playing. Then, Billy asked me to lunch, and while eating, asked me if I’d like to play with them. We rehearsed one song at a friends in Geneva, and did a sound check the next day, before taking the stage.” (They played Jimmy McGriff’s ‘Kiko’ and Freddie King’s ‘I Love The Woman’ as a tribute to Montreux Festival founder, Claude Nobs, who died earlier that year in a skiing accident.)

You and Billy Gibbons seem quite close. How and when did this relationship begin? Billy and I met around ’74 or 5 when I signed with his management company, Lone Wolf Productions. We were called Fools then and the band consisted of Tommy Shannon (later with SRV) and Phil Ballinger (drums). We were touring around the country as an opening act for many groups. One was ZZ Top. Billy and I became friends. He would spend time in Austin when off the road and often crashed on my couch on Elizabeth Street. We had a mutual liking for Paris in the 30’s and all the writers and artists of that period. We actually went to Paris together in ’78 to soak up some of that feel. Texas Blues Rock and Paris!
I met Fred, Billy’s dad who was a fine pianist and society bandleader. Billy knew my love of Debussy and Claire de Lune and actually had his Dad go into a studio and record the piece for me!  When my album, Bombay Tears, was released in 1980,  Billy surprised me with a custom built guitar with my name on the neck. When our work schedules allow, we sit around with our guitars. Out of one of those late night rambles came the ideas for ‘Drive by Lover’ featured on ZZ TOP’s ‘La Futura’ album. Billy came to my sessions for the song and lent his valuable expertise to my version which is featured on my latest release, 21st Century Blues. Billy shared his knowledge of American blues with me and made me realize the origins of many great blues rock and rock songs. Our friendship continues on …”

The City of Austin proclaimed November 6 “Van Wilks Day”.. Why November 6th? “They just had an opening and we were getting ready to go to Moscow to play. The city made a proclamation that we were going to Moscow as ambassadors of Texas Music. It is a very nice thing when the government recognizes you and “your musical contributions to the state of Texas!” Legitimacy…it made me legitimate in my parents’ eyes. I always hope my music is recognized as the real deal, as Blues Rock…..That it moves people and strikes a chord in someone, is about all we can hope for.”

 

Is your tune Soul Of A Man about you? Are most of them biographical? “No, it’s like all my songs, a combination of emotions and word play…. Well, every song a musician writes is a little biographical. Sheri’s ballad about love is all true when I wrote that. A girl really said those things (‘Sheri Says Stop’ on the Soul Of A Man CD).”

When do you get nervous? “Right before we play. That will never go away. Then when you hit that note and everything is working good, about 30 minutes in everything levels out….happens whether playing for 2 or 20,000 people. Typical worries, is the gear going to work, is everything OK. Etc.”

What are your limits? “I don’t like stupid things….when a promoter or somebody is stupid…..I don’t suffer fools easily. I like things to make sense. Be on time.

Have you ever considered writing and publishing your memoirs?Yes.”

What would your biography be titled? “Half The Man I Used to Be…(chuckle chuckle)….no…more like…Why Did I Get Into This Music Thing….”

The big C…. You are a cancer survivor. Would you like to tell us about it? I got lucky with prostate cancer, was proactive, caught it early, and am proactive for guys to stay on top of it. My friend, Chris Holzhaus, one of the best guitarists of all time, came down with it, and I got checked because of him…then he died. I elected to have surgery…and he died of it! I am carrying on what I learned from that experience! For the past 5 years, a lobbying firm has flown me to DC where I lobby with Congressmen to raise awareness and funds. I get calls from around the world and do what I can. I got lucky and want others to.” Good for you Van! Yes, such a shame we lost Chris. He is much missed by his friends, and the music community. Thank you for taking care of yourself and giving due diligence to your strong advocacy!

RANDOM QUESTIONS

Do you think that today’s technology brings us nearer to the present moment, or is it ultimately distancing? “Technology can get in the way of the raw creative process. But, I’ve always tried to use technology rather than let it use me. Like auto-tune, don’t like it, but if it helps a song in one little spot, go for it!”

What did you eat for dinner last night? “A woman…(chuckle, chuckle)…fajitas. “

Breakfast today? “I always cook an egg….this morning an omelet, cheese with sauteed onions, cumin and cilantro. Have to have cilantro in everything!”

What was your first job? “Worked at Wilks department store in Brownwood, my dads, selling Levis for $5 a pair. Until I felt the urge to do something somewhere else! So, I worked at a cemetery, then a night shift at a woolen mill one summer, even though I could have worked at my Dad’s. Did anything to punish myself, or get away from the parents…even though they were nice. I guess it was the age.”  It is called ‘Individuation’… a psychological process defined by Erik Erikson which the teen must go through to find their way in life on their own. Be happy you stepped away. Those who don’t tend to never feel comfortable in the positions they end up in!

What’s your favorite movie and film genre? “Spartacus, and period 60s stuff, film noir – 40s and 50s, French films, Truffaut and Catherine Deneuve, European films with drama. And for enjoyment, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen – unless he starts whining to much!”

Do you think that it is vanity to worry so much about what you look like? “Don’t know if it’s vanity but its human…its vanity if you worry too much, because there is not a lot you can do!”

What are you reading right now? WWII history. I was at Gettysburg recently….incredible feeling you get walking on the bloodied ground.”

What kind of car do you drive, and why? “Honda Pilot…because my gear fits in it!”

Do you believe in equal opportunity for men and women? “But of course! I think women should rule the world!

What is your dream? “Wet. Nooo (chuckle.) Just to be healthy and continue on this little trip I’ve been on since 13….to be able to continue to play music and travel, my personal dream. For the governments to stop being so stupid, wars and stuff…..”

When you look back at your life, what have you hoped to accomplish?However you can say what success is, I want my niche, my spot, my little carving out of the mountain that is me and my music. I want the music appreciated and to last long after I’m gone. Same as many musicians..not to rule the world, but to get the music out so people can hear it.”

                                                    la Fin

 

© Patrice Villastrigo                  For Skinny Llama Productions

Van Wilks at Guitarland Austin, Texas  November 9, 2015

Van Wilks at Guitarland
Austin, Texas
November 9, 2015

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