The War Within

Justin Wilson has led three of Dallas' best hard rock bands in the past year. Is anyone listening?

At the end of March, Justin Wilson drove up to the Dallas Observer to drop off a box of promotional materials...a huge one. The bottom was blanketed with every single disc released by his first major Dallas band, Red Animal War, since 2000. He added some copies of his side project Saboteur's self-titled EP, the same disc that cracked the Observer's Top 10 album list of 2005, along with a DVD of music videos by Centro-matic, the Deathray Davies, Burden Brothers and Slowride. Wilson had edited or directed each one.

Also in the box was a long letter about his latest gigs--video editing at local design firm Charlie Uniform Tango, ghostwriting a book for Matchbook Romance's Andrew Jordan, putting the final touches on his third band The Numbers Twist's debut album--and taped to that letter was a copy of Seven Year War. The half-new, half-retrospective Red Animal War album was being shipped to stores across the country that day through Austin's End Sounds label, marking the band's seventh anniversary.

But this box marked much more than a birthday. With very little buzz or momentum, Wilson has created his own hard rock empire in Dallas, leading the songwriting charge for not one, not two, but three of our city's most creative and interesting reasons to crank knobs to 11. There's something for any guitar lover to appreciate in the 28-year-old's three groups--straight-ahead anthems in Saboteur, monstrous post-punk jamming in the Numbers Twist, DC-influenced political-rock anarchy in RAW--yet Wilson still hasn't amassed a local audience as large as his bands' scope.

Justin Wilson's Red Animal War just turned 7 years old, but he's not celebrating yet. "If you wanna see return, you gotta put 10 years into it."
Mark Graham
Justin Wilson's Red Animal War just turned 7 years old, but he's not celebrating yet. "If you wanna see return, you gotta put 10 years into it."

"We got to being really comfortable being the underrated band, which isn't always a good thing," Wilson says. "I don't think we ever set out to be loners."

Then again, two years ago, all Wilson set out to do was keep one band running at all. He recalls the summer of 2004 as the most tumultuous of RAW's history. "European tours, band members being crazy, touring, people leaving, drugs, girls, whatever. There've been a number of points in the band where people close to us, or ourselves, thought, 'This is it.'"

Shortly after the release of 2004's Polizida, the group's European tour melted down when founding bassist Brian Pho abruptly flew home after only nine days. Amazingly, the band found an Italian replacement to fill in while overseas, but as Wilson points out, "We couldn't stuff Bruno in the duffel."

Though shaken, RAW quickly found a replacement on bass in Jeff Davis, who went with the group--Wilson, guitarist Matt Pittman and drummer Jeff Wilganoski--to record a few songs at New York's Hit Factory studio before it shut down in September 2004 (those songs collected dust until the March release of Seven Year War). The new lineup's recording session, with inventive songs that sprawled in all directions yet were chock-full of unbelievable post-punk hooks, wasn't just a success, it was what Wilson called "the future of all music I'm making."

"We couldn't believe it because Brian was such an anchor," Wilson says. "It finally gave us a release to say, 'Brian's not in the band, but no matter who's in the band...'"

Wilson pauses, having already explained that Wilganoski, another founding member of RAW, had also quit. In March 2005, he accepted an offer to tour with Florida emo band Sunday Driver, a move that added distance to his rift in personality with Wilson; this rift was cemented earlier this year when Wilganoski confirmed that he wouldn't return to RAW.

"Jeff just joined the Army," Wilson says, his face full of resignation. He explains that Wilganoski comes from a military family and looks up to the armed forces, a fact that used to cause strain in the group since Wilson asserts his anti-military political views in countless RAW lyrics and videos (Seven Year War begins with Wilson screaming, "New Rome has its hill," before asking, "Did you come for their hides?/As if their souls were not enough").

"Of course, I don't agree with it, especially under this regime," Wilson says. "It's the worst administration to ever join the Army for. But we talked about it...I don't think he wanted me to know [at first] because he didn't want me to call him a baby killer."

The enlistment was a shocker of sorts. "The whole time, we knew it was gonna happen, but we never thought he'd do it now at 31." Still, Wilson didn't spend 2005 waiting for RAW to reconvene; he turned his energies toward Saboteur, a lark he began with Slowride drummer Steve Visneau that swelled into a full-time band, full of straight-ahead, "Clash-style" songs that would've otherwise been left on RAW's cutting room floor. Slowride's Rob Marchant soon joined on bass, and the trio toured the country and released their impressive self-titled debut this past November.

At the same time, Pho wanted to gig again, but he "wasn't interested in coming back to Red Animal War. He wanted to start fresh," Wilson says. A self-described "art project" soon arose from a Dallas hard-rock kinship of sorts, as Pittman, Doosu's Todd Harwell and Tendril's Tony Wann came on board for casual jam sessions that mutated into a legitimate band, the Numbers Twist.

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