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.
Saboteur performs at the Cavern on Friday, April 14.
"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.
When Wilson left that box of CDs at the Observer just weeks ago, Wilson had finally found the musical security he'd been seeking for two years. Saboteur was fresh off an impressive showing at SXSW and had already begun work on a second album. The Numbers Twist had finished tracking their debut album, which is currently being mixed. And RAW was finally out of hiatus, thanks to the addition of Harwell on drums.
But only days after Wilson dropped it off, the promo box became a temporary tombstone to all three bands. Pho accepted a job offer in Los Angeles and was moving. RAW bassist Jeff Davis decided to leave the group after his recent marriage. Visneau became the father of a second child and decided he wouldn't have enough time for Saboteur.
Wilson's rattled by the recent upheaval, and he concedes that the Numbers Twist is on hiatus, a project that will play only when all five members are in the same city. But only a week after losing key members in the other two bands, Wilson has already enlisted RAW booking agent Blake Young to play bass and Wann to take over Saboteur's drum kit.
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Wilson's passion to run so many projects at once is even harder to believe after sitting in his Charlie Uniform Tango studio, where he eagerly shows off everything else that keeps him busy. Video editing consumes plenty of his time, and there's also the book about ghost sightings he's been lured into co-writing with Andrew Jordan.
Between each example, Wilson has a story about another tour, another label expressing interest in one of his bands, another album in the works. His excitement is both contagious and bewildering. How can a guy who's so busy keep each of his bands at a creative peak?
"With all the experiences we've gone through in the band...especially now that Jeff's joined the Army, I could write four albums on my utter disbelief." Indeed, Wilson's gone through plenty to write about in the past few years, but more important, his labor hasn't exhausted him. If anything, surviving for this long and making music on his terms, the kind of stuff that doesn't necessarily fill up rock clubs in Dallas, is just proof that he's moving in the right direction.
"I wanna do more musically with the bands that's on a bigger scale, and I think it's coming. It's like in business; if you wanna see return, you gotta put 10 years into anything. If you get something before 10 years in a business, it's a fluke...but if you build something slowly and solid and don't compromise, I truly believe after 10 years you'll see something. We're on a track right now where in our 10th year, things'll be pretty rad."