Gary Wilson Wants to Talk to You
Your favorite professional weirdo returns
It was 1977 when twenty-three-year-old Gary Wilson released You Think You Really Know Me. He recorded the album in the basement of his parents’ house, bestowing upon his songs hormonal titles like “Groovy Girls Make Love At the Beach” and “6.4 = Make Out.” In turn, his tracks reflected the oddball nature of their creator, coming together as a wonderful mess of cabaret jazz, squashed funk, chaotic new wave, and teen idol fawning. Similarly, Wilson’s performances drew heavily on his love of avant-garde theater and art—things that piqued his interest when he was twelve-years-old—and he frequently played wrapped in various items that obscured his face. While his shows were unpredictable, their outlandishness was not. To the wonder of his audience (and to add to the peculiarity of his performance), he often threw flour (or paint or chocolate milk) in his face. Wilson’s music demanded a strong response from anyone who came across it. Hardly anyone did.
After the album’s release, Wilson relocated from his small hometown of Endicott in upstate New York to San Diego in an attempt to get his music the recognition it deserved. The way that things unfolded, Wilson became more of a cult figure to a niche group of loyalists who saw You Think You Really Know Me as a piece of overlooked genius. Fans of the album included Beck (who name checked Wilson on his track “Where It’s At”), Matt Groening, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Peanut Butter Wolf. Wilson came to know the founder of Stones Throw after reading an interview with him that revealed (unbeknownst to Wilson) that the label had been approached to re-release his album. “That was still a mystery to me,” Wilson recounts from his home in San Diego. “Some guy was trying to pedal my tapes.”
While Philadelphia’s Cry Baby Records was the first to re-release Wilson’s 1977 LP in the early ’90s, it wasn’t Stones Throw but Motel Records that ended up re-releasing You Think You Really Know Me to critical recognition in 2002. “My resurrection as I call it,” he says half-bemused. The musical tastes of the public had finally caught up with where the multi-instrumentalist was at nearly thirty years ago, and Wilson received favorable reviews from outlets like Pitchfork and the New York Times. He was playing sold out shows.
After his perceived comeback Wilson released more music, including another two studio full-lengths (one of which was released on Stones Throw). This year he follows up with another, his fifth original album, paying homage to his hometown via its title. Electric Endicott sees Wilson continue to ramble along the path of endearingly creepy outsider music that he set out on over thirty years ago. The songs are new Wilson concoctions, all written and recorded in his home studio this year, but they’re still partly deranged, partly over the top, and partly pre-occupied with girls from his past (Linda, Kathy, and Karen have appeared as steady subjects of his work over the years). They’re all wholly himself.
As timing would have it, earlier this year Wilson purchased his childhood home and is planning to move back East. “Driving past your old house with somebody else in it bothers me,” he explains. Wilson says he’s looking forward to getting back into the basement where everything first started.
What do you think it was that people caught onto so much later than when you actually first released You Think You Really Know Me?
It still kind of puts me into a blind wonder. That whole thing is strange how it did turn around. It took me by surprise the whole thing, because you go through the years with a little bit of a bite, but no one ever grabbed. Somebody took an interest but didn’t go through so by the time after all those years, like I always say, you succumb to the situation. And I kept doing things, I didn’t disappear. Nobody was paying attention when I was doing things.
So you’ve been creating music this entire time, but mostly for yourself?
I’d say that’s probably the good way to say it. My girlfriend, she went to UCSD [University of California, San Diego]. She was a grad student, so we did a lot of things through the university here. We did shows and I recorded little things here and there, and then I have my other side of me. I work in a lounge for my “therapy” there, playing sideman for somebody, so people know nothing about me in other words.
Do you prefer it that way, out of the spotlight?
Yes. Definitely. It’s funny because once in a while the bar guy will find out: “Oh you’ve got that record, ‘6.4 = Make Out,’ ” and constantly wants me to play it, and I just refuse because I’m not in it. I have to be in the right place and the right frame of mind to do my Gary Wilson music. I can’t just pull it out.
In terms of the music, who do you think Gary Wilson is?
I’ve been playing music since I was a little boy. Eight, nine years old I was doing stuff, so it’s all these different types of music. At first it was Bobby Rydell when I was very young in fourth grade, and then when the Beatles came out it turned into the English invasion, which was a real exciting time because there were kids practicing out of their garages—real garage bands if you think about it—and then I was doing that plus I was doing classical music with the school orchestra and chamber groups with the string bass. So everything just turned into Gary Wilson.
It took a while ’til I really could think, “This is Gary Wilson,” because I put two releases out previously, an album and a single. Another Galaxy was put out when I was seventeen or something, and then “Dream(s)” and [b/w] “Soul Travel” were released shortly after, but I still wasn’t quite totally happy with it until You Think You Really Know Me came out. That was, I think, the breakout where I found my identity finally. It took many years, believe me.
Tell me about your own personal creative process—do you record a lot of songs and then whittle it down?
Exactly. That’s the whole process with me. It’s been that way since finding myself on my one album back when I was younger. A lot of self-editing goes into it. I’ve come to that point where it’s gotta be stamped and meet a certain criteria, something that touches me a certain way, so I toss out songs. It’s funny ’cause Peanut Butter Wolf from Stones Throw, he always wants to release the ones I throw out. I’ve got a bunch of tapes and he’s trying to get into them, he keeps talking about it. But there are ones that I didn’t want to use, couldn’t feel any inspiration with. Sometimes I’ve gotta feel something with it—the chords, the changes, something’s gotta motivate me.
I think it goes back to the days of watching teen idols when I was a little boy, like Dion, Bobby Rydell, these guys like Troy Donahue. A lot of those songs were about girls and stuff, so somehow it just made sense for me. And all of those girls were in my life some way or another. Some for short term just to date, and some who I knew for a little bit. And most of those girls, I guess it takes them by surprise because I’m always singing about them. It’s hard for me—I’m not the type of guy that can pick up a guitar, sit at the piano and start singing. It’s like my girlfriend for many years, I still can’t sing in front of her.
Does your girlfriend Bernadette get jealous when you show her these songs about other women?
Yeah. She does a little bit definitely, but she’s accepted it. She does performances with me. Because once in a while lately, Linda—who I sing about a bit—her and I have been in contact with one another through emails just to talk about old times or something, because we were young back then, so she gets a little uptight about that. But she’s all right with it, I guess. She can understand it a little bit.
Is Bernadette going back to Endicott with you?
Yes. Those first few nights will be kind of wild, and then as we settle in, to be in the same bedroom—I guess I’ll be in my parent’s bedroom at that point. It will be odd to walk up the steps and down the steps, and we live near a park so it’s kind of nice. It’ll be kind of surreal.
It’s almost as if you’ve come full circle.
Well that’s what I say, yeah. That’s a nice logical end to me—to be back home again. Because I’ve been out here a long time, and when I go back to New York City sometimes, once in a while I’ll go back to my hometown, and I see it after so many years, and it just seems healthier [laughs] for some odd reason. The air. I don’t know. I guess it’s all the rain and the trees—the pine trees. It makes sense. It’s healthier to breathe.
Electric Endicott is out now.