Having finally accepted that Vancouver might be as close as he’ll ever get to home, much-travelled singer and artist Bruce Wilson has been wondering lately if he might be ready for a change.
“I was in Detroit a couple of months ago and now I’m thinking that I might like to move there,” says the reborn frontman and face of the multimedia project known as Sunday Morning. It’s a cold winter-weekday afternoon, and he’s met up with the Straight for postwork coffee at Kafka’s on Main Street.
“I’m actually obsessed with the idea of moving. It’s a fucking cool place—really amazing, with architecture that’s astounding. It’s a beautiful and complicated city, and things that are beautiful and complicated have always intrigued me.”
That statement is certainly borne out by Sunday Morning’s eponymous debut, which was released right before Christmas and is augmented by accompanying videos, and an upcoming book.
Working with long-time friend and legitimate Vancouver music-scene legend Stephen Hamm on Sunday Morning, Wilson has created a fascinatingly multilayered record that’s as rich and rewarding sonically as it is thematically.
Over 11 at times brooding and at times uplifting tracks that nod to immortals like the Stooges, Nick Cave, and the Velvet Underground, the singer leaves you seriously wondering what inspires him more: the 4 a.m. terrors when life seems endlessly fucked, or the breakthroughs when dark clouds part and blinding sunlight floods in.
“The name Sunday Morning kind of embodies that duality,” Wilson offers. “It can mean either a spiritual rebirth or just waking up totally hungover and wishing that I was dead.”
Over the years, Wilson was more than familiar with waking up regretting the night before.
He was raised by middle-class parents, his English-professor dad and teacher-writer mom instilling a love of music in him, including giants like Alice Cooper and the Velvet Underground. By the time he hit his teen years in Vancouver, Wilson was forming bands like Pollyanna Slaughterhouse and TV Repairmen, which featured Slow frontman Thomas Anselmi.
In the tradition of visionaries from Iggy Pop to Kurt Cobain, he was also buying into the idea that to be a true artist you have to rebel on all fronts. At age 18 he tried heroin for the first time.
“It was winter, and I don’t want to say who I was with or where I was, but we were in a house with no heat,” he remembers. “I’d done acid and speed and the heroin came out, so I tried it. The house was freezing—the pipes had frozen—but when I did it, everything was incredibly warm and comfortable.”
A half-decade later, his indie-scene star began to truly ascend when he became the fantastically unhinged singer for Vancouver’s Tankhog, an early-’90s protogrunge unit that also featured Stephen Hamm on bass. The band imploded after releasing a vinyl single (“The Freight Train Song”/“Jealous Trains”) and a full-length album (House of Beauty). And in many ways so did Wilson’s life, as the singer spent years and years moving around the world, from city to city, in a haze of alcohol and drugs.
“Tankhog had kind of done all that it could do—we’d taken it as far as we possibly could and none of us were very healthy,” Wilson remembers. “So it split up and I took off to Spain and North Africa for a while, came back here, and was kind of bouncing around Vancouver, Montreal, and Japan for a couple of years.
“Alcohol and heroin became more of a priority than they ought to have been, and I began to spiral. I really didn’t write or make music for a number of years.”
Instead, Wilson continued to move around from town to town, picking up work—often carpentry—while successfully keeping the fact that he was an addict from everyone around him. “I managed to function and hold down jobs and keep ahead until I couldn’t,” Wilson says. “And when I couldn’t, there was no real turning around.”
He got clean and sober in Vancouver in 2006.
“It’s weird to think of it in retrospect,” Wilson remembers, “because at the time my capacity to deceive myself was astronomical. I remember seeing photos of myself and not being able to convince myself that they were just crappy photographs. I really did look that bad.”
The termination of a relationship in Massachusetts at the end of the ’00s would in many ways set the table for what became Sunday Morning, which started as a collaboration between Wilson and Hamm and then gradually morphed into a full band. Even during his lost years, Wilson kept detailed journals. Determined to wipe the slate clean after the breakup, he threw them out.
“When we split up I had this desire to eradicate my past,” Wilson says. “So I hucked out everything.”
That was circa 2009, after which he moved back to Vancouver. Then one day, when he was showing someone a Tankhog video on YouTube, he spotted a comment.
“Someone had written ‘I found this guy’s journals,’ and as far as I know he still has them,” Wilson says. “I began thinking, ‘What would it be like if I found someone’s journals and tried to interpret someone’s life from them and create a narrative arc from someone’s prose and poetry?’
“So I began thinking about that and how to present that as a project or art piece. I spoke to Hamm about maybe writing a couple of songs. We started doing that, it was going well, so we put a band together to play the songs.”
That was around 2010, and the initial goal was to do something straightforward, as is evident in early Sunday Morning songs like “Can’t Find You”, when Wilson’s smoky baritone is augmented by desert-sunset guitars and rock-steady drums.
“Hamm and I wanted to do something completely different from Tankhog,” Wilson relates. “We wanted to write simple, emotionally driven songs and not complicate things too much.”
And despite that, Sunday Morning is often anything but simple and straightforward, winningly referencing everything from distortion-dazed Americana (the drinking-doubles duet “Hearts Break”) to porno-sonic funk (“Dirty South”).
Those who wonder what the Motor City sounded like during the early reign of the Stooges can head directly to the scorching “Sick in the City”, while the guitar-glazed “The Change” is the song we’ve wanted the Afghan Whigs to write since their completely essential Gentlemen.
Kicking off a record that’s one of the dark-horse treasures of 2016 is “Come the Rain”, a baroque beauty with grey-skies strings, plaintive piano, and Wilson’s whisky-and-nicotine-cured vocals. Try not to get the chills when Wilson—coming on like a man who’s religiously studied such masters as Mark Lanegan, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave—pours out his soul with lines such as “Oh baby, come the rain/Wash this dirty water from my veins.”
Helping bring Sunday Morning to life is a cast of veteran players from Vancouver’s long and storied indie-music scene: bassist Coco Culbertson (the Gay), drummer Justin Leigh (Pluto), guitarist Kevin Rose (Tankhog), and vocalists Leah Commons (Bubble 11) and Carmen Bruno (Trailerhawk).
They come together to create a journey that’s as beautiful as the Velvet Underground’s classic “Sunday Morning”, and as terrifying and unrelenting as that band’s masterpiece “Sister Ray”.
The dichotomy is entirely intentional.
“I think I was born with a sense of dissatisfaction,” Wilson says with a laugh. “There’s always been some sense of darkness, and part of what Sunday Morning is is kind of an investigation into the duality of our psyches.”
What might illustrate that best is the way that, in the middle of our interview, Wilson reaches for his iPhone and then calls up a batch of photos. Taken during his recent trip to visit friends in Detroit, they show interiors of old Motor City buildings that are nothing less than stunning—proof that the golden era of American architecture didn’t stop with landmarks like New York’s Chrysler Building and Chicago’s Tribune Tower.
Where most see the onetime economic engine of the United States as a decaying mess of rampant crime, spiralling poverty, and miles of boarded-up buildings, the veteran indie rocker is, tellingly, able to look beyond the surface.
Wilson’s affection for what’s generally regarded as one of North America’s most majestic yet troubled cities is an understandable one, especially when viewed through the prism of both his own history and what he’s accomplished with Sunday Morning.
No one is supposed to take an extended lost-years hiatus from the music industry, and then return almost unannounced, with a record this brilliant. Given how artistically triumphant his return has been, the obvious question is whether Wilson has regrets about how he let the darkness engulf everything for much of his adult life.
As he is with all of his answers, Wilson is philosophical. And what he says goes a long way to explaining the album’s powerful final lyrics on the angelic closer, “When Sunday Morning Comes”: “There’s silence in the dawn after the fever breaks/When Sunday morning comes.”
“I think that the only thing that I find myself regretting is the amount of wasted time,” he offers. “But I think that it happened how it happened for a reason, and I’m incredibly proud of this album.”
And, for now, he’s proud to call Vancouver home. It’s where he launched his music career, where he got clean after years of abusing his mind and body, and where Sunday Morning was born. For now, Detroit might have to wait.
“It rains here all the time, but I always end up coming back,” Wilson says. “For years and years I fought it and was always kind of planning my escape. The song ‘Comes the Rain’ was something I wrote as kind of a spiritual embracing. It sounds so clichéd, but I was trying to escape myself.
“Part of what Sunday Morning means is trying to find home—what is home and how do I experience it? Home as a concept was something that I didn’t really understand, and I don’t know if I do now. But I do feel like it’s more of a home now than it has ever been.”
Sunday Morning plays a full-band album-release party at the Cultch on Saturday (January 21).