By Brian Tucker
New band name. New record label. New songs. New recordings of the old songs. New release date.
It’s been a long time coming for this album from Wildlights, the hard rock duo of Jason Shi and Johnny Collins. Shi, singer and guitar player for Wilmington’s ASG, and Collins, founding drummer for Thunderlip, struck up a conversation many years ago about getting together to jam. They did and quickly developed a sound with little discussion about what the playing might sound like.
“I liked his songwriting and he always said he liked the way I played drums,” Collins said. “We wrote “Onward Upward” the first time we jammed in an hour and a half. I feel like we locked right away.”
Collins recalls the situation as not awkward at all, citing how when a band begins there can be a huge process of bad songs. Close in age, they grew up listening to similar music. Wildlights resulted in an epic sound blending hard rock, spacey ambiance, and soaring vocals.
“That’s what cool about keeping it a two-piece,” Collins said. “Creativity is rad, but at the same time, sometimes people want to go completely the opposite way that you have a vision of going.”
The band wanted heavier songs but wanted the vocals to be an instrument too. That led to a lot of melody on songs. Wildlights actually began as Crusades, recording a six song EP with local producer Ian Millard called New Year Repeat. Volcom Entertainment released it as a CD and on iTunes in 2012 but did little else. Shi and Collins changed the name to Wildlights after French label Season of Mist (Weedeater, Kylesa) came calling in 2013 asking if they wanted to make an album.
Shi and ASG worked with producer Matt Hyde on their albums and asked him to record Wildlights. Hyde would re-record the older songs and six new tracks to complete the self-titled full-length album. The duo traveled to California in June of 2014 to Validus Recording Studio where bands NOFX and Megadeth have made albums.
“He took what we had, mapped it out and helped shape the songs, added (parts) and made it better. He’s got a really good brain when it comes to music.”
Collins spent a week there, recording drum parts in five days. Shi stuck around and recorded his vocals, guitars and some bass. Three songs had bass parts played by Martyn LeNoble from Porno for Pyros and who is married to Christina Applegate.
“I thought that was hilarious,” Collins said. “I’ll come over and baby-sit while you guys hang out.”
Fans of New Year Repeat will hear Wildlights and feel they’re hearing an expanded version of the former. New ears will get an album that eschews typical verse-chorus-verse songs. They’ll also get a repeat player, songs marrying aggressive bluesy hard rock and trippy vibes that render it both seamless and timeless.
“Anchors” opens the album with a blast of drums and crunchy, grinding guitar. It continues on “Rebel Smiles” and gets buried on “Snow Song,” trading mellow vibes for sugar coated rage. The see-saw personality of “Hellfire Forever” centers everything with sweet vocals bearing fangs that float over Collins’ scorched earth drumming. There’s not a bad number on the album, somehow engaging and keeping you at bay simultaneously.
“I’m proud of it. Its one of the most fun records I ever recorded,” Collins said. “I hope to get the chance to do another record.”
Additional Q&A with Johnny Collins
The release of this album feels like a long time coming.
Collins: Six of them are old songs, and six new ones. The whole thing has been re-recorded. No one really got to hear Crusades. ASG is on Relapse Records. The guy that runs the U.S. office, he used to be the head dude at Relapse Records and now works for Season of Mist.
Season of Mist is pushing this record. They got up with us. The guy, he used to live in France and is from Philly. He moved back to Philly and went to work at Relapse. He used to be president. He sent an email one day and said he was a fan and asked of we were interested to put out a full length. I’d never heard of the label and forwarded it to Jason Shi and started looking at bands on the label.
How long have you and Jason Shi been living with this music?
They started hitting us up in 2013 and pushing the pen around. We got out there and recorded in June of 2014. Hanging us up was art department and a delay in vinyl pressing put it behind in getting out as a release. The cover art is by Brian Mercer. He’s done heavy bands like Lamb of God. We said, we don’t want skulls, but we like your art. He did an awesome job. We’re not very heavy of a band.
Did you record the New Year Repeat material again for the new album?
The label wanted us to re-record, have it all cohesive, sounding like the same session. There was minor restructuring on some of them. It was cool, having lived with them for so long, you come up with things you wished you would have done and it gave us the chance to do that. (Ian Millard), he was totally cool about it. We got him to help us out when we got back from California with a little bit of engineering, did the sequencing, he handled all that.
Adding new material to it, was there a concern it would be too different?
Not really, we wrote those other six jams with the same approach. They’re a little different, if anything, they’re more thought out maybe. Not that the other ones aren’t, but we had a little bit more time.
Working with Matt Hyde?
Jason has a good relationship with him (Hyde worked with ASG), super professional dude. He’s a good dude, telling stories from those he’s recorded with. We recorded it digitally at same studio that did NOFX and Megadeth’s Countdown to Extinction album. He has a bunch of stuff at his house. We cut guitars and vocals at his house. He can play anything.
What was the mindset when you began as Crusades? It happened organically?
It totally did, man. We still wanted it to be heavier songs but we wanted the vocals to be an instrument too. That’s why of all the projects, this one has a little bit more melody in the vocals. It was cool to work with Ian (on the Crusades record), he definitely did us a huge favor.
Will you get to tour or play much behind the album?
It’s not in the cards to tour right now. We’re not concentrating on that by any means. There’s no big pressure for it either. We just want to get it out there for people to hear it. I’m proud of it. Its one of the most fun records I ever recorded.
I really like the newer songs, “Rebel Smiles,” I like that song a lot. I like that kind of Middle Eastern guitar lead in the beginning of it. I think we’ll play some around town.
Wildlights full album playlist: