Jonathan Wilson’s intricately produced and gently epic folk-rock debut Gentle Spirit, released last year, sounded, in the best way, like the work of a sonic obsessive. The pianos plinked just so. The strings on the acoustic guitars reverberated not a millisecond longer than necessary. Vintage keyboards romantically cooed. Cymbal crashes rippled out into the ether. Voices swirled around each other. It was a magical album, conjuring a luminous, highly emotional atmosphere. Above all, though, it was the work of a tinkerer, someone for whom no sound could not be improved upon.
All of which makes Wilson’s long-standing obsession come as no surprise. “Back when I was in my early teens and just really getting into music,” says the Los Angeles singer-songwriter-studio mastermind, “I would always be taking apart my guitars and amplifiers to see if I could make them do things they weren’t designed to do. I still routinely gut and scavenge old audio gear and vacuum tube electronics and meticulously organize them into my collection.” That collection currently numbers “literally thousands.” Adds Wilson, who has done production work for Dawes and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, “the word ‘obsession’ is an understatement when it comes to vintage electronic components.”
Part of Wilson’s pleasure in picking apart vintage gear comes from the doing itself, as opposed to the end result. “I simply love the process of taking apart electronics,” explains the musician, who is spending June touring as the opener for Tom Petty & the Heartbreaker’s European stint. “Whether the item be a tube radio or Hammond Organ,” continues Wilson rhapsodically, “I just love gazing at and understanding the schematics. It’s a language and flow of shapes and currents; a chart for conjuring energy, music and voltage out of thin air. Iron cores, steel laminations, magnetic fields, resistance, impedance, rectification, Ohm’s law, amplification and reproduction …” He could go on.
A native of North Carolina, Wilson’s obsession also benefits from his current hometown of Los Angeles. “Where I live in Southern California is an absolute hotbed for discarded electronics,” he explains. “There are places that are graveyards where it all goes to die. A lot of the gear I’m collecting has military origins, and for whatever reason there are a ton of military electronics surplus stores around here. It’s great because you can find things that were built for the government and no expense was spared and score them for pennies on the dollar.”
Wilson’s electronics jones does have a slightly dark side, though. “I’m an addict when it comes to collecting this stuff,” he admits. “Nothing is too expensive, but it chips away. I might only be spending $100 at a time, but I go buy stuff all the time.”
He’s also left his mark. “There is a good chance,” says Wilson playfully, “that if you buy an organ or tube radio at a thrift store and the tubes are missing, they’re somewhere in my studio.”