Billy Wylder is one of the most transcendent and inspiring band I’ve encountered in many years. Their music is joyous and sends enlightened shivers to your soul and to your heart. Experiencing the lively rhythms and profound lyrics is an antidote to apathy. So many of us are just plain tired and we’re hoping for change. Going to a Billy Wylder show is sure to propel you into a more active place in our universe. Put on your seatbelt. It’s worth the ride!
To learn more about Billy Wylder, visit their website.
Here’s one of my favorite videos, “Roar of the Wild.”
Lead singer of the band, Avi Salloway was kind enough to answer some questions. Enjoy!
I’m sure you get this all the time: why Billy Wylder? And “oh, you’re a band…and not someone named Billy Wylder!” For those who don’t know, how about a brief introduction to why the band is called Billy Wylder!
The band is named after my late grandmother, Wilma “Billie” Hotaling. She was a prolific painter, author, musician, educator and had a profound impact on my life. Billie wrote Count the Stars Through the Cracks, a harrowing historical fiction novel about a young brother and sister escaping from the Antebellum South along the Underground Railroad. Billie’s writing was raw and fearless and her book delivered a powerful narrative about America’s hard truths and the long journey to freedom. Grandma Billie showed me what creativity looks like and how critical art can be as a form of love and resistance. These ethos are woven into my DNA and the spirit of the band.
In 2011 I returned from Israel/Palestine where I was working with Heartbeat, an NGO that unites Palestinian and Israeli youth musicians to transform conflict through music and co-creation. I was deeply moved by the experience and started to write a bunch of new songs, and I brought some close musician friends together to bring the material to life. When it came time to name the band, I was looking for a name and spirit bigger than myself. Grandma Billie came to mind; her wild and rebellious spirit and I decided to name the band after her
Tell us about your connection to the Seegers.
That connection also goes back to my Grandma Billie and Grandpa Dan. They met at Camp Killooleet in Hancock, VT in 1935. John and Ellie Seeger (Pete’s older brother) took over the camp in the ‘50s and my grandparents were good friends with them. I grew up going to Killooleet for many summers starting when I was nine years old and then went on to teach music at the camp. It was a very formative time for me socially, musically, culturally – being surrounded by such rich musical heritage, creativity, and perspective. This is where I learned to play and am grateful for it! I had the honor of playing with Pete a couple of times in New York and at John’s memorial service at Killooleet. I’ll never forget it!
Your sound is unique but familiar at the same time. I hear Paul Simon and Talking Heads and at the same time I hear tinges of Dylan and John Prine with a King Sunny Ade kind of beat. The music is absolutely mesmerizing! Tell us about the band members and what each of you bring to the table.
Thanks! My music and activism work has taken me to perform in over 25 countries across five continents over the past ten years. I’ve been fortunate to absorb so much amazing music and culture along the way. I toured around the globe for three years playing guitar with the great Bombino from Agadez, Niger. The experience was deeply transformative and influential on my guitar playing, songwriting, and world view. You can hear it in our music. Paul Simon had profound collaborations with musicians from South Africa and David Byrne/Talking Heads was very inspired by Fela Kuti, both leading to the creation of some amazing music. Our music expands on American musical traditions and builds a bridge to their African roots, pushing towards something new.
I am fortunate to have such great musicians and people in my band right now. Rob Flax is a wild violinist, multi-instrumentalist, singer from Chicago. We’ve been playing together for seven years; he’s a wizard and a dear friend. Krista Speroni is our bassist, singer, and a farmer from Hawaii. We met at Occupy Boston. She was playing the Sabar drum and I asked her spontaneously to join us for our performance there. We became friends and have collaborated a bunch over the years. Zamar Odongo is a virtuosic drummer from Nairobi. He brings his deep pocket grooves and worldview to the band. We were brought together through our mutual friend, Mohamed Araki from Sudan. I’ve been connected with the musicians in the Wylder family through a natural thread of meeting good people and musicians that often leads to meeting more good people and good musicians.
I know that you have had some rather unique experiences traveling with the fabulous guitarist, Bombino traveling all over with that group of musicians (I saw you at the Newport Folk Festival!). What did you learn from being in that particular group?
It was a surreal experience to be on the Bombino caravan for three years. We were on a great journey, performing for so many different cultures from Brazil to Niger to New Zealand to Europe, and all over North America. What a trip! I learned about rhythm, groove, and how the soul of the desert and story of the Tuareg people is woven into the music, the guitar playing, the approach and mission. I learned about the troubled history of colonial oppression the Tuareg people have faced in North and West Africa and how Bombino so proudly stands up for his people through his powerful music. I was honored to play with Oumara (Bombino), to learn his deep tradition, sing in Tamasheq, and share the beautiful and hypnotic music with people all over the world. The experience is inseparable from me as a person and an artist. It’s a part of me and the Wylder spirit.
Since you’ve had gigs in many far-flung places abroad and right here in the States, do you have any observations about what people respond to the most? What do you think music means to those who come out to hear you? What are your thoughts about the power of music?
I believe music to be one of the great unifying forces in our world. I experience it firsthand all the time. In the live setting we’re all coming together to share the music, the rhythm, the stories, the history, the present, the future, the circular flow of energy in one singular moment. The music fuels the audience and the audience fuels the musicians and the wave takes off. That’s the magic! When the trust and vibe is established between the band and crowd, then we can address difficult subjects socially and politically, open our collective imagination, and build momentum towards creating a more beautiful, sustainable, and equitable world. Starting small and growing the circle wider.
We’re living in a critical time: humanity has become our own greatest threat to survival and sustainability, not to mention the 8 million other species that we’re “co-existing” with on the planet. There are 7.6 billion people on the globe and the systems of modernization and capitalism have spun out of control. We have the power to build a new legacy and change how we inhabit the earth, and it’s going to take a major consciousness and behavioral shift. At our shows we have a beautiful opportunity to build community, connecting concert-goers with local nonprofits and organizers, creating opportunities for direct action around environmental sustainability, immigration, and racial justice. Our latest album title is about taking action, Strike the Match, be the light in the face of darkness.
You started two unique music events yourselves — the Moonshine Music Festival and the Harvest Moonshine Festival. How did those come about?
In 2011 I started the Moonshine Music Series with my farming friends Chris and Christy Kantlehner who run White Barn Farm in Wrentham, MA. The vision was to produce beautiful concert experiences on their family farm, celebrate local music, public art-making, dance, community-building, while connecting people to the land and sustainable agriculture. The first couple years were filled with transcendent concerts and then I started to put on Moonshine’s at other organic farms in New England. We’ve now hosted over 30 Moonshine concerts and festivals. Our two main annual events are the Moonshine Music Festival at Earth Sky Time Farm in Manchester, VT and the Harvest Moonshine at White Barn Farm in Wrentham, MA. Billy Wylder headlines every year and we include some amazing bands, public artists, local artisans and food vendors. We invite y’all to come experience the magic next year!
Check out the scene.
Your commitment to social justice and to the environment is to be commended. What advice do you have for those who want to do something but don’t know where to begin? You’ve spent time in a number of turbulent places all over the world. What has your experience been like and how does it impact you as an artist?
I believe change starts with ourselves – making efforts to support local food systems, minimize our carbon footprints and learn from other communities who are living more sustainably. Simultaneously as the critical mass of environmentally conscious public grows we can organize and leverage our people power to elect representatives that will fight to transform our energy and food systems. It’s happening right now, this September we participated in the Global Climate Strike along with 7.6 million other activists across the world calling for an end to the fossil fuel era. Divestment from fossil fuel industry is huge! I believe in the Green New Deal and encourage folks to get involved with the Global Climate Strike, Sunrise Movement, 350.org, etc. I also encourage folks to get to know and support indigenous communities in their areas, building alliances and share strategies for sustainability and resistance.
My social and environmental activism work has taken me to territories that have been colonized and occupied in the Middle East, North and West Africa, the South Pacific and Standing Rock, here at home. There are many common themes of colonization that I’ve found overlap in this oppressor/oppressed dynamic. And in the face of that there can be this beautiful energy and creativity that comes on the side of the defenders. That energy is something I’ve felt in all these places.
I’ve been fortunate to be in these deep pockets of creative resistance. My experience with Heartbeat is a prime example of that. My experience with Bombino and getting to visit his people in the Sahara. The music of the Tuareg is prayer and resistance and the voice of culture in the face of furious militarized aggression. And it’s the same thing coming back to Standing Rock.
There is beauty in the face of darkness and struggle and it is the most life-affirming feeling you could ever imagine. I take that with me through all the experiences I’ve had. It’s infused into my soul, trying to carry that sacred fire, which is a physical thing at Standing Rock. But it’s really a conceptual and emotional and spiritual practice. And I like to think that it’s coming into my own music and my own creativity, whether it’s in direct relation to these different movements or not. It becomes a part of who I am.