Atlanta-based Southern rockers the Villains bring a gutsy country-rock prowess to their sophomore album, Velocity. With production by former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, the quintet’s record presents the gamut of sounds, from honky-tonk to classic country to straight-up rock.
Guitarist Michael Wilkes is a huge fan of Gibsons, and he took some time to chat with Gibson.com about his beloved Les Paul Standard, his love for Jimmy Page and his gear setup. Check out the chat below, and visit the Villains’ official website here.
When you first picked up guitar, what players really captured your attention?
Probably right off the bat, Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. Then, I started gravitating towards Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix – the big classic rock ones. Of course, I loved Slash when Guns N’ Roses came out, because it was such a blues-based guitar sound. When the Seattle sound came out – Pearl Jam, Nirvana – I got into that guitar playing, because it was more melodic. Jimmy Page is probably my biggest influence, though.
What’s your go-to guitar?
My go-to guitar is a 1982 Gibson Les Paul Standard. I’ve had it since ’95. I bought that guitar so long ago, and it’s pretty much been my go-to ever since. I’ve never had a problem; I’ve never had it go out at a gig. I’m a Gibson player through and through!
What is it about Gibson guitars that make them a good fit for your playing style?
I’m a very aggressive guitar player. I use a lot of heavy vibrato and a lot of sustain, and a Les Paul, to me, is the perfect guitar. I’ve been a working musician going on 15 years, and you want a reliable guitar that you can depend on, then you want a Gibson! I remember when I first started playing my Les Paul, all of a sudden, I started getting more gigs! It really helped me become a professional musician, because it was my first really solid guitar, and it would always stay in tune and always sound great. When I grab a guitar, it’s a Gibson!
What’s your preference in terms of pick gauges?
I use medium to heavy. They’re the one pick I’ve found that I can play with using an electric or acoustic guitar.
What do you believe constitutes good guitar tone?
First of all, good tone is always going to come from the guitar player. I’ve had enough experience to know how to use vibrato, mute strings that aren’t being played so they don’t ring out – all of those things that after you play guitar for a few years just become instinctual. The next thing is having a solid guitar that has great tone. The amp is the next big important thing, and I’m playing 65 Amps, a custom company out of California. They have great tone.
What tips do you have for gigging guitar players?
I think volume is important. If you listen to a lot of records and CDs, you hear the vocals and guitars and drums, and I can’t tell you how many gigs I’ve gone to where the guitar is not loud enough. It sounds like there are a lot of vocals and drums, but you can’t really hear much else. I started playing a little bit louder over the years, and it sounds more like what you hear on the radio. It’s more powerful that way.
Congratulations on your new album, Velocity. Stan Lynch, formerly of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, produced the album. What was it like working with him?
It was like going to a boot camp for rock and roll! [Laughs] I would say it was a learning experience, because we’ve self-produced ourselves over the years, and he was able to take us further and push us. It was tough at times, but it made this recording stronger. It’s more concise and direct, and he was able to bring out great performances. He’s definitely hands on!
You worked with some A-list songwriters for Velocity, such as Tom Douglas, who has written for Miranda Lambert and Tim McGraw, and Richard Feldman, who totes credits with Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker. You seem to teeter between country and rock.
Yeah, we all grew up playing in rock bands, but over the course of last 10 years, we were recruited by Keni Thomas, who was looking for a backing band. We played with him for three and a half years all over the world, and we did USO tours and lots of military stuff and really learned the country ropes. We opened for Keith Urban and Brad Paisley and did the Grand Ole Opry three times. I was mainly a rock guy and learned to really love country music. I would say we’re Southern rock. I just love good guitar playing and good music.
Photo (band shot): Drew Crozier
Photo (live shot): Brian Wible