When he was 4 or 5 years old, Wil Wright sat down at the piano at his Uncle Lyle’s house in Maryville, stepped onto the sustain pedal and began pressing keys.
As the sounds — atonal and dissonant and drawn out — filled the den, he found himself mesmerized by them, he told me this week. It was, in a sense, the birth of his lifelong love affair with music outside of the conventional box, and while he’s made plenty of commercially viable songs over the years, of late he’s found himself returning to those frequencies more and more often.
“That was my earliest experience with what you might call an experimental approach to music, that and a recording by Jim Henson called ‘The Organized Mind,’” Wright says, sitting across from me at my office here at Cornerstone of Recovery, where he was recently brought on board as a video content developer. “There would be these late-night performances of it that would sometimes run on Nickelodeon or one of the kids’ programs I would watch, but it was so strange and so foreign. I think everyone that loves music has these moments where you feel your head gets split wide open.”
Regular readers of this section likely recognize Wright from the ink I’ve given his various projects over the years, most notably the alt-rock band Senryu (whom I first wrote about in 2003) and his wizard-rap alter-ego, LiL iFFy (first mentioned in these pages in 2011). He came to Knoxville to study composition at the University of Tennessee, where he was a member of the Pride of the Southland Band during the Volunteers’ national championship football season, and while he didn’t realize it at the time, his classical education set the stage for his post-iFFy pursuits of late.
“I didn’t love what I was taught in school, and I wasn’t ready for 20th century atonal music,” he says. “I hated it. I love it now, but I wanted to write symphonies and big ensemble pieces. I wanted to make beautiful things. But what I did get out of a formal music education was a real deep understanding of the keyboard, and what you can do with manipulating traditional forms, and that’s something I’ve always tried to work into everything I make: to take something that feels simple and try to spike it, to smuggle in some dissonance that makes you feel it more than you hear it.”
Wright and his bandmates began incorporating those experimental sounds into the Senryu canon with the 2008 EP “The Guilty Party Rages On,” which bears similarities to large ensemble works; afterward, he added, “I don’t think we approached another record as just guys with guitars and drums.”
“You get a taste of potential if you invite all the ideas to the party,” he says. “I think that’s what’s so compelling for me writing for chamber orchestra and things like that. There’s a lot of real estate for ideas if you just let it be there.”
Even the final self-titled LiL iFFy record expanded upon the traditional hip-hop palate and became a concept record; while he continues to record and perform with the sexually charged electro-pop duo Peak Physique (he and bandmate Matt Honkonen have two albums of unreleased material in the can), his career these days is focused more on contemporary classical composition. Last year, he released “Salt Mass: A Hookland Suite,” inspired by David Southwell’s “Phoenix Guide to Strange England: Hookland.”
“Once my brain kind of identifies a muse, I’m a real obsessive; my mind works really fast once it finds something it wants to eat,” he says. “I wasn’t worried about what people would think, exactly, because once you drag people through LiL iFFy, anyone who’s shocked I’m putting out a piece for chamber orchestra is obviously not paying attention.”
Released on Gezellig Records, “Salt Mass” has sold in more than 30 countries, enough to recoup its costs.
“It paid for itself, which is something I think a lot of rock ‘n’ roll dudes don’t realize is the actual dream,” he says. “You might get to go live on a tour bus, but if you can get your albums to pay for themselves, that’s what it feels like to make it.”
Plans are to record another “Hookland” piece this summer, as well as record an album with long-time collaborator Preston Davis and, somewhere, find time to release the 19th Senryu album. First up, however, is this weekend’s Big Ears Festival, during which time Wright will be one of the musicians taking part in “All Night Flight: Dreams of the Whirlwind,” a 12-hour tour de force of nonstop sound that begins at midnight on Saturday and continues through noon on Sunday.
“That’s another type of music — long, free-form music — that I’ve made and released, but I don’t get to perform that often, and it’s something I have a passion for,” he says. “It’s 12 hours of continuous sound in 30-minute sets, from every conceivable musical background. I go on at 7 a.m. Sunday morning — the sunrise service, as I like to call it.”
He’s also working on his first piece for a full orchestra, which will debut later this year, and he’s working on his second feature film score. Needless to say, the guy functions best somewhere between “exhausted” and “resuscitate with massive doses of caffeine.”
“I look at the things I’m going to make this year, but music is on the furthest back burner for me,” he says. “I have a family, and I have a job that requires not just my attention, but my creative attention, so I’m lucky in that respect. I got to Knoxville and started making records when I was 18, so I haven’t recharged since I was a kid. I’ll be tired until I’m dead.”
Which, hopefully, is many years and many records from now.