Alex Simpson is recalling the origins of the long-running, impossible to pigeonhole project William Within. In those teenage hours, Simpson listened to the words of M Ward and Nick Drake, detuned his guitar, and recorded himself, harboring few preconceived notions of how music “should” sound. Over the course of its decade long run, William Within would become something totally idiosyncratic, among the most compelling examples of Minneapolis indie rock.
Simpson and I are speaking in his single apartment in St. Anthony Park, sharing coffees on a rainy October afternoon. There’s no comparison between his new home and the one he shared with his bandmates closer to campus, which was prone to house parties and other interruptions, and it’s clear that he’s enjoying his more solitary condition in this new space. A chapter of his life is ending, and, along with it, so is William Within.
“I don’t know how people find the time to give it their all, and I have a lot of respect for those who can,” Simpson says. While juggling a band with five others, he found himself spending “about 15 percent of the time working on musical elements of the band.” The rest of the time went to organizing, booking, and other duties that weren’t part of his plan for being a musician. “I don’t enjoy booking. I don’t enjoy spamming the internet. I just want to write songs and be in the studio.”
A manager might have been the solution to Simpson’s woes. But management has to be paid, and though William Within have a strong fanbase, breaking through to the next level of popularity where they could afford to hire someone proved difficult. And then there were the mounting outside obligations, from parenthood to careers to side projects. Even Simpson, with his current dream job working in radio and production, no longer has the time to give William Within the requisite attention to move forward. No manager can work with that many diverse schedules without total dedication from the entire group, and the band no longer has that to give.
Despite these hassles, William Within have made a concerted effort to release material, and it’s always been worth the wait. Sadly, the wait times have gotten longer over the years, with too few finished songs emerging at the end of these cycles. In preparation for the band’s final show this Sunday at the Triple Rock, they’ve released two songs, and those took over two years to write, arrange, record, and give the treatment they deserve.
These farewell tracks are spectacular. “Taller the Gate” is similar to the music on the band’s expansive 2012 self-titled record, and the mix on “Amuse Me” has been given a facelift since its video debut last year. With the 2015 addition of keyboardist Mark Engelmann, Simpson and company impressively balance four different treble instruments. The vocals hint at regret and loss, but the grandiosity of the four-minute song outshines all melancholy.
Simpson lists many factors for not simply putting the band on hiatus. He doesn’t want to come back to the same group of guys in two years and say, “Hey, I’m ready to do this again!” He’d rather give things a proper farewell now. “You want to leave space for everyone to make super dense material. I really hated the idea of this band being just ‘Alex and his guys.’ I want them to be able to work out their parts.”
Simpson will continue to write and record. He’s working on material that’s more like that of the singer-songwriters he idolizes. “I don’t want to spend two years turning these parts into William Within songs when I already feel like there are finished songs here,” he says, and he’s speaking from experience. The band’s 2015 EP, Lost in Writing, took over two years to record and mix, and that timeframe could easily multiply now that everyone in the band is pursuing different careers.
Simpson has no regrets. “The single most important thing to me has been this band,” he says. “It’s sad, but it’s been clear for a while that it’s been on its way out.” The other band members will continue to work on several other projects, and the prospect of solo Alex Simpson work is tantalizing. There won’t be any bands making music that sounds quite like William Within’s precise, elegant pop, and those of us who made it to their legendary sold-out 400 Bar show in 2012 will always have happy memories. It seems like Simpson and the rest of the band will as well.