Somewhere along a stretch of road in western Europe, Keith Wilson decided he was done with music. It was 2007, and Wilson was crammed into a van with eight other dudes and piles of rented gear, grinding through his band's second tour of the continent.
"That tour was an unmitigated disaster," Wilson remembers. "We came home financially and spiritually devastated."
Wilson had served as the frontman of local rock band Movies With Heroes for more than a decade. Widespread success for the band had, at one point, seemed only a matter of time - the band had multiple albums, two international tours and critical praise from around the globe to its credit. But member changes and the collapse of one lineup after another were too much for Wilson and the band's core founders to continue rebuilding again and again.
"We had started as a trio, evolved into a five-piece and I think at that point had really hit our stride," Wilson says. They were making all the right moves, including hiring a prominent music industry manager who was pushing the band to do all the things you're supposed to do to try break through. "But the pressure and the expectation that success was just around the corner put some cracks in the foundation."
In the middle of all this, Wilson twice became a father. Soon enough, so did a few other band members. "One at a time, people decided they didn't want to do it any more," Wilson explains. "People were getting burned out, starting families, having personal issues."
Wilson and bassist Jeff Royer were the last men standing. They were still creating music together but were left wondering if the band had a future at all. "Just at that time a European label licensed our album and wanted us to tour," Wilson explains. So the pair cobbled together a lineup and lost a small fortune on a tour that would make Spinal Tap look like a well-oiled machine. They were chased out of one town by Neo-Nazis. They slept on the roof of the van. They lost two guitars off the roof speeding down a highway.
"There are a million things that make funny stories now, but at the time were disasters," Wilson says. "And it was just becoming too painful, riding that roller coaster. We continued making music but were done trying to make music the thing in our lives. And I thought, 'I'm not going to write songs anymore.'"
But on the plane home, Wilson already found himself writing again. And he continued to do so once he arrived home. "I was writing because I simply had to write," he says. The difference was, he wasn't writing to be part of something else.
It has been a five-year-long process for any of that material to become mature enough to consider performing for an audience. And this month, Wilson gives the songs their just airing with a performance at Mosaic Presents under his new musical pseudonym, Saint Narcissus.
Those familiar with the Movies With Heroes sound - dramatic, anthemic melodies mixed with punk aggression and soaring harmonies - will find some familiar ground here. Wilson's former bandmates - including Royer, guitarist Adam Lenhart and drummer Jeremy Bentley - are even performing alongside him on a few songs. But, Wilson notes, the tunes aren't full-on rock songs. "They weren't written to be performed in a loud, grand, majestic kind of way," he says. "They're more intimate and restrained."
Slow-roasting his songs isn't the only reason for Wilson's long delay in unveiling new material to the public. For the past two years, his muse has taken to another form of writing - he has been engulfed in penning Geillan: A Prisoner's Tale, a 300-page coming-of-age fantasy novel set in a mythical, prehistoric Earth. The book is being released in conjunction with the Saint Narcissus show in a multimedia performance of music, readings, soundscapes and film ($16 tickets at www.mosaicpresents.com get you into the show and a copy of the novel; it's also is available from Ecco Qua Press and Amazon.com).
"Some of the spiritual and psychological landscape in my music is the same as that in my book," Wilson notes. "So I thought it would be interesting to combine the two even though they weren't originally intended that way."
Geillan: A Prisoner's Tale centers on the character of Geillan, who sets out on a quest in search of his missing father. Amidst his worldly travels, he finds himself thrust into the middle of a cultural conflict between the small indigenous tribe of the Hawala and the larger, power-seeking empires of the Khaba and the Margaritari. And Geillan's personal journey suddenly becomes of global importance.
"It's a clash between civilizations who don't value the same things," Wilson explains. "People will recognize some of the book's actors as resembling classical civilizations like the Egyptians and the Romans - monument builders, power seekers."
Fantasy novels from budding novelists are massively popular of late, but Wilson insists his book doesn't quite fit with the current trend. "There are supernatural elements in play, but not a lot of magic," he says. "I didn't want to write something full of swords, castles and knights. It's much more about people and the choices they make than mythical beings." The result is a fantastical but very Earthbound story.
"Two years ago, I made a challenge to myself to see if I could finish a book," Wilson says. I gave myself six months - June to December - to turn this idea into a manuscript. I finished the first draft on New Year's Eve."
It turns out the same creative force that inspired Wilson to write songs also inspired fiction in him from a young age. It had always come naturally, all of it. "But for me," he says, "writing a book is a significant step up from making an album."
At the show and book release this month, Wilson's former bandmates will join him onstage for that step up. For as much as he strives to find new ways of presenting his music and ideas, there is something to be said for relying on old friends.
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Come and enjoy this show on April 15th, 7:00 PM at Mosaic, Fulton Elementary School, Lancaster PA.