Wild Pink Are Making The Leap Whether They Know It Or Not
Meet John Ross and hear "There Is A Ledger" from his band's stunning 'Yolk In The Fur'
“I just saw something happened with Kanye, right?”
This is John Ross’ way of saying he’s not particularly plugged into the pop culture narrative of the day — my conversation with the Wild Pink frontman occurred after Kanye West’s return to Twitter held the lives of music writers hostage for about a week straight.
A second point of proof: The Wild Pink frontman is super stoked to be in Sacramento, and he has no idea how off-trend this is in 2018. Slovenian big man Luka Doncic is a mortal lock to be a top-two pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, but he announced that he was still debating playing out his contract in Europe next season. Analysts immediately noted that he made this call a day after the Sacramento Kings were awarded the #2 pick in the lottery. See also: Lady Bird, the award-winning film whose plot is driven by its loopy, lovable main character wanting to get the fuck out of Sacramento by any means and live in Ross’ current home of New York.
Ross has no particular affinity for Tree City USA — he’s just grateful to be on a legitimate West Coast tour where his band won’t have to sleep on a floor. “We’ve banged our head against the wall with DIY touring for the longest time,” Ross says, noting that they still are looking for a booking agent. (He asks if I know anyone on the hunt.) Likewise, this swing is unlikely to be a game-changer for their future prospects, as they’re opening for Dana Buoy, a synth-pop side project from a member of Akron/Family who just released his first album in six years to near total silence. When you think about the hundreds of indie rock bands that will never be able to tour outside of their hometown or get covered by mainstream publications, Ross’ humility and gratitude feel very legitimate. Still, at one point in our conversation, I just had to put it out there: “You do know that you’re two months away from releasing one of 2018’s most stunning artistic leaps for an indie rock band, right?”
It’s possible, but Ross’ defining characteristic on and off-record is soft-spokenness. After the hodgepodge indie of 2016’s Four Songs EP got the attention of the ever-reliable Tiny Engines, Wild Pink swiftly went about the business of releasing out their self-titled LP in February 2017. With its slowcore leanings and Ross’ unobtrusive vocals, Wild Pink could seem slight at first. The referential and sentence-structured lyrics resulted in frequent Ben Gibbard comparisons, while his vocal tone was equally muted and conversational, like Grandaddy trying not to disturb anyone in a library.
The album also dropped at a time when critics seemed eager for rock records that doubled as political polemic whereas Wild Pink spoke to a kind of navel-gazing, generational aimlessness that preceded the election, the creeping sense that none of us had a war worth fighting for. “I was super pessimistic for a lot of good reasons,” Ross says about the time surrounding the creation and release of Wild Pink.
Speaking on the upcoming Yolk In The Fur, Ross says, “I think this record is more in line with what I really love, like Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen,” and it’s clearly not a case of an artist achieving self-actualization by honestly embracing a dubious influence. The War On Drugs and Amen Dunes were invoked for Yolk In The Fur’s lead single “Lake Erie,” certainly for its synthy shimmer, glimmering guitars and metronomic beats, but also to say, “This album should be embraced like that in 2018.”
But while those bands have logged time in the festival circuit and have access to budgets for Los Angeles studio time and promotion, Wild Pink have mostly stuck to house shows and word-of-mouth; their biggest crowds to date were the ones they saw last year while opening for The O.C. indie dons Matt Pond PA. Ross just had to convince himself that Wild Pink could project his insular musings onto a Laser Floyd-sized screen. The wildly oscillating instrumental hook from new single “There Is A Ledger” is sourced from analog synthesizers that were initially intended for Eerie Gaits, his evocative instrumental side project, which also released a gorgeous and sorely overlooked album on Tiny Engines in 2017. “I always wanted to do music like [classic rock], but I never thought I could,” he says. “The first album unlocked something, that there’s more to this whole world than I’m letting myself explore.”
Even if Yolk In The Fur sounds more in line with 2018’s indie rock trends, the proper noun detail of Ross’ lyrics places Wild Pink in specific, tactile settings rather than general signifiers of “festivals,” “dreams,” “hockey arenas,” or “the heartland.” Impossibly gorgeous opening reverie “Burger Hill” reimagines Red House Painters holing up in Mercury Rev’s upstate New York cabin. “John Mosby Hollow Drive” reminisces on Ross’ anxious suburban upbringing in Northern Virginia. The title track follows his renewed sense of purpose from Kingston to Puerto Rico and through “dreams in the South under canopy tops/ Dripping with Spainsh moss” on “Jewels Drossed In The Runoff.”
But Ross isn’t inclined to reveal his songs’ secrets. He will only admit that they’re all based on true stories, whether it’s the bloody car crash on “Lake Erie” or the old man listening to Kim Carnes at the mob bar on “Love Is Better” or the line, “You said boomers with hepatitis might be spitting in your drink.” Though Ross took a dim view of cell phones as a communication device on Wild Pink, “I write everything into it,” he admits. “I feel like so excited when I see something and I’m able to write it down. That moment where it all comes together and I’m able to articulate it is exciting in the way that finishing a song is exciting.”
While the creation of Yolk In The Fur could be summarized by Ross’ declaration that “I just went for it,” its emotional state is invoked by the last line on the album: “I don’t know what happens next.” It appears earlier in new single “There Is A Ledger” before Ross repeats, “I hope we find peace.” Whether or not Ross finds peace or the trappings of “indie big” success, he’s already thinking about the next record — “I wish the cycle [between releases] was shorter, because I’m gonna write music regardless and it’s just gonna sit around. But I just don’t think that’s really how the industry works.” If he sticks to his guns, Yolk In The Fur will be another modest predecessor to Ross going for it — he’s in the process of writing a concept double album around the mythology of the American West and has already tracked some songs with a fiddle player. He also feels like it’s equally indebted to Ken Burns and Titus Andronicus, bringing up The Monitor as a kind of inspirational totem: “Its scope was so manic and enormous, it was almost demoralizing. Like, ‘I’ll never do anything like this.'”
The mood on Yolk In The Fur is considerably lighter as a result. Ross describes the meaning behind the title as “about protecting something vulnerable,” finding himself and the people around him in a generally better place than a year ago. In the past, Wild Pink songs would be peppered with in-jokes about NFL rivalries and Magic: The Gathering and laced with deadpan sarcasm. That element remains as Ross litters the lyric sheet with the mundanities of the modern gig economy. “It felt right,” Ross says about his references to Uber and Tumblr on “Lake Erie.” “I don’t know if it’s gonna date it, or if it’s silly, but I just went for it.”
But Ross never envisioned he’d write something as simple and vulnerable as the penultimate track “Love Is Better,” and once he did, he considered using it as the album title. “I just think people give a shit so profoundly now,” Ross notes, explaining what he sees as the main difference between Wild Pink and the world surrounding them in 2018. “Don’t make me sound so old here, but very young people today are going to save the planet. They’re going to save the species. The US probably won’t be the beacon of hope it once was, it won’t be a big player, but I think that humans are going to be OK.”