In 2017 film A Ghost Story, writer and director David Lowery’s quiet rumination on grief, time takes centre stage. Whether that’s making the audience sit through five uninterrupted minutes of a grief-stricken Rooney Mara gorging on chocolate cake, or a whistle-stop tour through the ages with Casey Affleck’s sheet-covered ghost, time – and the passage of time – is used as a device by the director.
And it raises some important questions – most notably, how can time both move at a glacial pace one moment, and then cover thousands of years in a blink of an eye?
It’s a similar trick to that employed well by Wild Pink’s John Ross on the New York group’s third full-length outing, ‘A Billion Little Lights’.
The lights in question might refer to the stars in the cosmos – as set out on ‘Bigger Than Christmas’ – or they might refer to the minuscule bioluminescent phytoplankton illuminating the sea on ‘The Shining But Tropical’. “Why can’t both things be true?” he questions cryptically on ‘Oversharers Anonymous’, bringing things full circle.
Smart and literate indie-rockers Wild Pink have never been afraid of asking such big questions, but here, such ambition is writ large in brilliant neon. It also means ‘A Billion Little Lights’ is an album best enjoyed outdoors, where there’s no ceiling on hand to stifle the sounds and ideas.
“Out in the country, that’s the perfect place to be listening [to the record],” says Ross. “And the talk of the scales, both large and small from our perspective – that’s absolutely spot on about the album.
“But it also extends to the music too. Even aesthetically, with the sounds, I wanted there to be so much detail sonically, even that would feel like a billion little lights.”
Ross isn’t wrong. Having defined their sound with 2017’s self-titled and 2018’s breakthrough ‘Yolk In The Fur’, Wild Pink have been on this sonically ambitious journey for the past four years, embellishing and building their delicate and dextrous brand of indie-rock with each subsequent release.
Here, with accompanying fiddles, saxophones and pedal steels – as well as backing vocals by Ratboys’ Julia Steiner – Wild Pink (completed by drummer Dan Keegan and bassist T.C. Brownell) have produced an indie-rock monolith that more than lives up to Ross’ lofty aims.
Yet we could have been listening to a very different record had Ross followed through with his original plan to make a double album inspired by acclaimed documentary maker Ken Burns’ series The West. While elements of this desire – certainly in the musicality and sensibilities – remain, ‘A Billion Little Lights’ does not wander too far down the concept album route. Nor is it a bladder-busting double album.
“Nobody wants to hear a double album,” laughs Ross, when asked about this creative departure. “That idea came and went. In fact, I can’t imagine making a double album, ever.
“But I did still want to make something big in scope. I wanted to make something that was very lush and cohesive and full. So I set out to accomplish that, and I think I did. But the double album thing, I moved past it. There’s still some of The West influence in there. I guess I learned to call my shot two years in advance.”
While Ross may joke about calling his shots two years in advance, two years is an awfully long time between records for a group as prolific as Wild Pink. Between 2015 and 2018, they dropped two EPs and two full-lengths, growing from scratchy indie-punks with two-minute-long songs on the ‘Good Life’ EP to writing an entire half of an album which flowed seamlessly from one song to another, like an orchestral movement.
Equally, it’s easy to see the similar themes that run through all three full-lengths, the pop-culture asides which mask profound ideas, the occasional moment of pointed sarcasm, and the love of big questions. While the process has remained the same throughout, there’s no doubt the vision behind ‘A Billion Little Lights’ has helped make a record sound as enormous as the thoughts behind it.
“When I think of these three records – self-titled, ‘Yolk in the Fur’ and ‘A Billion Little Lights’ – they feel like a direct continuation of each other,” says Ross. They’re all coming from the same place. In that time though, I think I’ve grown as a producer and engineer, and that’s what’s been changing; but the songs – and the process behind the songs – that’s stayed the same.
“Also, I think the songs have progressively gotten longer. I wanted to let ideas germinate – like I really wanted them to have room to grow.”
This idea of giving songs room to grow – and the difference in time between records – means the songs on ‘A Billion Little Lights’ have been allowed to stew far longer than in the past, with often stunning results. Wild Pink of 2021 are a world away from the direct and poppy indie punks of 2015, and this is clear on the meandering ‘Track Mud’ or the triumphant transition between ‘Bigger Than Christmas’ and ‘The Shining But Tropical’.
Not that all this percolating was necessarily Wild Pink’s idea, however. Label issues added a further delay, complicating an already tricky period for the band as they looked to emerge from the DIY underground.
Previously, Wild Pink were signed to Tiny Engines, a label with an emo aesthetic that launched The Hotelier, Adult Mom and Illuminati Hotties. When the label imploded thanks to a fallout over royalties, Wild Pink were forced to look for a new home – something already mooted thanks to the growth of the band’s profile.
“Being on a label that is so entrenched in emo and DIY, it’s tough to move past that in the eyes of others,” considers Ross. “It kind of sticks with you. A goal of mine was to always try and move beyond DIY and emo.
“Royal Mountain has been nothing but awesome to work with. With Tiny Engines, I think their mission statement was for them to be an incubator for small bands – like, just put your record on vinyl and send you on your way – which is great – for some amount of time.”
Now, following the jump to Royal Mountain (home to Alvvays, Mac Demarco and US Girls), the group has been able to make music videos for the first time, including one starring and storyboarded by Emmy Award Winner Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek’s Alexis Rose) and filmed – appropriately enough – in her family’s supposedly haunted cabin in rural Ontario. “It was surreal,” laughs Ross, when asked about the project. “I’m so grateful to Annie. That video was her vision, and she did such an amazing job.”
It feels like the appropriate exclamation point and a statement of intent for a band on the up. Not every act has the pleasure of working with a celebrated actor at the peak of their powers – and fewer still are on the receiving end of pitches from said actors. But then there’s a certain bravery to Wild Pink’s high concept indie-rock that sets them apart from the pack. A polished star in a sea of little lights, if you will.
Taken from the March issue of Upset. Wild Pink’s album ‘A Billion Little Lights’ is out 19th February.
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