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“Every day is Groundhog’s Day now,” John Ross sings on a track from A Billion Little Lights, the excellent new album by one of indie’s best and most underrated bands, Wild Pink, due out in February. When Ross wrote that lyric, he wasn’t anticipating a pandemic — he was referring to the cyclical nature of touring life, and perhaps also hinting at a darker reality about how America’s past tends to linger in the background of our present.
On previous Wild Pink albums, Ross wrote sensitive story songs about millennial ennui set to surging synth-based rock, producing a rich, stirring sound that evoked a cross between Death Cab For Cutie and Lost In The Dream. Ross’ own tastes, though, tend to skew toward the daddiest regions of classic rock, particularly singer-songwriters like Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and Paul Simon. For A Billion Little Lights, he made a Spotify playlist that acted as a sonic mood board for the record that touched on Celtic-tinged Irish rockers (Van Morrison, The Pogues, The Waterboys), singer-songwriter country (Townes Van Zandt), and unfashionable ’80s and ’90s entries by legacy acts (Rod Stewart, Bob Seger).
What Ross was chasing was a big, lush sound that integrated Americana instrumentation like pedal-steel guitar and fiddle into his usual synth-rock mix. For a while, the music fed into a concept that Ross initially conceived about a massive double-album exploring the history of the American West. Eventually, he pared back this idea into a relatively conventional (and concept-free) LP, though you can still hear traces of his original ambitions in cinematic, futurist-rustic tunes like “Track Mud” and “Oversharers Anonymous.” In the latter song, Ross time-travels 200 years in the space of a single verse, leaping from a road trip on a modern highway to the buffalo-strewn plains of the Wild West.
If there’s a statement there about the consequences of Manifest Destiny — and how the tragedies that paved the way for modern conveniences can’t be so easily set aside, even centuries later — Ross is reluctant to elaborate. In our previous conversations, I’ve found Ross to be a thoughtful if also reticent interview subject. While A Billion Little Lights is his most ambitious and overall best work, infused with deep lyrical craft and impeccable melodies that set Wild Pink apart from the indie-dude pack, Ross isn’t one to necessarily tip his hand when it comes to discussing his thematic obsessions. But he does admit that’s he’s rightfully proud of the album.
“I wanted to have something very lush and just bigger than anything that I’d done before,” he said. “And I got to play with amazing players, that was my favorite part.”
Ross discussed A Billion Little Lights in a phone interview and a subsequent email exchange.
When we spoke back in 2018, you mentioned that you were working on a concept album about the American West. This album is obviously not that. What happened to that idea?
The initial idea back in 2018 was to make a double LP about the West, and the idea definitely evolved beyond that. The album took two years to make — way longer than I’ve ever spent on an album and in that time, it had a lot of room to grow. At its core though, it’s an album I will always associate with the West: I recorded a lot of it in LA and more than a few songs are about the West and inspired by some books and TV I was consuming about the subject. I wanted to make a lush, expansive album which the West certainly is. Before too long though I felt like I was starting to get boxed in by that idea and so I took off those parameters for myself. I just wanted to make something maximal and huge in scope – this album totally builds off the self-titled and Yolk In The Fur in that regard. Basically, I wanted to explore.
What exactly is it about the West that intrigues you?
We went to the West Coast for the first time in 2018. We did this West Coast and European tour and I was writing a lot at that time, which is where I think that that idea for this Western-inspired album started. [As a child], I had an aunt in LA and I would go visit in the summers and I just thought it was amazing. And we’d just go to really cool record stores and restaurants. I never lived there, so I never had a chance to fall out of love with it.
In the song “Pacific City,” you reference Michael Mann’s Heat in the opening lyric. That’s an iconic LA movie.
Oh, it’s a total LA movie. That and Chinatown are my favorite LA movies. It’s Pacino at a really weird, late stage in his career. Maybe not even late, but just a weird time, he’s over the top.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “Oversharers Anonymous,” in which you appear to jump from the present to the distant past in the space of a single verse. You sing about hunting buffalo at one point.
It’s like a daydream. I wrote a lot of that driving around here, upstate, thinking about this book called The Earth Is Weeping. It’s just an awesome, epic, history book about the West. I also loved Ken Burns’ The West, I was watching that as well. There wasn’t any intention to jump around in time and space but it definitely feels like a daydream now that you mention it. Things that are early on in the song are definitely in the present, driving on the Taconic Parkway. And then we jump to another time period.
I don’t know exactly what this album is about — it has grown outside the boundaries I set for it. I enjoy a little mystery though and I think it serves this album. Making music is escapism and I get lost in the albums I make while I’m in the process of making them, this one especially. It’s a fantasy world where I can be somewhere else when I’m listening. There are old western elements as well as heavily electronic ones. And as you noticed, at one point the lyrics are in the front seat of a car driving down a highway in upstate New York and the next they’re transported back 200 years to the plains and prairies of the West. It’s pretty non-linear and nebulous, which I find appealing. The songs I’m most satisfied with happen to be when I don’t fully understand them.
Musically, you use a lot of pedal steel and fiddle on the record, which also evokes the West. You’re almost flirting with country music at times.
I didn’t want to make a country record or anything like that but I love certain elements of country, like pedal steel, for sure. And fiddle. But I wouldn’t call this a country record or anything. Even from the beginning, that wasn’t the idea.
Pedal steel is definitely one of my favorite instruments and I met an incredible pedal steel player, Mike Brenner. He was in Magnolia Electric Company, he plays around with a lot of bands now, and I actually recorded part of the record with him in Philly. And he just became an enormous part of the sound for this record.
As far as fiddle goes, there’s Townes Van Zandt and the song “If I Needed You.” That one song has been, more than anything else musically, probably the biggest inspiration for this record. The fiddle on that song, at the end, I think really stuck out with me. I’ll listen to one song on repeat for days and weeks at a time, nonstop. It just totally got under my skin.
In the song “Bigger Than Christmas,” you talk about The Pogues, which comes out of left field. How did you get into them?
I don’t know why they came up. I think maybe I was watching a video of Joe Strummer sitting in with the band and then just kind of went down a rabbit hole. Right now, I’m deeper into “Rhythm Of My Heart” by Rod Stewart.
It’s such a beautiful song. I want to find a way, whenever we tour again, to do some kind of rendition of it during our set. It’s just so beautiful. I think the chorus is just amazing. And there’s this kind of Celtic Irish thing running through that song, through the Townes song, obviously through The Pogues. There’s something to that for this record too, traditional Irish melodies, whether I’m aware of it or not. Using, or just hinting at, something like that.
A Billion Little Lights is out February 19, 2021 via Royal Mountain Records. Get it here.