Given the amount of new music that floods into the world each week, there’s something to be said for a resilient “sleeper” album. I refer to a record that arrives with minimal fanfare, and yet lingers near the top of your most-played music for weeks, and then months. That album for me in the first quarter of 2017 was the self-titled full-length debut by Brooklyn trio Wild Pink. Even as big-tent releases by superstars have come and gone, Wild Pink has remained a consistent listen.
Led by singer-songwriter John Ross, a 30-year-old Florida native who moved to Brooklyn after college to be a film composer — he currently makes a living by writing music for commercials — Wild Pink is stubbornly un-flashy in its approach on mediative, mostly mid-tempo and yet indelibly cinematic indie-rock. Never deviating from a simple guitar-bass-drums instrumental attack, Wild Pink wrests a surprising amount of melody and even drama out of Ross’s dreamy, story-oriented songs.
Similar to the slower numbers on early National albums such as Alligator and Boxer, Ross’s tunes work on an almost subliminal level, not fully revealing themselves until the fifth (or fifteenth) listen. At that point, incisive lyrics that sound like repurposed snippets of real-life dialogue begin drift out of the haze. Together, they comprise a song cycle about young urbanites living in the shadow of national tragedies, past and present. “On 9/11 your mom took you to see Legally Blonde,” Ross sings on the last track, “They Hate Our Freedom,” astutely summarizing the rush to normalize even the most extraordinary of events. In “Battle Of Bedford Falls,” Ross contemplates an aloof companion amid a cultural meltdown: “Keep your eyes on your smart phone / while we circle the same drain / good guys with guns are digging ditches in cap and gown / and American Idols are engineering the perfect moment.”
When reached by phone recently, Ross was reluctant to discuss his evocative though somewhat elusive songs too thoroughly. For instance, I wondered if one of my favorite tracks, the quietly startling “Albert Ross,” was about the death of a family member. (“I really don’t mind the time alone / I dreamed about you last night / And you were sweet but you were sick / You drink your dad’s hangover now.”) While Ross allowed that the song title derives from his great-grandfather, he declined to divulge any other details. “I like to keep it up to interpretation,” he said. “I hope that’s not rude.” So, we talked instead about commercials.
You said that you write music for commercials. Anything that I might know?
I had a Loews commercial.
I had a lot of promos for The Office. You remember The Office?
I love that show so much. I had a little bit of music in a Miller Lite ad, music that played in a bar scene.
Do you ever get asked to write something in the style of a popular band that for some reason won’t license a song that a brand wants to use?
Every now and then you do get a request for, like, the Black Keys. You know, edgy “dudes walking around in leather boots” kind of rock music.
Your work with Wild Pink has been likened to ’00s emo bands like Death Cab For Cutie. Emo, of course, has become a common reference point for indie bands in recent years, and your record label, Tiny Engines, is associated with the contemporary emo scene. Do you feel like Wild Pink fits in the emo slot?
I don’t listen to emo. In high school I liked The Promise Ring and American Football. But I really don’t listen to that kind of music anymore. It’s strange, I know. I’ve read that, too, emo used to describe us. I don’t really know why. To me, it doesn’t sound like emo. I wouldn’t say it’s really inspired by emo at all.
What are your influences?
Well, R.E.M. and Nirvana, they were big ones early on. My sister introduced me to R.E.M. She brought over Green on cassette tape and we listened to that. We listened to “Stand.” Remember that song “Stand”? I mean, it was just like instantly, holy sh*t, this is really exciting and fun. I remember feeling that way very young. And then when I was a little older, like 12 or 13, I got into Nirvana and was just very, super obsessed with Nirvana.
In my adult life, coming into my twenties, Bruce Springsteen is so, so important to me. Jackson Browne, Tom Petty — that’s what I listen to and have listened to consistently for a long time now.
Those are all storyteller-type singer-songwriters, which I can clearly hear in your own songwriting.
Another good one was [Paul Simon’s] Graceland. That record was huge for me and that’s a super storyteller record.
Tunnel Of Love by Bruce Springsteen, Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty, I’m Alive by Jackson Browne — those are three of my favorite records, and they’re all, like, ’87 to ’91, I think. Say ’86 to ’91 if we throw in Graceland. But I feel like those guys were all like in the zone at that time. Those are four records that I really love. Especially Tunnel Of Love.
When did you start writing songs?
I’ve always written songs for the bands I’ve played in, since I was 15. And I think they all have the same narrative. Wild Pink feels like a continuation of what I’ve done for the last 15 years. There’s defiantly been side-steps into other genres — like, you know, synth pop. I just filled in playing bass in a black metal band one time up here. The stuff I write is always pretty much, by and large, guitar-driven singer-songwriter music.
Your songs are loaded with lines that sound like quotes from real people. One of my favorite lyrics comes from “How Do You Know If God Takes You Back”: “Then I said something dumb / Like ‘the Redskins hate the Cowboys because Kennedy died in Dallas.’” Is that something you heard and then jotted into your phone for posterity’s sake?
I would say that that is not untrue.
There’s a feeling of rootlessness in your songs. You’re writing about people in their 20s who are going out a lot, going to bars and parties, and trying to figure out who they are and what they find meaningful in the world. Would you see there are any themes linking these songs? The album really seems to capture a particular time and place.
I wouldn’t say it’s about young people in their twenties going out in like, a Lena Dunham kind of way or anything. This record was almost called They Hate Our Freedom. That was the working title until the week we delivered it. Because I think that is one of the craziest things George Bush has ever said. The reason that terrorists attack us is because they hate our freedom. And especially now, like, it’s so hard. There’s no way to remove yourself from how sh*tty things are getting on a lot of levels. Like, we’re destroying the planet. The planet cannot sustain this treatment for much longer. I don’t think anybody can afford to be apathetic, you know?
I think the unrest — young people feeling unrest, that vibe on this record, has more to do with an existential [threat] than a general malaise of middle-class kids feeling bored.
That’s interesting, because you never bring up politics directly on this record, but you can definitely feel the weight of the world in the subtext. It reminds me of how politics lurks in the background of songs on The River. You can tell it affects the lives of the characters, even if nobody talks about it directly.
Yeah, I have no desire to be a topical writer. I don’t want the songs to be received that way. This is not topical political music. But it’s everywhere. I don’t think that you can avoid the real problems that politics has made in the world.
Wild Pink is out now via Tiny Engines. Stream it below.