by Rob Mair
photo: Hayden Sitomer
Nestled midway between King’s Cross and Angel tube stations, on London’s ever-busy Pentonville Road, lies the multi-purpose Joseph Grimaldi Park, combining green space with a five-a-side football pitch and some bizarrely sculptured benches. Oddly, gravestones are propped up in one corner, adding a surreal air to the quiet suburban oasis.
It’s a nice – albeit strange – spot for an interview, and a somewhat curious tribute to one of London’s most renowned actors. Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was a comedian of some repute, a clown in the harlequinade so dominant in his field that his legacy is still seen today in white-faced clowns, called Joeys in his honour.
It’s a glorious late-Spring Saturday too; the start of a summer that will reduce many a Briton to a sweaty mess, lulled along by a festival of football and wall-to-wall sunshine that has just stretched into a second month.
Clowns and sunshine are the antithesis of Wild Pink’s delicate and taut sound; a sound that seems most potent when consumed in the shadows, slowly unfurling to envelope time and space away from prying eyes. Not that Wild Pink’s John Ross seems out of place in the early-evening sunshine. Having grown up in Florida, he’s used to the sun. Today’s he’s the epitome of cool, shades on permanently and wearing a vintage Cocteau Twins t-shirt. His band (completed by T.C. Brownell and Dan Keegan) are in town supporting Chicagoan indie-rockers Ratboys, and will later play a killer set of delicate but punchy indie-rock at The Lexington, a couple of blocks away.
The set will draw heavily on the New York group’s new album Yolk In The Fur, a dextrous and sprawling album of light and shade that translates monumentally well to the live arena.
As if to reflect the quiet and intimate nature of Wild Pink’s sound, Ross is shy and guarded when it comes to discussing his music and creativity. A number of times in the peaceful solitude of Joseph Grimaldi Park he’ll ask to speak off the record, elaborating on points and stories, but unwilling to spoil too much of the process, or open his words up to reinterpretation. In truth, such an approach just adds more mystery to the gorgeous Yolk In The Fur, teasing further understanding of an album that is thematically dense, considered and deliberate.
And if this repetition of place seems too much, it too is deliberate. Wild Pink love places and settings. Every song Ross has written has a time and a place in mind, the setting serving as the background to each tale or snatched conversation. It was prevalent on the group’s debut self-titled full-length, but is startlingly obvious throughout Yolk In The Fur.
“Places have always been a part of my songs, definitely for the last 15 years,” explains the softly-spoken Ross. “Places are a lynchpin of my songwriting. There’s a setting for everything. I think that helps frame the song for me writing it if it’s in that time and place.”
Sometimes, the setting is obvious. From ‘Burger Hill’ to ‘Lake Erie’ on Yolk In The Fur to ‘The Battle of Bedford Falls’ off the self-titled, there’s a sense that all of the songs have a home, linked forever to a time and place. One song in particular, ‘Séance on St Augustine Street’, points to a particular moment, and considering the gravestone setting, seems somewhat apt to discuss.
“So I had some friends that lived on that street in Florida, and we’d have séances; well, we’d use a Ouija Board… everything I write is rooted in reality.
“I’m a firm believer that the Ouija Board has some kind of otherworldly properties. I can’t articulate, and I’m not an authority so I don’t know what’s going on, but I know that a friend of mine talked to her grandmother, and then I talked to someone who said something to me that was meaningful that I took away. It wasn’t obvious to anybody else, but it was to me. The thing is, I love ghosts, and I love hauntings. I love anything scary. So my headspace is already there to begin with.”
Indeed, just like place, the otherworldly has always played a part in Wild Pink’s music. In ‘Wanting Things Makes You Shittier’ from 2017’s self-titled album, Ross sang about stringing up cloves of garlic to keep Dracula away. It’s a poignant reflection of childhood, where monsters lurk under the bed or outside of the window, again reflective of how moments in time, a real place, or an anecdote, feed into Wild Pink’s work.
If all these minutiae make their music feel intimate, it also masks some of the overarching themes that often help to pull all of the strands together. It’s easy to get lost in small moments, but there’s often a bigger picture lurking in the background. In the case of Yolk In The Fur – in particular the seamless A-side that drifts from one song to another – bold themes are easy to spot. From the idea of life finding a way to survive in the 21st century, to making personal changes that can improve the lives of those around us, Yolk In The Fur keeps widescreen ideas at the front and centre.
“I think the lyric “There’s a war on all life on Earth” [from ‘Lake Erie’] is the world writ large,” says Ross. “There is literally is a war on life on earth, with global warming and pollution and everything. But finding peace is way more personal. I wouldn’t say they’re too connected, but I don’t think anything is too far away from each other.
“But these ideas are there constantly… I think of the songs as nodal points that I can connect. Maybe not like writing a bunch of intros and streaming them together, but instead like having something I can hang my head on and connect it to the next one. On this record, the first five songs are all seamless into one another. Actually, I think that all the songs on Yolk In The Fur are from the same time and place. Maybe not the same subject matter, but this record feels very cohesive to me.”
Coming less than 18 months after Wild Pink, it’s an obvious step-up in songwriting and pacing. Ross jokes that the first album was “kind of taking out the trash” – a chance to get some stuff off his chest before moving on to focus on more complicated and expressive works. Clearly a joke – Ross’ trash still glistens more than most – it also demonstrates just how fast Wild Pink work. By Ross’ estimation, 70 percent of Yolk In The Fur was recorded before the self-titled was released. Now, with album number two just out, he’s already excited about album number three, highlighting how the Wild Pink seen by fans is always two paces behind the one that exists in Ross’ head.
“It never catches up,” he considers. “You stick something in the ground, and we’re in a different spot by the time anyone hears it. This third record, I’m very excited about it. It’s loosely it’s inspired by The West, the documentary by Ken Burns about the American West. It’s sonically different than Yolk In The Fur, [but] it’s still in that direction from the self-titled; we’ve been getting more expansive, and it’s definitely in line with that.”
Moving at such a pace, it’s to Ross’ credit that the quality of Wild Pink’s output has never dropped over the course of two albums and two EPs. In fact, with experience and confidence, they’re becoming more interesting and challenging with each release . Yolk In The Fur features a couple of songs that crack the six-minute mark. You could find yourself two-thirds of the way through the group’s 5-song Good Life EP debut in the same six-minute space. Unsurprisingly, Ross sees the enjoyment in testing himself with these complex, multi-part songs.
“It’s indulgent, and I love it,” Ross laughs, the cool and cultured mask slipping for the briefest of moments. “With the self-titled, I feel there are hints of that going on with a few songs, but this record I wanted to give everything room. Every song has enough space to do whatever it’s going to do. There are maybe two songs on the record that are less than four minutes.”
Such discussion also provides an opportunity to get inside Ross’ psyche. Yolk In The Fur is filled with embellishments and lush sounds, but also possesses the intimacy of a half-sketched diary, as if these songs could continue to evolve over time, or if Ross ever decided to revisit them. Indeed, when Ross talks about putting something in the ground, it hints that records are a snapshot in time, rather than a definitive, finalised collection of songs.
“On the one hand, I feel like there’s some knee-jerk, lizard-brain, sugar-seeking part of me that’s like ‘that’s song’s done’, but then there’s another part of me – and this lasts much longer – where I’m like ‘It’s never done’,” he considers.
“I don’t dwell on anything being incomplete. I’m just ready to move on to the next thing. I’m halfway through writing the third record now, and I’m ready to go make hay while the sun shines,” he considers.
With that – and with the sun still shining – we make our way back to The Lexington, talking about the Cocteau Twins and Bright Eyes’ sprawling I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Digital Ash In a Digital Urn experiment. Both serve as relatable touchstones to Wild Pink’s current sound, touching on the ethereal but remaining rooted in the real-life Americana of Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Tonight’s show will prove that the Wild Pink of 2018 is an ambitious and exciting band, making relatable and powerful indie-rock that flourishes with details and intricacy. What happens next promises to be just as exciting.
Shortly after this interview, my uncle unexpectedly died.
The night he passed, my dad’s car alarm went off while it was sitting idle on the driveway and my dad was in bed. Conscious of security after a thorough burglary a few years previous, he’d installed a CCTV camera. The following morning he reviewed the tape to see what had caused it. No person was captured on film, but there was a flash of light that tallied with my uncle’s time of death. It’s something that left my dad – someone who does have an open mind about such things – shaken. It’s also strikingly similar to a story recounted to me, off the record, by Ross.
Previously, I’d have probably dismissed any idea of such a link, but after this chat, I’m more open. Ross’ matter-of-fact tone and confidence when discussing mysticism – not to mention his quiet demeanour – all help to paint a picture of someone who is not easily shocked or, at the other end of the spectrum, a raving, monster-chasing fanatic.
In the same way, Wild Pink’s songs possess a touch of the fantastical. They’re tangible and real, grounded in place and time, yet pulse with a sense of magic and wonder. They almost seem palpable and pliable to touch, yet forever drift tantalisingly out of reach, floating on ley lines and escaping through the ether.