By James Campion -
Wild Pink is the perfect band to play the Underwater Sunshine Fest, for its very existence can be found in the soul of what this gathering of artists is all about; discovery in music.
To wit: It is a trio that is occasionally a quartet, a rock and roll band that isn’t necessarily or in any way rock and roll, and plays well-structured, singularly-composed songs which find their ethereal form in a free-association band construct. And that is only part of what you can figure out about Wild Pink, if you try. But why waste your time with such nonsense, when this is a band not made for “figuring”. It is made for absorbing, digesting and experiencing; all the things that matter in great art. The dreamily hypnotic way in which the uniquely chorded guitar resonances float above the air-tight basslines textured with emotive percussion provide all the ambient evidence you need that you’ve found something new. Don’t mess with it. Just enjoy it.
The finest example of all this is the band’s latest album, Yolk in the Fur, played in part to me during our Underwater Sunshine podcast when Adam Durtiz, my hearty co-host and co-founder of this festival, proffered without hesitation; “I just started listening to this and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, and I was dying to know what you thought?”
Spoiler alert: We loved it. More to the point, I became quite obsessed with it and the young gentlemen who created it.
Turns out Yolk in the Fur is the culmination of a career in soundtrack work for Wild Pink’s 32 year-old singer-guitarist and main songwriter, John Ross, who told me without much hesitation, “I love dreamy music.” It was this sound – what I have come to understand within it – that’s been sneaking around in Ross’ head since his days as a kid growing up in Florida by way of Virginia when he became enamored with the soundtrack to the Oscar winning film, American Beauty. The quirkily airy arrangements by composer Thomas Newman laid the foundation for a lifetime of musical fascinations that led Ross to New York to pursue a career in television and film scores.
Before forming Wild Pink, Ross spent a decade working in the business, creating musical beds for NBC promos, most notably The Office and 30 Rock among others. “I scored a film that was, I think, Adam Driver’s first movie ever,” he recalls. “But I mostly wrote a lot for production music libraries that are used all over.”
In fact, not until 2014 had Ross even considered composing structured songs with lyrics that could fill the setlist for a performing band. This all changed when he met 36 year-old bassist, TC Brownwell and 26 year-old drummer, Dan Keegan, whom Ross describes as the band’s resident “rock hound” and in no uncertain terms “one of the best players I’ve ever played with.”
“It’s easy to get bored with conventional song structure,” Ross explained when I inquired about his unique composing methods. “It’s more exciting to find more challenging ways to put together a bunch of different segments.”
This theory of composing comes alive in the album’s title track, which could have been three or even four separate songs but are fused into one serpentine nearly seven-minute epic that hints at the theatrical while never seeming pretentious. Quite the contrary; its song-within-songs pays homage to simpler rhythms and melodies, harkening the origins of rock without the obvious trappings. As for the quizzical title, “Yolk in the Fur”, according to its author, is a feral symbol of protecting something vulnerable. He sings, “You're changing the path of your life” and later, “I’m changing the path of my life” with a detached sense of irony, devoid of smarm, because then he hits you with, “When you lose your life / You don't even know it's gone / Until you come face to face with a wolf / And see the yolk in the fur” and there is a chilling recognition of where the songwriter is willing to go.
“The initial thought that I had about that song and the record as a whole is like knowing when you need to be tough, like a wolf, but you find yourself in deep trouble and fuck, I don’t know…”
You see, even Ross has trouble pinpointing this whole Wild Pink thing. And hell, I’m breaking my own rule here; why try and explain or pigeonhole Wild Pink when it’s just…well, it’s Wild Pink.
Make no mistake, although Ross’s background is in instrumental mood-setting and both Brownwell and Keegan come from more traditional musical combos, Ross pens and arranges the songs for the band to add their slant, but within the configuration of how the tracks will eventually sound. These parameters, says Ross, come from his love and study of classic country music, wherein the story is the thing. This even expands to storytellers of a different genre. “All the great singer-songwriters like Jackson Brown and Tom Petty, which are of course on the beaten path of rock, but have what I always loved about Petty; the storytelling, the simplicity of the music and the lyrics,” he says. “I love Bruce Springsteen for the same thing. I love those guys because they just tell stories, which I think is harder to find nowadays.”
Finding comfort in odd music soundtracks and country-based storytellers (Ross is also a huge fan of REM – the country-tinged alternative rock band from the early 80s into 90s that reinvented the genre) is another intriguing aspect of Wild Pink’s creative story. In the album’s opening track, “Burger Hill”, Ross sings, “From the top of Burger Hill, I see / Smoke that leaves through the chimneys / The world is untouched and set free
The way it was meant to be” and we’re off and running on a story with a setting and plenty of mood.
But it is playing live when Wild Pink makes the most sense – the playing with genres, the cinematic flourishes, the countrified storytelling. And what makes it work flawlessly is the three men, and on occasion, one or two others, that provide depth and purpose that has resonated thus far with audiences. “It’s been so rewarded playing shows where people know the songs,” Ross concludes. “And the shows are really, really fun. Playing with Dan and TC is great, but I’m also bringing in more people like Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner from Philly on lap steel. He's played with the likes of Magnolia Electric Company. Benjamin Carbone also joins us on guitar and he adds so much to the sound live beyond the lush instrumentation. I can’t imagine playing with just three people now. Add these guys have taken the band to a new level.”
No matter the level, Wild Pink takes the sounds in John Ross’s head, mixed with his lyrical sense of spinning yarns and shifting moods, and creates uniquely weird and wonderful music that cannot be given a name or genre. See it transform our stage at the Underwater Sunshine Fest to understand what it all means and decide for yourself. It is, like all great art, best enjoyed in personal experience.
Their home on the Webbs
Wild Pink on BandCamp
On the FacedBook
On the Apple of Music
And the ‘Grammmm