Wild Pink on “ILYSM”

Jasper Willems
7 min readApr 11, 2024

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Rude Awakenings and Cosmic Jokes

“I always feel my process for making records is figuring out what I like and don’t like about making it, and then correct the course of the ship into the other direction,” John Ross ponders on the other end of a grainy Zoom-connection. It might be a cold day in hell before the Wild Pink-frontman records the album he initially sets his mind to making. You see, the Brooklyn band’s previous outing “A Billion Little Lights” was supposed to become this expansive concept double album ruminating all the vast peripheries of the American West.

Instead, it became a compelling spectral echo of that idea: one foot in grounded heartland rock, and another in ethereal synth explorations. “Dreaming of the Pacific Coast /But for now we chase a ghost / Losing days that never end / Lost in anxious thoughts again,” Ross sings on “Track Mud” with his typically affable, whispered delivery.

It was both serendipitous and strange for Ross to witness the rollout for “A Billion Little Lights” from a stationary place. During the pandemic, he found no interest in writing music, focussing his attention predominantly on freelance audio post-production jobs. He broke out of his months-long slump penning “Florida”, a gorgeous striding standalone song that sounds like some extraterrestrial synthesis between Wildflowers and Big Science. It’s a piece of music that left these two ears — hum drumming about on his regular park side hike — confused, overwhelmed and in awe.

To be joyfully blindsided by his own musical ambitions, as it seems, is what Ross is all about. On each Wild Pink-release he ends up rolling with whatever fateful sucker punch distorts his creative trajectory. Finding out you have potentially fatal cancer six months into recording your fourth album — just as things start to slowly go back to ‘normal’– is quite the motherhumper of all sucker punches.

“Without going into too much detail, I caught it early and luckily was able to be successfully treated,” Ross says. “I’m in surveillance mode right now, but yeah, to your point, it was certainly jarring. There was nothing to prepare someone to receive that kind of diagnosis.”

Peculiarly, ILYSM was supposed to signify a more gloomy direction for Wild Pink. But the diagnosis warped the context of the songs into something more cascading, fragmented and volatile. Ross: “Initially for this album I wanted to make a dark record that had to do with love and obsession and different perspectives of love. But it ended up becoming a better record when I had no intention of that happening. So yeah, I don’t know. I basically rode a rollercoaster.”

That is but one way of putting it. ILYSM strikes like a geyser of moonstruck emotions stirring inside the simplest of sceneries. You can draw parallel to albums such as Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump or Sparklehorse It’s A Wonderful Life in how Ross’s frayed idiosyncrasies coalesce with his acute predicament. The tender-hearted Julien Baker-featured “Hold My Hand”, for instance, is an intimate testimonial by Ross about the moment before going under narcosis for surgery, and one of the nurses holding his hand as he drifts into a sleepless dream.

“It’s the first song I wrote after the cancer surgery,” Ross explains. “I felt it would be such a cool song for a duet, especially because it takes two people to hold hands. So the song lent itself naturally to another vocalist. Julien was the first person that I thought of. I kind of can’t believe it worked out as organically and easily it did. Cause I think that that song means a lot to me for a lot of reasons. But as far as the production of the album goes, it’s a very sparse song. Every instrument in it is acoustic, upright bass and piano. Acoustic guitar — well, there’s a tiny bit of electric guitar. But all the main components are like acoustic instruments. That’s a big departure from the previous record, which was very electric and digital, it has digital lacquer over it. On ILYSM I wanted to do the opposite of that. With that song in particular, I’m glad how handmade it came out.”

“Sucking On The Birdshot” explores the other aural extreme: a feverish primal scream of a song that reaches an almost post-metal intensity. “I was in Florida and saw a sandhill crane by the side of the road; its partner had been killed by a car, and the bird was mourning and screaming in pain — I’ve never heard anything like it,” Ross noted in the press release. “They’re these very striking birds that look like dinosaurs, and I came to learn that they mate for life, which is unusual in the animal kingdom. I had that in mind when I wrote this song about a pure expression of love in the natural world, and how your own first love can feel huge in a similar way.”

This stylistic shift could potentially alienate those attuned to Wild Pink’s more introverted, cerebral songwriting. But truth be told, John Ross isn’t a stranger to grand sonic heaviness. Early in our conversation, we bond over the fact that we were both angsty kids who listened to Nirvana, Korn and Primus in our teens. He attests that leaning fully into those crude, unprocessed feelings felt quite liberating at times, before his tastes started to become mature and sophisticated. But within the urgent impetus of recording ILYSM, he indulged himself more than ever in his own lyrical earnesty and offbeat experimentation. “I feel with this record, I wanted to get really granular with the details, adding tons of little ornaments or whatever, and not be too precious about it. In the case of the start of “Hell Is Cold”, that vocoder — that particular effect only happens for one line and then it’s gone. It’s just really fun to play with.”

Like a tiny pebble swerving within a celestial storm, much of ILYSM’s devastation and exuberance lies in threadbare reflections. Particularly the lyrics directed towards his wife feel like an intimate love letter that wasn’t meant to be read by prying eyes. “And you moved just like smoke from wet wood / With dandelion seeds falling all around you just like summer snow” Ross sings like it’s a declaration instead of a romantic serenade. Like giving into a vast gravitational pull, he repeats the words “I love you so much” several times in several songs, almost as if placing a marker for a rallying point. Ross: “I think that even taking it a step further by using the acronym, ILYSM, that’s potentially more cheesy than saying ‘I love you so much!” But when you lean into it so hard, it’s like “if you play a wrong note you just keep playing it until it’s right”.”

‘Keep playing’ was literally the doctor’s orders after his surgery; instead of being advised to kick back and recover, Ross was actually encouraged to continue working on the record. To alleviate the strain of producing , a large cast of like-minded players was summoned in: Justin Pizzoferrato (Pixies, Body/Head, Speedy Ortiz) and Peter Silberman (The Antlers), bandmates Arden Yonkers and drummer Dan Keegan, plus Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner (Magnolia Electric Co., and finally Bing & Ruth’s Jeremy Viner and David Moore. Top cap it off a slew of guest artists, J Mascis, the aforementioned Julien Baker, Ryley Walker, Yasmin Williams and Samantha Crain, provided contributions. “I just set out to be very collaborative on this album, and work with as many great people as I could. I was really moved by what they brought to the songs, and how they were elevated musically.”

Despite the organic band-in-the-room nature of the recordings, the album tracks are divided by harsh, fragmented cuts, fully accentuating the rude awakenings and cosmic jokes of confronting one’s own mortality. The transition from “Hell Is Cold” to the album’s title track almost sounds like the shift of the radio station when you cross a state line. “I wanted to explore harsh digital cuts at the end of songs. Basically what you just described with ‘Hell Is Cold’, the disjointedness of “Sucking on a Birdshot”. I liked that it was, I don’t know, maybe unpleasant.”

On ILYSM, Ross bares himself into blissful freefall, no longer bothering trying to steer the ship, in bashful bewilderment of the universe’s inherent chaos and small accidental miracles. On opening track “Cahooting The Multiverse”, he juxtaposes earthly ephemera almost like one of those nature reels you see on National Geographic, “dreaming dreams so sweet they’re cruel”. Whereas on the upbeat Tom Petty-esque “See You Better Now”, he marvels at a bird swiftly flying through “the barrel of a wave that could kill her.”

At the moment, Ross is dealing with the strange flux of being in surveillance mode, though his impulse at the moment is to swing for the fences. Wild Pink — now a four-piece with Brenner in the fold have announced their biggest tour yet, bent on letting the chips fall where they may. By now, Ross is far too used to the idea of the journey taking on unexpected turns. On album closer “ICLYM” (“I Couldn’t Love You More”) — he literally phones it in with hushed resignation leaving the keys in the ignition, and reminding himself how “your thinking creates your reality”. “I used to feel everything intensely / And I still do sometimes but honestly it’s only when the mood strikes me,” he realizes, understanding the folly of things turning out the way he first envisioned them.

For now Ross simply moves along with the creative tides, adrift and at peace where they will lead him, without questioning it all too much. “I feel and I hope that will happen more and more as people hear the album. Cause I definitely identify with that idea that stuff starts to make sense in retrospect after it’s done. You don’t even know why you made certain choices, and later it kind of clicks for you. And that’s really exciting.”

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