There are some phrases that get tossed around so much that you begin to take their weight for granted. “I’m starving” is a clear example. “I love you so much” is another one. After saying it for the first time in any meaningful relationship, that tagline comes back with diminishing returns, like copy and pasted salutations in well-meaning fundraising emails. Each word in that phrase, however, regained power and significance in the eyes of Wild Pink mastermind John Ross when he began writing what would become the band’s fourth full-length, ILYSM. Last summer, shortly after the release of the band’s acclaimed A Billion Little Lights, Ross received the startling and reality-quaking news that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. “[It’s] such a surreal, crazy thing to be told: ‘You have cancer,’” recalls the long-haired Ross over a Zoom call from his home in the Hudson River town of Red Hook, New York. “It absolutely will turn your world upside down.”
With so much uncertainty surrounding him, a pattern emerged in Ross’ writing. The more he interacted with the people in his life—whether it be his wife, his family, bandmates or someone else—the more he wanted to blow past the casualness in the ways he conveyed his love for them. The phrase started appearing unforced in Ross’ lyrics, popping up as almost a recurring mantra for the batch of songs that would end up appearing on the record. It just made sense to use the uppercase acronym as a banner for the well of heightened emotions he wanted to convey. Before ILYSM took shape, he wasn’t sure how many more times he would get the opportunity to say it.
“There were a lot of good reasons for it,” Ross says of choosing the album’s title. “I say that at least three or four times on the record in different songs. I think that kind of happened organically. Or at least the first time I noticed it, it seemed to happen organically. And then the idea just kind of got in my head to call it that. There’s themes of love and obsession and love through different lenses that seem to make sense with that title. Because of what was going on, it also made sense from a personal point of view with my wife and my close friends and family.”
This purpose or view of love through “different lenses” can reveal itself when you’re faced with the very real prospect of the end.
I can remember the first time my father told my siblings and I that he “loved” us, and knowing deep within me that he meant it. A Vietnam vet who opposed the war, he is a blue-collar Hudson Valley River School-style painter who focuses on detailed landscapes and still life, with gorgeous light reflecting clouds being his main calling card. He taught art in both prisons and public schools up until he retired over a decade ago. Even though he made a career of harnessing human expression, sharing his feelings verbally has never been his strong suit. He has always been more content to observe than to make himself the center of attention. So when he sat us around our kitchen table in the summer of 2003 to tell us that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, the same thing that killed his father, we could sense how terrified he was with the long road he was about to go down. News like that can fog your memory. With our mom by his side, he said something to the effect of, “I love you. It will all be okay.” Not knowing how to process this information, the family stayed at the table to attempt a boardgame night. It wasn’t long after starting Scrabble that our mom left the table to go sit in our living room and get lost in a primetime crime procedural at a volume that would mask her tears. Awkward jokes missed their landings between the rest of us who stuck behind to finish the game, and our Dad soon opened our screen door to take a walk outside to be alone with his thoughts. We rarely spoke about his diagnosis after that first night and now that it’s behind him, it’s like it never happened. Perhaps it was because he knew then that he had a goal in front of him that he had no choice in facing. Throughout his treatment, he had low moments, but he ultimately came out the other side cancer-free.
For Ross, a similar drive to persist despite the odds kicked in. There was no question that he would push forward with a new Wild Pink record. There was already too much at stake for him not to continue on with the art that had defined him in the past and to not finish this collection of material he had already been writing when he received his diagnosis. He echoes this back-against-the-wall feeling on the heartbreaking “War on Terror”:
Stay in the ocean because it’s just me
And the big moon rowing across the sky
Time is always moving to the right
And measured in things like tumor markers
Don’t you let me sleep in
“I found out that [the cancer] spread to my lymph nodes and then went and recorded three weeks later, right, and then I had surgery scheduled for within a week after the recording wrapped. So like, recorded the record in a very crazy window of time,” explains Ross in his soft-spoken, matter-of-fact way. In the midst of creative tunnel vision, he only briefly second-guessed whether it was the right thing to be doing given his fragile state. “By the time I was recording it, I had the chance to talk to the label a lot about, ‘Should I not be recording right now?’ I made a conscious decision to do it at the time that I did it because it was just a great way to process what was going on and kind of escape it a little bit.”
To assemble the record, Ross worked with his longtime Wild Pink band members, bassist Arden Yonkers and drummer Dan Keegan, and co-produced the album with producer Justin Pizzoferrato, as well as Peter Silberman of The Antlers. As opposed to the ways they had worked in the past, the album was mostly tracked live with a focus on spontaneity and organic interplay at Sonelab studios in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The musical palette of their previous album A Billion Little Lights harkened back to the synth-aided Americana of Bruce Springsteen driving away from E Street and into a Tunnel of Love, mixed with the widescreen grandeur of The Waterboys’ This is The Sea, as Ross’ soothing vocals often delivered unassuming, emotionally knee-capping couplets. Both that album and the album before—2018’s Yolk in the Fur—signified a forward leap from the band’s humbler beginnings, as their self-titled debut on Tiny Engines felt more inspired by early-2000s, emo-adjacent cornerstones like Death Cab for Cutie and Nada Surf. With ILYSM, there is less of a feeling of laborious perfectionism to the songs. Rather, the songs both bloom in logical ways and surprise with their experimental leanings. The album floats by at a dreamlike pace with moments of fist-pumping heartland rock like “See You Better Now,” which features unmistakable shredding solos from Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, tender ballads like “Hold My Hand” featuring guest vocals from Julien Baker, and the blistering, shoegaze-influenced epic “Sucking on the Birdshot.”
Ahead of the ILYSM studio sessions, Ross had spent a year demoing these songs to know exactly how he would like them to be fleshed out. Even in the wake of his illness, he could still lose himself in the process. Like he says in “Simple Glyphs”: “I’m not supposed to be here / I’m just showing up every day like Cal Ripken, Jr.” For all his imaginations of the possibilities of what this record could be based on his home recordings, he knew that working with his friends would only make the final product that much better and more full of life. As a result, ILYSM comes off feeling like the product of a band of friends pushing each other towards genuine, beautiful art and not an uncompromising director’s cut. As we speak, Ross is currently in the process of building more Wild Pink songs from the ground up. But moving forward after recording the album, Ross is more ready to let more people in when the songs take hold.
“That’s like the litmus test for me when I’m writing now. Writing and demoing at this point, it’s all part of the same process for me,” he explains. “I have to become obsessed with a song to move forward with it. I fully expect every time to fall out of love with the song after I’ve gone through that mania obsession with it. Part of the formula is to get really into the world of each song and with this new record, by the time we played it as a band, it was only improved on by having other people.
“My drummer Dan and I have been playing together since 2015 or 2016, and I write parts with him in mind,” he adds. “So to get to the point where we can finally get into the studio together, It’s just so exciting to be playing. What I’m interested in more now is to get to be a producer. I never set out to be a great guitar player or a great singer. You know, I’m interested in songwriting and bringing together players. That’s what really excites me.”
Although the particular form of cancer Ross was diagnosed with was fast-moving, luckily for him, it was also easily treatable. After a number of different surgeries and regular testing, things are looking positive. “??I’m doing well. I’m feeling strong. I’ve got a couple of scans, like clean scans under my belt. So things are definitely trending in the right direction,” he says with a sigh of relief. “I’m feeling like the worst is behind me. I just do scans every couple of months with CT scans and bloodwork and stuff pretty regularly. So I just kind of keep an eye on it.”
In a sense, things are getting back to normal. At the time of this conversation, the band is about to rehearse for their upcoming ILYSM tour with support from Trace Mountains. The pandemic has changed many facets of our everyday lives and for touring bands, practicing regularly is something that has fallen by the wayside when you can easily practice with demos passed along via Google Docs or Dropbox. For Wild Pink, distance has made this way of operating a reality as both Yonkers and Keegan now live in Buffalo, New York, which is around a five-hour drive from Ross in Red Hook. Unsurprisingly, this new normal is something Ross welcomes with open arms. “For some reason, I’ve just never liked band practice. I don’t know why. The new way of doing things suits me,” he says with a laugh.
For Ross, building ILYSM was a radical act of connection to not only his artistic expression that was almost silenced, but also those in his life who inspired and fueled his creativity. When the album reaches its final song, “ICLYM,” he backs away from his hushed and soothing vocal delivery to instead speak plainly to the listener about how fragile both his and our lives really are, and how he will never take that for granted again:
I used to feel everything intensely
And I still do sometimes but honestly it’s only when the mood strikes me
It’s strange to move on and still miss things
Like the view of the moon from my room
And the sight of you walking away up the avenue
And everything I thought was important but isn’t anymore after the year I went through
I couldn’t love you more
is out this Friday, Oct. 14, on Royal Mountain Records.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Revisit Wild Pink’s 2018 Daytrotter session below.