In Conversation: Wild Pink and the Antlers

John Ross and Peter Silberman talk tricking yourself into writing an album, having your gear stolen, and more.

Peter Silberman is the frontman of Brooklyn-based indie rock band The Antlers; John Ross is the frontman of the NYC-based trio Wild Pink. To celebrate the release of Wild Pink’s new album, A Billion Little Lights, this Friday, and The Antlers’ first album in seven years — Green to Gold, coming March 26 via ANTI- — the two hopped on the phone to catch up. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor 

Peter Silberman: Jumping off of [this] order of operations — like, you capturing an idea, bringing it into a session or working with your sequencer — where does it go from there? and. Because I think I know that made this last record in a studio. It wasn’t it wasn’t home recorded, right?

John Ross: Well, it was like a good year, year and a half just recording at home. Then once I knew what was going to be on the record and what I wanted for each song, at that point we did go work with the producer in, like, a makeshift studio. From there, it was just replacing things, you know, like replacing MIDI drums and redoing bass and some guitar, doing all the vocals again. Some heavy duty polishing. 

This producer was just really awesome. His name’s David Greenbaum — super, super helpful to work with him, because I feel like I could just tell him I wanna do a handful of things, and he knows how to quickly set it up for me to just do two or three things without wasting too much time on it. 

Peter: That’s nice. 

John: Super helpful, yeah. That way I don’t get lost in the weeds trying to figure something out with the gear. So once we had finished that session with David — it was about two weeks, and we had the songs in a very good place, and from there I went to Philly where my pedal steel player is, Mike Brenner. He has a Rolodex of really great players, so we went to a studio for two days and tracked accordion and strings, piano. Basically, by the time we had done that, I feel like the songs were pretty close to being done. Which is something I discovered on this record: By the time I start bringing in players, I don’t have to count on somebody else to make the song feel finished. So it just kind of worked really well. They came in, and everybody played really cool parts and then we went back with David and I finished mixing with him. 

I wanted to ask: Did you mix your record?

Peter: No, my buddy, my buddy Nick Principe mixed it. I was there with him kind of involved in the process, but he mixed.

John: Yeah, that’s helpful having somebody that you trust mix it. It’s also helpful to stand over their shoulder.

Peter: [Laughs.] So would you say that most of the things that you tracked on your own, you ended up retracking?

John: I would say that by the time I started working with David, I kept probably half of what I had tracked. Like, a lot of the sound design-y stuff, I kept all of that. Basically the the drums and the bass were the main things, that was the first thing that we had to replace.

Peter: Well, the drums do sound great on your record. 

John: Thank you! Did you play bass on your record? 

Peter: I did, yeah. It’s actually baritone guitar, but don’t tell anyone. 

John: Oh, nice. That’s cool. 

Peter: But, yeah, I’ve got a baritone guitar I’ve been playing for a number of years that I’ve basically been using as a bass — as a kind of, like, Beatles bass. It just seems to work very well for that kind of percussive sort of bass, you know. 

John: Got the snap to it. 

Peter: Yeah, it’s got some snap.

John: Do you think that’s something you’ll take into the live show?

Peter: I don’t think so. I have a bit of a rule gear-wise for myself, which is that I tend not to bring gear on tour with me that I have a sentimental attachment to. or that would be really hard to replace if something happened to it. My baritone is like that — it’s like a baritone Les Paul that was only made for a couple of years in the 2000s, and they’re hard to find. I somehow found one — I don’t know, this was, like, over five years ago, and I’ve just kind of held onto it for dear life since then. So I don’t think I would bring it on tour with me. 

John: Have you had a bad accident on tour with gear? 

Peter: I’ve actually been really fortunate, I don’t think I’ve had any gear stolen on tour. But the gear that I use that I love the most for home use, or for recording or whatever — sometimes I find, especially when it’s vintage gear, that it just doesn’t stand up to touring as well. It’s a little less reliable, a little more finicky. I sort of got to this place where I just wanted, like, reliable, easily replaceable gear on tour with me.

John: Yeah, that makes sense.

Peter: But yeah, I mean, I think we’re still very much in the process of fleshing out the rest of the band, because it’s really just me and Michael right now. But we’re thinking a bass player would probably be necessary for these songs, because it’s one of the kind of pillars of these tracks, the sound.

John: Totally. The last time we were in San Francisco, our car was broken into, and it sucked. But they didn’t get anything that we couldn’t easily replace, which is good.

Peter: Ah, that’s good. We got broken into a couple of times. In most cases, they didn’t make off with anything beloved, but we had some laptops stolen in Vancouver. We got broken into in Spain somewhere, and then in Paris. In most of those cases, they made off with some stuff, but it could have been so much worse. That’s usually the take away.

John: So you’ve been robbed! 

Peter: We have. Now we bring, not all our gear inside, but we bring guitars inside the hotel, whatever. We don’t leave them in the car overnight. 

John: That’s a good lesson. I think I’m there with you now at this point. 

Peter: It’s kind of a pain, but less of a pain than trying to replace a piece of gear on short notice. 

This is sort of a two part question, but I’ll start with the first part, which is: At what point in the process do you know that you’re working on an album versus just a bunch of songs?

John: Since the first full length was released, I was pretty much convinced that I only ever wanted to make full lengths. We have put out EPs peppered in throughout —

Peter: What convinced you of that?

John: I don’t know, I think I just really like the full length thing. I just like coming up with, like, a singular piece of album artwork. I just love every part of making a full length record and having a standalone as if it were a movie or something. But that said, we have a few EPs, but they’re typically like the extras that that didn’t make the cut or whatever. 

So this is all to say that whenever I’m writing a song, I pretty much know that it’s going to go on a full length record or an EP. But, to drill down even further on that, I don’t feel confident to say that I’m working on a record until I have, like, the one linchpin of a song.

Peter: Like, the one that you know kind of ties it all together?

John: Yeah. Like, OK, there’s a reason to make another record, you know. What about you?

Peter: Well, usually it’s kind of the same where if I’m starting to write songs, I’m thinking of it like, OK, how does this become a record? Or like, This is part of the record, where does it fit into a greater whole? I just thought in terms of albums for really long time. This time I actually intentionally didn’t think of it that way. Partly as a way to take the pressure off of myself, because I had taken a bit of time off from songwriting and I had to kind of trick myself back into it by just kind of starting up the practice of songwriting again — like, kind of doing it by appointment rather than waiting to be inspired. So I set a schedule for myself of like, three mornings a week I’m going to go down to the studio and I’m going to I’m just generate some ideas and chord progressions and record them, and I’m not making the album. You know, almost in a little bit of denial. I’m not making an album, I’m just seeing what it’s like to write songs again

There’s this kind of compulsion to turn it into an album every step of the way — like, coming up with an idea and being like, This sounds like the second to last song on the album to me, or, This sounds like the opening track. [So I would be] like, That’s OK. Just keep making things. Having been done with this one for about a year and working on some new material, it almost seems crazy to be like, And now I’m working on the next album! So again, I’m just being like. I’m just working on a lot of songs, and almost thinking of it in terms of just stockpiling songs and then seeing how they make sense together, if they make sense together, and kind of grouping them.

John: Did you find that coming back from a hiatus that you had some ideas in the hopper ready to go, or was there some rust to knock off?

Peter: I don’t think I have a lot of conceptual ideas, as far as a song being about something or lyrical ideas or things like that. It took me a while to get to that point after taking a break, and that kind of relates to me wanting to take a step back from it and feeling a little bit, like, thematically exhausted, or something. But I think what I found was that there was a kind of memory in there for me of how chords work together and melody and harmony. I don’t know if they were ideas that were waiting to come out so much as they were just like a natural thing that happens when I turn the machine on. I think taking that pressure off as well helps/ I think that helped the ideas flow a little more freely.

John: Was there ever a time where you thought that you might not make another album? Or did you always kind of think the break was just temporary?

Peter: It was around that time, actually, that I was grappling with that question. I knew that I could make one, but I wasn’t sure what the point was. I think that was really just a bit of a doubt spiral that is, for me, the result of spending too much time thinking about making music and not enough time making music. 

Because I think the question answers itself — if you’re engaged in the process all the time, you don’t need to ask yourself, Why am I doing this? But when I take a step back from it and I’m not doing it, it becomes this question of, What is even the point of an album in existence in the world? And, I’ve made enough of them, does the world really need more songs? Do I have anything to say right now, can I justify the existence of this album? All these questions that I usually stop asking once I start working on something, and especially these days where I’m a lot less goal-oriented than I used to be. I’m much more interested in process and finding enjoyment in the process itself. So I’m not asking myself, What’s the point of this? The point of it is just doing it. The point of it is enjoying making something. Whatever comes of it should be the result of refined taste and hard work and attention, but it’s not to solve any of the world’s problems and it doesn’t have to have a grander purpose. That’s not really for me to decide — it’s just up to me to show up and put in the time, put in the work.

John: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I feel kind of similarly. There’s like a two or three year interim between the record we’re about to put out and the one before it, which is a very long time to me. There’s like a sense of urgency, but an uncomfortable urgency — like I have to keep putting stuff out — but I feel like I was kind of forced to take a little break just because it took so long to put this out. I’m kind of glad for it. Maybe it’s just come with getting a little bit older, but there’s not that desperate need to put something out as quickly.

Peter: Yeah, I definitely feel that. I think for me, it definitely has to do with getting a bit older and keeping that kind of anxiety in check. I think that for me, it’s also been the recognition of just enjoying making things more than enjoying releasing them. I like getting a record out there into the world, and I think it’s important after making something to publish it and to participate in the culture at large. But as far as what gives me a reason to do it, it’s the making it itself. And I think I’ve just realized that, you know, releases can be anticlimactic, especially in this moment in time where we’re both going to release records over the next several weeks and we’re not going to go play a show, we’re not going to go on tour. Release day and the day after release day might might be very similar days. The only difference is what happens in your inbox, and on the internet. So recognizing that I think helps me keep some perspective. 

I was messaging with another musician who put out a record, I think it was in the fall — I’d reached out on his release day to just congratulate him, and ask how he’s spending it, and he was like, “I’m working on the next record today.” I thought was so cool. I thought it was really inspiring, like “I’m not going to get distracted by what is supposed to be a red letter day. I’m here to keep making the things, and I’m happy that it’s out now, but I’m not going to get sidetracked.”

John: Yeah, I was going to ask, are you are you currently writing new stuff?

Peter: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of things left over from Green to Gold that I’m seeing if they have potential to become songs in their own right. I’m just coming up with new ideas and trying to bring them into into existence. So there’s right now probably about 10 tracks kicking about with undetermined destinies right now. It’s so funny — when I land on an idea, when it first comes to me I’m like, This is it. This is a winner. And then spending a little time with it, I’m like, This actually isn’t that great? Or I actually just realize this sounds like something else I’ve already written or that it isn’t that interesting. So it always ends up being funny, what does and doesn’t make the cut.

John: It’s so funny when you’re writing something and you’re like, “This is it, here it is!” I try to really pay attention to those moments and, without ruining any of the excitement — which it inevitably does — I’m like, Let’s be a little objective here. Is there really something to this? I find that even if the excitement subsides, but I could honestly say, OK, this has some shelf life, then it gives me some confidence later to still keep that idea going.

Peter: Definitely. Something I really like about your record is, in a way, it’s kind of lean. You can tell that every track really deserves to be there, and it almost ends before you expect it to a little bit. Which I think is the best place for a record to be at — it’s so much better than, like, wearing out your welcome or something going on too long.

John: That’s really awesome. When I was first started writing this record, I thought it was going to be a double LP.

Peter: Oh, my god, I did the same thing. 

John: Did you really?

Peter: Yeah, me and Michael were talking about it, because we had so many songs and we were like, “So we’re making a double album now?” And then you winnow it down, and then you’re like, “OK, actually less is more here.”

John: Completely. Yeah, pretty quickly I was like, I can’t justify making a double LP. I don’t know why I ended up not doing that. I feel like I might at some point — I think it’s a really interesting idea. But, yeah, I think there is a lot to be said for keeping things short and sweet. 

Peter: I think a double album is a really good life goal. When you do it, you just have to kill it, you know? And I don’t know how to do that. [Laughs.] This album is honestly the first album I made where there even was more material than went on the album. Usually I go right up until I hit the minimum threshold, and then I’m like, OK, let’s just refine what we’ve got. This was the first time that I really, like, made cuts. And I decided with songs that were like maybe, you know, three quarters of the way there, or even further — some of them were just like, This isn’t strong enough. This doesn’t get to doesn’t get to join the party. It has to be put aside and maybe it’ll be resurrected at some point.

John: Ten of those left over, though — that’s no slouch. That’s a very considerable amount of music.

Peter: Well, of the ones that are left over, I think I’m trying to carry two of them forward, and then there’s like a handful of completely new ones that I’ve written in the las month or so. And then there’s a collection that are basically from piano recordings, like piano improvisations that I did a number of years ago, that I’m trying to turn into songs.

John: When did you start writing songs in earnest for this record? Obviously it wasn’t the full seven or so years in that hiatus, right? Because you had taken a break.

Peter: Yeah, so the last Antlers album was 2014. Some time probably within a year of that album coming out, I had started working on a solo album, which I then continued to work on and then recorded in 2016 and released in 2017. I did a little bit of touring on that one, pretty much until the summer of 2017. I took a full break from songwriting until, I guess it would have been the beginning of 2018, maybe end of 2017 that I kind of started scratching the surface. That was when I started writing things that would eventually become Green to Gold. From that point, I I finished writing and recording the record exactly a year ago. 

John: How long did you mix for?

Peter: We mixed for a while. We mixed for a couple of weeks, and then I had to move and get resettled, then after the move we picked up again for another few weeks. We were trying to make something that sounded a little unusual — you know, trying to age the recording while also bringing it up to the standards of a proper recording.

John: Well, the record sounds amazing. 

Peter: Thank you so much. 

Do you have any practices or rituals or hobbies, or just activities in general, that inform the [songwriting] process, or kind of get you in the right frame of mind to work on an album, to write a song, to write lyrics, whatever?

John: It’s almost alarming to me how much I’m inspired by TV and movies and stuff. The documentaries of Ken Burns — if there’s any one source of inspiration consistently for me, it’s probably the Ken Burns documentaries, honestly.

Peter: That’s awesome. I could that. They’ve got a kind of stylistic consistency and a pacing and a kind of depth to them.

John: Yeah. He’s just got his own style that, like, it doesn’t matter what he’s talking about. I really respect that. What about you? 

Peter: I feel like while I was working on this record, gardening really was a good metaphor for the process for me. I felt like there were things about the flow of gardening that felt like they translated to making a record — [it’s] this kind of place that you’re tending to, and you’re working on a lot of pieces at once and trying to keep them all healthy. Different plants need different things, different resources, and I think thinking about a collection of songs that way as being something that you also have to be really patient with and allow them time to get established — that sort of speaks to what we were talking about with the early version of an idea seeming like it’s the one, but really it needs time to demonstrate its value, and if it has value. 

I started writing the record just as musical ideas, basically without knowing what any of it was about. I needed life to kind of play out for a little while to tell me what these songs were going to be about, and to kind of feed them. I needed to be checking in with them regularly and working the soil regularly. 

This is kind of an extended metaphor here, but I did find when we were trying to establish our garden over the past couple of years, our various gardens, that there were some parallels in the way that these things grow and mature. At the end of it, you do feel like you’ve helped something come into existence. And then you have to kind of let it go, which is just what happens by nature of the seasons here. I think it happens for us when we’re releasing albums — like, there was a period of time that you were pretty deeply in it, and then a bunch of time passes and eventually you release it and you have to kind of let go of it.

It used to feel kind of like conjuring magic, and these days it feels like you just gotta water the garden.

John: Yeah, absolutely. I think that comes, too, with maybe getting a little older and having a healthier attitude towards everything. You don’t have to catch lightning in a bottle necessarily, you just have to keep working on it every single day — just, like, live it. 

(Photo Credit: left, Mitchell Wojcik)

Wild Pink is a New York-based rock band. Their third album, A Billion Little Lights, is out February 2021 via Royal Mountain Records. 

(Photo Credit: Mitchell Wojcik)