When Lost In The Trees – who will perform at the Cellar Door in downtown Visalia on Friday, March 21 – set out to record Past Life, their third album for ANTI-, they knew they needed a break with the past. Frontman Ari Picker looked to move beyond the themes of loss that fueled two emotional, densely personal collections of songs.
Channeling the liberating happiness he felt in his young marriage into his method, he came up with a new approach to writing. “I wanted to reach out and grab the music rather than have it come from some internal place,” he said.
On past releases, Picker had used an expanded six-member band to render his carefully composed, classical-inflected songs, bringing them fully arranged to the studio for the band to perform. For the new album, the band was pared to a lean electronic-rock four-piece, and in this new configuration, Lost In The Trees took to the road to workshop the songs that would become Past Life. Immediately, the new tracks evidence more than a band pared down; the arrangements are modern, spare, minimal, emphasizing groove and rhythm, blending the sonic architecture of 21st century electronic dance music, the austere emotion of the minimalist composers, and the sensual swerve of post-Bowie ’80s pop.
Having crafted the songs to create a maximum impact in a live setting, the band made their next break with past practice, electing to work with an outside producer for the first time. Nicolas Vernhes, whose credits include breakthrough albums from Deerhunter, Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective and Wild Nothing, endorsed the band’s new minimal aesthetic, and the question in the studio became, “How much can we strip away?” With an approach that forefronts beats and basslines, Vernhes and the band lift away the orchestral density of the previous albums – the emotional analog of Picker’s intense lyrics – leaving a more direct framework of soul-inflected guitar lines, throbbing groove and Picker’s soaring vocal hooks.
Fans who came to the band lured by the lush classicism of All Alone in an Empty House and A Church that Fits Our Needs (the Wall Street Journal’s album of the year in 2012) will not be disappointed. After all, the band are known for its unique orchestral sound, and Church, with its intense narrative of loss, drew lavish praise from all quarters, both as an “exquisite exercise in the seduction of melancholy” (Iowa Press-Citizen) and “a stirring blend of modest rusticity and urbane ambition” (New York Times).
The haunting lyricism of Picker’s voice and melodies has not diminished in the new sparer approach, but instead rises to the fore, bringing out that timeless quality of the melodies that is the common ground of both folk and pop music. This pop quality, buried but always present in previous efforts, shines on Past Life; not pop in any trivial, retro sense, but the yearning lilt of Harry Nilsson or Mark Hollis, that floating melodicism that Relix found so “achingly beautiful.”
“It’s supposed to be more abstract – more emotional and ethereal,” Picker told the Voice. “It’s a template for the listener to latch on to an explore.”
Picker said “a lot of people” have influenced the band’s sound, from Philip Glass to Grizzly Bear to Braids to Electric Light Orchestra to “some bands I don’t even know, that we see on tour.” Beyond other people’s music, Lost In The Trees is also influenced by friends, family and painting, Picker said. “We all have painting workshops. It’s like a salon kind of vibe.”
Picker agreed that writing and playing music was therapeutic. “For me, it’s fulfilling like what going to church might be fulfilling to someone else. It’s an experience that the human soul needs.”
He said the best way to appreciate Lost In The Trees music is “headphones – a few beers and headphones.”
Lost in the Trees played at the Cellar Door a couple of years ago as the first stop on a tour that probably could have gotten off to a better start. After the show, the promoter drove his Jeep over the bags with the band’s rare and unusual percussion instruments.
“He was really cool about it so it was no big deal,” Picker said. “It didn’t ruin the trip. It was funny.”
When asked where he pictured himself in five years, Picker responded, “I have no idea. That’s my way of being a happy person.” After realizing he had the answer to the question, he said, “I will continue to be a happy person.”
Picker may be with Lost In The Trees then, or he may pursue other projects that interest him, such as writing and performing chamber music.
Lost in the Trees, which recently played shows at large venues, is looking forward to the show in the intimate Cellar Door. “If the audience is close and in your face, that’s great,” he said. “A small crowd can give you energy. Everyone just has to be more brave.”
Chicago band Icy Demons will bring their unique experimental pop as the opening act.
The Cellar Door is located at 101 W. Main St., Visalia. Tickets for the 9pm 21+ show are $10, and available at Ticketweb.com.