Lost In The Trees’ last album, A Church That Fits Our Needs helped frontman Ari Picker deal with the loss of his mother, who committed suicide in 2008. The Wall Street Journal boldly named it their favorite album of 2012. The Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based indie band are back with a revamped lineup and a powerful new record, Past Lives, out February 18 on ANTI-. We chatted with Picker about the new album, his approach to songwriting, Leonard Cohen being for good for lovers and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
David Bowie and Jeff Mangum always are on my list, along with a lot of composers and one hit wonders.
Tell us a bit about your new album. How would you describe it?
I’d call it a romantic nighttime record. It has the heaviest grooves of any record I’ve ever done, most of the songs have very open feel. Nicolas Vernhes, who produced the record, and I got into the idea of seeing how few elements we could have driving the song, versus stuffing it with as much as we could. The musical painting can only be so big, and the less stuff you put on the canvas the bigger role each individual element plays. The record has this very potent minimalist feel to it.
How would you compare it to your last album?
They both sound haunted, but where as the last record sounded like you might have found it in a attic, this new one feels like you’re somewhere very expansive, like at the bottom of the ocean.
Why did you change up your band members for this album?
Ultimately, I knew I had taken the sound of the past albums as far as I could and if I was going to make another record, I needed to either shake things up or do something totally different. So, I changed my writing process and the songs that appeared called for a different sonic pallet, thus the lineup reflects the shift.
The band that toured House and Church with me are wonderful friends and musicians. I love them all dearly and we shared some of the best times of our lives. They worked their asses off, I have only tremendous gratitude for them.
I could not be more excited about the current lineup, there’s a really exciting chemistry going on right now. For kind of the first time it feels like a band, playing these new songs has allowed us to tap into a really great energy.
When did you start writing songs?
In the mid-’90s.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I don’t recall the melody or lyrics, but I remember it was a very sad, sulky thing. My buddies were all writing pop songs and joke songs, so it was not received well, but it sure felt good to write and sing a sad song.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I’m currently writing a chamber piece, a song cycle set to the poetry of Rilke. We’ll see if it ever drifts beyond my walls.
How do you go about writing songs?
Each album or piece has a different approach. For the new album I would go into the studio in the mornings and create little loops or a small progression. Then in the evenings I’d take that back home and try to write a song with the pallet I’d created earlier. It was nice to have two writing spaces, one that was totally free, and one that used my editing brain. It is good to keep those elements apart, across town if possible.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
For past records, the lyrics came from an extremely personal, heavy place and I did not want to be at the center of the narrative for the new record. I wanted to reach out and grab it versus trying to dig inside myself for it. I began by going to art museums and writing poems about the paintings, then I’d throw the poems onto the ground and look for interesting stories that could be created by combining moments of the different poems.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Seeing or hearing other folks’ art or music normally makes me want to go home and write. All the little inspirational moments taken from different places, when they are combined, can create a unique energy, a mix-tape of ideas. I’ll follow that vibe and see where it takes me.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Lady in White” is the one I always go back to. I was really proud of how different it turned out to be. It went through many transformations. It started as a rock tune, then turned into a weird 90’s hip-hop thing. The bass line is the most groovy thing I’ve been a part of.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
I’m a fan of the “Death is just a staircase” lyric in the song “Past Life.” I kept envisioning these two souls chasing each other through different lives, and entering and exiting each life on a tornado. It was a bizarre and romantic image, one that that lyric seems to sum up nicely.
Do you believe in past lives?
I think the idea of soul mates and young and old souls is very romantic. As a human being I’m sure I’ll never be able to comprehend how infinite our existence is, but sometimes I can feel it.
Are there any words you love or hate?
Coffee is a beautiful word.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
Oddly our first single, “All Alone in an Empty House” seems to have had a big impact on folks. It is a super dark song, one that I did not think folks would sing a long to as they often do.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Kazu from Blonde Redhead.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
There are a few local guys — Stephen Tunnell, who writes and performs as Vibrant Green, and Nathan Toben who used to be in the Toddlers has an excellent new solo record. I really admire both of those guys.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” by Leonard Cohen. He is so good at intertwining infinity and intimacy. Anyone who is falling in love should go listen to this song right now!