Ari Picker leading his new-look Trees at Phuzz Phest

About a month ago, the crowd at Krankies Coffee in Winston-Salem was treated to a far different Lost in the Trees than anyone had seen previously. Playing the city’s third annual Phuzz Phest, the Chapel Hill outfit—known for swelling strings, complex arrangements, and the uninhibited emotions of frontman Ari Picker—debuted a new line-up. There was no cello. No violin. No French horn. No orchestral instruments of any kind. Joah Tunnell—once Picker’s bandmate in The Never, now the husband of keyboard player Emma Nadeau—added guitar, filling the gap left by departed members Drew Anagnost (cello) and Jenavieve Varga (violin). The five-piece reveled in distortion and rhythm, fuzzy guitars and synthesizers piling into art rock every bit as meticulous and as the Trees’ string-fueled numbers.

Picker wrote these songs while touring behind last year’s A Church that Fits Our Needs, finishing them last fall. After the heavy themes of his last batch, which celebrates the life and afterlife of his late mother, he meant to allow himself a break from writing, but the freedom spurred a creative outburst. With the new songs in hand, Lost in the Trees have played a small number of tour dates, road-testing the material before heading off to Asheville’s Echo Mountain recording studio later this summer. This will mark the first time they have played an album out before recording it.

The INDY caught up with Picker earlier this week to gain some insight into the outfit’s creative shift.

INDY WEEK: What spurred the transition to the new line-up?

ARI PICKER: My muse, I guess. [Laughs]

I quickly wrote the next record. We go in and start recording that in a few weeks. I just wanted, for the first time ever, to take advantage of the opportunity to tour the album and play it out live and try to see if some of that live energy could make it onto the record, just learn more about the music, instead of doing it all in the studio and then learning it live and then playing it for a year and realizing all of the things that could have been done better on the record.

I felt like the last record really did what it needed to for me, and we toured it for a year. I just happened to write the next one really quickly and wanted to do something really different, so here we are.

When did you write the new material?

It was funny. After finishing the last record, I was like, “I’m not going to write another record. There’s no way it’s inside of me anywhere. I’m exhausted.” And then I think just kind of abandoning any sort of expectation allowed me to just write really quickly. That started right when we started going on tour for the last album cycle, maybe summer of last year. Then I finished writing it maybe last November or something like that and was able to put it all away for a little while and then revisit it when the band needed to learn it live. And now I’m kind of putting it away again, and then I’m going to bring it back out for the recording. It’s nice to have a good chunk of space from it and then play it live and then have more space from it.

These songs are a lot different from your previous material. What made you want to change the direction?

I think it’s me just kind of wanting to have a record that has more space, less going on. There’s no string arrangements really. It’s just kind of using pads and beat machines and simple drum loops. Just wanting to have space and wanting it to be simple and not overdoing anything or over-thinking anything—ultimately, simplicity and kind of the less-is-more approach and just needing to do something totally different than what I had been doing.

The old version of the group and all the old songs kind of ended at our show at Lincoln Center in New York. That went well, and it was really a nice send-off for that material and that phase of the band. From here on out, it’s the line-up that you saw at the Winston-Salem show.

What have the reactions been like? How have the crowds gotten into it?

I think it’s been good. All the music’s a lot more immediate as far as just having more intense, kind of beat-oriented music, and the hooks come in pretty immediately. I think people have been surprised. But we really tried to approach it from kind of a special occasion, experiment angle, and I think people were cool with that. The feedback I got was that it was cool to hear the new record about a year before it comes out. The people that maybe wanted to hear the more folk-y, orchestral stuff, maybe they left and didn’t say anything to me. I don’t know. [Laughs.]

You’ve got Joah back playing with you now who you’ve obviously played with a lot. How important is it that you have a personal connection with the people you play with?

I haven’t really thought about it like that. I’ve played with Joah probably more than anybody that I’ve played with in the area. He’s just a phenomenal guitar player and presence. I just feel like he can add kind of a cool dynamic to anything that I write, so when I wanted to switch to a more normal rock line-up, I knew that I wanted him to be a part of it. And of course, Emma is excited about that, too.

Whoever’s around and available to play and makes sense, I’m down to try it. It feels good to have a simpler thing going on. The last line-up, when it worked it was great, but it was such a challenge to get it to work in all these different environments and spaces. There’s the obstacle of amplifying acoustic instruments in the most elegant way that we could and making that sound good and balanced and a lot of tuning issues — just a lot of fret-less instruments onstage. It was just kind of hard to hear sometimes. That was always a hard part. It’s nice that everybody has frets on their guitars.