Dance

Months After His Death, Producer Pierce Fulton's Legacy Takes Form on Final Project

Leaving Laurel
Griff Fulton / @aspetuckmusic

Leaving Laurel

Completed just before the producer's passing, Fulton's album with Botnek’s Gordon Huntley, as the duo Leaving Laurel, is a celebration amid grief.

Though he is a seasoned music industry professional, Griff Fulton typically stays behind the scenes. “This is definitely the first interview I’ve ever done, so it’s just weird,” he disclaims at the start of a recent Zoom conversation with Billboard.

Given the circumstances, however, Fulton’s composure is notable, as he talks about the self-titled LP from Leaving Laurel. The downtempo electronic duo was composed of Gordon Huntley and Griff’s brother, Pierce Fulton, who died by suicide in April at the age of 28.

The release of Leaving Laurel via Anjunadeep, the deep house imprint of Anjunabeats, on Aug. 20 — and the Daniel Avery remix of first single, “Winter In The Woods,” on Friday (Sept. 3) — serve as tributes to the late artist. In practical terms, they’re also unfinished business. “This whole thing was Pierce’s idea,” says Fulton. “After Pierce passed away, it had a whole new meaning to it. It feels like such a powerful statement that we were able to put it out. It serves as a memorial to him.”

As his older brother and manager, Griff announced Pierce’s passing in a May 3 Instagram post that expressed the Fulton family’s grief while unequivocally urging anyone struggling with mental illness to seek help. Although Pierce had been candid about his mental health issues in the past, for those who only knew him from afar as a figure who seemingly brimmed with energy and vitality, news of his passing came as a shock.

For Griff, seeing his brother’s struggle up close for years meant that he lived with a fear of Pierce doing something harmful to himself. Now, Griff is figuring out how to process the pain of that fear being realized. “It’s like losing my twin,” he explains. “We weren’t twins, but we were connected from the hip since he was born. We did everything together.”

Pierce Fulton rode into the music world on the EDM wave of the early 2010s, releasing his first EP on Mark Brown’s highly-regarded Cr2 label when he was only 19. He subsequently quit college and became a full-time producer and touring DJ, commanding impressive fees to DJ prime slots at festivals like Ultra, Tomorrowland and Electric Zoo. Between 2014 and 2015, he shared a Williamsburg apartment with actor Ansel Elgort, aka DJ Ansolo, and the roommates even released music together under the moniker Shirts & Skins.

Despite these credentials, Fulton had stepped back from performing in recent years, announcing a break from touring in 2018 as part of an effort to creatively recharge and focus on his mental health. After living in New York and Los Angeles, he moved closer to his parents in Connecticut.

He also started to musically swerve, demonstrating the expansiveness of his taste: his 2020 self-released solo album, Keeping The Little Things, replaced heavy bass and EDM-style drops for layered and textured instrumentals, better suited for headphones at home than towering stacks at festivals.

After years of whirlwind touring, Fulton was at home, trying to figure out his next move. In his search for meaning, he connected with Huntley, his longtime friend and half of Canadian EDM duo Botnek.

Like Pierce, Huntley felt burnt out on the industry, and was similarly unsure about his future as a musician. “I got lost in the EDM space,” he confesses. “Being an EDM DJ messed with my head in terms of figuring out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. It was a gold rush. I felt like I was in this big rat race.”

“Pierce and I would call it EDM PTSD,” Griff says, half-joking. “We couldn’t make creative decisions based on feeling and excitement. It was more like, ‘What would my manager say?’ or ‘What would make me money?’ Even thinking ‘What do my fans want from me?,’ rather than ‘What do I want to express to them?’”

The first Leaving Laurel session happened accidentally. Huntley, a longtime guitarist who had never actually played guitar in any of his professional musical endeavors, was strumming aimlessly when Pierce heard something he liked. What was intended to be an afternoon hangout extended into an evening recording session, and by the end of it, they realized they were onto something.

Similar sessions followed with, the idea that Fulton was acting as a producer for what might become a solo project for Huntley. It wasn’t until a session in which Huntley was overly fixated on mistakes he heard in his own guitar-playing that he started to see Fulton’s vision for the project. “I think it was Pierce saying, ‘Play something like Iron & Wine,’ and you hear me say ‘Okay,’” says Huntley of the session. “I started playing this [guitar line], half-joking, and Pierce recorded it onto a cassette player and built this beat around it.”

That session led to the album cut “maybe we’re different and everything is still the same,” and it typifies the Leaving Laurel process, wherein two friends riff on different ideas, back and forth, eventually becoming a complete record. The secret sauce is the chemistry between Fulton and Huntley.

“Everything was made when we were together,” says Huntley. “We would make decisions that could only happen when we were together.”

“You guys pushed each other,” adds Griff.

Leaving Laurel became a refuge for Huntley and Fulton — a place where they could be true to themselves creatively, while escaping the limitations of making club music. In some ways, they are part of a larger trend of artists who started their careers during the salad days of EDM and are now redefining their sound. No longer under pressure to produce crossover hits or peak-hour bangers, recent albums from artists like Porter Robinson and San Holo are more indie-pop than bass drop.

As a mostly instrumental project, Leaving Laurel doesn’t veer into pop territory, instead opting for a progressive house-adjacent sound imbued with a distinctive warmth, thanks to what Huntley describes as Pierce’s obsession with four-track tape loops. Griff Fulton’s pride in his brother’s work with their friend Huntley is evident, though he confesses it’s hard for him to play it.

“Every time I listen to it, I burst into tears,” he says. “I like that because I feel connected to Pierce. But this music is so intertwined into all of our memories between Gordon and I and our relationship to Pierce. It’s like a photostream in my brain.”

In some ways, preparing for the album’s release has been a much-needed diversion from grief for both Huntley and Fulton. For the Fulton family, another “amazing distraction” arrived about a month after Pierce’s passing when Griff and his wife, Hannah, welcomed their first child. “She adds a lot of happiness to my life,” says Fulton of his daughter, Frederika Pierce, born — serendipitously, Griff says — on Pierce’s birthday, June 6.

Beyond the album cycle, the Fultons are working on a partnership with Maine-based nonprofit The Yellow Tulip Project, an organization that seeks to destigmatize and raise awareness around mental health issues. Griff Fulton and Huntley are also launching a Leaving Laurel podcast, which they plan to use as a vehicle to talk about issues that often go undiscussed in the music industry.

Despite the seriousness of their mission and the grief both are experiencing, Huntley and Fulton men can’t help but crack each other up while swapping stories about their friend and brother. They recall the time Huntley first met the Fultons at a Miami Music Week event, or when Pierce backflipped himself into a tree in Brooklyn, or when he broke a screen door with a bean bag during Griff’s wedding celebration at Griff’s in-laws’ house. “I have endless videos in my phone of his ridiculous behavior,” Griff says.

“I don’t know anyone who could make me laugh harder than he could,” adds Huntley. “He could talk to anybody, young or old, about anything, from the weather to politics to music to cooking. He was extremely passionate about anything he touched. All he wanted to do was show everybody and bring them into his own little world.”

Huntley and Griff Fulton plan to represent part of that world to audiences when they DJ together as Leaving Laurel. “It’s going to feel like he’s right there trying to steal the CDJ and play the song he wants to play and not the one we want to play,” Griff jokes.

“Or slow it down to 12 BPM just to screw with us,” Huntley adds.

In his music and beyond, Pierce’s presence remains strong. “It doesn’t feel like he’s not here,” Griff says. “The weirdest thing I’ve learned about losing someone and grief is that you can keep them around forever just by thinking about them in a good way. That’s what’s gotten me through this: feeling grateful for all the good memories and all the good times, the funny stories. Feeling that warmth and love of memory.”